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Photo by Andrew McGibbon.

Artistic Evolution at Roundabout During the Broadway Shutdown

"I think it's important for the artists to know that the theatres are still here and behind them."

Catching Up with Roundabout's Artistic Team

Artistic Evolution at Roundabout During the Broadway Shutdown

Associate Artistic Director Jill Rafson and Literary Manager Anna Morton spoke about the work of the Artistic team and how it’s evolved during the Broadway shutdown.

Let's start at the very beginning. In normal times, what is the Artistic staff responsible for? How do you get shows going?

Jill Rafson: During normal times, the Artistic team has a wide range of activities. It can be anything from actively developing a script that we know we're going to produce, to going to see a play in another theatre to check out the writer, the director, the design team, the actors—and everything in between. So part of our job is scouting what other people are doing, and part of our job is improving the work that's going to end up on our stages and figuring out which artists we want to be doing that work with.

Anna Morton: We get lots of scripts throughout the year from agents, writers, and other people we know. So a lot of what we do is keep track of those submissions, make sure those plays are being read by multiple people so that we can assess them from different angles, and then determine how we want to move forward—if it’s something that we want to start developing to produce, or if it's a writer who we want to keep an eye on.

JR: Readings and workshops are normally a huge part of how we spend our time. In an average year, we would do some 30 readings and workshops. And that can be anything from a one-day reading with no rehearsal to a three-week, fully staged musical workshop with a band and some set pieces. We spend a lot of our time putting those together so that artists can hear their work out loud, so that we can try to match playwrights with directors, so that we can feel out where the piece is in its development.

So, now that we’re in month seven of the COVID era, what has changed the most? It feels like a particularly tremendous obstacle to do what you do under these circumstances.

JR: Yes and no. We've been hampered from using our most common tool: putting up a reading of a play. We've done a couple of readings over Zoom, but some plays just don't lend themselves well to that format, especially plays with a lot of people talking over each other. And so we've pulled back from that and shifted gears, because we don't think it's serving the plays particularly well. It's not teaching the writers what they need to do in their next draft.

And so instead of doing readings, we're having conversations. We've checked in with every single writer with a current Roundabout commission. There are 21 of them right now, and we’ve just said, “Where are you with your piece? What do you need from us?" It's been a really great way to reconnect with those artists, especially because we're all dealing with the same massive world event right now.

AM: When theatres are open, we also spend a lot of time attending shows and readings. So that's been really different, too, because there's nothing to see right now. Going to see what's being offered at other theatres is a major way that we get to know artists— especially actors and designers and directors, who don’t have material that they can share with us on paper like playwrights do.

JR: It’s been really lovely to use this time to have general meetings with writers but also with directors. And we've met a lot of choreographers whom we just ordinarily wouldn't have had enough time to meet.  It's something that's easy for us to make time for. You just click into your Zoom, have a lovely chat for 45 minutes, and actually really get to know a person. And now in a moment when everyone is asking, “Well, who would you recommend for x project?” we have more people we can confidently recommend.

AM: We got into a conversation with one agency that gave us a list of maybe 10 people that we should meet, who were mostly emerging directors and choreographers. And typically, I would look at that list and be totally overwhelmed with the logistics, and it would take us two months to complete at minimum. But right now, that felt totally manageable. Whenever things are back, those artists will probably invite us to things they have on the docket, and hopefully we can attend. As with everything, it's more fun when you can put a face to a name.

Does it feel like something good that has come out of this because virtual meetings are a practice you'll be able to keep doing?

JR: Yeah, I want to keep going now that we've realized this tool exists. I think, why would I not do this to meet with artists from across the country whom, otherwise, I would be waiting until we're at the same festival in the same city? Why wait? It simplifies things in a way that I'm like, why didn't we think of this sooner?

You were talking about deepening the bench and the quantity of meetings. How is that jibing with the focus Roundabout has had over recent years to broaden its diversity and its representation across all categories?

JR: I think these two concepts are inextricably linked. It is incredibly important that we use this time to strategically meet people who come from a variety of backgrounds. One of the most frequent questions we get asked by directors is, “Can you introduce me to non-white designers? I haven't worked with that many.” And this is giving us a chance to get to know people we can recommend not just based on the one or two pieces of work we may have seen, but as actual humans we have spoken to. We've already been recommending them both to higher-level directors and more emerging directors. We’re trying to get them in touch with whoever feels right for their aesthetic. And that's exactly what the purpose of this should be: to use the time to get to know so many people that we are never lacking for recommendations.

What have you found that Roundabout is most able to do to help artists during a really difficult time?

JR: We made a point of not just reaching out to the artists who are actively engaged with us on specific projects, but also to the larger list of artists we’re connected to. I think it's important for the artists to know that the theatres are still here and behind them, because right now it could be very easy for them to feel completely isolated. The sort of programs and activities they're used to are gone. So we made a point of talking to as many people as wanted to hear from us, and just offer ourselves up as a place they could come if they need something.

AM: One of the writers that I connected with made the point that we at Roundabout, and at other theatres, had been communicating very closely with the writers with whom we were in the midst of a project, but that there were a lot of other writers out in the world who have no idea what is going on inside of any of these buildings.

And of course, there's a lot that we still don't know, and, yes, we will have to continue postponing until we’ve found space for all the plays that we've had to cancel, but we're still going to program after that. So we’re letting the artists know that, in addition to figuring out those logistics, we still want to be reading work; we want to be thinking about what's going to come in the future.

JR: I will also throw into the mix that I think one of the biggest benefits that has come from this moment is the transparency among our peer institutions. It's been pretty incredible to see how the community of people who do our jobs at all of the other New York non-profit theatres have come together as a unit to say, what do we do to serve our artists right now? And that energy has continued into this phase where we're trying to figure out what next year looks like. Everyone has come together to say, “Okay, how do we make sure the artists get the maximum number of productions out of the season that's coming?” And I hope that sticks because every artist I speak to, they appreciate it. And I feel really good about doing that. It makes me happy, and it's helping to keep the people whose voices we want working in theatre and not fleeing for television.

AM: I’ve been really astounded—as somebody who's only worked in New York theatre for a year—at how quickly and immediately I was welcomed into the artistic community here, and how my peers at other theatres have been reaching out to me to connect.

I also felt a really big push around when the most recent Black Lives Matter protests began in New York – questions around what our theatres are doing to respond to the pandemic have shifted to also encompass the need to take real action to support Black lives and combat anti-Blackness in our industry. We’ve all come together in a way to say, we need to be really transparent so that we can serve the most people and do the greatest good for the city, for our audiences, for our artists. I don't know without multiple crises that we would have found that ability to be in community with each other.