Ghost Light, Meet the Dramaturg: Reilly Conlon
BY Emma Schillage, October 27, 2021
Ghost Light, Meet the Dramaturgs is a Theatre series featuring Columbia Dramaturg 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 dramaturgy student Reilly Conlon (she/her). Conlon is a dramaturg, teaching artist, choreographer, songwriter, and all around theatre nerd entering her second year as a Columbia MFA Dramaturg. Reilly received her double bachelors in Secondary Communication & Theatre Arts Education and Secondary Language, Literature, & Writing as well as a minor in Drama & Theatre for the Young from Eastern Michigan University. She taught High School ELA and Public Speaking to young adults in Dearborn, Michigan. She also served as the Associate Artistic Director and Co-Founder of Horizon Performing Arts, the first educational theatre non-profit in southeastern Michigan founded on the idea that anyone, no matter the age, can grow and learn through the performing arts.
What was your first experience in theatre?
Reilly Jewell Conlon (RJC): I was a latecomer to the theatre scene. I was a dancer for twelve years, competitively. I did all types of dance and then my mom was always trying to push me to do theatre because she thought I would like it, because I was also in choir and I took private voice lessons. So I came to it as a performer but I was so scared because I was in a big ensemble for dance. I didn’t even have solos. So I went and auditioned for Hairspray! at my local community theatre, and I got cast as a nicest kid dancer, and it was so much fun. I loved it so much that I cried my eyes out at the end of the show because I thought it was going to be the end and my mom was like, “You know you can do this again, right?”
How did you get into dramaturgy?
RJC: I come from a teaching background. I started my own educational theatre company at home with my fiance and one other colleague because we really wanted to bring the arts to our community in a meaningful way. The mission of the theatre company is that no matter what age you are, you can still learn something from the performing arts, so we weren’t solely based on educating children. I realized that theatre is inherently educational and I wondered how I could take this further. That is how I stumbled upon dramaturgy. My fiance also went to this conference with a bunch of dramaturgs on the panel and he told me about it because he said it sounded like me. He is a playwright and I have helped him workshop a lot of his plays, so it was the next step. Also, a lot of the people on that panel were from Columbia, so I took a look at the program.
Tell me a little bit about your company that you started.
RJC: It is called Horizon Performing Arts in Ypsilanti, Michigan. I come from a choreography background; Brandon, my fiance, comes from a directing and playwriting background; and our other colleague came from a music background. So the three of us combined our different disciplines to produce theatre. It’s still going right now. We handed down the company to some great friends who still run it. What was so awesome about it was that it wasn’t just focused on K-12. Our oldest company member was seventy and they went through the experience. We approached every moment as a teaching moment and we wanted everyone to understand all the workings of theatre, not just what they are doing. But yes, they were shocked at how much they grew, even at seventy years old. And I think that’s beautiful. It speaks to how transformative theatre is on all levels.
Why did you choose Columbia for Dramaturgy?
RJC: Well, New York is at the center of everything. There is so much theatre here, and as a dramaturg you need to see as much diverse theatre as you can. This is one of the places you can do that. I also love that there isn’t a prescribed role for dramaturgs. Being a dramaturg, you get to choose where you would like to work. You can be a production dramaturg, you can be a literary manager, you can be an artistic director. I love that it doesn’t pigeon-hole you into one specific thing. I love working with playwrights, I love working with directors, and designers. I also don’t really care to be fully in charge all of the time. I love being a sounding board and a listener and that’s kind of how I approach dramaturgy, as a listener first. I need to learn what the vision is before I throw in my two cents.
What, during your time here, has influenced the way you think?
RJC: I guess that you don’t need to take it too seriously. Not to say that you shouldn’t give it the time and effort the art deserves, but there is a certain part where if you are making this your end all be all, that you will die on this hill, I am not interested in that. I am interested in the balance between your work and your art. Because of the pandemic, unfortunately, we learned that we all need to take rest and there needs to be space for us to have that in our artistic communities. I guess that is my big thing. We are doing this because we love it. If we take this too seriously, there is going to be a point where we stop loving it. If you think too much about it, you are going to lose what is so special about it. Sometimes it is better to act and do rather than stew. I did not mean to rhyme, but it happened. I have learned so much from the wonderful humans in my cohort. We support one another, despite our different interests. I think there is enough room at the table for everybody to do what they want. It isn’t like we are competing, but supporting each other in doing what we want to do. Having those diverse perspectives around you only makes you better and broadens your horizons.
What passion projects did you work on during the pandemic?
RJC: I wrote a bunch of songs! I picked up my ukulele and I wrote. I haven’t done that in years because I haven't had the time. We also had to write a play in our playwriting class with the lovely Leslie Ayvazian. It is the best class you will ever take at Columbia. I am not kidding. And I wrote some songs and music and that was so fulfilling. It is a different side of me. The songs and the play were my two big things that I did. But real live humans got to see my play read. It was on Zoom, of course, but I’ve never had that experience before. I thought it was so insightful to be in the playwright's position because I feel like I have a better understanding of what it means to work with a playwright and I can empathize with them a little better. But those were my big projects. I decided to do the things that made me happy when happiness was hard to come by.
What do you love about your home and how has that influenced your art?
RJC: Whenever I write, I always end up talking about my home by accident because I love Michigan. One of the things I love about Michigan is the water. There is water everywhere. You can go swimming literally anywhere. I feel like I learn the most when I’m around water. I used to love kayaking. In my undergrad, we approached our pedagogy by learning about our watershed in our community. We learned about where water actually comes from and how that impacts the surrounding communities and that was really interesting. I feel like I always carry that with me. It was only one way of looking at things through that form of pedagogy, but the idea is that wherever you are teaching and wherever you are from should influence your curriculum in some way so that your students actually have some physical connection to the material. I try to take that with me, even now.
What do you want people to know about dramaturgy?
RJC: It’s what you make it. It’s all about relationships that you form, professionally and personally. One of my classmates, Tayler Everts said it best: It’s like being a creative therapist for the thing we are creating. I think that is the best way to put it. I would encourage people to lean into the personal when it comes to dramaturgy, because it is very intimate.