Contributed by Guest Blogger of the week, John Patrick Bray.
In my first two blogs, I examined what I feel to be the quintessential American Theatre (Theatre of the U.S.). In the first blog, I examined the Independent Theatre model, specifically, the Cite des Arts in Lafayette, Louisiana, and how it escapes some of the totalizing of the commercial Regional theatre via the (unspoken) motto of “have theatre, bring show.” In the second blog, I championed the plethora of independent theatres that create the Off-Off-Broadway community, focusing specifically on a few of the companies that I have the most familiarity with. In each blog, I have suggested that the NYC independent theatre is vibrant, and while it stands at the threshold of defining itself, I have cautioned that it needs to avoid some of the traps that previous models have fallen into. That is, models that have attempted to provide an outlet for regional artists have fallen victim to commercialism, often in the name of survival, resulting in the inability to serve the artists of the immediate community. It is my hope that Off-Off-Broadway and independent theatres around the country will continue to provide a home for artists who are not necessarily “names,” and who do not fit the profile of the majority of successful regional artists.
Many of my opinions about the commercial theatre vs. indie theatre come from my experiences as a playwright and as a dramaturge. There was a time when I thought, “Geez, am I crazy? Am I the only one who feels this way?” But then two events occurred, practically simultaneously. The first was the publication of OUTRAGEOUS FORTUNE: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF THE NEW AMERICAN PLAY, which I spoke about in my first blog. The second was a meeting with a dramaturge from a major regional company who spoke to a group of PhD students at LSU about the life of a dramaturge in new play development. During the course of the conversation, she told us that most playwrights do not know how to write a play anymore, and how dare they waste the dramaturge’s “precious time?” As a result, she solicits scripts during an open submission period without reading the submitted scripts (?!?!?!), and feels that open submissions should be done away with all together. After all, dramaturges know playwrights, why not just ask them for scripts? By the by, this dramaturge has an MFA from an Ivy League institution. The playwright she asked? Also an Ivy Leaguer.
Rather than fume over this, I think the best course of action is to consider the role of a dramaturge. You’ve heard the word before, right? Maybe you’ve been one. Maybe you’ve been one and haven’t even known it (the magic of theatre!). So, what exactly does a dramaturge do? Or, better yet, what are they supposed to do? For most of us, it’s kind of hard to exactly put our collective finger on it. What I have come to understand is that a dramaturge wears, primarily, one of three hats.
The first: the dramaturge performs research alongside a director in order to heighten the historical-socioeconomic context of an established work. The dramaturge may give a presentation to the cast and crew, or perform specific tasks in terms of historical research (so, if a dramaturge is working on a Restoration play, perhaps he or she will research the various ways to flirt with a fan). While a director, I believe, should conduct a majority of their own historical research when approaching a work, as a means of creating a coherent concept, I believe the dramaturge may help fill in some of the historical gaps, and be a go-to person if and when questions arise which require additional research.
The second hat is new play development; that is, a dramaturge sometimes doubles as a literary manager. So, the dramaturge solicits scripts which fit the vision of the company as dictated by the artistic director. If a company says they seek “diverse voices,” you need to read a little more closely. Each company has, for better or for worse, its own ideology; so, as a playwright (I try like hell to speak from experience here), I need to get the sense of which company might be interested in which work. Once a work is accepted, it is up to the dramaturge to help the playwright develop his or her work. Again, this is tricky. Playwrights are very protective of their work, and rightfully so, considering the reality of development hell (the dramaturge who sat in with us at LSU claims that “developmental hell is a myth”; um…playwrights, back me up here?). So, it’s up to the dramaturge to get on the same proverbial page as the playwright and make sure that the playwright’s work is being served, while also making sure that the work stays within the margins of the company’s mission statement. This is often easier said than done. And if the dramaturge fails, they become the enemy to everyone (which could explain, but certainly not excuse, the behavior of the professional dramaturge who sat in with us).
The third hat has to do with community outreach and audience building: talk-backs after productions, lectures at libraries and colleges, etc. This is where the workshop readings come into play, which – as many playwrights such as Richard Nelson, James Ryan, Jeffrey Sweet, and Edward Albee have remarked – have more to do with satisfying grants for a company rather than serving the needs of a script. I personally do not feel that the two need to be mutually exclusive, but over the years that has become more and more the case. Another problem with this model is that if a reading is lip-service to a playwright and lip-service to an audience who will hopefully come back and spend money, then in the end no one is being served, and everyone is getting a kind of subtextual “f*** you.” This warrants further evaluation (even further than that provided in OUTRAGEOUS FORTUNE). Certainly there has to be some way to make this model work? Another topic for another time.
So, the dramaturge has a host of responsibilities, depending on which production they are serving, or which theatre company they are hired to work with. My favorite two personal examples were when I was the dramaturge for the “punk-rock” themed Antigone at LSU. My wife and I spent a lot of time digging through our records and burning CDs. The other example is when I was coordinator for “It’s Scary, Y’all! Horror Fest 2009” at LSU. I produced four one-act plays (one was my own; the other three were written by LSU undergrads), directed and designed by students. I let them stretch their imaginations. The result was fun, incredibly GOREY, and had Intro to Theatre students (our primary audience) saying things like, “Man, I never knew you could do that in the theatre!” That was probably the greatest thrill of all.
Where is the problem with dramaturgy? If a dramaturge is randomly assigned to a playwright or director, the dramaturge first has the task of explaining his or her role, followed by the never ending justification of their position. Also, the dramaturge can be a problem by soliciting scripts during an open submission process, not reading the scripts, approaching scripts with cynicism, or, okay I’m stepping in it, trying to sue the estate of a playwright claiming authorial credit on a work they helped develop. If anything, that makes the dramaturge look even more like a nuisance. Bottom line, a bad experience with one dramaturge can poison the well for everyone else. I have heard directors say “I’m never working with playwright J. Smith again, he’s a real pain in the ass,” but I have never heard a director say “I am never working with any playwright ever again.” On the other hand, I have heard directors swear off dramaturges after one poor experience. Imagine if I had no awareness of the dramaturge position when I met up with the so-called professional at LSU? I might have been tempted to do the same.
Dramaturgy is both the most exciting and also the worst job in the American theatre. The successful dramaturge, in my opinion, resists burn-out and cynicism, approaches new works with an eye toward the uncanny, and is the silent bodyguard of the American theatre by trying to keep it fresh, alive, plural, and culturally important (which should really be a given; I think we spend too much time trying to justify theatre rather than treating its importance as a commonplace). My hope is that the dramaturge in the independent theatre, and in the academy, is aware of their great responsibility to the plurality of American theatre (again, here defined as Indie theatre of the U.S.), resisting the tendency to look at other models that may have worked for other plays. After all, if each play is different, why treat them all the same?
John Patrick Bray (ABD, MFA)