I Dare Us

a Manifesto on the 21st Century Literary Office

The following manifesto was presented as part of the American Voices New Play Institute's 21st Century Literary Office Convening that took place February 24 & 25, 2012 at Arena Stage in Washington, DC. Click here to watch a video of all five manifestos presented to the convening. 

I used to say that as the dramaturg I am the person who dares theaters, artists, myself to dig deeper, to ask harder questions, to be more thoughtful. I have hurtled around the country. I was lucky to work at theaters others admire from afar. But most days I felt like a functionary in a system so broken as to be making a mockery of my daring and training and hard-earned wisdom. I could feel the interestingness being sucked out of me and the work. I could feel a sense of despair creeping in and taking over my brain, heart, and mouth. I was assigned to playwrights and directors who didn't want to work with me or a dramaturg in general. And the pile that I was sorting and reading, and was told was the most important part of my job, and to which I had ceased to respond, was meaningless and was making me a liar.

So.

Things are different now. I am expanded and lighter and ready to dream and dare again.

So.

Thomas Paine saw it as Common Sense: We have it in our power to begin the world over again.

So.

Let us begin.

A Brash Spew of Generalizations followed by Specific Suggestions

1. We all have the same pile of plays sitting on our shelves, in our e-mail, on our devices, and on the floors of our offices, homes, and cars.

Let us call for an end to submissions as we know them now. Let us call for the creation of a national database for new plays.

If we pool our resources, we can begin again. Imagine the glorious moment of seeing in a snapshot all the plays that could serve your mission. Imagine the number of smaller theaters, development centers, early career dramaturgs, freelancers from all corners, and ourselves who can read and populate this database with 4 then 5 then more reports per play—and get paid for it. OUR SHARED EXPERIENCE, SHARING OUR EXPERIENCE.

And imagine, clicking right there to download the script. Literary managers, agents, writers, all of us MUST LET GO of some control. Yes, playwrights might see a more honest response to their work in such a database than they get in a meager rejection letter. But playwrights are not fragile creatures, and should not be coddled or act in any way less brave than we need them to be.

There is no good reason for us not to work together. I DARE US TO WORK TOGETHER.

I am a dramaturg, but that is not all I am. And I bet it’s not all of who you are either. We are artists, and we support artists, and we know how to MAKE DREAMS COME TRUE. We should seize and demand the power to SAY YES. We have overspecialized ourselves into obsolescence, and we must reclaim our place as complete and DARING theater artists, which is no longer what those titles imply.

2. Our artistic directors don’t read plays and our colleagues don’t read plays.

Let us call for more dramaturgs as artistic directors.

Let us stop writing rejection letters, especially those that say our artistic director has passed when WE ARE THE ONES passing. Let us claim that responsibility, own it, accept it. These letters that lie have disempowered us and created a dishonest relationship between theaters, dramaturgs, and playwrights.

And I dare you to accept that other people know as much about plays as we do. Involve your colleagues in the reading. At OSF, the season selection process involves as many as 60 people from ALL departments getting together several times to recommend and read and discuss plays. IT’S NOT THAT HARD and the payoff is immeasurable. I DARE us all to surround ourselves with colleagues willing to make that commitment with us, to share their wisdom with us.

3. Regional theaters have become inflexible as they are beholden to an increasingly irrelevant subscription model.

Let us begin by calling upon every theater to hold at least one spot as a TBA slot. Budget it, staff as you can, get as much decided in advance as you need, get your company and your audiences excited to embrace the unknown—but pick the work as late as possible.

We must be able to program plays that are immediately RELEVANT, to create plays immediately that are RELEVANT, to support artists we love who have work that must be shared NOW. We are stuck in cycles of responding a year, two years late. We are putting our most important artistic relationships on hold for a year, two years. We are overdeveloping work instead of DARING to produce it while it is still fresh with PASSION.

Or may I dare you to get rid of seasons altogether? CREATE an open calendar in which you have just as many rules and deadlines as your production staff actually needs. CREATE a repertory. CREATE a timeline in which different models of playmaking can actually be played with and a show can run for 10 minutes or 5 years.

I DOUBLE-DOG DARE YOU.

4. No one knows what a dramaturg is.

Let us call for the end of the job titles of dramaturg and literary manager.

I am a dramaturg, but that is not all I am. And I bet it’s not all of who you are either. We are artists, and we support artists, and we know how to MAKE DREAMS COME TRUE. We should seize and demand the power to SAY YES. We have overspecialized ourselves into obsolescence, and we must reclaim our place as complete and DARING theater artists, which is no longer what those titles imply.

I hope those who find themselves out of a job—as I have—find ways to REINVENT AND LET GO AND BEGIN OVER AGAIN. I no longer wear the title of dramaturg solely. I am part of a team that gives artists the resources to have a life so they can make plays. I am part of a producing team that makes dreams come true. I no longer have a submissions pile. And yet I read more plays in the last year than in the previous two years before. I have taken responsibility and picked up the phone, traveled, and met people in real life and the virtual world. I don’t sit around waiting for the mail. And I am a better friend to playwrights and theater makers than ever before.

We must read books and newspapers and travel and meet other theater makers and people who make something other than theater. We have amazing skills, but we have become unable to fully utilize them or grow as artists and people in our own right. We must get out of our offices and bring ourselves back into the creative process. How dare we tell artists what to do or not to do if we are not willing to do it ourselves?

We must be active and go out and find the plays, make the plays, dream them into being.

We must REMEMBER the love of everything that brought us to dramaturgy to begin with, and although we understand structure, I DARE US NOT BE BOUND by it.

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Thanks for this inspiring manifesto, Julie!

I love the idea of the new play data base, or oracle, or whatever we end up calling it, but as Michael rightly points out digital scripts can pile up as well (and we won’t be constantly tripping over them as a reminder of their presence). But even if this addressed the pile of scripts problem by allowing literary managers to filter for plays that address their mission, who’s to say the best of those plays would be found in this database? For me, there is nothing more annoying than hearing that this or that theater ONLY finds writers through certain prescribed avenues, and I fear the database might make that one avenue idea even more entrenched – I just don’t think great art always filters into neat, organized lanes of traffic.

SO my double-dog dare would be that every theater commit to one unexpected avenue of sussing out new work – whether it be a commitment to seeing work by local writers, or even reading any play written by someone who’s last name starts with “M” – it almost doesn’t matter what the avenue is because the goal is to keep us mentally open to what we can see if we look up from the road we’re on every now and then and consider the entire landscape.

I also want to address the question of who knows how to read plays – I love that so many people from so many departments come to the table to discuss plays at OSF. First off, we’re all in this because we love the work – this seems like an excellent way to give everyone a strong investment in the work and that only serve to strengthen everyone’s commitment. When we all know why we’re working on a play we all do a better job of supporting it, and selling it! It’s a mistake to think that selecting a play is a totally objective exercise reserved for smart people. A great play that doesn’t resonate with the people who work on it, or the audience it’s aiming for, is dead in the water.

Last one – I hope that funders are reading this! I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had grantors ask for our “season” a year and a half in advance. It’s crazy! For a theater with a big budget this may make sense, but for goodness sake, I’m running a new play development conference!

I think the Play Database is a great idea. In Australia, there's a wonderful organization that archives, e-publishes and promotes hundreds of plays a year, and selected by dramaturgs, writers and others not directly linked to their production: http://australianplays.org/. Any playwright can send in a play and it's a very broad, generous process---plays are considered across a great range of aesthetics, experience levels, cast sizes, ambitions, and so on. It really gives a great sense of the field, not just the regional shopping cart.

You can buy or read these plays online very cheaply. You can search by author or play title or cast size. I've had many inquiries about my own plays through this excellent source.

A separate but related point: As a writer, I think we must get away from this mentality that playwrights are the passive creators of product that then gets actively handled (accepted, rejected) by others. In the festival I curate at Harvard where I teach playwriting, undergraduate playwrights are paired for a semester with graduate dramaturges. They work together in dialogue on the plays, and troubleshooting that relationship and building a common language are integral parts of the course. It then culminates in the Harvard Playwrights Festival where professional directors do staged readings of the plays, in dialogue with the playwright-dramaturge teams, with graduate and undergraduate actors. It makes for a very rich and process-based conversation while also (I hope) training writers to be active participants in the room and to learn about collaboration.

I don't think things will fundamentally change until playwrights change their thinking and become entrepreneurs/ ADs/ collaborators in creating their own work--- With dramaturges, ADs, actors, designers, etc. etc. And I"m very hopeful that this is happening.

So finally I think the important question of the New Play Database--which truly is a brilliant and necessary idea-- is how to build in equity, agency for playwrights, and dialogue--to not just use it as a shopping tool for theatres and a place to "judge" plays but (for example) a place where PLAYWRIGHTS can also find fellow-writers and aesthetics, and learn by reading the kinds of comments posted whom they want to work with and whose responses to a bunch of plays suggest that they would be incompatible with that reader/ theater/ dramaturge. How can it be a part of the artistic commons?

Thanks for this great article.

Christine, I love hearing about the Australian database -- and, as you say, the importance seems to be the reinvigorated and re-imagined relationships it enables. Any disruptive technology causes equivalent offline/non-technical disruptions as well -- and that, I think, is the really exciting possibility!

I think there is a lot of strength in the concept of "co-artistic directors." Each writing, directing, designing, and performing role with separate but equal weight. Maybe even extend this concept to the sales and marketing and fundraising side, too. But what I've seen out of companies like this is that the work doesn't transfer to other companies. It only exists when they perform it. And they don't generally read or consider outside plays. And sometimes, the content can get to insular. Sometimes the tension between roles is what creates good work. It's hard to escape the hierarchy in organizations. People want boundaries and rules. And in crass business sense, it's more efficient to separate and formalize the roles. In any case, I enjoyed this manifesto a lot and I'm so happy you're in a hopeful place. I enjoyed working with you as a dramaturg so many years ago and still think about that process often.

Julie - thank you for your passion and willingness to share it. Some thoughts, comments on my end pertaining to a few of them, with what may be obvious for others but not for me. You say "Imagine the glorious moment of seeing in a snapshot all the plays that could serve your mission." I read the article about the National Play Data Base [and I think it's a very interesting one], and while there may be ways created for a playwright to catalog their play in such a way that perhaps a key word or two might match something in a theatre's "mission' and thus be part of what you refer to as the "snapshot" that would allow them to sift through matching possibilities, nonetheless that does not necessarily guarantee an esthetically pleasing match. If anything it might add more to the pile of reading material, only this pile is electronic. Plays have to be read, whether they are piled up on a floor in an office or piled up in an electronic data base. If you [and perhaps others] decide to primarily read scripts from authors that you've created some kind of relationship with, as a new writer I want to know the best way to create that kind of relationship. You say you've closed submissions but have read more plays this year than in the past two, but you don't say how you came across these plays to read. As a playwright I'd be interested in knowing that. You also say "And I dare you to accept that other people know as much about plays as we do. Involve your colleagues in the reading. At OSF, the season selection process involves as many as 60 people from ALL departments getting together several times to recommend and read and discuss plays." I think I differ with you on this. Not that someone in a different dept cannot have an intelligent perspective on a play, but there ARE different skill levels involved with various aspects of theatre. I am not about to assume i know as much about costuming to allow me a professional vote on why a costume design plot should or should not be accepted for a particular production. It takes a certain capacity of discernment when reading a script to ascertain its merit. Can one see and hear and feel its live presence as a staged entity while reading the script? Many cannot. I appreciated your comment about overdeveloping plays too much and not daring to actually produce them. I don't know the specific in's and out's for the apparent need of so much development. Don't get me wrong, I do recognize it's value, it's place. It also seems the road to production is paved with a lot of developmental stones - development then a reading, and then more development via a workshop, then a staged reading, and if a miracle happens a production. Are the majority of scripts being submitted THAT raw, that unfinished? When I write a play, I write it in mind to be produced, not developed. I've spent months developing it, writing it. I've read scenes with playwrite groups and gotten feedback [some used some discarded], I've edited, I've had a few other writers I respect read over the material and get back with their insights, comments, suggestions [I've used some of them, others I've discarded], I've often [usually] mounted an Act of the piece [I do have resource to a community theatre for monthy offerings on a weeknight, and realize many writers don't have that kind of resource, and have gotten feedback from the audience [some of it used, some of it discarded]. So when I submit a play to a theatre it is in a state that to my mind is in shape to be mounted. That does not mean that a professional dramaturg or literary manager will not have suggestions or insights for me that I had not considered. They may very well have . . . I will welcome them. It does mean that if I send something out it is only because to the best of my knowledge the piece WILL work. Lastly, you said "We must be active and go out and find the plays, make the plays, dream them into being." It's a beautiful sentiment and I'm being very pragmatic here. What does go out and find the plays exactly mean? I'm assuming it means you're seeing them being produced at other theatres, or via readings at other theatres? Which is wonderful if you're doing that, but what about the plays that have not been picked up somewhere for production? I don't mean to be getting on your case here, but seeking more specifics in certain areas. Someone posted a comment here about a book on dramaturgy. That was very specific and helpful and I'm going to buy it so I can understand that complicated world a little better. I won't take time here to comment on the convening, except it was very helpful in putting a human face to what can seem an impersonal process in terms of the playwright connecting with the theatre world. It was informative and I have more appreciation for what many are doing to make [and allow] new theatre to thrive.

Julie-- SO many things I love about this post: submission & response reform; a deeper dramaturgical frame for artistic directors and/or gatekeepers; more transparency and engagement in play selection (pointing towards the process becoming more of a community act); the challenge to advance the role of the dramaturg (and to find way to evolve/consolidate/articulate the concept, title, and role); and simply supporting the selection of more immediately topical work (which could look a million different ways.)

This is all pointing towards an emerging need within institutions for someone to be a responsible and thoughtful agent for change and advancement. I personally believe that an individual or a team working as an agent of these causes for the artists served, the institutional policy, and the community around it at-large is a necessary function for cultural relevance, and not just a luxury item.True agency implies a lot of different things, but finding ways to offer a change of appraisal is among the most important. While a change of appraisal on an artistic/institutional/community level may be a near impossible this to measure, it certainly will occur as a byproduct of really successful engagement in ideas and beliefs. If the dramaturg is the person that can broker some of these actions, then it points to our responsibility to voice what the job is along with all of the emerging ideas/models/programming that the role serves. Efficacy, praxis, engagement, and everything in between.

All this is to say: great article; great ideas! OSF is really lucky to have you!

Not to undercut what Gwydion wrote, but in the interest of giving credit where credit is due, that's not a new idea that Gwydion came up with. The core idea was mentioned on Arena's newplay blog a year ago,

http://newplay.arenastage.o...

And the idea has been thrown about for years prior to that across the field. It's not something that should be claimed as any one person's territory.

Just to be SUPER-clear in responding to Tony Adams, I am not in any way claiming credit for the idea of the New Play Oracle. I've been working on developing it since far EARLIER than the mention on the New Play Blog that Tony cites -- for at least two years -- but all I've done (or tried to do) is advance the discussion a bit. The point is that ownership of the idea is the least important thing in the world. It needs to be owned and curated and maintained by the Commons, or it ultimately won't work. That's why both the post I wrote here and the one on my blog were released under Creative Commons Licenses: anyone and everyone can and should take them and make something beautiful and important with them.

My apologies. It's just that Gwydion clearly put a lot of research, time, and thought into his piece.

I was DELIGHTED to read Julie's outstanding manifesto. It has stayed with me for a while. As for the database coincidence... it's just that, a coincidence. Or perhaps it's best seen as evidence of the fact that this idea is brimming throughout the sector and that its time has come. "Credit where credit is due" isn't the issue here: let's focus instead on nurturing this idea, collaboratively, all of us who believe in it, and bringing it to life. From the Commons, for the Commons, as it should be!

1.) Agreed: playwrights do not need coddling. From my experience, I had already acquired dozens of rejection letters before a literary manager invited me to coffee to discuss my play. If I didn't die from those rejections, I'm not going to die from an honest face-to-face discussion.

As to the database: Isn't this the "New Play Oracle" that Gwyndion Suilebhan suggested first on HowlRound and then in far greater detail on his own blog? Please give credit where credit is due. http://www.suilebhan.com/20...

4.) There's nothing wrong about the title of dramaturg or literary manager. The problem is poor communication. As a playwright, I had to read a book in order to find out (The Art of Active Dramaturgy by Lenora Inez Brown) what it is that dramaturgs do. Good communication will result in the rest of us understanding the value that dramaturgs bring to the process, rather than the perception that some playwrights have of the dramaturg as an obstacle to be bypassed.

Thanks for this, Julie-- it is inspired and energizing. So much of this is what I was trying to say in my (much) earlier and less successful post about dramaturgy. You write: "I am a dramaturg but that's not all I am." And what Jen Mendenhall is talking about is her own dramaturgical skill set that she deploys from the perspective of the actor. I am always thinking dramaturgically-- whether my relationship to the project is as director, producer, or associate artistic director, or audience. I don't believe its value to a process is fully captured if parsed out to a single individual-- to me it is a responsibility shared by everyone in the mix. I love this sentence: "I am part of a producing team that makes dreams come true." It implies a set of responsibilities that are more complete, more risky, and more directly accountable to the artists, audience, and theater than what the title "Dramaturg" has become. I wouldn't actually argue for more dramaturgs as Artistic Directors as much as I would call for all Artistic Directors to develop and master the tools of dramaturgy-- for their seasons, their productions, their interactions with audience but especially for their institutions. Start from the lens of dramaturgy, not from the lens of "this play because I love it" or "this season because my gut says so", or worse, "this play because we need the box office' or "this play because I want to direct it": what set of projects is the precise next set of projects for advancing the narrative of your relationship to the community, the form, the artists, and your staff; to advancing the purpose of your theater's existence? And then take responsibility for leading the whole team of your theater toward coherence with that narrative and an authentic quest to achieve that specific purpose. You can't do that without viewing your actions and decisions through a dramaturgical lens. Any more than the marketing person, development person, production manager, or literary manager (or box office, or...or...or...) can effectively advance the narrative without dramaturgical skills. You also land on the issue of submissions and "the pile" and I'm happy to find a conceptual collaborator here as well. Being in the world of new writing in an authentic relationship to it and the authors is at the bottom of the whole transition I've led in my current job. I don't believe "this is the only thing we can offer playwrights", nor do I believe having someone tangentially related to the work (and narrative) of my theater read the play is "the gift we give them: the gift of a read" as we heard this weekend. I read nearly as many plays now as I did before closing the process, but I consistently read with more clarity of purpose and more commitment to an authentic exchange of energy and ideas. After the convening Erin Daley pointed us to the Hollywood Black List-- a list of best unproduced screenplays compiled every year in Hollywood by the producers who passed on them. This list may point the way to something clear and simple we can do together. Would we'd see the same sorts of amazing stats in the outcomes as they have found in film. Slum Dog Millionaire and The Kings Speech both came off that pile... (The 2011 list: http://latimesblogs.latimes...

Julie this is fantastic and energizing!

David, I don't understand the term "lens of dramaturgy" would you care to elaborate? It's hard to tell from your comment why the "lens of dramaturgy" is a better decision making model than the others you've listed. Dramatugical skills and thought processes are value neutral so to put them in opposition to things like deep emotional engagement (I love this play), artistic excitement (I want to direct this play) or even in opposition to the tastes of our audiences (box office) gives me pause. I suppose in the best case, it should be both.

Under what Julie is proposing, it seems to me there would be room for plays chosen for all kinds of reasons--a parallel to the fact that we create for many different reasons, we go to theater for many different reasons--which I believe is a good thing. But then again I've always believed purity is the enemy.

LIsa-- Here's a clear shot at the sense of what I am saying above, relative to what I mean by the "lens of dramaturgy" without gunking it up. "Start from the lens of dramaturgy: what set of projects is the precise next set of projects for advancing the narrative of your relationship to the community, the form, the artists, and your staff; to advancing the purpose of your theater's existence? And then take responsibility for leading the whole team of your theater toward coherence with that narrative and an authentic quest to achieve that specific purpose. You can't do that without viewing your actions and decisions through a dramaturgical lens."

How many times do I have to shout out here? Just because it has Shakespeare in the name?? Alabama Shakespeare Festival has fully produced up to 3 new scripts a season since Geoffrey Sherman became Artistic Director in 2005!! On the main stage and beautiful productions in the Octogon. Playwrights are actually commissioned to write plays here. You never seem to notice. Geoffrey Sherman was first an Artistic Director of the Hudson Guild in the late 80's. Every place he's worked since then across the country, he has produced new plays that had no hoopla attached: Portland Rep, Meadow Brook Theatre, BoarsHead Theatre. Because he's British/American he carried that respect for writers from the old country. A little recognition of his and Nancy Rominger's work to foster new play writing could go a long way.

Thank you Julie! Breath of fresh air. I want to add this: the dramaturg/playwright/director relationship must not be allowed to shut out the actors. I cannot tell you how many times there are three heads together, whispering, and not including the actors. Actors experience the words from the inside, fully fleshed, with their breath. Who better to tell a playwright - or show them - that their work is or is not resonating? Let's open the circle to welcome everyone in the room. It will better serve the play, and make good the promise of a "collaborative" art form.

This was one of the highlights for me during the convening. I immediately asked for a copy of this and I am glad it got published.

I am kinda surprised that some of these topics didn't come up as much during the convening. The ideas of titles, the desire (if there is any) for dramaturges to be ADs. And especially the TBA slot idea...would love to see if some of this could be put into practice at major institutions?