Directing the Future: An Interview with DG Founder Jill Harrison

Directors Gallery Salon 1: Designing the Future

Directors Gallery Salon 1: Designing the Future

Since moving to Philadelphia in 2009 (from New York, where she began her career), and joining the Philadelphia theater community as a freelance director, producer, and educator in the fall of 2011, Jill Harrison has witnessed not only the outstanding work of her theater-director colleagues, but also their mutual desire for a craft-based community, opportunities for continuing education, and advocacy. Consequently, in November 2011, Harrison invited a group of fellow theater directors in Philadelphia to begin meeting once a month, thereby establishing Directors Gathering (DG), for which she serves as executive director.

DG has evolved over the two and a half years since its inception, following “ThinkTank” sessions to assess the needs of local directors and to develop a mission statement and strategic plan for operations and programming. The service organization’s new initiative, the monthly DG Salons, will launch on Sunday, April 6, from 7-10 pm, in the Playground at The Adrienne. The first meeting will feature a discourse on “Directing the Future,” followed by a wine-and-cheese reception, to encourage further informal dialogue and socializing among those who direct, and those who are interested in the future of theater through directing.

PHINDIE: What are the major differences, or similarities, you see between directors in New York and those in Philadelphia?

JILL HARRISON: In New York, by sheer size, there are more opportunities for a large community of directors and creators, and more chances to see each other’s work, but also because of the size, there’s not as much personal accessibility. There I did programs with the Lincoln Center Theater Directors Lab—a wonderful program!—and interned at New York Theatre Workshop, so I was very fortunate to collaborate with writer/director Craig Lucas and director Bart Sher. After being in a room together, I thought, “I want to do that with my colleagues!” I originally came to Philadelphia for graduate school, for my MFA in Directing under Doug Wager and Ed Sobel at Temple University, where there was an active dialogue. We would do our work, then talk about it, and then apply what we discussed. I saw that my work—everyone’s work—got ten times better. So after I graduated, I wanted to keep that going. Craig and Bart encouraged me to stay in Philadelphia, where I already had that community, where people are willing to reach out to one another.

PHINDIE: What impact, if any, has your work with Simpatico Theatre Project and Philadelphia Theatre Company’s PTC@PLAY Festival had on the development and direction of DG?

Jill Harrison (Photo credit: Kim Wood)

Jill Harrison (Photo credit: Kim Wood)

JH: Working with both at the same time—one emerging, one long established—gave me a good sense of the structure and levels in Philadelphia’s regional theater community, but I also saw that both of them support directors. Allen [Radway, producing artistic director of Simpatico] hires outside directors, though he is a director himself, in addition to being an actor, and Sara [Garonzik, executive producing director at PTC] consistently hires directors for both mainstage productions and readings. The year before I signed on as festival director for PTC@PLAY, former festival director Jackie Goldfinger and Sara hired the extraordinary David O’Connor to direct for FuturePhilly@Play (the closing reading series of the festival that features local emerging writers). Then for last year’s festival, Sara and Carrie Chapter [PTC’s literary manager and dramaturg] hired me and gave me the opportunity to expand FuturePhilly@Play by hiring three freelance directors for the readings. I wanted to pay forward the opportunities Allen, Sara, Jackie, and Carrie had given me by providing fellow theater directors more opportunities.

PHINDIE: Will the DG Salons be inclusive, not only for freelance directors, but also for those who are on staff at established companies, or founders/artistic directors of their own companies?

JH: Absolutely! The salons will be open to anyone interested in theater directing—actors, writers, designers, and supporters, as well as directors of all crafts, levels, and affiliations. There is a connection among all of them, and the others all interact with directors, so it will be valuable for them to be involved in the discussions. And many actors and writers are also interested in becoming directors, so it will help them to understand how to transition between the two crafts.

PHINDIE: Have you set a regular meeting time and venue for the DG Salons?

JH: The salons will be held on the first Sunday of every month, in the evening, beginning around 7:00. The space will change monthly depending on that month’s curator.

PHINDIE: Do you have a schedule of topics or ideas you’d like to address for future gatherings?

JH: At present we have a couple of things in the works. Jack Tamburri, DG’s Director of Programming, will be curating in May; his interest is in directing solo work, which is perfect with the growth of the SoLow Fest in Philadelphia. For June, we’re in the process of reaching out to high-profile directors, but aren’t ready to make an announcement quite yet.

PHINDIE: In addition to the discussions, are there plans for other offerings through DG?

JH: Yes, we’re working on a programming series for the upcoming year, through next summer. This fall we’re doing a FringeArts celebration of directors. Future offerings include a master-class weekend next winter, with a master director either from the NY or Philly community as the instructor; there will be an application process for that. We’re also planning another one for early-career directors. In May-June 2015, we will offer “Mixtape,” a performance anthology consisting of director-authored pieces, and an opportunity for directors to apply and to share their work in both process and performance forms.

PHINDIE: What are your main goals for the organization, and for Philadelphia directors in general?

JH: As I experienced at Temple, and as is the focus for all of our programming, I would like DG to give a sense of supporting and developing the director’s craft through education, discussion, and application. I want to engender pride in our craft and among our colleagues at all career levels, with our celebration, promotion, and advocacy of theater directing.

DG logo by Daniel Kontz Design (Photo credit: Courtesy of Directors Gathering)

DG logo by Daniel Kontz Design (Photo credit: Courtesy of Directors Gathering)

PHINDIE: What does the future hold for you, in terms of your own freelance directing and producing?

JH: Now that I’ve put on a producer’s hat, with DG I’ve mostly been here in Philadelphia; last year I was mostly out of town. I have been sharing some of my writer-friends’ scripts with varied houses here and outside of town, and lately have been thinking, “Why not do it myself?” So I am considering doing one of these projects for next year’s Fringe here in Philly. I’m very excited to be a freelance producer/director, to have the freedom to decide what I want to do and who I want to work with. It’s wonderful to take ownership of this new model, of it being okay to freelance. The entire small team for DG [director of operations Ben Smallen, director of programming Jack Tamburri, associate producer Rebecca Adelsheim, production manager Tom Snyder, operations and communication associate Carl Granieri, outreach and partnerships associate Amber Emory, and creative associates Kevin Rodden and Will Steinberger], all at different points in their career, has been terrific. We wouldn’t have gotten this far without their contributions and their commitment to this new way of working.

If you are interested in DG’s mission of “advancing the craft of theatre directing through community, advocacy, pedagogy, and praxis,” you are encouraged to attend the debut meeting and to get involved. [Playground at The Adrienne, 2030 Sansom St.] April 6, 2014, 7-10 pm, www.directorsgathering.org.

Jill Harrison (Photo credit: Kim Wood)

DG logo by Daniel Kontz Design (Photo credit: Courtesy of Directors Gathering)

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About the author

Debra Miller

Debra holds a PhD in Art History from the University of Delaware and teaches at Rowan University, Glassboro, NJ. She is a judge for the Barrymore Awards for Excellence in Theatre, Philadelphia Arts and Culture Correspondent for Central Voice, and has served as a Commonwealth Speaker for the Pennsylvania Humanities Council and President of the Board of Directors of Da Vinci Art Alliance. Her publications include articles, books, and catalogues on Renaissance, Baroque, American, Pre-Columbian, and Contemporary Art, and feature articles on the Philadelphia theater scene.