I was able to sit down with Leslie Gehring, the ART’s production dramaturg for All The Way. We talked, and here is the first section of the transcript, only lightly abridged:
Z: Where does your process begin? Where do you start when you first get a text?
L: It kind of depends on what shape the text is in. In the case of All The Way, I started with pretty in depth background research. For other projects you can begin in different places. For example, last year when I worked on Hansel and Gretel, it was a devised adaptation, so I started by researching less the history of the story and more some of the variations that were pretty popular and what are the elements that audience members feel really need to be in the story. So with that one it was more about identifying important plot points and how do we form the backbone of the story whereas a play like this where it’s already written and has research done on it before, it’s more “How do I make sure that the director, the cast, that everyone in the room, the playwright, has access to as much information as they need going forward as possible?”
Z: You’d said it had changed a lot since it had gotten here at ART, specifically the trio scene with MLK, LBJ, and Edgar Hoover, which changed significantly. How do you as a dramaturg deal with that? As the script, which is your job to know inside and out, is consistently changing, how do you adapt?
L: That was actually another of the big parts of my job on this show, tracking all the script changes. Luckily our playwright had written this play in FinalDraft. What I did is we would print out one version of the script at the beginning of the rehearsal process, and then on my computer I would create a new version of the document, basically a save as a new version – you know, August 18th, August 19th, everyday, and I would color code all of the changes in a different color everyday so that throughout the process we could see exactly what had changed and on what day, and also revert to any previous version if we needed to. Then, after enough changes had happened, we would selectively print new pages for the cast. [laughs] It was really – it’s kind of tedious. You have to be willing to go over to the playwright and ask “is that sir comma, sir period, sir ellipses,” and also learning how a playwright denotes things using punctuation. It’s actually one of those things you don’t really think about until you’re in the room and you realize “I myself would put a dash there but his style is to put an ellipses,” and so it’s actually very important to make sure that you’re making changes in the style intended and not in your own style.
Z: Speaking of that, specifically, were there points where you had input on the changes? Were there points where you were spoken to or talked to Mr. Schekken about the changes?
L: We knew coming into this production that the end of the play was a concern, so toward the end of the first week of rehearsal. Robert Schenken, Bill Rausch, the director, Tom Bryant, the lead dramaturg on the play, and myself all had a lunch meeting to talk about if we put in LBJ here and make the duo a trio how does that affect the other things, how does that complicate the plot, how does that fix some of the issues? That was one of the meetings that I was in. Also through the process I would give notes on things that maybe weren’t reading very clearly or could be tightened either through a change in acting or direction or through a script change, so it was definitely a process where I could put in input, aware of the fact that we were coming into this project with a finished play already as our basis [unlike] a workshop production where you expect a lot of changes. You don’t want to try to rewrite the play, you want to try and make the play itself as good as it can be as its own play.
Z: How would you characterize, and this is a vague question, but how would you characterize the role of a dramaturg? In your opinion, what are the signs and characteristics of good dramaturgy happening?
L: I think good dramaturgy really involves understanding not only the play, but [the people] that you’re working with. I think one of the hardest aspects of dramaturgy is the fact that no two directors, no two playwrights, and no two actors view it the same way. If you’re looking for ego, dramaturgy is not the place to be, because you’re never going to be good at it by overruling those around you. It matters more to understand where the playwright is coming from and what they’re looking for and how they can best be helped: same with the director, same with the cast. A lot of times you don’t get instant gratification on things, and then you come back and see a run later and see that several of your notes have been incorporated in some way. On this production, Robert would, when given a suggestion, want to go away, think about it, and then come back the next day with a response. So it was very common to just have to say “this is what we’re seeing, you know what are your thoughts, is that how you intended it to be seen?” and then see what he would come back with.
Z: You’re in the ART advanced studies program, and Dramaturgy as a process focuses a lot on learning. Is there anything specific you learned from this production or did it make an impact on you?
L: Our program is quite practice focused. We obviously do have some theory classes, don’t get me wrong, but it is production focused, so working on this show worked into that quite well. I think one of the biggest things is you realize working on a professional show, and especially one of this size, how much you really hit up against the limits of rehearsal time. That can be tricky, but fitting in 17 actors and a 3 hour plus show into four weeks of rehearsal is tough. At first you think, ha, it’s fine, it’s fine, we don’t open until September, but then you realize we open in a week and a half. So the importance of time management, [which] I kind of understood in the abstract before, on this show it became clear. That’s where a lot of my prior research came in handy because it became really apparent to me immediately that if someone had a question you had to have the answer right then or not until the next time it came back to it, which might not be for a week. Which is why having everything in the room all bookmarked and flagged was important, because they didn’t have time to sit and wait for an answer. Sometimes some questions you’d have to get back to them if it was very specific, and absolutely no one expects you to have memorized all information that might possibly be pertinent, but at the same time you realized that if you did have to get back to someone later, you had to be very careful about, “okay are they at this point? Yeah, they’re at a point where I can jump in now.”
Z: What do you think is the most important tool for a dramaturg? In your eyes, what’s the most useful thing at your disposal?
L: I would say the most important thing is a familiarity with plays. That sounds really basic and really vague, but the more plays you read and the more plays you see really helps because you start to recognize patterns that work and patterns that don’t. When I first got into theatre I hadn’t seen much of it. I lived in Omaha, Nebraska. They have some theatre but not a whole lot, so it was mostly by reading plays that I became acquainted with them, because you couldn’t see all that much without travelling very far. In contrast, right before this show I spent 3 months in Russia seeing theatre almost every night, probably 5-7 nights a week. Having all the plays be in Russian, and speaking some Russian but certainly not fluent Russian, it was actually quite interesting being able to focus on the structure of the plays. That’s what carried through across the language. You might not understand every word, but you understand what was happening in the play, and in some ways that was actually very useful because most issues that plays have often come from structural problems, but those are coincidentally the easiest to fix. Just getting as familiar as possible with the structure of plays is the most useful thing you can do. Everything else, you know, the research, that aspect is certainly important, but the internet has made that job a whole lot easier, although you’d be surprised how often the Internet is useless.
Z: Because it’s wrong?
L: Not even wrong, it just didn’t have the information we needed. A lot of times we had to go back to the books, back to the old newspaper articles, but that’s something that I feel like is easier to pic up, whereas understanding dramatic structure is really the building block that you have to have.
Stay tuned for more.
[Ed. Note: Check out Part Two, HERE.]
[…] [Ed. Note: Missed Part One? Check it out HERE.] […]