In this 3-part series, PerformInk takes you inside Unicorn Theatre’s PROJECT DAWN through blog posts written by people behind the scenes. To read past “Inside” articles click here.
By Mary Allison Joseph, Dramaturg
Project Dawn has everything I want to explore in my art: diverse women (so. many. WOMEN!), a look at systemic oppression, bold attempts to right society’s injustices, and spotlights on some of communities’ most marginalized members. Stepping into the shoes of dramaturg for this production seemed an enormous responsibility. Perhaps it was the play’s seamless alignment with what I want to tackle artistically. Perhaps it was an awareness of my privilege and that of the playwright. Perhaps it was my long history in the nonprofit sector. Perhaps it was all of these reasons and others I don’t even know yet. What is clear to me, however, is that from the beginning, I felt the societal importance of this work.
In preparation for first rehearsal, I spent days on end researching sex work: trafficking and pimps, survival sex, prostitutes’ physical, mental, and sexual health, the effects of criminalization and cycles of arrests, the ways in which society talks about prostitutes, and attempts at addressing the sex industry, including Project Dawn Court, upon which Project Dawn is based. I began by researching sex workers’ health outcomes, and these first few days of research were slow, dark, and intense. Eventually, however, I came upon narratives that prioritized prostitutes’ extraordinary ability to survive, and these research discoveries fueled and motivated me right up through my presentation at first rehearsal, in which I could finally share the heaviness and responsibility of this work with our dedicated cast and crew.
Shortly after the high of first rehearsal, however, I found myself with the mostly solitary task of writing the program essay. Different than the rehearsal room, where my research and presentation could serve as small sparks of truth to fuel the director and actors’ creative endeavors, the program essay is permanent and public. After all of my research, I had acquired different views that left me conflicted about the play. Could I even write a program essay when I felt so uncertain? I struggled to find something definitive to say, without any spoilers, that I could sign off on 100%, and so my first draft was a retreat behind the security of statistics. This first draft was safe and solid, but it was also incredibly dry and boring. The revision process was painstaking, but by the time I submitted a final draft, I had whittled my essay down to a couple of key truths that I both wholeheartedly believe in and see as connected to Kansas City’s reality.
After submitting the final essay, I experienced a sense of relief that allowed me to realize, oh my goodness! This feeling of being conflicted and uncertain is a most productive state to inhabit, and this is exactly what theatre can create so well. I thought I already knew this, but I now know it better: a play is not a definitive appraisal of any issue, but rather it is an inconclusive and expansive offering. A play is a lifting up and holding out, in the light, of a nebulous mass. By the time I attended our design run on January 14, relieved of my own pressure and benefitting from the work of our talented cast and crew, I could experience Project Dawn instead of just contend with it. I sat with the characters and absorbed the heart-wrenching stories. I laughed heartily, cried deeply, and I held this complicated, beautiful offering.
Mary Allison Joseph is a student in the M.A. program in Theatre at UMKC, where she was recently awarded a grant to support her thesis project, Curating Contemporary Chilean Women Stage Directors. She has over seven years’ experience in Latin America, having studied dance and theatre in Brazil and researched folk music with a Fulbright grant in the Dominican Republic. She holds a B.A. in Spanish from the University of South Carolina and is fluent in Spanish and Brazilian Portuguese. Local Credits: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (KCRep). Regional Credits: Lost in Yonkers (Corbin Theatre).