This post is modified from an essay I submitted for my Harvard College 30th Class Report, which was in turn slightly adapted from a panel presentation in which I participated at the July 2009 Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas annual meeting in Washington DC. Our panel topic was freelance dramaturgy. How most of us had come to the discipline and profession from a range of points of origin — other professions, other kinds of training. And how the dramaturgical perspective can be adapted to a range of professional endeavors. My remarks here end up sounding like a kind of manifesto but so be it. So to my college classmates and to myself I wrote this statement of life course and current status.
I am a dramaturg. Observer. Reader. Synthesizer. I conduct research for productions, write about productions, collaborate with playwrights on works in progress, review scripts. I attempt to take advantage of the interdisciplinary mind I honed for a while at Harvard all those years ago.
I came at this profession backwards, not with a BFA or MFA and then seeking a range of uses but with training in related fields and coming home to theatre. In my 40s. I started with a love for theatre then spent 20 years in social policy jobs with a special interest in adoption, foster care, family support, and early intervention programs. I honed skills as an observer, note taker, synthesizer of perspectives and multiple sources of information. And these, my friends, are the skills of a dramaturg. You read carefully a work in development or under consideration for a theatre’s production season. You observe rehearsals and other events and provide feedback. You synthesize materials for actors and designers and audiences.
It took me many years and a range of work experiences to return to the work I began while at Harvard: theatre. I did not manage to figure out the dramaturgical role I now love back then, but all my related experiences are fodder for current projects. I’ve lived and worked in many places since my childhood in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Cambridge and Somerville, Massachusetts; St. Louis, Missouri; Ann Arbor, Michigan; Pittsburgh, PA; Washington DC; Chicago, IL; Philadelphia, PA; and New York City. In DC I finally started looking closely at this research-to-theatre fit and returned to my roots.
I lived in DC for 8 years and for 6 of those years worked at a national court research organization. My multi-dimensional educational history led me to this organization where I observed and wrote about what I saw: AB in English and American Literature, a masters in social welfare policy, a year of law school, and a lot of years toward a public policy PhD I never had the gumption or inclination to finish. At Michigan, during those PhD years, I kept getting distracted by the theatre department while policy research jobs accumulated. In DC, I ended up studying courts (primarily family courts and juvenile courts) and their procedures across the country. For my employer (at the time) the COURT is the client, hiring us to observe and report back on innovations and processes – what they do right, what they can improve. That kind of thing. A typical project would have several components: reviewing case files and other court case data for variables/information of interest; interviews with court personnel, judges, attorneys, and often the families that came before the court; and court observation. Ah, I loved the court observation.
Each case observed was for me a little play. The “cast” assembled on the stage of the courtroom. I’d imagine their lives outside and the specific issues the court was to decide, e.g. “was the foster care placement working out?”, “how was the spouse doing in his batterer program?” I’d muse about the intersection of these lives “off stage” / out of court. And I was doing the work of a dramaturg in a court researcher’s disguise.
When I decided that life was too short not to follow my drive to focus on theatre, I shifted to work on plays in development, rehearsal processes, performance reviews. The skills honed in social science research are directly applicable to the close observation and careful attention to language and movement that I bring to dramaturgical work. A 2005 move to Chicago allowed me to apply these same skills full time as a freelance dramaturg — script reading and production dramaturgy. During a year in Philadelphia I read for several play festivals, worked with a playwright’s organization, a spent a great deal of time in nearby New York City. Now located on the west side of Manhattan, I continue reading for festival and programs and theatres, develop and implement programs, work with playwrights on plays in development, and write about productions.
Observing. Synthesizing. Applauding the work of fellow professionals. For me, these skills translate. I am a dramaturg.
© Martha Wade Steketee (September 24, 2011)
[This essay was initially posted over a year ago in slightly modified form on one of my blogs.]