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Willa Taylor showcases Goodman Theatre's original behind the script talents
by Melissa Wasserman
2014-08-11

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Goodman Theatre's Director of Education and Community Engagement Willa Taylor is a woman with a wide variety of projects. Whatever the project, social justice and education is always intertwined. On Aug. 11 and 12 at Goodman Theatre, Taylor leads the 8th annual General Theater Studies ( GTS ) showcase.

Taylor is well-known in the Chicago LGBT community, and is married to longtime Chicago feminist and LGBT activist and filmmaker Mary Morten.

Raised in Dallas, when the south was still segregated, Taylor live with her mother and father. Her grandparents lived down the street and while waiting for her parents to come home from work each day, she developed a close relationship with her grandmother, who she is named after.

"She had a very radical social justice streak, so a lot of my sense of justice and equity in the world were shaped by her," Taylor said of her maternal grandmother, who was a missionary and college history professor.

Taylor's interest in the arts began at a young age. During the school day, she had art classes and music classes everyday and gym class including dance. Attracted to the uniforms and half-time shows, she took to the band where she played clarinet and then percussion upon getting braces. She still plays piano and blues harmonica, she laughs, "badly, but enthusiastically." Her college days at University of Texas brought about her love for the theater in an unexpected way.

"I fell in love with the production and the technical side of theater," said Taylor. "I was never really interested in the acting and being on stage. Nobody ever really talks about the back of the house stuff and that to me is the most fascinating part of the job. To really be able to guide an audience emotionally because of the kind of lighting that you use and where you place it, or because of the color of the gel or because of how you use sound—that to me is just amazing."

Starting her work experience in the theater, she began as a stage manager and worked in the crew for both theater and concerts in Washington, D.C. In the '80s, Taylor explained, there was a push to have actors of color be capable of performing more than roles written specifically for actors of color. The New York organization The Non-Traditional Casting Symposium did workshops across the country and when the symposium came to D.C., the Martha Knight, Arena Stage's stage manager asked Taylor to work on that project.

"Zelda's [Fichandler, Arena Stage artistic director and co-founder] idea was that it wasn't enough just to have actors of color on stage if you had an all-white administrative staff," said Taylor of her mentor. "So, she had this idea of trying to develop a program that would train early career professionals of color in an intensive way and then get them placed into positions of administration and management. She asked me to develop that and run that program. It was a fluke of the fact that I was in the right place at the right time."

Making the transition into an arts education career, she established the Allen Lee Hughes Fellows, which is one of the first theater-run apprenticeships designed to increase participation of people of color in professional theater. Her career moved on to New York City's Lincoln Center Theater, where she created The Urban Ensemble—a multidisciplinary project focused on at-risk youth.

Her experience continues as she also consulted for New Victory Theatre where she designed the arts and education program for their inaugural season. Taylor credits Goodman Theatre's Student Subscription Series ( SSS ) as the model she used for the programs she established at Area Stage and Lincoln Center. The Student Subscription Series trains teachers how to use artistic practice to differentiate instruction and create authentic learning opportunities for their students.

"I believe in social justice work and I believe to those to whom much is given, much is required—not something subtly that I learned from my grandmother," she said of her passion to give back. "So, the responsibility that I have, not just in this job, but because of the privileges of my education and my life experience, requires me to open doors and make a way available for people who don't have that kind of access and privilege. That essentially is and has been my life's work. Here at the Goodman, that really manifests itself in a myriad in the kinds of programs that we run, the access we try to provide for people who may not necessarily think that the Goodman is an environment in which they are welcome."

That requirement she believes in to give back comes in different forms. Taylor has also served as cultural director for Gay Games IV in New York. For 12 years she was a Russian and Arabic linguist in the U.S. Navy. In that time she oversaw productions for the United Service Organization in Greece and managed Armed Forces Radio and Television in Turkey, where she conceived the "Profiles in Black" history series. Taylor also expanded into the culinary arts as she opened Taylor-Made Cuisine, a gourmet catering company and neighborhood bistro Home Café in Chicago. She also helped in opening and was catering chef for Chicago's EatZi's Easygoing Gourmet.

In her 7th season at Goodman Theatre, the education and community engagement programs Taylor manages at Goodman includes: GTS, SSS, Cindy Bandle Young Critics, Youth Art Council, GeNarrations, CONTEXT: Discourse and Discussion.

"That program is very special to me because you can see manifest how the arts can transform students and student voices," said Taylor of GTS.

The program draws in 80 Chicagoland teenagers for a comprehensive intensive designed to further critical thinking, literacy and storytelling skills. Taylor, along with teaching artists Bobby Biedrzycki, Kevin Douglas, Khanisha Foster, Tony Sancho and Paul Whitehouse introduce the 14-18 year-old students to theater using storytelling, ensemble building, object work and writing exercises in two three-and-a-half hour sessions per day, four days per week.

"GTS, without a doubt, is the best six weeks of my year," said Taylor.

GTS' 2014 showcase, "Heartscape," reflects the participants' ethnographic research with family, friends and members of their communities. The performance is built around the question, "When was a moment you had to fight for love?"

Since its launch in 2007, more than 600 students have participated in GTS. GTS is concurrent with InterGens, which involves 13 teens who have previously participated in the Goodman's education programs plus senior citizen participants of GeNarrations—they engage in a weekly storytelling session around the same theme of fighting for love. The groups will also perform a final piece at the Aug. 11 and 12 showcases.

"I would say the thing I'm most proud of is actually not programmatic, but philosophical," said Taylor. "That is sort of the whole-hearted embrace of the philosophy of inclusion and community that's woven into the fabric of how the institution performs as a whole. From the top down, from Bob Falls, who is the artistic director, and Roche Schulfer, who is the executive director, all the way down to all of the staff, everybody is committed to the ideas of diversity and inclusion and community in the work that we do. It's not something that I have to constantly explain; it's not something I necessarily have to fight for. It's very, very rare for an institution to really walk the talk around diversity and inclusion."

For more information, visit: www.goodmantheatre.org .


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