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(This post is a part of the Artistic Innovation blog salon curated by Caridad Svich for the 2013 TCG National Conference: Learn Do Teach in Dallas).

So much has changed in the 20 years or so since I was the Associate Director of Ticket Services at a big regional (Gosh, I have had some great titles to make up for crappy paychecks). For sure, the way we spend our spare time and spare change is markedly different. So are the ways we create plays. But the systems we put in place back at the dawn of the regional theater movement and the heyday of the subscriber years remain. We build on top of them, trying to squeeze them into a modern reality. It’s time to tear some things down. Are we just stuck in a loop of protecting and preserving institutions instead of revitalizing and preparing for the future?

Let’s make new mistakes.

What would happen if every theater held a TBA slot when they started their season? I proposed this idea last year at the 21st Century Literary Office convening. A major artistic director loudly snorted. Like, loudly. Like, I stopped and looked around loudly. In the manifesto, I went on to suggest that we get rid of seasons all together. The subscription model no longer serves the artists or the audiences, so why do we cling to it? If we could switch up show times, perhaps we’d be more available to potential audiences, and if we could chuck our calendars and start over, we would be able to be more nimble, especially in the production of new work. We have crammed every play and musical into the same rehearsal slots, our design deadlines get earlier and earlier, and we have no room to add previews or continue working. Sure, we apply for grants to pay for more rehearsal time, but the systems keep us from truly bending time to our will. I swear, if I hear one more freighter ship metaphor invoked by management about why change never comes, I’m gonna scream and cry. Aw, hell. I already scream and cry. If we start with a TBA slot, we could begin to untangle what our production departments need,  respond to our audiences and program shows with immediate relevancy, and focus more on the production of plays rather than the development of scripts.

I fear, or feel, that I and my fellow practitioners of professional dramaturgy have been complicit in creating barriers and enabled our leaders to maintain an outdated status quo. It is time to eliminate the titles of literary manager and dramaturg. “Dramaturg” in particular is a useless and opaque word, and does not represent the kind of leaders we thought we were training to be. We contribute to the problem of bloated administrative staffs and ridiculously long development processes, while not having the time, resources, or power to develop real relationships with artists in our role as resident and their role as visitor. To be clear, every staff member should be dramaturgs. Our leadership should be thinking dramaturgically and bringing dramaturgs in as leaders. We must all ask good questions, but somewhere along the line, the dramaturg was no longer expected to have answers or original thoughts. No one snorted when I proposed this, but I was depressed for weeks after the convening that we didn’t get into any meaningful conversations about anything. And super-depressed that a colleague I greatly respect actually said she had tried everything at her theater and there is no better way. I didn’t snort, or scream, or cry. I sat there stunned, and left wanting nothing to do with the dramaturgs and literary managers who don’t want to lead, reinvent, and change.

I still hear that AD’s snort. And I am haunted by the lack of critical dialogue among my group of supposedly critical thinkers. I don’t know if these ideas would change anything, but as collaborators, how dare we snort when someone has an idea? Argue, build on the idea, or have an even better idea. Just have an idea.

To be sure, some dramaturgs and their colleagues are evaluating, innovating, and developing relationships with their audiences beyond newsletters and post-show discussions, and a new play database is being built. My pride for the program I work on, American Revolutions at OSF, knows no bounds. It is amazing to be part of this project where we work so hard to use our resources to empower the artists. We trust them to drive the timetable and development process for their commissions. And, yet we still, all of us, struggle to do good work for good audiences in an over-scheduled, inflexible, and outdated world.

Thomas Paine said, “We have it in our power to begin the world again.” Let us begin. Let us argue, build, and think.

Julie Felise Dubiner is the Associate Director of American Revolutions: the United States History Cycle at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. From 2004-2010, Julie was the Resident Dramaturg at Actors Theatre of Louisville. Prior to Louisville, she was in Philadelphia as Project Manager of The Rosenbach Company and Dramaturg at the Prince Music Theater. Before that, in Chicago she freelanced for Defiant, blue star, Steppenwolf and others. Julie holds degrees from Tufts and Columbia and has taught at University of Evansville, Walden Theatre, University of the Arts, the Philadelphia public schools and Chicago Dramatists. Julie has been a guest dramaturg at the O’Neill Playwrights Conference, the New Harmony Project, the Kennedy Center/KCACTF, and elsewhere. She is a co-editor of a couple of volumes of Humana Festival anthologies and a co-author of The Process of Dramaturgy. She is a Board Member of LMDA and is the lead mentor for the Early Career Dramaturgs.

  • Lee Liebeskind

    I can’t tell you how pissed I was that the AD laughed at that convening and I am saddened that we never talked about what it truly means to be a leader and how we should define that for the future. Lets fix that please.

  • Jacqueline Goldfinger

    I love the idea of a TBA slot. I think that one reason other arts sometimes feel more vital than theater is that they can respond to what’s happening in the larger world more quickly than we can since we are locked into a season so far in advance.

    However, I disagree that the positions of literary manager and dramaturg should be eliminated from artistic staffs. Having
    worked on staffs large and small from La Jolla Playhouse on the west
    coast to Philadelphia Theatre Company on the east coast, I’ve found that literary mangers and dramaturgs are crucial members of a theater staff and are especially important to the new work both in terms of supporting the creation process and helping

    disseminate the work created. Other staff members may have a project or two that they love and promote but their workload keeps them from supporting, reading, and seeing the mountain of new work being created. Having one staff member whose primary role is to keep abreast of new work and re-imaginings of existing work as well as have a well of knowledge regarding existing work that may be a good fit for the company is invaluable. For one thing, it makes season planning about more than what was on Broadway last year or the newest releases from DPS.

    In addition, LM/Ds are beacons of light that keep new work alive and a part of the conversation – even if it might not be a piece that’s a good fit for that specific season or theater. Most LM/Ds that I know keep a stack of scripts in their office, or a folder of electronic scripts on their computers, that they’ve fallen in love with but, for one reason or another, may not be a good fit for production at their theater. Any time an opportunity arises that might be a good fit for that script, they forward it along. As a literary manager, dramaturg and playwright, I’ve been on the sending and receiving end of this vital process which keeps new work circulating around the country. During the recession, we’ve seen new work development opportunities slashed, companies narrowing the scope of what they’ll consider producing by eliminating the open submission process, and agencies downsizing the number of agents representing emerging playwrights (either through lay-offs or young agents moving on and not being replaced). Many of the LM/Ds I know not only read scripts submitted to their theaters but become familiar with unrepresented local writers in their area and attend readings/workshop series that don’t have national prominence – and when the LM/Ds discover a voice they think might interest either their theater or other collaborators, they make connections between the artists. These actions are good for both the theater company the LM/D represents and the theater community overall.

    So I just don’t think the problem is the titles or the positions, it’s how the positions are seen and executed within a company that will determine its’ relevance – which can be said of almost any position in any organization, artistic or otherwise. In fact, I think that it would be tragically detrimental to the new work ecosystem to eliminate literary managers and dramaturgs from artistc staffs.

    Julie, thank you so much for bringing these ideas to the forefront. I absolutely agree that we should be having more of these difficult but important conversations.