Wednesday, May 13, 2015

The Dramaturgical Black Box: A Playwright's Perspective: At the Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas Conference, Boston 2014, Part IV

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 but for various reasons, was not used.


For the playwrights, the world of literary managers and dramaturgs is a black box: plays or ten-page excerpts are sent in with a brief cover letter and possibly some supporting materials, and anywhere between three weeks and three years later, there is usually (but not always) a response. Oft times it's a simple form letter, and other times it's a surprisingly human piece of correspondence from someone who wants to make a genuine connection with playwright. What happens in that intervening period is mysterious to the playwright and is subject to much speculation when playwrights speak amongst themselves.

Occasionally, once a playwright has submitted their work, they are invited to meet with a dramaturg or literary manager either as part of a development workshop or as a one-on-one consult about the script. Some of these encounters are rewarding, but some are at times immensely frustrating. Companies and dramaturgs often enter with preconceptions of the working relationship with the playwright. The playwright simply wants to have their play produced, and depending on the situation, the dramaturg can be either an ally and collaborator, or an obstacle and opponent. As Sarah Lunnie, Associate Literary Manager at Playwrights Horizons observed during a discussion of dramaturgically driven companies, using a dating analogy,
“You don't want to keep going on dates with someone who doesn't like you.” Some playwrights don't want to or need to work with dramaturgs, but are placed in a circumstance where a dramaturg is preordained. Meanwhile, dramaturgs have skill sets that can more be more fruitfully applied elsewhere. It becomes unrewarding for both the dramaturg and playwright to have the relationship forced on them.

Attendees were able to witness the playwright/dramaturg relationship up close in a Friday, June 27, 2014 playwriting workshop chaired by Rebecca Kastleman (Harvard University.)

Several weeks before the conference, a call was made to Boston area playwrights. Playwrights were asked when submitting their scripts to identify their plays as problems that needed to be solved through consultation with the dramaturgs, rather than simply express a desire to have a second pair of eyes on the script. It's certainly reasonable to expect a dramaturg to identify problems with a script, but does it not border on infantilizing to ask the playwright to identify their own work as a problem that someone else needs to solve? Lunnie's quip about dating is quite applicable; adults should not feel pressured into relationships that infantilize.

If the writers' plays were selected, they would be paired with an early career dramaturgs with whom they would consult over a period of weeks. At the session, the playwrights and dramaturgs reported on their collaborations.

Since these plays are still in development, and I only know them from the summaries given at the session, I will not comment on the specific plays, but only give impressions of the processes. Some of the plays, as described, seemed to be so well developed that I found myself questioning whether the dramaturgical consult was necessary, and whether or not the play would have been better served with a workshop with actors and director. Other times, it seemed to me that the play was in such an early stage that the playwright still had to resolve important issues of narrative structure or character motivation, that I had to wonder if the consultation was not premature.

Premature dramaturgy, unfortunately, is not always just a pedagogical exercise. In 2013, I was made privy to communications from a member of the production staff at one of the nation's most well-known regional theaters. The theater had made a commitment to produce a new play before it had actually been rendered as a performable draft. Despite a round of workshops the year before, when the script was finally brought to the rehearsal room, the consensus in the room was that the play did not make sense. Rehearsals were suspended so that the director, dramaturg, and playwright could be sequester themselves somewhere to salvage the script in time for curtain call.

Not surprisingly, the play received consistently negative reviews. This however, was not a unique, freak occurance: Recently, I reviewed the premiere of Ronan Noone's Scenes From An Adultery, at New Repertory Theatre. The play was developed in-house as part of New Rep's Next Voices Fellowship Program – and clearly New Rep had committed itself to producing it before Noone had finished writing it, or even before there was a promising draft.

The idea that playwrights are not obligated to resolve obvious problems with their scripts before a dramaturg is brought in is itself a problem, especially with the limited amount of time a dramaturg has to work on a script. Some of the plays presented in the Friday workshop seemed to be symptomatic of this problem. In a time of economic crisis it seems misguided for a theater to devote resources, including the valuable time a dramaturg could have been devoting elsewhere, to a play that is clearly not ready -- and of course, the biggest loser is the audience that had to pay the ticket prices that are the norm at major regional theaters. Certainly if plays are getting fast-tracked to production when even the director recognizes that the play is not ready (and when there are likely many plays out there that are ready, yet are not being produced), then the current model of new play development is broken – in part because the paradigm is not about finding the best previously undiscovered plays and getting them on their feet, but inserting unfinished work into a development process.

While some of these tensions are often in evidence when playwrights grouse amongst themselves about less-than-satisfactory dealings with dramaturgs, some dramaturgs, as Lunnie's use of the dating analogy indicates, are also quite aware of them. In some informal conversations I had with the conference, I was asked what playwrights need. I noted that in the books I have read on dramaturgical practice, notably Lenora Inez Brown's The Art of Active Dramaturgy best standards and practices are already spelled out. Unfortunately, between the limited resources and the mandates given by their employers, dramaturgs do not always have the freedom to engage in best practices.

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