Spotlight on Alumni: Tanya Palmer
Since graduating from York in 2000 with an M.F.A. in Playwriting I’ve been working pretty steadily in the field of new play development and production. In the fall of 2000, just a few months after I graduated, I was offered the position of Literary Manager at Actors Theatre of Louisville in Louisville, Kentucky – a theatre known for its commitment to producing new work through its annual Humana Festival of New American Plays. I had done a season-long internship at the theatre prior to going back to grad school, and had maintained a relationship with the theatre since then, but finishing my masters degree definitely made me a more viable candidate for the job. I spent five years working at Actors Theatre, where I had the opportunity to read & work with a whole lot of exciting playwrights – people like Chuck Mee, Adam Rapp, Naomi Iizuka, Kia Corthron, and many others. I served as a production dramaturg on a number of new plays, and also ran the theatre’s literary department, supervising the reading & selection of plays for the festival. During that time, I also wrote and developed a few of my own plays – through Actors Theatre and some smaller companies like Squallis Puppeteers and the Honolulu Theatre for Youth.
After five years at Actors Theatre I was looking for a change, and was lucky enough to land a job at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago as their Literary Manager. I’ve been at the Goodman for eight years; my title is now Director of New Play Development, and I continue to work as a production dramaturg on new plays, and I oversee the Goodman’s new play commissioning & development activities. I’ve had the good fortune of working with a lot of great playwrights here in Chicago, people like Lynn Nottage, Noah Haidle and Sarah Ruhl. Throughout this time – both in Louisville and now in Chicago – I’ve also taught a variety of theatre classes to college students – playwriting, theatre history & dramaturgy. Since arriving in Chicago, I’ve taught primarily at DePaul University in their theatre school – this year I’m teaching an introduction to dramaturgy class, last year I taught a playwriting seminar to their graduating playwriting majors. And I also managed to get married and have two kids – my husband Jim, who I met in Louisville, is a print & web designer and we have a six-year-old daughter named Harper and a two-year-old son named Theo.
What was your favourite place at York, and why?
My favorite place at York was the library. Why? Because I’m a big nerd and I really love books. That’s the thing I miss the most about being in school – having the time to roam the stacks, picking up all sorts of books that interested me, then sitting at a table or in one of those little cubbies and just reading and reading and reading. I read and research for a living now, so you’d think I wouldn’t miss that but I do – I don’t have the luxury anymore of just pursuing my interests in a leisurely way like I did back when I was a grad student at York.
What was one thing you enjoyed about York that was outside of the Theatre?
I took a lot of interesting courses in other departments — like film, and anthropology — and was really struck by the quality of professors and was continually challenged and grateful for the opportunity to get outside my comfort zone. But the other thing I loved was being in Toronto – there’s so much great stuff going on in the city – in the theatre certainly, but also museums, festivals, all sorts of exciting cultural activities, and lots of good food and places to hang out.
What did you do for the first summer out of the program?
Besides freaking out about what I was going to do for a living (which fortunately I didn’t have to do for too long) I curated and produced a festival of new performance at Harbourfront Center – a gig I got through one of my friends from my undergraduate days at the University of Calgary. The summer before my graduation I worked at Soulpepper Theatre Company, administering their youth outreach program.
Can you tell us a story of a moment where your training at York was clearly useful?
One of the most amazing things I did during my time at York was to take two trips to Cuba to observe and train with members of Teatro Escambray. I took the trip with Professor Judith Rudakoff and a group of fellow graduate and undergraduate students – and got a chance to learn about a whole different way of creating theatre and an entirely different cultural, political and economic context. In my current position at the Goodman Theatre, I have been a part of three festivals of Latino work – an event the theatre produces bi-annually – and two of those festivals included a Cuban theatre company developing new work in collaboration with Chicago-based artists. Beyond the festival, the theatre actively supports the work of Latino playwrights and other theatre artists – a diverse group that generally comprises Cuban-Americans, Puerto Ricans, and Mexican-Americans. My exposure to the work of this Cuban company and my research into their methods and their influences, played a huge role in my understanding of what theatre could be and how it could be made – and since I’m now working with artists who come out of a similar tradition, I feel like that experience at York gave me a huge leg up in being able to be an effective collaborator and facilitator for those initiatives.
What did you learn at York that has been of greatest value?
It’s hard for me to pinpoint one thing – there were lots of valuable things I got from my time at York. One was just being introduced to a huge number of plays – classic & contemporary. One of our requirements was that we had to read 100 plays from a list of “important plays” from the Greeks to the present day, and as a result I was introduced – or re-introduced – to a wide breadth of writers from different eras – and that knowledge has been incredibly helpful to have under my belt. I also learned a lot about collaboration during my time at York. Because it’s such a strong conservatory program, I was there with super talented actors, directors & designers, and having a chance to work with them, and spending time watching how they did their work taught me so much about their process and gave me insight into how to talk to them and how to help them make our work together even stronger. And finally, I got a chance to teach – I was paired with a really great Serbian director who taught an epic theatre class and I learned a lot from him and I also learned a lot about how to communicate ideas to students. This has been hugely helpful in many ways, but most practically it’s helped me understand how to be a better teacher, which is something I enjoy doing and which puts a little extra money in my pocket – always a good thing.