So, The Dramaturgy Open Office Hour Project launched this week. As part of this experiment, I’ll be keeping a blog about how the sessions go.
First off, did anyone show up?
Three artists visited the open office hours; all playwrights, one of whom is currently literary manager for a small company. That the number of visitors wasn’t “zero” was enough for me to feel confident in continuing, although I hope for twice as many people next week.
(I’d love to see actors, choreographers, directors, producers, devisers, designers, etc. showing up as well, and have been thinking about ways to better reach out to them. I believe this project has something to offer to theater artists who don’t identify primarily as writers, and I want to push the boundaries of my own and others’ understanding of how dramaturgs can be utilized in a variety of artistic processes.)
One of the writers came with a full-length script; we didn’t actually read any pages, but I think we were able to provide value to her, anyway. This project doesn’t seem conducive to getting into detailed script discussion, because of the time limitations, but also because of the relationship-based nature of dramaturgical work: it’s not just about reading a play and giving feedback, but getting to know where the play comes from, where the writer is coming from, and connecting in some way, outside of the project. Discussing someone’s artistic creation is inherently personal; I don’t know how to do it without laying some foundation to the relationship.
So, it’s more feasible to expect that we could, in these open office hours, enter into a conversation about what it would look like if the writer were to continue with a dramaturg, and to begin the foundation-laying process.
There were questions about networking, about getting your work seen/read/produced by theaters, about what theaters look for when they are seeking plays for their development series, about writing personal statements (when applying for writers’ groups, residencies, etc.), about accepting/soliciting/incorporating feedback, and selecting 10-page samples to submit to theaters.
Some things I’d like to share from the conversation—ideas that guest dramaturg Janice Paran, I, and the writers had that seemed to resonate:
-- When I’m reading a personal/artistic statement submitted with a script, I’m looking to get the same sort of information I would in the initial conversation with the artist that I describe above—a little bit of a personal introduction to their life; why they wanted to create the play; what their process has been in working on it so far; what work they are still looking to do on it; and how they would use the organization/opportunity/process they’re applying for, to do that work, or to more generally hone their craft. I want a personal statement to help me get to know artists whose work and work habits are unfamiliar to me, and while reading a personal statement isn’t the best way to do it, it can suffice. If there is an alignment between what the readers are seeing in the play and the artist’s intentions; and between the resources the organization offers and the artist’s goals—then, the application is a strong fit.
Self-awareness is key: a generative artist doesn’t need to have all the answers (or all the questions), but if they do have any of them, I want to hear them talk about it. If they don’t know what the questions/answers are, they should talk about it. Preferably in relation to what the organization’s mission and resources are, but openly and honestly is a good start.
-- Generative artists should always be guiding the ways in which they receive feedback (whether it’s in a post-show discussion, one-on-one conversation with a friend or colleague, etc.). This feels pretty obvious, but seemed to bear reinforcement. It can take multiple development processes to discover what works for you personally, and it can certainly evolve over time and over different projects. But choosing when feedback comes, from whom, how much, and in what format, should all be the artist’s responsibility. And while I would hope that there are always people surrounding the artist to ask what those preferences are, it is up to the artist to articulate those things.
-- Most of the work of selecting a good 10-page sample will be done by writing the best play you can, and then just trusting yourself (and the script readers) enough to know that your voice will come through. It hadn’t occurred to me that this is something else playwrights have been given to worry about. (Sorry, playwrights.) It’s probably best to choose 10 consecutive pages; they could be the first 10, or from the middle. If there’s someone (a director, a dramaturg, a friend) who knows the play well, that person could perhaps confirm that you’re choosing a representative selection. Then again, I think it will be hard to find 10 pages that aren’t representative. A personal statement (or, if one isn’t called for, a query letter) can be useful in contextualizing the 10 pages within your body of work, and in articulating where you feel the play is in its development process.
-- If the responses you're getting to your submissions are not encouraging, or if they're coming too slowly, or if the opportunities you're being provided aren't giving you what you need: find the way to make the opportunity for yourself. A writers' workshop or reading series in your living room is relatively easy to organize, doesn't cost anything, and can provide support, critique, and community.
-- If you’re not one of those rare people who have mastered the thing that gets called “networking”, then forget about it entirely. To my fellow introverts: there isn’t a single connection I’ve made by “selling” someone on my abilities. I’ve never “worked the room." I expand my circle of collaborators by being an active member of my theater community, in the ways that feel comfortable for me. I show up to the readings/productions/theater happenings that sound interesting, and I find a few people there to chat with, and I’ll either connect with them (almost immediately, usually) or I won’t. If I do establish a connection, I’ll be sure to follow up. I put myself in situations where I can meet people I admire, and then pursue the relationships that work.
-- On a related note, if there is someone you’re eager to meet, or a company you’re eager to work with: attend their shows. (This assumes you live near your desired collaborators; if you don’t, there are certainly ways to reach out to those distant artists, but I recommend following Dorothy’s advice, and starting to look in your own backyard.) Or if you’re simply looking to expand your family of theater artists, in general: go see more things. It is much more meaningful (and harder to ignore you) if you’re approaching someone after their show to congratulate them and tell them how much you admire what they’ve created.
-- I don’t know very many literary managers or associates who would say no to an invitation for a 20-minute coffee meeting. If you have the good fortune to be in close proximity to theaters that produce new plays, take advantage of it. You don’t need to meet with the head of a theater or a new play development department; in fact, an assistant or associate is likely to be more readily available to talk, and even more appreciative of being asked to share their knowledge. It’s not necessarily an opportunity to hand your script to them, but to ask questions about what work they’re looking for, the best way to get involved with their organization, or what other companies might be looking for the sort of work you’re creating. You could also ask them about their personal projects. You won’t just be talking to/at ‘the theater company’—you’ll be talking to a person, who currently works at ‘the theater company’, and will most likely eventually work elsewhere in a more senior capacity, and likely already does work other places simultaneously, and is probably in communication with people who produce new plays at other companies. That person will carry their connections and the work they champion with them throughout all of those situations. At the very least, your conversation will be polite and informative. It could actually spark a strong connection.
Please, share your thoughts. If this project is relevant to your work, stop by; if you know of people who it might be relevant to, spread the word. Come by and stump me with a dramaturgical quandary. Information about each week’s guest dramaturg, and other updates, will be posted on facebook.com/opendramaturgy.
I’m grateful to the artists who showed up, for being curious, and for trusting that they might get something out of it. Thanks also to The Drama Book Shop for hosting; to Janice Paran for gamely agreeing to be the first guest dramaturg, when neither of us knew what to expect, and for challenging me to clarify what I was offering with this project; and to Molly Marinik, whose feedback about the initial concept was instrumental in turning this from back-burner idea to enacted experiment.
More next week,