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Starting the Conversation.
By Drew Lichtenberg
It’s late February, and I am writing to you from a rehearsal room on the South Bank of the Thames River, in London, England. I have been here for three weeks (out of four), working on a production of Lorraine Hansberry’s Les Blancs at the National Theatre. I was brought in to work as a dramaturg on the show by Yaël Farber (whom STC subscribers may remember as the director of Salomé). I have another 10 days or so before I fly back to Washington, and to my duties as Literary Manager at STC. I fly back at the end of March for a week of previews, opening night, and a Platform discussion with Yaël and Joi Gresham, Lorraine’s stepdaughter and literary executor. If you happen to be in London, and want to buy tickets, click here.
In other words, my life over the last three weeks has gone completely cuckoo bananas. I feel like I’m in a Talking Heads song: “How did I get here! My God! What have I done!”
It’s a long story. Out of respect for the National Theatre and Yaël’s own preference for keeping the work sacred, I’ll try not to delve into the show itself. You’ll have to come to London and see for yourself, though in my next installment I’ll have some overall thoughts on the whole experience to share.
For this week, I think it’s worth discussing some aspects of collaboration. In particular, one story about how I came to discuss Les Blancs with Yaël in the first place….
It began shortly after the opening of Salomé. Yaël had told me that she was doing Les Blancs for the National, and I wished her luck. I had spent some time with the script two years ago, and I knew what an epic it was. (We were reading plays by American female playwrights in our 2014-15 ReDiscovery Series as preparation for the Women’s Voices Festival.) At the time, I shelved the play as too challenging, but I knew it pretty well.
A few weeks later, Yaël emailed me, asking for my thoughts on the play. It took me a few weeks to get around to it, but eventually I assigned myself the play as homework, spent a weekend reading it and taking notes, and ended up emailing Yaël a few thousand words worth of notes. And these weren’t “notes,” more like an essay, carefully crafted, with a number of pointed questions about the play’s dramaturgy and potential for production. I must have said something that resonated, because Yaël reached out to the NT, and they began negotiating to bring me over to London, put me up for a month, and, most importantly, pay me as production dramaturg.
Herein lies a moral. Every time I teach young dramaturgs at the Kennedy Center’s American College Theatre Festival, I get asked some variant of this question: when someone asks you to read a play (usually it’s a playwright, and usually it’s their play, and usually it’s for free) should you? In most cases, I say no, and refer them to read this.
There is, however, one important caveat. If you have built a good working relationship with someone you respect, and if you know that your work is valued by that person, you should do everything possible to guard that relationship like a hoard of treasure. It comes around once in a career, if you’re unusually lucky.
It may be surprising to those who don’t work in the theatre, but it’s actually quite difficult to start a conversation about a play with other theatre professionals. Theatre is a highly specialized field, and actors, designers, and directors all pride themselves in knowing their stuff. Ming Cho Lee, the legendary designer and eminence grise at Yale Drama, says he trains all his designers to think as dramaturgs, and it is sometimes said that every director worth their own salt knows how to be their own dramaturg. I have found this to be true, by and large. This is why being a dramaturg can be a difficult job, and why there are a surprisingly large number of famous former dramaturgs. (Rocco Landesman, head of the NEA, Oskar Eustis, AD of the Public Theater, and big-deal playwrights Tony Kushner and Richard Nelson, you can look it up). Most of the time, your job as dramaturg is to help people who have been trained not to want or need your help.
So when your artistic director, or a freelance director, asks you to read a play and send you their thoughts, think hard about what they’re asking. What they are almost certainly not saying is “Teach me everything about this play.” What they are saying is, “I respect you. Let’s start a conversation.” That may not always pay, but it is a valuable thing. it doesn’t always happen.
Now, I will say that there are limits. I’ve been asked by a director to come watch a preview performance (at a different theatre than STC) and give notes. I did it once, for free, but I also made clear that it would be great to formalize the arrangement in the future (i.e. pay me). I’ve also been asked to see shows around the area and file reports on them, all for the honor of being involved in the local theatre awards. Not only was this time-consuming and expensive (44 shows in 52 weeks, and hundreds of miles traveled, you do the math), but it was frustrating to be spending so much time, thought, and energy on something that would by necessity remain confidential. Your mileage may vary.
At the end of the day, when someone asks you to read something for free and send them thoughts, you should ask yourself what you want out of it. And ask yourself the same questions you would ask of them. Do I respect this person, and do they respect me? Do I value their opinion and art, and do they value mine? If the answers are yes, you should probably find the time and do it.
Who knows? You might end up spending a month working at the National Theatre.
And on that note, I need to get back to rehearsal.