Remix to Ignition: Hot, Fresh and out of the Kitchen (Sink)! A Chicago Festival Gives Playwrights of Color under 40 New Avenues for Productions
Bent, Eliza, American Theatre
IT'S HARD TO BE A PLAYWRIGHT--AND IT'S doubly, triply, quadruply hard to be a young playwright of color," says Sandy Shinner, associate artistic director of Chicago's Victory Gardens Theater, which has a longstanding commitment to new plays. Of the 243 plays that have been produced at the 36-year-old company, 142 have been world premieres and 151 have been penned by Chicago authors. Since 1996, the company has had a playwrights' ensemble, whose members account for 50 percent of the work that the theatre produces. Over time, it became apparent to Victory Gardens's leadership that the playwrights' ensemble on its own could not supply the wide variety of voices the company hopes to include in its season. After meetings with the Ford Foundation in 2006, Shinner and her colleagues decided to seek ways of developing and producing fresh work by younger, ethnically diverse playwrights. Two years later, Ignition, a festival dedicated to playwrights of color under 40, was born.
I asked Shinner about the cover of a 2006 issue of Time Out Chicago, which boldly asked, "Why Is Chicago Theatre So White, and How Can We Fix It?" Did that article, and the resulting discussions in the Chicago theatre community, play a role in the founding of Ignition? "From the beginning, Victory Gardens has had a commitment to writers of color," Shinner attests. "We've been one the leaders in this respect. We have diversity, but we've been getting older. The gap Ignition was created to fill within our own organization was more about youth than diversity."
Victory Gardens sent out a call for scripts in January '08, to which 120 writers responded. "The plays didn't have to deal specifically with race, they just had to be written by an author of color," notes Shinner. Half the plays received had racially mixed casts. Along with literary manager Aaron Carter, resident director Andrea Dymond and artistic director Dennis Zacek, Shinner narrowed the pool down to 12 finalists. Of those plays, six were selected to have readings and workshops, with the idea that one script would ultimately be produced by Victory Gardens in its mainstage season.
In August '08, a scene sampler whetted the appetites of playgoers for the weekend of readings to follow. Playwright OyamO kicked off the festival with a keynote address, which was followed by "Spark Plug," a party that Shinner deemed successful for its interdisciplinary features. "There was a mural created in one of the rehearsal rooms; 2nd Story, a group from Chicago, performed monologues; people were silk-screening T-shirts; and there was a DJ."
Ultimately, not one but two plays from Ignition made it into the theatre's season this past fall: Kristoffer Diaz's The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity and Michael Golamco's Year Zero. For Shinner, part of the festival's success was simply putting artists in touch with each other. …