Saturday, April 30, 2016

Dramaturgical Practice Is Not a Theoretical Endeavor…but a quirky, subjective process of listening and responding.

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).

Friday, April 29, 2016

Honesty: Not the Best Policy, But the Clearest

By Natalie Zutter

One of the best compliments I’ve gotten is that my work is very honest. It was also, the first time it was given, a backhanded compliment—a suggestion that maybe I would be wise to scale things back, to not quite “say it like it is.” This is ironic, considering that much of my work is couched in layers of sci-fi and speculative fiction metaphor, that it explores the far reaches of outer space, the space between comic-book panels, the cracks in time.

I don’t like to bullshit; I’m good at it, but when given the opportunity, I discard that shield. Speaking directly and articulating the weird, uncomfortable stuff—especially the weird, uncomfortable stuff—helps. It’s something I do when I’m hit with anxiety; I say my irrational fears out loud because then we’ll all agree how ridiculous they actually sound. It’s the same with my writing, especially when it comes to the power dynamics I can’t help but see in almost every interaction: Let’s shine a spotlight on the difficult dichotomy of wanting to tear down other women and build them up; let’s examine the push-and-pull of a “friends with benefits” relationship when one person treats the other like more of an object than a human.

Sex With Robots. Photo by Kacey Stamats.
I’ve long struggled with my own power imbalance—the desire to tell out-of-this-dimension stories with the obligation to aim more for naturalism. My first playwriting class, I wrote a dystopian thriller set in a world where marriage was outlawed. It probably should have been a screenplay, but instead of telling me that, my professor firmly said, “I don’t get this,” as if that were the final word. For years it was, and I struggled to find interesting stories.

In the New York indie theater community, I rediscovered that sci-fi/speculative lens, through the work of Mac Rogers and Gideon Productions; through involvement with Caps Lock Theatre’s Sex With Robots Festival and The Brick’s Comic Book Theater Festival. Those uncomfortable power dynamics I highlighted found their stories in (respectively) A Real Boy, about a woman sharing her list of sexual partners with her sex robot FWB; and RETCONtroversy, one superhero’s journey through four bodies and various comic-book identities.

RETCONtroversy. Photo by Anton Nickel.
Also, the guys at Law & Order were on to something; I’ve ripped several stories from the headlines and written short plays about Twitter stalkers, Leonard Nimoy’s nude photography, the celebrity nude photos leak, and even the CIA’s secretive Starbucks. These are stories about body image, confusing and unconsciously predatory sexuality, obsession, and the simple desire to know the name of someone you see every day. They’re dark, and sad, and funny; I hope they make people laugh but then give a soft “ohh” of recognition.

The writer friend who chastised me for being too honest never saw any of my plays, and therefore never saw me as an artist. The indie theater community has.


Natalie Zutter’s plays include A Real Boy, RETCONtroversy, Drinks/The Sincerest Form, and Stealthy Starbucks. Her work has been developed/performed at The Brick’s Comic Book Theater Festival, The Tank, The Secret Theatre, True False Theatre, and TinyRhino. Her play Drinks/The Sincerest Form was further developed during True False Theatre’s inaugural The Polygraph Tests residency, and her play A Real Boy was commissioned for Caps Lock Theatre’s The Sex With Robots Festival. She is a graduate of NYU’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study (with a concentration in Serialized Storytelling and Internet Culture) and current member of the EMG Playwriting Workshop. By day, she is a staff writer for the sci-fi/fantasy website You can find her online @nataliezutter and, and on the New Play Exchange.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Freelance Money Talk, and Nothing But Love

By Kia Rogers

Freelance was not new to me, but the landscape of NYC, navigating theatre jobs was and is still challenging.

As a female designer, I do feel like I have to dress the part, carry myself in a way appropriate to each situation. For instance, when negotiating for fees, I always ask myself “what would my male colleague ask for?” Yes, this is the world we live in. Not, “what am I worth, what amazing talent do I bring to the table....” Would I like this to change? Absolutely. How do I think it will change? By us talking about it, sharing fee information and fee regulation. Don’t feel shame! Talking about money is difficult since we live in a society that often perpetuates secrets and the fear of knowledge. How many of you have taken a freelance job (or any job) and been told not to discuss what you are being paid? Reasons I have been given over the years to keep my salary private:
#1 - Not everyone is getting the same amount, we don’t want them to feel bad
#2 - You are the only one on “contract”
#3 - Actors Equity only allows us to pay folks “this amount” but we’ll just give you two checks to make up the difference.

Dirty Little Secrets
I gave myself this rule: Don’t work on a show that doesn’t pay everyone equally. How do I know about the fees? I ask, politely, but I ask. I understand that there are productions out there that want to produce, and do so on a shoe-string budget. Produce! Love your work, your company, this is your art. I say this with all heart, I don’t want to come across as wagging my finger at anyone, just know that I am not the designer for you. A while back, I stopped taking gigs that paid under what I could afford to take on. (Here is the golden nugget I want to share with all freelancers) Yes. I said “afford to take on”, my monthly budget is ~$2800, that includes rent, utilities, phone and internet, groceries, health insurance (thanks Obama!), Metrocard and basic living expenses. This is my choice, to live by myself, pay all the bills, by myself. Simple math folks, I don’t have a trust fund, my jobs don’t pay into a retirement fund, or my health insurance. Getting paid with 1099s means as freelance, I have to save from every check or risk owing thousands at the end of the year. I look for work to clear about $800 a week, which keeps me in the black. Do I get $800 a week from designing? Sometimes, but not on the showcase code, and rarely with Off-Off Broadway shows. How do I survive? I pick and choose the jobs based on many considerations:
#1 - Do I love working with these artists?
#2 - Do I love this script?
#3 - Is there life for this project/with this company/with these artists after this production?
#4 - Do I want to develop a relationship with these new artists?
#5 - Does the budget allow for equal pay for everyone involved?
#6 - Do I have the monetary cushion to take this on?
#7 - How much time is needed for this project?

It’s freelance, I make all the choices, do I make bad choices? Ha! I don’t like to say “bad choices”, a choice always leads to growth, so no, I never make “bad choices”! I love my life, my choices and this theatre community.

There were many folks along the way who shaped my theatre passion, pointed me in the right direction, and I am so grateful to all of them. I took the lessons they taught me, and made them my own.

Special thanks to Flux Theatre Ensemble and Rising Phoenix Rep, where I am supported artistically, valued as a creative partner/member and always striving for equality. Thanks to New York Innovative Theatre Awards for supporting this blog, asking me to share, and always bringing down the house with their awards parties!!! folks have made a vibrant, loving, hard-working and amazing community I am proud to support and be a part of.

Kia Rogers - Lighting Designer - Off Broadway: Angeles/Almas at BAM Fisher, Made In Heaven at The SoHo Playhouse, Passage through Light and Shadows at Theatre at St. Clement’s, Pressing Empty at Danspace, Sistas The Musical at St. Luke’s. Regional: Thieves by Charlotte Miller in LA. Selkie by Sarah Shaefer in San Francisco. International credits: Associate Lighting Designer for Slutforart/98.6 in Gothenburg, Sweden with Muna Tseng. Tours: The God Box Project with Mary Lou Quinlan, Soledad Barrio & Noche Flamenca and Flamenco Vivo Carlota Santana. Awards: Outstanding Lighting Design for Jane The Plain with the New York Innovative Theatre Awards 2014. Kia has been a creative partner with Flux Theatre Ensemble based in New York City since 2010 -

Saturday, April 23, 2016

True-Life Tales with a Twist

By Kelly Jean Fitzsimmons

Click for OptionsWrite Your Story. Perform Someone Else’s. Almost four years ago, I created a new kind of reading series based around this basic idea. No, YOU Tell It! (NYTI) is a “switched-up” storytelling series dedicated to performing true-life tales with a twist: Each NYTI participant develops their own story on the page and then flips scripts with a partner to present each other’s story on stage.

I have a background in theater as a playwright and an actress, but I created No, YOU Tell It! when I was a student in Fairleigh Dickinson’s low-residency MFA Creative Writing program. Earning my degree in creative nonfiction, I became enthralled by the broad range of personal experience presented by my fellow students during our writing workshops. I wondered what it would be like to not only share in those experiences on the page but to get up and trade stories.

Click for OptionsFor each installment of No, YOU Tell It!, the NYTI creative team, Erika Iverson, Mike Dressel and I, work with a group of four storytellers as they develop their true-life tales based around a theme in a creative writing workshop setting. In about a month, participants go from strangers to collaborators as we all work together to revise their stories on the page. During this time, the storytellers are often far more concerned with doing their partner’s story justice than how their own piece is going to turn out. This communal energy invigorates the performance of the swapped stories and often moves audience members to approach us about taking part in future installments.

While the stories aren't memorized, each of our storytellers participates in a one-on-one rehearsal session with a member of the NYTI creative team to work out how to best embody their partner's story as their own experience. And, as we like to say, give the piece a little “oomph” on stage.

Click for OptionsMy favorite thing about No, YOU Tell It! started by accident. Our first show was packed (a great problem to have), so the switched-up storytellers sat on stage the whole time to make room for the audience. That night, audience members kept watching the person whose story it was, looking for their reactions and what surprised THEM, as their partner presented their story. So many people told us how much they loved watching the writer experience their story being performed that we’ve had the storytellers sit up on stage during the show ever since.

Many No, YOU Tell It! participants want to take part in the series because they wouldn’t have felt comfortable reading their own story in front of an audience, due to the personal nature of the material. Our specialized format of pairing and partnering gives people the opportunity to step out of their comfort zone and develop the stories that need to be told. Also, I love when I see friendships between story partners continue to thrive after the show, whether it be on Facebook or through other artistic collaborations.

Click for OptionsWhat began as me being curious about what it would be like to step into someone else’s shoes has become the most satisfying artistic endeavor of my life. My goal is to keep finding ways for the series to grow. Along with the live shows, we now teach collaborative No, YOU Tell It! workshops that focus on trading true-life tales as a camaraderie-building experience for all involved. Want to host a “switched-up” storytelling workshop at your school, office, or organization? Email us at

This year, we also launched a podcast to help our marvelous No, YOU Tell It! storytellers reach a larger audience. Each episode features a pair of flipped stories from our live shows. Look for us on iTunes or give a listen at


Kelly Jean Fitzsimmons is a writer, teacher, and storyteller. Her recent work has appeared in Hippocampus Magazine, Newtown Literary Journal, Crack the Spine, Liars’ League NYC, Serving House Journal, and Hypertext Magazine. Earning her MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Fairleigh Dickinson University, she combined her love for theater and writing to create No, YOU Tell It! More info and podcast at Follow her on Twitter @NoYouTellIt.