Taking Theater Into Their Own Hands: Interview with Jojo Ruf of The Welders

Jojo Ruf and The Welders / Teresa Castracane

Jojo Ruf and The Welders / Teresa Castracane

Among many other roles in local and national theater, Jojo Ruf is the Executive and Creative Director for an exciting new playwrights’ collective called The Welders.

Over the next three years, The Welders intend to produce a new play by each of their 5 members. At the end of that time, they will pass on the entire project to a different set of writers, thus ensuring the collective continues.

I sat down with Jojo to talk about DC theater, The Welders, and the state of new plays in our area.

Joanna Castle Miller: As Executive and Creative Director, what will be your role with The Welders?

Jojo Ruf: For each production, the playwright will serve as the artistic director and 2 of the other 5 playwrights will serve as the producers for that play. My role as executive creative director is to be the through-line for all 5 productions, including budgeting, dramaturgy, and audience engagement.

We’ll essentially have a new pairing of producers for each of them. We don’t want to reinvent the wheel every time.

JCM: How long has the group been in development?

JR: About 9 months. It’s been talked about for years and years, but at a certain point it became “lets stop talking about it and do it.”

JCM: The Welders is named for Cherrie Moraga’s poem (“I am the welder. / I am taking the power / into my own hands.”) Where is the power usually? How do playwrights lack the power?

JR: Traditionally in regional theater, the idea is that the literary manager and the artistic director are gatekeepers – which I think is a really awful term. Someone, somewhere is deciding what plays get produced on their stage, and there are any number of factors that go into it.

Some of it is the gender or the race or ethnicity of the playwright, or whether the play fits within the mission of your organization; but at the end of the day, this person decides whose plays get produced and whose don’t.

We’re essentially becoming gatekeepers in a sense, so I think it’s impossible for that to not exist within an organization. But we wanted to produce these 5 playwrights and stop the waiting game.

While development is really necessary – readings, workshops, etc – at the end of the day, productions are really important too.

JCM: Why don’t you like the term “gatekeeper?”

JR: I think it has a really negative connotation. I know time and time again that an artistic director will want to do a play, but it’s not about the worth of the play – it’s about fitting it in the season. It’s easy for anyone to criticize from an outside perspective.

The idea for Welders is that it’s not an either/or. It’s a yes, and. It’s in addition to the DC theater community.

JCM: What do you think the more established local companies could do to fix the power imbalance?

JR: One of the things we’re excited about is that we’re a group of playwrights from DC producing in DC. Playwright residencies are sexy right now – playwrights living within a community, telling the stories within those communities.

I think theater companies in DC are starting – certainly Theater J with Locally Grown, and others as well – but many regional theaters don’t have a high percentage of DC playwrights within their seasons. So I think that’s a start.

JCM: What do you think is the most exciting trend happening in DC theater right now?

JR: There’s a huge trend of new plays, which is super exciting. Gwydion just published the  percentage of new plays in DC. It’s relatively high.

Also, a consciousness of female playwrights is starting to make its way into the DC community. Gwydion, Renee, and Allie were the first three who came together and decided to do The Welders, and one of the things they said immediately was that there have to be more women than men in this organization.

JCM: Is that part of the group’s mission at this point?

It’s not in our mission, per se, but it’s something we’re definitely conscious of. We haven’t quite figured out how we’ll select the next group of playwrights. But I can tell you right now we will never choose a group of all male playwrights. It just won’t happen. We want it to reflect the playwrights in DC.

JCM: What might be holding DC theater back right now from being all it could be?

JR: Getting audiences to the theater that aren’t typical audiences – school-aged kids and the 20-30 year olds. Making sure the audience diverse is a real challenge.

I think many theaters look at The New York Times and see what’s popular on and off-Broadway and what’s doing well. Those ten plays are the ones they want to program in their season. And while I think it’s awesome that The Mountaintop came here and that Good People and Annie Baker’s plays come here, there’s interesting work that isn’t starting in New York, that’s making its way around the regional theaters across the US that won’t appear in The New York Times.

JCM: If you could give DC playwrights who are starting out any one piece of advice, what would it be?

JR: Keep writing. Don’t be afraid to self-produce. Don’t feel like you have to write 4 and 2-character plays. The theater community is hungry for one that is explosive. While 15-character plays are expensive, they’re wildly exciting. So don’t feel limited by theme or scope.

Take risks. That’s the only way anyone will learn.

The Welders will participate in the Page to Stage Festival at The Kennedy Center over Labor Day weekend. Their “Greatest Hits” will include short plays by each of The Welders and a snippet of Allyson Currin’s play, which will be their first full production next March.

Joanna moved to DC in 2010 knowing she’d love it, and as usual she was right. She enjoys eating fried things, drinking scotch and smoking cigars, and makes up for the damage done by snacking on organic oats and barley and walking long distances to wherever with her dog Henry. Joanna now lives with her husband and said dog in Los Angeles, and they all miss DC terribly. Follow her on Twitter or contact her at joannacastlemiller.com.

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