By Karen Lee Ott
I wonder why I start by saying what it’s NOT. Because it is so often misunderstood?
I wonder how theater--inherently conservative, cliché- and type-based--can still be mined for truth?
I wonder how a director bends and reshapes a piece of material to make me sit on the edge of my seat and almost stop breathing (Ivo von Hove’s direction of a Miller play)?
These are not new questions for the form, but still I am curious to understand how a well-made play can be left behind and something else can erupt to capture our attention and create an as-of-yet undiscovered path toward meaning. Leave the structured, illustrative painting for expressionist gestures that still cohere. Rather than leading the audience through a logical plot, how does a new form of play carry them along—what are the touchstones? What is a play without character?
Paula Vogel once said to a small room of playwrights that the play is a journey, which is a highway. There are on and off ramps that are analogous to a play’s digressions, but it holds together only if the audience has the signage to get off and back on without becoming irreparably lost. Elinor Fuchs, parsing Aristotle, explained that the Action of a story is the Mountain; the plot is the Path (of the skier, in her example) the protagonist takes to ski down it. So, there are many potential plots but only one Action.
I wonder what questions are useful to the playwright, the director, or the actors? How should we be framing the piece? Why are we doing this? What is the world of this play? And refining the questions, so they continue to serve the process.
Anne Bogart’s physical approach, which starts with Suzuki training, an almost militaristic form that puts actors in their bodies, is one example of how one can move down to the roots of the culture that forms us by first transcending the intellect.
The paths to life as dramaturgy come from deep within and began developing unconsciously. My introduction to modern art was through French language class in high school. That’s where I first glimpsed the fragmentation, juxtapositions, and absurdities that characterize Dada and surrealism. Art and architecture are inherent components of European culture, not separated studies of elites. The old world encompasses history whereas the new one forgets it in favor of innovation. Yet look to the innovative design that shows up in certain truly progressive countries to integrate the new with the old. I think it’s a myth that America is shiny and new. It is rusty and old in many ways, and not keeping pace with the planet’s needs. The shortsightedness of decision makers who accumulate funds for projects at hand is counterproductive to the long-term planning necessary to make America function for all.
I remember the first time someone told me about formal dramaturgy. I had been stage managing at the Ridiculous Theatrical Company for a season. We were standing on a subway platform after a rehearsal for a very intentionally silly new musical. The director was telling me about his experience in the dramaturgy program at Yale. Mostly I remember it all sounded fascinating and the variables endless, unlike in stage management where after a few seasons you’ve dealt with it all and fixed it all. To be a dramaturg is to be a lifelong student of representation, text, form, and reception. For a supremely visual and verbal person, the theater offers the locus for the potential integration of all of these aesthetic elements plus the visceral, human aspect.
There are plenty of life lessons to be learned from the backstage, too. The most important thing I learned in a tech booth was to forgive myself immediately if I made a mistake. I’m talking about a light cue. If you missed one, and panicked, you were going to miss the next one as well. I think every single person who wants to create theater should stage manage first. Joe Papp notoriously picked up a broom during his first job. The halls of academe don’t prepare one for life on or off stage, but the other thing every single person in theater needs to do is to read. Read things other than plays, I mean, alongside all the plays.
Karen Lee Ott (dramaturg/editor/translator) has been company dramaturg with Untitled Theater Company (UTC #61) since its Ionesco Festival (2001). Awards: Presidential Scholarship/Dramaturgy (Columbia University); Academic grant to study/work in Paris (French Consulate); JP Adler Memorial Scholarship (American Jewish Theatre). Usual suspect, NYTW. Board member, UTC #61. Founding member, Nomad Theatrical Company. She was honored to participate in an America-in-Play cohort, led by Lynn M. Thomson and Dominic Taylor. Playwriting Award Reviewer: New Dramatists/Princess Grace; FringeNYC. Studied French literature (University of Chicago); art history/polisci (Sarah Lawrence/Paris); and dramaturgy and translation (CU).