Monday, October 20, 2014

Session 11: 9/24/14

Jeremy here. This has been an exciting fall expansion for the Project, to new social media (Twitter, at #opendramaturgy), and to new locations around the country. And after musing at length on here myself, I'm happy in these remaining couple of blogs for the fall to let some other voices lead the way.

From Amy Freeman, our facilitator in Philadelphia, about this week's session:

Although Philly has only had two Open Office Hours (so far), it's been interesting to see if any patterns have emerged in terms of questions people who drop by have. This past week, two people (both directors) dropped by with specific questions about research. Although the questions were along the lines of "how do I get started. . .?", the end goals of each research question and of each project were vastly different.

Our guest dramaturg, Sally, was able to find specific information in response to the first director's question, and showed it to him at the table. The next question about research required a much more fluid answer, reflecting, I think, the differences between the two projects. One person is working on a play that's been published and produced, it is in some ways already laid out. The other is working on a devised work that's in the very early stages.

The third visitor last week (who actually arrived first) was a playwright. He had specific questions about a work in progress and brought along the first 10 pages for us to read over and discuss. The writer was most concerned about changes in time (past and present) in the piece, and I think Sally and I were able to provide some decent feedback, even with just 10 pages to go on.

This past week had a decidedly different feel to the first week. The first session in Philly was additive - people came with their questions, but then stuck around to hear other people's questions and engage with the conversation. This week, there was more of an individual vibe.

Both are fine, it's just interesting to see people's working styles or preferences emerge in a casual setting.
And from Linda Lombardi, guest dramaturg at the DC location:

When Catherine invited me to be part of open dramaturgy hours, I didn’t know quite what to expect. But I wasn’t surprised when it turned out to be a night talking about plays, writers, and the different roles we play in our respective theaters. More and more theaters are hiring literary managers. It makes sense. The more theaters commit to new plays, the more of a need there is for someone on staff to coordinate all the scripts, playwrights, and agents that inevitably follow.

Over and over I've heard us called gatekeepers. But that implies something to get past. Like you need a secret password. The model Catherine and I both follow is more open. I call myself a bridge builder. She calls herself a matchmaker. Part researcher, part editor, part community organizer, our responsibilities range from script wrangling to actor packets to post-show discussions. We are, so often, the link between the rehearsal room and the audience, between the playwright and the theater. Maybe it's semantics but one model causes the writer to try and gain access while the other models are interested in building a relationship that lasts beyond one individual play. I know which one works for me.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Session 10: 9/17/14


An actor/producer showed up with questions aimed primarily for guest dramaturg Alexis Williams, who works at Bret Adams, Ltd and ably fielded queries about writer contracts, royalties, and commissions.

I was delighted to talk with a producer working on a relatively small scale, and still so committed to paying his writers fairly, treating them well, and planning in advance how to do so. And I was glad to see that people are coming in order to meet the superb guest dramaturgs who have been donating their time.

Most of Alexis’s answers were specific to the questions being asked, although for anyone with questions about writer contracts, the Dramatists Guild is a good place to start ( Or, reaching out to a staff member at a theater company that regularly produces new work.

One more widely relevant point that came up: in response to the producer’s questions about any general things to keep in mind as he is bringing a new work to the stage, we talked about keeping writers involved in all aspects of the production, even those over which their contracts don’t dictate approval.

Playwright/creator approval of cast, director, creative team is standard. But involving the writers/creators in other discussions can help build a trusting collaboration between them and producers. For example, it’s beneficial for all involved to invite the generative artists into marketing conversations at specific points. Aside from any great ideas that might arise about how to sell their work to the public, it’s an additional way to establish trust, open communication, and unity in the way the production is built/viewed/discussed. Good intentions aside, when these conversations don’t occur, surprises can disrupt the creators’ real work of just making the play and sharing it with an audience. I’ve heard about everything from unfortunate plot spoilers in the marketing language, to public access being granted to artistic rehearsal/process without artist awareness.

One of the best books I've ever read about collaboration, and about good communication in general, is Making Plays: The Writer-Director Relationship in the Theater Today by Richard Nelson and David Jones. It’s out of print, but if you can track down a used copy or one at a library, I’d highly recommend it. It speaks a lot to the vulnerability of the process, and how to navigate collaboration by finding ways to stay in great communication and aware of the many distinct but interlocked roles in the process.

Take care,



Philadelphia didn’t have any open office hours this week.


Baltimore’s open office hours facilitator Catherine María Rodríguez opened a show this week, so her blogging time has been limited. But you can follow her live-tweeting of this past week’s session, along with the full Twitter conversation at

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Session 9: 9/10/14

This week’s blog features thoughts from the office hour facilitators in each of the project’s three cities. You can find updates about the project here and on our Facebook page (; the conversation continues on Twitter at #opendramaturgy.

NYC — Jeremy Stoller

A man from the technology sector who is creating a solo performance piece, wanted to talk about its future—how to go about finding collaborators (a director and/or dramaturg), and how to mount the show. Should he devote resources to submitting the work to venues that can choose to produce or present his show? Or put it up himself, and either take on all producing duties or hire others to help him?

Guest dramaturg Alex Barron and I shared some suggestions, including:

--attending other solo festivals and performances, to see what work seems well-directed or well-produced, and reaching out to the artists responsible.

--applying for solo festivals; while continuing to show up for the open mic, spoken word, and storytelling opportunities he’s been attending, and getting the piece out into the world for people to see—finding an audience, and honing the work itself; exploring what self-producing or bringing on some producing partners would look like; e-mailing the venues he thinks might be a good fit to see how he might get his work considered. Pursuing multiple avenues simultaneously feels like a stronger choice than pursuing any of these options individually.

We talked about the flexibility that was afforded to him in the show being its own one-man band; while at the moment the entire responsibility for the show is his, he also has the ability to put it up with more ease than a playwright writing a play for an ensemble cast. And we encouraged him to take advantage of this, to the extent that it could help his show.

A director/deviser stopped by, and talked about her positive experiences with dramaturgs—a conversation I’m always happy to have; the difference in the way dramaturgy is approached/deployed in Europe vs. the U.S; and some challenges/questions she’s facing with a devised piece she’s developing.

She talked about the free flow of ideas that exists between her and her dramaturgs when the collaboration is working well, and how much she has relied on them to support and build on her vision. They become an integral part of her creative team, there less to provide simply research and context, but to reflect back to her the ideas she is offering, and to refract them through their own understanding.

We questioned why this sort of relationship isn’t more common in American theatermaking, and could only guess that it had something to do with the processes we’ve established, and some with an attitude of ownership over work that looks different elsewhere.

The conversations with these two artists—one less experienced in the performing arts, one who has devoted her career to them—as well as with Alex in the downtime between them, were fun and inspiring and thought-provoking, and made me glad to have this project back on my schedule.


Going into it, I had no idea what to expect. A few people emailed to say they would stop by. But, email's so fickle, it's easy to back out. I was joined that day by Heather Helinksy, a freelance dramaturg whose dramaturgical accomplishments are almost too numerous to list - she's worked with American Repertory Theatre, The Kennedy Center, The Lark, Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival, and Woolly Mammoth, among many others.

Heather and I hadn't seen each other in while, so we used that first hour or so, while waiting for people, to catch up on what we were doing and talk about the project a bit. I expressed a bit of nervousness about having no one show, she told me a playwright she knew would be arriving at 6.

Then, our first visitor arrived. A playwright looking for guidance about what to do next with his play. It was a historical drama that he had begun writing years ago and that had had a reading in 2011. The play was very long and at the time, he was hesitant to cut it or to consider splitting in it into two pieces. He then had another reading of the play over the summer of this year and had realized that maybe cutting it into two was the thing to do.

I let Heather take the lead here, and she provided the writer with advice on working through the play and on possible venues to submit it to or work on it with. That's one of the great ways dramaturgs can help writers. It's not just about being another set of eyes on a piece. It's also about being able to direct a writer to a theater whose mission or goals align with what he or she hopes to do with the piece.

We were soon joined by a director and the talk shifted to the work and art of directing. An interesting thing that happened this past Wednesday was that instead of people coming and going throughout the three hours, people who arrived stayed, so the conversations began to overlap or people began to be able to share their experiences or bounce thoughts off of each other. It wasn't just Heather and me answering questions.

The director expressed a deep interest in really diving into the historical context of the plays he works on, figuring out the little details that really cement a play in its period. He was also very much into taking a different approach to commonly produced plays and to working music and dance into the shows he worked on.

Our third and final visitor was another playwright. She had some questions about the process of working with a dramaturg and the process of writing plays. One question that stood out to me was how does a playwright figure out her story? What role does the dramaturg play in pointing out the story to a writer or in helping her shape that story?

To me, the role of the dramaturg is to help the play find its story. But, that can feel a bit sticky, as you don't want to tell a playwright, "this is what you're saying." Finding the balance between, “this is what I'm reading in the piece,” and insisting that that is what is being said is very difficult.

It all boils down to having a solid relationship with a writer, but what do you do before you have the relationship? Stepping too far one way or another can break that bond before a dramaturg and writer really have a chance to get going.

The writer also brought up questions about having multiple dramaturgs read and respond to a play. In a way, her question gets back to a discussion Heather and I were having at the start of the day's project, but I didn't think to make the connection at the time. We were discussing plays that are submitted, accepted, and ultimately workshopped at multiple festivals/workshops/theaters over the course of a season. When does that become an issue for the writer or when is having multiple workshop readings having too much workshop readings?

I like to ask questions and encourage responses, so I think I will end here. More to come in the next few weeks.

BALTIMORE/DC – Catherine María Rodríguez

The first Open Office Hours in Baltimore covered a range of topics, from submissions and devised/adapted works to burnout and dream processes. Our guest was Hannah Hessel Ratner, a freelance dramaturg who works in the education department at Shakespeare Theatre in D.C.

A local playwright kicked off the conversation by asking for feedback on a script submission; this particular play, she shared, had made it to the finalist round for several new play festivals – but had never been selected. After reading the cover page, Hannah and I weighed in. The playwright's write-up on the play was more of a beat-by-beat synopsis. While it noted that the play was a farce, that tone and sense of playfulness was missing in action here. Hannah suggested that this paragraph be leveraged as a teaser and recommended that spoilers be hinted at but not fully divulged. Folks from Twitter echoed this and added that expository information is less enticing than reading what's exciting about the journey of the play. We moved on from there to talk about devisers and brainstormed the following list of good ones to check out, with thanks to those who joined us at the roundtable and those tuning in via Twitter:
  • The Wooster Group
  • Rude Mechanicals
  • Steve Berkoff
  • Dog & Pony D.C.
  • Caryl Churchill
  • Sojourn
  • Cornerstone
  • Little Green Pig
  • Haymaker
  • Hidden Voices
  • Pig Iron Theatre Co.
  • SITI Company
  • PearlDamour
  • The TEAM
  • Bricolage Theatre
  • 500 Clown

The conversation then turned to adaptations, and we were particularly interested in the topic of translating intangible qualities, like spirituality and mysticism. Hannah spoke about the "experiential" qualities of her dramaturgy, drawing from her relationship to words and visuals (her husband is a poet, and she has a design background). A physical and visual vocabulary, she advised, is just as useful as knowledge of random tidbits. Experiential dramaturgy is empowering for the players, she said.

A young theater professional piped up to ask about burnout. Amid suggestions to take time for oneself, say no, and talk to non-theater folk about theater (which is, we were assured via Twitter, quite refreshing), we stumbled into discussing dream dramaturgical processes. Everyone had slightly different ideas (exploration without production limits; being considered a member of the design team; specificity as a guiding principle)--but the shared value was true collaboration and engagement between dramaturg and creative team from the onset. So, it seems we all appreciated being seen as more than just the arbiter of research or the script junkie. Our engagement, we agreed, extends into audience relations, marketing, and more.

By the end of the Hours, we were excitedly talking about reframing the conversation around failure for ourselves, taking risks as artists and institutions, and guiding an audience to "lean in" rather than "lean back" in their seats.

With a revolving door of visitors and online shout-outs from New Dramatists, Dog & Pony DC, and a stream of individual folks, it was an exciting start to the Open Office Hours in Baltimore and the fall 2014 session.

Join us on on 9/17 from 4-7pm at Dooby's Coffee (Baltimore) for the next session, with special guest Otis Cortez Ramsey-Zoë.

¡Sonrisas! -Catherine

Friday, June 13, 2014

Session 8: 6/10/14; and, announcing summer break

Hello friends of The Dramaturgy Open Office Hour Project,

I’ve decided to put this project on hiatus for the summer. I’m going to be working out of town in July; also, there have been fewer visitors since Memorial Day. Whether that’s because we’re entering summer, or simply because this experiment has played itself out, I’m not sure. But it seems smart to take a pause, while I evaluate whether to resume the open office hours in the fall; or to take what I’ve gathered from it and incorporate it into some other project, or simply into the way I go about my work in the future.

I welcome any thoughts from people who would be interested in seeing this or some other kind of open dramaturgical forum continue, about what your specific interests would be, venues/times that are convenient for you, etc.

Which is all to say: the project is not finished. I’m still interested in exploring the role of dramaturgy in collaboration.

Some stats about this experiment are below; I know there are many ways to evaluate this beyond these numbers, but part of what I set out to do was share my discoveries along the way, and so I want to include this information, not to claim any success or lack thereof, but simply to document:

Number of weekly open office hour sessions: 8

Number of open office hours total: 24

Number of venues: 2

Number of visitors: 21 (3 of the 21 returned for a second visit)

Number of participating dramaturgs: 5

Breakdown of visitors’ theatrical disciplines (there were numerous multi-disciplinary artists):
- 20 writers
- 5 actors
- 3 dramaturgs
- 2 producers

Average number of blog readers per post (as of the publication of this entry): 40

Number of Facebook likes (as of the publication of this entry): 251
(from a quick look, about 80% of those are from strangers, or at least, people whom I didn’t know before launching this project)

I’d loosely promised myself I would give the project at least six weeks, and we’ve passed that, so I’d like to say that I’m letting it go for the moment without any feelings that it is less successful for having lasted two months as opposed to continuing indefinitely without pause. In a business where long runs mean greater success, I’m reminding myself that this is an experiment and not a production; and the goal was not so much to build a product as to see what is on people’s minds.

This project has forced me to think about my work in ways I hadn’t before; some of those have been put into the previous blog entries, but many more aren’t fully formed yet in my head. I’m hopeful that this project has been useful to others as well—the theater artists who visited, and perhaps beyond that in some way I can’t recognize now.

I look forward to further interactions with you all, and am wishing you a great summer.

Best wishes,


Friday, June 6, 2014

Session 7: 6/3/14

This week resulted in the project’s first instance of a visitor hiring me (or any of the other dramaturgs, that I know of) for a gig. A playwright came with the goal of finding somebody to give him feedback on a script he’s been working on, we talked for a bit, it seemed like a good fit, and we shook on it. It’s not the only reason I started this, but I’m glad it’s happened, and that a writer seeking feedback for his script was able to use the project as a sort of interview/test drive/first date. I also suggested how he could go about finding other dramaturgs who live in his geographic area, since I feel that it’s more beneficial to support a culture of dramaturgs being accessible and utilized than to hawk my own wares.

He’d been given feedback on the play recently by a colleague that was harsh and didn’t indicate anything that the colleague liked about the play. The writer had sought out this person’s comments after having been on a script evaluation panel with him, and feeling that he possessed strong critical abilities. I asked whether this feedback had been helpful, and the writer replied that he had a thick skin.

I tend to avoid giving feedback on plays I don’t connect to (which is a gentler way of saying, I suppose, “don’t like”), and I encourage generative artists to be more particular about whom they invite feedback from, and how they facilitate the giving of feedback.  If someone dislikes entirely what you’re doing, I presume that means they don’t understand it (because to understand would be to connect to it, which would probably mean they’d like it). And if they don’t understand it, how is their critique going to help you get where you want to go?  You’d do just as well to walk down the street and ask every stranger what they think of your haircut. (Although, if that sounds useful or pleasant to you, you may disagree with my point of view entirely.)

It’s certainly possible to find someone at the other end of the spectrum—who loves your play so much that their 100% positive feedback might be the supportive boost you need to keep going but not useful in figuring out how to achieve your artistic goals for it.

But negative criticism is especially unlikely to help if it is relayed as comments about what the critic doesn’t like or “what doesn’t work,” as opposed to questions sensitively posed based on their personal experience of the work, or to gauge what your intentions are.

To expand on this, there are two distinct ways to give feedback: by articulating your personal experience of and response to the work; and by engaging with the artist about how their intentions played out in what they've created. These can be expressed in several ways: asking questions, stating impressions, offering suggestions.

The safest, most benign—but still useful—way to give feedback, is by giving personal impressions, as questions or statements: “I connected to this moment when….”; “I found myself a losing focus in the moment where…”; “I was curious as to why your protagonist ….” It takes more sensitivity and care to articulate your personal responses than to offer suggestions. It keeps your feedback to an area of your expertise--your opinion--and leaves the artist to do what is ultimately the artist’s job of figuring out how your response relates to their vision of the play.

This sort of feedback is the kind that, in general, is most helpful to get from general audiences in talkbacks or surveys—if any feedback is desired; or from anyone who isn't close to you or your work.

A dramaturg, or any confidant to you and your play, can get in deeper with you and the work you’re doing of telling the story. In addition to sharing personal responses, they could incorporate their understanding of your intentions, and of structure and craft, to have a deeper discussion about whether you are communicating what you want to communicate.

The steps bridging these two sorts of critiques include a discussion of what your intentions are, what you want to communicate, and how you’re imagining the play’s relationship to the audience.

The dramaturg can be an advocate for you, your project, and the audience. The feedback can be about the work itself, or about process: a suggestion to give yourself a short vacation from working on this piece, or that you might have reached an opportune moment to bring other collaborators on board for conversation or a workshop, or to explore some aspect of your project in the real world (travel, research, exploration of some kind).

Offering suggestions or prescriptive advice is something I've witnessed more often from audience members who are simply unaware of how best to show their support or interest in a play or artist, than by dramaturgs. As with any relationship, the ability to understand the other person and your responsibility to be supportive of and frank with them, increases over time. And as with any personal topic, it is necessary to consider the purpose, value, and results of any comments/advice offered. There are times when, with a close collaborator who has entrusted me with giving advice when I have it, offering suggestions is indeed the right move. It's territory I enter with care.

I'd like to add that the process I've described above is similar to that of most of the dramaturgs I know. The process of bringing someone in that deeply to the creative process--maybe before other collaborators enter in, or in a different way--is not for everyone; but when the match is a good one, it can be incredibly satisfying and productive.

I find that my most useful feedback is for the plays where I can pretty easily connect to what the artists seem to be after, which helps me to identify for myself the parts of the piece which are helping me (as audience) and them (as creators) get there and which aren’t.

Please, artists, get in the driver’s seat here: select with care whom you ask for feedback, and guide how you want it to be given. Whether you’re enlisting a dramaturg or just a friend, surrounding yourself with helpful, supportive voices is a good idea personally, as much as artistically.

So, the beginning of my dramaturgical relationship with this writer involved my asking a lot of questions: about his writing, what made him write this play, what he’s focused on with it going forward, the theater he’s seeing, where he grew up. He asked me questions. We had a good conversation. When I get to the first page of the script, I’ll have some insight into him and the work, and some guidance about how I can help him. I did my best to ensure that I understood and appreciated what he was after so I could be one of those helpful, supportive voices to him.

Be well,


Friday, May 30, 2014

Session 6: 5/27/14

It was a smaller group than usual, I’m guessing because we were coming off the long weekend, and the reminders landed in inboxes and on feeds that weren’t seen while people were actually off their devices and enjoying sun and friends. Which all sounds good and right to me. And which makes me think about having the open office hours outside one of these days …

I decided to call this not “The Dramaturgy Open Office Hours”, but “The Dramaturgy Open Office Hour Project” because I didn’t have expectations for it, so much as an experiment I wanted to make. However many people show up, feels like the right amount for the week. (I do spend some time wondering whether I need to be better at publicizing, and then I do some more publicizing, and then I try to get back to dramaturging.)

And when there is downtime between visitors, I catch up with the guest dramaturg, which is always a treat. This week, I got to share conversation and a brownie—both excellent—with Molly Marinik. Molly freelances as both a dramaturg and director.

And, she was my dramaturg on this project. When I had the question, “what would it look like for a couple of dramaturgs to sit in a public space and provide dramaturgy for a few hours a week to anyone who wanted to stop by?”, she was the person I brought it to; her involvement gave me the incentive to write a proposal draft; she listened and asked smart questions and gave feedback and helped me get this on its feet. (Yes, dramaturgs need dramaturgs, too.)

We got some questions this week from a writer about assembling the text itself—in terms of readability, format, amount of stage directions to include, what sort of character/setting details.

Molly and I were in agreement that, as with most things, there is no single correct way to approach these elements; being educated and intentional about every aspect of your script is important, but the "right way" depends on what your vision is and how you want to communicate it. Molly’s astute advice, about this and in general: if you’re new at something and not sure how to go about it, see how the people who have been doing it for a longer time and with success have been doing it. Read other scripts. Ask around.

If you don’t have strong feelings that your script must be formatted in a non-standard way in order for it to be understood, I’d suggest doing it in the accepted standard format (see here), which has become such for its easiness to read.  But anything that doesn’t make the act of reading of a play a chore, doesn’t generally bother me. (It’s ironic to be discussing this topic on the blog this week, after adjusting its own look to the critique that the white text on dark gray background was difficult to read. Sorry, folks.)

As a reader, I am looking at the script so that I can try to imagine what it would be like onstage—and often, more specifically, whether the company for which I’m reading should consider producing it. If you want to futz with the formatting in a way that makes it easier for theatermakers to imagine your play onstage, that sounds great. Your diversions in format might evoke diversions in content or structure, for example; again, as long as they aren’t maddeningly difficult to read, that’s fine with me. Great writers including Suzan-Lori Parks have done this very effectively. Futzing in ways that don’t specifically inform the stagecraft feels more about shaping the reading experience as an end in itself, and isn’t helpful in my thinking of the script as a staged experience.

We also got asked about stage directions. Molly pointed out that as a director, while it is her obligation to make sure the dialogue is spoken as written, it's unlikely that all stage directions will be strictly adhered to, for a variety of reasons. Writers should include those that they consider to be necessary to their storytelling, or that help a reader (whether that’s a director or producer or whoever else might be considering your play for opportunities or collaboration) to follow certain dramatic moments or shifts that would be clear when embodied in a theater. They can serve a similar function for a reader as regular punctuation—which is to say, that they can indicate where a phrase or beat ends. But the heavy lifting should and will be done by the dialogue, and describing the entire play’s staging or the characters’ emotions, is not necessary.

Character listings and setting descriptions came up, as well. These can also allow a reader to more easily envision the script onstage. Producers want to know whether they can support the cast size your play requires, so it’s helpful when playwrights make the cast size/range clear—indicating the number of roles, and possible or required doubling—as well as the characters’ ages and genders, and whether the play is ethnically specific. If the casting isn’t specific in these ways, indicating that you encourage diverse casting is good practice. Charles Mee has a great version specific to him and his work here.

If your play has many settings, include your thoughts about how you see those being staged. Having specific solutions isn’t necessary—through the beauty of collaboration, a set designer will likely imagine something wonderful that you wouldn’t have thought of—but it is good to be mindful of whether your bedroom-to-zoo-to-alleyway scene transitions need to be represented literally/elaborately, or can be negotiated with minimal scenic/light elements. When you see shows in different spaces, ask yourself what it would take to produce your play there. Could your multiple settings be placed onstage at once, with lighting coming up and down on each area as needed? If the stage is smaller, or the lighting too basic, for that, would set changes be required (with pieces coming on and off), which would take up stage time and require a crew? Thinking about your play in three dimensions can help you decide which theaters to submit your work to, how to articulate what is essential to your story and what is ancillary, and possibly, how many locations to use.

Why not make it easier for someone to envision saying “yes” to you? Especially if you plan on submitting your play to people who don’t know you or your work. I think about this attention to the on-page version of your play as being akin to what actors do when showing up to auditions. In order to make it that much more likely for the people behind the casting table to imagine them in a role, actors will dress in a way that suggests them embodying that character. This doesn’t mean going in costume (nobody needs to see someone with a hunchback to envision that actor as Richard III), but simply highlighting their glamor, or that they’re down-to-earth; that they can be very business-like, or more rough. A savvy actor can put themselves in the director’s position, think about what the director is looking for, and come up with ways to make sure those qualities are visible—in addition, of course, to their talent.

In the time between attendees, Molly and I talked about the importance of good theater journalism—and, in particular, theater reviews of smaller productions that are unlikely to be reviewed by major publications. Molly started a website that does just that—Theatre Is Easy, or—which has been active for six years now, providing guidance to theatergoers, and helping create a lasting record of productions and individual artistic work that would simply evaporate if not documented in this way. For the majority of us who play outside of the narrow spotlight shone on the select group of mainstream theater personalities, how do we share what we’ve made and what we’ve learned? God bless Adam Szymkowicz, whose I Interview Playwrights series (here) is creating an Internet presence for the phalanx of contemporary writers whose work has yet to make it into American Theatre or to be published in self-titled collections. Thank goodness for the Times’s In Performance series (here), which puts on camera a mix of the best-known and simply the best stage performers, sharing snippets of their work on camera. I’m glad that HowlRound’s NewCrit series (here) provides a platform for theatermakers to discuss each other’s productions. And major kudos to Molly Marinik and the crew of writers she employs at theasy to see and seriously discuss the range of theater being made in New York. Intelligent words in print about our art aren’t the only source of legitimacy for us, but it keeps our art alive and in conversation with the work that came before it and is coming after.

Last week’s blog entry on the Dramatists Guild and its stance on dramaturgs, came up in discussion with Molly and one of the writers, as well. It was great to move past talking about the Guild’s stance on the relationship between dramatists/generative artists and dramaturgs, and on to actually talking about that relationship. I’m hoping more of these conversations will ensue, and I will continue to feature updates in this blog about how that progresses.

More next week.


Thursday, May 22, 2014

Session 5: 5/20/14

Miriam Weiner was the guest dramaturg this week. She works as Literary Associate at Vineyard Theatre, and also as a freelance director. This inspired a lot of discussion about the overlap between directors and dramaturgs.

Plenty of directors bring strong dramaturgical skills to their work, whether or not they self-identify as dramaturgs. Many of those who seem most appreciative of dramaturgs, I’ve found, are in fact very dramaturgically minded themselves.

I’m eager to invite into this project all of the best dramaturgs I know, whether or not that’s the title they’re listed by on their websites or in programs, because I want to talk about the process and role of dramaturgy in collaboration, as broadly as possible.

We talked about negotiating post-show conversations with a project’s artists, the sort that happen informally, one-on-one, as people are milling around afterward. One of the writers present this week was completely new to theater, and said she wasn’t even sure what questions to ask about what to do next with her script. Another writer recently began playwriting, and talked about being eager for honest critique and disappointed that all he gets after his shows are general positive remarks.

I feel that there is a karmic power to speaking up when you genuinely liked someone’s work. The pre-condition for this is, of course, showing up to see things. I don’t think any of us ever isn’t in the mood to hear that someone understood and appreciated and was affected by something we said or made, and so we owe it to each other to be effusive in our praise when we have it. And doing it for the generosity of it makes it more likely, ironically, for us to find genuine mutual connection with other artists, and maybe eventually find some benefit for ourselves.

If you can tell your story to other theatermakers you admire (and I credit Miriam with articulating this beautifully)—where you’re coming from, what you’re looking for, what you’re hoping to learn and achieve—they can choose to get on board for your journey, and maybe help it along. Their current position or title—producer, intern, performer, stage manager— is sort of irrelevant, because those things are so fluid, and if they become part of your tribe, they will be talking about you to their entire networks of collaborators. An actor who passionately wants a part in your play can be as strong an advocate for you as an agent.

We also talked about approaching the situation of speaking with artists about work you didn’t care for. Jason Robert Brown wrote something about this that helped me, which I didn’t think to bring up in the session. It’s an essay worth reading, but what I took away was that it wasn’t ever necessary for me to make my dislike or even my ambivalence about someone’s work known to them, in the moments after they’ve shared it with me or when they are still in the process of sharing it with others (i.e., in the middle of a run). It is necessary for me to be supportive. That may mean a little bit of lying, or getting better at finding positive things to say, or ducking out and sending an e-mail if I can’t muster up the positivity face-to-face. If someone wants real feedback—as one of the writers at this week’s session said he did—I think it’s necessary to create a space that’s safe for both the artist and the person giving the critique. Because the discomfort can go both ways here—it’s not necessarily a pleasant thing to be surprised with a request after a show that you attended either for pleasure or to support someone, for an immediate, articulate, and detailed response to it. Some writers include their e-mail addresses in their program bios, so audience members can share thoughts. Some might choose to ask a friend out to lunch.

-- Miriam talked about Vineyard’s decision to stop allowing open submissions. One takeaway from this: if a writer really feels like the Vineyard, or most any company, is the right theater for their project, if they’re passionately excited about seeing their work there, ways exist for the writer to start a conversation, that are perhaps more effective and personal and direct than the open submission process. There is no prescribed path for this (i.e., there’s no page on the website indicating a policy for it), but it’s possible to do. Seeing their work and following up afterward is a good start, for local writers; sending an e-mail that tells your story and shares what you admire and asks for a little bit of someone’s time to guide you through the theater’s selection process is another way to approach it.


So, an e-mail exchange from a few weeks ago—related to this project—has been on my mind, and because it came up in conversation at this week’s session, I feel it’s worth writing about here.

I was asked by some of the artists attending this week, why I started this project, and also given some suggestions about spreading the word, since these artists appreciated what it had provided them, and thought others would be interested.

I have reached out to a number of organizations that are playwright- or new play-oriented, about including this project in their event or resource listings, and many have done so, or been generous enough to feature the project in other ways. One of the organizations I contacted is the Dramatists Guild; among their (according to their website) over 6000 members, I figured there would be some interested in talking with folks who critique/support/champion new work, and who are often in the position of recommending/evaluating plays and could provide information about that process and how to navigate it.

I e-mailed a senior staff member of the organization, at the suggestion of a Guild member who visited the open office hours in its first week. That staff member declined to include information in their online listings, which would have allowed the information to be seen by writers based in New York and across the country.

This is fine. Word is spreading. I am not owed the publicity for this project by any individual or organization.

But I was surprised and saddened by the reasoning behind this decision, and brought this up around the table at this week’s session. I was told that the Guild couldn’t support the project because “the role of the dramaturg in American new play development is quite heated and potentially volatile.”

I didn’t get (nor ask for) permission to share the e-mail, so I don’t want to reprint it in full, although there isn’t anything titillating to withhold. The tone was friendly; I was wished luck with the project, and told that if a Dramatists Guild member wanted to post about it in the Members-only bulletin, they could do so. But this open office hour project—basically, just a weekly conversation opportunity—was not something that I, as a non-member (and non-dramatist) could share with their members, through their channels.

My e-mailed reply:

Thanks for the response, for sharing that link, and for your good wishes with the project. And, yes, I understand that artistic collaborations among theatermakers, both across disciplines and within a discipline, can become volatile. I'd actually be really grateful to have playwrights who are wary of dramaturgs, come to the open office hours and talk about that.

If you're interested, at some point, in brainstorming positive ways to facilitate playwrights and dramaturgs interacting (through DG, or otherwise), I'd love to do that. Or if you'd like to talk about ways of making submission and script selection processes more transparent and easier to navigate for DG members, I'd be happy to do that as well, because so many of the writers I talk with seem frustrated and overwhelmed by it, and I find that even a brief conversation with someone from the so-called "gatekeeper" side can be of some use, and that is part of what I'm hoping to provide with this project.

I didn’t hear back.

The one instance that I am aware of involving any serious volatility around dramaturgical contribution is the Rent lawsuit. (You can read about it here and, more extensively, here.) It’s difficult to know whether that dispute would have reached the heights it did had it not been for the unfortunate death of Rent author Jonathan Larson prior to the show’s official opening, leaving the conversation about the dramaturg’s contribution to happen without the writer. But regardless, that case is related to a show that opened in 1996, and it was resolved in 2001—thirteen years ago. I’m not suggesting that there has been no volatility in dramaturgical collaboration since then, but aren’t all relationships “potentially volatile”? This isn’t inherent to dramatist/dramaturg interaction. The Dramatists Guild organizes a Director/Dramatist Exchange (information here) and there have certainly been directors who have mishandled writers and their work. (On the other hand: directors, I’d like to repeat, are also often dramaturgs.) I’m curious why those relationships are fostered, but not any with dramaturgs.

The Guild website indicates no facilitated opportunities for fostering relationships with dramaturgs; the only instances of the word “dramaturgy” appearing on their website are in regard to protecting dramatists’ ownership of their work—the language here is respectful, certainly, and dramaturgs are not singled out, but rather included along with all other artistic collaborators. You can see Google’s search results for “dramaturgy” on the Guild website here. A search for “director” (see here) gets many similar results pertaining to protecting dramatists’ work, but also evidence of discussions fostered by the Guild between directors and dramatists.

I’m not a dramatist, so I have no idea how well they serve the people they intend to serve. Nor am I in a position to expect them to do anything that serves me. The stance taken in the e-mail I received is not “personal” to the extent that I am not the only dramaturg at whom it is targeted. But to be part of an entire field of people ignored by this organization because what we do is “potentially volatile” does feel personal. (Also, silly.) I don’t know any way to collaborate without the potential for volatility. And I wouldn’t want to collaborate without that potential.

This e-mail suggests to me that the craft I practice is in fact so harmful to the artists whose work I am dedicated to holding up, that they have to be protected from me.

And when I acknowledged that there is clearly a gap between my perception of what I do and the Dramatists Guild’s, and suggested we try to bridge that gap, there didn’t seem to be interest in doing so.

As I write this, part of me is groaning, thinking: stop writing this and get back to dramaturging. Innocent girls in Nigeria are still missing, and I’m feeling slighted by someone not promoting my pet project? Try caring about something bigger than this. I’m spending too much time in coffee shops with writers on their projects and not enough time making things or doing things or just being with non-theater people. Who cares about “the process”?

But this has been gnawing at me for a few weeks, and I started this project in the hope that it would provoke me to further explore the role of dramaturgs in theater. I look for my theater work to allow me to make deep, enriching connections with other human beings. By not inviting (or in this case, facilitating a way for) dramaturgs to at least engage in conversation (I’m not suggesting endorsement…just conversation) with their members about the field of dramaturgy, Dramatists Guild seems to be ignoring the capacity of dramaturgical discussion to enrich a project or process. But also ignoring the fact that there are smart, hard-working, generous people looking to work alongside dramatists (and doing so, anyway, whether the Guild engages with the dramaturgy field or not) and not snatch their babies, and that we are worth a glance.

For a lot of theater artists, what dramaturgs do is a mystery. If that is the case, it follows that they likely don’t know what dramaturgy is. This doesn’t mean they don’t know how to do dramaturgy or aren’t having dramaturgical discussions; every project has its own dramaturgy—the structure it takes, the rules it sets up to define its world, the real and imagined histories it suggests, its context within the community where it is being made and shared—regardless of whether people are calling it that. It’s like blocking—whether or not you’re discussing it, if there are performers appearing somewhere in the theater space, there is blocking; it’s not a concept one can choose to utilize, it’s an element of the work. And being aware of its power means being able to harness it.

If Dramatists Guild was interested, ways could be found to, say, pair up young dramaturgs with young writers, to support each other, and practice their craft and grow into their careers together. Literary managers and other institutionally-based dramaturgs could brainstorm with writers about improvements to the submission processes that satisfy nobody. There could even be dramaturgs available as a resource to writers who are currently working with other dramaturgs and running into an issue they want some advice about. Dramaturgs could listen to dramatists talk about what sort of support they are or aren’t looking for on their projects or in their careers, and discuss ways to provide that.

I don’t need the Dramatists Guild to spread the word about this project. And Dramatists Guild members don’t need this project, or even dramaturgs, to make their plays. But I think it’s unfortunate that an institution with the power to promote conversation is choosing to stay out of it. That seems to be something different from avoiding the potential for volatility—that’s avoiding potential, or, really, just plain avoiding.

Take care,


Thursday, May 15, 2014

Session 4: 5/13/14

After two weeks without a guest dramaturg, I was happy to have Page 73’s Producing Director, Michael Walkup, join me for this session. I want this project to introduce theater artists to dramaturgs, in the plural and in general, and this week was a good reminder that the greater variety of dramaturgs I involve, the better. For the visitors, and for me: it’s not often I’m in the same room with another dramaturg, talking about new plays with theater artists of multiple disciplines. Getting to do so here, listening to the different ways other dramaturgs have of communicating their ideas, is teaching me plenty. I’m always looking for more ways to talk about plays, and to approach conversations about plays, and so when I see my colleagues do something particularly well in this arena, I adopt (steal) it.

People have been staying long after the questions they came with have been answered, and this is the case even when I make clear that nobody should feel obligated to linger—I welcome their participation, but the drop-in ease of this is part of the design. However, the artists visiting the open office hours often stay to hear what others have to talk about, and to engage in conversation with them, as much as with myself and the guest dramaturg. There’s a definite hunger for other people to listen (and to listen to). The questions we’re getting are not simple, certainly, but it strikes me that they’re often as much about the content of the inquiry as about the opportunity to voice it.

At several points over the past few weeks, as some of the same questions have arisen repeatedly, I’ve wondered whether a blog or website of “frequently asked questions” could serve equal good as an in-person session, and my guess is: no. Maybe an online discussion forum could accomplish it, because there is an opportunity to build community. A hope of mine is that artists will meet others at the open office hours who can provide that community to each other in an ongoing way—that they will create for themselves the forums for discussion that will fuel their work.

Some discussion topics from this session:

--One writer had questions about copyright law; he wants to incorporate existing photographs, radio broadcasts, and music into a play. We weren’t able to answer all his questions, but one of the other writers suggested he call the Dramatists Guild, and Michael added that if the works were indeed under copyright, then permission would be needed for each production, and it would be the producers’ job to work through that. (Which is not to say that the writer shouldn’t look further into the situation at this point, but that he will have allies in working through it.)

--There were a few play structure questions. A beginning playwright who is starting to write comedies while reading books on craft, asked how the rules he was learning about applied to writing in general, and to comedies—the use of a protagonist and antagonist made more sense to him when thinking of dramas. We talked about the different kinds of conflict central characters can have (with other characters, with themselves, with nature, with society), and that obstacles show up as much in comedy as in any other type of “well-made play”. We talked also about the rules of playwriting being less like laws meant to control or limit writers, but more like principles drawn from an understanding of the way people experience storytelling, and intended to harness storytelling power—not always to be followed exactly, but to be consciously molded to the artist’s purpose.

Another writer asked about getting the action going quickly versus easing into it. There isn’t, of course, any single answer to this. An audience will be looking for clues about the world they’re entering, why they’re being introduced to these characters and situations, from the first moments. Providing information that will pay off later is helpful; delaying or toying with this, can be a conscious tactic on the writer’s part. Hearing the play out loud and seeing how an audience responds, I suggested, could be useful in assessing whether the writer is achieving something in line with her vision.

--A writer who is taking her musical to a NAMT-style festival that does 45-minute presentations of full-length work, asked for advice about choosing a segment to present. I’ve never been in the position of working in one of these festivals, but having watched a number of these presentations, I articulated that I always find it much more satisfying to see a consecutive 45-minute chunk of the piece, rather than a condensed version of the entire thing. With the former, I’m at least seeing a piece of the actual creation; with the latter; it’s like I’m watching the extended trailer, and suddenly I’m paying attention to how the trailer was put together—its flow or lack thereof, the narration tying the scenes together—and don’t end up learning very much about the show itself. We also talked about what her main goals were in this process—presenting the most polished section of the show she could, to entice producers, or to work on sections she wanted to explore with performers in rehearsal. I also said that if I were in her position, I might track down writers who had been through this sort of process, and pick their brains about what worked for them.

--One playwright came with questions about finding the right dramaturg to work with on some in-development scripts. (This project is, I hope, one of those ways, with different guest dramaturgs joining almost weekly.) Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas ( has searchable dramaturg profiles, although theirs is far from a complete database. A search on Google or LinkedIn, for dramaturg+[location]+[specialty] could also work. (I include “location” in there because, while technology certainly allows for dramaturgy to take place over geographical distance, establishing a face-to-face rapport first is something I’m always eager to do, whenever possible.) After finding someone who seems like a good match, set up a meeting to discuss backgrounds, working styles, shared interests (both within theater and beyond), and your desired goals. Ask a lot of questions about how the dramaturg works. The dramaturg should be someone who ‘gets’ the artist and the artist’s work; not every skilled dramaturg is a match for every person or project.

--Michael was asked about the biggest issue he comes across in encountering new work, and he talked about (I’m paraphrasing him with his permission) plays that end before the dramatic action is complete, seemingly because the writers are beholden to a page or time limit. He’s seeing a trend of writers setting up a lot of conflict just before the 90-minute mark, and then leaving it there rather than seeing it through. There was some discussion about writers intentionally satisfying or not satisfying dramatic action and audience experience, and how those choices align or not with a producer’s attraction to the work.

Thanks for reading. More next week,


Thursday, May 8, 2014

Session 3: 5/6/14

The third session—our first week a new location, Le Pain Quotidien in Chelsea—went well. Four playwrights attended, two of whom have recently made the transition from performing to playwriting. Two heard about this from Kanjy, one from the NYCPlaywrights blog, and one attended last week. Three of the writers had general questions about honing or finding homes for their scripts; the fourth was interested in longer-term collaboration with a dramaturg on two writing projects, so we talked about how that might proceed.

Dating analogies came up a few times. In regard to applying to residencies: personalizing your message for the company to which you’re writing, as opposed to using a standard pickup line, not only strengthens your application, but forces you to see if there is actually anything about this company that attracts you. And if not, then why apply? In regards to “getting in with” a company, because it feels like the right thing to do, and shaping your work to what feels “marketable”: when has it ever been a good idea to be in a relationship simply because you don’t want to be single, or to change yourself to be what you *think* others want? (If you’re curious about the concept of professional courtship—which I can’t take credit for—it comes up frequently in marketing and fundraising circles, and is translatable in many ways to any relationship-building process; examples here and here.)

I was happy to have a return visitor—a playwright who last week talked about some challenges with a script he was writing, and this week brought in an application he was assembling for a writers’ group. When he asked about bringing in a script to be critiqued during the office hours (despite acknowledging that he’d read my statements on this blog and the Facebook page that I wouldn’t want to give a rushed critique, nor think that any writer should accept one) I felt it necessary to add that part of what I’m hoping to do with this project is reinforce that dramaturgy—and, by extension, those that practice it—have value.  While I am genuinely pleased that this project has been of use to him, this question did unlock my inner Lorax. My response was only partially to his question, and also the result of several weeks of thinking about this project, and several years of freelancing and witnessing/hearing about the situations of other freelancers. It felt worth stating in the moment, and so I wanted to repeat it here. (I wasn’t so long-winded about it in person.)

Sharing resources and support are a large part of this; if in twenty minutes, I can provide useful information, advice, or encouragement to somebody, that feels to me like a worthwhile exchange.

But if the benefit of one or two of those interactions feels valuable enough that you want more—and, specifically, someone to take a close look at something you’ve created, and respond to it—I think it’s to all parties' benefit to acknowledge that that has worth. I—like all of us—take on projects for free or for little pay, when I believe that I can provide value to my collaborators, and will receive value through my involvement. Starting this open office hours project (which I’ve been committed to making a break-even, no-cost, no-earnings experiment: I’m volunteering my time, and aiming to not spend money on this) was a way to express that I believe what I do has value, in the same way that accepting payment for other of my gigs does.

I don’t only want to work with people who can “afford it”, but I do hope to work with people who respect my and their own value. It falls within our means to offer each other for services we value, if not money, then: a meal, bartered services, recommendations, loyalty. If somebody’s expertise does not seem worth any of that, then why request it?

When we're working for free--or, perhaps more significantly, feel that our value is not being recognized--it becomes harder to pay for the services we need or desire, and easier to expect not to have to pay (because if people get our work for free, why can't we get theirs?).

And while nobody could say it is easy for artists to receive acknowledgement of their value, it is not outside our control to maintain awareness of this value, and to model the behavior we want to see. To weigh the benefit of each opportunity or offer, to ask for what we need, to be more selective in where we focus our resources, and to offer to our collaborators the sorts of acknowledgement we are seeking for ourselves. The one consistent banner I've been waving at these open office hours is on the behalf of artists having more control than they realize of steering their ships. Finding the people who recognize your value, and forgetting about the rest, would do quite a lot to upend the so-called "gatekeeper" system. I think we are so accustomed to being underpaid that it's become easy to forget that we play a role in shaping our transactions: in both the way we are compensated, and how we compensate or acknowledge the value of others.

I would love for this topic--of the value of our work--to come up in the office hours, because I rarely talk about it outside of a small circle of close friends. And while this isn’t dramaturgy-specific—it’s relevant across disciplines—such a large part of dramaturgy is advocacy, assessment, exploration, and support, and so many of the dramaturgs I know passionately take on their roles not just in regards to scripts or projects, but with their artistic collaborators holistically, and in a broader way throughout the field.

Okay. The Lorax is going back into his stump. We’ll be at Le Pain Quotidien again next week.

Best wishes,