JACQUELINE LAWTON: Why did you decide to get into theatre? Was there someone or a particular show that inspired you?
MARY HALL SURFACE: I actually have a moment I can pinpoint. I was a sophomore in college, studying theatre in London. I was standing on a landing in a Victorian Toy Theatre Museum, looking out into the street through a beveled glass window (what I still like to do best when in a museum or historic building, look out through their windows at the world.) I’d been wrestling with what do to with my love of all the performing arts, literature, cultural history, visual art and my overwhelming 20-year old desire to “do something” for the world. Perhaps its was the prism of perspectives offered by the window of the lively street below of a city I adored and the exquisite little worlds crafted by the toy theatre makers all rolled up into one, but I remember stopping in my tracks and saying, “I got it. I’ll be an artist who makes worlds on stage and off. I’ll make them about questions and connection, and make them deeply beautiful.” Been working on that one ever since.
JL: How long have you served as Artistic Director at your company? What drew you to the position? What keeps you there?
MHS: INTERSECTIONS began in 2010 as a project of the Atlas Performing Arts center to provide a prism (imagine that!) of perspectives through the arts on our lives as a richly diverse community. I was tapped to put it all together, having directed the play that opened the Atlas (Coming Home by David Emerson Tony) and then having stayed connected to Atlas, and believing deeply in its potential. The opportunity to help “make a world” on the Atlas stages and, just as importantly, in its meeting places that is inclusive, inquisitive, hopeful as well as challenging and perspective broadening, is why I signed on. The continuing potential of what we are trying to do keeps me there.
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?
MHS: Be open the evolution of what you are creating. Missions expand, refine in concert with changes in the community, the culture. Listen more than talk. Create an environment in which everyone has a stake, a claim, an investment. Ensure that everyone in the organization can do their best work by supporting them, challenging them, believing in them. Operate out of a sense of possibility.
JL: What excites you most about being an Artistic Director? What is your greatest challenge?
MHS: I love the growing intersection of art forms and the collaborations that are being born from artists meeting at the festival. This fulfills one of our central goals– to connect artists across disciplines as well as age, culture and community. At the November artist “kick-off” party, there was a palatable excitement among artists meeting for the first time, discovering potential connections. I get the same feeling when I’m a part of the festival audience, where people who are normally not in the same room gather and have an experience in common. Greatest challenge: there are always the financial challenges of making it all happen. But equally, I want to deepen the dialogue with the community to ensure that the work is authentic and responsive.
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?
MHS: I see the festival, itself, as directing one giant multi-scene production, in a way. And I work as a playwright, director and teaching artist in addition to my work as the AD of INTERSECTIONS. I am able to do one to three other directing/writing projects per season in addition to the festival (I just completed a multi-disciplinary performance for the National Gallery of Art, FRAMED!, to complement their Roy Lichtenstein exhibit.) This year, for the first time, I am directing a play for family audiences that will perform at the festival. This might signal my demise. We shall see J.
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?
MHS: The Atlas has a long-standing commitment to diversity in its staff and board. The entire ethos of INTERSECTIONS is built on ensuring that all voices are heard. So we are all about projects created by artists of color and women are in full force as directors, choreographers, composers, and creators.
JL: DC audiences are ...
MHS: Willing to be adventurous when they come to INTERSECTIONS, which is thrilling, as that’s the point.
JL: DC actors and designers are ...
MHS: Inventive and generous in their work with INTERSECTIONS.
JL: DC playwrights are …
MHS: Being showcased at the Festival for a second year in a piece called, 360º of America: Force Majeure. Playwrights include Katherine Akerley, Bob Bartlett, Mary Stone Hanley, Kristen LePine, Danielle Mohlman, Malcolm Pelles, Anu Yadav and Laura Zam.
JL: DC critics are ...
MHS: Part of the team, ideally.
JL: What advice do you have for an up and coming theatre artists who have just moved to D.C.?
MHS: See as much work as you can. Be open-minded. Support each other. Take advantage of all that is here (free museums, world-class libraries, remarkable nature close at hand.)
JL: What's next for you as a director and your company?
MHS: INTERSECTION opens on Feb 22. Between now and then, I am working to help develop a number of the world premieres that will happen at the festival and to build partnerships within the community to engage audiences as fully as possible in the festival. I’m also directing my musical (written with my long time collaborator, composer David Maddox) Sing Down the Moon with the most excellent students of Catholic University’s musical theatre program, to be produced at INTERSECTIONS. www.intersectionsdc.org says it all.
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!