Sunday, January 9, 2011

My Dramaturgical Journey

This week, I completed and sent my application for the Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas/Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival (LMDA/KCACTF) Student Dramaturgy Award, which is a huge name and a huge relief to have done. Dramaturgy has become an important part of my theatre work after just one project, so I'd like to take a post to geekily talk about how awesome it is.
Dramaturgy is a fairly new position in American theatre, but has been around longer in Europe. In fact, the dramaturg often serves as the artistic director of many European theatres. It's a German word and I've had to make sure to put plenty of emphasis on the final 'g' in an attempt to keep people from thinking I'm talking about scat. It doesn't always work. The role of the dramaturg is not easily explained, but I once heard a great way of describing it as collecting information and turning it into knowledge, which can then be used by the director, the cast, and the designers. The dramaturg is often responsible for choosing the best translation or adaptation of the play for the theatre's purposes and creating events and literature for audience enrichment. She must consider the question, "Why this play now?" and explore the piece's relationship to the current world. She must be keenly aware of relevance in all the work she does. So the position entails more than simply being a research go-fer.

My first work as a dramaturg was on 'Art' by Yasmina Reza, and earned me a nomination for the LMDA/KCACTF award. The easiest part of the process was by far sending the email to ask if I could do it. Figuring out where to start was quite a different story, as I was faced with the casebook guidelines from the American Repertory Theatre/Moscow Art Theatre (ART/MXAT) Institute for Advanced Theatre Training at Harvard. (The world of dramaturgy apparently loves it some long names involving slashes) To give you an idea of what it was like to start from zero, here's a quick summary of the five main categories of the guidelines:
  1. Textual matters—Including a knowledge of the play's structure and a full glossary of any possible unfamiliar terms in the script. Being a French play, there were plenty in 'Art'. Even though I didn't choose a translation or prepare an acting edition, I was responsible for keeping record of line changes and cuts.
  2. Historical and biographical research--This is information relating to the author. Her biography, information about the time she lived and wrote (including other artworks, social and political events, the historical period, a timeline, etc.)
  3. Directorial research--When the director leans over and asks you to find out how to get a grave plot in Montparnasse Cemetery, this is directorial research.
  4. Production History--Info on the first and subsequent performances.
  5. Critical survey--Criticisms are often literature-based. Find some that are actually useful to the director and cast. To be totally honest, I only found one for this contemporary play.
That makes it look kind of simple, but trust me, it is totally overwhelming. Eventually, I started with what I would need first, which was for a presentation which I would give to the cast, artistic staff, and the advertising class that would be designing our posters. It included the basics on the playwright, production history, and an introduction to the monochrome painting, since it is at the center of the play. Once I found a place to dig in, it was easier to expand from there. I constantly added to the casebook throughout the rehearsal process as questions were asked and actors provided me with their own research. The final product ended up looking like this:
Look at all that beautiful research! Unfortunately, I came across a problem with my research, and that was that I never knew when to speak up and share it in rehearsal. It was hard to gauge my information's relevance against how much it would disturb the rehearsal process. One of my issues in general is that I hate being in the way, so I often go unnoticed. In retrospect, I definitely wish I had piped up more often, but I did learn to go through the director. She will always let you know if it's a good time or not. (For those of you wondering why I'm constantly using the pronoun 'she'--This isn't one of my feminist antics. It just happens to be the case for this particular project. No worries guys, it evens out with an all-male cast.)

For the performances themselves, I helped organize and was on a panel for a talkback session and I wrote the first student dramaturg's program note at our college. The latter caught the attention of KCACTF adjudicators. The cast spoke kindly on my behalf (thanks, boys!) and my name was added to the list of nominees. And you better believe that went on my resume real quick-like.

To actually apply for the award (as well as fellowships that include residencies at places like--oh, I don't know--the Kennedy Center itself), I needed to send in two statements, one or more letters of nomination from a faculty member, a title page, and (here's the kicker) 100 pages of my most relevant information. Did you see those pictures? That is far more than 100 pages and I will venture so far as to say that it is all relevant. Regardless, it should not have taken me a month and a half to do these tasks, but I go into partial hibernation in the winter months. No joke. But I digress. I was a week away from the postmark deadline and things got a little crazy. Back in November, my teacher/director suggested I copy the whole daggum thing and give them a table of contents, highlighting my "most relevant" information. Then I re-read the instructions. They're pretty serious about the 100 pages or less thing. Panic set in, not helped by the fact that I hadn't received my nomination letters yet. And then I realized I had to send it earlier than the deadline because I was leaving for Savannah to go to an audition right at that time. I was having a Kermit moment. (You know that thing Kermit the Frog does when he's freaked out and he runs around waving his arms in the air, yelling? That's a Kermit moment.)

The day before I went to Savannah, I received the letters, had whittled the pages down to exactly 100, organized, labeled, written a cover letter, and compiled it all into brand new binders. Behold:

Nice, right? I found a little time to be highly satisfied before tucking them into a flat rate box and walking the 1/4 mile to our tiny post office. The girl at the desk was on the phone throughout our transaction. She has no idea what precious cargo she took off my hands and sent on its way.

So there it is: my dramaturgical journey. Maybe there's another chapter for this particular unit, maybe not. Either way, I've discovered something that I feel competent with, that engages my nerdy side and lets me read heady stuff and wear my glasses. I am hoping to pursue it alongside my acting career, as it widens the field of potential jobs and lessens the likelihood of living in a cardboard box. I would encourage anyone with good research, writing, and organizational skills to take a crack at it that quarter you don't get cast in a show. You never know, you might get nominated for something.

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