event musings: industry talk: literary directors and managers

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Industry Talk:
Literary Directors and Managers
Host and moderator Christie Evaneglisto with
Kirsten Bowen, Adam Greenfield, Carrie Hughes, Annie MacRae, Elizabeth Frankel
Thursday, May 31, 2012 at 6pm
Signature Theatre Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre, 480 West 42nd Street
event site

Signature Theatre and its new home at the Pershing Square Signature Center has become a meeting place of sorts.  A fabulous airy open second floor main lobby, a bar and cafe with reasonably priced items open long before and long after shows in any of the theatres, wireless internet, friendly people. A place to hang, to meet, to have a chance encounter.  A place to immerse yourself in provocative new and old productions perhaps enhanced by pre- and post-show discussions, special conversations with creative staff, and other production-specific programming. This evening Signature inaugurates a free Industry Talk series to discuss the business of making theatre more generally.

This first Industry Talk event, in the few hours before evening curtain in the Jewel Box Theatre currently home to Title and Deed addresses the topic of Literary Directors and Managers. The panel includes several people I know as fellow dramaturgs (or for whom I have read plays coming through their offices), and several I know only by reputation. Not a lot of audience interaction with this first foray into the series, but the Signature Literary Director Christie Evangelisto guides the packed panel through several key questions. We cover a number of basic areas: the paths of these professionals to their current positions, their roles at their theatre organizations, and their views on (and definitions of) “dramaturg” and the dramaturg’s role in theatre in general. Backgrounds yield some themes — here are abbreviated bios, culled from a one page handout for panel attendees and the remarks of the panel members.  Most individuals had internships or short stints at a small array of the same institutions — it is a small small world.

The Panel.

  • Kristen Bowen. Literary Associate at Signature Theatre. BA from Smith — which, along with internships, taught her that “loving reading, talking about what you’ve read, and advocating for writers” is what she loved to do.  She has an MFA in Dramaturgy from Harvard in that collaborative long-titled program that is so purely Harvard I can hardly stand it — of course my AB from Harvard allows me to be unphased by the, um, verbosity of the place.  Kristen has been at Signature for six years.
  • Adam Greenfield. Director of New Play Development at Playwrights Horizons since 2007.  Adam grew up knowing about new plays at his neighborhood theatre South Coast Repertory — watching previews, watching “how theatre, with programming choices, can establish perspective.” Adam attended the University of Michigan and Reed College.
  • Carrie Hughes. Literary Director at McCarter Theatre in Princeton, New Jersey.  While at school at Amherst with teachers like playwright Connie Cogdon who saw that her combination of theatre and literary interests might lead to dramaturgy, Carrie created her own dramaturgy “track” of study.  Carrie went on for an MFA at the Yale School of Drama, and has been at the McCarter since 2004.
  • Annie MacRae. Literary Manager at Manhattan Theatre Club and Manager of the Sloan Project (a project dedicated to developing new plays about science and math). Annie attended Amherst College (and bonds with Carrie over playwright professor Connie Cogdon — full disclosure I know and admire Cogdon too), and has been at MTC for eight seasons.
  • Liz Frankel. Literary Manager at the Public Theater, BA from Colby College, and after experiences in film development and play festivals, has been at the Public for six years.  She runs the Emerging Writers Group program of new play development for which I have been a reader for a few years.
  • Christie Evangelisto.  Literary Director at Signature Theatre with many previous senior positions: Director of Musical Theater and Dramaturg at Playwrights Horizons, a stint with Scott Rudin Productions, and Dramaturg at Studio Theatre in DC (where I first met her).  Christie has a BA from NYU and MFA from Yale.

Job Paths. The panelists reveal in their comments a number of themes but there are no singular paths to their current positions. Some mention internships and being on an institution’s radar when jobs come up. The major MFA programs in dramaturgy are represented among several of the panel, but not all have these degrees or in fact any graduate degree.

The Dramaturg’s Role. All panelists clearly love plays and play-making, and thrill to talking about collaborating to enhance where they can, and participating where appropriate in building the world of a play (of a play in production) or selecting a play for a season (classic season selection / literary management) or building relationships with playwrights.  None of our panels describe themselves as playwrights who just happen to be working in a literary office or on plays – these are dramaturgs who describe their work and their profession as a unique collaborative set of skills and roles in writing about the thinking about plays. The Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas (LMDA) has a few basic documents providing descriptive information. Our panelists list concrete tasks that fall within their dramaturg’s purview — rehearsal research to study guides to lobby displays to play reading to relationship-based play building with individual playwrights. They also get philosophical —

  • The dramaturg “helps the playwright make the best version of the play she wants to write.” (Carrie Hughes)
  • The dramaturg focuses on “tectonic plates that come together to make a play happen” and on “how to best communicate a story in a live event” (Adam Greenfield)
  • “We give the playwright space then slowly make our way in” (Adam Greenfield)

As a dramaturg and proud member of LMDA, I thrill to hear of the exciting work these professionals help bring to life.  Go see a play. And for even more fun, strike up a conversation with a dramaturg. Honestly, the love of theatre is palpable.

© Martha Wade Steketee (June 1, 2012)

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