Ghost Light, Meet the Dramaturg: Alexis Williams

Emma Schillage
February 10, 2022

Ghost Light, Meet the Dramaturgs is a Theatre series featuring Columbia Dramaturgy students, faculty, and alumni, learning about their work, aspirations, and pandemic passion projects.

In Michael Mark Chemer’s book Ghost Light, he uses the metaphor of a ghost light to represent the work of a Dramaturg. Dramaturgs work behind the scenes, always thinking and searching for creative possibilities, guiding the way, even once the stage goes dark. In this series, we shine a light on Columbia Dramaturgs.

This week we are featuring second-year Dramaturgy student, Alexis Williams (she/her). Alexis Williams is a logophile, dramaturg, and writer. A devout Southerner and Atlanta native, she earned a double bachelor's degree in English Literature and Spanish Language at Elon University. She loves all things Black, but she's most excited by theatre that expands what that label means. When she grows up she hopes to be like Toni Morrison, Zora Neale Hurston, Adrienne Kennedy, Marita Bonner, Aleshea Harris, and her mama.

headshot of Alexis Williams

What was your first experience with theatre?

Alexis Williams [AW]: My first experience with theatre was when my mom took me to see a production of Beauty and the Beast at the Fox in Atlanta. It’s a venue where they do a lot of Broadway shows that are popular, and I hated it because there was so much singing. I still am not really a musical person to this day, but I think that was my first introduction to theatre. It's been present throughout my life. I became a "theatre person" probably around sixth grade. I was in London with my mom. She was a high school administrator at the time and they organized a trip for the high school students to go to London. When we went, we saw a couple of shows on the West End. I think the show I saw there that really got me excited about theatre was Lord of the Rings. I'm not really a Lord of the Rings fan, but the show was so beautiful. It was so transformative that I felt that this was what I wanted to do with my life. Then I got into high school and I started doing theatre there.

I thought that I wanted to be an actor, then I thought I was more interested in writing. I wanted to do so many things that I ended up at this point. I knew I loved the theater. I loved watching theatre shows. I loved talking about theater. I loved being in theaters and around theatre people. So I feel like dramaturgy right now is the foundation for me to conceptualize theater as an art form.

What is a play that you would recommend or that you think everyone needs to read or see? 

AW: All of them. My more specific answer would be [plays] by Suzan-Lori Parks, specifically any of the ones that aren't popular or produced a lot. I love all of them, but right now I'm thinking of the Book of Grace, which I haven't seen mounted recently. I think it’s a really beautifully written play. She looks at family and fatherhood and relationships and the cyclical nature of life. I love that one, as well as In the Blood. For musicals, I’d have to say that Les Miserables is my favorite musical. There are a couple [musicals] that I really like. I really like Wicked. I think it's beautiful. “Defying Gravity” was my theme song for a lot of middle school. 

What led you to dramaturgy? 

AW: I love words. I've always loved words. I love how you can put them together in a specific way, and the way that they affect you can be indescribable. It does something to you inside and there's power in it. What draws me to theatre, in general, is figuring out how theatre can be the best version of itself. I want to figure out how [a production] can be successful at taking those words and doing something useful with them. I'm big on purpose. If there's no purpose behind what you are doing, then what's the point of doing it? Even with art for art's sake, I think there's still a sense of purpose in that—it is moving towards a goal. For me, it's important that theater is impactful. So I think dramaturgy, as I'm figuring out what it means to me, is looking at a project and figuring out what it's doing. Is the play or project successful at doing what you want it to do? And then if it is not, how can we get to a point where it is? 

How would you describe your specific approach to dramaturgy?  

AW: My approach is always asking if the play or elements of the production makes sense. More specifically, it's about working with the playwright, then trying to understand their language as a writer, their way of writing, their way of being, and then working to see if the writer is continuing to stay true to the work they want to write. And if not, what are the roadblocks [in the way of getting] the piece where it needs to be in terms of production? 

How have you been able to practice your dramaturgical  skills throughout the rehearsal process?

AW: I recently worked on a project as a production Dramaturg and it was nice to be able to support the actors with research and context and to see how their understanding of the characters and the play itself grew from the information I was able to give them. I was the only black person on the creative team for this project. The play itself was dealing with the African American experience, so I was able to be a resource. Part of being African American is just knowing what it is to be African American. It’s not necessarily codifiable or something that you articulate, you just feel it. I was helping contextualize some things and was able to speak to what the play was dealing with on that level. That exploration has been interesting in helping me understand my approach to dramaturgy. 

What were some passion projects you did during the pandemic? How did you find happiness when happiness was hard to come by? 

AW: I was at home in Atlanta, and a lot of my days were spent figuring out what was next. Otherwise, I was filling my time with things to keep me from being depressed. I think handcrafts keep me balanced in life. If I can do something with my hands and get out of my mind, then I'm good. I did some sewing, some embroidery, some cooking, and baking. When I moved to New York, by myself, I really embraced [the process of] creating a space that feels like home.

What do you wish people knew about dramaturgy? 

AW: That's a big question. I wish they knew that the ambiguity of dramaturgy is not something to be afraid of. The challenge is that since people don't know what to do with us, they kind of avoid us or avoid engaging with what a dramaturg can offer. As dramaturgs, we incorporate your insight into what we're doing. It’s about leaning into the fact that dramaturgs can be useful allies to theatre makers at any point in the process since the study of dramaturgy is a general way of understanding how theater works. Dramaturgy is not something I can define in any one particular way, so it’s also about having peace with the fact that it is undefinable. 

What is something that you are looking forward to now that theatre is starting to come back?

AW: I look forward to being in spaces that remind me why I love theater. I think the harsh realities of life are more present [right now]. The harsh realities of business and capitalism and all those things that make America go-round are at the forefront of my mind [and don't] allow me to really dive into a story. I want to engage more with my imagination and the amazing world that we get to build. I feel like everything right now is a bit too serious. 

What would you like people to know about you as a theatre artist? 

AW: As a theater artist, I love all things Black and all things [related to] the African diaspora. That is what interests me the most. I love all sorts of theater, of course. I'll read anything. I'll see anything, but what gets me excited is when I see people who look like me doing what they love to do. I also love surrealism and the abstract. So when those two can come together, I am in heaven.  

I'm interested in a lot of work that is Black, but not explicitly political. I think there is space for explicitly political work in every area; but I find that I get the most excited when I'm able to see someone from the African diaspora writing something and not having to attend to the majority, or educate the majority populations about race within their work. I am excited by things that are outside the realm of struggle and trauma.