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 Ja'Michael Darnell, 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?
JA’MICHAEL DARNELL: I caught the theatre bug during my sophomore year of high school when I played Wiley in Susan Zeder’s Wiley and the Hairy Man in the UIL One Act Play competition. I received the “Best Actor” award for my performance in our district. It caught me by surprise. Afterwards, I said to myself, “Hey, I’m good at this stuff, and it isn’t hard to do. Maybe I should give it a try.” From that point on, I realized theatre was the place for me. I have an older cousin who did a lot of theatre while he was in college. His experiences inspired me to give it a try as well.
JL: Do you have the support of your family and friends to pursue a career in the theatre?
JD: Yes, I do have the support of my family and friends, especially from my grandparents. They are retired, so they make sure they’re able to come to Austin and see any show I’m in. At times, they question me about adding another major or ask me, “What are you going to do with that?” Sometimes I get annoyed when I’m asked that, but I know my family just wants the best for me. I know they’ll continue to support me throughout anything I do.
JL: In addition to studying theatre, you are also studying African & African Diaspora Studies. How do you feel this has made you a better artist?
JD: In addition to studying theatre, I’ve taken many classes from the African & African Diaspora Studies Department. I’ve taken classes such as: Black Power Movement, African American Theatre History, African Americans in Cinema, Intro to Modern Africa, and Afro-Contemporary Dance. All of those classes made a great impact on me. Besides slavery and the historical figures who are always discussed only in February, I had not known much of the profoundness in black history and culture before coming to college. It made me a better artist by giving me a sense of empowerment. I am constantly reminded that I stand on the shoulders of so many people who have lived and died for me to be in the position I’m currently in.
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?
JD: When I first heard about the Professional Development Travel Initiative Grant (PDTI), I immediately thought of focusing on something that involved black folks in the arts because I often wonder what is actually going on with black artists in the real world. So, my friend, Jelisa Robinson and I met with our Faculty Advisor, Stephen Gerald, and we came up with ideas of things we could possibly do. He put us in contact with people he knew currently work in the arts and it went from there.
JL: Tell us about your trip to New York. Who did you meet? What did you see?
JD: Traveling to New York was amazing, partly because it had been my first time traveling to New York and my first time flying on a plane. While in New York, I met with Laura Greer, the Vice-President of Programming at the historic Apollo Theater. I also met with Andre Lancaster, who’s the Producing Fellow for the Foundry Theatre. In addition, I spoke with Jesse Ehrensaft-Hawley, the Managing Producer, and RJ Maccani, the Community Programs Producer for the Foundry Theatre. They were very inspirational and offered me loads of great advice.
In my free time in New York, I got the chance to go to Times Square, see the Chrysler Building and the Empire State Building, explore Grand Central Station and the New York Public Library, and watch the historic Amateur Night show at the Apollo Theater. I can’t wait to go back. There were so many other things I should have done.
JL: Tell us about your trip to D.C. Who did you meet? What did you see?
JD: My day in D.C. was incredibly insightful. I’m really grateful of the phenomenal Jacqueline Lawton for planning out our day! If you’re hoping to be in a close community, full of like-minded artists, who have a strong interest in the arts, D.C. is the place to be.
For our first event of the day in D.C., we had lunch with some of the most prominent theatre artists in D.C. I met the Director of Special Programming at Ford's Theatre, Jennifer Nelson, the Public Program Director of National Portrait Gallery, Jewell Robinson, and D.C. actress Dawn Ursula. I felt so welcomed around them. The conversation was so great that I felt sad when our lunch was over.
Afterwards, we went to the Woolly Mammoth Theatre. We met with the Director of Marketing and Public Relations, Deeksha Gaur. During our conversation, she shared so much about her career path and even offered tips for my own. Afterwards, Deeksha gave us a tour of their new theatre. Their space was so cool. I wish we could’ve seen a show there.
Later, we had dinner with another group of amazing artists. We met with Dan Pruksarnukul, the Director of Casting at Arena Stage, Amrita Ramanan, a Freelance dramaturg and Former Literary Manager at Arena Stage, and Otis Ramsey-Zoe, a Freelance dramaturg and Lecturer in Theatre at Howard University. All of them were really inspiring. They were all really passionate about their work.
JL: Can you share some of what you learned that may help other young artists?
JD: From what I learned, I suggest other young artists to follow their passion. You have to love what you do. Also, I suggest not passing up any opportunities. One opportunity can lead to a host of better opportunities. In addition, I suggest artists to not be afraid to say what they want. Put your work out, share it, get feedback, and put it back out! Don’t stop believing in what you can do and the impact your work can make. Finally, I suggest artists to be inquisitive about everything in their work. One question can lead to more creative and meaningful ideas.
JL: What are your hopes, dreams and ambitions for the future?
JD: My ambitions for my future are to eventually found a community theatre in my hometown, Hearne, TX. I also hope to eventually get into playwrighting and have at least two plays published. I dream to make art that reflects the lives of people I know and inspire them to make meaningful changes in their lives for the better.
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!