KEEP ON WORKING
Ayana Parker-Morrison on navigating the New York City theatre world as a woman of colour.
by Alexandra Mazzucchelli
One year after receiving the inaugural Producing Fellowship from the historic New York Theatre Workshop, actress turned producer Ayana Parker-Morrison is making a name for herself in the industry.
Fresh off the production of Off-Broadway’s Joan, (directed by Adrienne Campbell-Holt of Dear Evan Hansen fame), Parker-Morrison has consistently worked on what’s referred to as the other side of the table. From Baltimore, Maryland, she moved to New York City nearly a decade ago to attend the prestigious NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. We met where it all began, on the campus she called home for four years: just off Washington Square Park, the cozy yet massive NYU Kimmel Center. It’s nighttime and the infamous archway is illuminated. She tells me how surreal it is to be back on campus.
Tisch prepared her for a life in the industry. She was a drama major, studying acting at The New Studio on Broadway and the Stonestreet Film & TV Studio. However, after graduation her path would diverge and direct her toward becoming the business oriented creative she is today.
We start with the basics—
I ask her to define what it means to be a producer. She chuckles, “No two producing jobs are ever the same. There are basic guidelines, like drafting a budget and making sure everyone is contracted, but there’s no real formula. For every job there is a learning curve which brings me to a greater understanding of what this job is. You just have to do it. The more you do it the more you learn. It’s all circumstantial”, she tells me, “Anticipating problems before they happen is 65 percent of producing and the other 35 percent is managing the expectations.”
She had to quickly learn the business side of the industry in order to stack up against her contemporaries. Many of those business savvy skills that she acquired, ranging from the administrative and logistical to artistic consulting, were refined by working alongside the managing producer at the New York Theatre Workshop (NTYW). “You get people who are smarter than you at specific things and bring them all in the room to make this big thing. Growing the team, making sure that the project is moving along in a way that is healthy and good for everyone and for the project itself is key,” she says. “Thinking creatively about how we can get this done.”
Our conversation shifts to equity, diversity and inclusion in the landscape of the industry and lands on the topic of navigating through that climate as a woman of colour.
“I’ve been lucky enough to work on a lot of teams with the majority being women. However, I’m the only black, female producer I’ve ever worked with—myself,” she says candidly. “The only other producer of colour I worked with was on a short film I did early on. That was the first and last.”
Parker-Morrison says this has made her all the more pragmatic and focused. “I had an understanding very early on that I’m a black woman and things are going to be very different for me. People aren't going to respond to me in the same manner they would other people. Moving through the world with that expectation you lose a lot of that frustration and a lot of the surprise. So when crazy things happen, you're like, I’m gonna keep on working.”
In turn, her experiences have lent themselves to a nuanced and heightened perceptivity with which she approaches her work. “Being the only black producer on the past shows I’ve worked on and being one of very few in the industry at large helps me, because I have a unique worldview that brings another voice to the stories being told; making them more interesting, quite frankly,” she says. “Black communities have had a completely different lived experience than those of other races. When you get me in the room helping to bring a story to life it’s going to have levels to it that it didn’t have before. But, that’s not enough—to just have one black person at the table. The stories will only get better once we fill the table with black and brown people.”
Parker-Morrison currently works as the Director of Producing & Creative Planning for the Checkmark Theatre Company, a home to underrepresented artists operating out of downtown NYC. As a producer on the rise, I wanted to hear her perspective on the future of theatre—as leadership in the industry becomes increasingly millennial. A generation defined by instant gratification, social media immersion and DIY marketing lends itself to a new way of business modeling and creative fields are no exception. “We are the next generation of patrons. If you aren't marketing towards millennials who are used to laying down in the bed and watching Netflix...If you aren't doing something to get them out of their bed, off of their couch, dressed and into the outside world to sit in a theatre for two hours, then your theatre is going to die.”
The question then becomes how does an artist appeal to millennials?
For Parker-Morrison, this means meeting the needs of the culture; one that is led by carefully manufactured social media narratives by way of witty captions and hashtags. The generation that seems perpetually restless and executes on the #thankunext mentality. “If we are trying to shift the culture, I think a huge part of that is one and done. What are you saying, how are you impacting us, how are you going to take that and move forward? It's not about running a show for ten years so we can make millions of dollars off of it. That's not the goal.” She says brevity and conscison are key—the millennial draw being towards what is on trend at any given moment. She pauses a moment and reflects, posing the question herself this time.“Seeing the same thing over and over for ten years, what type of growth is that going to spark? But, if we see one thing for three months, and then another thing that speaks to that for the next three months, we can put all these ideas together and come to a greater understanding of some bigger issues our culture is wrestling with in a real way.”
As if on cue, her phone rings.
She politely excuses herself and takes the call. When she hangs up she tells me that on the other end was her artistic director giving her the official green light for their next project—the go ahead she was waiting on all day. An almost audible sigh of relief, she looks satisfied and then, “Now if I could just get a meeting with Jordan Roth.”