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TBA Online: News & Features: February 2019

For A.C.T.’s New Director of Dramaturgy and New Works, There’s No Place Like the Bay Area

Monday, February 18, 2019   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Rotimi Agabiaka
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by Nicole Gluckstern

For Oakland native Joy Meads, taking classes at American Conservatory Theatre’s Young Conservatory was a wonderful way to gain confidence and find her own voice as a teenager. A theatre professional since college—and A.C.T.’s recently-hired director of dramaturgy and new works—Meads is thrilled to be able to now call A.C.T. her artistic home. 

Boarding the BART from the Berkeley to San Francisco, on her first day, brought up a sense memory of taking the train to her classes as a teen. Classes where she learned, among other things, the value of working in an ensemble—“to make something that was bigger than anything one of us could create on our own.” Seeing a production of Angels in America on Broadway at the age of 15, an experience she describes as “transformative,” cemented her love of the art form, by providing a vision of “radical empathy” and the courage to challenge the status quo.

Joy Meads. Photo courtesy of American Conservatory Theatre

This vision led her first to NYU, where she majored in Dramatic Literature and Theater History in 2001, and set her on her professional trajectory from Cal Shakes, to Chicago's Steppenwolf, to LA’s Center Theatre Group. Coming back to the Bay Area after being away for over a decade, for her, a triumphant homecoming. Especially considering that she’s landed at the theatre that made the most impact on her while growing up—from seeing her first play there, to those Young Conservatory classes where she fell in love with the process of theatre-making.

At A.C.T., Meads’ mission is to discover and champion the classics of the future. “We’re really living in...a golden age of American playwriting right now,” she asserts. Starting in her position after the first season with Pam MacKinnon as Artistic Director was announced, Meads was especially glad to see several plays that she’d pitched to her previous companies as part of MacKinnon's first season—Lynn Nottage’s Sweat and Jacklyn Backhaus’ Men on Boats in particular. 

“It felt very right for me to be stepping in here and be able to start with two plays that I had such profound affection for,” she relates. Of this first season—which also includes Edward Albee, Eugène Ionesco, Lauren Yee, and Mfoniso Udofia—Meads’ especially appreciates what she calls its “natural, unforced diversity.” 

“It’s not a ‘special program’ or initiative,” she further explains. “It’s normal. This is who we are.” 

It wasn’t just nostalgia for A.C.T. (or that first season announcement) that inspired Meads to apply. The opportunity to work closely with MacKinnon—who had just recently directed Amélie, A New Musical at Center Theatre Group—was also a draw. 

“I have the utmost admiration for her in terms of her mind and her values and her vision,” she says. "I knew one of things she’s interested in is building up the new work muscle [at A.C.T.], and that’s also really exciting to me.”

A voracious reader—who reads up to 500 plays in a year—Meads’ appetite for new and overlooked works led her and twelve co-conspirators to found The Kilroys in Los Angeles in 2013: a group of playwrights and other theatre professionals dedicated to broadening the visibility of plays written by female, trans, and non-binary playwrights with an eye towards achieving gender parity in the theater. The Kilroys have published lists of works they feel deserve to be produced and books of monologues and scenes for actors, inspired series of Kilroy-list specific readings, classroom lectures, and even instituted a program of “cake drops,” sending cakes to theatres they felt were producing seasons that represented the gender parity they were seeking to normalize. 

After a call for new Kilroys in Spring 2018, the original 13, Meads included, have taken on a more advisory role, though they were mostly all on hand to help host the 29th Annual Ovation awards in LA this past January. Bringing the case for gender parity right to the theatre professionals in attendance, the Kilroys distributed booklets and used baseball bats to smash giant boxes that spelled B-I-A-S, while also announcing the winners of Ovation awards.

In addition to her work with the Kilroys, Meads has publicly urged theatre-makers to examine their unconscious biases regarding gender and race when determining what plays to produce. In 2015, she penned an article for American Theatre Magazine detailing the mechanism of bias and how to combat it. Noting that what might be judged in young male playwrights as “potential,” is often termed “lack of experience” for young female playwrights, Meads emphasized the need for individual theatre-makers to confront their implicit biases in order to compensate for them.

Citing the culture of “art and activism,” present in the Bay Area, Meads is eager to continue her championing of under-produced work at A.C.T., bringing her years of experience as a literary manager, a dramaturg, and an advocate to her role. She’s also glad to be able to reintegrate herself into the Bay Area, both in and out of the theatre.

“I’ve traveled all over the country, and I’ve loved every place that I’ve lived,” she affirms. “But this is truly my home."

Nicole Gluckstern  is an arts journalist and theatre-maker in San Francisco. You can read her most current work in KQED Arts, or stalk her on twitter at @enkohl