Reflections from Festival 46’s Dramaturgy Participants

Elle Marie Sullivan, University of Central Florida — Dramaturgy Award winner

“I am a little overwhelmed by all of the information I was given this week. It was all brilliant and I learned a lot but I am still processing all of it. I had never thought of the dramaturg as the in house critic but I want to take that further in my work. I think that is a very important part of the job that I didn’t even know about. I also learned that the role of the dramaturg is to help tell the story. Storytelling is a skill of mine and applying that to dramaturgy is amazing. What I thought would just be a lot of research actually combines multiple things that I love. Reading new plays is vital. It is important to be informed about what is up and coming. Also knowing different playwrights styles is necessary. The dramaturg will work very closely with the playwright to the point they know the play better than the writer will. I had never been told that. I also learned how to take all of the information I was looking and filtering it in a way that would be useful to the audience. It is the stories about how my research affected the process that need to be told, not just the information itself. I also learned to show all of my work in my casebook. I originally left some things out because I did not think they served much of a purpose, but now I see how vital every piece of information is. I was focusing a lot on the research and not so much on the process. I got a lot of good ideas for audience engagement, especially around my campus. I am already trying to figure out organizations and departments to reach out to. The past few days have been really difficult and I was challenged. I feel I have grown a lot as a theatre artist. I also feel like I understand dramaturgy a little bit better. It is difficult coming from a background with no education in the field. It was amazing to work with professionals and students with similar situations to mine. I am so grateful for the opportunity to be here.”

 

Luke White, Appalachian State — Dramaturgy Award Alternate

What I lacked before coming to KCACTF, was an understanding of the identity of the dramaturg in an ideal or professional theatrical setting. In my department, dramaturgy is taught and utilized to a certain extent but not to the full capacity that it might exist in the professional world. I feel empowered by the knowledge I have gained to explore, endorse, embrace, and establish more acts of dramaturgy at Appalachian State University and beyond. Throughout this week I have also come to realize that the most important aspect of dramaturgy that my process has lacked until now has been the ability to sit in on initial conceptual meetings with directors and designers. Without this very basic step, you immediately lack the established vision of where the production might or could go. I liken it to trying to cook and not being able to read the ingredients of your recipe. Missing those initial meetings removes the important conceptual/theoretical dialogue from your dramaturgical toolbox. Without that tool, your greatest contribution becomes assisting in research and I have learned through KCACTF that the dramaturg can contribute so much more than that. I will therefore insist that, I, though a student, be included on those meetings.

I also feel more empowered to ask deeper questions and engage the artists on my production along every step of the production process. On the productions that I have dramaturged, I have often lacked a certain confidence in my personal ability to engage my professors intellectually. However, I feel as though I now have some tools and insights which I can use provoke some thoughtful conversations. I think the play structuring tool will really help me to critically analyze the plays I am involved with in the future. Play structure always seemed like an idea too abstract for me to grasp as a visual learner but this tool really plays to my strengths.

Finally, I cannot wait to begin experimenting with new and innovative community outreach projects and lobby displays! This week has really opened my eyes to the exciting possibilities of dramaturgy. Thank you Heather for sharing your insights, critiques, and advice with myself and the other student dramaturgs. I have thoroughly enjoyed myself and have learned so much.

 

Kendyl Siebart, Morehead State

I felt as though my reflection of my week at KCACTF should come in the form of a thank you letter. Although the days were long and the information was dense, I did learn a lot that I plan to bring back to the mountains of eastern Kentucky at Morehead State.

From my experiences this week, I have learned how to grow based on my skills I already have in writing, researching, reading, and of course, creativity. For me, the theatre seems more interesting after this week. As a theatre minor, it is difficult to understand your place in the department. I always have wanted to be more involved, and now I know what skills I bring to the department. Before coming, I had no idea how many aspects there were to dramaturgical work! Now, I have a greater respect for the men and women behind the scenes doing the detail-oriented aspects of a show.

Since our first discussion Tuesday, I have already started attempted using the skills learned throughout the week in Whatever. I must say, going to rehearsals and using the skills about script analysis and table work allowed my voice to be heard and see a new aspect of the play others might have over looked. It was very rewarding. I look at my role as more than finding the research to tell the story, and see it as a reflection of the research in the story. I like the idea of being the eyes and ears of the process. I think the practice of the skills learned and implemented here will allow me to feel confident and comfortable, to return to school and explain my role in the department effectively to the faculty.

I can say that I have a higher interest in dramaturgical work for the future. I enjoy the creative elements of theatre, and the addition of history and literature creates a truly perfect atmosphere for my style of learning and thinking. I hope that because of the work you have taught me this week, I can make Morehead State’s theatre department even better. I know that I will feel a new confidence. I also know that I will be proud of the large amount of work I assist to the productions. Finally, I know I will better understand how to inform myself, and my peers, of my goals and purposes as a dramaturg to the department. Thank you for teaching me these skills.

Above all, I can’t say thank you enough. From myself, and my university. I was sent here to better dramaturgy for Morehead State. Perhaps because of this experience, others will become interested in the work too. My professors and I plan to sit and have a long discussion of what I learned at KCACTF next week and I’m sure they will be grateful to the amazing work you have done in teaching the skills in such a short amount of time. Perhaps because of this, a new program will be formed. You can honestly say you are making a dramaturgical difference at Morehead State University.

 

Kara Huffman, University of West Georgia

Coming to KCACTF and working with Heather Helinsky this week has been an eye opener.  And it’s been the best eye opener I’ve had in a while. I’ve learned so much about my potential role in theatre, whether it is a professional setting or a educational setting. It has energized me, and made me realize that I am on the correct path of at least trying to be a dramaturg again before I graduate. There is so much room for growth and I’ve found that I’m hungry to explore this field more. This field holds so many hidden gems, and it’s exciting to realize that I can do the same thing, but so much better than what I did before. I feel that the growth that will happen in my work will be more visible and tangible.

I also enjoyed meeting peers who were very much in the same boat as I was. Dramaturgy itself is so new and nebulous, and we as a group felt that we had no idea what we were doing. But, in reality, we had such great ideas and good starts and instincts putting us in the right direction. It was heartening and exciting. I now know I have great peers with which to collaborate, and to grow with.

There is a great space I believe in my University program for a dramaturg. I’m excited to bring my knowledge back, and for me to share it with my peers. I believe there will be an excitement about this, and encouragement from the faculty. This will be very beneficial to our program, and students will learn so much. I’m so thrilled about what has transpired here, and how I’ve learned so much. Sharing this will be the highlight of my trip to Roanoke.

 

Jessica Hughes, Emory & Henry College

I have had a roller coaster of the week from a starting block of hostilely and fear to a finish line of empowerment and eagerness. When I started I in many ways was suffering from PTSD caused by my first dramaturgical experience. This trauma was not caused by anyone on my production intentionally, but rather due to my own high standards in addition to the anxiety that lack of knowledge about my role in the production caused me. However after this week I feel much better about the work that I did in Talley’s Folly. It confirmed what I already knew about my work, which was a blessing: I had done good work,but there was so much more possible. Due to the continuous reflection that we did this week I began to discover that I found my experience so upsetting because I knew I could do more but due to circumstances I had not. I had been so frustrated during my process, because I felt as though I was cheating my production out of all of the possibilities that were created by having a dramaturge, and the situation fostered a sense of isolation from the rest of the production.

However during KCACTF my mindset turned. I began to get energized to try dramaturgy again: the challenge excited me, and my thoughts began to circle around ideas to create a better environment for dramaturgy at my college. Even though I carried, and still am carrying, around the negative baggage from my last show, I have been dared to reclaim the good in dramaturgy. I want to say the word dramaturgy now, when a week ago having conversations about it rendered me in tears. There are still some tears now but instead they are from extreme sleep deprivation and thankfulness. Even though I don’t know if dramaturgy will become my home in the theatre I know that to some extent this work appeals to me and combines a lot of different aspects of my personality; I love being challenged, solving puzzles, working with people to help them understand a problem or pushing them to help them make their own conclusions, and I am passionate about asking questions.I am apprehensive, but I won’t be satisfied until I give dramaturgical work another go.

On another note, I cannot express how much help you have been to me this week Heather. Your enthusiasm and constant eagerness to share this thing that excites has really encouraged me. I am beginning to think about trying to learn more about dramaturgy when a week ago and at the start of this festival I honestly wanted nothing to do with it any more. I am so thankful that you and everyone else in our group has put up with my negative vibes and kept their sunnier dispositions up. It has helped me gained my footing again. Dramaturgy has been such a burden to me and being a more positive person (I mean my current favorite song is named “Happy”) it had really strained me. I feel so much better about my previous experience and my distress about not having my program note was in large part due to the fact I wanted everyone to see my work and it was disappointing not to share it.

I can’t thank you and KCACTF enough. I’ve said it before but I will say it again; This week has made me feel much better about the work I did and I want to try dramaturgical work again because I can see the possibilities that are there waiting for me to unlock them. Even with the sleep deprivation and the piles of homework looming in front of me, I would go again in a heartbeat.

 

Christy Hutcheson—University of Alabama Montgomery

It sounds awfully trite to say that I do not know where to start, but I have learned so much this week about what a dramaturg is and does that I am at a bit of a loss where to begin. When I came to KCACTF, I knew enough about dramaturgy to understand that I had only seen the tip of the iceberg, that there was a great void of knowledge that needed filling. I knew the position involved research, writing, and presentation, but my experiences this week have taught me just how much more goes into being a really top-notch dramaturg.

Before I get into what I have learned, though, I first want to say that one of the best parts about this week was the sense of community that formed between the dramaturgs. There were only six of us, but we were small but mighty. From my experience – and it seemed to be a common one, judging from other dramaturgs’ comments – being a dramaturg on a college campus can be a very isolating prospect. For that reason, it was great to be able to commune with other dramaturgs, share experiences, empathize, and learn from each other. Heather worked to make a feel like a group, not just a collection of individuals. The way we went our own way and did our own things reflected, I think, a bit of what it is like to be a dramaturg. We have to be able to think and work independently of whatever the rest of the theatrical company is doing. At the same time, I did sense a lack of respect from many of the other people here, as if we were superfluous, even to the point of being shushed while we were working. That is disheartening but not a determining factor in my choices for the future. While we were together, Heather pushed us. For the dramaturgs, this was not a cushy conference where we drifted from workshop to workshop. We worked. Heather intended to make the most of our time together, to get the most out of us, and that is exactly what she did.

In terms of what I learned this week, it was initially a revelation that a dramaturg could hold a position of influence within a theatre company. My experiences as a student dramaturg led me to believe that a dramaturg was, in some respects, a second-class citizen. I was not “in” with the cast, nor was I in a position of authority like the director. Much of the time, I felt stranded, excluded from the ensemble atmosphere of the theatre. I was in danger of becoming a glorified research assistant. Heather immediately honed in on this issue and on the problematic nature of serving as a dramaturg for a director who is also a professor responsible for assigning a grade. In that situation, there can be no true peer-to-peer relationship that ideally a director and dramaturg should have. Heather assured us that it does not have to be this way in the professional theatre. Often, the dramaturg has the same clout and influence as everyone working under the director – and may have more depending on the given circumstances and pre-existing relationships.

Connected with the idea of influence is a role of the dramaturg that I had not considered at all, that of intermediary and mediator between different parties within the theatre company. Ideally, the dramaturg should be in a position of trust, a person everyone else can come to with issues that need resolving. Of course not every problem is one the dramaturg can or should solve, but often she can serve as a neutral party, a voice of reason when conflict arises. The other side of this coin is that the dramaturg should be someone people can trust. She must be able to keep other people’s secrets when asked and be willing to have someone’s back should the need arise.

Another aspect of dramaturgy that Heather illuminated was our position as the “perfect” audience member. Yes, that means serving as a critical analyst of the play to determine vision, structure, meaning, clarity, and so on. As a dramaturg for a devised work, I had done those things. But being the perfect audience member means more. In order to stand in the shoes of the audience, we as a theatre company first have to figure out who our ideal audience is. What types of people are we trying to attract to our theatre, and what do we want from them? When we speak of a diverse audience, what do they mean? Race, gender, age, affluence, something else? And do we truly promote diversity, or are we just giving the idea lip service? Furthermore, we should ask, “Why this play now?” What are the reasons for choosing to produce a particular play, who is making that choice, and is he or she in touch with the community we are trying to bring into our space? It is also the dramaturg’s responsibility to reach out to that community. I did a talk-back session for the production I worked on, but Heather emphasized such a thing was just a tiny part of the outreach the dramaturg needs to do, and it needs to start far before opening night. Even such a thing as the lobby display can work to actively entice audiences in rather than passively providing them something to look at while they are waiting to enter the theater.

One thing I was surprised – and pleased – to learn is how diverse the opportunities for dramaturgs are. There is no one right path for every dramaturg, and not everyone winds up living near and working in a single theatre, in fact most probably do not. It is possible to be a successful dramaturg even from a tiny town in Alabama, which, as a working mother who is not going anywhere any time soon, I find very gratifying. I could wind up serving as the first reader for new plays, giving the writer feedback and vetting the plays for production. I could also serve as dramaturg for a particular play, which would involve only limited travel. The essence of what Heather communicated to me was to find my own path and to pick and choose the projects I work with rather than just accepting everything comes down the pike. Also, working for free just to get experience is not always the best thing for my career. I must be smart in the choices I make.

How, then, do I get my name out there as an up-and-coming dramaturg? Like most other opportunities in this business, it is about networking. Go, get seen, meet people. Also, it is up to me to educate myself and keep up with what is going on in the industry. I need to read every play I can get my hands on. I need to read books about the fundamentals of dramaturgy. I need to keep up with websites like HowlRound, which will clue me in to hot tops being bounced around and offer perspectives on things like being both a working mother and dramaturg. The responsibility of putting myself in a position to succeed is on my shoulders, but I am not alone. I was amazed by how willing Heather is to not only share information but to serve as a resource for us. She offered her support in an active, practical way rather than simply saying, “Be ye warmed and filled.” That, more than anything, made me feel as though I just might have a shot at eventually seeing this dream fulfilled.

 

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About joewilson

Joe is the current website administrator for KCACTF Region IV. His day job is ATD and head of sound for Indian River State College's Performing Arts department in Fort Pierce, FL.