Arts at Work III: Jocelyn Prince

" I started off in theater as a lot of people do, as an actor. I went to undergrad initially on an acting scholarship. And then I realized that I was the type of actor who was always in my head, always thinking and focusing on the background story of the character. " Above, members of the company of  Father Comes Home From the Wars, Parts 1, 2 & 3  by Suzan-Lori Parks, directed by Liz Diamond. Photo by Joan Marcus, 2018. Prince recently worked on the show. 

" I started off in theater as a lot of people do, as an actor. I went to undergrad initially on an acting scholarship. And then I realized that I was the type of actor who was always in my head, always thinking and focusing on the background story of the character. " Above, members of the company of Father Comes Home From the Wars, Parts 1, 2 & 3 by Suzan-Lori Parks, directed by Liz Diamond. Photo by Joan Marcus, 2018. Prince recently worked on the show. 

What do you do?

This is usually the first question I’m asked in new situations, when people want to know about my profession. The short answer is community outreach at Long Wharf Theatre, where I act as the Community Engagement Manager. But the long answer—and it’s much, much longer—often gives me pause.

 As an artist, arts administrator, producer, director, and organizer, it’s hard to distill that identity into a job description. No two days are the same on the job. And I hypothesize that’s the same for many in the field.

 As someone who is constantly asking “Why do this? Why choose the arts?” I wanted to dig a little deeper. This is the third installment in a series of interviews on the arts—fine, performing, culinary, and more—and their practitioners at work in New Haven.

Work is one of the central tenets of culture in America. This is an opportunity to get a look into the worlds of the people that make art happen in this city.

In the first installment, I spoke with cellist Ravenna Michalsen. In the second, I sat down with sculptor Kyle Kearson. If you haven’t read those, please go check them out. What follows is an edited version of the conversation I had with Jocelyn Prince, a local and relatively new to New Haven theater maker. This is what she had to say about her work. 

What do you do?

Photo courtesy Jocelyn Prince. 

Photo courtesy Jocelyn Prince. 

I’m the artistic coordinator at Yale Repertory Theater and I’m a lecturer in theater management at the Yale School of Drama, that’s my full-time gig. I’m also a part of Beehive Dramaturgy Studio, which is a dramaturgy collective based in New York. I serve on the board of directors of Collective Consciousness Theatre Company, which is a New Haven based multicultural theater company dedicated to using theater as a tool for social change. I also volunteer here and there with the Democratic Party.

That’s a lot of things! How did you wind up in New Haven?

I was working at Cleveland Playhouse and I took a leave of absence to work full time on the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign for 2016. We obviously lost that election—everyone got laid off and I needed a job. I knew I still wanted to work in theater, so I was continuing to apply for a lot of things. My partner is actually a student here at Yale, he’s about to graduate. So, it was a great way for us to come together. I was applying for theaters all over the country as well as jobs in public programming, jobs in foundations, jobs in activism. A variety of different types of jobs. And this is the one that worked out!

How many hours a week do you think you spend working?

Probably too many. Technically my job is 37.5 hours a week, which is a standard at Yale School of Drama. We work 10-6 p.m. In addition to that I probably spend at least another 15 hours a week on freelance and volunteer work. 

What does the freelance work look like?

For Beehive dramaturgy for example, we’re a collective of dramaturgs who work on everything from script consultations with individual playwrights to being dramaturgs in residence for new play development workshops to helping people come up with ideas on community engagement or public programming for a show they’re doing. 

For people who might not know—what’s a dramaturg? 

A dramaturg is an artist first and foremost. It’s definitely somebody who has a good knowledge of theater history, someone who is very interested and invested in storytelling and how an audience makes meaning in a theater. There are two types of dramaturgy, I would say. There’s production dramaturgy that’s for classic plays or established or well-known plays where your work as a dramaturg is more focused on production research and research into the world of the play. The cultural, socio-economic context of the play.

New play dramaturgy is helping the playwright work on things like character, structure, dialogue, language, theme, plot--all the elements that go into making a really good script. But not as an editor, not somebody who’s taking the script and proofreading it and making changes, but someone who’s collaborating with the director and the playwright and the actors and designers in a lot of cases as well to help create something that is brand new. 

What do you like about it? 

That’s a very good question. I started off in theater as a lot of people do, as an actor. I went to undergrad initially on an acting scholarship. And then I realized that I was the type of actor who was always in my head, always thinking and focusing on the background story of the character. 

Thinking is the worst, right?

Yeah—that’s what you’re not supposed to do. I had all this stuff in my head and I wasn’t that invested in expressing it through my body. I also didn’t like … I hated auditioning. I didn’t have this burning desire to perform outside of college.

I was attracted to dramaturgy because I like thinking about storytelling and I like thinking about cultural context and history and I love reading plays. I always thought of myself when I started as an actor’s dramaturg, because I liked helping actors create their character. At Steppenwolf [Theatre Company] I was the dramaturg on Intimate Apparel by Lynn Nottage. It was one of my favorite shows to work on because it was turn-of-the-century New York City. It was fascinating to work on how diverse the characters in that play are and what their world was like and what their daily life was like. What were the sounds and the smells and the sights? And what were the norms of the time? It’s like a living history. It’s history you might read in a book—literally being able to help make it come to life on stage. 

And you get to be an expert in so many different things at once.

Right. Somebody told me once that dramaturgy is about being a mini-expert on whatever topics are necessary for the play to have a good life.

What’s one of the weirdest things you’ve had to research? 

On this show, Intimate Apparel, I had to research birth control practices in the turn of the century New York, which were kind of horrifying. They were very rudimentary and not very effective. And not scientifically sound. You’re talking about a time before electricity. Because in the play there’s a woman who’s a prostitute in the tenderloin district, and she’s seeing customers during the play. So understanding what she would’ve been doing to protect herself, or guard against pregnancy, was important to that actor. That’s one of the things I had to look at.

That’s really cool. Working on plays as a dramaturg is like getting to float in and out of worlds on a really regular basis. Is that something you find, in your position now as an artistic coordinator, what kind of worlds are you floating between? You have to be kind of a chameleon to do both administrative work, and dramaturgy. 

Right now for Beehive I’m working on a play about the freedom riders that’s set in the South during the Civil Rights Movement. And then I worked on Father Comes Home from the Wars at Yale Rep, on the education program that we have in the world of the antebellum south in Texas. 

Artistic coordinator is, like a lot of theater jobs, a sort of amalgam of a lot of different responsibilities and tasks. As a part of my job I lead the “Will Power” program at the Yale Rep, which is for high school students and some middle school students. It encompasses student matinees, a study guide, a teacher tool kit and free teacher workshop for students bringing their kids to the show. Since I’ve been here, we’ve added costume workshops and technical tours for extended day for students who come to see the matinee. We have lunch with them and then they stay to meet our technical design and production department. 

I also do assistant line producing for the Binger Center for New Theatre, which is Yale Rep’s new play development center. We have a number of commissioned playwrights, and we continue to commission five or six new playwrights a year. We work with those playwrights to develop their work on a very tailored basis to the writer’s individual process. That involves planning and producing residencies, workshops--which we all run out of the artistic office.

We’ve also started to work on community engagement. We’ve spent a lot of time talking with the artistic director, the associate artistic director, marketing, communications and a lot of big picture conversations about how Yale Rep can engage more deeply with the surrounding community. I do some work on accessibility. I prepare things like the open caption script for people who are hearing impaired.

So what does a day in the life look like? You wake up, what happens?

I wake up, I read usually the New York Times and the Washington Post. I get to work at around 10 a.m. I look at all of the things I have to do as far as tasks and meetings. I plan out what my workflow is going to look like. Then the day is a combo of administrative work—updating budgets and expense tracking for programs that I’m running, doing financial paperwork to help pay artists or guest speakers who are coming in. 

Then meetings with teachers, local educators, meetings with internal staff as well. External meetings with people in the community. All of it is usually preparation for some sort of event or happening. Whether it’s a production, or a workshop, or it’s a residency. It takes a lot of planning and organization because there is so much multitasking in my job. I’m working on so many projects. 

Where do you find the art in your job?

I spent time in rehearsals. Earlier this year I spent some in the Father Comes Home rehearsals to prepare to help the teachers and students incorporate the play into their curriculum. It’s important for me to have a knowledge of what’s going on artistically so I can help translate it to that particular audience, or help engage that particular audience.

I get to read plays. I participate in the season planning process. I read scripts that are on the shortlist to potentially either commission a writer or produce them in our season. And I’m always reading the scripts we’re producing now.

I do a lot of writing, which I approach creatively and artistically. I’m working on writing and editing our teacher packet. I’m writing a mission and values statement for our community program. 

Circling back to my first question, when people ask you “what do you do,” how do you respond?

I would say I’m a theater artist and an activist. That’s how I look at myself. Some people say artivist. I’m a theater maker. I’m invested from a producorial level, as a dramaturg, as an administrator--in creating great theater. I’m very interested in social justice and social change. I’m always moving towards thinking about how theater can affect society in a positive way. That theater can lift up voices that can tend to be marginalized. That can tell stories that are often unseen. And to create and develop a sense of empathy. Which to me is the goal of theater--to see yourself reflected on stage, to see people not like you reflected on stage and just create a sense of human understanding and compassion.

Working at Yale Rep is excellent because the work we do is culturally relevant and we produce a diverse group of writers--not all theaters are like that.

I’m not just interested in any theater. I want my theater to be culturally relevant, to be of the sociopolitical time that we live in and that’s really speaking to what’s going on in our world--making the case for the relevance for theater in people’s lives. 

My last question—where do you hope this goes for you?

My work right now? Ultimately I’d like to be the artistic director of a theater. So that’s what I’m shooting for, what I’d like to have happen. It’s very difficult for a woman of color to do that. There’s currently no woman of color who runs a LORT [League of Resident Theatres] theater, or a major theater of any size. It’s hard to try to shoot for something for which there is no model or try to go somewhere nobody has gone before.  (Maria Manuela Goyanes was named Artistic Director of Woolly Mammoth shortly after this interview)

And the model is shifting.

Right. And a lot of those types of jobs are turning over so I remain optimistic. But I also know that the road is one that is not yet been traveled. Primarily because I would really like to to pick a season. Everywhere I worked I’ve had a hand in season planning and I’m ready to make my own. 

Is there an artist you’d love to program? If somebody who’s reading wants to read a play Jocelyn Prince recommends, what would you put on their reading list? 

Hard to pick just one. I really admired Chay Yew’s season at Victory Gardens. That’s the type of season. Something very diverse. Most plays produced in this country are still written by white men. The latest statistic I think I read is that three percent of the plays produced in America are written by women of color. That’s a shockingly low number. 

It’s not so much about what play. It’s more about point of view. Let’s give an opportunity for voices to be heard that aren’t a part of the hegemony. 

Any final words about working in the theater in New Haven?

New Haven is an amazing community. I didn’t know much about it when I moved here. All I sort of knew was Yale. The more I stay the more I’m falling in love with the community here. There’s a lot happening with art here--visual, performing. I think that there’s a very strong commitment in New Haven to social responsibility and societal issues. Given the large amount of non-profits and the number of smart, dedicated, hard-working people doing good work.