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On Teaching Dramaturgy

Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder: Welcome to Teaching Theatre, a podcast about the practice and pedagogy of theatre education, produced for HowlRound Theatre Commons, a free and open platform for theatremakers worldwide. I'm your host, playwright and theatre professor Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder.

Welcome back to the Teaching Theatre podcast, hosted by HowlRound. On this episode, we'll be talking about dramaturgy, both in the classroom and in the rehearsal room, and I'm excited to welcome Martine Green-Rogers and Jacqueline Goldfinger. Martine Green-Rogers has worked as a dramaturg on over forty productions and co-edited the book Contemporary Black Theatre and Performance: Acts of Rebellion, Activism, and Solidarity. I love that title. She's a member of the Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of American and holds a PhD in theatre from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and she's currently the dean of the School of Theatre at DePaul University.

Martine Kei Green-Rogers: Hello, everyone.

Elyzabeth: And then we have Jacqueline Goldfinger, who is an award-winning playwright, dramaturg, and librettist. As a dramaturg, she's worked at La Jolla Playhouse, the Philadelphia Theatre Company, and the Arden among others, and she's taught playwriting and dramaturgy at institutions including the University of California, Davis and the University of Pennsylvania. She was a guest editor for the Spring 2023 special issue of the Journal of American Drama and Theatre that was themed revolutions in new work development and included articles which explored many different ways dramaturgs work in the field today. She's currently working on the second edition of her popular book, Playwriting with Purpose, and finalizing her Yale Prize Play, Bottle Fly, for its world premiere at Redtwist Theatre in Chicago next year. Congratulations.

Jacqueline Goldfinger: Thank you.

Elyzabeth: So, here's the question a lot of people will ask: what is a dramaturg and what do they do?

Martine: Maybe the better question is what don't we do? Honestly. I feel like at this point we are jack of all trades and also just amazing stewards of them all.

Jacqueline: Yes, the new play midwife. I like that. Play midwife.

Martine: There's so many ways of defining this thing that we do. I love new play midwife, as Jackie just said. I also feel like we are the people who try to marry a director's concept with a playwright's voice and make sure that it doesn't end in divorce or bad reviews. I think we also are the people who ask the questions, why this play? Why this play now? We're the ones that think about how do we engage audience in the story that we're telling and making sure that we are emphasizing relevance, and that manifests in a million different tasks. And now I'm going to stop talking and let Jackie talk a little bit.

You're that facilitator that helps everyone play together beautifully at the same time and then connect with an audience in the way that the artists want them to connect with the piece.

Jacqueline: I think that's a fantastic, fantastic answer because I do think that overall to have to give a one short answer is that where that outside eye, and where the production needs an outside eye can vary. Sometimes the director and playwright have been working together for a very long time, and they're on the same page. Maybe they don't need as much of a facilitation between the two of them, but maybe the designers have just been brought in.

And so the dramaturg is really a part of facilitating the conversation and making sure everyone on the entire creative team's on the same page and helping everyone connect that way. Sometimes a producer is like, I actually need to look at ways that audiences will engage with this piece, and they bring in a dramaturg to do that. So I think that there are a myriad of possibilities of what you're actually doing on the ground. But I think philosophically overall, you're really the conductor that's helping every instrument of the orchestra work together. You're not in charge of the piece, you're not writing it, you're not orchestrating it. What you are is you're that facilitator that helps everyone play together beautifully at the same time and then connect with an audience in the way that the artists want them to connect with the piece.

So I know that sounds very big, but I think that it is big and that's exciting about it to me. I know sometimes that gets scary because students are like, I don't have a checklist of what I will do on every production because often you do have a checklist. If I'm a lighting designer, I need to do these 10 things. I'm an actor, I do these 10 things, and being a dramaturg is not like that. It's very situational and I think that can be scary for students, but I also think that that's where there's the most possibility because you have that kind of room to negotiate and be creative, which is exciting.

Elyzabeth: That is exciting. So now that we've cleared that up, how have you both seen dramaturgy and the role of the dramaturg change in the past five or ten or twenty years?

Martine: First and foremost, I would say the incorporation of technology into what it is that we do. I think ten years ago I wasn't... Was I? And? Now I'm thinking about this. I don't know, time seems to have flown by, but I don't think ten years ago or maybe it was more like... I know fifteen years ago I was not making dramaturgy websites as standard practice and using and creating things like Spotify lists in order to help with creating the historical tone or scene or whatever.

I think also the way it's changed is the way that we've been integrated into process. I think especially when dramaturgs find their people, their artistic people. I work with, for example, a director that refuses basically to talk to anybody else until I'm there and in the room just because he values the things that I have to say so much that he doesn't want to have a production meeting without me. He doesn't want to have initial conversations about design without me. And so that forefronting of the role of a dramaturg and elevating that—and not to say that we still don't have issues, unfortunately, establishing why we are needed in a presence that is exciting in spaces sometimes, but I feel like those conversations are not nearly as frequent as they were say fifteen, twenty years ago.

Elyzabeth: What about you Jackie? What do you think? What have you seen change?

Jacqueline: Yeah, I agree with Martine and all of that. I have to say I got started because I had a really forward-thinking dramaturg named Alison Horsley at La Jolla Playhouse who was like, I'm kind of interested in doing this research for you. And we had a conversation and she's like, “Actually, I think you'd be great at what a dramaturg does for this process. Would you like to be my assistant dramaturg?” She brought me in, and I think that at the time I didn't realize it, but speaking to my colleagues now, I realized that was a very unique experience that I had. And I think that as Martine said, because we're not having to explain as much today what a dramaturg does and why they're important, that it's much easier to bring people into the field because their collaborators already know why that role is important.

So there's still work to be done, but that's really exciting. And I also think that in terms of non-traditional work that's not necessarily written on the page first and then performed, but may be created in another manner, that a lot of those companies over the past five to ten years have begun basically home-growing their own dramaturgs and don't even know it. And that recently there's been a lot more conversation in the dramaturgical community about, “Oh, the role that this person is playing in this site-specific generative dance company is that of a dramaturg,” so bringing in more ways of working into how a dramaturg can interact in those situations, which is exciting.

There was just an article I published in the Journal of American Drama and Theatre about a designer acting as a dramaturg and what that means. So I think we're at a place where, because the kind of traditional theatres that do texts on a proscenium, they are starting to use dramaturgs more frequently, they know why it's important, and then that is rippling out into the greater field. And so they're now dance dramaturgs and opera dramaturgs and people doing dramaturgy in different ways today that you would've never seen ten years ago. And that's really exciting.

Elyzabeth: That's a great point. So what are the most important skills that you think young dramaturgs need, or what are the things that you want your students to know before they graduate?

Martine: Well, I would say definitely the most important thing that they have to have learned by the time they graduate is how to read a play. And I don't mean just read a play like crack it open and read it, but really understand as you're reading it how this thing is working, what structure is at play as you're putting it together. And not to say they can't reread it to figure these things out, but I think their brain needs to have already started to wire itself to be thinking through these things even in the first pass of a play, especially for new play dramaturgs. And then also just they need to have an innate curiosity and really want to explore how the play matters now.

Jacqueline: Yeah, I agree with that and especially the why we're doing this play now is so important. There's such a big conversation going on right now in theatre because in certain areas, theatre's not coming back as quickly post-COVID as people would like, and it's like, why aren't people coming back to that theatre? And at some point, if you start to look at what they're actually producing, a lot of it is not work that necessarily is exciting to have a conversation about or see or entertained by now. I think a lot of the challenges of the field right now in terms of getting audiences back, is that they're not using dramaturgy to the fullest extent that they could. They're not answering those questions about why are we doing this piece now? Who are we talking to? What are our audience? What conversation does our community need to have? Not the play that you loved when you were in college and never got to direct twenty-five years ago. That's valid that you want to do that, but is this really the time and place to do it now?

And so I think that what I hope, and I know Martine's doing an incredible job doing this, and that there are a lot of program leaders who are pushing students to think dramaturgically, whether or not they want to be dramaturgs or have that title because I think that those are the skills that are going to really help pull us out of this rut that American theatre is in. We have to be able to answer those questions that Martine posited, why is this piece working? How is it not working? Why do we do it now? Why does anyone come into the room? Those are tied directly to how we get audiences back in the seats.

When everyone is working together to commit acts of dramaturgy, you get a better product.

Elyzabeth: It's so interesting that you say that because I am hearing in other conversations that I'm having this recurring theme about community and how do we serve our community and what does our community need—both our communities in the broad sense, our communities within the university? And how does our programming reflective of those needs of our community? So I think that's a really great point. So Martine, you are the dean of the School of Theatre at DePaul, so you get to see the big picture. You get to see the actors and the directors and the designers. So how do you think dramaturgy finds its way into the work of all these students? So how does it help to prepare them once they leave?

Martine: Understood. Well, one, my favorite sayings to my students is that everyone should commit acts of dramaturgy. And part of the reason why this matters, and I want to also separate this because I think sometimes when I say everyone should commit acts of dramaturgy, that means you don't need a dramaturg in the room. That is not what I'm saying, but when everyone is working together to commit acts of dramaturgy, you get a better product. And so generally what this truly means is that we are asking our students to really think about why are we telling the story in this moment now? How is the way that we are telling the story in this moment impacting the way that the story will be received? Because there are all sorts of choices that we can make. A lighting designer obviously can do things like set tone for a scene depending on what the lighting looks like, and you want to make sure you're setting the tone appropriately, but then you don't want to give too much away if there's a murder coming, you don't want to plunge it into red before the villain even shows up.

Elyzabeth: Exactly.

Martine: Or if you're doing that, you better be doing it because you want some sort of effect from the audience. So these are the kinds of questions that I feel like we are sort of poking our students to really truly think about. I'll give you another good example. I just had a fun time in a colleague's class at DePaul. It's basically a script analysis class for designers. I was the guest to come talk about “how do the design choices we make affect the way that we see story?” I basically did an exercise where I just started asking for things. So I said, give me a time, give me a place, give me this, give me that.

And then we looked at a specific monologue from Shakespeare through that lens, and one of the things that I just started doing with the students is poking at them dramaturgically to say, okay, you decided that you're doing this particular type of costume with this particular character. Question. What does that mean in this moment that they're wearing these colors? What does it mean? And really sort of asking them to think about it partially just because I think sometimes young designers are really interested in what looks cool, but not necessarily thinking about, does that character even get to look cool? What are we doing in that moment if everyone on stage looks too cool for school? So these are the kinds of dramaturgical exercises, acts of dramaturgy that we're constantly asking our students to think through.

Elyzabeth: I love this idea of making sure that people understand that you have to earn your choices. Your choices, whether it's a choice as a director, as a writer, as an actor, as a designer, have to be motivated by something.

Martine: Exactly.

Elyzabeth: So teaching them to pull apart the script helps them understand what is the motivation for all of those choices that they're making. That's awesome.

Martine: Yeah, I love doing that exercise with students also just because really fun things come out of it. I remember one student was like, “I'm doing this. If I ever do this show, I'm doing this.” And I was like, “Well, it is a collaborative art, so you want to make sure that your director's on board. But yes, definitely write it down, save it for later.”

Elyzabeth: That's awesome. All right, Jackie, so you've worked as both a playwright and a dramaturg. How have you used dramaturgs in the development of your own work?

Jacqueline: Oh, I demand that there's a dramaturg in the room. There just has to be a dramaturg in the room. When I'm working on one of my new plays, it's not an option. The fact is that everyone in the new play room is working on their own little piece, and because the play is new, they're learning about the piece as they go. So the actors are learning about the characters even more than a traditional piece where you might have some history, because they have no history, so they're digging into that. The director is learning how it moves because there's been no other productions, so you have no touchstones. I require having a dramaturg in new play rooms because at other times, but especially at that time, I feel like we need that eye, that overall perspective, that so many of us in the room are trying to find our way in foreign terrain, that it's very easy to get separated and lost.

So one of the things that I love about being a playwright in a new play room is having, having someone to bounce ideas off of, but also to constantly give me and the director and the team of full view. Oh, the actors were doing this. This was a change that you made to the script and this is the change that we made in the lighting cues. Is that all working together in that moment to tell that story or are you telling three different stories in that moment now? Then what I hope is that as a dramaturg, because I have the first person experience, especially in new play rooms as a playwright.

Then when I go into rooms as a new play dramaturg, I am able to kind of just better assess what the playwright needs at times because I've been there and sometimes that can really just mean, can I buy you a beer? Because we can sit here and talk and I can throw questions at you, but you look exhausted and look like you want to slit your throat. So how about we make sure that doesn't happen and we have a beer and be people and then if you want to talk about the piece, you can, but we keep you in one piece so that you can get up and work tomorrow. So I feel that that helps. I know that there are some people, and I think it's less now, but definitely when I started out where it's like you can't be a playwright and a dramaturg because there's too much conflict there. There's too much conflict of interest. If you're a dramaturg in a room, how can a playwright trust you? The playwright might just be like you're there to revise their own work rather than to let them support them in writing the best work they can.

And I think personally, I understand where those concerns lie, but I really do think that if you just have a firewall, I have a firewall between my dramaturg self and my playwright self and I know exactly who I am in each room and why I'm there, then if you can build that firewall, then actually your playwriting and dramaturgy skills just play off one another beautifully. But I would say that if you are thinking about doing playwriting and dramaturgy, be very conscientious and rigorous about that firewall because it's not fair to a playwright if you're in a room as a dramaturg and you start acting as a playwright or vice versa. So that's just something to be very cognizant of.

Elyzabeth: That's a really great point. So being a dramaturg often means working with difficult material or with work that lies outside of your own set of experiences. So how do you prepare students for these situations and these conversations?

Martine: That's such a great question. I think part of it is just about raising people's cultural competency, and this gets back to what are the plays that we're teaching? I am always careful when I was in the classroom as one who was creating the syllabus for the class to make sure that I was thinking about, how do I try to find whatever the subject of the class is, the gamut of the human experience that is coming at that particular topic and really asking people to think and dig deeper? One of my favorite things to talk about is what should I know about Shakespeare? I'm not dead. I wasn't born when he was alive, blah, blah, blah. If I can figure out how to dramaturg that, then you should be able to function dramaturgically in a space that is telling a story that is not necessarily a hundred percent of your background.

And this is not to say to replace having people who can speak to the culture, but everyone should be fluent enough in the room, in the space back to just this idea of everyone needs to figure out how to be able to function in that space to tell that story and honor that story. For me, it's really about making sure that my students are... and leaving the space for them to ask the most ignorant questions because I'd rather them ask them with me than get themselves into a professional space and everyone be like, “Ah, you.”

So also trying to create spaces where I'm like, look, this is now the time to ask all the questions you've been meaning to ask and want to ask, and let's figure out how to create a space where you can ask them without being offensive because in the end, that's also a skill that is going to be necessary later on. And also being able to own, teaching them how to own if they know that they don't have the experience necessary to do the thing that's being asked of them and how do they say that and back out of projects gracefully or advocate for the things that they need in order to be able to do the project successfully. That was a lot.

Elyzabeth: That's a great point though. I like this idea of being able to do it successfully and advocating for what you need in order to be able to do that.

We challenge our students and forget that we need to challenge ourselves to be better, to do better, to think outside the box.

Jacqueline: And I love that. For me, I love the generosity that Martine extends to our students to give them that space to ask the questions that they may have been too afraid to ask. Because that's so important, and I so agree: it's much better to ask the teacher than to end up in the room. And just to add on, and also making sure the students know what's available for them to ask for in addition to making sure they know how to ask for them, what do they even ask for? I've had students who've said, I was in this room and I don't think I was quite this right for this project, and I said that, but then the director asked what I needed and I didn't quite know what to say.

So just the extension of also making sure the students know, okay, when do you want to advocate to have some type of cultural consultant come in? When is that advocacy, making sure you have more time to do research? When does that advocacy look like giving the time to have a documentary or show a segment of a documentary so someone else can explain it who has more background in the subject? What are those tools you have that you can ask for can also be something that is useful to students they don't always know.

Elyzabeth: That's a great point too, and I think it goes back to being able to advocate, like you guys were saying about being able to advocate for what you need and the tools that you need in order to be successful and helping students to understand what those tools are. I think sometimes students don't know what to ask for.

Jacqueline: Yes. And you see them trying the best they can, but there's just a knowledge gap that needs to be filled by a teacher of, “Here's what's out there for you.”

Elyzabeth: Right.

Martine: I think one of the things that I'm thinking about, and this gets back into the larger zeitgeist at the moment and to what Jackie was speaking to earlier, is that one of the best functions, especially that I think young dramaturgs can do is encourage their colleague playwrights to write the things we haven't seen yet. Because I think getting into Jackie's point about what do people want to watch right now, I do think there is a huge disconnect between what people actually, really want to see and are willing to leave their house to see. I think one of the things I love the most about the conversations we’ve been having with dramaturgs in the building at DePaul is the fact that they are really thinking about why our audience is not coming and especially because part of what we do is engage with audience.

Part of what we are is first audience. Part of what we are is really thinking about how do we help craft, from the moment someone steps into the lobby, the world of the play? And so if people aren't coming, we haven't done—it feels like in some ways it speaks a little bit to us not necessarily fulfilling our end of the bargain as well. So really encouraging them to think about how are we competing? And I hate to put it that way. I feel so capitalistic and not artistic, but unfortunately that's also where we are. We competing with all these multi-platforms and all of these stories doing all of these things and why, and you have to basically prove to people that they want to leave their house in order to go see this thing considering how many things are at their fingertips just on their computers, on their phones, on their TVs.

One of the things that I encourage our dramaturgs to really think about, and part of why I love having them as part of the larger season selection process at DePaul, is to really ask them to think what is it? And I think it's even more of a challenge for student dramaturgs in a season selection process at a university because we're having to make them think about what are the things people want to see, what are people willing to leave their house to come see and what are the educational and learning goals that y'all need to have and how can we marry all of those things into however many shows we do?

That was a lot of rambling, but mostly what I'm getting at is I think generally dramaturgs in some ways can be a really interesting key to thinking about what is missing or what are we not exactly talking to? And I really want to encourage young dramaturgs, young in the craft dramaturgs specifically, to really speak up and speak out about what it is that they're observing, bring that to the table and see how much of that can really truly influence the way we start to think about rebuilding this broken regional theatre model that we are all drowning in at the moment.

Jacqueline: No, it's great. And I think that kind of while I like to blame capitalism for everything because it is pretty much why everything's screwed up, if there is a silver lining, it is that it's pushing us towards thinking what actually is theatrical? I was just last week at the Contemporary American Theatre Festival, which features five brand new plays every year, and I was like, “Oh my god, I'm going to go and see these plays, which I'm excited about, but I'm going to be the only one in the audience. It's awful.” They were selling shows out. Do you know why they were selling shows out? Because they were new and because every single show was a show you could only see on stage, that was a story you could only see told that way. It was uniquely theatrical. I also think there were other things going on.

I think the festival has done a great job over two decades of engaging their audience in new work. So the audience is excited to come and see something new and understand, so it's not going to be "perfect", whatever that is. They're excited to be on the forefront. So I think there are other elements, but when I then come back to Philly or New York or Boston and I'm in houses that are empty, I'm sitting there watching a show that while it may be very well-made, the artist may be very talented, the fact is I could see this streaming on Hulu and get the almost the same effect, not quite because it's live, but almost. I really think a big part of the audience issue we have is that we have not pushed ourselves to really think what is theatricality? What is theatricality in this moment?

How do we bring people back to the theatre? Is to give them a theatrical experience. Just like you may sit at home and listen to the record album of a band, but you also buy a show to their concert because that's a different experience and it's a unique experience. So you can listen at home and go to the live concert. People are willing to engage with art that's the same or similar, but told on different platforms if you're telling it in different ways. So what is that? What does that look like? And CATF and other places in the country where I see where audiences are coming back, they may not always be selling out, but they're coming back in much larger numbers. It's almost the factor that they all share that I see is that they're producing things people cannot stream. I love me a living room drama. I do. I heart it. But the fact is most people feel like they can see that on Netflix. If it's going to be something that's a living room drama, that's cool, but what does it make it a theatrical experience?

So I don't want to take up too much time with this, but I just want to say yes and capitalism is kicking our butts at the moment, and yet also it may be providing us a really valuable lesson and giving us the key to the future of a thriving American theatre if we are willing to acknowledge that not all, but quite a few of the problems we have right now are self-inflicted and that we need to get a little bit of therapy and work on ourselves a little bit. But when we go back out there, if we go back out there with theatre that is something no one can see in their house, that they can feel in their bones when they're in the room with you, then audiences will always be there.

Elyzabeth: All of this is such wonderful food for thought. Wonderful food for thought. We have time for one last question. As we've already sort of touched on, theatres are all in crisis. So what would you say to other educators who are training the next generation of theatremakers? Are there any hopes or goals or words of wisdom that you'd like to share?

Martine: Definitely. So this is definitely the hill I'm going to die on, but we cannot keep doing things the exact same way we have done them, and think it's going to be okay.

Jacqueline: Thank you, thank you.

Martine: We have to really actually challenge ourselves. And I think that's really the thing that sometimes is lacking in higher ed especially is the challenging of ourselves. We challenge our students and forget that we need to challenge ourselves to be better, to do better, to think outside the box. And I'm telling you, it's going to be the hill that I'm going to die on.

And part of the reason why is because I think we are selling our students short and especially considering what our industry looks like right now. Part of what we are training people to do is... Part of me is like, and this is a question I've actually asked recently in my building, what are we training students to do? Our industry is in shambles right now. Are we teaching them to function in shambles, or are we teaching them how to go out there and do something different and change it? But the only way we can teach them how to do that is if we ourselves wrestle that structure that is failing out of ourselves and say, how do we make this better? So generally, like I said, hill I'm going to die on, we cannot keep doing these things the exact same way and think we're actually going to have students that come out and are successful.

Jacqueline: Yes, and changing two scripts, two plays on your syllabus to be by people of color doesn't fucking count as changing things.

Martine: Exactly.

Jacqueline: When you're using the same syllabus that you used in the early aughts and you think it's a new syllabus because you've been teaching since the eighties, you've already screwed your students because there is no way you're preparing them for today. I'm not sure why we think that these small incremental changes like changing a syllabus every ten years or adding a play by a playwright of color is life changing and is keeping up, because it's not.

Elyzabeth: Before we wrap up, is there anything you'd like to say to students out there? Any advice you'd like to give them?

Martine: I tell students all the time to fail and fail beautifully because everything that happens in an educational institution is a learning experience. All of it, the successes and the failures, and it's so interesting. I feel like we're also in a culture where people hate to say failure, and I'm like, look, failure is inevitable, yes. The question is, what are you doing after you fail that makes it good or bad? Failure is not bad. It is what you do in the aftermath of it that makes it good or bad. If you pick yourself up, you dust yourself off and say, how can I do this better next time, then that failure wasn't bad. It was just a learning experience.

Elyzabeth: That sounds like a really great place to end. Thank you so much for being my guests today. I really appreciate your time and your wisdom, and thank you for sharing it with us.

This podcast is produced as a contribution to HowlRound Theatre Commons. You can find more episodes of this show and other HowlRound shows wherever you find podcasts. Be sure to search “HowlRound Theatre Commons podcasts” and subscribe to receive new episodes. If you love this podcast, post a rating and write a review on those platforms. This helps other people find us. You can also find a transcript for this episode along with a lot of other progressive and disruptive content on howlround.com. Have an idea for an exciting podcast essay or TV event the theatre community needs to hear? Visit howlround.com. Submit your ideas to this digital commons.

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