event musings: dramaturg as producer

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LMDA presents:
The Dramaturg/Producer: A Symposium with LMDA About an Emerging Profession
Moderated by Amy Jensen
Featuring: Ken Cerniglia (Disney Theatrical Group), Jill Rafson (Roundabout Theatre Company), Peter Eckersall (visiting Professor, CUNY Grad Center), Anne Cattaneo (Lincoln Center Theater), David Schultz (freelance Stand-Up Tragedy)
Wednesday, May 21, 2014 at 6:30pm
Martin E. Segal Theater @ the CUNY Graduate Center, 365 Fifth Avenue

21 May 2014 LMDA Panel. (L-R) Amy Jensen, Ken Cerniglia, Jill Rafson, Peter Eckersall, Anne Cattaneo, David Schultz.
21 May 2014 LMDA Panel. (L-R) Amy Jensen, Ken Cerniglia, Jill Rafson, Peter Eckersall, Anne Cattaneo, David Schultz.  Image by Martha Wade Steketee.
  • “One of the great things about being a dramaturg in America is no one knows what the hell it is so you can just do anything you want.” (Anne Cattaneo)

LMDA-NYC sponsored a panel discussion about dramaturgs as producers, moderated by dramaturg, performer and writer Amy Jensen, and featuring the varying experiences and fascinating projects in which several area dramaturgs have participated. Dramaturgs are facilitators and creators and observers and conveners in equal measure, and these dramaturgs described particular projects and programs that illustrate each of these roles.

Ken Cerniglia spoke of his role in developing Peter and the Starcatcher and staging a production of Jeffrey Hatcher’s adaptation of Turn of the Screw in the Merchant’s House Museum in the East Village. Jill Rafson discussed her traffic management and other roles in Ed Iskandar’s The Mysteries — a multi-playwright, huge cast adaptation of Bible stories. CUNY visiting professor, Australian Peter Eckersall contributed the idea of dramaturg as “cultural agent” and “cultural transformer” with stories from his Australian home company NYID (Not Yet It’s Difficult). Quotable and wise Anne Cattaneo spoke of her Directors Lab creation at Lincoln Center (where she “basically opened a bar” for relationships to develop around directors practicing their craft), and other experience from her long view on the practice of dramaturgy. And freelance dramaturg David Schultz described his role as producer of a revival of Bill Cain’s Stand-Up Tragedy at Nativity Church in the East Village.

Theme: changing the context to inspire creative relationships.

Anne Cattaneo spoke eloquently about her Directors Lab summer intensive creation at Lincoln Center. The program began out of her frustration with and suspicion of the funnel of the literary manager’s office, determining which scripts and which production teams found their way to the stage. Yet, she demurred from taking full credit for this new source of creative inspiration for theatre makers: “It’s not my creation — much of it was taught to me by the participants.” She sums up the Lab as a meeting place, a convening, a bar, involving designers and playwrights and directors and dramaturgs and other theatre makers. “People are finding themselves in relationships they wouldn’t have anticipated as a result of being in the Lab.” She sees her job with each summer’s iteration of the Directors Lab to open the “bar,” set the tone, and get out of the way. As she sums it up: “it’s not about jobs, it’s about art” and the sometimes serendipitous relationships built among collaborating creative minds. “Largely,” she noted, “it’s simply a way to gather people together and putting them a bit off their game so they will try things they haven’t tried before and listen to each other.”

Theme: dramaturg as communications coordinator.

Jill Rafson described with enthusiasm her roles in the evolution of Ed Iskandar’s latest multi-hour, multi-creator, multi-actor experience at the Flea Theater. In this currently running adaptation of the York Mystery Plays (with interstitial new creations), telling the stories of the Christian bible in many acts over many hours. Iskandar joins a long tradition of telling these stories — and has contributed his own community building efforts. According to the Flea web page dedicated to this production, the effort involved “48 playwrights and 54 actors retelling the entirety of The Bible in a single night.” The event is nearly six hours long, with two eating breaks, and, following Iskandar’s trademark style, the actors as themselves wander through the audience, serving and socializing and generally enhancing the experience on stage and off stage. Rafson described her developmental role working with the director as seeking the beats in the stories, assembling and coordinating the playwrights, tracking the evolution of the drafts and versions, and managing communication among the parties and the rehearsal rooms. “My job was to be the continuity police … to balance the internal logic we were coming up with and the external logic of the source material.”

Theme: building and transforming audiences.

Cattaneo reported that this year’s theme for the Directors Lab is “audience and stage synchronicity” — when you make theatre, she asked, who is sitting in your audience? She asked the assembled event audience to consider, as she will ask her 2014 Lab participants to consider, examples from great moments in the theatre in which the stage and art are one entity. David Schultz’s spoke of his experience producing Bill Cain’s Stand-Up Tragedy at a church in the Lower East Side in a way that sounded much like Joe Papp’s vision for the Public Theater’s Shakespeare Mobile Unit — trucking Shakespeare to the parks and playgrounds of the distant edges of all the Boroughs of Manhattan. Schultz mused: “How do you build performances so people encounter it without coercing them to take part?” The idea, he continued, was to build theatre in places where people already going to — parks and playgrounds — opening up opportunities for audience members in the states.

Theme: shifting roles for dramaturgs.

Rafson outlined a broad expanse of roles she played with The Mysteries. Her first efforts where traditionally dramaturgical: research assembly and synthesis. Then as the 50 playwrights brought their own particular religious backgrounds to their portions of the project, her role was communicator and protector. She described herself as a “protector of playwrights” and one of the individuals keeping an eye on continuity, managing notes and information from one rehearsal room to another through the developmental stage of the work. “I was the playwright advocate in the room, present when they couldn’t be.” Cerniglia noted that dramaturgs “can be empowered” in a space of undefined roles. Eckersall described the dramaturg’s role as the “disrupter” who pushed productions where other don’t — a provocateur. Cattaneo saw variety and flexibility as essential attributes of a dramaturg. “You have to know how to collaborate with other people.” She also echoed Eckersall by noting that “the best production I’ve worked on, everyone was disruptive.” Schultz noted that he saw dramaturgy “at every level of performance.”

Theme: taking risks.

Rafson suggested that early career dramaturgs should “try something terrifying … take on a project with no idea if it could work.” She continued with the advice to try new subject areas, new people, new collaborators — “saying yes when exciting artists call and ask.” Cattaneo reflected on the role that theatre plays in society in general — asking who is going and how much are communities supporting theatre. She reflected: “Everyone resents old audiences, but who is going to replace them?”

Theme: dramaturgical positions and collaborators.

Dramaturgs are in a broad range of positions in American theatres today, reflected the panel. Eckersall noted that festival directors increasingly have dramaturgical backgrounds. Cerniglia noted that “some of the best dramaturgs I know are designers —  it’s about what conversations can be had.”

Cattaneo movingly mused about her respect for playwrights and love for their play creations. “Its very very hard to write a play,” she noted, “and every play that is unproduced is a lost child.” Schultz picked up this theme of the written word as a life, a legacy, and the thrill of working with Bill Cain in the revival of his play. “Bill was a living Torah” able to relate the backstory and context of his work.

Advocacy for plays and playwrights, transformation of audiences, facilitating the lives of plays. Dramaturgs — the undefined, defined role in American theatre.

Livestream of the entire event here.

© Martha Wade Steketee (May 25, 2014)

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