Q&A: Polly Carl, creative director of ArtsEmerson

by Mark Gartsbeyn / Beacon Staff • December 2, 2015

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Polly Carl's achievements will be recognized at the NTC National Dinner in New York City on Saturday.
Polly Carl's achievements will be recognized at the NTC National Dinner in New York City on Saturday.

Polly Carl, the creative director of ArtsEmerson, was named Person of the Year by the National Theatre Conference (NTC) last month for her/his work in new play development. S/he will be recognized at the NTC Annual Dinner this Saturday in New York City. Carl, 49, is also the co-founder of HowlRound, an online knowledge commons for the theater community run by the Office of the Arts at the college. Before s/he came to Emerson three and a half years ago, s/he worked as the producing artistic director at the Playwrights' Center in Minneapolis and the director of artistic development for Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago. 

On Monday, Carl sat with the Beacon to discuss the importance of collaboration in theater, its power to transform communities, and the benefits of sharing leadership in cultural organizations.

Berkeley Beacon: What’s the origin story of your relationship with theater? 

Polly Carl: The origin story for me is really more about my love of stories. When I was a kid in a really small town in Indiana, I was obsessed with the public library. That’s a place you can go find any story for free and engage. Most people involved in theater fall in love with it from a young age, but in my case, it was later on in life. I loved long, entangled stories, and knew that I wanted to figure out some way to have storytelling be a focal point of my life. Theater came later on, really not until college and graduate school, and really it came on the job. It came almost accidentally; I was working in film and literature for a long time, and then I took a job at the Playwrights’ Center in my late 20s.

BB: On your HowlRound profile, it says that you want to “foster civic transformation through the shared experience of art.” How has the team at ArtsEmerson and HowlRound set out to achieve that transformation? 

PC: All of us at ArtsEmerson are really interested in this idea of social impact, about what kind of impact the work can have in the communities where we live and work. I call it a “curation of listening”—you’re trying to curate what you know by listening to the communities you’re a part of. How do we really listen to the needs of those communities? [We ask,] what are the interests, what are people excited about, and what stories do we want to tell? The stories that I read growing up, the movies that I watched, the plays that I saw, helped me become a person who cares about the world. All of us here are committed to making that notion of transformation accessible to anybody who desires it. Art is to make a community better and more vital. 

BB: Your most recent essay on HowlRound was about shared leadership, in context of the administrative transition at ArtsEmerson with you, David Dower, and David Howse working together as co-directors. How has that worked out for you in practice? 

PC: I think it’s a constant learning for all of us. It’s the kind of challenge I relish, because it’s not the easy or natural way that everyone’s used to. As a leader, you can only see so much of the world. Between the three of us, we bring so much diversity of experience and knowledge. We’re using the breadth of what we know together to make ArtsEmerson a place that can benefit from all those years of experience between us. It’s hard, but it’s like a good workout. It takes longer conversations, it takes more time to co-lead, but that time feels incredibly productive and really valuable. I feel like we’re pioneering something that we’re going to know a lot more about in five or 10 years.

BB: What ArtsEmerson shows are you particularly excited for next semester?

PC: Of course, I like all the shows, we’re excited about them all. I’m really psyched about the long-term partnership that HowlRound has had with the Latina/o Theatre Commons. They did this incredible festival of plays called Encuentro, and there I saw maybe 14 plays in three days, it was insane. I loved many of them, but there were two I fell in love with, “Daughter of a Cuban Revolutionary” and “Premeditation” [opening in April and May next year, respectively]. To see the partnership with HowlRound manifest itself on the stages of ArtsEmerson is like the perfect marriage of the work all coming together.

BB: What shows in the contemporary theater world do you think are changing the face of theater?

PC: In an obvious way, one can’t deny the impact of “Hamilton” [a musical about Founding Father Alexander Hamilton rooted in hip-hop] and “Fun Home” [the first Broadway musical with a lesbian protagonist]. Their impact is mind-blowing in terms of the potential of theater to rewrite history or to make history. They talk about the power of theater to have a universality to it. In a show like “Fun Home”... I’ve been in the business for a long time and there’s hardly ever been a show that elevates the life of queer women in a way that everyone wants to see! That’s a transformation of the culture in a way, and when theater can be a reflection of a culture transforming itself, I think that’s pretty exciting. 

BB: Finally, about the award; “Person of the Year” seems like a major accomplishment. What has receiving that award been like?

PC: Obviously, I’m very honored by it. It’s a very kind recognition that I’m appreciative of. Theater’s a funny business because it’s always a collaboration. Being singled out, it’s like, “Yeah, it’s me, but it’s also all these great people that I work with.” For me, the award is a recognition of the community, and all the artists I’ve worked with. All these collaborations over time is what makes us who we are in the business. I know I’ll accept the award on behalf of all those collaborations and partnerships. Beyond that, I’m mostly thinking about what’s next, what’s on my plate. I’m really grateful to so many people who have helped me along the way, because you’re always a product of the people who lift you up. It feels like a celebration of all of us. 

 

Polly Carl uses s/he pronouns.