My Vision of Dramaturgy

Recently, I took classes on dramaturgy. It surprised me. I had a really bad vision of dramaturgy from the 1990s. That’s when I heard about the Rent lawsuit and the Dramatists Guild’s statements about it. Because of that, my vision of dramaturgy involved dramaturgs being interlopers. They were people who theaters imposed on playwrights and who might even steal work or credit from them!

Not true. The classes opened my eyes to the benefits of dramaturgy. Not only that, but I honestly believe that if there was a dramaturg on some of my own productions, I would’ve been spared some awkward and painful experiences. And it got me thinking how I wouldn’t mind becoming more involved with dramaturgy.

The teacher asked us all to write a kind of mission statement as to how we would see ourselves as dramaturgs. This is a draft of my vision of dramaturgy. Obviously it will evolve with time.

Because I’m also a playwright, I am interested in preserving the intention of the script and empowering the playwright in the new play process. I am always shocked by how often theaters are changing words without the playwright’s permission or even subverting themes to serve the director’s vision. I’ve also attended several acting classes in various cities/states in this region where the director/teacher has told students playwrights don’t write their own stage directions in published scripts. On a personal note, I’ve had bad experiences getting my own plays produced, with directors shutting me out of the process, rather than viewing me as a resource. In this way, my role would be more as mediator/conflict resolution in the new play process between director and playwright.

I would like to bring voices from rural areas to the mainstream. Living off the beaten path has helped me realize that the cultural exchange between cities and rural areas has been one-sided. When I have made this observation before, many people jump to the conclusion that I’m talking about politics or conservative values. That is simply not true. I’m talking about what transcends all of that – what binds us together as human beings. I believe art from places that are usually unheard in theater will enlighten and inform people who live in cities. Many times you aren’t getting the full story if your primary information source is cable news.

I am excited by work that has requires attention to detail, such as documentary theater, verbatim theater or historical dramas. In particular, I would like to help provide context for the script – making the theater larger than the stage. Connecting these stories and helping people to “walk into” the experience is very exciting. 

Finally, I would like to bring a holistic approach to dramaturgy. I am still formulating how to do this, but being a certified meditation teacher has given me techniques that can help groups become more cohesive. 

Working in a Literary Office at a Theater Company

(The following is a Gasp entry from August 7, 2006. It was titled “Karmic Implications.” It has been lightly edited from its original post for clarification and typos.)

In the early 90s, I graduated from NYU Tisch with two degrees in playwriting, several awards (including “Playwright with Most Potential”) and a wealth of experience from working in the downtown New York theater scene.

Before I finished my undergrad coursework, I interned at Circle Repertory Company. During the summer of 1991, I worked in the literary office during the day and crewed their mainstage play at night.

The Literary Manager left the job shortly before I was hired, so three literary interns (including myself) were left to our own devices.

Outside the door to the literary office were wooden shelves filled with hundreds of manila envelopes. Each envelope contained a draft of a “Circle Rep” play. This meant that I could read a very early draft of Burn This, and then each subsequent draft that Lanford Wilson wrote. By reading along, I could observe the development and thought process of the writer.

I spent every moment at the literary office, reading draft after draft of famous plays by famous writers.

A member of the artistic staff suggested that we might want to read some of the work that was being sent to the company. Inside the office, there were stacks of plays collecting dust. Each play was placed in the “agent pile” or the “slush pile”. My fellow interns and I weren’t supposed to touch the agent pile, but I was curious. The clear blue plastic binders made the William Morris plays stand out, and I wondered what it took for an agent to like your play. How good did it really have to be?

I snuck a peak at a few of those scripts. After I finished, I respectfully placed them back on the pile. My question, however, remained unanswered. But if an agent likes your play, then it must be a good play… Right?

I turned back to our “slush pile” – the plays without the fancy clear blue plastic binders. Each intern was to grab a play from the pile and read. It was never stated,  but we knew that this was the pile we had to reject. And we did, because we were also in charge of writing rejections. The intern who had been there the longest showed us how to write the inevitable letter.

“Thank you for sending us your play, NAME OF PLAY. Although we found it very FILL IN WITH ADJECTIVE ENDING IN ING we cannot accept it at this time.”The second paragraph had to state what we liked about the play, and then what we didn’t like about it.“Sincerely, YOUR NAME.”

We cut through the pile quickly because we prided ourselves on being tough. “Ibsen would never make it through this office,”the oldest intern declared. We nodded in agreement and laughed.

Sometimes, if a play was particularly heinous, we took turns standing on chairs and acting out parts… Giggling all the way through.

One day, a staff member caught on to the fact that there were three literary interns in an office, laughing their asses off. He gave us a “criticism test” to determine if we were capable of critiquing a play. Two out of the three of us passed. The one who flunked cited “character delineation” as his reason for rejecting every play he read.

I’m not certain what happened to him after that, but he forever owns the words “character delineation.”

Earlier that summer, the guy who flunked told me he was psychic. “You are going to be successful – eventually – but you’ll be paying your dues for an awful lllllooooonnnnnggggg time.”

Over a decade later, I’d think about the karmic implications of that summer. I’d think about the writers who received the rejections we wrote. I’d consider the futility of sending work out at all.

I’d wonder why I didn’t ask him to define a “lllllooooonnnnngggg time.” What did it mean, “paying your dues?” Is it possible to pay too much?

I’m going to tell you the story of how I got to where I am, what decisions led to other decisions, how I ended up in a place I never thought I’d be. This is a story without a conclusion, but with some resolution.

Then I’ll move on to other matters.