features + interviews

anne cattaneo: “it’s not so much the information, it’s the communication”

Anne Cattaneo in her Lincoln Center office. blurry image by: Martha Wade Steketee

LMDA NYC visits with Anne Cattaneo
Lincoln Center Theater Dramaturg
Monday, February 7, at 3pm

The Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas (LMDA) offers member dramaturgs and theatre writers a number of benefits: annual meetings, regional meetings, local events — comradeship, collegial adventures, peer education and mentorship and scholarships, and one of the smartest discussion board on line I’ve come across in a number of years of membership in such things.  [Check the LMDA web site for a link to the discussion list.] On this sunny and relatively mild Manhattan Monday, the LMDA New York City Regional VP Amy Jensen has arranged a chat with dramaturg extraordinaire Anne Cattaneo.  Attending in Anne’s comfortably appointed office (with a range of volumes of Best Plays arrayed on her top shelf over her desk) are: Amy Jensen (freelance dramaturg), Leah Hamos (Abrams Artists), Brenda Shoshanna (playwright), Ken Cerniglia (Disney Theatricals), and me.  What a thrill.

After introductions during which Anne demonstrates great question asking and listening skills (I’m serious here), and the generation of ideas for a panel discussion on contemporary challenges in balancing artistic and technical needs during rehearsal and technical preparations (Anne demonstrating some of her professional lessons outlined below), we entered into a free-flowing conversation.  Cattaneo lives and breathes a positive, flexible, enthusiastic, and profoundly interdisciplinary approach to the malleable art of dramaturgy.

  • On her background. Cattaneo notes that she went into theatre because she loved it, and looked for the role for her because she knew she didn’t want to act.  She started as a critic and found it “hard being on the outside of things”.  She had a sense of dramaturgy as a possibility from a range of sources including time in Germany where dramaturgy has a long history.  In her words “that’s what coded, the coin dropped, and I sort of got it.”  When asked how she defines her role she replies: “I always tried to make it up as I went along.”
  • On the flexible definition of the dramaturgical role. Anne says: “I’ve always loved being a dramaturg.  No one knows what it is.”  She notes that she tries to be helpful in a range of individual ways to individual actors during the rehearsal process.  We discussed the idea of the dramaturg as “creative curator”, a form of “producer” with artistic sensibilities.  Anne muses on how in all things and in theatre —  ideas, traditions, interpretations — are passed down from generation to generation.  Anne reflects that instant stardom is a very American idea, and this leads her to one of the major themes of the afternoon: peer relationships.  “I think that theatre is best made by peers”, she notes, with frequent references to the post and pre and outside of the theatre stop at a bar or coffee shop — the friendships and relationships that support the making of theatre art.  And finally speaking about her role as dramaturg at LCT: “We leave decisions to the artists, and get out of the way.”
  • On dramaturging Coast of Utopia. [Part 1 Voyage http://tinyurl.com/4uz5rkw, Part 2 Shipwreck http://tinyurl.com/4jh7c94, Part 3 Salvage http://tinyurl.com/4gtq6pu] Cattaneo notes that she and the director and several others started work on the script of Coast of Utopia a year before rehearsals started.  Everyone did extensive research and in the end she presented about ten pages of “Annie’s interesting facts” to the director and designer.  For example, in the 1860 of the play, 90% of the population were slaves, and nobles held their position, their chin, through the good graces of the tsar, who could modify rank and status and privilege at any time.  These small facts had immense impact on set design and some performances.  Anne’s point is: you never know what details will resonate for your collaborating artists.  The production dramaturg’s role is flexible, and is in large part “figuring out what your actors need”. In the Utopia cast some actors were voracious researchers and readers while others looked for just a simple back story fact such as “you are the only one in the cast who is not a noble” to help them shape their character.
  • on dramaturgy as friendships.  “You have to create a relationship with the actors.  [The role has] a historical and literary side of it.  It’s not so much the information, it’s the communication.”  Anne repeats advice she frequently gives to young artists and dramaturgs about theatre: “it to be done on the peer level.”  She continues: “get involved with people you like.”
  • on dramaturg’s position in the process.  As a dramaturg you’re in a great position, she notes.  “You have to come up with ideas.  Not just service the car when it comes through the car wash.”  From advice to young literary office applicants: When you interview for a job you should have two years of repertory ideas and other programming to offer.  And for institutional dramaturgs, administrators and employees in organizations, she has particular words of advice and caution.  “You have to be an agent of art and not an agent of the state.”  You must “always tell the truth” (about what’s happening, about your opinions) or you won’t be trusted.
  • on learning from everyone else the room.  Anne waxes poetic about the Director’s Lab [see http://lct.org/directorsLabMain.htm] to team directors with playwrights and designers for a multi-week experience each year.  The emphasis and structure changes each year.  Some years it’s “about” something, some years various strategies are used (e.g. directors audition for actors) — it’s building community and understanding and communication and, frankly, those peers that are so important to Cattaneo’s vision.
  • on being bold and individual: “You have to be willing to do what you believe in without worrying about consequences.”  “Behind each of the 15 artists who are famous at any given time there is an army of supporters.  I like to champion people no one else likes.”

We are provided with armfuls of past and current issues of the marvelous Lincoln Center Theater Review that Cattaneo co-edits with John Guare.

Anne referenced during our talk and I soon locate on line a video of her comments on her own history in general, and on dramaturging the historically and artistically expansive Coast of Utopia.  Some of the stories on this video we are privileged to hear directly from Anne this late afternoon.  Listen to this quietly passionate theatre artist, and you too will become enthused about the possibilities of theatre and the practice of dramaturgy.

© Martha Wade Steketee (February 8, 2011)

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