Dramaturgy: The secret behind Louisville's great theater

May 31, 2017 at 12:24 pm
Playwright Molly Smith Metzler in rehearsal for ‘Cry It Out.’ Photo by Philip Allgeier
Playwright Molly Smith Metzler in rehearsal for ‘Cry It Out.’ Photo by Philip Allgeier

When you settle into your seat for an evening of theater in Louisville, consider that the plays do not simply spring forth unfiltered from the playwright’s pen, whether from Shakespeare’s quill or the modern imagination of a yet-to-be-known writer.

Here is an inside look at a little-known process that makes Louisville theater fairly unique — and great. And go here to read about how dramaturgy is even used in local productions of Shakespeare plays. 

Molly Smith Metzler’s career as a writer has blossomed over the last several years. She has written a half-dozen plays produced Off-Broadway and at regional theaters around the country. This summer, she’s working on the Showtime series “Shameless” as writer/producer. She was a writer and executive story editor for “Orange is the New Black,” and wrote for the Hulu series “Casual.” She’s also working on a screenplay for actress Reese Witherspoon’s film production company.

But before that, in the summer of 2010, when Metzler was still an aspiring playwright and a student at the The Juilliard School, she submitted a script to Actors Theatre of Louisville.

And, as Metzler herself says, the script for “Elemeno Pea” wasn’t without challenges.

“I was a young playwright,” said Metzler in a phone interview from her Los Angeles home. “It was a big, unwieldy, complicated play that looked at class identity and marriage and abortion. And I was just trying to bulldoze my way through it.”

That’s when she met Amy Wegener, who has served for 16 years as ATL’s Literary Director.

“There were so many elements. She helped me figure out which of those many stories was the biggest story I was trying to tell, and helped me be fair to the largeness of the questions I was asking — to give all of the characters the space they needed to tell their stories and, at the same time, streamline it.”

Wegener is a dramaturg, one of four at ATL, not including two interns.

Dramaturgy is perhaps the least-understood and most-influential disciplines in the modern theater. Even the pronunciation is a bit of a mystery (the discipline, “dramaturgy,” gets a soft g; the practitioners, “dramaturgs,” get a hard g; as does the verb, “to dramaturg a play).

Think script doctor, but much, much more than that.

Dramaturgy is controversial among some theater professionals who claim it clouds the authorship of plays, but others insist that its use is the mark of a professional theater company. Perhaps an endorsement of dramaturgy is that other theater companies use ATL’s method as a model. For Wegener, “a dramaturg’s role is to step into the world of the play.”

“We learn not only the play’s vocabulary and how it works, but try to understand the rules of the play itself. It requires the kind of flexible, agile thinking that enables you to get inside other people’s processes, like the playwright’s way of talking about the script, and then to enter into these worlds they’ve created,” said Wegener.

The job can seem all-encompassing.

At ATL, the bare-bones job description includes reading and evaluating plays; serving as consultants to playwrights and directors during script development; preparing pre-rehearsal research packets that highlight textual, historical and cultural factors for directors, performers and the technical crew; attending read-throughs and rehearsals to serve as an on-demand story and script consultant; writing program notes, creating lobby displays and helping  the education/outreach/marketing/public relations offices interpret the play for the audience (and because the Humana scripts are published each year, dramaturgs are also involved in the editing process).

Dramaturgy is a behind-the-scenes discipline, and there are only of a handful of graduate programs; at the undergrad level, formal coursework is exceedingly rare. Most dramaturgs discover the discipline simply by working on a production that has the services of a dramaturg. Paige Vehlewald, a dramaturgy intern at ATL, first encountered a dramaturg while working on a Shakespeare play. “I had this idea that they were historians in the room — that they were the people who knew what the words meant. Then during my master’s program, when I had a chance to do some practical dramaturgy, I really got to understand the other aspects of how it contributes to play development.“

Wegener has had no formal training in the discipline. While she was at Princeton University, an undergrad advisor (who had graduated from Yale University’s renowned dramaturgy program) recognized that Wegener paired a knack for research, reading and writing with a love for the rehearsal room and suggested she consider the career. Her grad school, Northwestern University, didn’t offer formal training in the field, but she volunteered to dramaturg productions. Then, she says, “I sort of lucked into landing here, and this is where I found my legs as a dramaturg, just sort of diving in.“

Dramaturgs, on the whole, are arguably the most self-effacing people in all of theater. But other theater professionals are happy to speak up for them.

“Dramaturgs aren’t showboats,” said Eric Hoff who directed “The Many Lives of Nathan Stubblefield” for this year’s Humana Festival.

Necessary or evil?

Dramaturgy may be invisible to audiences, but it’s now pervasive in modern American theater.

As regional theaters, such as ATL, began to focus on new play development, the theaters needed specialized people with the ability to scout for plays, develop relationships with writers, be on the front line of hosting those writers and work on all sorts of plays over the course of a season. They need to be able to switch between classics, premieres and popular, contemporary plays that are heavily produced. It’s a portfolio of skills that differs from any of the other theater disciplines.

And in an odd way, one can judge the rising importance of the discipline by the fact that it frequently generates controversy. Some of those controversies deal with the nature of authorship. For instance, since the death of “Rent” playwright Jonathan Larson, there have been multiple lawsuits between Larson’s heirs and the dramaturg on the production, who claimed a share of the play’s royalties.

For “Nathan Stubblefield,” there is no question about the dramaturgs’ roles, according to director Hoff. He said dramaturg Jessica Reese and Paige Vehlewald, assistant dramaturg, “really created a silver thread of dramaturgy that ran through the piece. In program credits, the top lines usually go the playwright and the director, and dramaturgs are usually quite a bit lower in the listings — but in a play like this, the credits could easily say, written by, directed by and dramaturged by.”

With four writers involved in creating the play, “Nathan Stubblefield” started with an enormous research packet created by Reese, a script development process that played out over months of workshops and collaborative brainstorming and script-sharing sessions. It eventually became so complex that to hold the entire thing together, Reese and Vehlewald created an elaborate, visual concordance. Vehlewald described it as, “an insane image board that spread throughout an entire wall of the fourth floor. Each piece of the production was mapped. We used yarn to connect images, lines, and motifs across all of the plays — so we were able to illustrate connections — squares in a chessboard that shows up in one segment connect to a disco ball that shows up in another, and that connects to a moon image that shows up in another scene.”

“It looked like one of those enormous forensic bulletin boards you see in detective films,” said Reese.

Yet, not everyone is enthused about the rise of dramaturgy. Perhaps the most outspoken critic is Chicago-based director Terry McCabe, author of “Mis-Directing the Play,” whose polemical essay “A Good Director Doesn’t Need a Dramaturg” argues that “a dramaturg is a professional fifth wheel: not needed when the car is rolling smoothly, and not in a position to help when the alignment is out of whack.”

It’s an entertaining and provocative read (and can be found online) — but actually it reads more like a critique of directors than of dramaturgs.

Still, others in the world of contemporary theater consider great dramaturgy to be a hallmark of a great company. McCallum said ATL’s The Humana Festival has become a model for other festivals for its use of dramaturgy. “The Humana Festival is recognized as the best of American playwrighting, and part of the reason for that is the curatorial role played Amy Wegener and the dramaturgs on the literary team. Their role is partly curatorial. What they do is take the temperature of what America’s playwrights are thinking about in any given year, both in terms of form and content.”

Dramaturg Amy Wegener, Directing Assistant Lexy Leuzsler and Director Davis McCallum in rehearsal for Cry It Out. Photo by Philip Allgeier - Philip Allgeier
Philip Allgeier
Dramaturg Amy Wegener, Directing Assistant Lexy Leuzsler and Director Davis McCallum in rehearsal for Cry It Out. Photo by Philip Allgeier

The long road to production

After Metzler’s “Elemeno Pea” was produced in 2011, the company commissioned another work — “Cry It Out,” which was produced as part of this year’s Humana Festival. It reunited Metzler with Wegener and “Elemeno Pea” director McCallum.

It also took about three years to develop.

Although ATL’s process starts with scripts, the annual call for new plays makes clear that those scripts are really a way for the company to find — and nurture — new writers. It’s that commitment to writers that — notwithstanding the company’s name — that defines ATL’s role in the development of American theater.

More than 1,300 scripts are received in a typical year. Each is assigned for first reading to one of the four people on the literary team. That first reading generates, at minimum, a one-page descriptive and evaluative report. Scripts that capture the first reader’s attention are circulated to other readers — and those that garner support find their way to a weekly meeting of ATL’s literary team and artistic leadership. Hannah Rae Montgomery, a member of the lit team, describes those meetings as “a kind of new play book club” where scripts are discussed and debated over a period of months, until a few rise to the top and find their way into the playbill of the annual Humana Festival of New American Plays.

A dramaturg is part of the process from the beginning to the end, as was the case with “Cry it Out.” Metzler recalled she had faced a problem: There was a scene she herself didn’t understand. The play, based on Metzler’s own experience balancing the demands of her career against being a new mother, is a provocative drama where the relationships illuminate class privilege and gender roles. Metzler had written a scene in which a new mother is reflecting on her combative, judgmental relationship with another. “One character says of the other, ‘Maybe I’m her. Maybe we’re connected somehow. I don’t know, I wake up at night thinking about her.’”

For Metzler, the passage seemed to come from an unknown place — and she toyed with the idea of cutting it. “Amy said, “No, I think you should lean into it. Figure out what it is — what question it’s asking.” So Metzler kept at it — and eventually unearthed a powerful emotional connection that illuminates the play.

Reflecting on the play, Wegener said in an interview that part of its ultimate power emanates from the way it reveals how our culture “pathologizes mothers who want to keep their careers just as it pathologizes women who want to stay home with their children.”

The director, McCallum, was with Metzler and Wegener at the Kennedy Center to hear a reading of the first 25 pages. He said that he, too, admires Wegener’s approach.

“It’s very tempting sometimes to think of a play as an algebra problem, and for a dramaturg to think their job is to solve the problem. That wasn’t Amy’s approach at all. She was very patient and had a lot of trust in Molly’s instincts with the characters and the story. I thought it was a masterful piece of dramaturgy. It’s really an example of what has made the Humana Festival recognized for the best of American playwriting.”

Setting the right tone

The dramaturgical lengths to which ATL goes in exploring a script can be quite extraordinary.

This year’s Festival included the dark wedding comedy, “I Now Pronounce,” by Tasha Gordon-Solmon, which opens with the death of the presiding rabbi. The action revolves around the adult participants in the wedding party, but a trio of flower girls lurks in the seams between the scenes. They observe and comment on the action — but never take direct part in it.

Bryan Howard, a dramaturgy intern on the production, said, “The flower girls’ role is to show how we learn about love and commitment and relationships and love and the world. There’s sort of a fun goofy aspect to their story, but they also witness and are dealing with these enormous life events and are dealing with death and sex. So they’re grappling with these big ideas.”

Early in development, a question arose about whether the flower girls should be cast as children, whether they should be played by the adult actors, or whether they could be represented by life-size puppets.

So in December, the company brought in a master puppeteer, and then workshopped all three scenarios. Ultimately, they agreed that using the youngsters would be best.

“Our role is to ask focused specific questions that open possibilities as opposed to shutting things down,” said resident dramaturg Jenni Page-White.

For Metzler, dramaturgy is the steady, stealthy hand in the production.

“What’s spectacular about having a great dramaturg — and I think Amy is one of the best dramaturgs in the country — is that they’re not only protecting the playwright from other people, they’re protecting the playwright from himself or herself. They’re saying ‘Don’t sink the ship you’ve built — get in the ship and sail it wherever it goes.”