Interview with OSF dramaturgs

Lue Morgan Douthit, OSF Director of DramaturgyThe following is a “distilled” transcript of a wonderful chat Debra, Rachel and Maire Murphy had with Oregon Shakespeare Festival dramaturgs Lezlie Cross, David Copelin and Lue Douthit. (Lue is the OSF’s Director of Literary Development and Dramaturgy.) The chat was held July 18 in the company’s tiny, three-desk dramaturgy office, where we three OSF groupies from Bardolatry were treated to a look at a couple of highly annotated texts put together by the dramaturgs for the 2007 productions of As You Like It and Romeo and Juliet. (A review of R & J is forthcoming.) ________________________________________________________________________

Bardolatry: At one of the recent Talks in the Park, Gregory Linington (OSF actor) called the dramaturg the “conscience of the production”. Would you agree?

Lue: “A dramaturg has many roles, and I would have a problem calling him/her the conscience of the production. We have a certain eye that is useful as the production team puts things together, to ensure the integrity of the production. It is a role that is about honoring the way the story is told—though always allowing for good reasons to make changes.

Bardolatry: Do the elements of the play’s history, criticism, etc, have a strong bearing on a production? In other words, does a dramaturg come to begin working on a productions with those elements in his/her back pocket, so to speak?

Lue: One can. One knows Danforth Comins‘ (OSF actor) job, for example. One knows the director’s job. But a dramaturg’s role is not so clear-cut, and encompasses taking the picture as a whole-is it working, or not?-along with the details of the story together and each actor’s piece in it. A dramaturg brings understanding, instinct, and scholarship all to bear on it.

Bardolatry: Do you work much with individual actors?

Lue: No, unless I’m directly asked. I work more with the director. It’s the director’s responsibility to keep things together, and the dramaturg is an advisor.

Bardolatry: Are you “cast” to be the dramaturg for certain productions, in the same way that actors are cast for the roles?

Lue: Sometimes. We have certain preferences. I wanted to do Gem of the Ocean, for instance, but couldn’t because it conflicted with another show that I also wanted to do. The artistic director and I generally try to match the person with their interest, skill, and experience with the play.

Bardolatry: Do dramaturgs tend to have certain areas of expertise?

Lue: Yes, they can.

Bardolatry: Is there a Ph.D. in Dramaturgy?

Lue: Yes, I believe Yale is the only one that offers a D.F.A. in Dramaturgy.

David: It is somewhat cross-disciplinary. You end up learning things you didn’t know you wanted to know.

Bardolatry: How did you prep specifically for this year’s production of As You Like It, and its setting in the 1930’s, etc?

Lue: We spent a great deal of time annotating the text. (Shows us a copy w/ very detailed annotations.) As to the setting of the period, we discussed the value of what that period [the 30’s] brought to the production. The general rule of thumb is that if I’m thrown out of the play [as a viewer], there’s something wrong.

Bardolatry: And the music in As You Like It? It had a sort or “roots music”/O, Brother, Where Art Thou? feel.

Lue: That was J.R. Sullivan’s [the director’s] idea.

Lezlie: As You Like It is really like a musical, and probably has a higher proportion of music than any other Shakespeare play.

Lue: The more J.R. thought about the period of the Great Depression and the music, women’s issues, etc, it just seemed to fit. Again, I’m just interested in how the plays are made, honoring that, and in its relevance to our times.

Bardolatry: Does each actor get the full annotated text?

Lue: Yes, the actors get the same version of text with notes compiled by the dramaturg. Part of my interest is that they have as complete a text to hand as possible. A gnarly passage will come up all the time, but the important thing is that the actor really study the play and have this one reference text. We [at OSF] are Folio-based, because I think that’s the closest we come to Shakespeare’s own words and intentions-or as close as we can get.

[Lue shows us a copy of side-by-side, line-by-line versions of Romeo and Juliet on 11 x 17 paper. Then, in response to a Bardolatry question/comment about supposed “pirated” versions of Shakespeare’s works ending up as assorted quartos, etc.]

Lue: I don’t buy all that.

Bardolatry: So instead you see evidence of some major editing going on?

Lue: There’s no reason why Shakespeare was not a consummate, pragmatic theatre artist. Generally, the most authentic edition we have is the Folio. However, that being said, there is no hard law-for example, there would be no Prologue in Romeo and Juliet if we stuck solely to the Folio. The actors, too, do like to fight for certain lines. Between the director, voice & text, dramaturg, and the central actors, we go through Shakespeare’s text line-by-line to put it together. A lot of e-mail goes back-and-forth at this time.

Bardolatry: We were interested in Bill Rauch’s [OSF’s new Artistic Director] thoughts on those who come to the play more as ‘traditionalists’, versus those who don’t have a problem seeing things in new ways, and set in different periods. Personally, we never get tired of these plays because each production is different, and we love seeing things done in new ways.

Lue: I think that with this particular literature [Shakespeare], most are exposed to it at an emotionally impressible age, and we want to hold onto our early experience of it, and those moments that are transformative for us. But to be hard-line about it [in regard to costume, etc] is to miss the point of theatre. Film can be effective in that way because it brings you instantly back to that time, such as with Zeferelli’s Romeo and Juliet. For me, as long as you can justify what you do, it’s okay to risk irritating the audience.

Bardolatry: Can the dramaturg have a major say/sway in the direction that a production takes? [This was a reference to a comment of Greg Linington at the Talk in the Park, on Lue’s input on his role and how it turned things in a new direction.]

Lue: I’ve grown to believe that the job is about how little I can say. For me, it’s: how is the flow of the story going? Emotionally, how am I reacting to it? There are many elements here-vocal, lighting, etc-to take into account.

Bardolatry: Does the dramaturg have the role of translating these 400-year-old plays—for example, making inaccessible jokes accessible?

Lue: The director is the ringleader here, in charge of a collaboration. As far as jokes go, he/she might say, ‘Does anyone here have an idea?’ So long as it’s funny. I don’t like things that take too long. Honoring rhythm—that’s my major battle. The trees [hanging props that float in and out of the scenes] in As You Like It, for example. The length of time they take to come on the scene stops the flow of action and breaks up the rhythm of the play. The play is ready earlier than they are; Rosalind is ready to go earlier than they are.

Bardolatry: Bill Rauch was answering a question [in one of the OSF’s Carpenter Hall Noon Lectures] about the possibility of microphones on stage in future. What do you think of it?

Lue: I think that we will ultimately come to microphones. For long runs, there’s a real strain on the voices, which would be mitigated with microphones. There are tremendous challenges outdoors. My generation is deaf [because of loud rock music, earphones, etc] and I assume the next generation will be deafer. Ideally, would I like to do without microphones? Yes. But if it comes to our audience not being able to hear the story, what’s the point? More even than the actors’ voices, it’s that the audience can’t hear. The rhythm is not built to accommodate three hours of shouting. But it’s a complicated challenge. The middle section [in the Elizabethan Theatre] is actually the problematic section. The back reverberates with sound. In the New Theatre, we have to re-learn the acoustics for every show, because every configuration [of the stage/seating] is different, and we’re very aware of the acoustic problems and that our audiences are deaf.

Bardolatry: That’s where film has an advantage.

Lue: Film, though, is either shouting or whispering. I think that microphones have actually flattened the nuance.

Bardolatry: What about the “missing demographic”, ages 18-43, that Bill Rauch spoke of? Do you consider the target age groups in your work?

Lue: I think we all make these broad generalizations about our own and other age groups. But is the damn story clear enough? That’s the question.

Lezlie: I think we choose plays, at times, hoping to attract a certain audience. Anne Frank in the Spring for the school groups, for instance.

Lue: Yes; but to hope for one group is cutting our nose to spite our face. Yes, those conversations do happen-translating 400-yr. old conventions to our time, etc-but if it’s well done, there will be something in it to move you.

Bardolatry: How about your role in picking the plays?

Lue: There’s the dart board back in the library. [Laughs.] It’s a pretty interesting, organic attempt to fill certain needs…tragedy, drama. Here’s an artist we want to come back and here’s a role he’s desperate to do; there’s no science to it. Cyrano [de Bergerac, 2006] for example, was more artist-driven because Marco Barricelli is very dramaturgy-oriented himself, so it became something of a 19th-century actor-manager scenario. Too, we tend to do certain kinds of plays over and over again, and there’s a certain expectation.

Lezlie: A certain balance to strike.

Lue: I think that Bill Rauch’s variety will be more eclectic [than LibbyAppel’s]….musicals, etc. [On the proposed U.S. History Cycle projected for 2010:] We’re still trying to figure out what that’s all about. Perhaps linking them to Shakespeare’s History plays, which are the model. It will have to do with transformative moments in U.S. history, and we hope it will open up dialogue in interesting subjects, and that by the end of it might say a lot about who we are, and suggest a sense of identity. Play selection begins today (July 18, 2007) for 2009.

Bardolatry: What about new plays and playwrights? Do you receive many new submissions?

Lue: We’re in about the mid-to-small range in terms of new submissions, about 100-150 plays per year. We don’t tend to encourage submissions simply because we’re not doing too many new plays per year.

David: Most new submissions are competent, and no more. They don’t transcend the subject and genre they’re dealing with. As with movies, the form is strict, and people can be excellent at following the form, but it only shows that they’ve followed so-and-so’s guidelines, and no more.

Lue: Is the story well told? Does it have the potential to resonate with people? I do think that there will come a time when we’ll see more plays that will resonate, will hit a nerve, and we’ll do more of these than we’ve done in the past. But for now, if we only get to do eleven plays each year, we want to do ones we know will resonate.

Bardolatry: Who are some young/new playwrights to watch for?

Lue and Lezlie: Julie Myatt. Lisa Loomer.

Bardolatry: How about casting?

Lue: Things tend to be, firstly, director-driven, then playwright-driven, then actor-driven. Actors can make a bid for a play and role, but sometimes repertory casting at its best comes when things are not always chosen with one person in mind. Sometimes an unlikely actor is picked for a certain role and does beautifully—or, for example, when Richard Howard filled in for Marco Baricelli in Cyrano for 2 weeks. It was just different. More romantic. Beautiful. Theatre space, too, matters to the actors and those who cast them. Certain voices do not carry well in some theatres. For Romeo and Juliet [2007], it was important to cast as close as possible to the actual ages of the central characters. We’re fighting the TV-age where the imagination is not as pliable anymore. Hence we also tend to do one-actor/one-role in each play. Perhaps we face a challenge here, to give more reign to the imagination.

Bardolatry: And if an actor is asked back, they have a certain period of time to respond…?

Lue: When an actor is asked back for a season, they are asked to play certain specific roles, and have eleven days to get back.

Bardolatry: Do you have any advice for actors as to the necessity of actor-training?

Lue: I think training is a must. Half of it is learning to read plays; it is the homework you need to do. I see too many actors who have lots of talent and energy, but become burnt out because of a lack of technical knowledge. [Actors] must analyze the play; see what goes into it; and know, technically, how to do it.

David: Without training, there’s usually a burnout, shakeout. After about twenty years you might hear the actor say, ‘I want to become a financial planner’, etc.

Bardolatry: Concluding statement…?

Lue: If the story is clear, you will get it and it will always be compelling. A diet [in the modern age, particularly of TV and cinema] of two dimensions will wear thin, and I think the iPod generation already finds it wearing. It’s all about story. We still crave, and always will crave, the social connection, and storytelling, and the theatre will always be there for them. That is our [the theatre’s] advantage.

Categories: BardStage.

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