The Wisconsin Humanities Council Interviews Danielle!

Wisconsin Humanities Council – Featured: On Art, summer 2015.

Danielle Dresden, playwright, actor and residency artist, is producing artistic director of TAPIT/new works Ensemble Theater in Madison. Dresden is the author of 35 plays performed across the United States and abroad. TAPIT/new works has received multiple WHC grants for projects that make innovative use of humanities expertise to deepen their audiences’ experience.  This fall, look for talks by Danielle and co-producing artistic director Donna Peckett, when the WHC launches ShopTalk, the new Working Lives Project speaker/discussion program.

We asked Danielle to share with us what it means to her to be an artist, and to tell us how TAPIT/new works has made use of the humanities to enhance their artistic work.

At what point in your life did you start thinking of yourself as an artist? What brought you to that realization?

This whole business of who is or is not an artist, and how or why or when individuals get to apply that term to themselves gets complicated for me. I don’t want to sound pretentious, or like I’m trying to get out of doing something practical and/or tedious. “I’m an artist, so you see, I can’t parallel park. Too confining.”

I also spend a lot of time thinking about the political, economic, and cultural aspects of the term “artist.” In fact, that was the focus of my most recent play, Work the Act, and a series of panel discussions funded by the Wisconsin Humanities Council, entitled The Work of Art, which were all part of the 30th anniversary season of TAPIT/new works Ensemble Theater Company.

Donna Peckett and I co-founded TAPIT/new works in 1985, and we both continue as producing artistic directors. The Company develops and performs original work, and we have an extensive arts education and outreach component to our mission. We’ve toured across the United States and abroad, and I’ve written about 35 plays, all produced, some have won awards, been published, and some have not.

Does that make me an artist? I think my ongoing commitment to the work is what makes me an artist. As aspiring theater folk are often told, “If you can do something else, you probably will.”

I recall one moment when I realized I couldn’t do anything else. My unemployment (one of the nation’s most significant arts subsidies) was running out and I had a job interview. It was early in the morning, in a big building. I realized that if I got the job, they’d probably want me there at that same hour every morning, and I’d have to stay in that building all day long.

“There has to be a better way,” I thought. This led to my going back to school to study arts administration at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I doubt it’s common to trace your artistic beginnings back to when you decided to go to business graduate school, but that’s the thing about becoming an artist – there’s no set path.

What drives you to make art? Has that motivation changed throughout your life?

 One day in late spring when I was seven years old I heard what must have been the first lawn mower of the season. I was overwhelmed. I felt this commotion inside of me, and as I struggled to get a handle on my joyously painful yearning, I asked my parents for a pencil and paper. They should have known right then that this child was not likely to get a job with full benefits. But eventually, with some help, I wrote down, “Today I heard the lawn mowers. It reminded me of summertime.”

Not too much has changed since then. I still struggle to find words to convey feelings and experiences, and the first sounds and scents of summer still make me crazy.

I work in the theater, which I love because it’s so immersive. It offers everyone, participants and audience members alike, the chance to plunge into another world. It allows me to work independently as a playwright, and with other people as a playwright and actor.

The great thing about theater colleagues is that they not only stimulate your creativity – they make your work better. They take your script and dress it, put it in motion, give it a setting and a beat, and breathe life into your characters.

What role have the humanities played in your work? How have you used the arts and humanities to strengthen community life? 

As a playwright I like to explore the interplay between individuals and their times. How does one influence and perhaps illuminate the other?  History, cultural anthropology, literature – all humanities disciplines – can influence my plays.

As a company, TAPIT/new works strives to go beyond the “one night only” school of performance and forge deeper connections with audiences. Our humanities experts help us enormously in this regard.

Our Mangia, Mangia! project illustrates both these roles for the humanities.

Mangia, Mangia! was a play celebrating the Greenbush, a legendarily diverse, Italian-American Madison neighborhood that was urban-renewed out of existence years ago. Food was central to this community, my play, and the production.

We found a UW-Madison faculty member, Traci Nathans-Kelly, who was a specialist in culinary literature.  I never knew the field existed, but through Traci I learned about the role food plays in immigration, assimilation, and cultural preservation. I learned how we use food to mark special events, and how church cookbooks can reveal a community’s history.

Mangia, Mangia! played for general audiences, and at elementary schools. Traci developed a study guide to help teachers explore their students’ cultural backgrounds, favorite foods, family recipes, and ways of celebrating. At one of Madison’s most diverse schools, faculty organized a festival. Students brought in their own special dishes, family and friends came, stories were shared, and connections were created across multiple divides.

Because of Mangia, Mangia’s significance to the Italian-American community, many audience members were not typical arts attendees – especially at a storefront theater devoted to new work. But the combination of the show and Traci’s skillful facilitation brought the barriers down. Audiences told stories of immigrant relatives on the boats, disagreed about recipes, and shared memories of a time that seemed simpler. Night after night, as we drank in the stories and the scent of ravioli and garlic bread from Bunky’s Restaurant – another key part of the Mangia, Mangia! experience – it felt like we were gathered in somebody’s living room, in a place where we all belonged.

That’s how the arts and the humanities can create community together.

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