Keep an Eye On: Dawn Monique Williams, Director
Tuesday, August 5, 2014
By Lily Janiak
"So I love Shakespeare," says the crackerjack young director Dawn Monique Williams. "And I think I'm obsessed. Sometimes I think I'm alone in that obsession, but then I meet people who are equally obsessed, and I don't know if I'm happy that I'm in a community of obsessed people, or if I feel a little bit sad that my love isn't the greatest love."
Dawn Monique Williams. Photo: Jordyn Williams
If her love isn't the greatest love (debatable), Williams at least ranks among those willing to proclaim her feeling on her body. (Her forearm is tattooed, "If music be the food of love, play on," from Twelfth Night.)
"I love Shakespeare because it's big, and it's messy, and it's epic, and it doesn't feel self-conscious," she says. "It doesn't feel mired in historical accuracy or historiography. He certainly could have used a dramaturg, right? But that's what I love about it. We get to do that work now. We have to wrestle with it. We have to figure out the logic. We have to look at the timeline and say, 'Wait a minute: Was it three days or three months, Shakespeare?'"
The Oakland native didn't always feel that way about the Bard. Her first love was dance, inspired by the touring Broadway production of The Wiz, which her mother took her to when she was in elementary school. But when as a Berkeley High student she realized professional dance wasn't in the cards, she made the switch to acting. "I hated Shakespeare when I was in high school with a fiery passion," she says. "It wasn't until I was given the text as an actor that I thought, 'Oh my goodness, I love the taste of these words. I love the muscle required to say these words, to make this clear, to have these thoughts.'"
Williams went to SF State and Cal State East Bay (called Cal State Hayward in her day) thinking she'd focus on acting. At Cal State in particular, the small department afforded her opportunities to act "almost nonstop" but also develop her interest in directing, which stemmed from assistant directing for her high school drama teacher, Diane McDonald. Studying nonrealistic forms of directing at Cal State cemented her transition out of performing. "I, as an actor, did not personally, in my work sculpting one role, make any sort of differentiation between realism, magical realism, the avant-garde. As an actor, I work with the text; I make up my backstory. My process was the same no matter what the director wanted me to do or where they wanted me on the stage. But as a director, I was much more excited by things that were not realism. As an actor, I'm very rooted in the psychology of it. But as a director, I cast actors who are invested in the psychology of it, and I'm interested in bigger worlds."
Her interest in those bigger worlds spurred her to get two graduate degrees, an MA from San Francisco State and then an MFA at UMass Amherst. Already as a graduate student, she was working outside of school, assistant directing at large theatres like California Shakespeare Theater and TheatreWorks. While almost all her assistant-directing experiences were "tremendous," Williams, with characteristic initiative and high spirits, converted the few "snoozers" into opportunities. "I taught myself to have my own agenda—not [one] that's counter to the work, but if you find that, 'Oh, the director doesn't use me,' that doesn't mean that you can't take your own notes and find an opportune time to ask the director questions about them."
It was also during graduate school that she started helming her own shows. (Don't believe her when she claims her time management skills are "the worst.") She's directed at the Edinburgh Fringe, Impact Theatre and Los Altos Stage Company. Most recently, perhaps representing one of the most schizophrenic schedules in theatre history, she directed Medea for African-American Shakespeare Company, immediately followed by James and the Giant Peach for Douglas Morrisson Theatre.
One of Williams's proudest accomplishments is being the Phil Killian Directing Fellow at Oregon Shakespeare Festival, where she assisted on two shows and will be returning next season as associate director on Antony and Cleopatra.
Her ultimate goal is to direct the complete canon of the man tattooed on her arm, which is important to her as both an artist and an advocate for artists of color and women artists. "Here's what I want. I'm really missing the presence of Woman's Will. I think my goal for myself is to have a classics company. It doesn't necessarily have to be all women, but certainly employing women of all shapes, sizes and shades to play all these big roles.
"I don't know how long I'm giving myself to do all this," she jokes.
But by now we know not to believe her self-deprecating jibes about time management.
Lily Janiak is listings editor for Theatre Bay Area. She is also a theatre critic for publications including SF Weekly and HowlRound.