People to Know / Punch Profiles : Meridith Burkus, Managing Director at Studio Theatre

Women's Voices Theater Festival Launch Party
Back row (L to R): Edgar Dobie, Executive Director/Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater; Molly Smith, Artistic Director/Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater; Eric Schaeffer, Artistic Director/Signature Theatre; Michael Khan, Artistic Director/Shakespeare Theatre Company; Paul R. Tetreault, Director/Ford’s Theatre Front row (L to R): Ryan Rilette, Producing Artistic Director/Round House Theatre; Meghan Pressman, Managing Director/Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company; Meridith Burkus, Managing Director/Studio Theatre; Howard Shalwitz, Artistic Director/Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company

 By Punch Contributor Melinda Contreras 
The Women’s Voices Theater Festival, a collaboration between more than 50 of DC’s professional theaters who have joined together to highlight the scope of new plays being written by women, and the range of professional theater being produced in the nation’s capital, if officially underway. The idea for the Festival came from a meeting among the artistic directors of seven theaters: Arena State at the Mead Center for American Theater, Ford’s Theatre, Round House Theatre, Shakespeare Theatre Company, Signature Theatre, Studio Theatre, and Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company. Prior to the official launch party for the Festival, which will run through the end of October and also feature dozens of special events, panels, workshops and readings, I chatted with Meridith Burkus, Managing Director at Studio Theatre, to discuss her role as Managing Director, and the role of the Women’s Voices Theater Festival.
 I think it’s important for people to start to view DC as an important city in American theater, particularly in regards to putting new work into the repertoire.

Pamela’s Punch: Please share a brief educational/career background.

Meridith Burkus: I’m currently the managing director at Studio Theatre. I’ve been here for a year. My career has mostly been in the intersection of non-profit arts and culture and community development or community change. Before Studio Theatre I was working for an organization called StoryCorps, that uses the interview and oral history to capture the real stories of Americans and puts diverse voices into public media through NPR and PBS, as well as online, and then publishes the stories. Prior to that, I spent a long time at The Public Theater in New York, which is mostly known for developing new work for a variety of different voices as well as Shakespeare in the Park.

PP: You’ve been Managing Director for about a year. What has been your biggest challenge so far?

MB: The biggest challenge is that we are a very successful organization that was run by an amazing, dynamic founder. We are trying to sustain that success while also being innovative. Finding the appropriate balance between continuing prior success while adding some new programming, adding a different take on things, growing the institution in that way-that has been the biggest challenge.

I want Studio to be a place that people seek out to work because it will help them grow as a professional.

PP: What is the most rewarding part of your job?

MB: Getting to work on audience development, positioning Studio within the changing demographics of not just our neighborhood, but Washington, DC, and the country-being able to put interesting work on the stage and bring in non-traditional theater goers and people from all different walks of life. In the last year we’ve placed a lot of emphasis on getting younger audiences engaged in theater.

PP: What do you want to accomplish as Managing Director?

MB: I want Studio to be known as an incredible place to come and grow as an artist or an administrator. We have an emphasis on education, we were founded as a conservatory, and we train professional actors, but we also train early career theater artists through our apprentice program, and also emerging talent in writers and directors. I want Studio to be a place that people seek out to work because it will help them grow as a professional.

PP: Tell me about the Women’s Voices Theater Festival and why it is important for Studio Theatre to be involved.

MB: It was actually already announced as I was interviewing, which was really exciting. One of the reasons that I came to Studio Theatre was because David Muse had begun to develop new work. Studio Theatre had not had a play development program, and I had been involved in similar programs at The Public Theatre, so one of the reasons I was drawn to Studio was because they were doing that kind of work, not only giving different types of writers the ability to have the writing of their work subsidized by a commission, but also the potential to take it to production. For us, its really exciting because we’re not actually doing anything different this fall. We are producing a play that we commissioned, and we did that last year as well (and last year it was also a female). For us it’s just exciting that the city is becoming a place where more new work is being developed. Hopefully we can continue to give opportunity to new playwrights and show that it can be successful. We carved money out of our operating budget to start commissioning and did a little bit of seed fundraising, but we’ve just been able to make it an institutional priority and make that part of our programming. We hope that other theaters will see the merit in that-that you can continue to do what you are doing, but you can also add on opportunities for playwrights.

We should be at a point where we can simply do a new play festival, and we know there is representation from all types of writers.

PP: Tell us a little about the play and playwright represented by Studio during the festival.

MB: The play is called Animal, and it’s by a budding playwright Clare Lizzimore who previously had a career as a director. It’s exciting because this is actually only the second play she’s ever written. She had written her first play, was visiting Studio, and we thought, “She has a voice that is really interesting. Let’s have her write something for us.” What’s really exciting about the play is that it is part of our newly launched Studio X Programming.  It’s really engaging, complex, and it is something that has a secret in it, so I don’t want to say too much, but it is really taking a topic that is faced by a lot of women, that isn’t talked about, and it’s giving you a personal experience of what it might be like to walk in those shoes, which is what I really think theater, in its highest form, can do. It allows us to empathize with people’s stories and see how they walk through the world.

PP: Are there plans for the Women’s Voices Theater Festival to be a regular event?

MB: I know the original idea was that we should consider doing something on an annual or every two year basis, where all of the theaters work together in some festival type way, with some aspect of diversity, but not just male to female of plays and producers. We want to be sure that we can go through this successfully and see what the results are. I think everyone is open to repeating this, but we are just really excited that an idea that came about from a small group of people a few years ago is about to take over the city. The hope is that there will be no need for a Women’s Voices Theater Festival, because we won’t have a gender parity issue on our stages. We should be at a point where we can simply do a new play festival, and we know there is representation from all types of writers.

PP: What excites you most about the Women’s Voices Theater Festival?

MB: The festival is a great way to see what’s happened here in terms of the theater community. I moved here from New York and I had no idea how expansive the arts community here was, and how we have theaters of every different budget size, from small theaters, almost in an art gallery, all the way to the Kennedy Center, and everything in between. You have as many diverse art spaces, stylistically, as you would in New York or Chicago, and lots of people don’t know that. There is also such an eclectic offering of plays. We have everything from new musicals, to children’s musicals, to comedies, and everything in between. Every type of theater you could be interested in, you will probably find. You’ll probably find at least a few plays that you want to see and I think it’s important for people to start to view DC as an important city in American theater, particularly in regards to putting new work into the repertoire.

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