This past Memorial Day, I was invited to be a guest dramaturg at the Great Plains Theatre Conference. If you’ve never been to a new play conference (and I hadn’t, having worked primarily in the classics), it was a phenomenon entirely new to me. They fly you into a city and put you up in a hotel. In this case, Omaha, NE. I had never been to Nebraska before, and I was immediately struck by how hilly it was, with bluffs rising and falling for miles on either side of the Platte River. The more senior playwrights and directors stayed on the grounds of Metropolitan Community College, on the grounds of Fort Omaha, an army barracks founded during the Indian Wars. The dramaturgs and younger, “lab” playwrights stayed downtown in the “Element,” a LEED certified eco-hotel with trappings (filtered water, lights that turn off automatically, recycling bins instead of trash cans) that made me feel guilty about my consumptive ways. Warren Buffett is from Omaha, and there are sections of the city that feel surprisingly developed along the lines of his idiosyncratic eco-billionaire philosophy, while most blocks seem barely to have changed since the 1950s.
As a guest dramaturg, I was asked to work with nine playwrights at the conference, each of whom had a reading of their work, whether in a “lab” setting (i.e. conference room) or in a “mainstage” (more fully staged) capacity. I managed to read all nine plays in the weeks leading up to the conference, and send each playwright a roughly 900-word response, broken into a numbered list (“5 Things About This Play”). With one or two, the conversation stopped there; they just wanted to have a “successful” reading of their play, i.e. they just wanted people to tell them that their play was perfect as it is and should be produced around the country. But a surprising majority of the playwrights were eager to use the week and their reading as a chance to woodshed, to track what parts of their play struck a chord with an audience, what sections of the plot still seemed unclear, and so on. After each reading, I would sit with two other “responders,” usually older playwrights or directors, and moderate a talkback with the playwright. Here’s an action shot of me “action dramaturging” with fellow responders Josh Hecht and Levy Lee Smith: https://www.facebook.com/GreatPlainsTheatreConference/photos/a.835598439821304.1073741846.135512559829899/835604913153990/?type=1
One thing that struck me over the course of those two weekends, as a classical dramaturg in the wild world of new play development, was that people talk about new plays in a diametrically opposite manner from how they talk about classics. For some reason, no matter how strange a beat in a Shakespeare play is (the end of Two Gentlemen of Verona, for example), or how bereft of plotting a Chekhov play is (i.e. all of them, at least plotting that happens onstage), we assume that these playwrights knew what they were doing, that we have to be smart enough to figure it out. We assume the opposite with living playwrights, that we are smarter than the playwrights and can “fix” their play if only they would listen to us. Toward the end of the weekend, I did a panel with fellow dramaturgs Liz Engelman, Heather Helinsky, and director/deviser Jody McAuliffe, recorded by Howlround. I had a bit too much coffee, and expounded on this observation in a somewhat cantankerous manner: http://original.livestream.com/howlround/video?clipId=flv_07c6f4b3-1097-4484-a1e6-9bb22cb43a6c&cachebuster=59691933
After that panel, on a bumpy school-bus ride to a reception in an abandoned industrial building somewhere in the wilds of Omaha, I continued my manifesto-like conversation with the Tony-Award winner Doug Wright. Doug, whose notes to playwrights were uncanny and helpful, complimented my remarks while also reminding me how much people love old-fashioned linear narratives. I think he got the wrong idea from my talk, that I was an expert in nonlinear Asian dramaturgies or something. I told him he was close (I’m writing a dissertation on the 1920s German avant-garde), and we ended up bonding over our various visits to Berlin. As I did whenever I’m around a playwright, I asked him what classical piece was on his bucket list, one that might be perfect for STC. He told me a very exciting idea that I really hope happens someday, when he’s less busy with his numerous musical, film, and theatre commitments.
Perhaps most importantly, I was able to reunite with old friends like Heather and Constance Congdon, who is a bit of a legendary figure at the Conference. Connie has known me since I was a baby. She went to graduate school with my parents at the theatre school at Umass in the 1970s, and she’s one of the reasons I decided to follow my mom and become a second-generation dramaturg. As with Doug, I asked Connie what she had up her sleeve for STC (she did the adaptation of Goldoni’s Servant of Two Masters we produced in 2011-12). Part of being a dramaturg means always asking people what they’re working on, always looking for that next project.