Please take the opportunity to peruse the latest installment of New Paradigms in Graduate Education’s: Outside Academia, a series of profiles on PhDs in Theatre and Performance Studies who work outside the academy.
Kimberly D. Dixon-Mays
Interview conducted on March 26, 2015 and transcribed by Tiffany Trent, a PhD student at Arizona State University.
Kimberly D. Dixon-Mays frames herself as a writer and strategist in passion and practice. In title and in the language of corporate and business industries, what Dixon-Mays offers is brand planning. She has a PhD in Theatre and Drama and Women’s Studies from Northwestern University, and is a Cave Canem Poetry Fellow as well as a Ragdale Artistic Fellow. Dixon-Mays has published two collections of her poems: SenseMemory, and More Than a Notion: snapshots from a marriage. Her plays appeared in performance and readings with companies such as Crossroads Theatre Company, Plowshares Theatre Company, and MPAACT.
Professoriate: A Balance of Life and Theatre?
Theatre has always been part of Dixon-Mays’ life. A childhood of community theatre, children’s theatre, and church theatre embedded performance as a natural aspect of life, though not necessarily as practical profession. Of making the decision to enter a PhD program, Dixon-Mays says, “I believed that I wanted to be a professor, and I wanted to choose something where I was passionate. I did ask myself, ‘Why a PhD? Why not an MFA?’ I wanted to focus on the literary criticism, on being the historian. I could envision myself more as a professor; that suited me better than being a practitioner.”
Dixon-Mays certainly had production experience. While she majored in psychology in college at Yale, additionally studying playwriting and criticism, Dixon-Mays was also an actor, mostly in shows outside the department. “So you were always interdisciplinary?” I ask. Dixon-Mays describes how integrating fields continued for her during her Master’s in African American studies at UCLA. The degree permitted a concentration, and hers was playwriting. Thus, Dixon-Mays had courses with MFA playwriting students and had plays developed into production in the same process as the MFA playwrights.
Even with theatre practice alongside her rigorous academic experiences, Dixon-Mays envisioned herself solely in the professor role, “for what I thought was a sense of security: you could know your job every day, where to go and do it. Also my parents were teachers, and so I thought, continue in the family business. Another PhD option had directing as part of the work, and I didn’t want that. But halfway through my program, I realized how limited a world the academy is, and even more than that, I realized how hard it is to have a balanced life. I finished the program, because I had already done all this work, and maybe it was a point of pride to say that I did. So I did finish it.”
Dramaturgy of Living: Leaving the Academy
Through the immersive rounds of job talks and sending out CVs, Dixon-Mays found that the academic jobs didn’t appeal to her. She stayed in Chicago, since it is a large city and was likely to have some range of opportunities. Then, at a job fair for undergraduates, she “stumbled into branding…I went to someone and said, ‘I’m not an undergrad but I am looking for a job.’ And she said, well, this thing and this other thing may not be right for your skills, but there is this thing called brand planning, and because you have psychology in your background, and cultural studies, and creative work, this might be right for you.”
When I ask Dixon-Mays to say more about what brand planning is, the interview becomes a process of discovery for her as well as for me. “I came to understand it as kind of like being the dramaturg!” she says. “We are responsible for representing the target consumer to the client: the world that the consumer lives in, what they want, and we ground everyone in the truth of the product. And we use that truth to create strategies for a brand’s advertising, designs, products, events, etc.” I tell her how fascinating it is that she could make that connection, and she laughs. “Yeah, I began to see it with the copywriter as the playwright, client services as the director, and the art director as the designer. Brand planning was dramaturgy. It helped to see it that way. It was key for me to figure out how to explain the connection of my studies to brand planning—first to myself, so I could explain it to others. Articulating that these are the skills that I’m using was crucial. You have to educate people on what otherwise seems like a narrow collection of academic experiences.”
Given the diversity of experience and credentials in Dixon-Mays’ online presence, her concern of appearing “narrow” stands out to me. I mention the wide range of work on her webpage. Additionally, I ask her to share the logistics of working in brand planning. “When are you working project to project, and when are you on staff with a company?”
“I have always been on staff,” Dixon-Mays responds. “Companies may work on retainer for one company, or bid on jobs with a client. So I can have multiple clients while at the same company.” I point out how that allows for diverse experiences, and echoes her consistently interdisciplinary journey. “That is probably something that I was craving when thinking about being a professor. I was thinking that I wouldn’t be stimulated with thinking about the same thing all the time. Now I have to admit, back then I had a limited view of being a professor. Now I know that there are many who work on different projects, who find ways to stay stimulated and find ways to stay relevant. Also, today, self-promotion and accessibility are more acceptable. You can be a biologist and write a really approachable book about anatomy for laypeople. At that time, I wasn’t aware of that type of academic.”
Keeping Up with Writing Outside the Academy
Dixon-Mays has numerous publications and writing fellowships to her credit. I ask if the writing experiences were parallel with her work in brand planning. She replies that while the academic chapters were generated when she was still in academia, the poetry compilations and anthologies are parallel and current. I encourage her to please share some of the structure of her life that preserves her creative time, and she laughs. Dixon-Mays says that she never thought about it before; she finds the question affirming, and it mirrors back to her that she’s doing something inspirational.
“When I first graduated, I walked away from any form of writing. I was grieving… mourning, I think. Then I got an itch.” She submitted applications and was accepted to a writing retreat. “In 2004, I came back from Amsterdam, where I was working as a brand planner. I had written there about the experience of living abroad. In order to share with family and colleagues what it was like, I got into the habit of regular writing. And when I came back, I submitted a poem to the Guild. The submission and selection meant that I had to perform, and it lit something in me.”
Dixon-Mays references the Guild Literary Complex, a respected, twenty-five-year-old, literary presenting collective in Chicago with the likes of Gwendolyn Brooks, Ana Castillo, and Alex Kotlowitz in its legacy. Dixon-Mays has submitted work, performed, and served as a past Executive Director across her relationship with the Guild. In 2004, however, the executive director role was still an unthinkable responsibility—Dixon-Mays still considered herself “just” a writer.
“The then executive director approached me, and invited me to be the artistic director of the Guild’s new Poetry Performance Incubator Project.” Dixon-Mays explains that PPI brings poets together to write original theatre pieces. PPI has multiple objectives: to make the traditionally solitary practice of poetry more collaborative and to explore an alternative to the “slam” model of performing poetry. She continues, “I didn’t think I was capable of directing the actors and the piece, so I chose to be an incubate instead. That got me into writing consistently. There was expectation and deadline and the habit of writing new pieces to help populate this project.
Finally, in the phase I’m in now, I try to I write daily—I know I can’t just wait for the weekend. Almost every morning I write something, on the train, or before I leave, and spend the weekend digging into it and polishing work. I’m getting up earlier than I need to, so that I can write. Also in this new phase, I’m more disciplined about submitting work.”
I asked how often she submits, and Dixon-Mays shares her practice. “Three times a month, for a couple hours, I look through all my listservs and check submission deadlines. I submit maybe two times per month.” She quotes herself: “This one is April 1st, there’s April 7th...” Laughing, she says, “It’s my guilt list!” However, now, Dixon-Mays also craves some balance between her written and spoken word experiences. “I would also like to come up with some sort of routine for myself to share work regularly through live performance.
Entrepreneurship in the Academy and in Theatre
I re-visit the purpose of the Outside Academia interviews, and mirror to Dixon-Mays that how she describes becoming the Guild’s executive director exemplifies the push toward the entrepreneurial not just in theatre, and not just as a response in competitive job markets, but in any field or discipline today. “And, as executive director, it was a return to theatre: I was planning and putting on live events with performers, audience…it had the excitement of theatre and also the burden of it!”
Dixon-Mays returns to the idea of self-promotion and offers an example. “That was a learning curve: self-promotion, building community, building connections. Just recently I talked with a professor in Race Studies and public policy about how to promote her projects and develop a communications strategy that would raise visibility for her work. She reflected back that having both academic and brand planning backgrounds is an asset. She said, ‘It’s not just me. Several academics would welcome help and perspective on how to promote their work for the greater good.’”
The intersection of the academic and branding reminds me of language on Dixon-Mays’ “business” page of her website. “I see that favorite tools include ethnographic observation and co-creation! Say more about how you integrated those terms, because those are familiar to your theatre community.”
Dixon-Mays exclaims, with some surprise. “I hadn’t made this connection...!—Those are very common words in design! Wow. I use those words because of my most recent work in design strategy.” Dixon-Mays continues to marvel at the colliding of her worlds. “But right, they’re not just words that people use in design! Creating interaction; structures, spaces, experiences – that’s theatre and performing arts too. So I was drawn to that aspect of branding…how audiences connect with something and take something away with them.”
I thank Dixon-Mays for her time, and for transparency in sharing her unknowns, re-routings, inspirations, and routines. Dixon-Mays thanks me, with great sincerity, for the interview and how the reflection celebrates her path. Articulating the connections, she says, “Makes me feel a little taller.”