Buckling Up, or How Wikipedia Taught Me to Dramaturg

[Our conversations about dramaturgy and curation reminded me of this mini-manifesto I wrote in the spring of 2011. I wrote it before reading D.J. Hopkins’s “Research, Counter-text, Performance: Reconsidering the (Textual) Authority of the Dramaturg” in Theatre Topics 13, no. 1 (2003)which informed my own essay in the Routledge Companion to Dramaturgy, in which I may be at odds with what I’d written below. So I reserve the right to disagree with myself in part or in whole. Some of the Wikipedia references are not extant. —M.D.]I was driving somewhere in my car/NPR was on/some show/on which some conversation developed over media/social media/but not as in the advent of social media/social media having already advented last decade/as in media having advented socially/as in media grown from and growing to every direction/not just MTV to Youtube/that’s so early 21st century/but Youtube to MTV/that’s so/like/two years ago/so that now there aren’t bands who go just the MTV route or the opening-for-another-band-until route/but bands going their own way online/writers publishing their own way online/we don’t spell online with a hyphen anymore because it’s totally already advented/and how is my mother who doesn’t know a lot about the internet supposed to find music and books and artists she might like when there’s now so much of it and just how is she supposed to know?

That final question was from some caller wondering how her mother could somehow find whatever she wants to find

The role

NPR’s special guest and NPR’s host decided

the role of the curator will become increasingly important over the next few years and into the future as more and more content is generated and self-generated and more and more means are developed not only to circumvent traditional means of publication in the sense of making something public somehow

no

not just to circumvent but to force traditional means into a vicious cycle of always having to play catch up in a game whose rules traditional means have mastered

Come to think of it

I feel confident NPR’s special guest was Andrew Keen who wrote The Cult of the Amateur (read about it on Wikipedia!)

And so because the cult has grown into a lifestyle and out of a fixation once privileged by teenagers and scrappy musicians who had way cool Myspace wallpapers and deft streaming samples/so because that cult is growing it’s no longer really a cult anymore/so much as the new way of life

And so the role of the curator

NPR’s special guest and NPR’s host decided

will become increasingly important over the next few years and into the future

And so there

in my car

going somewhere

Somebody defined dramaturgy.

***

In this age of simultaneous generation and publication of content, I ought to look no further than Wikipedia in order to define “curator” as my starting point. According to somebody who wrote for Wikipedia, a curator is primarily a “content specialist responsible for an institution’s collections [and whose] concern necessarily involves tangible objects of some sort, whether it be inter alia artwork, collectibles, historic items or scientific collections.” Later, somebody (else, perhaps) notes that in “contemporary art, the title curator is given to a person who selects and often interprets works of art.” Somebody (else, perhaps) notes that in Scotland “the term ‘curator’ is used to mean the guardian of a child.” Somebody (else, perhaps) notes the French word isconservateur, which quite frankly sounds a little too Jean-Marie Le Pen for me. (You can find info on him on Wikipedia!)

According to somebodies on Wikipedia, to curate is to specialize in content, interpret, care for those who need it most.

Yes, a dramaturg is a curator.

Or should be. Otherwise, the dramaturg is just reading e-scripts and writing program notes for audience members to read on the toilet at home, assuming they don’t accept producers’ invitation to recycle their programs for future use. Anybody can read and write for the toilet. Anybody cannot be a dramaturg. Somebody has to do it.

***

There’s much to be mined from Wikipedia (oh yes) in its denotation of the curator as an interpreter and caregiver. There are enough publications on textual analysis (I refer more to David Ball and company than to Roland Barthes and company), and in the past two decades, the role of the dramaturg as midwife in new play development has also been dramatically (oh yes) expanded and explored. I want to home in on the idea that the dramaturg curates by specializing in content. Somebody has to do it.

To say a dramaturg is such a specialist at first glance appears pedestrian. It is. But I don’t connote “pedestrian” as pejorative — as something in passing, token, something taken for granted, something we must move beyond because it’s pedestrian, dirty, ignored, trodden upon many times a day. Brecht’s “Street Scene” is pedestrian qua pedestrian, deeply involving multiple points of view with a deeper goal. Brecht’s pedestrianism invites Geertzian thick description.

The dramaturg is often thought of as the nerd in the room; the chair-scooter, to paraphrase a dramaturg, who ahems himself into the process; the academic of the theater; and if all that sounds a little too awful to you (it does to me), the dramaturg is often thought of as the intellectual in the hall. That doesn’t sound much less awful to anybody but the dramaturg. The dramaturg insists on context in a (rehearsal) room where Art-with-a-capital-A is eyes-on-the-prized above all, in the absence of which craft-with-a-lower-case-c is settled for with contentment. In that kind of (rehearsal) room, the work of the dramaturg often becomes — and quickly — merely pedestrian.

The dramaturg specializes in content. The dramaturg ought to be deeply (thickly) versed in the sociocultural economicopolitical context(s) of the work in question. The dramaturg provides the socioculturogeographical background(s) of the Chicago in which Hansberry’s Younger family wishes to relocate (and what Eisenhower’s highways did to the city), the medicocultural histories of diagnosing pedophilia prior to Paula Vogel’s How I Learned to Drive, the religiocultural histories of Catholic abuse allegations contemporary to John Patrick Shanley’s composition of Doubt in the early 2000s.

A decade ago, a debate flared in the dramaturgy community (online-without-a-hyphen!) when a major regional theater invested in a new model: it invited experts in selected fields to provide dramaturgical materials and support. In that model, oncologists support a production of Margaret Edson’s Wit. Child psychologists support a production of Yasmina Reza’s God of Carnage. Japanese art historians support a production of Naomi Iizuka’s 36 Views. That model didn’t take hold. Many organizations do use such external experts, but when asked in full candidness, producers and representatives may respond it’s wise marketing or community outreach (both of which retain their own merit).

Which means it’s not inherently, not incessantly about the content. It’s about support. That’s because it’s the dramaturg who specializes in content.

Specialization looks like the following. The dramaturg provides necessitated historical, contextual, and narrative support for the play to anyone and everyone involved in the production. I say “necessitated” because it’s the text (more Barthes than Ball) that dictates what is necessary. When I dramaturged John Guare’s Six Degrees of Separation at the Guthrie, I supplied information about the art-dealing world of New York of the late 1980s and early 1990s; I arranged for actors to tour a local gallery with its owner. When I dramaturged Chuck Mee’s Wintertime, also at the Guthrie, I edited a history of flirting and conducted a structural analysis of the early scenes ofShakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale to draw parallels regarding paranoia between lovers. When I dramaturged Karen Zacarías’s Legacy of Light, for Virginia Rep, I detailed how the spread of the Enlightenment can be traced to Voltaire and Emilie du Châtelet’s lovenest. I researched how bourgeois men and women greeted each other in mid-18th-century France so that the actors playing Voltaire and Emilie didn’t do that: I’d done enough research to know they wouldn’t have been that formal with each other. I learned it was Voltaire who changed the Chastelet surname to Châtelet based on evolving orthographic customs (the accent circonflexe often replaced a vowel followed by an s as Middle French slid into modern French: forêt from forestfête from feste as in festival). Did/does anyone need to know that? I doubt it. Did/does help actors? I doubt it. So why do I note it?

Because the dramaturg specializes in content. It’s a common practice among all sorts of theater people, when they receive their script, to highlight or make notes in the margin of any words or phrases they don’t understand and/or require special interest. By Googling. By thumbing through a Penguin Molière or an Arden Shakespeare. A dramaturg does that for everything. To paraphrase Bill Clinton from a wildly inappropriate context, it always depends on what the meaning of the word “is” is. The dramaturg need not respond to a contextual question encyclopedically and immediately when asked by an actor or director. A dramaturg’s most powerful response is most often, “Let me look into that and get back to you.” Which is to say, the dramaturg says to himself, “Let me look into that and think about why you asked me.” Access to the encyclopedic (beyond Wikipedia, natch) ensures the integrity of the contextual web that enwraps any production. Research founds a mimetic process, yet the dramaturg knows the power of the interrogative tense. “Why?” the dramaturg asks, dispassionate about the response. The dramaturg knows the answers to Who? What? When? and Where? The dramaturg doesn’t need to know Why. The dramaturg wants you to know Why. Curiosity is mimetic. Why is more human than What.

I want to be clear: it is not the role of the dramaturg to remove distractions. We’re too busy for that. On the (pejoratively pedestrian) surface only, a dramaturg specializes in content so that audiences (and critics!) will not be distracted by ill- or under-informed choices. Yes, actors in a production of Les Liaisons Dangereuses must know how to speak the language of the fan. Yes, actors in a production of any play in which characters smoke must know how to (pretend to) smoke. We’ve all seen actors fake a smoke, a “corpsing,” as Mechele Leon connoted, a death of the art. A death of the actor. A death of his role, his purpose, his art. Actors must know things (and may learn it from the dramaturg), but not for the sake of history (or critics!). Accuracy supports integrity; at bottom, integrity is most deeply tied to mimesis. Regardless of whom (critics?) recognizes what.

Any honest pursuit of the deeply human begins mimetically, with the intention of using that mimesis to give rise to something revelatory. Aristotle insisted on mimesis, and so does the kitchen sink two millennia later. My connotation of the mimetic extends to those who interpret the presentation of reality differently, even radically. (Barthes, definitely Barthes, not Ball.) Artaud needed a kitchen sink only to piss in, and that to him functioned mimetically. A dramaturg doesn’t specialize in content so as to ensure cigarettes are lit properly in a production of A Streetcar Named Desire (though having dramaturged a production of A Streetcar Named Desire, I can tell you that Mitch should use his Zippo to light his own cigarette first, lest a leaky lighter flare in Blanche’s face). John Guare famously noted the primary decision faced by late 20th-century American playwrights was what to do with the kitchen sink. The dramaturg specializes in content in order to know when to open the spigot and when to piss in the sink.

This can only be achieved with rigor. Large, expensive three-ring binders should be purchased to contain all the special(ized) content, which will cost at least three figures to print. External hard drives, blogs, and Worldcat will be required. So may be an Exxon credit card: can you dramaturg A Prayer for Owen Meany without visiting Exeter? I don’t know the answer to that question; I drove to New Hampshire. Can you dramaturg A Streetcar Named Desire without visiting New Orleans? I don’t know the answer to that question; I drove to New Orleans. But many people have dramaturged Williams’s play without going to New Orleans. I’m happy for them; I bet they find work. But do they know where 632 Elysian Fields is and what it looks like? Do they know it’s not in the Quarter, as Williams posits? Do they know why the geography is irrelevant? Have they walked the path and understood why they had no need to? Have they stood in the old Exeter gym where John and Owen Meany would have practiced their special dunk? Have they seen the locker room they would have dressed in afterward? Had they, having done that, recognized its irrelevance? Too many dramaturgs answer such questions before they ask them.

‘Seriously? Drive to New Orleans to see a boarded up house Tennessee Williams never meant to make serve as a model for the Kowalski place? What a dump.’

‘Seriously? Drive to New Hampshire to stand in a high school gym that only served as a model for where these characters were supposed to have existed a half-century ago in a novel that wasn’t even a play to begin with?’

Those dramaturgs are dramaturgs because the title page in the program says so. They are not curators because they are not specializing in content. Show me a dramaturg who specializes in content, and I’ll show you a dramaturg who isn’t employed. The curating dramaturg must be too busy specializing in content to direct plays, or act in them, or write or to (horreur) rewrite them, or to write grants or blurbs or copy for fund development. If dramaturgs in American theater do not curate, they cannot exist; they often do not. If mainstream American theater makes one thing clear, it’s that dramaturgs are phenomenal at being invisible. In this (perhaps rare) instance, mainstream American theater has it right.

Dramaturgs must specialize in content, first, foremost, above all and beyond. If the dramaturg does anything else, that dramaturg is something else. If the dramaturg does anything else, that dramaturg is simply enabling somebody to put on a play. Anybody can put on a play. Somebody should do it well.

 

***

Wikipedia points out that “curator” and “cure” derive from the same etymological root. Cynics too quickly point out that dramaturg was for too long connoted as “script doctor.” Edward Albee, at the 2004 Last Frontier Theatre Conference (among other appearances), dismissed the role in that regard. When serving as dramaturg for Six Degrees of Separation, I was offered the opportunity to collect John Guare from the airport — a car ride during which he inquired what my relationship was to the production. When I informed him I was the dramaturg, he told me all dramaturgs were “evil,” and then he asked if I would mind driving him to Iowa for some research. The New Yorker published a cartoon that many drama and lit professors post on their office doors: a nebbish man in glasses stands before a bland curtain and asks the house, “Is there a dramaturg in the house?”

That’s too glib and easy to dismiss, but I suggest it demonstrates the importance that a dramaturg-cum-curator sit in every house. It might be, as the cartoon suggests, a life-saving position. But such life-saving is not currently possible in American theater. In American theater today, so much dramaturgy performed is so much dramaturgy betrayed. (Here’s drinking at you, Antonin.) We dramaturgs must continue to insist we specialize in content first and foremost. It is we, and only we, who are capable of curating the (next) generation and production of content. Unless that happens, we’re anything but invisible. Until we’re able to specialize in content and content alone, we’re only dramaturgs. We should fight to curate.

we’re the ones who turn up NPR in our cars/it’s time to buckle up/ we’re the ones who can cite Andrew Keen/we’re the ones who can piss in the kitchen sink and on Wikipedia while John Guare sits in the passenger seat/we’re the only ones who can/we’re the only ones who can drive the car

Somebody has to do it.

 

See also: Matt DiCintio