Funded by the Professional Development Travel Initiative, which is coordinated by Professor Stephen Gerald students from the University of Texas at Austin's Theatre and Dance Department traveled to New York and Washington, D.C. to meet theatre artists, visit theatre companies, performance venues and other arts related organizations so they could learn about future job opportunities, seek career advice and witness for themselves if it was at all possible to make a life as theatre artist. I had a chance to speak with Jelisa Jay Robinson, who shared her experiences with me. Please enjoy!
JACQUELINE LAWTON: Why did you decide to get into theatre? Was there someone or a particular show that inspired you?
JELISA JAY ROBINSON: I was a little girl who was always playing pretend. In someways, I still do. I memorized the entire Lion King movie and would perform it for my parents. I loved playing dress up, singing, writing and doing anything creative. My parents inspired me to pursue theatre because they encouraged me to perform and supported my dreams. Theatre allows me to express myself and I want everyone to experience that power. That's why I do it! The process may be difficult but once the crowd claps or someone comes up to you and says that they were inspired, it's worth everything.
JL: Do you have the support of your family and friends to pursue a career in the theatre?
JJR: I am blessed to have parents who support me in whatever I want to do. They encourage me to find a career in the arts where I am financially stable and independent. My friends are the same way and I find its mostly myself who doubts at times.
JL: In addition to studying theatre, you are also minoring in Latin American Studies. How do you feel this has made you a better artist?
JJR: I study many things but my main interest is Latin American Studies. I am taking classes in Modern Spanish American Literature, Black Women and Dance and Afro-Caribbean Diaspora. These courses fuel my passion for telling the stories of people of color. It's made me a better artist because it contributes to my self-confidence to know my history and the history of other marginalized communities. That's the cool thing about the arts, anything you study can mesh with it. I even keep a blog about my experiences as a Black girl in Latino spaces called blackgirllatinworld.wordpress.com.
JL: How did you come up with this amazing idea to use the Professional Development Travel Grant in this way? How did everything come together?
JJR: Ja'Michael and I went to Professor Stephen Gerald's office and told him that we were interested in applying for the Professional Development Travel Grant for the College of Fine Arts. We had a couple ideas about what we wanted to see but not a complete plan. All we knew is that we wanted to see Black people and other folks of color in the arts! Gerald gave us many suggestions based on our individual interests and he contacted awesome alumni like Playwright/Dramaturg/Teaching Artist Jacqueline Lawton, Producer Andre Lanecaster and notable professionals like Laura Greer, the Vice-President of Programing at the Apollo Theatre. We were in awe of the professonals that he put us in contact with. Next, we contacted them through email and our professor followed up with phone calls. After everyone gave us their availabilty, we were able to secure housing with a mentor of mine, Daphne in NYC. Then came the hard part, planning everything. Bus routes, plan tickets, Amtrak schedules. We wanted to go to New York and D.C. with a solid plan. In the end, it all worked out.
JL: Tell us about your trip to New York. Who did you meet? What did you see?
JJR: New York left me speechless! I had the most amazing time trying to navigate through the city before meeting with Andre Lancaster, the Tom Proehl Producing Fellow at the Foundry Theatre and Founding Artistic Producer for Freedom Train Productions and Laura Greer, Vice President of Programming at the famous Apollo Theatre. I grew up watching Showtime at the Apollo so to attend Amateur Night was a dream come true. We got the chance to see the sights like Times Square, the New York Public Library, Grand Central Station and much more. Throughout the entire trip, I just couldn't believe I was on the East Coast. Walking the streets of Harlem, I experienced so much pride because the murals painted on buildings depicted Black stories. I am just grateful for the experience.
JL: Tell us about your trip to D.C. Who did you meet? What did you see?
JJR: Our D.C. trip was coordinated by the lovely Jacqueline Lawton, a UT alum. She set us up with a host of influencial professionals in the D.C. theatre scene. Our first meeting was with Jewell Robinson the public program director of National Portrait Gallery, Jennifer Nelson, director of special programming for the Ford's Theatre and Dawn Ursula, a D.C. based professional actress. We soaked up every drop of knowledge they offered and showered them with questions. Our second meeting involved an informative tour of the Wolly Mammoth Theatre with Deeksha Gaur, the Director of Marketing and Public Relations. Last was an evening dinner at Station Four with insightful professionals: Amita Ramanan a freelance dramaturg and former literary manager at Arena Stage, Dan Pruksarnukul, director of casting at Arena Stage and Otis Ramsey-Zoe, lecturer in theatre at Howard University. Both Ja'Michael and I took away so much from the unbelievable panel. At night Dan (Director of Casting) gave us a tour of the Arena Stage theatre and saw a play called Mary T and Lizzy K by Playwright Tazewell Thompson who we got the chance to meet.
JL: Can you share some of what you learned that may help other young artists?
JJR: I am just inspired by all that I learned! The first thing I learned was to always ask questions. Never stop questioning yourself, your motivies, your activities, your peers, your life...your everything. A lot of the times I am so quick to seek the answer when questions are just as important. I now have a million questions and that's okay because it helps me to stay engaged with my artistic process and life. I learned how important it is to be a good writer. As a playwright, you can have a job being a grant writer for a non-profit. That practice in grant writing can help you write your own grant letters for your work. I also learned the importance of knowing about many different topics. As an artist of color, you can really stand out if you know about world topics, various artistic scenes and other varieties of things. As far as jobs go, you can never have too many. Sometimes you need to engage in what I like to call a "side hustle" while working on careers in the arts and that is okay. As long as you work hard at what you do, you will be fine. During interviews, a great question to ask your potential employer is "What reservations do you have about me?" because it shows that you are open to constructive critiques and that you want to improve. You also get the opportunity to talk about experiences that you weren't asked about. It is imperative that you find someone willing to mentor you and to know your own family histories because that influences your work. I wish that I could share everything with you all!
JL: What are your hopes, dreams and ambitions for the future?
JJR: I hope to become a playwright/writer, graduate from college and teach abroad in Latin America. Then I want to get my Masters/Ph.D degree in Latin American Studies. Since meeting all these awesome theatre professionals, I am now considering working in arts administration for a Latin American focused theatre or arts company. Beyond that I want to start a Theatre/arts program for young black women that helps them to gain skills in the arts, career, college and self-esteem areas. I know that the arts can be used wonderful tool to build confidence and I want to help other young morenas like myself. I want to travel the world, have a great life, buy my parents a home and help my younger brothers through college. It may be a bumpy ride but after this trip I know that it's possible to be a successful black artist!
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!