One of the most exciting events in the DC theater season took place last month not at a gala or a glitzy premiere but in the basement of a small church near Dupont Circle. The audience had gathered for a workshop presentation of a new play, an inauspicious event on its own, but one with great significance, because it was helmed by Elizabeth Dinkova, the incoming artistic director at Spooky Action Theater, and the face of renewed hope for a theater company whose very survival was in doubt just one year ago.
Conflict at Spooky Action (as reported by DC Theater Arts and Washington City Paper) made headlines last year, resulting in the acrimonious departure of Spooky Action founder Richard Henrich and a reshuffling of the theater’s board. Under the interim leadership of Gavin Witt, Spooky Action carried out a search for Henrich’s replacement, choosing Dinkova from among a competitive pool of diverse applicants.
I spent a recent morning getting to know Beth, as her friends and colleagues call her, and came away with a renewed sense of excitement for the small, imaginative theater that operates out of the basement space of the Universalist National Memorial Church in DC’s bustling Dupont Circle neighborhood. Smart, observant, and effervescent, Dinkova seems to be just the breath of fresh air needed to bring Spooky Action back from the brink.
First the facts: Dinkova was born in Bulgaria and came to the U.S. as a college student pursuing a double major in theater and psychology. “I worked with rats and pigeons by day and actors by night,” Dinkova quipped with what I soon gleaned was her characteristic wit. “I learned a lot about both species’ capacity for empathy and creativity.”
Dinkova’s first job after college was in Studio Theatre’s artistic apprentice program, where she worked as an assistant director shadowing artistic director David Muse and also assisting Michael Kahn (founder and former artistic director of Shakespeare Theatre Company). Studio Theatre’s dramaturg, Adrien-Alice Hansel, remembers her from that time as a fantastic collaborator. “She’s smart, creative, reliable, and kind,” Hansel says. “She’s a great communicator and her taste is distinctive. She really hungers for collaboration, which I think will be fantastic for all the artists who will now get to work with her.”
After a few other jobs — including a stint working with a German theater company at DC’s Goethe Institute, where she reimagined classical works, something she says has been a hallmark of her work from her earliest days as a director — Dinkova became one of the youngest students ever admitted into the three-year MFA directing program at the Yale School of Drama.
At Yale, program chair Elizabeth Diamond quickly became a mentor. The small, demanding program admits just three students per year, and Dinkova’s tiny class became so close that they each got matching tattoos upon graduation with a line from Macbeth, “in thunder, lightning, or in rain,” written in Diamond’s handwriting.
After Yale, Dinkova relocated to Atlanta, Georgia, where she became an artistic leadership apprentice at the Alliance Theatre. “Being in the American South for the first time was a culture shock to me,” Dinkova recalls of her time in Georgia. “It was really helpful for me to see that part of the country. There are a lot of prejudices and stereotypes about people in the South and questions of inclusion and diversity. I started to think of my job as a mediator and ambassador for theater across different socioeconomic groups.”
While at Alliance Theatre, Dinkova worked with the marketing and audience engagement departments “to try to make sure that the values in the artistic room were also present in the ways we talk to audiences and communicate around the workplace.”
She also had the opportunity to create her own projects. One topic that interested her? Guns. The Gun Show, as the project came to be called, “was a market for ideas and viewpoints around gun culture because Atlanta was the first place I ever interacted with people who were interested in guns and I really wanted to understand why. I talked to people of color, women, artists, and in that process discovered that things are more complicated than they may appear.”
Dinkova’s next stop was Atlanta’s 7 Stages Theatre, where she produced multi-disciplinary festivals and worked with the artistic director to create a team of associate artistic directors (she was one of them) “to think about ways to democratize leadership on a small theater scale.”
In between, she produced a few large interdisciplinary festivals that invited artists from around the world and the U.S. to collaborate on festivals including dance, music, film, and theater. “The idea of crossing borders and ignoring artificial boundaries between stories or art forms is something I’ve been interested in,” Dinkova points out as she discusses these festivals.
Then COVID shut the world down, leading Dinkova back to the classroom, where she began lecturing on theater at the university level and devising “a bunch of strange, utopian works virtually with a Canadian University.”
And now, Spooky Action.
Face to face with Dinkova, one is immediately impressed by her quick mind and clever turns of phrase — her command of the English language surpasses that of most native speakers and one can almost see sparks fly as she excitedly conveys her thoughts on theater. “As an immigrant, I am interested in questions of belonging and the scary, bloody, painful but also beautiful process of building community. We throw around this idea of community a lot in theater, but the reality is that it’s much more complicated than just getting a group of people to congregate in the same space. I’m often drawn to stories about outsiders and celebrating their resilience.”
Indeed, listening to Dinkova describe her philosophy, it is hard not to be struck by the contrast between her and Spooky’s former leadership.
“Being a catalyst for voices that collide is my artistic happy place. I don’t love being the sole writer of things. I like working with other people. I like creating a brave space where people can explore things that might be challenging. In that way, I think my interest in directing and what theater can do for a community naturally translated into artistic leadership.”
And I am not alone in my admiration. Dinkova’s former colleagues were quick to respond to my queries with effusive praise for the young director.
“Beth’s work at Yale was full of life — both formally inventive and emotionally true,” recalls Yale’s Liz Diamond. “Hearty, joyful, and brilliant are the words I use to describe Beth Dinkova.”
The excitement about Dinkova’s arrival is palpable among those who remained with Spooky Action or joined after Henrich’s departure. Gillian Drake, Spooky Action board member and director of the theater’s new works program, was instrumental in bringing Dinkova to Spooky Action. (Drake and Dinkova both stressed that Henrich has been very gracious when they have reached out to him with questions since his retirement.)
“She is the real deal,” Drake says. “She is serious-minded, incredibly generous and has vision and sensitivity when she talks theater. She is all about bringing people into a space and finding the common, emotionally based moment where we can all feel, breathe, and imagine together.”
That sensitivity and sense of collaboration were on full display at the Spooky Action reading last month of Syrena, which Dinkova co-wrote and co-created along with Jesse Rasmussen and Ashley James. A piece of devised theater, Syrena began as a screenplay about a mermaid that arrives at a migrant detention camp. But mermaids are much more than singing children’s characters in Dinkova’s hands. “The siren is one of the few symbols of freedom that crosses cultures,” Dinkova says. “They symbolize the power of the voice to literally and figuratively shake the foundations of exploitative systems. In a cultural moment where women’s rights were being taken away, there is a real investment in conversations about who belongs in the U.S., who is a foreigner, and who is allowed to be here. It is important to investigate the ways we look at otherness.”
Dinkova and her collaborators asked themselves what a present-day mermaid story, combined with the various immigration crises happening around the world, would look like. “We decided to use the surreal aspect of a siren appearing at a refugee center as a catalyst for a conversation about how a community negotiates otherness.”
With funding from Yale’s’ Midnight Oil Collective, Dinkova had been workshopping the show around the country with the goal of creating a semi-documentary-style film. But then Spooky asked her for a project that could kick off her tenure at the theater.
“Gillian [Drake] asked me to think about a project that incorporates serious conversations about our shared humanity but has a magical element and I said boy do I have a project for you!”
The reading, performed by five local actors — Surasree Das, Jordanna Hernandez, Raghad Makhlouf, Deema Turkomani, and Jacqueline Youm, who each have their own migration story — was attended by a sold-out audience of enthusiastic Spooky Action fans, people who were well aware that they were watching something far more significant than a mere play reading. They were watching a theater rise from the ashes in the hands of a new and capable leader.
Shortly after the reading of Syrena, Dinkova returned to Connecticut to conclude the semester at Quinnipiac University and pack up her life before relocating to DC. Dinkova will officially begin her tenure at Spooky Action on May 1. She has no illusions that the job will be easy.
“We are obviously working in a treacherous climate for small theaters and nonprofits from a financial and cultural standpoint,” she says. “But there is something extraordinary about the potential of small, intimate theater to create some of these connections and see the world in a visceral, new way. Spooky Action’s programming decisions have always been so joyfully distinct, and I would love for it to continue to define its identity as a hub for aesthetically boundary-pushing work and urgent, global conversations.”
Elizabeth Dinkova named new Spooky Action Theater artistic director (news story, March 9, 2023)