Directing Student Kyle Boatwright Gets Inspiration from Fellow Theater Alum Dawn Monique Williams '11G
University of Massachusetts Department of Theater Graduate Directing student Kyle Boatwright has long had her eye on the renowned Oregon Shakespeare Festival, especially after Nataki Garrett's term as OSF’s first Black female artistic director, gracefully weathering COVID, wildfires, and threats from racists who didn’t want her leading the company.
When Boatwright learned that Theater alum Dawn Monique Williams was directing Twelfth Night for the company this summer (the show runs through Oct. 13), Boatwright didn’t let the fact that OSF isn’t currently offering internships stop her. She contacted Williams, who willingly made room for her on the team, and had what she calls “hands down one of the best experiences of my life” shadowing Williams as she worked.
Over the summer, Boatwright and Williams also connected with fellow alum Ulises Alcala, who is OSF’s Production Manager.
We asked Boatwright to tell us about the experience and how she's bringing it back to campus for her work as Associate Director of our upcoming show, The Hatmaker's Wife. Read on below for her report.
Question: Tell me about your time with Oregon Shakespeare Festival! You said you shadowed there, what did that entail?
Boatwright: I was fortunate enough to act as a kind of “assistant assistant director” for Dawn Monique Williams and her associate director/choreographer, Roberta Inscho (shout out to our 2021 production of Dance Nation!) as they worked on OSF’s production of Twelfth Night. Initially I thought I’d just sit and observe Dawn and Roberta in action, but it ended up being so much more than that. From the day I got there, Dawn invited me to give her notes, which blew my mind—she truly offered me a seat at the directing table. I also ended up spending time with much of the cast as well as the music director and composer (my other occupation), talking about their processes, offering my own thoughts, and more.
Question: What did you come away from the experience with — were there things Dawn did in her directing that were new to you? Were there things she did that validated your own approach?
I can’t get over Dawn’s use of space. Every inch of that set has a purpose and is utilized beautifully and consistently. She’s also incredibly skilled at balancing: balancing the stage picture, balancing the comedy with the truth of the piece, balancing personalities, balancing and resetting when initial designs or plans don’t work out the way we’d originally hoped. I was surprised (and kind of relieved) to find that Dawn’s directing style is naturally similar to my own inclinations; nearly every choice she made was something I’d have chosen myself, or (more often) an elevated version of what I was already thinking. She holds space for her team in a way that allows everybody to relax and find the joy in their work easily, which is something I’m constantly aspiring to do.
I also have to name that the way Dawn handles her entire career is such an inspiration to me. She creates the shows she wants to create with authenticity and lightness, finding work that truly interests her and that she knows she can bring something special to.
Question: You and Dawn are both Black women in theater. Did you find moments of connection in terms of how you navigate a historically white, male profession?
Boatwright: Dawn and I certainly connected over that, especially as we talked about her trajectory in her career and what mine might look like (spoiler alert, lots of parallels going on there). But what was even more significant to me was the diversity of the company, which Dawn herself has helped foster. When I first left the rehearsal room, all I could think was, “this is the Blackest, queerest space I’ve ever been in, and I had to come to Oregon to find it?!” It was literally the only time in my professional life where I’ve felt fully seen. Minds like Dawn, Nataki Garrett, Bill Rausch, and now Tim Bond have prioritized telling these stories in diverse and authentic ways that of course have had some pushback, but the end result is that we all get to see ourselves reflected on stage and in that rehearsal room.
Every director in the season was a person of the global majority. Most of our cast and creative team was Black or Latinx. Dawn did that. Ms. Garrett did that. Hope Chavez, Ulises Alcala, Donna Simone Johnson, Kirsten Childs—so many people on the creative team and staff did that for all of us. So when I entered the space every day, there was no obligation to define Blackness, no obligation to excuse it or hide it, no looking to me alone to reflect on cultural accuracy because we all inherently carried it with us into the room and allowed it to be what it was on stage with us. We just got to be the artists we are. That’s the dream.
Question: You also mention Ulises Alcala, who received an MFA costume design from UMass in 1995. (He currently serves as OSF's production manager as well as continuing his costume design career.) Did you know him before this? What was it like meeting up with 2 alums of the program from different times — did you find any common experiences?
Boatwright: I hadn’t met Ulises before, and I was so delighted to connect with him! He was in the program during Harley Erdman’s first years on campus, and Harley and I have known each other for ages so it felt like a nice little full circle moment. It’s funny—I said to both Dawn and Ulises at different moments, “my grand plan is to do exactly what I’m doing—teach at UMass, and then freelance at other theaters from time to time, just like this!” And they both looked at me and said, “that was my plan too.” They both ended up primarily on the West Coast, and they’re doing amazing work and refusing to let go of the art even if the admin end has to come into play. Ulises is still costuming in addition to producing at OSF, and just worked on our mutual friend and UMass guest lecturer Liz Duffy Adams’ show Born with Teeth (which goes up at OSF next season!); Dawn will be directing at OSF again next season, and I just saw some of her work in New Haven too. Watching them in action, seeing how all things somehow connect, it feels reassuring to know that even if my scheme of, say, slowly moving into Prof J’s (Judyie Al-Bilale) office and morphing into her doesn’t pan out, there’s so much world for me out there.
Question: You’re associate-directing our fall production of The Hatmaker’s Wife — are there elements of your work with Dawn that you expect to put into practice for that project and beyond?
Boatwright: Absolutely! Dawn creates community agreements to start a process,¬ and they live in the space for the duration of the production—it is part of the way she keeps a space sacred, joyful, and safe. I asked Gina (Kaufmann, the play's director) if we could use that model with our own agreements, and so far it has really informed the way we all interact and think about the show and ourselves as artists. And I already notice myself thinking about physical space more in the rehearsal process, as well as ways in which we can care for each other and ourselves. Dawn also loves fun, irreverent, meta moments—who else could successfully make Shakespeare accessible by incorporating Captain Crunch and Beyoncé?—and I find myself thinking more creatively about those kinds of options. Those are the concrete things. But it feels like what I’ve learned from Dawn and what she’s given me is wildly indescribable and ethereal; because of the road that Dawn has paved, because of how she lightly held me and encouraged me, I now walk into a space knowing, unequivocally, that I belong.