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

No comments:

Post a Comment