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Chicken Soup for the Dramaturg’s Soul


“I live in the world. The theatre is where I go to work,” quoth Canadian playwright George F. Walker in an interview with dramaturg and Milwaukee Repertory Theatre literary manager Paul Kosidowski.

This very measured distinction struck me as helpful and healthy. My experience working towards my BFA in the School of Theatre has often blurred this line to rather troubling effect. Last week, I wrote about the dramaturgical effect of social context—what happens when you know the artist whose work you’re watching? This is inevitable. We draw on our personal experiences to inform our art—we “write what we know,” we “substitute,” we “put it in the work”—sometimes to exhausting effect. This practice can quickly escalate and transform into a sort of self-indulgent madness if we’re not careful, and all “for the work.” Certainly, it’s only natural that conservatory students eat, breathe, and sleep “the work,” but release is vital! A step back from the microscope of the creative process to assess the big picture and live a bit of life is crucial.

Perhaps I’m relentlessly self-interested, but as I’ve explored and experimented with the work of the dramaturg, I’ve begun to discern a certain dramaturgical approach to life—a chicken soup for the dramaturg’s soul, if you will. It’s a perspective shift that reframes how we approach all that which challenges us with a kinder, gentler, inherently other-directed vocabulary.

In his 2003 article Pressing an Ear Against a Hive or New Play Exploration in the Twenty-First Century, wise elder of Dramaturgy Mark Bly recalls an experience with a playwriting class in which he encouraged such an approach to the new play. He cites Introduction to Poetry by former poet laureate Billy Collins, which encourages a creative, gentle, and open-minded approach to understanding a poem rather than the usual “beating [a poem] with a hose/to find out what it really means.” This said, he reminds his class that, as artists:

We need to resist prematurely turning a harsh light on a work of art or an artist.

We need to believe that under the right light or conditions a poem or play will reveal its many hues and not merely a single one.

We need to understand that listening to the invisible buzzing in a hive may teach us far more than poking a hole in the hive with a stick.

We must learn to accept that sometimes we may not find the “light switch” immediately; but that will be alright, for if we stay in the room long enough our eyes may adjust to the darkness and objects that were invisible before will be revealed gradually to us with all of their blemishes and all of their glories.

Absolutely. How thoroughly refreshing!

What if theatremaking, often an act of problem solving, was easier, more gentle, more understanding? What if we let our work grow into what it wants to be rather than holding it to a standard or pre-existent expectation that it cannot and will not fulfill? We must listen to our work and foster a keen sense of awareness in order to fully bring ourselves to our art. I’m beginning to understand this process of dramaturgy as akin to the processes of most other aspects of my work. For example, is this radically different from the allowed release encouraged by the Alexander technique? No way!

Artists are sensitive. We must be. Therefore, can we not apply this process of allowance, gentle encouragement, and understanding to our everyday lives? Why not?!

A little positivity, even right here on the Drama Lit blog, can go a long way. When you go out this weekend, perhaps you’ll accessorize with your dramaturg hat! 

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