Our coverage of the National New Play Network showcase would not be complete without the brilliance and eloquence of General Manager, Jojo Ruf. A few weeks ago, we had an opportunity to connect about her experience at NNPN and her work as a teaching artist, freelance director, program coordinator and much, much more. Here's our conversation:
Jacqueline Lawton: Why did you decide to get into theatre? Was there someone or a particular show that inspired you?
Jojo Ruf: I’m actually not sure I know the answer to this. I went into college as a math major not at all intending to participate in theater, but by the end of the first semester I was hooked. I really loved the community I found myself in, the driven and ambitious group of faculty and students who were incredibly welcoming and encouraging. So much so that after four years I couldn’t imagine doing anything else.
JL: Since 2010, you’ve served as the General Manager of National New Play Network (NNPN). Tell us:
JL: Why does the American Theatre need National New Play Network?
Jojo Ruf: NNPN was started 15 years ago by David Goldman and a group of these brilliant artistic and managing leaders of thirteen theaters spread out all over the United States. They believed that the next generation of new play development should be regionalized by connecting theaters across the country with their unique playwriting communities. They believed (and continue to believe) that, at its core, new play development should be collaborative, and that we can be stronger by working together. They believe that the nurturing and continued life of new work is of the utmost importance. These theaters would, of course, exist without NNPN, and there are plenty of theaters dedicated to new play development that aren’t part of the Network. But I think what David and these theaters were able to create is an incredible web of support.
NNPN is relatively small – we have 26 Core and 13 Associate Member Theaters – and I think our size is a real asset. Our Core Member Theaters know each other’s aesthetics so well, which means that when Jasson Minadakis at Marin Theatre in Mill Valley reads a script he knows isn’t right for his theater, but is perfect for Seth Rozin at InterAct in Philly or Jack Reuler at Mixed Blood in Minneapolis, he’ll send it directly to them. And that happens all the time. Futhermore, the size of the Network allows us to adapt as need be, to create new programs and finesse established ones in order to subsidize taking risk on new work. A real strength, I think, as the state of American Theater is constantly changing.
All of this is simply to say that I think the American Theatre needs NNPN because of the connections it helps to forge and the collaboration it helps to facilitate.
JL: Tell us about the NNPN National Showcase and what excites most about the days ahead?
Jojo Ruf: I don’t even know where to begin! This year’s Showcase is incredibly exciting, not only because of the caliber of work we’re presenting (plays by Steven Dietz, Carson Kreitzer, Carlos Murillo, Steve Yockey, and many others), but also because of the folks we have coming in for it. Representatives from 24 of our Core Member Theaters and 9 of our Associate Member Theaters, alumni playwrights, movers and shakers in the new play field, and a number of folks from the DC community will join us for four days filled with exciting readings, panels, discussions, coffee breakout conversations, and even an intercontinental playwright party! I’m also particularly excited that for the first time this year, we’re using the Showcase in part to shine a light on DC’s playwriting community. We’ve commissioned four podcast plays from DC’s finest writers (Paige Hernandez, Steve Spotswood, Gwydion Suilebhan and you!) to serve as travelogues leaving from Woolly’s lobby. The plays will be recorded on iPod shuffles and available to all Showcase guests, and I think it’s an incredibly exciting way to introduce our guests to both the neighborhoods and voices in DC. All in all it should be an exciting weekend.
JL: In addition to your work at NNPN, you work as a teaching artist at the Ford’s Theatre. Their education program is really quite wonderful. Tell us about the work you for them. Also, as a theatre educator, why is arts integration necessary? What role or impact do the arts, and particularly theatre, have on childhood development?
Jojo Ruf: I do! I work for three different programs: the Target Lincoln Oratory Festival, the Walmart Oratory Fellows Program (which focuses on long-distance learning), and a residency in Tyler Elementary School. Although the three programs are distinct in their goals and methods, they each focus on bringing oratory into the classroom. I’ve loved working for Ford’s Theatre, and I have to say that there’s nothing quite as moving as seeing a third grade class stand up on Ford’s stage and recite The Gettysburg Address in unison.
There are many people who can speak with more authority on this than I ever could, but I think that on a very basic level arts integration can give students confidence in a way that almost nothing else can. Here’s my sappy story: A few years ago I was working with a class of seven- and eight-year-olds at Watkins Elementary School on the Hill. It was this group of incredibly diverse and whip-smart students, many of who knew as much about the Civil War as I do. There was this one student, Marco, who had this debilitating stutter. Kids can be impossibly mean, and while his classmates were surprisingly restrained, he rarely raised his hand in class. My work with Watkins was part of the Oratory Festival, and over four months Marco’s class used one of Lincoln’s speeches to learn both about oratory techniques (pace, emphasis, diction, tone, volume, etc.) and history. At the end of the four months each class performs their speech on the stage at Ford’s Theatre, and Marco was pretty terrified to stand up in front of everyone, nervous that he wouldn’t be able to get the words out. But he practiced his line every single day, and stood up on that stage for the performance and delivered it perfectly. No stutter, no hesitation. He ran up to me after their performance and was so proud of himself – I swear I’ve never seen a kid smile that big. That’s what arts integration can do.
JL: As a Georgetown Alum, you’ve stayed connected with the university in an exciting way. In fact, we first met in the upstairs lobby at Studio Theatre when you were in the midst of producing Georgetown University’s Convening on Global Performance, Civic Imagination, and Cultural Diplomacy. We had all experienced Studio’s production of 1927’s The Animals and Children Took to the Streets and made our way to a lovely dessert and wine reception (that Derek Goldman and Daniel Banks invited me to crash!). Can you tell me more about the work you did with this convening? Also, what draws you to producing such massive convenings, conferences, and festivals?
Jojo Ruf: I was the project coordinator for the three-day convening, which explored how to maximize the potential of theater and performance in the context of international challenges, and how to bridge the gap between the worlds of foreign affairs and policy, and global performance. We brought in more than 75 theater artists, policymakers, government officials, activists, cultural leaders, educators, and scholars from across the country and around the world, as well as Georgetown University faculty, students, and alums, and it was quite an exhilarating experience filled with unbelievable conversations. It also coincided with an on-campus residency with faculty and students from Baghdad University, whose Arabic adaptation of Heather Raffo’s award-winning 9 Parts of Desire was featured as part of the convening.
I think there’s something incredibly addicting about the nature of convenings, conferences, and festivals. I love the rush of a long prep time and short event time, of those few days being all-encompassing, of meeting people from across the country and around the world who are all passionate about that one specific topic. It’s an exciting (and exhausting!) type of theater work, but one I find myself craving again and again.
JL: You’re also a freelance director, which really excites me to no end as a playwright! Recent credits include: Tree House (Welders Theatre, world premiere), The Pull of Negative Gravity (Welders Theatre, DC premiere) and Translations (Georgetown University). What was the first play that you ever directed? What did you learn from that experience that remains with you today and impacts your work?
Jojo Ruf: I directed this one-act play in high school (I can’t even remember the title at this point). But the first full-length play I directed was Translations by Brian Friel. To this day I think it’s the production I’m most proud of – we had this incredible set of a barn that Jamie Gahlon created, complete with a tree and hay and the smell of dirt and rain, and the process was just delightful. It didn’t hurt, of course, that Friel has such a way with language. But I think more than anything else that play taught me the importance of ensemble. We had this incredible team of actors and designers, and the production wouldn’t have been half as good without their incredible work and dedication.
JL: In your spare time (!), you’re a featured writer for our beloved TheatreWashington, whose mission it is to promote, represent, and support “all segments of Washington’s professional theatre community — theatres, artists, company members, and audiences of all ages.” They really are all kinds of awesome! Now, with this work, you have your eyes and ears on the heartbeat of the DC Theatre community. So, tell me:
JL: My dear friend, playwright Jose Rivera often calls me the hardest working theatre artist in America. I now gladly hand this crown to you! How do you balance everything and find time to stay healthy, sane and rejuvenate?
Jojo Ruf: I don’t know if I can rightly take that away from you considering how much you have going on! And I certainly don’t think I have quite found the balance. But I have to say that doing yoga fairly regularly has been incredibly helpful, a way to ground myself and stay relatively sane. And in this strange way, my commute has become rejuvenating. I have a 3.5 mile walk to work, and while I sometimes listen to NPR or music en route, often times just letting my mind wander and clear as I journey has been beneficial.
JL: What advice do you have for an up and coming artists, be they teaching artists, playwrights, directors or producers?
Jojo Ruf: Be willing to do anything. I don’t think anyone should be above folding programs or helping out when there’s a need for all-hands-on-deck, and I’ve found that sometimes simply watching and listening to others (as an assistant director, as part of an ensemble, as one of many writers in the room) can be unexpectedly informative. This isn’t at all implying that observing should impede on ambition and drive, but I think that sometimes learning from others both about what you would and wouldn’t do can be useful.
JL: What's next for you? Where can we keep up with your great and inspiring work?
Jojo Ruf: At the moment I’m just focusing on next week, and all the exciting things NNPN has in the coming months.
I'm a playwright, dramaturg, and teaching artist. It is here where you'll find my queries and musings on life, theater and the world. My posts advocate for diversity, inclusion, and equity in the American Theatre and updates on my own work. Please enjoy!