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,


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