Name: Adrienne Dawes
Hometown: Austin, TX
Current Town: Tulsa, OK
Affiliations: Tulsa Artist Fellowship, Salvage Vanguard Theater
Q: How do you self-identify?
A: Mixed race, AfroLatinx, AfroLatina; my pronouns are she/her/hers.
Q: Tell me about Denim Doves.
A: Denim Doves is a dark comedy (with music) that I began writing in 2013 with Salvage Vanguard Theater in Austin, TX. The process began as a sort of “devised ensemble piece” but as the production grew, I moved from a performer-deviser role to sole playwright. The music in the show is composed by Erik Secrest (who is also an actor and originated the role of First Son) with lyrics by Cyndi Williams (aka the first First Wife).
The script is inspired by Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale but imagines a warped, old paperback copy that has been out in the sun next to a book of bad dick jokes. We use bawdy, silly, stupid humor as a sort of “Trojan Horse” into a much more serious conversation about intersectional feminism, fluid identities, and an oppressive government that considers female bodies as commodity. I wrote this play thinking it was a crazy dystopian feminist farce . . . and years later, it reads more like historical drama. It’s so creepy that what I thought was the most extreme, absurd version of this country now it makes perfect sense given the current administration. I keep reading the news and thinking, “Yeah, this is exactly how Denim Doves starts.”
I am so thrilled that Sacred Fools Theater in Los Angeles has given the play a second home. This production is an incredible opportunity and gives me hope for all weird, silly but also very serious plays that I want to write in the future. The West Coast premiere of Denim Doves opened at Sacred Fools Theater on January 19, 2018, almost a year from inauguration day. The Austin premiere was in January 2016. Remember how young and innocent we all were then?
Q: What else are you working on now?
A: I’m excited to start my first commission with Artist’s Laboratory Theatre; I’m putting together a writing packet for TV/film (I want to start knocking on those doors!); and I’m continuing development on a new performance piece titled Casta, inspired by a series of casta paintings by Miguel Cabrera. Casta paintings were a unique form of portraiture that grew in popularity over the 18th century in Nueva España that depicted different racial mixtures arranged according to a hierarchy defined by Spanish elites. Our collaborative team includes composer Graham Reynolds, director Jenny Larson, and translator-performer Jesus I. Valles. I was recently awarded a 2017 NALAC Fund for the Arts Grant to support 2 research trips this year to Spain and Mexico.
Q: What have been the defining moments of your journey as a playwright?
A: I was cast in a local production of Polaroid Stories my senior year of high school. I wasn’t like a “theater kid,” I was a painfully shy, nerdy writer who stumbled into performing because I wanted to understand the actor’s process. I learned so much from that experience, so much from the script (Greek mythology meets the stories/mythologies of homeless youth) and the ensemble-building process. I had no idea at the time (how could you know?!) but I had lucked into a pretty incredible room of people: Vicky Boone was our director (former AD of Frontera@Hyde Park Theater, now a busy film/TV casting director) and I performed alongside Jenny Larson (Salvage Vanguard Theater’s Co-Producing Artistic Director, currently in UBC’s MFA-Directing program) and Pam Ribon (writer for Moana, various TV shows, books, comics). I was sixteen years old and I thought, “How does anyone go back to high school after this? I’m just supposed to go back to organizing your prom?!?”
At Sarah Lawrence College, I studied playwriting and producing and really dug my hands into everything I could about theater. I wanted to learn ALL THE JOBS. I also found myself onstage performing stand up comedy in front of big audiences. Yeah. This is still me: Adrienne Dawes, supreme introvert. I think the practice of continually surprising myself and being open to new experiences has really helped me become a versatile artist. Whenever I’m coasting or getting a little too comfortable, I still like to ask myself “What else is there? What am I afraid of? What haven’t I tried? What shouldn’t I write?”
After college, I stopped doing comedy and really regretted it. It felt like I lost a huge part of myself, even though I know what scared me away. I used to go to open mics in NYC to scope out the scene. It was the early aughts and there were just shitty 2 drink minimum type comedy clubs (none of the cool music festival/backyard BBQ comedy shows we all love now). I’d go to shows and there were never any women onstage and barely any people of color. Whenever someone got onstage, the host would immediately make some lazy, misogynist, demeaning joke as part of their introduction and I just felt like, “Fuuuuck NO. I don’t need this! This is already so hard!” I still hate how much it scared me away . . . so rather than pursue a stand-up career, I decided to move out to Chicago and take writing classes at Second City. When I very quickly realized their mainstage shows do NOT employ writers, I started taking improv classes . . . which lead me to studying musical improv, which opened up a whole new world of songwriting and musical comedy. I kicked so many fears to the curb during that period of my life. I look back now and am like, “How did we do that? We improvised entire musicals with 14 people onstage, never rehearsed it once, also you are not a singer?!?!” I was learning to fail, learning to tell funny stories with music, and learning to give zero fucks about how stupid I look and sound onstage.
The second time I got rejected from graduate school has to join this list of formative moments. I tell you: I was HEARTBROKEN. I was so sure that after a few productions and publications of my work, after all the self-guided learning and exploring in Chicago, PLUS SOME BAD ASS REFERENCE LETTERS, I’D BE IN. And I was not. I returned home to Austin, returned to live in my mother’s house (conveniently around my 30th birthday, thx Saturn’s Return) and I basically felt like a huge failure. And I just sat with it. For a long, long time. I read books about failure, I wrote about failure. I was just IN IT for awhile until I accepted that my path was going to look different. I focused on finishing my play “Am I White” about a Neo-Nazi terrorist who tries to bomb the Holocaust Memorial and fails. Later, when his biracial identity is revealed during his trial, it’s another huge failure in terms of the identity he has built for himself. He can no longer pass as White. He must confront his mixed-race heritage, his troubled family history and his complicated romantic relationship with a younger woman.
My failure(s) helped me finish that play and eventually the script got a production with Salvage Vanguard Theater, won various local awards and received an honorable mention in The Kilroy’s 2015 list. The success of that production opened the door for the first production of Denim Doves and around that time I began directing and producing my own comedic projects as Heckle Her Productions. My sketch shows toured to Chicago Women Are Funny Festival, Dallas Comedy Festival and held court at home at Out of Bounds and Austin SketchFest. I won an award for Outstanding Direction of a Comedy for Doper Than Dope (In Living Color, 90s-inspired sketch show) and was nominated for Outstanding Direction in the Musical Theatre category for Love Me Tinder (a musical sketch show). All of the above never would’ve happened if I was in grad school.
I am currently in my second year of a full-time fellowship with Tulsa Artist Fellowship in Tulsa, OK where I have time and space to focus solely on writing. I’ve been able to develop an original TV pilot script, revise older work (in this administration, you must), and write some newer short plays. They’re all super dark political comedies. I call em “Black Black Mirrors.”
Q: Who have been your playwriting mentors and heroes?
A: Suzan Lori Parks, Naomi Iizuka, Dael Orlandersmith, Vicky Boone, Jenny Larson, and Christine Farrell are all big sHeroes. I’ve learned a lot about writing plays from sketch, improv, and stand up comedy; from the visual arts, modern dance and music . . . there are a lot of teachers . . . everywhere.
Q: What advice do you have for Latin@ playwrights at the beginning of their career?
A: You have permission to be a writer, to write in your own voice, in your own style, for your own people. Learn how and when and where you write best – is it a crowded coffee shop, is it at home, is it at the library? Schedule regular writing time/office hour time for yourself and show up. Keeping showing up. Invite friends/collaborators to join you if you need the extra accountability. Find a full-time job that either gives you lots of access to interesting stories/people or comes with lots of flexibility with your schedule. Stay focused on your own path, whatever is going on with your peers/idols/mortal enemies has nothing to do with your path. Invite generosity at every opportunity within your process. Make some friends outside of the theater community; show up for artists of color working in other mediums (how do THEY play with time, space, scale, history, movement, and text?). Whenever someone compliments your work, at minimum, say thank you. It takes some time getting used to giving and receiving critical feedback. If you get a note you don’t like or agree with (or from a person you dislike), just smile and write down ONE thing in your notebook. One takeaway. One observation. Anything. It can be “Remember to PU dry cleaning.” Just let that person know you received the note, you received something and then walk away. Text your best (non-theater) friend about it later. Please use GIFs.
Also: You do not have to live NYC, Chicago or Los Angeles if you don’t want to. This question always comes up and the answer is always: go where you are loved.
Q: What else should we know about you?
A: I’m a huge nerd. I’m a Virgo-Virgo-Aquarius and it matters. I don’t eat avocados or shrimp, let’s try to have a civil conversation about it on social media: @heckleher
***For more on Adrienne Dawes, see:
- Adrienne Dawes’ Personal Website
- “Women We Love: Adrienne Dawes” – Mikela Floyd and Ramona Flume (Austin Monthly)
- “Adrienne Dawes” – Kerri O’Malley (Babesquad)
- “ESSENCE Network: Austin’s Comedy Scene Is Pretty White, But This Black Woman Is Changing That” – Alexis Reliford (Essence)