A Sanctuary for Shared Experiences: Director of Literary Development and Dramaturgy Amrita Ramanan
Late American stage producer and director Zelda Fichandler once said art is community, as well as a personal experience, spurned from the ideas and dreams of the individual. Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s Director of Literary Development and Dramaturgy Amrita Ramanan acts this out daily through her work.
Ramanan arrived to OSF in 2016 and is involved in curating plays for each season. “I was reared in the philosophy that theater should be foundationally rooted in social justice and functions as a vehicle for the change you wish to see in the world,” she says. “As such, the integration of inclusion in a theater’s mission, vision, and practice has always been an expectation I uphold with every theater company I work for.”
Her history in theater began both at Missoula Children’s Theater and her grandmother’s encouragement to study Bharatnatyam, a traditional Indian dance, at a young age. She says, “Both provided me with a multi-faceted perspective to the cultural diversity of the performing arts and the intersection of art and community.”
Last year she was involved in OSF productions such as Oklahoma!, Snow in Midsummer, and Henry V. She reads, studies, and discusses plays to review them with the Artistic Director and Season Planning Committee.
Each play she considers she thinks about how it aligns with OSF’s values and mission, “how it responds to the current social and political climate of our nation, and how it celebrates a story that we have intentionally or unconsciously not represented on our stages in the Festival’s history.”
Once these things are considered, she moves on to study how each play works with each other and how the audience will respond to them not just in the present moment, but also in the future. “It is a holistic process that is grounded in diversity and inclusion from the very beginning.”
Ramanan gives examples of “dynamic world premieres of new plays that give voice to the marginalized, imaginative and provocative interpretations of Shakespeare’s comedies and tragedies, contemporary plays with deep, intimate storytelling about families, lovers, and friends through time; and a popular musical conceptualized with an inclusive vision.” This season especially she believes OSF has worked hard to artistically achieve its inclusive values. Because the selection of plays are diverse in several areas, Ramanan can’t simply choose one she’s looking forward to the most this season.
While her role gives her opportunities to ensure voices are recognized and the community remains inclusive, these aren’t always easy goals to achieve. “The essential challenge when activating inclusion and diversity is the patience and constant rigor to recognize the unique journey every individual takes in becoming more self-aware, especially acknowledging their privileges and biases,” she says. “I constantly am figuring out how best to encourage this practice without someone feeling completely defeated in the process.”
She adds, “I additionally had to embrace that challenge and conflict are not a negative, but part of the process. I wouldn’t accept a play without conflict. Why would I shy away from it in my lived experience? These tools have supported me getting past what’s difficult and having the motivation to move forward.”
Since arriving at OSF, Ramanan has witnessed the company make equality, diversity, and inclusion a priority within the community. Part of this priority is offered through the organization artEquity trainings. “The company has grown in their cultural sensitivity and awareness and you see the impactful ripple effect of the Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion trainings in our collaborative culture, from season programming to how we communicate with each other on a regular basis,” she says. artEquity consults and trains to create a sustainable inclusive community through team building, open communication, and ways to approach equality as smoothly as possible.
To Ramanan, theater is more than telling classic and well-known tales; theater is a vehicle to represent the past, the present, and make the audience think about the future. “I love the notion of the service of theater and believe it is important for a theater company––particularly a non-profit theater company––to understand its life cycle in a greater cultural context and not function in a vacuum.”