Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Critic's Notebook: At the Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas Conference, Boston 2014, Part I

Note to the Reader: The following account of the June 26-29, 2014 Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas conference in Boston was originally written for The Arts Fuse, to which I am a senior contributor. As it grew in length, and was continually delayed because other assignments had more pressing deadlines it started to develop into a form that was not well-suited for The Arts Fuse – a website more devoted to articulate arts criticism for a general audience. Bill Marx, my editor, had suggested I consider ways to fold this coverage into another, more topical essay, and while my time at the LMDA conference gave me certain insights that have since found their way into my theater criticism, I felt that these journals would be of greater use if shared than if kept to myself.

These “notebooks” are incomplete – they do not reflect every discussion I attended, nor every idea in which I took interest. I took over thirty pages of notes on a number of issues at the conference, but not all of them made their way into essay form.


Ask the average theater goer about the role of a dramaturg in making theater, and they are unlikely to have more than a vague idea. Indeed, even attendees of the four day 2014 Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas (LMDA) annual conference hosted by Emerson College this past June, resisted giving an easy definition of their work, and would, when pressed, give any number of definitions.

Scholars often argue that dramaturgy is an aspect of all theater-making in that it is a practice that attends to the composition and presentation of the elements of a performance. By that standard, Aristotle's Poetics, in that it analyzes tragedy, is dramaturgy's oldest text. Different theatrical traditions are often said to have their own dramaturgy; one only need compare Italy's commedia dell'arte with north Indian kathak, to see just two examples of theater forms that are themselves diverse, yet have a clear identity that distinguishes them from all other forms.

While it is arguable that every director and every playwright practices dramaturgy, the notion that there is a theater professional whose title is “dramaturg” is a more recent one, dating to 1767 when the Hamburg National Theater hired the philosopher and playwright Gotthold Ephraim Lessing as an in-house critic.

It took much longer for dramaturgy and dramaturgs to find a place in American theater, and while it is almost certainly an over-simplification, the commonly told story is that its origins began when Yale School of Drama, under the leadership of Robert Brustein, began training theater critics alongside other theater practitioners. Consequently, these critics-in-training found themselves involved making theater while at school.

After graduation, many found their way into staff positions within the still growing regional theater movement. The role was often that of acting as an in-house scholar who provided historical research to be used by the director, designers, and cast, wrote interpretive essays for the playbill, and served as a literary manager who evaluated new plays thrown over the transom.

Still, while the audience sees what the actors and designers do, and they are able to evaluate how well the director combines these diverse contributions into a coherent whole, discerning what role the dramaturg has played is far more difficult. Even as a theater critic, I more likely to notice the absence than the presence of a dramaturg: such as when a new show has little thematic coherence or had been poorly researched, or when a new interpretation of a classic work goes completely off-the-rails. If a director or designer does not respect a good dramaturg's expertise, they will not be persuaded to refrain from a bad production choice. If an artistic director has bad taste, even with the best literary manager at their side, they will not be able to program a season of excellent plays.

When I was invited to cover the LMDA conference for The Arts Fuse, I was excited to have an opportunity to pull back the curtain and demystify the roles of dramaturg and literary manager, both as a critic and as a playwright. The role of critic and the role of dramaturg are, of course, similar: both pose questions and provide context: the difference, of course is that the critic's work is done in public where the critic is expected to render judgement. I will, consequently, pose questions and render opinions. I do not expect these opinions to be universally accepted, anymore than I do when I review a play.

In recognition of the diverse subjects covered at the conference this report will be arranged as a collection of notes, arranged thematically, rather than chronologically.

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