Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Being a Generous Mentor

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Contributed by Jill Rafson

I remember reading Ted Chapin’s wonderful book Everything Was Possible as I rode a bus into Manhattan for one of many interviews to try to get my first internship in professional theater. And I distinctly recall thinking to myself as I finished the book, “The world he describes is amazing. Now how on earth do I get to be a part of that?”

Somehow, I’m now a part of that world that seemed so incredibly foreign back then, but it has taken some time to understand how that actually happened. I now realize that the answer comes down to people who I consider to be true theatrical heroes -- those who work to open doors, to artists and audiences alike.

I don’t know of a single person in the theater who doesn’t think that there was a little bit of luck involved in getting them to where they are today. And if you ask a few questions, it almost always comes down to a similar story: along the way, we’ve all felt lucky because we met up with someone who pulled back the veil on this mysterious mixture of art and business and said, “Let me tell you how this works.” And nothing could be more important.

So many of us choose to make our living in this business because we want to share our love of the theater, not just with audiences but with the people we work side by side with. We have put ourselves into an industry that encourages – perhaps even demands – collaboration. What I have come to love is that this is a business full of mentors, eager to share knowledge, stories, advice, experiences – the invaluable things that can take someone new from outside to inside, from lost to found.

Unlike in so many other industries, I don’t see my colleagues in the theater trying to bar the door to keep people out. The very nature of the theater is to invite in an audience, and each time we engage that audience, we are inviting in the next group of people who may find themselves saying at the end of a performance, “Now how on earth do I get to be a part of that?”

Whether it’s through true person-to-person mentors, or from talking to a group of students about how to get started, or by giving a playwright her first production, or by making ticket prices low enough for anyone to come see your show, the heroes of theater today are those who are making sure that the dire predictions for the future of this art form do not come true. They are the people who are letting in the new, who share stories so that we all work from a shared sense of history, and who do work that does more than reaffirm the beliefs of the existing audience. They give opportunities and they push boundaries. They know that the way to keep theater essential as a cultural institution is to make sure that the institution itself is ready and willing to not only accept newcomers, but to educate and encourage them.

We all remember what it was like to be on the outside looking in and we share what we’ve learned because we’ve now had encounters, experiences, moments so fantastically special that it wouldn’t have even occurred to us to dream them up. To create theater is to cause an emotional response in another person, and the desire to share that emotional response is in all of us who have chosen this path.

We make theater for ourselves, and we make theater for each other. But most importantly, we make it for the people coming next, for the people who are about to have that first moment of seeing a piece of theater so staggering that it makes them ask in wonder, “Now how do I get to be a part of that?”

I aspire to be the person who reaches out to answer, “Let me tell you about that…”

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Jill Rafson is the Literary Manager at Roundabout Theatre Company, where she also serves as Associate Producer for the Roundabout Underground program. Jill is also a member of CollaborationTown, for whom she is a frequent Dramaturg. She has read scripts for the O’Neill Conference and the Vineyard Theater and has been a guest lecturer for the Commercial Theater Institute. Jill is a graduate of Johns Hopkins University.

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