The Context Room – An Interview with Kaitlin Sitwell
When I am into something, I immediately go from like, too obsessed. The line is very thin. So a television show, for example, I have to look up everything about it, inspiration, the cast, crew, trivia, history and anything that may come in between. I love having a well-rounded knowledge of what I like. This is why when I learned of Luna Stage’s new element to their main stage productions.
In addition talk-backs with the actors and directors. You can enter a room that engulfs you in a world of the play. You are able to see the inspiration, playwrights background, history of what was explored in the play. Like the history of women’s basketball during Tall Girls.
It is educational, inspirational and interactive. You can share your thoughts on the appropriation of culture during Indian Head and Yosemite National Park for King of the Mountains. And in the modern twist, there’s always the opportunity take a fun photo to post on social media.
I have always wanted to explore the brains behind the Context Room, and what goes into creating the interactive world beyond the stage. I was able to talk with dramaturg Kaitlin Sitwell, the Context Room’s master-mind.
Patricia Rogers: How did you arrive at Luna Stage?
Kaitilin Sitwell: I had known about Luna Stage for a few years when I first sat down with Luna’s Artistic Director Cheryl Katz in January of 2015. Our meeting was just a general “get to know you” type. But a month later, I got a call that they were looking for a playwriting teacher to take over their Civic Playwriting class halfway through the semester (their teacher got an acting gig!). I hadn’t specifically taught playwriting before, but as a dramaturg, I had assisted in the development of many new plays. I took a leap of faith and said yes! It was a powerful experience working with the playwrights, and I was very impressed with everything I was learning about Luna Stage and the work that they produced. When the semester ended, I sat down with Cheryl and pitched her another class idea (PlayGym) and an idea for transforming the classroom space into an audience engagement space during the runs of their mainstage shows (The Context Room). Cheryl heard me out, asked me smart questions, and told me we could give it a try. That fall I had found my artistic home at Luna, returning to teach both classes and premiering The Context Room. I still feel incredibly lucky to have landed here.
What is a dramaturg and why did you want to pursue the theater?
A dramaturg can be many things: someone who works with a playwright on the development of a play, asking questions and helping the playwright to hone their vision. It can be someone who provides background research on a play to the cast and creative team and lends an objective critical eye to a production as it finds its feet. It can be someone who thinks about how to have conversations with audiences around the programmed plays and looks for ways to deepen the experience. I have my undergraduate degree in Musical Theater; I was a performer first. It didn’t take me long after I graduated to realize that I was looking for my next step. At the time, I thought it would be a graduate degree in acting. Luckily, when I shared that thought with theater legend Cass Morgan, she asked me what I liked to do in my free time. Read plays. Buy plays. See plays. Collect antiquarian dictionaries. In school, I had loved to analyze the scenes and performances in Scene Study and help to shape them. When she said I sounded like a dramaturg, it was the first time I had ever heard that word! She set me up with meetings with a few dramaturgs she had worked with. I’ve never wanted to be anything else from that day forward. It was everything I hadn’t known I’d been seeking!
How would you describe the essence of Luna Stage to someone who has never seen a show?
We like to describe Luna Stage as a “small but mighty” professional theater that produces plays that start important conversations. I love that Luna is the height of professionalism when it comes to the work, and yet not at all stuffy! As an audience member, I found the atmosphere very accessible and Cheryl very engaged with and available to the Luna audience. I try to do the same thing with our audiences now in The Context Room because it meant so much to me when I was an audience member.
What is the Context Room?
The Context Room is a classroom space right next to the theater. It’s what we call an audience engagement space, but some have described it like a mini museum or interactive exhibit. The idea behind The Context Room is that it includes everything we think might enrich your experience of coming to see the play, from giving you background of the playwright and why the play was written, to exploring the world of the play, to contemplating the design choices that turn a script on the page into a fully realized production, to encouraging you to make connections between the play and our world today. It’s an interactive space, so there’s always a place to share an opinion or comment or add your personal experience to the bigger collective. It’s also space where the audience and I can chat informally, with me answering their questions and getting to know what’s interesting or important to them about the work they have come to see. It is open 1 hour before each show, during intermission (if there is one), and for 30 minutes after the show.
How did it become a part of Luna Stage productions?
Many theaters have “lobby displays:” often a panel or two giving background on the play. The first time I saw the classroom space at Luna, I dreamed of opening it to our audiences and filling it with an interesting background, questions, images, and quotes about each play. I pitched the idea to Cheryl as a trial run and outlined for her how I thought the room would function. She gave me her blessing to give it a try. We had a really positive response with our very first show, and I think we both knew after that that it was a feature we wanted to continue!
I love how you keep it New Jersey as well, do you want to touch on that a bit?
Sure! I’m interested in how theater can be a connection point: both for individuals to be in a room together having a shared experience, but also for their experience at the theater to help connect them back to society, to their community. In the Context Room, we started a section this year called “In Our Community” in which we highlight a local organization whose work touches on the issues explored in that play. I hope it’s an opportunity for our audiences to take those seeds of feelings, thoughts, impulses that are planted in the theater and develop them in their lives in partnerships within their communities.
How do you feel the Context Room enhances the Luna Stage experience?
I think some people feel like the theater is not for them. If they don’t have the history of attending theater, they can feel unprepared somehow, like they should know more. I like to think of the Context Room as an equalizer: a chance to gain confidence, to access insider information, and to generally feel more a part of what you have come to see. I think it is also important because art is personal, and we do not all have the same taste. You will not like everything you see at a theater, no matter where you go! But I feel that by adding the Context Room to your experience, even if you didn’t care for the show, you still come away with something, whether that’s an understanding of why certain choices were made in the writing or production, or a deeper understanding of the subject the playwright has explored. I think it helps audiences think about the process and not purely product; the product (the show) is clearly important, but how wonderful if we can think about and appreciate how we got to it as well!
How do you compile the material for each production’s Context Room?
Each show is a bit different. I think the questions we ask ourselves usually begin with “What can enrich our audience’s experience of this particular play?” and “How do we best prepare our audiences to take the journey of the play?” This past season we’ve established “sections” of the room, so the research falls under those headings: Meet the Playwright, The World of the Play, Page to Stage, Photobooth, In Our Community, and Where Does This Resonate Today? I want the room to feel both comforting and surprising: a mix of answers to the questions audiences come in with or have after the play, and fun facts or perspectives that they might never have considered. We also always try to have interactive elements, where audiences can contribute their perspective or experience. I also like to create statements that cause people to interrogate their own beliefs before they choose to agree or disagree.
Talk about creating the Context Room for Tranquil.
This has been an interesting one to develop, and I have no doubt it will continue to evolve as we begin to bring in audiences through previews. The play is about a family healing from a traumatic accident. It also happens that as a result of that accident one of the characters now uses a wheelchair because of a spinal cord injury. However, the play is about a family, not about disability. It’s about what it means to feel, on many levels. So it’s been interesting to find the balance in the room of wanting to best prepare our audience to take the journey of this play—a family trying to heal—rather than thinking they are seeing a play about disability, and still creating space for the larger conversations around disability in general and spinal cord injury in specific. This play has also had an extensive development process through some very prestigious theaters and programs across the country, so we explore the collaborative evolution of the play over time, and celebrate the fact that we have the honor of producing the world premiere!
How do you want the C.R. to evolve?
One example we knew early on was that the room needed to have an online presence. This season, with the help of our fantastic Artistic Resident Anna’le Hornak, we’ve developed the Virtual Context Room, a website that translates the spirit of the Context Room while taking advantage of the media capabilities. Some content remains the same between the two “rooms,” but online we are also able to link to a broader array of articles, videos, images. It’s a great feature for those who like to take their time in processing their experience or those who like to dive deep into long-form content! In terms of the physical Context Room’s continued evolution, I am always learning from our audiences in terms how they like to use the room and to what kind of content they respond. So I would say that while we have a great foundation, we are ever evolving!
How involved are the playwrights in the process?
If we’re working on a world premiere, I will always ask the playwright about their inspiration and process of developing the play. If they are onsite during tech and previews, they will often help me refine the room, asking and answering questions to help hone in on the experience we hope to give our audience.
How important has social media become when making the C.R. interactive, and spreading the word about Luna Stage?
Well, I am a digital dinosaur despite my age (I know) so I think this is an area where we can continue to improve! Someone described my process as “analog,” and I think that’s pretty accurate. That being said, we do want to be inclusive of all ways that people can connect and have important conversations, and some of those are undoubtedly digital. For Luna’s general social media presence, we have a wonderful consultant who helps us spread the word about all facets of our work. In The Context Room, we have our Photobooth so that people can take photos and tag Luna Stage on Facebook and Twitter, hopefully leading to conversations with their community about their experience here. I think the Virtual Context Room is another great step in that direction. And of course paying attention to the work of other theaters and non-profits as they find new and interesting ways to engage their communities digitally.
Written by Patricia Rogers