Scenes from the 2019 Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas Conference

By the Grappler Editors-in-Chief

Three months ago, dramaturges, literary managers, directors, academics, playwrights, theatremakers, and all possible hyphenates of the six gathered at Chicago’s Columbia College for the annual Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas (LMDA) Conference. At this year’s conference, with special focus on Chicago as a city of contradictory practices (e.g. its status as a sanctuary city while also one of the most segregated), the LMDA asks attendees to grapple with accountability in times of crisis. The theme is a continuation of the trinational “Crossing Borders” series.

A little over a week ago, Grappler Co-Editors-in-Chief Emma Durbin and Jordan Scott Hardesty began their senior years at The Theatre School. Both plan to continue their work as dramaturges in distinct niches within the already obscure field. At the LMDA Conference, Emma and Jordan sought to engage with their respective interests in the field. This article intends to chronicle experiences, scenes, and anecdotes from the annual congregation of thoughts on the field of dramaturgy.

“Dramaturgy in the Stacks: The Results” with Haviva C. Avirom

The LMDA spent much of its thirty-four years attempting to define dramaturgy, but now that era is decidedly over. It’s time to start focusing on the important stuff. Depending on who you ask, there are several possibilities of what important discussion should be had. 

My first session of the conference was Haviva C. Avirom’s “Dramaturgy in the Stacks,” which maintains that the next conversation the LMDA should have is how dramaturges do research. No matter how each dramaturge defines their specific practice, we all tend to include research as one of our responsibilities; but, what exactly does dramaturgical research look like? And when does our research for a project end? The purpose of “Dramaturgy in the Stacks” is to assess the relationship between dramaturges and libraries. Through her graduate studies in library science, Avirom has assembled a diagram that articulates this relationship. 

The chart demonstrates the process of research for a dramaturge operating in a rehearsal room. While I am hesitant to speak for the large scope of findings articulated by Avirom, I will say that the concept that sticks out is that a dramaturge’s research is circular. One discovery will always lead to new questions that are either directly related to the discovery, or completely different. While it may seem rudimentary to those familiar with dramaturgical research, this articulation is pioneering. Not only does Avirom’s diagram explain dramaturgical research in a common language with non-dramaturges, but it could also be a tool to teach dramaturgy to the next generation of practitioners.

The last ten minutes of the session the attendees share resources: a practice that I feel should be embraced by dramaturges. Here are some of the mentioned databases: The Archive of Performances of Greek and Roman Drama, MIT Global Shakespeares, Tufts’ Perseus Database, Theoi Database, and Internet Shakespeare Editions. After the session, Isabelle Cheng–the newest member of The Grappler–shared one additional source with me in the spirit of the conversation: The University of North Texas Jean-Baptiste Lully Collection

-Jordan Scott Hardesty

In Practice: Dramaturging New Work with Martine Kei Green-Rogers, Amrita Ramanan, Skyler Grey, Amy Jensen, moderated by Jeremy Stoller

As an early career new play dramaturg, this is the panel I am most excited to see. Many of the panelists work in theatres I love and I am excited to uncover their secrets.

Martine Kei Green-Rogers, current LMDA president, speaks about her dramaturgical process for Jiehae Park’s new play Hannah and the Dread Gazebo, 2017, at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, which included a trip to the play’s setting, South Korea. The trip allowed her to understand the play through the characters’ experiences (e.g. one of the days she was there, she biked up the same hill that a character bikes.) This is exciting to me, because I am always looking for new ways to understand and immerse myself into the plays I dramaturg.

Amrita Ramanan, Director of Literary Development at Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF), shares her process of building a cohort of dramaturgs at OSF and cultivating the relationships between playwrights and dramaturgs. Asked what one thing is central to her process, she says caretaking. She does this in a few ways. The first is food–she always makes sure that her artists are fed. She also curates authentic voices and diversely structured plays with the intention of dismantling white supremacy—on which regional theatre, particularly in  Oregon, is built. 

Where Amrita is interested in caretaking, Martine is passionate about access. She wants more diverse writers and stories to have access to enter the American theatre cannon. Much of her work is re-training script readers to consider more diverse structures of playwriting and unpack the biases still felt in anonymous submission processes.

On the subject of play submissions, Skylar Grey, then Literary Manager at Victory Gardens (VG), says not to let “no” stop you if there’s a play you think should be produced. Just because it won’t work this season at this company, doesn’t mean that you can’t continue to champion the play or writer in the future. 

Amy Jensen, a New York based Theatre for Young Audiences and Puppetry Dramaturg, is excited about questions in the creative process. Reflecting on her experience with talkbacks, she shared that playwrights never respond well to being told what to fix about their work. It’s paralyzing to the creative process. It’s much better for a writer to hear questions and learn what resonates than to be told what they need to change.

Communication is the center of Skylar’s work. Much of his job is to follow the playwright through their writing process. He assists with the research and development of new work, but feels his biggest responsibility is to communicate what is happening with the rest of the VG team.

Some of the reading recommendations from this panel include Blink by Malcolm Gladwell, Ghostlight by Michael Chemers, Liz Lehrman, and Anne Bogart’s Blog.

-Emma Durbin

“Chicago Dramaturgs Introduce City Explorations” with LaRonika Thomas

LaRonika Thomas asks the attendees of the conference to branch out and explore the host city through the perspective of another. On her website, there are a series of audio tours led by a handful of other dramaturges that link with various locations around the city, from the Montrose Point Bird Sanctuary in Uptown to right outside the doors of the conference. The piece extends dramaturgy to the streets, historical buildings, and Chicago as a whole.

If you choose to follow these audio adventures, you will not be just a careful observer. The tours require participation from the listener, you are asked to experience the sites in the same way as the narrator. This is the most intriguing aspect of the project. You are not asked to simply explore, you are given a context in which to view the sites. 

Emma and I take the second night off from conference events to see a dance piece in Hyde Park. While there, we run into a friend of Emma’s who offers to drive us back, sparing us from a long bus ride. On the drive, Emma’s friend draws attention to the incandescent night skyline. “I don’t often see the skyline from this direction,” says Emma, thinking aloud. Having spent the last few years in a tedium of the same back-and-forth on Chicago’s North Side, I didn’t really consider until that night that there is more than one way to look at the skyline. It has become routine for me to see it and feel nothing: I’m desensitized. But something about seeing the skyline again through the eyes of others changed it. And it was beautiful.

-Jordan

“Building Your Professional Toolbox: Marketing Skills for Institutional and Freelance Dramaturgs” with Lauren Sullivan.

I arrive a little late. I spot a perfect pair of seats in the front row. “Closer to the fun,” I think to myself.

-Jordan

9:00 AM, day two of the conference, and I’m running late. I slip into the room and find that Jordan saved me a seat in the front row. How dare he! I reluctantly join him. We learn about “shifting value proposition” (strategies to convince a new audience member to make the economic choice to purchase a ticket) and “setting expectations for the space” (I don’t remember what this was). I expected to learn self-marketing and promotion in this session. Of course, the skills to market a play can also be used as tools for self-promotion, but it wasn’t until the dramaturg filled audience chimed in that I was able to connect the dots. One dramaturg raised her hand to share her strategies for continuing relationships with playwrights that she works with as a freelance dramaturg. Her strategies are brilliant and I was glad that she and other audience members shared their practical applications for the marketing tools we’d learned.

-Emma

“Facilitating Political Action through Shakespeare in the #MeToo Moment”

Shakespeare: the quintessential challenge for dramaturges with a mind for the political. One of the more well-attended sessions of the conference–perhaps because it is the only event that dedicates space for a discussion of the connection between current trends and the dramaturgical interpretation of texts–panelists for this session present their respective Shakespeare productions from a female Hamlet at the Colorado Shakespeare Festival to a Trumpian Taming of the Shrew at the University of Louisville. 

The session is advertised as a rejection of Ben Jonson’s characterization of Shakespeare as “not of an age, but for all time.” Instead, the panelists suggest that we must transform Shakespeare to what he is not already, a vessel for social change. On the interpretation of Shakespeare, I take an anarchic stance that the work is always what we want it to be because it belongs to all. If the panel proves anything, it is that Shakespeare is for all time because he is so malleable. Hamlet may speak with different meaning as a woman, just as Taming of the Shrew can teach us about our current political climate with or without the red MAGA hats. 

This year’s Elliott Hayes Award for Outstanding Achievement in Dramaturgy went to Anne G. Morgan for her work as the literary manager on Shakespeare’s New Contemporaries, a new play initiative at the American Shakespeare Center (ASC). Shakespeare’s New Contemporaries is a series that produces plays either inspired by or in conversation with Shakespeare’s canon. The first two-play cycle of companion pieces were produced earlier this year with Anne Page Hates Fun by Amy E. Witting and 16 Winters, or the Bear’s Tale by Mary Elizabeth Hamilton. 

I spent the last three months working as an intern in ASC’s education offices, and much of what I learned has a connection to the conference panel. However difficult it may be to marry Shakespeare with the political climate, the challenge is worth attempt. 

For dramaturges to bring our world in conversation with Shakespeare is not a limitation, it is a strength. It is as the philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer declares in his Truth and Method, “In truth history does not belong to us but rather we to it.”

-Jordan

“Turning Dramaturgy into Dramatic Criticism”

Rescripted, Chicago’s up-and-coming digital criticism platform, works to train the younger generation of critics. Founder and Editor-in-Chief, Regina Victor, shared their vision for the platform and their youth (18-24) training program, The Key. Grappler alum, Yasmin Zacaria Mikhaiel made a guest appearance, championing The Key. Applications are still open for this Fall!

-Emma

“Making the Most of Grad School: Getting in and Beyond” with Yasmin Zacaria Mikhaiel, Morgan Grambo, Molly Winstead, and Luke White

So you’ve been thinking about going to graduate school. Let’s face it, everyone in this profession thinks about it from time to time, and there are good reasons to consider it. Resume building. Experience. Connections. Sometimes an MFA is even required for our most coveted jobs. But is grad school right for you? Is it really worth it? Can you get in? Can you succeed? 

These are the questions the session hopes to answer. We are split up into three groups: those who have an interest in graduate school, those that currently attend graduate school, and those that have completed graduate school. The session is set up a group speed date. For a brief amount of time, groups of around six people would ask questions about graduate school. This set up worked only up to a point. The session relies on attendees having questions about graduate school, and the well of inquiry quickly ran dry.

I came in with a thousand questions. I’ve known since the beginning of college that I would want to attend grad school. My initial mission in this session was to find validation. Unlike others, I want to go to graduate school to rid myself of the practitioner-first mindset taught to me in undergrad. What I mean by practitioner-first is topics in finances, administration, the creation of theatre companies, and other tools used for those who practice theatre. There’s nothing wrong with this, of course, but graduate school is my answer to the need to extend myself to the world of academia to which I have yet to be exposed. 

Of the topics of discussion, it strikes me how much graduate school comes down to numbers. While scholarships are possible, tuition costs are just not accessible to students. I imagine it may be the primary reason theatre practitioners avoid graduate education. College professors in attendance highlighted their programs, some of which were tuition-free. But even this is not enough. My GRE cost $200 to take. (I learned in the session that the GRE doesn’t really matter…. great.) Travel costs will be insurmountable. Proper research requires resources some might not have. If anything can be learned from this panel, it is that our profession has a graduate school problem. Everyone in the room agrees to the merits of graduate education. But at what cost? Making the most out of graduate school can be a survivalist undertaking. 

My first applications will be due in December. I am not looking at any program that isn’t financially funded. I have options, but without some of the privileges that I enjoy, it would seem that the choices are few and far between. 

-Jordan

“Talking Back: Counter-narrative Dramaturgy and Post Show Discussion” with Lucas Garcia

The brilliant early-career dramaturg and playwright Lucas Garcia leads a meta-theatrical talkback on talkbacks. Lucas’ intention is clear from the beginning. They are here as a facilitator, not a voice of authority.

An interactive dramaturgy display on dramaturgy; the audience is invited to write on sticky notes their “roses” and “thorns” in relation to talk backs. What works and what doesn’t work. We are then instructed to join Lucas in a half circle on the stage or in the front few rows of the audience. I notice that in doing this, Lucas ensures that, apart from the microphone they’ll use to facilitate, they have no more power in the room than their audience.

Lucas asks the audience how they, the dramaturgs, could make an actionable difference to the usual post-show talk back. Some of the ideas that come up include; dismantling the facilitator’s power and authority, making the audience more of a community to more effectively engage with one another in conversation, and using civic dramaturgy type activities to bond the audience so that their shared experience goes beyond sitting silently while watching the play.

It occurs to me that Lucas’ facilitation style for the panel resembles the talk back ideas given from the audience. When I compliment this after the panel, they laugh and reveal that they did this unintentionally.

-Emma

 

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