by Linda Lombardi, Literary Manager
The American Voices New Play Institute dramaturg at Arena Stage, Jocelyn Clarke, is also the theater adviser to the Arts Council of Ireland and a member of the artistic team of Sundance Institute’s Theatre Lab. He has taught dramaturgy at the Kennedy Center, Trinity College Dublin and Columbia University. He is an associate artist with The Civilians and Theater Mitu in New York. He has written five adaptations for director Anne Bogart and her SITI Company — Bob, Alice’s Adventures Underground, Room, Score and Antigone and Trojan Women (After Euripides). Just before previews began, Jocelyn and I talked about new plays and the relationship between dramaturg and playwright. Below is an excerpt of our conversation.
What do you enjoy
about working on a new play?
The development of a new play is a voyage of discovery, as much for the playwright as for anyone else involved along its journey from page to stage. I enjoy exploring the dramatic and theatrical worlds of a new play, the ones that exist on the page as well as the ones that have yet to emerge as it changes and grows from draft to draft. I ask the playwright lots of questions about the new play, encouraging him or her to dig as deep or as wide as it demands. The point of asking questions is not necessarily to find answers - although that will happen anyway - but to discover the full dramatic potential hiding inside a new play. As Arthur Miller once said, inside every great play lies a question...
How do you approach
the relationship between playwright and dramaturg?
I think the relationship between a playwright and a dramaturg – and later with a director – either succeeds or fails according to the clarity and quality of communication between them. It seems like such an obvious thing to say but behind every play that hits a wall or every production that goes over a cliff, you find that there was fundamental breakdown in communication somewhere along the way between collaborators. In my initial meetings with a playwright, we spend most of our time talking about anything and everything (and not necessarily about the new play) as I learn how he or she talks about their work and how they see the world. I have to know that when a playwright uses the word “blue” that we are both talking about the same colour (as opposed to green or purple) and a similar hue and intensity.
Too often a playwright is forced to use the language of the dramaturg and of the literary manager, a strange mix of the academic and psychotherapeutic, which is not language in which he or she has conceived their new play and which they use to talk about it. I have been in several workshops and rehearsals where the dramaturg and the playwright - or the director and the playwright - are talking about two very different plays even though they are working on the same play. In any collaboration that involves a director, playwright and a dramaturg, my primary concern is to make sure that we are all speaking the same language, and that when we agree or disagree about something, we all understand what we are saying, and hopefully, talking about.
How would you describe
the role of a dramaturg?
All plays need dramaturgy, but not necessarily dramaturgs. I don’t know what the role of a dramaturg is because I don’t think there is just one - a dramaturg at any one time is a collaborator, a critic, a cheerleader and a crank. I would even say that having a clearly defined role for the dramaturg can hinder his or her work with a playwright and director. What playwrights wants is somebody who gets them, gets their play, and can get into it with them, in whatever way is needed by the playwright or the play. I am currently working with Liz Lerman on her new project Healing Wars, and she had never worked with a “dramaturg” before. In our first meeting on Skype, she asked me what I do on a project. When I explained my approach, she told me that in her collaborations, nobody’s role is clearly defined and everybody is up in each other’s business. And she asked me would I mind doing that? I think that’s what I really like to do as a dramaturg…
(Photo: Jocelyn Clarke, Charles Randolph-Wright and Lucie Tiberghien. Photo by Ryan Maxwell.)