Friday, March 14, 2008

Interview with a Top Dramaturg

This April, Nakissa Etemad, who has worked with hundreds of playwrights including master playwrights such as Arthur Miller and Tom Stoppard, will teach an exclusive class for Playwrights Foundation, revealing the secrets of theatre’s least understood profession: dramaturgy.

Read about Nakissa’s Class in the New Play Institute

Back to Playwrights Foundation

In order to give you a sneak peak into this overlooked but pivotal field, we interviewed her a about her expertise and experiences:

PF:  What is the biggest misconception you've encountered surrounding your profession?

NE:  Unfortunately, there are many misconceptions surrounding my profession. It has only existed in this country since the 1960s. I suppose one of the biggest misconceptions (and one that I have a particular dislike for) is that dramaturgs are glorified assistant directors. We are not. We have our own distinction, our own training, our own field; we focus on plays as literature and have expertise in the following: 1-placing plays into their historical context (by compiling and distributing succinct background research to actors and creative teams), 2-aiding in the development process of new plays (by working with writers to reshape their work and with directors to honorably interpret that work), 3-communicating about plays to audiences and other theatre patrons (through writing newsletter articles, hosting talkbacks, interviewing playwrights for donor events; etc), 4-serving as a sounding board for directors and writers and as a representative of the writer (by offering feedback to directors on the production before the audience arrives). I like to think of myself as a midwife in the birthing process of a play, a right-hand woman to a playwright, a third eye in rehearsal, but not an assistant who wants to grow into a directing position. We certainly aid both the director and playwright by the nature of our jobs, but dramaturgs are certainly a viable and individual position in theatre.

On a lighter note, I’d like to mention another misconception that dramaturgs-female or male-are spelled with an “e” at the end; actually, a dramaturge is the French word for playwright. I know today’s dictionaries offer the “e” or both spellings, but my UCSD graduate chair would agree that in English, we are all spelled the same, just a -turg, pronounced with a hard “g.” And the field is called -turgy, pronounced “jee”— I suppose we have the Germans who began it in the 1700s to thank for the orthography…


PF:  What was it like to work on plays with people like Tom Stoppard, Arthur Miller, or Charles Mee?

NE:  Working with any playwright of any stature or level of experience can be extremely gratifying. One of my more significant times has been working with arguably one of the most noted playwrights of this century: Arthur Miller. The Wilma was fortunate to be granted the rights to the second production of his penultimate play, Resurrection Blues. And I was fortunate enough to be working at the Wilma as Dramaturg & Literary Manager when we selected and produced it. He is the man who had the courage to voice his opinions against the McCarthy era in his play The Crucible, to criticize the effects of capitalism in Death of a Salesman. After years of writing satirical articles and short pieces, in 2002 he premiered his first full-length satire about a fictional dictatorship in South America, which provided him a forum to scrutinize our own government. In August of 2003, he granted me a phone interview for our Wilma newsletter, and I witnessed for myself the acerbic wit that enters into the mouths of his characters, the plain-stated passion of his beliefs. My own father is of Miller’s generation; my father, having newly immigrated to America from Iran as a student of engineering, would attend movies to learn English, and used some of his first earnings to see the first production of Death of a Salesman on Broadway. Here I was talking to an icon of American culture and yet he sounded similar to my father, a man who has lived a pretty incredible life—without the Iranian accent, of course. After two minutes conversing with Miller, you know he is a man of strong opinions who is not afraid to express them, but he was easy-going with me, straightforward, quite funny, and to the point with every response to my questions. Before and during our rehearsal period, we exchanged faxes and conversations while he revised portions of the script. It was wonderful to see his craftsmanship at work and the years of dexterity appear in new lines of text, apparent from years of know-how in the business. I never got the chance to meet him in person, as he fell ill on the morning he was to attend our rehearsal, but I and everyone involved in the production felt grateful to participate in this great man’s life work.

Working with Tom Stoppard has been among my seminal experiences. While I was at the Wilma, we produced two of his plays and planned a third, the second being a rarely produced play for six actors and an orchestra that we co-produced with the world-renowned Philadelphia Orchestra, Every Good Boy Deserves Favor. For this piece, I had an opportunity to converse with him Charlie-Rose-style for an exclusive event at a donor’s home, and later interview him for the theatre community of Philadelphia. Stoppard is one of the most widely recognized living playwrights, and a most intelligent and gracious individual. He is such an important figure in our industry that it is easy to become tongue-tied in his presence. But he has a wonderful way of putting you at ease and showing genuine interest in your viewpoints. His play Arcadia is one of my all-time favorites, which crosses the boundaries of the imagination, combining science and art and history in profound ways. His living in London and busy schedule prevented him from attending many rehearsals, but his friendship with & faith in the ability of the Wilma’s artistic directors Blanka Zizka and Jiri Zizka always enable him to entrust his work in their capable hands. And he was always very kind and affable with me by association. Not every playwright can hand over their work so easily, and it is gratifying to see how much he enjoys the end-results and respects their work.  

Charles Mee is one of the most passionate theatre-makers I know. I had met him briefly in San Diego when he did the workshop premiere of Big Love. It was not until I worked on Big Love and Wintertime at the Wilma that I got to know him. My interviews with him were some of the most exhilarating and inspiring conversations I’ve ever had, and among the hardest to edit. He told me he had always loved the theatre, but he only began writing plays professionally after a long career writing political histories, because, in his words, he always wanted to get back to what he thought was his “true life.” Twenty-five years after graduating college and living another life, he returned to his “first passion.” This love affair is evidenced in the abandon of his characters, and the exuberance of the world of his plays. He is a playwright whose work truly lives in the imagination, flourishes in its own creativity, and inspires even when the form is non-traditional. Meeting the man who dreams these plays is quite thrilling; especially for his casts who get to play such Fellini-esque characters that not many plays can offer them. Many of his pieces include collage from other written works, some poetry, some political theory.... Our director for both pieces, Jiri Zizka, was thoroughly fascinated that Chuck posts his plays in their entirety on his website and invites readers to borrow, cut, and paste his words as inspiration for their own theatre pieces. He is a playwright with a great generosity of spirit and a joy that certainly permeates his work.


PF:  How long have you been a dramaturg?  What got you into that field?

NE:  I’ve been a dramaturg for 15 years.  I had always acted and sang throughout elementary and high school. In college I was strong in math, disliked science and loved my humanities courses. I was fairly certain I would minor in French Literature but was undeclared in my major, uncertain that I could make a career in the arts. I spent my junior year studying abroad in a Critical Studies program in Paris, took some amazing theatre classes at the University of Paris III, and saw 25 theatre productions. Essentially, my immersion in Parisian culture somehow gave me permission to embrace a life in art. Upon my return to UC San Diego, I transferred colleges and started taking theatre classes in order to find my niche. Outside of classes, I did some acting and directing, and even did my own translation of No Exit, (which was later published as a textbook for a literature class). The next quarter, I interviewed for an over-enrolled acting class. In my brief meeting with the instructor, he asked me if I knew what a dramaturg was, then said that I would be a good one and asked me to come work for him as his Literary Intern at San Diego Repertory Theatre. He was Todd Salovey, the Rep’s Associate Artistic Director. While I took his acting class, I started learning about script evaluation at the Rep, and within a month or two I began doing research on his first directing gig there. He took me under his wing in several aspects; in class I became his teaching assistant, giving feedback to fellow students on their scenework, and at the Rep I became his dramaturg for his first production: The Dybbuk. I ended up graduating as a Theatre Major and was accepted into the graduate program at UCSD, earning my MFA in Dramaturgy while continuing my professional dramaturgy career at the Rep. After graduate school and some freelance shows, the Rep gave me my first full-time theatre job as their Resident Dramaturg & Artistic Associate.

PF:   What's your worst experience developing a new play?  What was your best experience?

NE:  This is a hard question for me to answer. I have had many new play development experiences to choose from, and it would take me a long time to come up with perfect examples. Just at my first theatre, San Diego Rep, we had an amazing run of producing six world premiere productions in seven years, plus workshops and readings of plays and musicals we weren’t producing, and my years at San Jose and the Wilma were equally fruitful with new play commissions, world premiere musicals, and festivals of new works…. Every single experience is so unique, and most of them have both challenges and victories within them. And I would probably have different answers depending on what kind of new play development: the writing process or the premiering process (the first production). I think in both cases of development, the worst experiences come from lack of communication or problems of collaboration. When different parties fight so hard for what they want that they can’t hear each other, the play is too often sacrificed as a result. Its clarity and strength are gone because too many hands were in the pie and its own voice cannot ring out. The best experiences are when everything falls into place, and you all collectively birth a play that is happy and healthy; all the elements are cohesive and the play is what it wants to be. It is very gratifying when I can participate in the early stages, help each party understand one another (part of good dramaturgy is being a good mediator and diplomat), and be integral to helping the playwright express him or herself as best he or she can. I think everyone wants his or her play to sing. And ultimately, so do the theatres that produce them.


PF:  If you could say something to the theatre world about new play development, what would it be?

NE:   Take the risk.  Find the new voices and nurture them. Time keeps moving on, and as the world is changing, we need to listen to the people that are living it. Classics are so important, but art needs to evolve, as does life. The regional theatre in this country is so much more safe than theatres around the globe. I hope that organizations like the Playwrights Foundation continue to grow and thrive, to feed our venues with rich new works. I hope that theatre companies continue to find ways to support themselves in order to inspire their audiences to embrace imagination and creativity and bolder choices in their seasons. I think we all need to remember why we chose our professions and return to those glorious feelings we had as kids when we had our first magical encounter with a play or a performance or a circus or a song…. Let the new plays bring us back to our “true lives” (in the words of Chuck Mee), and perhaps find truth for the lives of our audiences.

Read about Nakissa’s Class in the New Play Institute

Back to Playwrights Foundation

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