The Art of Feedback
Friday, October 26, 2012 2:30-5pm
HERE Arts Center, 145 6th Avenue at Spring Street
event site

(L-R)  A portion of the presenting panel: Morgan Jenness (Abrams Artists), Ione Lloyd (playwright), Peter McCabe (HERE), Liz Frankel (Public Theater), Aaron Malkin (New York Theatre Workshop). Image by Martha Wade Steketee.
  • “I like to think of myself as the play’s, not the playwright’s, best friend.” (Morgan Jenness)
  • “I’m not a noun, I’m not a dramaturg, I’m a human being giving dramaturgical feedback.” (Morgan Jenness)
  • “Always get a second opinion because 50% of the doctors out there graduated in the bottom half of their class.” (Cynthia SoRelle, quoting her wise mother, as perspective that applies to all kinds of advice including dramaturgical)
  • “Anyone who thinks a rehearsal hall is a safe place is not doing theatre that matters.” (Mark Bly)

On a Friday afternoon pre-Sandy, pre-water damage, at a downtown venue that has just reopened with the resumption of electricity post-storm, The Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas (LMDA) hosted a conversation about conversation — theatrical conversations involving theatre creators. The Art of Feedback, moderated by Morgan Jenness, included a range of theatre makers including Liz Frankel, Josh Hecht, Andrea Heibler, Andre Lancaster, Ione Lloyd, Aaron Malkin and LMDA president Vicki Stroich seated before the room. Several score additional artists (including playwrights, dramaturgs, agents, and others) were seated in the HERE main floor main stage auditorium.  Among the audience members were Arminda Thomas, Mark Bly, Cynthia SoRelle, Beth Blickers, Mike Cohen, and a range of others who convened to muse upon issues inherent in artists conversing with each other around a piece of theatre.

Audience members at “The Art of Feedback” early in the session. Image by Martha Wade Steketee.

I attended as an observer, as a member of LMDA, as a freelance dramaturg, as an arts blogger. What follows are my observations and highlights of commentary that occurred over a two-hour period.  The time passed quickly, the dialogue was smart and informed and enthused.

Unpacking the Vision. Playwrights noted that a play is “part of their soul” and “everyone wants their soul to be understood” and others noted that an assumption of a shared vision of a play among a production team can too often go unchallenged and unpacked.  Vicki Stroich (current LMDA President) relayed her hard-learned lesson about this assumption — involving a late-stage realization that playwright, director, and design folks on a particular production did not share the same vision of the story they were telling. Now, she noted, she asks of the playwright during their initial meeting a set of questions including “What do you see in the play?” and “What does the play mean to you?”  Even if there are differences of opinion (among playwright, director, designers) “at least that is in the room.”  Andrea Heibler from the Lark Play Development Center noted that they have multiple goal setting meetings with their writers to keep the focus always on what the writer wants.

Maintaining the Center of Gravity.  Liz Frankel from the Public Theater discussed some lessons from the Emerging Writers Group program she runs, and Morgan Jenness stated the challenge as asking “what is the center of gravity of the work itself” and the need for everyone working on a play to be honest about how their own feedback is affected by intentionality — the context of the feedback. Jenness noted that the idea is to create a creative world around the play, “creating space for the genie to arrive.”

Framing Being in the Room. Pete McCabe defined the dramaturg as “the smart guy in the room with no authority.” Though this evoked hearty laughs in the room, several questioned part of the premise: do we think we’re the smartest in the room?  Cynthia SoRelle described ideas generated in the rehearsal room as “ghosts on the floor that may rise again.”

Kristin Marting, HERE Co-Founder and Artistic Director. Image by Martha Wade Steketee.

Dramaturg and Playwright Expectations. One dramaturg gave his goal as trying to describe what the piece is absent opinion, without providing suggestions — what the piece is and how it comes across.  A playwright said she looks for a champion in a dramaturg.  Another playwright reported that in a recent experience with a dramaturg she received feedback from within the world of the play that she did not otherwise have, from the ‘turg “really looking at the inside.” Kristin Marting noted that at HERE she has committed “acts of dramaturgy” while holding to the philosophy that “the artist is the primary leader of the work we make here.”

Celise Kalke, Alliance Theatre. Image by Martha Wade Steketee

Dramaturgs on Dramaturgy.  SoRelle defined dramaturgy as “I’ve got your back.” Stroich noted that a dramaturg helps sort through feedback.  Mark Bly reflected on the dramaturg and everyone in an active and risk-taking rehearsal room: “Anyone who thinks a rehearsal room is a safe place is not doing theatre that matters.” Frankel summarized her work as a dramaturg and with the EWG writers as pointing out what’s in their heart and what’s on the page — “having the play in their heart match the play on the page.”  A playwright offered an anatomical image: “The director is my arm, and the dramaturg is my brain.”  Celise Kalke described dramaturgy not as feedback but “creating something together”, not criticism but art making.

Final Images and Words of Wisdom.  Abrams Artists colleagues Beth Blickers and Morgan Jenness offered a few of the afternoon’s concluding thoughts. When asked how dramaturgs see themselves in the play development industry and how they feel when they are asked to work on art outside their experience, Blickers reflected, “part of being a great anything is knowing what you don’t know.”  Jenness rebuffed the label of dramaturg for herself noting that “I’m not a noun, I’m not a dramaturg, I’m a human being giving dramaturgical feedback.”  In doing that, she mused, she is the one to “hold the compass” or is the “spotter around the trampoline” in a play’s evolution. And the focus is always on the play for Jenness. “I like to think of myself as the play’s, not the playwright’s, best friend.”

Dramatists and dramaturgs in conversation. And so it continues.

© Martha Wade Steketee (November 6, 2012)

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