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,


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