A short chat with Annette Toutonghi about adding playwrights from the global majority to the Core curriculum.

A short chat with Annette Toutonghi about adding playwrights from the global majority to the Core curriculum.

Annette Toutonghi is a stage, film, and voice actor, and an Artistic Partner here at Freehold. Annette is currently leading an initiative to add more plays by playwrights from the global majority to Freehold’s Core Progression curriculum. We caught up with Annette to talk about the process of adding plays, what the response has been from students, and why this effort is important now.

Can you talk about why you’re adding texts to the Core curriculum, as well what specifically you’re looking for?

Well, there’s two things. The push was driven by a desire to have a more equitable representation of voices, both in the characters and in the voices of the playwrights. So, we wanted to do more for people who were interested in working on [different] identities…as well as just having a wide variety [of scenes]. That was one thing. But the other thing we looked at was: What do we need for this class? What kind of a scene do we need for a Step II class, for a Step III class? 

For Step II, when students are learning action really for the first time with a written script, oftentimes we want action that is apparent–because things are written in all different ways and people behave in all different ways. And sometimes action is…you have to do a little excavating to figure out what it is that’s going on. In Step II, we want to see where the action is clear, and where both characters are fighting for something that the students can get behind. A lot of the pieces in Step II are period pieces, so we want to make sure there are situations you could connect with, even though they’re from this other moment in time. 

Step III is really contemporary voices, and we’re looking for things that are more complex. It’s really fun to work on and to get through scenes that have a lot of subtext… the action is sometimes a little harder to figure out. Step III is exciting because you have such a huge variety of plays to pull from! 

Can you describe the process?

It started during the pandemic, on Zoom. We did a lot of research, we read plays, and then we got together to read scenes and have conversations about what might be a good fit for our classes. 

First we started looking at scenes we already had. We pulled a few of them because they just really aren’t the best…we can have better options. But mostly we focused on adding in material so that we’ll have a wider breadth of what is represented. I think that’s fun for students and for teachers because we just have exciting new stuff.

So what would happen is we had a group of three [with Freehold faculty Carter Rodriquez and Elena Flory-Barnes] and two people would be assigned to each play. We got to more plays that way because we spread it out a little bit. And then those two people would propose scenes if they found something that they thought would be right for Step II. Then we would go through the process of reading the scenes together and determining if they were right for our goals. 

In the end, we didn’t go with every play we read out loud. And then I think there were some plays, like Boleros, where we probably had 10 scenes chosen, because it’s just written so perfectly for scene work.

Are there either particular plays or playwrights that you discovered in going through the process?

I am teaching Step III right now [Fall 2023] and there’s an older play I wasn’t familiar with–it’s great for scene work–called Stop Kiss. I remember it coming out but I didn’t see it. So that was a discovery. We put some scenes in for Step II and we’ll probably have some for Step III. It’s just gorgeous writing and the scenes are amazing and they have a really clear journey. 

We look at a lot of Lynn Nottage, who I’m a fan of. We have a bunch of playwrights that we’re tossing around.

What has the response been like so far?

With the scenes that we’ve added in our classes that are identity-specific, we need someone who’s interested in working on that role [to use the scene]. It’s not every class that we use the new scenes, but most classes I think there’s one of them being used. The response that I’ve heard is enthusiasm; that people have been enjoying working on the scenes and are excited to have that option. 

Usually on the first day of class, we hand out a paper that asks students what they’re up for: Would you like to work on something that’s identity-specific? And sometimes people will just say “No, I just want to work on something.” And sometimes [people do]. And we’ve gotten a positive response from people who requested and were able to do that. And honestly, as a teacher, I feel better about that. It’s also really important for the entire group to hear a variety of playwrights, because you spend a lot of acting class watching other people working on their presentations.

You mentioned that you started this during the pandemic. Was it something that was spurred by the George Floyd protests and the activism that came around that time or was it something you’ve been thinking about longer?

For me it’s something I’ve been thinking about and talking about for a very long time. I think one thing that happened in the pandemic is, there was a pause. People had time to stop and say, “What are we doing here?” I also think that the conversations that happened around race and identity early in the pandemic, because of George Floyd, fueled the fire for that opportunity [to focus more on equity]. 

The conversation [on race and equity] is long overdue. This needs to be fixed. And hopefully it will be a conversation that is ongoing, because it needs to be. When I went to grad school, I don’t think there was a play we worked on that wasn’t written by a white person. That’s insanity! There were very few that were written by women or people who are not cisgender. It’s so wrong! I was in my mid 40s before I had the chance to play a character who’s Arab, and I started acting professionally when I was 20. That’s a long time. And if you’re talking about film productions, it’s only happened once. 

This isn’t a task–it’s an opportunity! It’s exciting; it’s joyful. It’s like stepping out of a lie into something that’s more free. It feels great to go there! To reflect the actual richness of the world is thrilling. And It feels good.