As Director of New Works at the DC Black Theatre Festival, you could say August Bullock is the guardian at the gate. But rather than fiercely confronting all who approach, Bullock specializes in welcoming, fostering, training, and encouraging emerging playwrights as they take their next steps.
“You’re there because you have passion,” he says of his job. It’s challenging work. And “it’s fun helping people get their story to a level where it can be shared and maybe inspire others.”
Bullock is the perfect person to be curating the scripts submitted to the Pacific Northwest Multi Cultural Readers Series & Film Festival. Of the 50 plays the festival has received, Bullock and his committee have worked to whittle them down to 30.
“It’s been a difficult decision,” he says. “I’ve been impressed with the work. Some are ready to go on stage. Some have a good sense of plot,” he adds, ” a good sense of theme and character development.”
The festival readings will include “everything from family issues to LGBTQ issues to some history. It’s going to be a great variety of topics.”
Bullock’s work fostering emerging playwrights has roots in his 40-year career as an educator, as one of two maybe three Black administrators in schools and offices where his proposed pedagogies met with intrenched resistance.
“I never took the option of letting these bad practices go by, or letting kids be hurt,” he says.
“Turn the other cheek, I just couldn’t do that.”
His challenge as a teacher was guiding non-readers to the written word. He had his students adopt characters and read dialogues from Weekly Reader, Highlights, and comic books. They learned comprehension. Their vocabularies improved. They loved it.
“That joy was greater than any resistance that I got,” he recalls. “You would see kids grow and see them become better at whatever they were doing. What you went through was worth it.”
Throughout Bullock’s life, theatre has always been a thread. He was a work-study student in the theatre department at Virginia Union University, an HBCU in Richmond, Va. On stage, backstage, lighting, front of house.
“Coming up I was always involved,” he says. In high school, “I played football in the fall and, when football was over, I’d audition for the spring productions.”
Bullock went to high school in Newport News – Virginia’s Tidewater region. In fact, he says one of his favorite past times is crabbing for the area’s famous blue crab.
“I’m a better crabber than a fisherman,” he says. What he’s best at is grilling.
“Being a southern person, you’ve got to learn to barbecue,” he says. Ribs, chicken, steak, fish, are all fair candidates for Bullock’s grill. “Vegetables, as well,” he adds. “To be health conscious.”
Growing up Bullock says, “I didn’t have the kind of life movies are made of. We went to church, celebrated holiday gatherings, had summer get-togethers playing games and things. It makes me very thankful.”
In addition to his parents and family, another major life influence was his sixth-grade teacher, Mr. Tabb.
“He’d ask questions and challenge our thinking,” says Bullock, who was considered a shy child. “I came alive. I wanted to do that for other people.”
Bullock’s first script evolved through the influence of his mother, Margaret Bullock, a poet and artist. He started by following that perennial good advice – “Write what you know.”
Bullock wrote In the Lounge, and submitted it to the DC Black Theatre Festival, “with no expectations,” he says. They called. “The people who read it said, ‘We always wondered what went on in the teachers’ lounge. You put us there.'”
Bullock has subsequently written and produced one-act plays and scripts for children’s theatre. He recently completed TOXIC, a one act comedy/drama.
Ten years ago, as he was moving toward retirement, the DC Black Theatre Festival called again. Their New Works Readers Theatre needed direction.
“It didn’t take much for me to say ‘yes.'”
Bullock has discovered “So many stories out there that are resting in closets or at the bottom of the bureau drawer. These stories need to be told.”
He said he’s seen, over and over again, the creative benefits of readers theatre to emerging playwrights.
“We believe you can have a show with lasers, and lights, and all kinds of special effects, but if that script is bad, you have a bad play,” he points out.
PNMC Festival Readings
Readings “Create an environment that’s safe for participants and playwrights to talk, respectfully, and give ideas in the form of feedback. The best way to develop a good script, we believe, is getting feedback from an audience. Ultimately that’s who you’re reaching out to – on stage and screen.”
Of the plays he and his committee are selecting for the PNMC Festival, Bullock says “The plots area pretty interesting. Once you start reading you don’t want to stop.”
Some of them are a little bit long, he says. “You tend to look at the back to see where they’re going.” Some are for adults, with rough language. Some are heart-string pullers.
“There are some very good characters in some of these plays, too,” he says.
“Some of them are quite good. I can see possibly staging them at some point.”
In his time, Bullock says he’s seen major changes in theatre and how it’s done.
“Today it’s much more inclusive. You can bring in stories and plays that were one time considered taboo or not worthy.” Today, ” you’re open to a cross section. Before, you had to stay in two lanes or you weren’t even considered.” Today, “we see the value in developing and fostering talents, people who come with the desire to work.”
Bullock appreciates that there are “so many stories out there that people are now feeling empowered to share. I’m proud to be part of encouraging that.”