Lately I find that more and more of my dramaturgical hat is worn before pre-production even commences.
One of my earliest theatrical experiences was playing Yente in my high school production of Fiddler on the Roof. And while today, I inwardly cringe at the very thought that video of that production exists somewhere, I seem to have inherited a few things from a certain Anatevka resident. As a literary manager and dramaturg, I have fallen into the matchmaking tradition (albeit a behind the scenes one).
I have the good fortune of being the Literary Manager for Passage Theatre in Trenton, NJ and the resident dramaturg at Premiere Stages, the professional theatre in residence at Kean University. Both theatres are dedicated to new play development, focusing on first stagings like Passage’s upcoming premiere of Slippery as Sin by David Lee White or Premiere Stages Play Festival, which offers developmental opportunities to four previously unproduced plays and includes the new commissioning initiative Liberty Live. Premiere and Passage also feature second or third productions of exciting new work like Passage’s recent show The History of Light by Eisa Davis. Lately I find that more and more of my dramaturgical hat is worn before pre-production even commences. I think contrary to popular belief there are a great deal of inspiring, well-written scripts floating around in need of a good home. The challenge lies in getting past those awkward first dates and pairing a script and writer with a theatre where the play can grow and flourish. It can be tricky–there are so many elements at play in making a match—What stage is the script at? Is the chemistry right? How will the play fit in a theatre’s space? Does the theatre have the budget and staff to fulfill the technical requirements of the writer and director’s vision? Will the play connect with and challenge the theatre’s audience? The list goes on and on. And since there’s no ok cupid survey to fill out, those questions can be tricky to answer. For me they often start with the ever-mounting stacks of scripts that live in my work and home offices and inbox. I try and read and see as many plays as possible always with an eye for where can this script live. For example, I first encountered Eisa Davis’ work while interning at New Dramatists. I fell in love with her excellent plays Bulrusher and Paper Armor as did the rest of the Passage Staff. That eventually led to finding a home for The History of Light in the talented hands of director Jade King Carroll and being able to give the show a second production. The play follows two inter-racial couples a generation apart and traces the intersections of love, friendship, music, trust, politics, and family. The show’s themes and amazing writing resonated deeply with both the Passage Theatre audience and the artists involved in the production.
My work at Premiere Stages is matchmaking on a very different level. Our Play Festival Competition calls for submissions from writers born or currently residing in the greater metropolitan area (New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania). Play Festival affords us the opportunity to get to know work from literally hundreds of new playwrights over the course of a few short months. It’s a very different skill set meeting a writer for the first time and pairing them with a theatre where in less than six months you could be potentially working on a production together. Often the first introduction is a synopsis and eight-page sample. These small excerpts actually give a great deal of insight into if a writer is a good possibility for the theatre. We read them carefully and I feel a great deal of responsibility when taking a look at such a small snippet of a playwrights work. In an ideal world, it might be possible to read only full scripts, but sometimes due to staff and time constraints that is simply not feasible and this is the best way to extend consideration to a wide pool of writers. While the excerpts are brief (think of it as theatrical speed dating) a strong synopsis and sample gives a good idea of if the voice and subject matter might make a nice pairing with the Play Festival program.
No matter what circuitous route a play takes to reach a production, there is a definite satisfaction when all the elements fuse together and a play has found a theatrical match. I think the behind the scenes selection process is often clouded in mystery and viewed with suspicion from the outside. It’s certainly not an exact science and yes, there are times when a match sours instead of soars, but I hope that opening dialogs about how new plays make it from page to stage is a way to clear the air and pass on the tradition of ensuring that original, important stories find a happy, healthy theatrical home!
© Clare Drobot (January 27, 2012)
The History of Light by Eisa Davis, Directed by Jade King Carroll. Matthew Campbell – set. Karin Graybash – Sound. Robin I. Shane – costumes. Lighting design completed by Nicole Pearce. Projections created by Passage Theatre’s design team. Production Stage Manager: Anthony O. Bullock. Featuring June Ballinger, Peter Jay Fernandez, Steve Kuhel, and chandra Thomas.