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I, Dramaturg

So, I’ve had the advantage here of several days to wrestle with Carl's ideas on nature/nurture and the relationship of genetics to the anxieties around collaboration, credit, and creativity. First, let me say, I am not sure I wasn’t born this way. It makes the most sense to me from my own experience that I probably was. My creative self is intrinsically bound up with my sense of myself as “different.” I’ve never been able to color in the lines, was always baffled as to the purpose of those lines, and I’ve never found the edges of the box I came in. So “outside the box” isn’t something I can actually compute.

I did have lots and lots of practice at being different growing up, which would be an argument for the “nurture” side of the equation. We moved. A lot. And not just across town. And not in some logical trajectory of class-based upward-mobility. It was less orderly than that. In the beginning we lived right on the ocean with starlings in the shingles, swans in the yard and clams in the sand. Then, we were perched for a time in a rented house on a 100-acre farm where, at age seven, I would play in the woods all day with my siblings and never see another soul. I went to a two-room schoolhouse in those days. Another move took us comparatively upscale, to the middle class suburbs, where we put our cow in the garage. And the pig. And we turned our suburban yard into a vegetable garden on which my siblings and I spread “manure tea” as fertilizer. Many of the moves involved a change of accents as well. Nothing like an accent to accentuate your difference.

But the thing is, all of this making and remaking myself to fit new molds seemed sort of natural to me. A kind of circadian rhythm where I could shed whatever failures had accumulated in the last skin and grow a totally new one to fit whatever form I chose. My older sister rebelled much more than I did about all the moving. She hated it and finally stopped moving with us altogether. Married her high school boyfriend at nineteen and there they live to this day—and it’s a rich, rewarding, recognizable life in a place that I never doubted I was just passing through. My younger brother struggled longer and emerged into his adult self with a keen sense of the sharp jagged edges of difference and a determination to round them off. He’s found his groove and built his family and constructed the contours of his life to suit himself. I kept moving even through the early years of my marriage. San Francisco finally held us both in place for twenty years. Both of my siblings happily lead lives that make more easy sense in the world than mine. Which means I know there was another way to go in all of this and I was just never going to go that way. Which leads me to the nature argument.

My creative self is intrinsically bound up with my sense of myself as “different.” I’ve never been able to color in the lines, was always baffled as to the purpose of those lines, and I’ve never found the edges of the box I came in. So “outside the box” isn’t something I can actually compute.

Portrait of David Dower.
David Dower. Photo by Mike Ritter,
Ritterbin Photography.

The day after my high school graduation I got on a bus in Jamestown, New York, and rode it to Mexico City. Where I stayed much longer than I intended. I went from a town of 300 people to living in a city of 10 million where I didn’t even speak the language and I’d never felt more at home than I did there. Even when strangers would run up to me on the street to have their pictures taken with the giant gringo with the saddle shoes (yes, my fashion sense is totally “nature”—there has never been any nurturing me out of it!) I felt entirely in my skin. But I knew I’d eventually shed that skin too. I go into all of this here because I have no doubt that it is my restless path to my adult self that both prepared me for, and shaped me to, a life in the arts. It’s the only realm where I make sense to myself. And that led me to construct my own home in the theater.

I have no formal training for most of what I do now. A year in graduate acting school at NYU. A handful of studio classes for acting. Some undergraduate courses in theater on the way to a political science degree. But the more lasting experiences, the ones I call on every day in my life in theater, had nothing to do with artistic process or craft. I worked as a tenant organizer in Brooklyn, a desk jockey on the Jimmy Carter re-election campaign, a night auditor, a bartender (numerous times), and even as a consultant on information integration for major schools of nursing around the country before I ever had a steady paycheck from a theater. And that first paycheck came not from a traditionally structured theater, but from an alternative theater studio that I created and raised the money for to pay all of us who worked there. No formal training for any of those roles either. New skin, grown quickly. Shed. So, difference and creativity are intrinsically bound up. But which came first: my sense of difference or my actual difference?

It is hard to write with precision about this stuff, and I want to be precise. My sense of myself as different was not a discovery of difference. It was a confirmation. Though I was not special, I was different. I felt it. And my experience of the world consistently confirmed it starting very early. Still does. My relationship to that difference kept changing. Still does. But always, it was creative, on the most fundamental level: I was having to create myself and my circumstances, in the moment, to move through whatever set of social interactions fell in my path. This to say that, whether I’d been able to build a room of my own in the American theater or not, I would be living in the world in a way that others would deem “creative.” And creating it as I went. I’m not sure it necessarily follows that it would be “artistic,” however. But could it work the other way round? If I’d not developed as a creative person, could I be contributing to the artistic energy of a theater? If I hadn’t developed it, would I have a contribution to make and would I have sought out this home in the world? Probably not. So, there’s the case for nurture. And as I write this sentence, an early memory floods in of my family gathered around the piano at my grandfather’s house, my mother playing the piano, him playing the flute (sometimes the accordion, sometimes the bagpipes! I’d forgotten the bagpipes. Excruciating. Heart tugging. Ridiculous to watch.) and all of us singing “Down by the Old Mill Stream.” And I think, of course this was nurtured in me.

I strongly concur with Carl that the idea of “becoming” instead of “being“ is inherent in our art. This is a live form and it only exists in the moments of its doing, and so, therefore, it follows that there is no such thing as once and forever “being” the thing. There’s only always becoming it. Perfection as a direction, not a destination. The moment of being is the last moment of that being each time it happens. And we start again. So, it makes sense to me that every organization would be stronger if every member of its team were first and foremost engaged with the journey of becoming more of a contributor to the artistic energy of the place. Severing the responsibility for a company into two parts—the art and the management—seems wrong on its face. No? How can theater thrive in a context where its managers and administrators are not drawn along by a desire to become stronger contributors to the artistic energy of the place? And where its artists take no role in creating solutions to all of the problems facing their company? Or, for that matter, their field? Questions of credit and titles and font sizes and all the rest are ruinous distractions, detours down dark dead end roads where the spirit and the art pile up and are left to rot. These ugly toads jump out from the smallest parts of our un-nurtured natures. Some people have made these squabbles seem inevitable, even the noble battleground of the dispossessed and disrespected. But they have nothing to do with what we should all be doing at all times—especially if we’re on the payroll of a nonprofit organization whose purpose is to make and share art with the public so as to impact and enrich the world. Our responsibility, in the nature of this privilege of service, is to move toward perfection in the nurturing of, and sharing of, the art under our care. Whatever our role.

This, finally, brings me to the question of the dramaturg. To me, the “moving toward perfection in the nurturing of the art” is dramaturgy. I think I mean that. It’s new to me, so let me roll it out a bit. Dramaturgy is a tool for navigating the progress toward perfection. Like a compass is a tool. And it plays out in myriad ways within a project, an organization, a field, a form. And—here’s where I get in trouble—dramaturgy is everyone’s responsibility. There is no separate, specialized role for dramaturg that magically relieves everyone else—from the director to the box office to the administrative assistant to the events manager—from thinking about the dramaturgical imperatives of every interaction they have in the course of their lives in art; from thinking and deciding in relation to “true north” in any journey. There may be a role, in a given process or project, where someone keeps the dramaturgical accounts for the team. There may be a role where the process of making a piece is inseparably shared by people who agree to call someone The Dramaturg. But every designer, director, playwright, producer needs to be dramaturging the art as a function of their role. And when marketing copy is written, when budgets are prepared, when panel discussions and scholarly articles are planned, when opening night invite lists are drawn up, and community engagement agendas are set, each person sits at the decision table with a dramaturg’s responsibility. Otherwise, what? Art, disconnected from purpose, from community, from the majority of people at work on making it live in the world.

Dramaturgy is a tool for navigating the progress toward perfection. Like a compass is a tool. And it plays out in myriad ways within a project, an organization, a field, a form

I think the question of credit, in my experience, has more to do with the fact that the moment we make someone “The Dramaturg” it implies a role in the process that is by its very nature shared by everyone in the process. And it forces me into a consultant’s role because it’s not an actual job that can be discretely handled by one person. Everyone on the team is to some degree dramaturging on this journey. Is there some other title that is more accurate, for The Dramaturg's principal role on the team? A role in which they, like the rest, use the tools of dramaturgy to help move the process toward its best expression of itself?

I’ve been The Dramaturg on any number of new plays in development. Me and the playwright and the director in the same hours of discussion as Carl describes. Wrestling, together, a particularly overgrown or mysterious path to the state of perfection of expression we sought. And even in the doing of it I’ve felt the unbearable lightness of that role. Who made me Compass? And what agency does the Compass actually have in the journey? This question of agency seems embedded in the dysfunctions of the relationship. The Dramaturg can ask, suggest, reflect, provide research and other models and come at the question of the path to perfection in a dozen different ways, but at the end of the day The Dramaturg can’t make the changes. The Playwright(s) can. The Director can. Even The Producer has agency. But The Dramaturg can only point the way North and hope the caravan trusts and follows. And as the process marches on, I feel it more and more acutely. The actors come into the room and I’m suddenly more tentative, uncertain, uncomfortable: do I talk to them directly? Do I only speak to the director? Only the playwright? Do I make notes and email them? I can feel the sense of distance between me and the heart of the matter. So I relate to the strange alienation so many dramaturgs feel, in particular in relation to the production of new plays. It is, almost, an occupational hazard. A condition of taking on the title.

As a producer, I have no such sense of discomfort. I respond to the play in the exact same way, dramaturgically, and I know I have a central role in its chances, ultimately, of approaching perfection of expression. No, I don’t give notes to the actors. A producer really isn’t helpful giving notes to the actors. Yes, I do have conversations with the director and the playwright about what my dramaturgical sense is of where we are and where they are taking us. I read my own compass and report my findings there. And if, at the end of the producer’s day, I feel the journey is misguided or thwarted in some essential way, I have agency. If I feel it is on the right path but running out of time or money or lacking a full team, I can bring those resources into the equation. Or, if it feels truly lost in the woods, I can halt the process outright. That is my job. It's not anyone else's responsibility. And the whole team is relying on me to do it with excellence if we're going to approach perfection together.

Can anyone become a dramaturg, or is one born into it? I don’t know. I think it’s probably “nurtured nature.” A recent experience of this is fresh in my mind. I was producer of a world premiere. The playwright had worked happily with a dramaturg on several projects and I made the decision to bring the person into the team in support of the writer. There was neither a request from the director for this support, nor a natural affinity between the dramaturg’s sense of where perfection lived and the director’s. The playwright didn’t really enter the process with confidence about it either. Nor did I, as producer. We stomped around moving rather inefficiently in some eventual direction. If I had an image it would be of a friendly rugby scrum, with all that committed energy pushing and shoving toward some place that will be where it ends up but perhaps not where anyone wanted it to go.When it came time to put the program together, The dramaturg requested credit above the title on the title page with the director and the playwright. Had there been the opportunity in the marketing process to be listed on the poster, the dramaturg would have, by extension, wanted to be there. This person was at all the rehearsals, up late with the playwright debating rewrites, intently taking notes in all rehearsals and previews, and in moments when the playwright needed to be away from rehearsal, acting as the playwright’s “eyes” on the process. But at the end of the day, when the results were in about what we’d made together, it was the playwright, the director, and the organization that took the credit and the blame. Nobody inside or outside the organization mentioned the contributions or responsibility of the dramaturg.

The results were mixed, with high praise and low digs and everything in between. And the dramaturg left the process feeling weird about the whole thing. The credit issue was one piece of that weirdness. The relationship between the dramaturg and the director, the dramaturg and the cast, the dramaturg and the theater, the dramaturg and the playwright seemed all twitchy and unresolved. And all the buzz, both good and bad, around the play seemed to deepen that alienation, because it didn’t touch or include the dramaturg . I’ve seen, first hand, the contribution to the journey made by excellent dramaturgical skills in both the development and production of plays. And I know that many times the role we currently call The Dramaturg is an essential contributor to the success of a production. And it’s not a question of whether or not a contributor should be properly credited. But I wonder if we haven’t pieced off a part of the core responsibility of each member of the team—“team” in the broadest sense of everyone at the theater— and in so doing created an inherently dysfunctional structure around the journey toward perfection. If everyone can and should be in the process of becoming a better artistic contributor to the work, then it seems to me that everyone needs to be approaching the challenge from the vantage point of dramaturgy—“moving toward perfection in the nurturing of the art.” I absolutely think everyone not only can but must become a better dramaturg if they intend to live their lives in theater—in any role. If we are truly alive to the journey, we will be in a constant state of becoming.

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First, just thank you for what you wrote - plus the time and skill that went into it. I expereinced definite nature and nurture in your thoughtful, insightful and challenging perspective. I include challenging because I assume, to various degrees, the culture in which our theatre institutions exist and create do have individual and collective conditioning and agendas to contend with in order for the collective team of dramaturgs to discover and then purposefully steer in the direction "of true north". It takes individuals with copious amounts of integrity, and I also think humility, to champion and allow for the emergence of courgae, trust, and generosity that would of course greatly assit that journey toward "true north". Your contribution to the discussions that take place here on the HowlRound journal certainly serves as a rallying call to live in such a manner.

I think I meant to post the above on Polly Carl's Was I born this way--apologies! Too many Howl Round tabs open in my browser... but that's a good thing!

As a queer playwright who has recently affirmed a commitment to playwrighting and who has discarded the term lesbian for the term 'queer'--I loved this article for multiple reasons. The main reason, though, is that I live with a philosophy of living in the gray--as in, between the polarities, the black and white, the gay and straight, the creative and logistical, the label this and label that. The idea that artistry, identity, and sexuality can all be a becoming is something I agree with wholeheartedly, and I commend you. People can be very anxious around the idea that their homosexual sexuality is not strictly nature, because it is no longer easy. As artists and as individuals, whomever we love, I don't think we have to look for things to be hard--but we certainly should never stop at easy.

Thank you again.

I like interrogating perfection as the goal, Michael, since it conjures a notion of some external, pre-determined, pristine "right thing" to be aiming for. It is all about aiming and journey and becoming to me, so that notion of perfection doesn't fully help me, either. Especially when so much of the work I'm most proud of has arrived at something more messy and idiosyncratic than what anyone would describe as perfect. But if we're aiming for the perfect expression of the thing we set out to make, rather than perfection, maybe that makes room for a shared understanding of "perfect" as containing the quirks and flaws that allow us to express it? Or is that just chasing my tail?

Robbie- thanks for joining in here! You have so much to teach on this particular topic and also about generosity! Your comment here about actors having to create alone with others seems to me also to extend to the best sorts of environments for work, period. You could be describing New Dramatists (playwrights creating alone with others), the NNPN (theaters creating alone with sister theaters), or a place like The Z Space where an evolving community of artists and companies make unique work alone together. Courage, trust, generosity, and a shared sense of True North-- this list is helpful to me.

In making work and teaching I use the term 'actors' dramaturgy'. Even some of my colleagues at the College, which has a substantial dramaturgy curriculum, now use it. I like to name things. I fret privately about credit, yet know that generosity is a tool of the work. David is right on, and his discoveries are freshly informed. He reminds me of something I go back to always -- acting, the art I know best. Actors have to create alone with others. I think of each person making theater as doing unique work in process with as many other tasks and people as they can. Courage and trust, too, are tools that help such connections happen.

"Dramaturgy is a tool for navigating the progress toward perfection. Like a compass is a tool. And it plays out in myriad ways within a project, an organization, a field, a form."

I find this idea really energizing, and I admit, connected to a way I am also attempting to frame dramaturgy as a tool, as a lens, to bring to activity not limited to the perfecting of a play.

I do find Perfection a complicated goal;
with the compass metaphor, it puts me more in mind of a journey.
But I guess, as i interrogate my own resistance to perfection being the goal, maybe rather than excellence, i have to reckon with the fact that a journey, a moving forward, is inevitably moving towards a destination.
And though the destination is subjective, there is also, in the case of a 'work' being created, an object to achieve at the end of the journey.
And the compass David describes, the set of tools, indeed seems to have more potential if a bunch of people are trying, together, to work with a compass that shares a north, south east and west.

As someone who builds performance collaboratively, finding that shared compass, in the room and for everyone involved in all aspects of the journey- that is the work as much as anything else. That is collective dramaturgical responsibility. And that is, in my experience, a healthy process.