What I would have said if I could have afforded the ATHE conference

Argh. Money is tight in this business! As one with a salary, I have less right to complain than most, but when I have to choose between attending the ATHE conference to be on my dear friend’s awesomely named Guerrilla Turg Panel and paying for a ticket home for Thanksgiving, all the while battling Bank of America over a $20 monthly maintenance fee that they decided to start after their April audit and trying to plan a wedding that complies with our artistically limited budget, it can be frustrating.

These are the questions my buddy is asking:

1). How/Where did you learn how to be a dramaturg?
2). What qualifies a person to be a dramaturg?
3). What does a dramaturg do?
4). What texts, exercises, and/or experiences would you consider core to your dramaturgical training?
5). What is the minimum training required to be a dramaturg (coursework? experience? degree?)

And my answers if I had been there (I think she’s going to read them? Hopefully not verbatim):

1) I’m still learning to be a dramaturg, and I don’t say that to be glib or as a cop out. I think dramaturgy is very much a show by show, project by project, role that you have to figure it out in the room on your feet. That is why it is so enjoyable: it can’t get old because it’s reborn every gig. But I got a very good basis in college and only partially as part of the theater department or bumming around with the theater crew. I tell people that I accidentally majored in dramaturgy because I majored in English Lit and minored in psych, general art (which was really drawing and woodcut printing), and theater. All of that comes into play. Of course my playwriting courses with Carter Lewis were instrumental, as was the dramaturgy course with DJ Hopkins. And, honestly, waiting tables for five years at Blueberry Hill, helped me a lot. Serving trains you to be cater to the needs of someone else; humility is essential to dramaturgy because it is NEVER about you. It is less about you than anybody in the rehearsal room. Serving also
trains you to listen and know what people want before they even order. Every dramaturg should wait tables for at least a couple years. I’m sure most will have to anyway to pay rent.

2) Trust. Did you know that you do not need to have a law degree or to have been a judge to be on the Supreme Court. Anyone can, legally
speaking. Same with a dramaturg. Anyone can be a dramaturg, so long as you have the trust of a playwright or the trust of a director. How you
earn that trust, however, is the tricky part (just like earning the trust of whatever President nominates a Justice). I am not sure what
“qualifies” a person to be a dramaturg, but these are the skillsets I think are useful in order of priority: 1) communication. 2) humility.
3) adaptability. 4) creativity. 5) The ability to discern what is truly valuable (i.e. a damn good filter so you don’t dump all your
research or all your opinions on a director or a cast just to show how hard you’ve been working; see also humility). 6) research skills. 7)
writing skills. N) an understanding of theater, and this is not number 8 because how knowledgeable a dramaturg needs to be about theater–the
craft of writing plays, the history of drama, and what is currently happening in the theater world–depends on the project

3) A dramaturg does anything a director or playwright needs him/her to do to help articulate a play, to themselves, to an artistic team, to a
cast, and to an audience.

4) Ugh. I don’t know. I’m getting tired. 😦 I think who I AM is the core to how I dramaturg. Everything I have ever done and experienced
feeds into how I read a script, listen to a play, how I craft a note, what I say to a playwright. I can think of a few specifics that sound
good (e.g. helping EJC with the suicide play was huge; watching Liz Engelman work in the Hotchner festival; turging two shows in Chicago
simultaneously), but they are no more instrumental than teaching Writing 1 for 4 semesters, or taking Psych 100, or talking to this guy
named Jonathon at a bar when I was stuck on what to do after the first day of workshopping DEMONS.

5) None. Goes back to #2. It’s about trust, not about training.

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One thought on “What I would have said if I could have afforded the ATHE conference

  1. And my follow-up email the next day:

    So your questions got me thinking. Some of my answers probably would seem offensive to some. I have no problem with that, but I won’t be there to defend myself, so here is some clarification if you need it. I do, of course, expect you to be my knight in shining armor defending my absent honor.

    Dramaturgy is a craft more than an art. So, I could be a potter, maybe a really GOOD potter. But I don’t sell anything, and I don’t make a whole lot of pots. But I know how and I do it from time to time, maybe to make a gift for mom or something. I could call myself a potter, just as a person who makes his/her living making pottery could. You could qualify it by making the distinction between potter and PROFFESIONAL potter, but that is about economics more than anything. And regarding dramaturgy, if you cut out all the dramaturgs not able to make their living making dramaturgy, the number of those who can call themselves dramaturgs drops precipitously.

    On DEMONS, I received invaluable advice from my parents, from Travis, from colleagues outside the theater department proper, and, most importantly, from a random drinking session with a friend from BBH who has maybe seen two plays in his life. I would definitely consider them dramaturgs on that show because they helped me articulate my play. The major difference between them and Liz Engelman was how much attention she was able to allot and, of course, years of experience and the knowledge of how best to communicate with a playwright. Liz was more helpful because she was able to dedicate 15 hours+ to focus on my needs, but that doesn’t make the help of the others less significant nor does it make them less worthy of the dramaturg title.

    I worry about dramaturgs who know too much, who have trained too hard. There is such a value in NOT UNDERSTANDING something when a director throws it on stage. A director is not directing a show for a house full of dramaturgs. A dramaturg has to be able to see things from the UNEDUCATED perspective, which is why having LESS training can be helpful to a certain degree. Of course, that is not to say that the educated dramaturg is useless. Of course not. And those who have an MFA in Dramaturgy can certainly offer something (many things!) that the uneducated dramaturg cannot. Again, it goes back to what the show, what the director, what the playwright needs. And the best dramaturgs can adapt to whatever those needs are, so a diverse toolkit—that holds much more than a traditional education–is useful.

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