How Director Dawn Monique Williams '11G is Removing Barriers of Access to Theater
Thursday, September 14, 2023
Thursday, September 14, 2023
Dawn Monique Williams 11’G is a freelance director, choreographer, educator, leader, creator, and self-described lover of language, musical theater, and Shakespeare. She also recently became a two-time UMass Amherst alumna, where she serves on the College of Humanities & Fine Arts Dean’s Advisory Council.
She earned her Master of Fine Arts (MFA) through the Department of Theater’s Directing Program in 2011, and she recently completed an online certificate in Film Studies through the Bachelor's Degree with Individual Concentration program.
But long before either of those programs, there was a little girl who loved theater.
The Performance That Blew Her Away
Williams was raised in California—first in Oakland, then Berkley—by parents she describes as both working class. Though they weren’t really a “theater family,” she remembers dancing and singing from around the time she was six years old.
“I knew from an early age that I wanted to do theater. I feel very fortunate in that,” she says.
Growing up, her mother worked at a radio station that would often give away promotional tickets to upcoming plays, performances, and concerts. If the prize winners didn’t retrieve their prize, the items were then given to staff, including Williams’s mother.
That’s how she got her first taste for live theater.
Particularly memorable was a touring performance of The Wiz, the hugely successful 1974 Broadway musical that reimagined the classic 1900 children's novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. At the time, The Wiz was touring with R&B singer-songwriter Stephanie Mills as Dorothy, a role for which she would go on to win seven Tony Awards.
The show blew Williams away.
“I really just remember thinking, ‘I want to do that.’ I didn’t even know what ‘that’ was,” she says. “But there was singing and dancing, and there were people dressed in costumes playing the yellow brick road. And all the people were Black. That was the wildest thing.”
Her love of theater blossomed through elementary school, where she acted in plays, and in junior high, when she enrolled in her first acting class. By high school, Williams was a dedicated drama kid, as well as an active member of the Berkley High cheer team, which offered her ample opportunities to dance and perform.
“I did all the plays and musicals. I hung out with other drama kids,” she recalls. “I just knew all throughout high school that that’s what I wanted to do.”
From West Coast Actor to East Coast Director
Following graduation from Cal State, Williams began to build a robust theater career. She also became a mother to her daughter, Jordan, and earned her master’s degree in dramatic literature from San Francisco State University. Next, she hoped to become a director.
To do so, Williams briefly considered pursuing a PhD, until she realized there were MFA programs for directing—like the one at UMass Amherst.
By this time, Williams was already familiar with the university. She had worked with alumnus Ulises Alcala ’94G at Cal State, and knew of Priscilla Page, assistant professor of dramaturgy in the UMass Amherst Department of Theater.
“Because I had a small child at the time, it put parameters on what I could do,” she explains. “What felt important to me, as someone who was already in their thirties with a small child, was that I wasn’t uprooting my life for any old thing. It was important for me that the faculty wherever I went would include people of color or women directing. At the time, there were only seven schools on my list, and UMass was one of them.”
So, she began to discuss the UMass Amherst MFA Directing Program with Graduate Program Director and Professor Gilbert “Gil” McCauley.
Once professional theater director Gina Kaufmann joined the university’s faculty, the program seemed to suit all of Williams’s needs.
“I had the great benefit of having [Gil] as my mentor. I can’t say enough about what it means to have had my thesis advisor to be another Black theater director. Gina made it so that the feminine was also present,” Williams says. “I had applied to Yale, Brown—top conservatories—and I got into a couple of places. But I really chose UMass because of Gil and Gina; because it was a fully funded program; and because it was in an area where my daughter could still live a regular life.”
Williams and her daughter packed up and moved from the sunny Bay Area to rural Amherst, Mass., to embark on the next phase of life.
Williams had a chance to flex her directing skills almost immediately.
“In some of the bigger programs, you may be directing but you’re directing studio projects and you may not get resources,” Williams explains. “At UMass, most of the shows I was directing were fully resourced. I think it’s because UMass serves an undergrad population, so the undergrads and grad students have a symbiotic relationship. With UMass, I had so many opportunities.”
She grew as a director, graduated with a portfolio of work that made her proud, and even created meaningful connections with faculty who are still very much a part of her life.
“Gil, Gina, and [Professor] Harley [Erdman] continue to be references for me, well into my career now, while Dr. Priscilla Page is like family,” Williams says. “It was everything.”
Removing Barriers of Access in Theater
As Williams transitioned from the acting to directing space, she returned to an early love: Shakespeare.
Though she admits she wasn’t always a fan of the famed playwright, she became “avaricious about Shakespeare” in college after being cast in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
She says she loves how “muscular” his texts are, how dense the language can be, the poetic diction, the messiness, and how each play feels open to interpretation. Williams reimagines these well-known plays—which she notes have been historically white, cis, and male—to create contemporary versions that invite audiences in and ultimately make them feel more inclusive and accessible.
To achieve this, Williams makes use of pop music (80s hits are a favorite), costumes, and set designs that feel familiar—effectively “relying on our own iconography,” she explains. “It removes barriers of access. It helps us see ourselves more readily in the work.”
Though she acknowledges some Shakespeare purists might not appreciate her perspective, Williams argues Shakespeare would.
“Shakespeare didn’t care about historicity. He was appealing to his contemporary audience through topical references, inside jokes, low-brow humor,” she says. “I think he would approve of us taking these plays and creating them in ways that resonate with new audiences. So, I ask myself: What can I offer to a fifteen-year-old Black girl in English class who is not getting Henry III as it’s written?”
The Road Back to UMass
By 2020, Williams had done a little of everything in the theater world. She had directed a wide range of plays, such as August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson, and Lynn Nottage’s By the Way, Meet Stark; had representative credits in the English language premiere of Gracia Morales’ NN12, Othello, Twelfth Night, In the Blood, Steel Magnolias, Children of Eden, The 25th Annual Spelling Bee, Little Shop of Horrors, Burial at Thebes, Medea, and La Ronde; and earned honors such as the Theater Communications Group Leadership U Participant, Oregon Shakespeare Festival Killian Directing Fellow, and Drama League Directing Fellow.
Then the pandemic hit. The theater world shut down. Williams was furloughed, and she could no longer make plays.
“I had that existential crisis,” she says. “There was a period of time where I just thought it was over.”
In time, Williams found new ways to present her work, directing productions virtually, and even filming one of her plays, which introduced her into the film world.
“I had never considered myself a filmmaker. But, as the director of a play that was being filmed, I had to work with a cinematographer and think about things differently. I had to consider ‘the shot’ and think of the cameras, the virtual backgrounds,” Williams explains. “I thought, ‘I need to know this vocabulary so I can have these conversations with greater fluency and ease.’”
That thought lingered in the back of Williams’s mind when, in fall 2021, she was invited back to UMass Amherst to direct the theater department's production of Dance Nation by Clare Barron. She flew out to Amherst to direct—and teach—her first live audience since before the pandemic.
“I was back in the UMass community, and I was feeling good. It was a homecoming in so many ways,” she says.
When Williams learned of the university’s online Film Studies certificate program from one of her students, everything seemed to click into place.
“The classes were asynchronous so I could do that on my own time. I said, ‘Let me take this one class during the winter term,’” she explains.
One class became two, and soon, Williams was learning from accomplished filmmakers from across the world—all while juggling her own national theater gigs and teaching in California as an adjunct professor.
“I’m having a really good time,” she says. “Because of this film certificate, I have learned that vocabulary like I wanted to do, and I’ve made a couple of short, experimental pieces. . . . I’ve grown a lot in having to do my own personal research."
Now, Williams says, she’s interested in continuing her education in film.
“UMass, once again, just opened the door for me,” she says. “To start with one UMass class and then have that experience and build on it has been really incredible.”