Young Playwrights and Dramaturgy

Young Playwrights Inc. Urban Retreat 2012
July 14-22, 2012
New York, New  York

19 July 2012. Elizabeth Bojsza takes Urban Retreat participants through some of the characteristics, functions, and roles of dramaturgy. Image by Martha Wade Steketee.

A few years in a new city have already inspired for me repeat viewings of newly discovered events and productions and places and people. We return when we feel inspired, we return when we feel welcomed, we return when we feel that we’re of service.  And after two years in New York City, inspired by my established love for working with young people finding their voice in theatre (ah yes, the Goodman-AWJ Young Critics Circle program, let us replicate you), I return again and again to the delightful, delicious, enthralling and supportive Manhattan-based Young Playwrights program.  As reader of submitted scripts for their various competitions, as dramaturg for the annual conference of playgoing and readings for the winners, as dramaturg for their week-long summer program for young writers called “Urban Retreat”  – I’ll do anything for them. They’re that good.

This week we are deeply ensconced in  the 2012 edition of the Young Playwrights Urban Retreat and it is a wash of activity and a wonder to behold.  I have the privilege of speaking to the current group of 15 or so participants during, as the program materials describe it, one of the  ”luncheon roundtable discussions related to the craft and business of playwriting.” I talk about my experiences as a dramaturg (reading scripts, working on productions, writing reviews, working with playwrights) and am terribly impressed by the energy and enthusiasm and intelligence of these young people.

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© Martha Wade Steketee (July 22, 2012)

Original posting on Steketee’s blog Urban Excavations at urbanexcavations.com.

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Theatre Photography as Record and Meditation

Photo Shoot: Chance and Layers of Play
Sunday June 24, 2012
Alder Manor, Yonkers, NY

Alder Manor shoot, makeup room at the far end of the hall, endless possibilities. Image by Martha Wade Steketee.

A series of meetings inspired by music, enhanced by fellowship, fueled by a love for theatre and respect for the preservation of its ephemeral record lead me to a photo shoot in an empty mansion in Yonkers on a beautiful summer Sunday.  Sound designer Fitz Patton attended a brunch I attended a month or so ago — he knew one of our hosts and I knew the other, and we soon found a common language in the theatre making we love.  He has a scheme: a new magazine with fashion photography photographic quality that will capture as straight production photos, behind the scene photos, and photos inspired by theatrical art — the ephemera of theatre.  His magazine in development will be called Chance — from a line in Tom Stoppard‘s Travesties: “All design is chance.”  And so it is.  Chance and attention to detail and capturing the moments and being inspired by the possibilities.  Fitz says to me at one point that what he seeks to create in this publication is a “noise-free, calming, focusing, meditative space.”  I hope to be a part of it as it goes forward.

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© Martha Wade Steketee (June 29, 2012)

Original posting on Steketee’s blog Urban Excavations at urbanexcavations.com.

The Avant Garde Meets Broadway

The Group Theatre & How it Transformed American Culture
Co-curated by Ronald Rand & Mel Gordon
Featuring Ellen Adler, Laila Robins, Wendy Smith, John Strasberg, Fritz Weaver (and others)
Monday, June 4, 2012
Martin E. Segal Theatre Center in Elebash Hall, The Graduate Center, CUNY, 365 Fifth Avenue
event site

The Group Theatre, Brookfield Center, summer 1931. Crop of image by Ralph Steiner.

We assemble in the lovely Elebash Hall of the CUNY Graduate Center this cool June Monday to celebrate, analyze, synthesize, rhapsodize about, and contend with the art and the legacy of the individuals who came together out of hope and vision and the need to make a new kind of American theatre. As one commentator says: this was “the last time the avant garde merged with Broadway theatre.” We have come together to parse that statement and celebrate the 75th anniversary of the founding of the Group Theatre. What a day it is.

The celebration events have been planned by experts on the people and legacies of the Group Theatre. Ronald Rand writes and shares the legacy of Harold Clurman and his colleagues and was a student of several of the Group members. Mel Gordon writes and teaches about Stanislasky, the Group members, cinema, and related topics. Wendy Smith, another expert who has written on the Group and several of the Group personalities is present throughout the festivities and takes an active role in the final panel of the day. Consistent with the Group members themselves who created theatre, acted and directed productions, and became teachers — the experts are themselves teachers. This is not a static kind of knowledge. It lives and breathes and begs to be shared and debated and passed along.

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© Martha Wade Steketee (June 9, 2012)

Original posting on Steketee’s blog Urban Excavations at urbanexcavations.com.

Tectonic Plates and Play Development

Industry Talk: Literary Directors and Managers
Host and moderator Christie Evaneglisto with
Kirsten Bowen, Adam Greenfield, Carrie Hughes, Annie MacRae, Elizabeth Frankel
Thursday, May 31, 2012 at 6pm
Signature Theatre Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre, 480 West 42nd Street
event site

Signature Theatre and its new home at the Pershing Square Signature Center has become a meeting place of sorts. A fabulous airy open second floor main lobby, a bar and cafe with reasonably priced items open long before and long after shows in any of the theatres, wireless internet, friendly people. A place to hang, to meet, to have a chance encounter. A place to immerse yourself in provocative new and old productions perhaps enhanced by pre- and post-show discussions, special conversations with creative staff, and other production-specific programming. This evening Signature inaugurates a free Industry Talk series to discuss the business of making theatre more generally.

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© Martha Wade Steketee (June 1, 2012)

Original posting on Steketee’s blog Urban Excavations at urbanexcavations.com.

Daisey, Jobs, Translations and Truth

Ruminations inspired by the final Public Theater performance of
The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs
Sunday, March 18, 2012 at 2pm
Public Theater, Martinson Hall, 425 Lafayette
event site 

This piece of writing can’t be a typical review for many reasons. The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs has been reviewed for two years in its many forms and we know what it is (one man’s story of his adoration and frustration with Apple and its cult and the factories that create the cult objects) — my summary of its journey on stage on this day plot-wise and dramatic structure-wise is now irrelevant. I thought what I was going to be doing when I purchased my ticket for this return engagement as soon as the Public Theater Member tickets became available weeks and weeks ago was to catch this piece of the cultural zeitgeist before it cut a swath somewhere else, before all the “do it yourself from the published versions of the script provided by Daisey himself with blanket permission to do just that” started springing up, crazy quilt, across the globe.  I wanted to see the man himself do this show at one of his theatrical homes.  And then, living in real time one of the memes of this piece of theatre, the whole megillah changed.  The paradign shifted.  In Daisey’s words repeated at several points of his monologue, “I can feel the metaphor shifting underneath me.”

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© Martha Wade Steketee (March 19, 2012)

Original posting on Steketee’s blog Urban Excavations at urbanexcavations.com.

Smith-Kron-Jones-Daisey On Going Solo

(L-R) Anna Deavere Smith, Lisa Kron, Sarah Jones, Mike Daisey, 2 January 2012 at Playwrights Horizons, Dramatists Guild Academy Solo Actor/Writer Roundtable. Image by Martha Wade Steketee.
  • “Theatre is a vocation. It chooses you.” (Lisa Kron)
  • “A journey to absorb America through its sounds.” (Anna Deavere Smith)
  • “Getting audiences to the spot where they don’t know what the fuck is going to happen.” (Mike Daisey)
  • “In an organic, urgent kind of way … cathartic and inevitable.” (Sarah Jones)

The Dramatist Guild holds readings, panels, and other events for its members in many areas of the United States. As a member and now a resident of New York City, I frequently take advantage of these benefits of membership. When I received notice of the planned Smith-Kron-Jones-Daisy discussion about developing and performing solo work, I immediately reserved a seat. All of these performers have entranced me on stage or on film on represented by scripts they have written for others, so my fandom was invoked. In addition, the topic of the one person play (multiple character or not) with its special challenges of crafting dramatic situation and arc and drive has long fascinated me personally and professionally. A 2010 blog post reflecting some of these ruminations during (still ongoing) collaborative work on a one woman show about makeup artist Dorothy Ponedel provides some of professional connection that merges with personal interest.

So this evening, I settle into the comfortable 2nd floor main performance space at Playwrights Horizons surrounded by DG members and their guests, am welcomed by Gary Garrison of the Guild (who provides short questions to mark chapters in our journey), and these brilliant invested theatre artists take us on a ride.  I’ll provide some themes and rich quotations.

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© Martha Wade Steketee (January 4, 2012)

Original posting on Steketee’s blog Urban Excavations at urbanexcavations.com.

Polly Carl, David Dower, Souls, and the Rooms We Live In

(L-R) David Dower and Polly Carl in conversation at the CUNY Graduate Center, December 5, 2011. Image by Martha Wade Steketee.
  • “I built a career by creating the rooms I want to live in and insisting that I have a soul.” (Polly Carl)

Speaking as much with each other (bouncing ideas off each other let us say) as with the energized theatre folks in the audience at the Martin Segal Theatre this Monday evening, David Dower and Polly Carl of Arena Stage share their infectious enthusiasm for the future of playwriting and institutional theatre-making and strategies of building theatre communities in the digital age.  Each has been performer or director or theatre maker in several cities across the country (San Francisco, Minneapolis and Chicago to name a few) and are now both located at Arena Stage in Washington DC — where Dower is Associate Artistic Director and Carl directs the American Voices New Play Institute housed there.  As Dower often states of the DC-resident Arena and repeats this evening “This is not a national theatre but a regional theater that happens to be located in the nation’s capital.”  This actors’ theatre is morphing into a playwrights’ theatre with the assistance of these two professionals and the Institute they are building with a small resident staff and a growing series of overlapping communities who feel some stake in its success.

Moderator and host Frank Hentschker asks just a few questions to get things going, then watches and listens along with the rest of us to the articulate and enthused pair.

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© Martha Wade Steketee (December 7, 2011)

Original posting on Steketee’s blog Urban Excavations at urbanexcavations.com.

TCG Playwrights in Conversation 24 October 2011

The program proceeds as planned.  New voices (read young playwrights) are welcomed, introduced, their work read aloud (sometimes by the playwrights themselves, sometimes by actors), and discussed.  Engaged in conversation about the intensely personal and profoundly important art of playwriting.  Last year about this time David Cote hosted a discussion at the Martin E. Segal Theatre Center featuring some prominent NYC-based critics and scholars.  This year, sponsored by Theatre Communications Group, David Cote hosts three playwrights with intriguingly different origins and career trajectories (and some words to say about critics and we’ll get to that) and with strong distinctive storytelling voices: David AdjmiYoung Jean Lee, and Tarell Alvin McCraney.  The conversation sparkles, the talent shines, the words bounce, the audience appreciates.  This evening and the theatre reflected in it is vibrant and hopeful and frankly very smart and funny.

Cote edges into the evening’s conversations with a reference to a 2005 article by Jeffrey Jones that sets us up for word play and intelligent analysis and just plain fun.  An article originally published in the October 2005 issue of American Theatre called “Thinking about Writing about Thinking about New Plays” (and reblogged by the author in 2007) poses the question of preparing audiences for new work (hello there dramaturgs).  How, Cote asks, can critics and artistic directors and others act as curators to make new works accessible to their audiences.  How, he muses, are the new audiences prepared to read the newer stranger and wilder theatrical creations presented these days?

Cote offers his own quick sketches of the panel members’ writing styles.  Of Adjmi: layers of dialogue that play like a musical composition.  Of Lee: ironic, bitter, using found objects.  Of McCraney: double hung visions, heightened lush sensual language.  And the audience is prepped.

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© Martha Wade Steketee (October 26, 2011)

Original posting on Steketee’s blog Urban Excavations at urbanexcavations.com.

A Conversation with Playwright Caridad Svich

Caridad Svich

On a recent drizzly weekday afternoon downtown, I meet Caridad Svich for a cup of coffee and a chance to discuss her work.  I first came across Caridad’s voice (working in translation and adaptation) as a reader for the literary department of a large Chicago area theatre several years ago.  I was so entranced by a world she created in one of her plays that appeared in my script pile that I connected with her by email, and I’ve kept track of her ever since.  Just this year the American Theatre Critics Association awarded her the Francesca Primus Prize for her play The House of the Spirits (see the press release at http://tinyurl.com/6k4qu3g). And now that I live in Manhattan, I have watched even more carefully for the chance to catch her work on stage or (as happened recently in a conference room at the newly refurbished Lark Playwright Development Center‘s new facilities on West 43rd Street) read around a table by professional actors laughing and crying and enlivening the text.  Her new play Guapa about a family in the Texas borderland was the subject of that table read.  Two days later, the subject for us is her work in general. Read More: click here.

© Martha Wade Steketee (September 29, 2011)

Original posting on Steketee’s blog Urban Excavations at urbanexcavations.com.

personal dramaturgy

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.

Stage awaits Connie Congdon at Dixon Place, 161A Chrystie, NYC, September 12, 2011. Image by Martha Wade Steketee.

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 Read more