Dramaturgy in Dialogue: Matthew Spangler

Kite Runner Nottingham

Interview with Matthew Spangler, Professor of Performance Studies at San Jose State University and playwright of work including Tortilla Curtain and The Kite Runner.

I wondered if you could talk about your experience working with dramaturgs or your work in script development and how that might be seen as dramaturgical?

Matthew: I’ll talk about the first one — working as a playwright with dramaturgs I think in the model here, in the United States, dramaturgs really come in one of two types and sometimes they cross over, one person might do both of those types but I am just distinguishing these types so we can talk about them. One type would be a dramaturg who focuses on the script and gives the playwright and, to a certain extent, the director feedback on the script and what could be improved. Like maybe this line is extraneous and maybe this other line here on page 76 contradicts something that we learnt about the character on page 16. Even the playwright sometimes doesn’t catch those things. Plays can be very complicated things and even the creator, perhaps especially the creator, is vulnerable to some of these oversights and it takes the outside eye of the dramaturg to be able to come in and say here’s a line that I think we can do away with, the scene will move a lot faster if we remove this line over here, and we essentially know this information on page 84 because you told it to us on page 36 so let’s cut this line on page 84. So I think one purpose of the dramaturg is to provide something of an outside eye at the level of the script. That outside eye is particularly useful for new scripts, a script that hasn’t had a full production before, and that has maybe only had some readings. It’s very useful then to have the dramaturg in rehearsal weighing in on these things as the rehearsal is progressing and the script is being put on its feet.

The other type of dramaturg is somebody who would focus largely on the information behind the play, the historical or cultural context. This type of dramaturg might do a lot of research before the rehearsal process even begins, and show up on the first day of rehearsal with pictures, oral history interviews of people who lived at the time of the play or in the environment of the play, that sort of thing, and the dramaturg might event give a presentation to the cast of this information. Of course, as a practical matter, the playwright and the director are also familiar with this information, but again, even for the playwright it’s very useful to have someone as an outside eye who is engaged in researching this topic for the first time and is coming up with new things that might even be new for the playwright. And having the dramaturg come in with their research can be very useful to the process. As I mentioned, some dramaturgs blend these styles – being focused on the text and being focused on extra-textual material – I don’t want to say that they have choose one or the other. Finally, as a playwright, I find the dramaturg very valuable, something of a luxury in North American theatre. Not every production has a dramaturg. But those that can afford it do. Particularly for new plays.

Can you give me any specific examples of a dramaturg enabling you as a writer to find something out about your play?

Matthew: I’ll give two examples of the types I described here. When we did The Kite Runner at the Actors’ Theatre in Louisville, this was the play’s second production. So even thought the play had had a full production already, the play was still slightly overwritten. I think most first plays are over written anyway and the playwright usually ends up in the rehearsal process cutting or refining the script, so I was in that process. Then the dramaturg came on board in Louisville – Carrie Hughes, she’s the literary director at the McCarter Theatre in New Jersey. And she was fantastic, she was based at Yale, and she was there for the whole rehearsal time, so this was a company with a big budget. The Actors’ Theatre of Louisville focuses on new plays. That’s their whole MO, so they’re used to hiring dramaturgs for their shows, so they brought her up from Yale for five weeks. She sat in on the rehearsals and for me she was an outside eye. She could say the sort of things I’m referring to now: I think this speech is a little long. Could we make it shorter? And I would say ‘yeah I totally agree it’s a little long’ and we would noodle it together. I would say what do you think? Shall we cut? And she would make suggestions. There were a couple of times when we didn’t agree. She would say ‘can we cut this?’ and I would say ‘I think we need to keep that’ and the playwright in those cases wins, but those were the odd moment. I would say 90% of the time everything she said was spot on and it really helped the play to become a lot tighter and leaner and I appreciated that.

Another example is when we did Tortilla Curtain at the San Diego Rep. That’s a play that’s so situated in its cultural and historical context. If the actors and designers don’t understand California’s Prop 187 in 1994, and the way in which the Republican Party largely supported it, and what that referendum would have done – it would have taken away public services for undocumented people – if we don’t understand all that, then we don’t understand a fundamental aspect about the play. So this particular dramaturg – Dawn Moore, she’s the resident dramaturg at the San Diego Rep – she did a lot of research on that issue, the politics around the proposition, she brought in videos – there was a political campaign that supported Prop 187, so there were a lot of videos, like TV ads – she was able to show these videos, which, in effect, got our minds of the actors and designers into the historical space. So even though I had written the play, I learnt a lot from her because she was doing this research herself and she was bringing facts I didn’t know. So, I guess you could say in the time I have worked with dramaturges, I have found them really terrific.

You said you were working as a script consultant, is that in some way a dramaturgical role?

Matthew: I suppose it is. In this case, I’m doing the first type – the type of dramaturg focused on the script. The plan is for the show to go to Edinburgh next year. I’m working purely as a script developer which means tightening lines, adding lines, saying things like: ‘I think this sentence is confusing because of the pronouns, and you’ve got these other nouns floating around, we should clarify that’. So I’m doing that kind of work in terms of clarifying the language of the script. In some cases adding language, in other cases, taking language away, just making the play clearer. I’m not doing the historical research because the person who wrote the play is a musician and this play is about Vivaldi, so it’s already steeped in historical research and they don’t really need the historical work from me, but what the script does need is someone to be able to look at this play written by a musician, who understands theatre because she is in the arts but is not used to writing plays, and I’m trying to take this play and tighten it up and make it what it wants to be.

It sounds to me like an editorial role? Looking at the play on the page rather than a curatorial outside eye on the play as it takes to the stage?

Matthew: Yes, it’s kind of like an editorial role. But in saying that I don’t mean to imply a dramaturg is a “mere” editor. Think of all the great writers whose worked benefited tremendously from someone editing and shaping their work – TS Eliot, Thomas Wolfe and the like. A dramaturg provides something of a similar function.

It seems to be that there are these different levels at which a dramaturg might operate. Different lenses that they might use at different stages of the process. I talked to one of your colleagues the other day who described the in-house dramaturg in America as a kind of aesthetician. Someone overseeing the aesthetic of the theatre, who quality controls what a theatre puts out and says that it’s in line with how the theatre wants to be seen so everything coheres within a programme. I wonder what your thoughts are on this more institutional role dramaturgs play?

Matthew: I haven’t experienced that kind of dramaturg who has the ability to control the aesthetic of a theatre. Maybe, formerly, dramaturgs operated that way. In my practice dramaturgs are part of the team. In the power hierarchy of the rehearsal room they would be situated just under the director. And I think that’s a tricky role to play. To be effective, the dramaturg needs to have the right kind of personality because you’re not in most cases the most powerful person in the room, the playwright and director are, but you are giving them feedback. On many occasions telling them things that aren’t working in the show, telling a playwright that this particular line is unclear and we should work to clarify it. Or telling a director that what you’ve just done here contradicts what you’ve done in Act One and the director might be like ‘oh, yes, I hadn’t thought of it in that way, maybe I should rethink the idea’. So I guess what I’m saying here is that it takes the right kind of person to inhabit the dramaturg’s role and make it work. It’s a very nuanced and precise position.

It’s a delicate role because you have to negotiate lots of different sensibilities…

Matthew: Exactly, but you can’t stand down too easily because you might have the right idea for something, but if they’re too self-effacing, or too tactful, then it never sees the light of day and that’s a problem, too. So, yes, it’s a very particular role that we’re talking about. Just the right person.

I interviewed an associate director in the UK who is sometimes described as a dramaturg and he works a lot with Tim Crouch, he often describes his responsibility as a dramaturg as ‘representing the audience in the rehearsal room’. So he is sitting there watching rehearsal imagining what the audience might be thinking. So I wonder whether theatremaking or playwriting or the rehearsal of new plays in America thinks about its eventual audience, how much that dramaturg might be the audiences’ surrogate presence in the room?

Matthew: I haven’t thought about that, but, yes, generally, new plays don’t consider their audience enough and the dramaturg is really useful, those that approach it this way, as the mind’s eye of the audience. That eye is extremely useful for a new play. As I mentioned, I think a lot of new plays tend to be over-written, especially in the first draft. The playwright might be experimenting with something that they’re not sure about and that’s why it’s over-written because they’re not too sure if its working. And there are so many things on your mind in the rehearsal process that trimming your play and making it more specific to your audience can fall by the wayside. A good dramaturg can help fix that.

In work in progresses or post-show discussions, the audience themselves become a dramaturg in some way, their feedback enhances the play that they are seeing…

Matthew: They do. A good post-show discussion can give the artist incredible material to work with. One difference that’s worth noting, though, is that a good dramaturg is even more capable and able to give that feedback to the playwright or director, whereas the audience, you have to have a smart, articulate and sensitive audience and you know you don’t always get that! Sometimes the audience feedback actually isn’t useful to you. Whereas if you have the right dramaturg on board then almost everything the dramaturg says is spot on. So I wouldn’t suggest that dramaturgs could be replaced by audience talkbacks. I still think that role of the dramaturg is more important if you get a good person in that role, than a bunch of workshops and some audience feedback. Dramaturgs train, they know how to speak to the playwright, they know how to speak to the director, and they have experience doing it. Dramaturgs work to put themselves in place to not only be the eye of the audience but also to try to understand what the playwright is doing. And what the production is doing. And the audience isn’t always concerned with what the playwright is trying to do. The audience just wants a good show. And if the show is boring the show is boring and the audience will tell you that, but they won’t necessarily be able to tell you what the show needs.

I want to finish with one last question about your role as an academic, what kind of overlap there might be between the role of the dramaturg and the work you do with students, whether there are times in the classroom when you are dramaturging? Responding to their ideas do you ever feel that there is a dramaturgical practice within a pedagogical context?

Matthew: Absolutely. Again I’d never thought about it in those terms until you described it just now, but the answer is, yes. For example, if a student of mine puts together a 30 minute one-person show, and the student is going to go up in front of an audience in one month and I am giving feedback then I will do what that dramaturg would do in that 1) I’m going to imagine that hypothetical audience that is going to come in here in a month and what are they going to need and where does the show flatline, where is the show unclear and how can I suggest fixes to it? What can I say to get the show moving where it’s slowing down? Or make it clear when it’s unclear? But at the same time, I’m not just going to colonise the student show and make it a piece of entertainment as I see it. I’m going to try to see the show through the students’ eyes. What is the student trying to achieve? What is the story that she is trying to tell and how can I help her to tell it? How can I help her to achieve the work or art that she is trying to achieve, but at the same time, make it a work of art that is going to succeed in front of an audience? And I suppose that’s exactly what a dramaturg does, except the situation I’m describing, I don’t have a director or a playwright sitting in the room with me. I’m the professor and this is my student. I do have a lot of latitude in speaking back, you know, to say things like: “change the opening, it’s totally not the opening you want, its contradicting everything you’re trying to go for in this piece, you need to rethink how it opens” etc. I can say those things with more freedom.

There is a different hierarchy at play in the classroom.

Right. That’s what I was talking about earlier, the dramaturg needs to both be able to say “change the opening,” but say it in a way that will get the director and the playwright listening and do what needs to be done.

You said a dramaturg was a luxury. Is that a financial thing?

Matthew: Yes, it’s financial. It’s a luxury not because companies don’t think its necessary, I think all the companies I’ve worked with would want to work with dramaturgs. And if they could afford one they would have one. But in the hierarchies of the hires, you need your director, you need the actors, and after that, if you’re on a tight budget, well, maybe the sound designer can also design lights. Can the scenic designer also design costumes? And sometimes, on budgets, the dramaturg falls off the list. That’s unfortunate.

I’m thinking about the way theatre over here in the USA is funded.

Matthew: Like I said, if you can afford it, you should always have a dramaturg in the room. A good dramaturg is amazing because they’re able to be an outside eye and really clarify things and make things better. Understand me, I don’t think it’s a good thing that the dramaturg often falls off the totem pole of the budget. I think it’s a bad thing and its definitely related to the funding models we use in this country, which are largely market-based. Theatre companies compared to yours get far less public funding and the attitude is one of the market. If you can’t sell a product, if people aren’t buying tickets to come through the door, well, then the product must not be worth it – that’s the market attitude toward theatre. If your theatre needs to close because you haven’t been able to sell a product, well, then the market tells us it needs to close. End of story. We let the market rule so much in America, and the market is largely antithetical to producing art.

Like it did in San Jose.

Matthew: Like it did in San Jose. I think the market impulse, generally, is really bad for the arts, but, whatever, we have a market system in this country and that’s what it is. Markets might be good for designing cell phones, but markets are not good for plays . . .

Image: The Kite Runner, Nottingham Playhouse 2013.

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