Jacqueline Lawton: What was the first play that you ever directed? What did you learn from that experience that remains with you today?
Elissa Goetschius: The Skriker by Caryl Churchill. The biggest lesson from that show was the importance of allowing my vision to shift as I worked with designers and actors. Adam Kielman (composer) and Johanna Kirk (choreographer) came in with incredibly smart reactions to the script that were entirely different from what I was expecting. I learned to trust myself to take time to understand how their visions differed from and fit together with mine. My role is to guide, not dictate. It’s okay to not have all the answers from the start. If you do, you’re probably not going to create a terribly interesting production.
JL: Why did you decide to get into theatre? Was there someone or a particular show that inspired you?
EG: I’ve always loved theatre - I grew up going to Toronto to see Les Miz, Phantom, Into the Woods, etc. with my mother and aunt. But it was going to Stratford, Ontario and seeing Stephen Ouimette’s Richard III was the real tipping point. It was a thrilling performance at the center of a fabulous production - directed by the Artistic Director at the time, Richard Monette. It began my obsession with Shakespeare and solidified for me that theatre was and is my field.
JL: What kind of work do you do to pay the bills? How do you balance this work with your work as a director?
EG: My first three and a half years in DC were spent working at Woolly Mammoth. I started as Howard’s assistant, then transitioned to the literary department when I went on staff. When I moved to literary, I had to set aside directing goals as literary required my full attention. But I learned a tremendous amount working with directors like Rebecca Taichman, Anne Kauffman, Daniel Aukin, John Vreeke, and Pam MacKinnon and playwrights Kirsten Greenidge, Sarah Ruhl, Jason Grote, Melissa James Gibson, David Adjmi, Peter Nachtrieb, Sherry Shephard-Massat, Sheila Callaghan, Noah Haidle, and Bridget Carpenter.
As I realized I was happiest in the rehearsal hall and that I was more a director than a dramaturg (at least in the way our industry current divides responsibilities, I’m not picking that argument in this interview) I realized I needed to leave my job at Woolly to pursue my real passion. So I spent the next three and a half years working at Open City in Woodley Park as a server and barista. It’s a great restaurant run by the same folks who run Tryst, The Diner, and the newly-opened Coupe. I would open the restaurant at 6am, worked until noon or 2pm, then work on theatre projects in the evenings. It was manageable until tech weeks and openings. Then I would get tired to the point of losing my words. After a year of trying to balance this work with regular directing gigs (all of which happened to be in Baltimore), I’ve decided to take a step back, recharge, and take a new approach to a directing career. Meaning, I’m currently applying to grad programs. We’ll see how that goes in this next chapter.
JL: In DC, we have the Capital Fringe Festival, the Intersections Festival, the Source Festival, the Kennedy Center's Page-to-Stage Festival, the Black Theater Festival, and the Hip Hop Theatre Festival. We also have the Mead Lab at Flashpoint Theater Lab Program. Have you participated in any of these? If so, can you speak about your experience?
EG: I’ve directed two shows for Page-to-Stage. This past year, I worked with Taffety Punk on a reading of Liz Maestri’s new play Somersaulting, an adaptation of the graphic novel by Sammy Harkham. In 2009 I directed a reading of A Brief Narrative of an Extraordinary Rabbits by C Denby Swanson which I later directed at the EMP Collective in Baltimore. While it’s a great way to expose audiences to new plays and new playwrights, my biggest takeaway is just how much you miss out on when you only experience a reading of a play compared to a full production. I should be grateful for the opportunity - and I am - but it makes me realize the value of a full production.
JL: How many plays have you directed in the DC area? How many of them were written by women? By playwrights of color? How conscious are you selecting plays by women or people of color when deciding your season?
EG: From the group of artists involved in the projects I worked on in roughly the last year, there were three women and four playwrights of color. And six white men. And one female playwrights of color who dropped out of a project during the process. I’ve also spent the last two years developing a strong working relationship with DC playwright Liz Maestri, but we haven’t produced a show together yet. So the demographic breakdown isn’t too shabby.
When I’m looking for projects that I am personally interested in directed, I don’t look at the demographic information of the playwright first. But when it comes to pitching projects or planning a season (having helped plan seasons at Woolly and Forum and having recommended plays to many other organizations over the years) I definitely try to share plays by women and playwrights of color whenever possible. (Ask me! I have lots of plays and writers to pitch!)
The questions behind season planning are something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately with the rash of seasons popping up across the country that feature entirely white-male playwrights and directors. It’s depressing.
I’ve been working on a blog post for some time now, creating a fictional season for a mid-sized theatre company and extrapolating season planning guidelines for these issues. Planning my imaginary season was the easy part - writing the blog post is taking a while. Ultimately it comes down to the priorities of an Artistic Director. How much do you value telling diverse stories and inviting diverse audiences into your theatre? Are you willing to take a “risk” by producing something that’s not a “name brand”? I tend to think it’s a larger risk to continue to program the same shows, or kinds of shows, and to further alienate potential audience members. I mean, look at how well Joe Dowling’s Christopher Hampton festival turned out. Link to the Star Tribune article: http://m.startribune.com/entertainment/?id=179578081
JL: How do you feel the DC theatre community has addressed the issues of race and gender parity? How has this particular issue impacted you and your ability to work?
EG: Not terribly well if you look at the statistics on the current season helpfully compiled by Gwydion (http://www.suilebhan.com/2012/11/08/final-numbers-playwright-demographics-2012-13-dc-theater-season/). We can do better. It’s embarrassing that we aren’t. We should be embarrassed.
JL: If you could be direct at any theatre in DC, which would it be and why?
EG: I wanna play in the Cradle at Arena. It’s a gorgeous space, but I haven’t seen anything there since the #newplay festival when they presented work from the Rude Mechanicals and the Foundry (Provenance of Beauty was amazing). I’d want to do something like The Curious Walk of the Salamander by Kirsten Greenidge (commissioned by Woolly years ago, but never produced) or That Pretty Pretty; Or the Rape Play by Sheila Callaghan.
JL: DC audiences are …
EG: Intelligent and open-minded.
JL: DC actors and designers are …
EG: Awesome. Though I would extend that to the others artists in the area as well - pulling in visual artists on theatre projects and musicians is incredibly rewarding and we have a bunch of those in DC.
JL: DC playwrights are …
EG: Deservedly becoming more well-known. Young DC directors should track them down and get to know them - you might not be the right collaborator for all of them, but they’re a diverse bunch and you might find your One.
JL: DC critics are …
EG: Incredibly supportive in the best way possible. They don’t coddle artists and truly want them to succeed. Shout out to Peter Marks for being so engaged on twitter.
JL: What advice do you have for an up and coming DC based director or a director who has just moved to D.C.?
EG: Stay focused on the work you want to do. Connect with artists - playwrights, designers, etc. Build your network. Don’t be stingy about introducing people, offering suggestions for resources, etc. But be careful about spending too much time on work that benefits others more than you. If you join a company be completely blunt about what you want to get out of your time spent working with them. Are you going to help organize auditions? Help with fundraising? Help with props? Great. Do you want to direct a reading? A show? Get a solid answer on whether this will happen or not. Be blunt and upfront. It makes things easier in the long run. It’s a lesson that takes a long time to learn and implement. I’ve spoken with far more experienced people who are still struggling with this issue.
Also, don’t take every opportunity that you’re offered. If I don’t like a script, I don’t do my best work. You want to be proud of all of your projects.
And don’t forget about Baltimore. It’s not that far away and yes, it might be a pain to get up there on a regular basis, but their scene is amazing and totally different from DC. Get to know the EMP Collective - they straddle both cities and can help with introductions. Tell Carly Bales I sent you.
JL: What's next for you as a director? Where can we keep up with your work?
EG: I’m currently taking a #hermityear: applying for grad school programs and reading all of the books I’ve accumulated on my shelves over the past several years. I’m also working on a new project with La Maestri and tossing ideas around with a few other favorite collaborators in the DC and Baltimore area. You can find me on twitter at @egoetschius. And I’m in the process of creating a website, but in the meantime you can follow my tumblr at egoetschius.tumblr.com.
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!