1. Understand the play on the playwright’s terms
My overarching goal in a new play workshop is to understand the play on the writer’s terms and model that understanding back to them. Full disclosure: I was a playwright before I trained as a dramaturg—and still am. However, even though I take my writing knowledge into a workshop with me, here’s what I don’t do: I don’t tell the writer how to write the play. Here’s why. It’s egocentric to think that my solutions to the questions that arise in workshop can be put into practice by that writer. Besides, making discoveries in workshop is a big part of the fun in workshopping a play. Why ruin a writer’s fun?
Instead, I ask questions to learn what the writer’s intentions are—even if I think I know. Since everyone in workshop is asking questions, I also keep track of the comments that come up to summarize for the writer. Typically, I share them with the playwright after the workshop is concluded. To these I add my own questions and observations.
Since solutions may come from acting and directing choices as well as dramaturgical ones, I may ask the director to repeat a scene to clarify a moment or to reinforce a particular idea in the text. These are strategies to support the writer’s intentions by making the implicit—explicit. I aim to serve the workshop throughout by functioning as an informed audience member seeing the play for the first time. I admit, it’s a conceit, but it helps me keep my questions and comments practical.
2. Do no harm
Contrary to popular belief, new play dramaturgs do not serve as in-house critics or scholars in workshop, even though many are trained in the literature, research, and criticism side of the profession. Still, the big CRITIC label sticks sometimes, with echoes of bad reviews in tow. I try to remember that nobody likes being told their baby is ugly—words can sting. Stinging words can disrupt the work process and impede the playwright’s progress on the play. When the workshop is over it is good to remember that as we all go back to other jobs, the playwright may be no closer to production than before.
It takes courage for writers to put their collective butt on the line by investigating their plays with actors, directors, and dramaturgs—many of whom the writer meets for the first time in workshop. In a perfect world, workshops would guarantee results and opportunities. Since they don’t, we owe it to playwrights to treat their work with the respect it deserves. After all, we visit the play for a few days; they live with it for months, sometimes years, before they hit pay dirt.
My approach to “doing no harm” dramaturgy starts with this: I assume that the writer will always know more about the play than I do. Therefore, it’s my job, as I say above, to understand the writer’s intentions and support the kind of play they are writing. I always try to meet the playwright where they “live” artistically, and I look for a common vocabulary to discuss the play. I try to be as accurate as I can on my side of that equation, avoiding the kind of language that can stifle conversation and progress.
For example, it may indeed be accurate to say a character is a stereotype, a line of dialogue is a cliché, or a scene is sentimental; it is also language loaded with judgment. In a workshop, prickly language can be confusing, even paralyzing to a playwright. Worst of all, it tends to close off avenues of creative problem solving.
3. Less is more
I tend to take a lot of notes in workshop, but give very few. I write questions to myself, as I watch and listen, many of which get answered as we work through the play. By the end, I have a collection of notes that tend to cluster around a few key ideas. Rather than give the writer all the notes I write as I write them, I identify 2 or 3 overarching ideas for the writer to think about later. These may be questions or comments, sometimes with examples for clarity. I try to keep my feedback specific without drifting into abstraction. My objective is to suggest a path of inquiry that the writer can pursue in the next draft. It’s up to the writer, then, to make their own choices. If I can provide a lens through which they can focus the play on its journey from page to stage—that’s about as much “how to” as I give.
Photo: Actors Barbara Kingsley and Sonja Parks and dramaturg Michael Kinghorn in rehearsal for Winter Miller's The Arrival during PlayLabs 2011. Photo by Heidi Bohnenkamp.