JACQUELINE LAWTON: Why did you decide to get into theatre? Was there someone or a particular show that inspired you?
ALLYSON HARKEY: I’ve been in theatre in some form or fashion my whole life, minus 2 miserable years in the ‘90s. My dad took me to see Annie when I was a little girl, and I was hooked after that. I did every school play, took every acting class, acted out scenes from The King and I and Cats in my bedroom. I was that kid. The first person to ever tell me that I should be on stage, though, was a grade school teacher. Mr. DeYoung never smiled and scared the bejeezus out of everyone, but he made me take bigger parts than I auditioned for and taught me to not apologize for my talent. That might have been the most important lesson I’ve ever learned in a school.
JL: How long have you served as Artistic Director at your company? What drew you to the position? What keeps you there?
AH: I’ve been one of Pinky Swear’s Co-ADs, with Karen Lange, since the company’s inception in 2008. At first it was more of a “There aren’t many parts for us, why don’t put on the play we want to be in!” thing, but it didn’t take long for us to realize that one production was not going to quench our thirst. Quite frankly, there is not enough work for all of the women theatre artists in DC. Period. There are myriad reasons why that is so, but while we as a community are working on understanding the history and philosophies that have gotten us here, we should also be doing practical things to change it. Like putting on plays written by women, directed by women, designed by women, staffed by women, performed by women, and/or about things that aren’t marginalizing to women. Oh, and with companies led by women. As long as I am in a position to put on some of those plays, I’m going to.
JL: What is the most valuable lesson you learned during your tenure? Also, what skills and traits do you feel a successful artistic director should have to support the health and growth of an organization?
AH: The most valuable lesson I’ve learned is that I can do it. It sounds simple, but when we started I honestly didn’t know whether I could do this job, even sharing it with a woman as smart and driven as Karen. On top of being a woman in our society, I’m also an actor, so I’m trained to take what I can get and not make too much of a fuss. Being an artistic director means asking for more than that — of a play, of your staff and volunteers, of yourself — and making all of the fusses. To serve the work, and the organization, you have to be better than you thought you could be, smarter than you think you are when you go home. Sometimes that means getting out of your own way, hiring the people who you think can do a fantastic job and then letting them. Trusting the people around you can be difficult when the company and the work mean so much personally, but it’s absolutely vital.
I’m still relatively new to this role, and I make mistakes every day. Having someone to talk to and bounce ideas off of, be it a partner like I have in Karen or other producers or artistic directors, can be a huge help in maintaining perspective and sanity.
JL: What excites you most about being an Artistic Director? What is your greatest challenge?
AH: Honestly, the most exciting thing for me is being part of the conversation around the gender disparity in theatre. I can’t do anything about most of the sexism that permeates our daily lives, but I can answer it in my own small way, in this one industry, in a way that I hope means something to our audience. I’m very proud of what Pinky Swear has accomplished in its short life, and with the addition of our new Associates, I’m over the moon with anticipation about where we’re headed.
My greatest challenge is my need to learn ALL OF THE THINGS. I’m relatively new to this, remember? Half the time I don’t know what I’m doing, and the other half I know what I’m doing but I didn’t know that I knew! Every day it feels like there’s some new angle I hadn’t considered or a playwright that I cannot believe I’ve never heard of or someone who’s already built that mousetrap I was trying desperately to envision and everyone knows about it but me. And every day I remind myself that all I can do is learn what I can, listen to those who know more, and trust my instincts.
JL: If your work as an artistic director doesn’t pay the bills, what else do you do? Also, how do you balance your role leading an organization with your work as a director? Are you ever able to direct outside of your company?
AH: Science writing pays the bills, and I also act and do voice over work. Balance is not a strength of mine, but I’m working on it. I do act outside of Pinky Swear; everyone in Pinky Swear works outside of Pinky Swear. We believe it’s a strong defense against artistic stagnation. While we do want to be a company of artists who challenge and inspire each other — who want to work together — we also know that Pinky Swear neither can nor should be anyone’s sole artistic outlet. None of us is just one thing, so why should we work in just one place?
JL: Looking at your body of work as an artistic director and a director, how conscious are you and selecting plays by women or people of color when deciding your season? Also, when it comes to hiring administrators, designers and other directors do you take race and gender into consideration?
AH: While we’re not very conscious about race, we definitely take gender into consideration. It’s in our mission: We hire women (both artists and technicians) whenever possible. What that means on a practical level is that we purposely look for plays written by women, with great roles for women, and when all things are equal, we hire the woman — no matter what the job. So far, all of our productions have been written by women, directed by women, and had women in leading roles. This was the kind of company we wanted to work for, so that’s what we created. As an actor, I don’t often get that kind of say.
Speaking to race: I would like to be more conscious about race. I’ve just been focused on gender, and honestly, sometimes it feels like that’s about all I can handle. But I’m sure it’s not. I’m sure there is more I could be doing.
JL: DC audiences are ...
AH: You know, I thought of a whole bunch of adjectives, but none of them is quite right. I’ve lived here for over 12 years, and I don’t understand DC audiences yet. They love things I hate, they ignore things I love, we never agree. But maybe that’s actually the power of this community — there are so many smart, sophisticated people here that you can do just about anything and there will be someone who’s willing to go on that ride with you. That’s exciting! We should create more crazy rides; I know there are people out there just waiting for us to really push the boundaries of what theatre can be.
JL: DC actors and designers are ...
AH: So talented, smart, and educated that sometimes I cannot believe my luck to be here. And nice, so nice!
JL: DC playwrights are …
AH: Not sending me enough scripts. I want to produce more of their work. More scripts, please! With strong women’s roles! Where people talk to each other and things happen!
JL: DC critics are ...
AH: A touchy subject with me. I make my living writing about subjects in which I have no training, so I know what it’s like to be second-guessed. To make up for my lack of science education, I make it my business to learn as much as I reasonably can about each new subject. (Ask me about cancer research and treatment policy in this country sometime. Or don’t.) I have huge respect for critics who have learned what goes into the art and craft of theatre and can speak thoughtfully about a performance. I love reading criticism, not only to find out whether I agree with the writer’s assessment, but to challenge my own analytical skills. But I think to truly call yourself a theatre critic, you should have a basic level of understanding of how a play works. Otherwise, how can you know what you’re looking at? Why an actor did x instead of y? How design helps or hinders the storytelling? What this director or company might be trying to say with this piece? Criticism is not just reporting on a particular performance; the truly great critics also give their readers a sense of history and context, something that cannot be done without years of study and experience. Criticism is no easy business, and to pretend that anyone can do it does an injustice to everyone involved.
JL: What advice do you have for an up and coming theatre artists who have just moved to D.C.?
AH: Start auditioning or interviewing as soon as you can. Don’t wait until someone reaches out to you. A lot of the smaller companies are happy to hire someone who doesn’t have a lot of professional experience, as long as talent, passion, and willingness to work are there. Start seeing shows, and contact the theatres whose work excites you. Oh, and don’t be a jerk. We all have our moments, but if you’re difficult to work with, word will get out fast.
JL: What's next for you as a director and your company?
AH: Pinky Swear is thiiiiiis close to selecting our 2013 season opener, and we’re beginning planning/devising sessions for Fringe this month. Then we’ll do another full-length show in the fall. In the meantime, we’re integrating our awesome new Associates into the company and planning rockin’ ways to take advantage of their immense talents.
As far as acting, I have no idea! I might show up in a Pinky Swear play, or I might be elsewhere. I do have some cool voice over work coming up: a gig with the National Park Service doing audio descriptions for the Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site.
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!