The essay excerpted here was written in 1998 as an informal position paper to entice the Mellon Foundation into supporting dramaturgy at Center Stage of Baltimore, Md. The strategy worked; in the fall of 1999, the foundation awarded the theatre an unprecedented matching grant for dramaturgical activity. Former managing director Peter Culman raised $1 million before retiring in June 2000; matched by a Mellon million, the Center Stage dramaturgy endowment now stands at $2 million.
Any dramaturg spends a significant portion of his or her time on the job responding to the question “What is a dramaturg?” Throughout my nine years in the business, I have explained and explained again—and again—to friends, actors, sixth graders, dates, dentists, donors and my uncomprehending family, that dramaturgy is a function more than a job description. To keep my answer fresh, I try to think up new images for myself every season. Sometimes they’re lofty: The Keeper of the Flame of Thespis. The Conscience of the Theatre. The Bridge Between Page and Stage. Others are more pedestrian: The Artistic Enabler. The Resident Egghead and Cultural Flypaper. Always I try not to be defined by how others have historically viewed me: The Guy with the Library Card. The Useless Appendix of the American Theatre. Last-hired, First-fired. The Cheese Stands Alone.
We are a misunderstood lot, but not tragically so. Our (relative) enfranchisement as theatre professionals in America is recent; and if our progress as the closet idealists who attempt to forward the art form by our thoughts and deeds has not been exactly swift, it’s not surprising. We live in a young country whose biases are anti-intellectual, ahistorical, anti-art and utilitarian, and we work in a not-for-profit arts culture that is increasingly obsessed with the bottom line. Dramaturgy in America got started in the mid-’70s when regional theatres realized they needed “literary managers” to process all the new scripts for all the new-play programs generated by funding initiatives. Eventually, the more artistically minded theatres realized it wasn’t a bad idea to have a smart person on staff to help select repertory, do research and educate the public as to the mission of the institution and the aims of individual productions. As the money flowed through the go-go ’80s, even the theatres that didn’t know how to deploy dramaturgs hired them.
When I entered the dramaturgy program at the Yale School of Drama in 1985, I barely knew what a dramaturg was. I was just thrilled to have discovered a profession within the theatre that could make use of my writing skills, my critical eye and my brain without my having to be a director. I spent three years there explaining why I was not a threat to suspicious playwrights and insecure directors. My image for dramaturgy then was Chief Chair-Scootcher. At the first day of rehearsal, at the big table in the middle of the room, there were chairs for the director, the designers, the playwright, the actors and the stage manager. The dramaturg had to scootch his chair forward from the corner, making embarrassing noises and apologizing for being a bother as he hoped someone at the big table would make room for him to squeeze in. It was not a happy time. I was ready to leave the profession before I even started.
I came to Center Stage–a theatre with a long and abiding respect for the input of several eggheads–in 1991, during the season in which Irene Lewis began her tenure as artistic director. I expect that our collaboration will be the most fruitful of my dramaturgical life. Working against adverse circumstances for the arts, we have continued the mission of presenting challenging repertory, classics and new plays that lead, rather than follow, audience expectations, with the finest theatre artists we can lure to Baltimore.
I read new plays; I cut Shakespeare; I agitate for Aeschylus and Marlowe in season planning; I take notes during run-throughs and previews, following the dramaturgical injunction to Make-It-Better; and I still get thrills in the rehearsal room and in the theatre when one of those indelible, alchemical, truly theatrical moments happens. There are, however, things I have done here no grad school could prepare me for. Writing an NEA grant proposal for Brendan Behan’s The Hostage in three days. Speaking to the Rotary Club in Little Italy about the fate of theatre in the next millennium. Drafting an initial case study for an endowment campaign. Calling subscribers on the phone to ask them for money for the annual fund. Participating in new-trustee orientation every fall, filling the freshmen in on critical concepts like “actor workweeks” and “artistically driven.” Crafting copy for a television ad campaign. Whatever I do, whatever the season, the play, the audience, I am always making the case that theatre matters.
My latest image for the dramaturg is Practical Dreamer. Other theatres use terms like collaboration, diversity, artistic excellence, fiscal responsibility, new voices, educational outreach and a living wage. In my time here I have watched, and helped, Irene and managing director Peter Culman and board president Nancy Roche strive mightily to live by these terms. Center Stage doesn’t need to have its dramaturgs be its conscience and its closet idealists. Center Stage itself is crawling with idealists of every stripe. Center Stage is also savvy enough to know how to perpetuate itself, how to preserve the continuation of its core values even as it prepares for inevitable transitions, whether they be internal changes in leadership or external changes in the business cycle. There is a very large place at the table for dramaturgs at Center Stage. Let it ever be so.
After seven seasons as resident dramaturg at Center Stage, James Magruder demoted himself in 1999 to associate dramaturg to allow more time for writing and translating. He is currently completing a new adaptation of Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme for California’s South Coast Repertory.
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