Douglas Langworthy is the recipient of our 2012 Elliott Hayes Award for Outstanding Achievement in Dramaturgy.
A transcript of his acceptance speech, as published in Review, Vol. 22 Issue 2.
This is the story of my tumble down a dramaturgical rabbit hole that, to my surprise, deposited me on the other side of the planet.
In February 2011, the Denver Center Theatre Company--the theatre where I work--began rehearsals for its production of Lynn Nottage's beautifully written, brutal anti-war drama, Ruined. About six months prior to that, I was introduced to Karen Sugar, a Denver woman who runs a non-profit that empowers women in post-conflict Uganda through micro-loans and education. Little did I know that that meeting would fundamentally change the course of my dramaturgy on Nottage's play, and ultimately take me all the way to Africa.
The collaboration between the Denver Center and Women's Global Empowerment Fund (WGEF), Sugar's organization, was built on a solid foundation. As an expert in the part of the world in which the play is set, Karen came to that first meeting with a good dose of skepticism. What did we want? How authentic was this drama in portraying a fiendishly complex and violent war? Fortunately, once she read Ruined she loved it, impressed not only with the emotional truth of the play, but also the depth and accuracy of Nottage's research.
The next phase of our collaboration was to determine how Sugar, who works with women in Gulu, Uganda, a region that has been conflict-free for six years, could help me contextualize the play for our artists and audience. She pointed out that the war that is still raging in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where Ruined is set, had devastated northern Uganda for over twenty years. The women of Uganda have had the past handful of years to start rebuilding their lives. The hardships and violence that Nottage's characters were facing had been suffered by the women Karen helps. Her clients could speak honestly to all the issues in the play, but from a healing perspective. This collaboration had the potential to take a dire situation and offer a degree of hope. I had found my way in.
But there's one more important piece to the puzzle. The synergy between the Denver Center and WGEF got even closer when Karen told me that her clients have been holding an annual drama festival. Divided into groups of anywhere from one to twenty, the women create plays, monologues or dances to present before the community at large. Each year has a theme that is selected by the women that speaks to an issue they deem to be of critical importance in their lives. So not only does WGEF empower women through micro-loans and education, they also empower them through drama.
In December, before rehearsals started, Karen brought to Denver one of her most successful clients, Grace Akello. Grace had already started a number of small businesses, and was planning to run for local office. (She won the election and now plans to run for national Parliament.) Every year she writes a monologue to present at the festival. So while she was in Denver we pulled together a small event at which we showed video of the drama festival and Grace spoke and answered audience questions. (Conveniently for us the common European language in Uganda is English, whereas in the Congo it's French.) This event dovetailed nicely with the Denver Center's Women's Voices Fund, an endowment to support the work of women playwrights and directors. Since Grace wouldn't be around during the rehearsal period, I filmed an interview with her, footage that I could share with the actors when they arrived in February.
One of the first things I wanted to do once rehearsals were underway was set up a Skype session between the actors in Ruined and a group of women in Uganda. On the second day of rehearsal, we gathered the actors in a large conference room and, after an introduction by Karen, the actors and director started Skyping with a half dozen women in Gulu. The actors asked difficult and at times painful questions which the women answered freely and with great honesty. The session lasted about an hour and gave the actors a strong personal connection to the material that would underpin their performances. Nottage's play is starkly realistic, and this conversation brought the play to life in a way that all the book research in the world could never do (But nonetheless I prepared an 80-page research packet, feeling it's best to approach context from a variety of angles.)
Once the show was up and running, we held a number of talkbacks with the cast that Karen attended. Many of the actors spoke of the effect the Skype session had had on them. The war in the Congo is extremely complicated, with numerous armies and rebel groups vying for power, and Karen was able to be on hand to provide valuable historical and political context. One of the key engines of the war, Karen explained, was the greed for minerals, including coltan, a substance that is used in most of our electronic gadgets like the iPad and the iPhone. I created a video loop for the lobby called "The High Cost of Coltan" to highlight this issue
Along the way I had been hearing bits and pieces of what kinds of outreach other theatres were doing around their productions of Ruined. At last year's LMDA conference in Denver, I chaired a panel that explored this further. I was truly impressed by the wide array of both local and international efforts dramaturgs across the United States and Canada had launched around the play. Working with local Congolese communities, enhanced talkbacks, lecture series, films -- one theatre even had a 5K run to raise funds for women in the Congo.
Then to fully complete the circle, the Denver Center sent me to Africa to attend the 2011 WGEF drama festival! The only assignment the theatre gave me was to blog about my experience and post it on the Denver Center's website. Before I left that September, I also proposed an article to American Theatre magazine about my trip and they agreed. So my experiences would be disseminated to Denver theatergoers as well as a broader national audience.
While in Gulu I was able to visit many women in the businesses they had created with their micro-loans: selling vegetables at the market, crushing rock at the quarry, or running small farms. But the center-piece of the trip was the drama festival itself. The theme that year was the right of women to own land. (Currently the constitution allows it, but tribal customs prohibit it.) Two days before the event Women's Global held a town hall meeting that was informative and at times confrontational. It was clear that this was a hot-button issue.
The plays, written by WGEF clients, took the form of agit-prop theatre, using humor and broad character to tell stories grounded in the issue of land ownership. Some of the funniest performances were given by the women who played men, who subversively stayed in character all day, not just while performing. The playwrights used laughter to hook the audience (both men and women) and keep them engaged with the play until its message had been made. It was a revelation to see how effectively these women, with no formal theatre training but steeped in the traditions of storytelling, were using drama as a vibrant form of public discourse.
I came back to the States reinvigorated and ready to tell my story. Based on my blog, the American Theatre article appeared in the February 2012 issue, which was devoted to global citizenship. It was distributed to the Denver Center board of directors as well as attendees of the Colorado New Play Summit.
Over the past few years I have become more and more interested in connecting dramaturgically with our local community. In partnering with Karen Sugar and the Women's Global Empowerment Fund, I was able to use a local resource to go global. I would never have believed that my desire to provide dramaturgical context would result in my traveling to Africa.
The Denver Center's relationship with WGEF and the women of Gulu continues. Next February we hope to bring one of the Ugandan playwrights to Denver for our New Play Summit. Karen is even hoping to help Gulu build its first permanent theatre structure, as well as help other NGOs start their own drama festivals. She's asked me to be involved in both efforts. Oh yes, last month Grace Akello again visited Denver and was able to view archival footage of our production of Ruined, closing that loop.
Looking back, I guess the biggest lesson I learned is that there are riches to be mined by extending your dramaturgical tentacles into your local community. With an open mind and a willingness to learn, you may find yourself like I did traveling down roads you could never have foreseen.