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Join us for the 21st Century Literary Office Convening

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On Friday, February 24 and Saturday, February 25 we will be hosting an in-person convening of about forty literary managers, dramaturgs, and playwrights and simultaneously, hosting a global, open-access, online convening through the livestreaming channel #NEWPLAY TV, watch parties, Twitter #newplay, and the HowlRound.com blog.

The purpose of these dual convenings is to report on and imagine the literary office of the 21st Century. The function of the literary office and the role of the dramaturgs who generally run it, still remains one of the great mysteries of the American theatre. At its best the literary office is the lifeblood of an artistic department—reading plays, engaging playwrights, functioning as the liaison to all audience engagement endeavors, brainstorming new ways to invite a community into the theatrical experience. At its worst the literary office is considered the first department to be cut when a theatre confronts financial difficulties—a script mill that the artistic director views as easily expendable because he already knows the plays he wants to produce.

The formation of the literary office and the role of the dramaturg have become increasingly intertwined and it’s important to remember this history is recent—in many ways defined in the 1960s and 70s by the Yale School of Drama—“imbued with the philosophy that the theatre must participate in the intellectual life of its age, and that the intellectual aspect of the theater, too often scorned by American theatre professionals, must be ever present and sound.” The literary office and its staff acting as both “internal critic” to the production process as the dramaturg in the room and external liaison to the audience, interpreting the plays through program notes, audience talkbacks, and lobby displays.

The purpose of these dual convenings is to report on and imagine the literary office of the 21st Century. The function of the literary office and the role of the dramaturgs who generally run it, still remains one of the great mysteries of the American theatre.



But literary offices now seem to reside in a precarious place—filled with gatekeepers perceived as keeping aspiring playwrights anxiously waiting their turn, and an overflow of MFA trained dramaturgs chomping at the bit to “get in the room” and make their voices heard in the creative process, but not always welcome. In my experience, literary managers, associates and interns are some of the hardest working members of our profession, and particularly passionate about their love of theatre. But they often find themselves in a strange and thankless position where they get credit for very little and are blamed for either trying too hard to “help” or for standing in the way of a playwright’s path to the artistic director’s door. This weekend we will talk philosophically, about the why and how of the literary office and consider the literary managers role in the creative process.  And we’ll talk practically about how technology can make the day-to-day work more efficient, and argue over best practices around submission policies. Hopefully we’ll emerge from our two days together with some concrete ideas about how to reimagine a literary office that will effectively serve the changing nature of audiences and art making in the 21st Century, and solidify the essential ways that literary managers and dramaturgs contribute to a healthy ecosystem of new play making.

Something to note about our convenings:

  • We hold two or three a year and they emerge from key issues confronting the field and from the passions of the artists we interact with everyday.
  • We pay all the expenses of the participants. This limits who we can invite. In order to create the widest participant pool possible, we create a steering to committee for each convening and they provide the names for the invitee list. We also try to spread out the opportunities so if a theatre or a person came to another convening it’s likely they won’t be invited to this one.
  • In most cases we design convenings to be as globally transparent, and as participatory as possible. The only exception to this rule was our fall convening that looked at the intersection between commercial and not-for-profit producers. We knew that conversation would be greatly compromised if we had opened to public scrutiny. Our first priority is to gather research around the topics we cover with the hopes that it will inform our practice. Our second priority is to make sure as many people as possible can participate.

We have created a number of ways that you can join the conversation this upcoming weekend:

  • Watch the live webcast of the convening on the #NEWPLAY TV channel here. Refer to the two-day live broadcast schedule here.
  • Participate in the discussion with other online convening participants by using the hashtag #newplay in Twitter. At certain moments during the convening weekend, the in-person gathering in DC will respond to the online conversation on Twitter. In addition, subscribe to HowlRound.com to comment on blog reports coming out of the convening. Propose your own reports and responses to the editorial team at HowlRound by emailing editor (at) howlround.com.
  • Organize, host, or attend a #NEWPLAY TV watch party in your local city or community. It can be in your home, your university, your theatre – anywhere you can gather with other people to view the live broadcast together on a computer or projected on screen. Here’s the tool to find or organize your party.  Email newplaytv (at) howlround.com to let us know if you need any help and to alert us to your group’s activities surrounding the convening.

And to kick off our virtual conversation: we asked our in-person participants to state their professional goals for the weekend. We heard a number of things more than once including:

  • How can we use technology to make our work more efficient?
  • A desire to engage a systematic study of new play development techniques.
  • Find ways to better support artists and more effectively engage playwrights in our institutions.
  • Find new language for how we talk about new plays—focusing on process over product and emphasizing the importance of building relationships over time.
  • Consider how to manage submission processes and the reality of unsolicited submissions.
  • Develop ideas for a national literary office commons that lives online.

We now ask the same question of all of you. What would you like to see discussed, considered, and accomplished over our two days together?

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