WARNING: The opinions expressed below are DEFINITELY those of The CoLab Theatre Company! Learn more at www.colabtheatre.org!

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

A Conversation

Anyone working in Boston Theatre right now knows who Dawn Simmons is. And chances are she knows who you are too. This afternoon I had the immense pleasure of sharing lunch and a conversation with the ever lovely, always gracious, and all powerful Program Director for Stage Source and picked her brain about Boston Theatre and how we can continue to grow, learn, and support our community.

MLM: How long have you been in Boston?

DMS: On and off for 7 or 8 years now.

MLM: Where are you from?

DMS: Buffalo. I went to school there and got a degree in English and then went to BU for playwrighting. Went back to Buffalo for a job and then got to a place where I was like "ok I'm not going to go any further here" so I came back to Boston, because it was the place I knew. It felt comfortable, and I don't think my plan was to stay here, like everybody else the plan was to go get some expereince and move on somewhere else or go back to Buffalo and be in a place where I've moved up. And I wound up staying here.

MLM: Why did you decide to stay in Boston?

DMS: Probably the job at StageSource. It's so great. I have great co-workers and a great Executive Director and they have a really fantastic board. And though there are organizations out there that do the same kinds of work we do, I really like doing it here. It's a great time to be involved in theatre in Boston, and I'm not ready to jump ship.

MLM: How long have you been at StageSource?

DMS: Five years. And I was at Merrimack Rep before that, I was the Company Manager. And there's part of me that's been thinking oh I want to start working with a theatre company again, like I miss that. But every time I think about it I remember that working with StageSource I get to work with SO many theatre companies. And I take a lot of odd jobs, I house manage at New Rep, I will crew somewhere if I have the time. I kind of try to do everything. I have had the luxury of working with a lot of companies.

MLM: How did you get into theatre?

DMS: Through writing. I wanted to do some kind of creative writing, but I'm a lousy novelist and a sad poet. But I used to have a group of friends and we'd write sketches for each other and perform them for our family and friends.I was in a failed drama club in high school . We weren't the kids who participated in the school productions but we had our own drama thing so I would write for that and we would all hang out and play pretend and do our own thing. And I took that into college and took a lot of video classes and a lot of film classes and a lot of theatre classes. I just found that I had a knack for writing and started taking a lot of screenwriting classes and a lot of playwriting classes and I think it was the working in a theatre in Buffalo and actually while going to school here because I was doing interny type stuff and I learned about theatre alot more. And everything that goes into it.

MLM: What do you think we can do better to keep theatre growing and moving forward here?

DMS: You know, I'm always a big fan of training. I think that all theatre artists we get to a point where we sort of stop with the training. And I understand it's because we all have day jobs, we're all also trying to work. But it's so important when we have down time to take a class. An acting class, a writing class,a workshop, and my hope is that not just StageSource but other organizations will offer more opportunities for training for artists here. So that we can all, you know, keep practicing at our craft. There is so much time where you're not in a show, and so, I know it sounds cheesy, but how do you fill that artist's need? And how do you keep yourself growing? So training is key.

The other thing I think is really important is to see shows. Even though it can be exhausting, and yeah you don't want to see everything, but I think find two or three shows a month that really interest or excite you, and then see it! And then get to know those people. Get to know the company. It's something we say to college kids all the time, but there's no reason we can't continue to do that as we mature in our careers. And we should keep exposing ourselves to different artists or learn I thought I like that but I don't. And I know it's tough, you're working, and you really want a day off, and you don't want to go to the theatre, but sometimes you have to push yourself. And see things locally. I used to really want to get to see things more in New York, or Philly, or get out to the West Coast and see what's going on there. But now I try to make sure that I see what's going on here. It's a way to keep growing and find out what your climate is. Especially if you want to start a company of your own. It's a way to find out what's missing. Certainly, my hope is that we're not all trying to do the same thing. So find that thing you're not seeing that you want to see and bring that to the city.

MLM: What do you think we do better here in Boston than in other places?

DMS: Ten minute festivals. (SLAMBoston, FeverFest, and The T plays to name a few) We are great at ten minute festivals.

If there was some way to take that and bottle it and make it a big marquis thing where people came in and we had a whole week of ten minute festivals we would get so much attention. If there was some way to make it pull focus to Boston or use that as a gateway to something else to exploring new writers or directors, if it became more than it is it could be great for us. There are so many people involved, it's low cost, low commitment, it creates buzz. We need to find a way to push that further or make it our thing. And starting there is a great place. The ten minute festivals are a great way to discover new talent. And once we discover that talent we need to hire that talent.

We're also an excellent city for training. We have some of the best colleges and universities and theatre programs in the country. And we need to keep those people here. And find a way to make that training accessible to the artists we have working here.

MLM: Where do you want to see Boston theatre go in the next 5 years?

DMS: I would like to see the small and fringe companies that are coming up now make it to the 5 year mark, for one. And have a high level of visibility. And the finances and infrastructure to do what they want to do and pay people what they should be paid. I want us to recognize that this scene is more that just the NEAT contract players and the LORT theatres. I want all the artists that I love to be working everywhere and not feel like they have to take a hit. I want them to be able to work at the ART and them to be able to work with NUTlab and just everywhere and be happy and proud of the work that they're doing.

The small companies need to make noise, and get rowdy. And that's what my company New Exhibition Room is hoping to do. And there are so many other small companies that are starting to do that now.

MLM: Yeah we are starting to say we're here, and we're doing good work, and exciting work and brave work. So talk a little about STAB. We're a little STAB ignorant at the CoLab and we want to be more informed because that's the community we're entering into.

DMS: It started I think as the brain child of Meg Taintor (Artistic Director of Whister in the Dark), at one of the last Boston Theatre conferences there was a Small Theatre break out session and people just started talking to her. And from my part I remember being a nag, she's close friends with my artistic partner Nora so they had been talking about it. John King had also been talking to her about it, and we all were kind of like "Hey, what are we doing? Let's make it move!" And Meg called the first meeting and we all talked about what we wanted from an organization like STAB (without calling it that in the beginning) what are we looking for what do we need?

A bunch of people and a bunch of companies showed up for the first couple of meetings and then we broke down into various committees, steering committee, marketing committee, education committee all kinds of stuff. We put up the first FeverFest to see how we all work together, see if we can create something and then went back to what we wanted the organization to become. Was it just going to be an organization that produced FeverFest? Or was it going to be the kind of organization that would do marketing, that would do education and outreach that would do a shared storage/ stock facility? And we decided yeah we want to keep moving in this direction of an alliance.

MLM: So where is STAB now in their process?

DMS: They have a General Manager. And they recently sent out materials for the people who came to the first get together a few months ago about membership and what they have to offer. And they have a website (www.smalltheatreallianceofboston.com) and a facebook page that gives you a lot more information.

MLM: So how did you get involved in small theatre?

DMS: Editing the Stagepage for StageSource. We have the spotlight article that we try to use to focus on newer companies and small companies that are just starting out and give focus to them, and the community theatres as well. We have a huge community theatre scene here, and lot of really great actors are coming out of community theatres. So I think editing the Stagepage put a lot of these companies on my radar and so if I see them and I say "oh this show seems interesting" and I go out and see them and then if I fall in love I will chat a company up.

And I would think starting working with the SLAMs. Directing for those. And meeting people who are like "oh, you're a fun director, and I have his company and why don't you come out and talk to us." And just meeting people that way.

I don't know how common it is anymore, but I just go out and pound the pavement. I meet people and I shake hands and talk to people. And sometimes it feels like gosh I'm always "on" but in the end the, people that I really really enjoy make it worth it.

MLM: That's great. I mean everybody knows who you are here in theatre, you know, you're Dawn Simmons! And you know who everyone is. And we have a lot of respect for you and for that. And you remember who people are, it's your business but you make it personal. It's what you do and it's what you love and we all get that. And when you need something, or you want to know something, and you don't know who to talk to you know you go to Dawn.

DMS: Awww, thank you. That makes me feel really good. That means I'm doing my job. I'm really passionate about theatre. I like the people who work in it.

And there is a sense of community and family here. I know there are other "theatre towns" but I wonder if it feels the same. Especially with the fringe companies and small companies. I see people and companies going out to support each other and people know each other and are genuinely happy for other people's successes and it feels good.

MLM: That's what I love about theatre here. I went to a really New York centered acting program and I struggled with that. I wasn't sure New York was the right fit for me. Certainly in New York and LA, if you go to those places to make your living as an actor you have to like be out for blood. It's all about you and making it work and focusing on yourself and your career and stopping at nothing. And that's great for some people, if you can do that more power to you. I can't. I got involved in theatre in to gain community and so that's where it lives for me. I like that I can be here and appreciate that other people are doing good work. Not that you don't have that moment sometimes where you think "ugh, I could have done that so much better" but most of the time you can just be happy that other people are really producing great stuff.

DMS: That's the thing, you can have that moment, because we all have to because it keeps us all hungry and it keeps us all moving but you can look at someone else and say "I see it, I get it, and you are talented and wonderful" and really mean it. But the next time I'll give you a run for your money. It's collegial competition. And it's starting to grow here. And I'm excited about that.

MLM: Yeah, I grew up here and just in the time I've been involved in theatre there has been so much growth here. There are so many companies that just didn't exist when I was in middle school and high school here. And it is really exciting to see theatre grow up here. I hope that we can keep growing in the same way we have in the last ten years.

DMS: Yeah there are so many new companies starting here. It's like every day I get on facebook and there's a new company and I'm like yeah ok I'll be a fan! And unless you give me a reason to be like "Oh noooo I can't be a fan anymore." we can all appreciate new work. We are really willing to give new companies a chance.

MLM: Yeah, that makes us really nervous, we're getting more buzz than we ever expected to at this point. I mean when we found out you were reading our blog we were like "Oh my God Dawn Simmons is reading our blog!" Hopefully we can back it up and our first show doesn't suck! People are paying attention.

DMS: But that's it! If your first show sucks you just pick it up and learn from it. We (NXR) were really scared about Shh!. Becasue it was all ensemble based and we're going into rehearsal with no script just ideas and we really hope this works. Dear Lord! And it did. It could have just as easily not. And we would have picked up our bruised egos and tried something new.

MLM: So what is next for New Exhibition Room?

DMS: My new play Candyland. July 29 - August 14 at Boston Playwright's Theater. And we're hoping to take Shh! to the New York Fringe with some new material which we'll premiere at Oberon in May. A Ukulele is involved, and there may be tap dancing.

MLM: Awsome! You can't go wrong with a Ukulele and tap dancing.

DMS: Exactly! It's going to be hilarious.

MLM: That's really exciting

DMS: Yeah we think so.

MLM: Well thank you for having lunch with me!

DMS: Thank you lady! How was it? Did I do ok?

MLM: You did great! Thank you so much.

So there you have it folks. Just another day in the life of the CoLab. Many many thanks to Dawn for sitting down with me and sharing her passion for Boston theatre with me, and now you. Look for New Exhibition Room's next show Candyland later this summer and keep reading, who knows who we'll talk to next!


  1. Lovely interview, thanks ladies.

    As someone brand new to the Boston theatre scene/community, I must admit to NOT knowing Dawn. (Mary-Liz said "Everybody knows who you are...") But I hope that's gonna change real soon. -- To be sure, I've got a lot of Boston theatre people to meet!

    Dawn I especially appreciate what you had to say about the importance of actor training, seeing lots of theatre, and your support for young companies. I'm with you on all three points. About expanding on the 10 minute plays idea... would be interesting to speak about that. You sound genuine, open, sincere, positive, passionate, creative, warm, .... Just the qualities a growing artistic community needs. Super!

    Looking forward to NXR's show; and M-L, et al, bravo for your recent Colab steps forward. See y'all: on-stage and off!...

  2. This was a great interview. Last night, I spoke with a friend who is an arts consultant in NYC about the Boston scene. She told me about the Seattle scene that experienced a Boom and Bust a few years back because the companies focused on competition rather than audience development. IE, they fought over the pie instead of baking a bigger pie.

    And it reminded me how unique we are in that we are doing just the opposite. Not only are we cooperative as a community, but we also recognize and work towards audience development. This is critical and I think you've been doing great work towards this goal, Dawn. Thanks so much for talking with us!