Graphic by Raquel Villalobos
By Rachel Perzynski, Associate Editor
Carlos Murillo, the Head of the Playwriting Department at The Theatre School as well as an internationally produced playwright, sat down with me to discuss his experiences working with dramaturgs and how dramaturgy and playwriting intersect.
Rachel Perzynski: When working with dramaturgs on your own plays, what kind of approach and feedback do you find most helpful?
Carlos Murillo: I always love it when I’m working with a dramaturg who is meeting the play on its terms, as opposed to […] coming into the space with a preconceived idea of what works as a play or a kind of checklist of elements that make a good play.
I remember early on, I worked with a really great dramaturg and long-time friend, Morgan Jenness. She used to run the literary office at The Public Theatre in New York. Her approach was always helpful because she would ask, “What was the initial impulse for this play to exist?”, meaning what was the first image that came to mind or the first idea. She would tap into that as a guidepost for thinking about the whole play. If you don’t really grasp what the fundamental impulse is, then it’s hard to wrap your brain around what the writer is trying to do.
The dramaturg really should sit next to the playwright and ask: what does this thing want to do, how does it want to act upon the audience, why is it put together in the way that it is put together, and is there a way we can make it be more efficient in affecting the audience in the way that you are seeking to accomplish?
RP: So is what the playwright wants a play to do the same as what a play itself wants to do?
CM: I think so, yeah. I think of plays as pieces of machinery that affect whoever encounters them, whether it’s a collaborator or whether it’s the audience. When you think about all the different machines there are in the world […], they all have different purposes and reasons for being in they way they are put together. For example, you don’t design an airplane out of brick! You use the materials that are necessary to get the thing to do what you want it to do.
The parts that the playwright has put into the machine are meant to function in a certain way. In that process, the dramaturg’s function is to help the playwright make that machine the most efficient kind of machine that it could be. Sometimes that requires thinking about basic 101 stuff, like conflict and that sort of thing. But also, it sometimes requires thinking outside of that box and […] looking at the structure it wants to be.
RP: How do you think doing your own dramaturgy as a playwright compares to having a dramaturg to help you in the development of your play?
CM: A lot of my plays tend to be very research-heavy in the writing of them. I’m also thinking a lot about the form of the play, how it’s put together, and why it’s put together the way it’s put together. To me, that’s just writing but I guess that’s sort of dramaturgical in its own way.
In conversations with the dramaturg, part of it is finding a common ground or understanding of what the play is trying to do. They are the fresh eyes in the room, but they are also looking at it through the lens specific to the world of the play.
Acting as a kind of quasi-dramaturg, Murillo has helped students shape their plays in preparation for the Wrights of Spring festival, an annual two-week celebration of new plays by the Theatre School’s playwrights.
This interview was transcribed and edited.