April 1, 2014
By R. J. Donovan
Special To The BIR
As a writer, director and arts administrator, Dawn M. Simmons wears a lot of hats. For the past nine years she has been director of programs at StageSource, the respected non-profit that provides leadership and services to advance the art of theater in the Greater Boston region.
Among its missions, StageSource is dedicated to increasing cultural participation through advocacy, communication, and education.
This month, however, Dawn finishes her run at StageSource to become marketing and events director at historic Old South Meeting House at Downtown Crossing. On her own time, she is also artistic director of New Exhibition Room theater company.
The Buffalo native, who traces her Irish roots back through her mother’s grandfather, first came to Boston to attend graduate school at Boston University. While she was here studying, she was offered a prime opportunity with the Irish Classical Theater Company back in Buffalo. Having admired the group for a long time, she said to herself, “I’m never going to get this again. I need to take this job.”
With the theater presenting a program of Irish, American, and international classics, she said, “I wound up house managing part-time and being an administrative assistant part-time. And I was as able to work my way up to special assistant to the artistic directors.”
Although she had a great experience and eventually became the company's resident assistant director, she knew she would need to move on if she was going to advance herself professionally. So when a job opened at Merrimack Rep in Lowell, she jumped on it and returned to Boston.
Over the years, Simmons’s theatre directing has taken her to The Theatre Offensive, The Boston Theatre Marathon, Fort Point Theatre Channel, Actors' Shakespeare Project, Company One, and Boston Theatre Works, among others. She’s also a founding member of The Small Theatre Alliance of Boston.
Her interest in writing began in high school. She then studied playwriting at The University of Buffalo where an instructor suggested she try adapting an established work. “I didn’t love it” she said, “but it was really great practice . . . I think the first thing I was trying to adapt – and I don’t know why I was doing it because it had already been done – was ‘The Sun Also Rises’ . . . (I thought) ‘How can I take this epic and make it into a play? . . . That’s the hubris of someone in college,” she said laughing. “ ‘I’ll take this and I can make it better.’ It was fun, but I thought, there’s a different style or something else that I should be doing. So I started trying to write original things,” she said.
“You get this thing from all of your playwriting professors where they say, ‘Stick with what you know.’ I think what they thought I knew and what I actually knew were two different things. I am a black female from Buffalo,” she said, “and I think a lot of my writing teachers thought I lived a certain kind of existence and were looking for me to write a certain type of story. But, being a black female from Buffalo, I actually grew up in the suburbs.” She laughed, saying, “My experience is a little more varied than you might think.
“I am very influenced by movies, which is probably sacrilegious for a playwright to say. But I love a good B movie. I am a huge fan of John Waters. I’m a huge fan of Quentin Tarantino, who I think does B movies at an A movie level. So I’ve always tried to bring a bit of camp and over-the-top to the work that I do.”
Still, the stage remains her first love. “There is something about presenting in front of an audience and that interaction – that immediate interaction. I don’t think there’s anything like it.”
But unlike attending a movie, she said, “You’re not alone in the dark. You’re all experiencing the same thing. And good actors feed off of you. The energy you put out to them, they give back to you. I think it’s stunning. It’s different every night. It lives. It breathes. You don’t get that with film. I mean film is wonderful, and if somebody read a script of mine and said, ‘We want you to write for this TV show,’ I would probably jump. But I would also use whatever that money was to fund my theatre career.”
And now she’s on to her next challenge. Old South Meeting House, one of the nation’s most important historic sites, was where Boston colonists gathered to challenge British rule in the years leading up to the Revolution.
“What I really like about (Old South Meeting House),” Simmons said, “is that it’s really mission-driven. Much like StageSource being mission-driven and wanting to serve theater artists, the mission for this organization is freedom of speech and freedom of assembly.”
All of which blends nicely with her freelance theatre work, which she says has always been fairly political in nature. As New Exhibition Room’s mission statement explains: “Inspired by Boston’s revolutionary past, New Exhibition Room develops original and cheeky theatrical events with a local interdisciplinary ensemble. Our work celebrates play, incites dialog, and champions affordability.”
“We work with musicians, dancers, film artists and visual artists,” said Simmons, “to create new work. Again, it’s usually political in nature. Our first show took on free speech. Our second show took on the recession.”
Their most recent production addressed female reproductive rights. Next up, she said, is a show “about street harassment and ownership of women’s bodies in private and public spaces. That’s called ‘Smile.’ “
No matter where her 9-to-5 life may take her, Dawn says she “will absolutely keep my hand in theatre as a writer and director. My goal is to continue freelancing, which I’ve been fortunate to do quite a bit of. StageSource was my day job, working 60 some odd hours a week. I still maintained my theatre company and my freelance career. And (now with my) move to Old South Meeting House, I don’t see this being any different.”
R. J. Donovan is editor and publisher of onstageboston.com