The Bill of Rights for Dramaturgs

Currently I’m working on American Revolutions: the United States History Cycle at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival—a ten-year program during which we are commissioning thirty-seven projects concerning moments of great change in United States history—and I’ve been thinking a lot about democracy and government and the people’s role, responsibilities, and power in it. In rereading the founding documents of the United States, it is impossible not to feel the revolutionary fervor and great optimism that emanates from them. In that spirit, I propose a Bill of Rights for Dramaturgs with the rest of the amendments thrown in for fun and good measure. So, please indulge my mixed metaphorical historical musings.

an actor on stage under large lights
American Revolutions

Amendment 1 – Freedom of Religion, Press, Expression No workshop environment shall be of a sort where the collaborators do not feel safe to express themselves. While it behooves us all to be diplomatic, it is the writer’s freedom of expression we are most concerned with right here in Amendment 1 (please also see Amendment 25). In particular, the writer must be able to express his or her needs. Needs are not the same as opinions—dramaturgs, please take note. In regard to the dramaturg’s freedom of expression—of course dramaturgs should have freedom of expression. However, it is the writer’s needs—the play’s needs—that must be served, not the dramaturg’s.

When in the course of human events, dramaturgs are put in a position of being a spy or agent for an artistic director or producer, the dramaturg should declare independence. There’s probably no need to dissolve ties with one’s institution, but we must all do better at working for the play itself, and not bosses who may have interests other than art—especially in a development process. The best dramaturg may never have a tangible result to show an artistic director, but the results are there because you help create an environment where the creator can create. That has to be ok. This amendment also covers the right of the people to peaceably assemble. I think that’s a good attitude to bring into a workshop.

Amendment 2 – The Right to Bear Arms and the Necessity of a Well-Regulated Militia
I don’t think guns should be allowed at a workshop, but that could just be me. But the dramaturg should have an Internet connection and the playwright will need a printer.

Let us say that a well-regulated militia in a development process is the team working together with the creator(s) of the piece being workshopped. The writer is the one who should decide what that militia consists of—director, actors, dramaturg, designers, stage managers, etc.

Amendment 3 – Quartering of Soldiers
No playwright shall be forced to quarter in any workshop collaborators with whom they do not wish to collaborate and no dramaturg should have to sit through a process where they’re not wanted. If the playwright doesn’t want a dramaturg, we can be all smug and know what they are missing and do what we can to show we are smart friends not meddling foes, but as Benjamin Franklin said, “He that lives on hope will die fasting.” You can save yourself a world of pain and heartache if you learn one of the most important things a dramaturg can learn: If you’re not wanted, you can’t be necessary. Again, this isn’t to say we shouldn’t try, just that we should know when to go. Playwrights if you’re reading this—I will be smug. You want a dramaturg. Don’t be silly.

If the playwright wants to bar the artistic director from the room, well…that’s a different matter and even kind of funny. They won’t be able to—and you, as a dramaturg, can help explain and cajole and buy drinks (hold on to the receipts for taxes or reimbursements—check out Amendment 16), but it is not your job to fix it.

Amendment 4 – Search and Seizure
Make sure you understand the concept of work product within your institution or the company paying for the development process. Research, newsletter articles, or other marketing material, notes, and other things generated over the course of a workshop may not be yours to keep, reuse, or sell. They should be. Do what you can to make sure they are (please see Amendment 6). Also, please be clear with your writer and yourself about your role in script development. You’re not there to write unless the writer asks you to, and if the writer asks you to, you’re probably not the dramaturg anymore. Again, be clear, and don’t be afraid to talk about your changing role. You need to know whether to jump in or step back before it gets fuzzy, awful, weird, awkward, or worse. Do not be afraid to turn to an agent or lawyer for advice or help. (Pretty please see Amendments 6 and 9.)

Amendment 5 – Due Process, Self-Incrimination, Double Jeopardy, and Compensation
No dramaturg shall be held to answer for his or her institution, or otherwise infamous producing organization. Don’t bring worries from the office to the workshop, and don’t bring workshop worries to the office. Do what you can to be a good conduit for sharing information, but do what you can to keep these worlds separate.

As far as double jeopardy is concerned: Don’t give the same note twice. It’s not illegal, but it is annoying.

No artist should be deprived of life, liberty, or property without due compensation. After being locked together in a workshop creating a play hopefully intended for production, you should be paid. There are certainly times in one’s life and career when this payment will come in a form other than money—and that’s ok. But, listen up, dramaturgs: If other artists are getting paid with money, so should you.

Amendment 6 – Right to Speedy Trial, Confrontation of Witnesses
It makes more sense to talk to the playwrights with this amendment, but dramaturgs please take note. After a workshop, the playwright shall enjoy the right to a speedy decision by the theater as to whether or not they plan on going ahead with a production. Read your contracts, playwrights. What does it say about the rights of the institution over production of the play you have in development? What does it say about a timeline in which they will make decisions regarding going ahead with production or releasing the play so you can send it to other theaters? Until you sign the contract, it is just a paper full of requests. Once you sign the contract, you’ve all made legal promises. If you don’t understand or like or want something different than what they’ve given you, get an agent and/or lawyer to look at it before you sign. Heck, get an agent and/or lawyer to look at before you sign it even if you get it and like it. They are better at this than you are

Amendment 7 – Trial by Jury.
I’m going to substitute “Production” for “Trial,” and “Collaborators” for “Jury.” I’ll leave it at that.

Amendment 8 – Bail, Fines, and Cruel and Unusual Punishment
Excessive entry fees shall not be inflicted on playwrights submitting their work for consideration—yes, that’s subjective. You should decide for yourself what is excessive. Personally, I think the idea of making a profit off submissions piles to be cruel and unusual; I also don’t know of any theaters, MFA programs, contests, etc. that are making a profit although I do know of some that are trying to cover expenses in this ethically dubious, gray way.

When you are hired as a freelance dramaturg to work on something outside of where you live, the producing organization should pay travel and provide housing. If a theater offers a workshop, neither the dramaturg nor the playwright should be financially responsible for that workshop. Dramaturgs and playwrights have a right to be treated respectfully, professionally, and courteously—and should treat others the same way.

Amendment 9 – Rights Not Elaborated On in the Constitution
The enumeration of certain rights shall not be construed to deny or disparage others.

Be flexible and open-minded without being a pushover. What you or other collaborators asked for before you started might not be what you need once you’re there. Change will happen if you’re in development—or production—for both you and the theater.

Amendment 10 – Powers of the States and People
The powers not delegated to the theater by your contract, nor prohibited by it to the artists, are reserved to the artists respectively.

The creator should also have the power to define the purpose of the workshop or development process. The work we do in development should not have to do with fixing problems, it should have to do with asking some questions and answering others (see Amendment 1), and the creator(s) should be steering those conversations. Playwrights should talk to their directors and dramaturgs about what they hope to accomplish in a workshop before everyone sits down at the table. Dramaturgs—ask the playwright, “What should I be listening for?”

 

The work we do in development should not have to do with fixing problems, it should have to do with asking some questions and answering others

 

Amendment 11 – Judicial Power
One workshop shall not be construed to have anything to do with any other workshop or production. If you are workshopping a play for the second or third time, don’t bring in old notes or memories of how great a different actor was—be present in the room with your current collaborators. (Please also see Amendment 22.)

Amendment 12 – Choosing the President and Vice-President
This amendment covers the convoluted way our votes are actually counted. It has nothing to do with new play development, but I dare you to read it.

Amendment 13 – Slavery Abolished
Slavery was abolished in the U.S. in 1865, and while that is shockingly and appallingly recent in historical terms, it means we are all free.

Amendment 14 – Citizenship and Representation
No theater shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the Theater; nor shall any producer deprive any artist of life, liberty, or property unless an artist is dumb enough to work without an agent or lawyer and signs away those rights. (Please see Amendment 6.)

Representation can be approached both on the practical level—agents, lawyers, unions, guilds—and also on the philosophical—when you are lucky enough to be working, you are representing your peers. Be smart, be kind, do good work and you will help other dramaturgs work (Please see Amendment 3.)

Amendment 15 – Race No Bar to Vote
We should all be working to end discrimination, and we should all be working to find and support writers (and other artists) who come from traditionally underrepresented groups.

Amendment 16 – Income Tax
Please refer to Amendment 8. Theaters and other producing organizations have a right to charge submission fees, make interns pay for the privilege of working, and even to charge writers and others workshop fees. We can think that’s wrong and choose not to work at those places, or maybe find that the opportunity is worth the expense. We should all pay our taxes, though. You get in big trouble if you don’t pay your taxes. Many unions, organizations, and cities have services and accountants who work specifically with artists to fill out the forms and pay taxes and even sometimes get refunds. Check them out.

Amendment 17 – Senators Elected by Popular Vote
This amendment covers the fairly straightforward way our Senators are elected. It has nothing to do with new play development, but I dare you to read it.

Amendment 18 – Prohibition
It is the most sacred duty of the dramaturg to make sure the playwright stays sober.

Amendment 19 – Women's Suffrage
The rights of citizens of the Theater shall not be denied or abridged by any theater or producing organization on account of sex. Think about this. Women dramaturgs outnumber the men substantially these days. Why is that? Are dramaturgs treated as equals? We should have power over our own lives and careers—do we?

Amendment 20 – Presidential and Congressional Terms
Workshops should be scheduled when all necessary collaborators can attend, and then they should end.

Amendment 21 – Prohibition Repealed
I was just kidding in Amendment 18.

Amendment 22 – Presidential Term Limits Before anyone agrees to a second or even third workshop of the same play, everyone should think about whether the play really needs it, obviously and especially the writer. No writers wind up in “Development Hell” without their consent.

Amendment 23 – Presidential Vote for District of Columbia
I still don’t totally get why D.C. isn’t a State.

Amendment 24 – Poll Taxes Banned
Please see Amendments 8 and 16.

Amendment 25 – Presidential Disability and Succession
Can you believe this Amendment wasn’t ratified until 1965? Anyway—let’s look at this one in terms of delegating presidential powers when the president is unable to carry them out. The idea of having a workshop without the creator(s) present makes no sense to me, so let’s agree to not do that. Instead, let’s talk about production.

Let’s agree here that the playwright and producers should make every effort to have the playwright around for as much of the design and rehearsal process as possible—particularly for a first production.

The playwright should also make every best effort to communicate with the director and dramaturg if he or she can’t be in residence. And vice-versa—dramaturgs, drop your playwright an e-mail, text, or even make a call after a day in rehearsal. Let her know what’s up, what questions people had, and certainly about any triumphs and laughs you had that day. Let’s also agree that the dramaturg will make sure that changes are not made to a living writer’s script until the living writer makes them. Dead writers (especially those in public domain) shall not enjoy the same rights and privileges.

Amendment 26 – Voting Age Set to 18 Years
The rights of citizens of the Theater shall not be denied or abridged by any theater or producing organization on account of age. Follow child labor laws, but treat your young dramaturg or playwright with the same respect as your (ahem) seasoned dramaturg or playwright. If that artist has passed through whatever criteria hoops were placed in their path, they’ve earned a seat at the table the same as everyone. For those of us with interns or students, this is especially important to remember. And for you young ‘uns—we aren’t really as old or out-of-step as you think we are, nor are you as revolutionary as you imagine you are. That said, we have so much to learn from each other. Oldsters—tell the ancient war stories and cautionary tales and reminisce about good times and good work. Youngsters—take notes and kindly, patiently explain pop culture references we don’t follow.

Amendment 27 – Congressional Pay
This is such a boring place to end. Who wants to talk about money anyway? It’s always awkward and you and the theaters at which you work will always be complaining about not having enough. We are endowed with certain unalienable rights, and among those are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. So, keep finding ways to make a life for yourself, have some liberty, and be happy. Fight for equity and make sure you aren’t being taken advantage of, but find other measures for success if you can. If you hit big—wonderful! Remember the friends with whom you started out and mentor the next generation.

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I have to say that for the last few of hours i have been hooked by the amazing posts on this site. Keep up the wonderful work.

Hello Julie! This was a lot of fun. I particularly like #11. But what of second productions??? Does a dramaturg have any responsibility to the play or playwright after a workshop?

XXXOOO

EM

Great stuff, Julie! I'd like to propose a new amendment--binding on Congress and all members of every creative team. Let's add (Princeton psychologist George) Miller's Law, i.e., suspend judgment to minimize your filters and understand what another person is saying. First, assume that it is TRUE and then try to imagine what it could be true of. Cindy SoRelle

These are wonderful. It cracks me up that a playwright would ban an artistic director from rehearsal. I've never heard of that happening. In my experience it's hard to get the artistic director to even see your play at their theater let alone get them to come to rehearsal (of course I work at more presenting theaters than producing ones but still).

Although I was amused by much of this, I particularly like Amendments 3, 22, and 25. (Well, OK, and 18 and 21, too.) I started wondering about two things: 1. This is kind of geeky, but shouldn't some of these be articles and others amendments? Otherwise, what are you are you amending? 2. I wonder what a playwright's bill of rights would look like? It's hinted at here and there.

Julie, this is fabulous. So glad you repealed prohibition - there are times it may be a dramaturg's sacred duty to get a playwright drunk!

Huzzah! Huzzah! Not only is this brilliant and insightful, it's lighthearted and fun. We dramaturgs frequently take ourselves too seriously (am so glad you didn't have an amendment about billing), and the fab JFD has presented vital principles and essential guidestars without provoking depressive self-reverence. Great to have it on HowlRound, but shouldn't American Theatre mag run it too?

Julie, you're magnificent. So much of what you're saying here is good plain common sense, but it's valuable to iterate it again and again. So much confusion down the line can be avoided if people just talk about things, yes?

Especially I respond to the playwright's right to not have a dramaturg foisted upon him or her when s/he doesn't want it. A rehearsal or workshop process is often more fun with a dramaturg, but that doesn't mean every play needs one. My philosophy is that if I'm not deemed necessary, no problem; there's a lot of other things I could be doing!

Thanks for being such a charming raisoneusse.