JACQUELINE LAWTON: Why did you decide to get into theatre? Was there someone or a particular show that inspired you?
JENNIFER L. NELSON: I spent a lot of time replaying and “fixing” movie plots in my head as a child---I now connect that to the impulse to be a story teller through performance. But my original inspiration in regards to live theatre was my father: he did a lot of community and university theatre in Sacramento when I was a teen. However, since I never saw any black women play anything but servants, I did not consider theatre as a career until much later.
JL: How long did you serve as Artistic Director of African Continuum Theatre Company? What drew you to the position? How long were you there and what kept you there?
JLN: I was with African Continuum for 11 years. There was a rather complicated path that led to it. I had a full time job elsewhere, and there was no money, no other staff, no physical space-- nothing but the will for the local black theatre community to have a vibrant presence and a professional home. This was in the mid-90’s when we were still very poorly represented on other stages.
JL: What was the most valuable lesson you learned during your tenure? Also, what traits do you feel a successful artistic director should have to support the health and growth of an organization?
JLN: Lesson: There are many good-hearted, passionate people of all colors who care about creating an equitable community. I learned that I to carry the African Continuum mission forward I needed to work with people of all races and it did not diminish the company’s brand. A successful artistic director must be focused but also flexible and resilient. Sometimes blessings are offered in the form of challenges and one is too narrow-minded to see them for what they are.
JL: What excited you most about being an Artistic Director? What were your greatest challenges?
JLN: Collaborating with playwrights was probably my personal favorite thing. I still love working on new works, having the playwright in the room. The authority to choose to do that is thrilling. The greatest challenge—especially in the world of small budget theatre—is gathering the resources to make things work. Everybody is a critic, everybody wants to tell you what they think you should be doing and how to do it. You have to develop a filter that lets hear your colleagues without getting drawn off your own vision.
JL: Did your work as an artistic director pay the bills? If not, what else did you do? How do you balance your role leading an organization with your work as a director? Were you ever able to direct outside of your company?
JLN: I did not have a real salary until either my 4th or 5th year. I was generally able to hustle enough freelance work to make ends meet. I have been an adjunct at several local universities, I’ve worked as a grants writer, done residencies in some school---the usual things artists do. I also directed at some other theatres. I have never had to take a job outside the arts.
JL: Looking at your body of work as an artistic director and a director, how conscious were you of 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?
JLN: My mission was inherent in the company’s identity. Everything I produced had some direct connection with the African Americans experience. I was also able to offer a few small opportunities for new play development through a retreat in Connecticut run by my sister. I think out of 20-some plays I produced were written by non-African Americans.
However, I was very open to working with administrators and designers or other races. Gender was not an issue for me. My position was whoever can wholehearted embrace the mission of this company is welcome.
JL: DC audiences are . . .
JLN: Growing younger and changing the landscape of the theatre community.
JL: DC actors and designers are . . .
JLN: Plentiful, varied, exciting, plentiful and more likely now to stay in the area to make their careers.
JL: DC playwrights are …
JLN: Smart, diverse, vocal, a force to be reckoned with.
JL: DC critics are . . .
JLN: No comment.
JL: What advice do you have for an up and coming theatre artists who have just moved to D.C.?
JLN: Don’t give up!
JL: What is keeping you busy these days? What's next for you as a director?
JLN: I have a staff position at Ford’s Theatre—something I never would have foreseen back in the days when I started out as a director. I love the marriage of theatre and history that lives there.
I’m in rehearsal now at Forum Theatre with “9 Circles” by Bill Cain who was instrumental in helping me learn to believe in myself as a theatre artist. It’s a fine play about a the fate of a young Iraq veteran. It’s dark and funny, passionate and thought-provoking. Later this spring I’m doing “Top Dog/Under Dog” at Everyman Theatre in Baltimore. Vinny Lancisi believed in me as a director early on. I am very excited to work in their beautiful new home!
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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!