Finding Each Other after an Earthquake: Reflections on the LMDA’s Dramaturging the Phoenix Project


In April 2020, inspired by the Dramaturgs’ Network’s Invisible Diaries blog, the Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas (LMDA) asked their members to contribute short essays to boldly inspire, provoke, and explore theatre’s potential to transform through a global crisis. Dramaturging the Phoenix (DtP) challenged writers to imagine the “radical dramaturgy” that will lead theatre and performance into the next year, decade, and century. What ideal theatre-making will heal the communities, nations, and the globe during the long recovery ahead? How can dramaturgical imagination and practices shape the theatrical phoenix that will rise? Lourdes Guzmán González reflects on her experience in joining the DtP team.


This presentation was part of The LMDA Presents: Dramaturging the Phoenix – a Special Edition session of the Dramaturgs’ Network’s 20th-anniversary symposium, d’n20: Celebrating Dramaturgy on 20th November 2021. The panel comprised Ken Cerniglia, David Geary, Lourdes Guzmán González, and it was chaired by Lynde Rosario.

 

My name is Lourdes Guzmán González and I am a Mexican freelance dramaturg. I live in Tlalpan, a borough in the South of Mexico City. I joined the Dramaturging the Phoenix organizing team in August 2021 and I feel very lucky to have the chance to share this experience with colleagues from all around the world thanks to the Dramaturgs’ Network’s invitation.

I believe in being prepared, in having the chance to choose, to plan in advance, to change my mind and use a different strategy than the one I thought worked best, to review, to ask for somebody else’s opinion…but the pandemic shook us all and erased these options for a while. Who was prepared for an experience like this one?

The Dramaturging the Phoenix initiative, just like almost everything in LMDA, is made up of voluntary contributions from many of the organization’s members. Its initial aim was simply to keep in touch and to offer something to colleagues who had just lost their jobs. I have the impression that it all began as an “Is everybody ok?”, more or less in the way we ask after an earthquake, just to make sure everyone around us reports. The original call asked for essays but received many different kinds of answers, which I like to call reflections, based on the situations that people in the United States and Canada were facing.


Heather Helinksy, one of the founders of Dramaturging the Phoenix, recalled its origin during one of our recent planning meetings. She said the team wanted to offer something specific to the membership: “How can we retain you?” The clarity of this need urged me to engage and to try to bring the conversation forward. For some members of the original Phoenix team, isolation brought a need for community but also continuous challenges. They found out they could have a really profound impact by working one on one, that peer-editing and organic mentor-matching generated connection. They became committed to reaching out to folks in the hope that DtP could be the right project for the right moment, and by doing this they gained strength for themselves. The aim was also to encourage the participants to share a positive view, to value what was still left and imagine new options to make performing arts’ permanence possible.


At school, I mean my own college, my closest peers and I felt encouraged to try to never say ”no” to the challenges we faced, so we usually managed to accomplish whatever we had agreed on, even if we had to adapt things around us or ourselves. I felt prepared not just for theatre or for work in general, but for life, and I couldn’t be more thankful for it. I was formed this way, but I also still choose to keep doing things like this. Theatre has strengthened me and helped me deal with fear and uncertainty like nothing else has. Starting to study theatre taught me “to dare to” from day one.


LMDA has kept challenging me. In dramaturg Brian Quirt’s words, “whenever I can, I try to keep raising my hand when someone asks for volunteers”. Despite the distance, technical complications, the fear of not being capable enough, and of course the language, I have happily had the chance to engage in several LMDA projects. This one may be the best fit.


During the Dramaturging the Phoenix’s presentation at the 2020 LMDA conference, a selection of some of the essays was featured. Thanks to the video session archives, I know the panelists quoted fragments that had stuck with them. The titles by themselves (The unessential of the unessential professions, by Heather Helinsky; The Harder Disease to Beat, by Nicholas Horner; or Our Turn to Witness, by Kristin Johnsen-Neshati) are enough to touch fibres and move feelings if one is receptive enough.


At that time I couldn’t yet engage. My first real approach to the program was in January 2021, when my Mexican colleagues and I received an invitation to participate as part of LMDA Mexico, the most recent LMDA region, which was yet to be launched. Three of us had the chance to attend.


As a panelist I was surprised to find unexpected members in the session and new and friendly practices. People from all over the world gathered to listen to what a small group had to say. We barely had enough time to point out and discover some ideas together and we left wanting to stay a little longer to exchange more experiences and opinions. When the forum was over, we were willing to reunite and to get to know each other for real. A bond had just been born.


During this year’s LMDA conference, there was a small intervention in June 2021 which then reminded the attendees that the program was still going. After the conference, I again had the chance to get close and finally get involved in the planning of DtP activities. Since the beginning of my involvement in DtP, I have felt I am improvising because I usually get involved in projects right from the start and catching up is hard for me. I have often felt a little adrift, to be honest, but also supported and warmly embraced. The excellently structured organization the Phoenix team has is very helpful with this and I love to dive into the recordings, the drafts of previous calls and announcements and all the extraordinary material they have put together in about a year and a half.


As sessions went by, I discovered Phoenix does not have one single leader, but several volunteers who meet regularly in order to plan the presentations of the reflections we get, so that there is continuity and a permanent follow up, someone always available to hear out whoever wants to express something so they can have a space to do it amongst colleagues. We reach out to everyone we can, both to invite them to share something the rest of the membership can benefit from and to keep our connection with our colleagues, to have an idea of how they are doing and if we can do something for them.


Right now, although there always are attendees, my impression is that we are all a bit worn out by the digital world but the influx is constant, something about this initiative keeps bringing people to our sessions. The essence has probably changed, but it still reunites us under common goals.


Since I first got to the planning sessions, I’ve been in charge of translating the information we share with our Spanish-speaking members because this summer LMDA Mexico was finally officially launched and LMDA has an interest in remaining inclusive for everyone who’s part of it. We want everyone to have the chance to join and participate. Accessibility needs (for example, closed captioning) are being contemplated and instituted for the Dramaturging the Phoenix program and other LMDA activities and programs in general, so we continuously take steps to make this happen.


The possibility of multiplying our bonds excites me a lot. We have the chance of allowing people who are very distant to accompany each other, to find similarities that can bring them closer, that may give them new friendships across the world, that can make them imagine international projects. By listening to others, we can imagine the possibilities we would like to experience ourselves. By simply having new bonds that stem from this, we all can become stronger, enriched, inspired, motivated, kept healthy. Together, we can survive and so can dramaturgy.


I am at a point in my career in which I can no longer identify myself as an early career dramaturg but I’ve yet to have the backup of a long and prestigious trajectory. I am aware that I still have so much to learn that sometimes I still feel like a beginner. Nevertheless, when I made my presentation for DtP back in January, I felt surrounded by equals, by colleagues who opened up and shared their vulnerabilities before all the attendees. Logging in to ask each other how we are doing, what we have been up to without pretending to force a brilliant epiphany, or an idea that will ignite ambitious projects but rather starting by asking each other a basic question we don’t usually do, “How are you?”, has paradoxically turned out to be a much more powerful detonator than the demands we could have made to each other workwise. Before asking “What is the best professional answer we could give to this situation?”, this team preferred to ask “What is the best human one?” and I’m thankful they did because it has been a relief, a breath of fresh air.


Another response after an earthquake, after finding out what others need, is to figure out how they feel if they’d like some company. We have been trying to keep people sharing their reflections on what is happening. Mostly, the call is to share “where we are at this moment”. Since the project has aimed to bring comfort, we have been flexible about our deadlines, but what could seem to be a sign of us not being serious on commitment, has actually ignited lots of more responses. It’s moving to see the excitement our members show when they receive the invitations. Even though we even offer the chance of sending drafts and works in progress that can be edited along with assigned partners, people usually express seriousness about their texts and say they will share them once they have reviewed their final versions.


Something invaluable about this team is that we give the comprehension that we may not be offered elsewhere in our lives, and this is healing. DtP requires a lot of work, but it’s always voluntary and sometimes, it seems no one can be there, yet there’s always someone who can “take one for the team” and save the day, to keep the Phoenix afloat. I believe this team is trying to keep hope alive for everyone in LMDA and so far it has succeeded.

I want to share with you something that I really like: I’m a huge fan of apocalyptic narratives, particularly the series The Walking Dead. I hated it when it first aired, but after I, for some reason, watched one or two episodes, I realized the story was much more about surviving and rebuilding communities, and therefore civilization itself, rather than anything else. It’s the story of a new start for mankind, and as a social psychologist, I couldn’t help becoming fascinated with the characters because, extremely different as they are, they portrayed impressively human fears, desires, beliefs, uncertainties but most of all hopes of somehow surviving. This story reminded me “we can make it together, but only if we make it together”.


For years, it has been clear for me that growing in every sense is a collective effort. These last two years, I have had more questions than ever but surprisingly I have accomplished more of my objectives as well. This has been because I’ve been permanently connected to my people, mostly to my colleagues, particularly dramaturgs who have accompanied me in the quest for new ideas to challenge adversity and shut-downs by figuring out ways to keep doing the things we love.


After the chaos of the earthquake is gone, we’re still left wondering lots of things, sometimes on our own, so another question comes up: “Would you like some company?” The Phoenix team managed not only to keep themselves and everyone around them connected and active, but also learning, aware, and positive. These last months I’ve had the privilege of being part of the Phoenix team, we have received guests who have spoken about topics I hadn’t even imagined (like Horrorturgy, dramaturgy in Role-Playing-Games or RPG, and the advocacy program involved with the #ispydramaturgy initiative), and we have finally started to receive reflections from Mexican dramaturgs. We are growing together. My lesson has been simple but straightforward: collaboration is the key to everything I may want to achieve. I think it might also be the key for others and it would be fantastic to try and see what happens. Thank you to the Phoenix team, the members who were part of it before me (Jess Applebaum, Ken Cerniglia, Linda Lombardi, and Lynde Rosario), the ones I currently have the privilege of working with (Russell Dembin, Heather Helinsky, Liana Irvine, Finn Lefevre, Anne G. Morgan, David Quang Pham, Deanie Vallone, and Martha Wade Steketee) and the ones who may come, and especially thank you to the Dramaturgs’ Network for today’s opportunity to reflect together.

 

Lourdes Guzmán González is a graduate in Psychology and Dramatic Literature and Theatre, both at UNAM. She has worked as a dramaturg in several stage productions since 2015. Amongst the most outstanding ones have been Conmemorantes by Emilio Carballido (2018, Difusión Cultural UNAM) and ¿A dónde va la luz cuando “se va la luz”? by Andrés Chávez (2019, Compañía 4B Teatro). Since its foundation in 2015 and until this year, she worked as an assistant director and dramaturg with Compañía Teatral Zazil. She was a member of LMDA’s 2020 and 2021 Conference Committees and is currently the Operational Manager of LMDA Mexico’s founding team. She participated in several encounters during 2020, like the colloquium Lo que la digitalidad ha revelado and the anthology Pensamientos para el fin del mundo by Teatro Entre las Piedras, Rebelión dramaturgista by Buitre Amargo, desde la escena and the conversatory Descubriendo la investigación en las artes escénicas by IESAEO. Together with Gabriela Aparicio, she currently coordinates LMDA Mexico’s Wiki Project and is venturing into theatre translation.



This is an edited version of a presentation made at The LMDA presents: Dramaturging the Phoenix – a special edition roundtable, part of the d’n20: Celebrating Dramaturgy on 20 November 2021, marking the 20th anniversary of the Dramaturgs’ Network.