Saturday, November 21, 2015

On Being a Novice Dramaturg

If someone were to ask me, "Hey, so you dramaturg. How do you become one of those?" I would laugh hysterically and apologize for being the worst person in the world to tell anyone that.

It's true that I'm a dramaturg. If you've never head the term before, let me explain what it involves. It's often attached to literary departments in theaters and to playwriting, and involves researching historical and cultural contexts of shows, providing information on past productions, finding and writing scholarly and journalistic criticism, as well as providing writing aid and structural advice in the creation of new plays. As a professor of mine once described it, it's like being a midwife - you don't have the baby and you're not the doctor, but you're there to help the whole birthing process along. In terms of that comparison, I'm like a nursing student who just started her residency program. I've worked on couple of shows and proudly use the word to describe my career path (or at least career attempts) since others started using it rather than deferring to my box office "day job". But I don't kid myself and establish that there is a distinct difference between dramaturgs who a more professional career in the field and my endeavors. Let me break it down for you:

1) Experience: When people around you say, "Yeah, I've worked on over 300 shows," you can't help but feel really green. I'm new to the field. I know that. The bio I wrote up to be printed in the program of the show I just worked on might be the shortest bio I've ever seen in any theater program ever. So when people treat me like an expert in the field, I appreciate the respect, but I worry that they'll discover just how new I am. Likewise, being continually treated like I have no idea what is going on is equally worrying - because it makes me wonder at what level I have to reach to be considered a pro. Shouldn't it be the caliber of my work that can help make up for lesser experience? But I understand I have a long way to go.

2) Training: All dramaturgs I've spoken with have MAs or MFAs. Two did particular training in dramaturgy. While I now have plans to pursue further education, I've decided to go in a slightly different direction. After looking at dramaturgy programs, I feel pretty comfortable with my research skills, my ability to write critically about theater and plays and discussing them in our current cultural moment, and to work with scripts that need special attention (such as the works of Shakespeare). A great deal of this falls into the fields of my undergraduate work. What I'm not as comfortable with is my ability to provide help to new plays in terms of writing advice and play structure. At the same time, I'm looking to improve and my explore my own playwriting abilities and start calling myself a writer, damn it, instead of always adding it as an afterthought. So I've decided to start looking into MFA programs for playwriting. And the best part about MFA programs? Most of them don't require you to take the GRE. Which is seriously why I've avoided looking into grad school until now.

3) Reimbursement: Of course, one of the clearest divide when I talk about my work to others is the fact that I continue to work as an intern or on a volunteer basis. During my playwriting class, I described this to one of my classmates and he was aghast that anyone would work for free. I explained to him how this is kind of the norm in the fine arts world, especially in dramaturgy. After being told of grad students and those with masters degrees still working for free until they can get to whatever magical job or experience level grants them monetary reimbursement for their work, I'm not terribly surprised that I have (and likely will, for the foreseeable future) be working without pay (though I along with it rather grudgingly most of the time). I'm getting people interested and managed to get work - and that's a far more difficult hurdle. What's far more frustrating is seeing the reaction of, "What do you mean, you work for free?" and that this is so far off the radar for many people while it's been a reality in my life since I first started applying for internships in college.

4) Dramaturgy in practice: I admit that I have not exactly take the most orthodox approach in my pursuit of this field. I don't have much of a performance background in theater, I haven't done much scholarly writing in the field, I haven't worked directly in writing aspect of a new play, and I haven't done much public writing about plays as of yet. What I have done is a lot of visuals - putting together a book of photos for the cast creative team on a show, posting quotes and photos for another show for the same audience, and creating display boards for audiences to look at. I'm really interested in audience engagement and, as this is something that theaters are beginning to look at and find more important, is something that can really help me along. But it's not always the first thing that comes to mind when dramaturgs are asked aboard for a show. So I've got my own personal interests - how to better engage audiences with show, how to give them more background about productions and scripts and historical context - to contend with when approaching opportunities. And a lot of this falls on me to say, "Yes, I'll do this AND I'm also interested in doing this, if you'd like." Thankfully, my box office and front of house experiences helps me out a lot in these respect.

Clearly, I have a lot to learn. But here's what I do have: a lot of compassion - for people, for theaters, for subject matter plays deal with; a whole lot of curiosity - I'm one of those people who look up one article on Wikipedia and spend two hours jumping from topic to topic; and a knack for research - I've been fortunate enough to have a liberal arts background that's begun to help me out in the long run. I also have the privilege of having family and friends that supports me and the fortuity to be around the right people and in the right places at the right time. Also, I'm used to listening rather than talking - I love hearing people talk about what they are passionate about and what they care about. Which is very helpful - dramaturgs do a lot of listening and a lot less speaking during the whole rehearsal process. Though we aren't recognized for our work the way that actors and directors are, there is a certain reward in knowing someone has learned from you and that you've helped a production in a unique way, filled a certain void that others may not have even known was there. And for me, that's accomplishment enough.

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