Is There a Dramaturg in the House? Should There Be? Dramaturgs and Playwrights Hash out What They like and Don't like about the New-Play Development Process

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Dramaturgs and playwrights. Playwrights and dramaturgs. How do they work together? Do they enjoy working together? And what does it achieve?

Discussions like these can tend toward the contentious. Certainly Alec Harvey, theatre and entertainment writer for the Birmingham News, did not hesitate to pose these and other semi-incendiary questions during a panel discussion at Alabama Shakespeare Festival's annual Southern Writers' Project Festival of New Plays last June. The panelists were playwright Allison Moore and dramaturg Lenora Inez Brown, who were working on Moore's Hazard County; Carlyle Brown and Tanya Palmer, who teamed up on Brown's Pure Confidence; Keith Josef Adkins and Susan Willis, collaborators on Adkins's The Patron Saint of Peanuts; and Janece Shaffer and Jennifer Hebblethwaite, who were paired on Shaffer's Suspended in Amber. While the four writer-dramaturg teams had only love for one another, they didn't shy away from reporting what works and what doesn't, using the festival's weeklong rehearsal process as a case in point.

--Lenora Inez Brown

ALEC HARVEY: When I was asked to moderate this panel, I sat down to make my notes and thought: I know a lot of dramaturgs, and I've read a lot about dramaturgs, but what exactly does a dramaturg do?

SUSAN WILLIS: In my experience, dramaturging a new play really depends on the relationship you have with the playwright and on what the playwright needs. Everything in a new-play project is designed to serve the playwright.

JENNIFER HEBBLETHWAITE: Susan was my teacher, so my philosophy reflects hers. It's unusual to get to work with a playwright so many times on several different pieces, as I have with Janece. We have a shorthand with each other: You know, it's midnight and we're sprawled across the bed and she's going, "Read this. What do you think of that? Let's talk about this." How rare is that, to have that kind of working relationship?

JANECE SHAFFER: We have a code. She says, "There's just too many words here," and that means, "This sucks."

LENORA INEZ BROWN: The playwright may be trying to figure out the shape of the piece and want to forget about the intricacies, the dynamics of the characters for a while. Other times, the writer knows where she wants the play to end up, and it's up to the dramaturg to juggle all the themes during the discussion--it's the dramaturg with whom certain ideas rest.

TANYA PALMER: Often, our job is figuring out where the play is right now, simply listening to it and allowing ourselves to be in the moment with the other collaborators in the room. This week, for example, I was thinking: Let's allow Carlyle to "play around."

A question for the playwrights: I'm sure, particularly those of you who have a body of work behind you, you've had some not-so-friendly relationships with dramaturgs?

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KEITH JOSEF ADKINS: I love dramaturgs because I came from the school of new plays. I went to the University of Iowa and they have a dramaturgy program alongside the playwriting program; as I learned the craft of playwriting, I watched the dramaturgs learn their dramaturgy. So I rally for them. Thumbs up. Although ...

That makes it more interesting, the "although."

ADKINS: I appreciate dramaturgs who can sense where the playwright is in the process and respond to that--someone who is brave enough to ask what the playwright wants. I had an experience earlier in my career where I was constantly trying to please the dramaturg, which I think a lot of playwrights can get in the habit of doing. I left that experience not knowing what the play really was. Since then I've learned how to be more aggressive.

SHAFFER: Only once have I worked with someone other than Jennifer. And in that situation I didn't feel we had the same way of thinking or talking. I felt like that person had all the answers in the back of the textbook and wasn't telling me. …