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Dramaturgy Is Everyone’s Responsibility

When I was studying theatre as an undergrad and grad student, there was one role in the theatre most of my fellow students never got a clear definition of, that of dramaturg. Most of our professors would wryly answer, “nobody really knows” when asked what a dramaturg did.

There was also a sense of guilt and embarrassment. Dramaturg was one of those positions you added when your theatre had money and seemed fated to be first cut when money got tight. Except the dramaturg tended to work closely with the artistic administration who were naturally resistant to the idea of cutting them so it was usually someone in development or marketing that got cut first.

If you look up dramaturgy on Wikipedia or the Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas (LMDA) website, you will learn that a dramaturg is a sort of historian/researcher who helps all those involved with a production, from the creative ensemble to the audience, understand the greater context in which a performance occurs.

The reason why no one knows what a dramaturg does is that the role is so generally defined, the duties can vary vastly from place to place.

I explain all this to provide context for the people I am about to quote. If you think that makes me something of a dramaturg, well Amrita Ramanan, the literary manager at Arena Stage would likely agree. She recently posted a manifesto outlining her vision of role of the literary office of the future on HowlRound.

“…David Dower…talked about dramaturgy as integral to a theater company’s thru line, such that every theater maker holds the mission and vision of the art as their ultimate goal even if they explore different tactics on how to achieve them. A marketing manager practices dramaturgy by communicating to an audience to mission and vision of the art through website blurbs, posters and brochures. A development associate practices dramaturgy when they approach a potential funder, carrying and articulating the mission and vision of the art and why it needs the funders support to thrive. A casting director practices dramaturgy when casting a show by supporting the mission and the vision of the playwright’s intent and director’s concept with every person they call in.

This is a variation on the theme I have often touched upon in my blog that marketing is everyone’s responsibility.

This is one of the reasons why dramaturgy is such a nebulous position at many organizations, if it exists at all. The argument can often be made that the dramaturg’s responsibilities are more suitably performed by a number of other departments in an organization. On the other hand, do the directors of marketing, development and the performance have the time to do all the appropriate research? Is having all these people researching the same subject independently the best way to assemble information? The answers depend on the ambitions of the organization.

Ultimately, whether an arts organization of any discipline has someone acting in the role of a dramaturg (whatever it may be called), everyone involved with the organization takes on some aspects of the dramaturg role in the execution of their duties. Each person needs to be skilled in acquiring the appropriate information and putting it into practice on behalf of the production.

Success in this regard will depend on talent and training, but also opportunity. Some of this opportunity will manifest as access to information sources, but as Howard Sherman recently pointed out on his blog, some of the opportunity can be provided and encouraged by organizational culture. (my emphasis)

“Most every theatre uses the first rehearsal/first reading as a day to introduce the company and the staff of a show, but in my experience, it’s incomplete. I recall being brought into rehearsal rooms, the staff circling the company, seated at tables, as one by one we did the Mouseketeer roll call of our names and titles. There might be a speech…maybe a quick demonstration of the set model – and then we were sent back to our desks to go about our regular business. We were not invited to stay for the first reading, often told that it would make the company too self conscious; I wish that we had been required to stay and listen, that even at the most unformed step, every staffer should be made to be there at the birth of a new production, not just drop by for a wave and a bagel before things got messy. The same should probably hold true for that final rehearsal in the rehearsal hall; it further engages the staff in the creative process, and refamiliarizes the company with a staff that they may not have interacted with for some three weeks. I have heard of some companies that even hold readings of plays long before first rehearsal, with the roles divvied up among the staff – what a marvelous way to connect the staff with what they’ll soon be working on, and to connect the staff with each other.”

I remember years ago reading an entry on Greg Sandow’s blog where he mentioned that those who worked for orchestras rarely attend the performances or come into the office the next morning and talk about the event. I was floored at the time. Given all the acrimony between the administration and musicians at many orchestras these past few years, it has become easier to believe.

Even if people at your organization come in and talk about productions with great enthusiasm, Howard Sherman’s observations show that there are always more opportunities to connect and learn about the projects that can be offered. Even if there isn’t a dramaturg at your organization, sharing the knowledge that individual staff members have collected in preparation for a project can help everyone do their jobs more effectively.

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Staying Married To The Artistic Process

I came across an interesting article in The New Republic, by way of Arts and Letters Daily that suggested that a shift in business school orientation partially contributed to the loss of manufacturing jobs in the United States. At one time universities focused on training graduates to manage manufacturing businesses and often had mini-factories on campus to give students practical experiences.

The focus since about 1965 has shifted to finance and consulting. While this has been largely beneficial for the economy, (until they started creating bad financial products), it is one of the reasons why the country has become weaker in manufacturing. That has been pretty bad for the country.

“Harvard business professor Rakesh Khurana, with whom I discussed these questions at length, observes that most of GM’s top executives in recent decades hailed from a finance rather than an operations background….But these executives were frequently numb to the sorts of innovations that enable high-quality production at low cost. As Khurana quips, “That’s how you end up with GM rather than Toyota.”

At first this was just an interesting theory to me, but then I realized that this describes exactly what people are afraid will happen if arts organizations are “run more like a business.” The fear is that decisions will rest entirely on return on investment and will be divorced from the manufacturing process as it were.

There was a time I would not have imagined that any arts organization would have a disconnect between the administration and the artists. I assumed that the administrators would be passionate about the arts with which they were associated. Why else would someone work so hard for so little pay?

Nearly five years ago, I cited observations that orchestra administrations were disassociated from the performances and performers. Given all the conflicts and closures since then, I don’t think the overall environment has gotten any better since. I also don’t assume that this situation is necessarily unique to the orchestra world.

In the last week I have heard Michael Kaiser on his Arts in Crisis tour and Andrew Taylor debating the utility of the arts management degree. In both conversations there was an obvious focus on training arts managers well. But the necessity for training boards well was mentioned too.

It seems to me that maybe the need to advocate the intrinsic value of the arts is necessary internally in addition to external constituencies. Perhaps one of the dangers of emphasizing the economic contribution of the arts to the community is that it creates greater expectations for boards and administrators that the art and its creators be ever more economically viable as well.

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Artist, Promote Thy Self!

Ah summer! When a young theatre manager’s thoughts turn to…collecting promotional information for the upcoming season.

I have been trying to collect information to promote our upcoming season on the web, season brochure, press releases, etc, etc. Much of my motivation is to have most of this into my graphic designer and web person’s hands before I go on vacation so I can come back and review what they have done.

It really astounds me that so many artists are ill prepared to promote their works. I can understand not having images upon my request, especially for works in progress or when an ensemble has had some significant change over. It can be tough getting everyone together and turn around from a photoshoot in a short time.

But there are a couple groups that seem unable to verbalize what is attractive about their work. All I need is 4-5 short sentences at this juncture folks! How hard is it to formulate something to get me excited!

One group I wrote up a blurb of the general sense I would be going for and asked them to fill in some blanks. My blanks even had suggested answers along the lines of – Mitch is a well regarded musician for his virtuosity in (bluegrass, classical, rock). All that they needed to do is clarify what was unclear.

That was over a week ago. I still haven’t heard back from them.

Another group is reviving a masterwork. For two weeks I have asked them for some simple clarification about the program being revised. I saw the principal performer two weeks ago at a theatre and he assured me I would get something (along with the contract) soon. I did receive a blurb this week about the last time he worked together with a guest artist appearing in the revival–but nothing about the revival itself. I finally emailed the organization which secured the grant for the revival asking them for some general information. Their deadline for materials was a few weeks ago so presumably they have something more than I do.

Something I noticed. With one exception, the groups I do have materials for all have agents. I have started to wonder, if not for the agents sending out a standard packet of information, would most of these other groups been in a position to communicate about themselves so clearly? The one exception is a young group without an agent which sent me two fantastic pages dense with great information.

If it comes to pass that agents either sever or reduce their involvement with their less than marquee performers and artists are left to fend for themselves in some manner, it might be a bad situation for many groups.

I don’t have any illusions about my role in things becoming redundant if artists really focused on managing their own business. Yeah managing the business end saps your energy for making art.

Just like anyone associated with an arts organization should be able to passionately extemporize on the value of what they do, every artist should be able to dash off an email or a make a phone call to give a short spiel on why they are worth seeing.

Notice I say extemporize. It is a maneuver that not everyone can do but with enough practice, people can sound unpracticed doing it.

If I have the time to ponder over lunch tomorrow, perhaps my next entry will be on some of the trite phrases being bandied about in promotional messages these days. In this, neither agents nor artists hold the high ground.

Lord knows, some of them do a better job than the publicists for arts organizations. Just take a look at Greg Sandow’s rants from 2005 (read from May 25 through June 15)

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