Tag Archives: dramaturgs

Woolly through an Intern’s Eyes

Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company has been around for about 30 years now, all under the guidance of beloved artistic director Howard Shalwitz.  His leadership has distinguished the theater as one of the longest lasting contemporary American theaters dedicated to producing some seriously provocative work.  As such, it was my immense pleasure to accept a seven-week internship here at the theater working in the Connectivity Department.  Woolly’s reputation is known far and wide, even reaching to the corners of Vermont, where I have spent the last year and a half in my cozy little liberal arts college.

My experience with Africa has been limited to a bleary-eyed 8am class about its democratization record (spoiler: not stellar).  Imagine my surprise and ultimately, my excitement, when I realized that my internship would essentially revolve around The Convert, a unique play simply by virtue of the fact that it is an African play written by an African woman about African people.  Wait, it gets better – not just a play about African people, but about an African woman. 

Through my work in the Connectivity Department here at Woolly, I have plunged into a deep, refreshing pool of diverse theatre.  The unfortunate reality of being a drama student (and this is anywhere) is that what is often filtered down are the classics—all important, yet all very white.   The unfortunate reality is that not very many stories on the stage have been told about black women – or African women for that matter.  Besides For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Was Enuf, and a few notable others, I’m not sure I can think of many famous shows telling the stories of black women.  And when you broaden the racial scope, you find yourself with even less choices—Hispanic women (West Side Story doesn’t count)?  Asian women?  Arab women?

That’s why I’m so grateful to have had the opportunity to work at a theater that has the means and the resources to commit to new shows written by women and men who are striving to diversify contemporary theater.  It makes my job at Woolly even more daunting – while the playwrights are aiming to diversify the plays available, my department is essentially aiming to diversify the audience to match the play.

I hope I’ve done the task justice.

-Tenara Calem, Connectivity Intern

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Digiturgy

From UrbanDictionary.com:

digital [dij-i-tl] adjective 1. Describes any kind of information that is stored as a sequence of bits rather than as the kind of information stored without sharp differences like a flow of sound on tape or ink on paper, which are examples of analog record. The analog information is susceptible to noise, aging and corruption during copying much more than the digital media. 2. Slang for cool, awesome, boss, pro, wicked, rad, gnarly, nasty, crazy, sweet, etc…

From Dictionary.com:

dramaturg [dram-uh-turj] noun – specialist in the craft or the techniques of dramatic composition, especially one who acts as a consultant to a theater company, advising them on possible repertory.

From My Internship at Woolly Mammoth:

digiturgy [dij-i-tur-jee] noun – 1. the gnarly examination of the wicked cool craft or technique of dramatic composition using awesomely boss information that is stored as a sequences of bits.

When I got to Woolly Mammoth I had never actually been a dramaturg on a show before. However I was a borderline unhealthy social media consumer and amateur blogger, which turned out to be pretty useful when I started work as the Assistant Dramaturg for A Bright New Boise. John Baker, the lead Dramaturg for the show, was interested in creating an online version of the Actor Packet dramaturgs typically produce to help contextualize a production for the actors. The wealth of images, videos, and This American Life episodes we felt could be useful for the actors was just not going to be easily shared through the standard paper packets Woolly had been using previously. A blog however, is the perfect format for sharing and organizing all the information we wanted to share.

So I got to work building us a Tumblr page. At first the blog was just a great tool for sharing and organizing the type of content that you can’t print—videos, large images, links to webpages, and audio clips, but John and I decided to make the most of this experiment. Instead of viewing this page as just an online version of the paper packet we started to imagine ways everyone involved in the production could interact and build a shared sense of purpose around the show.

Managing Director Jeff Herrmann’s trip to a Hobby Lobby

We did little things at first, like posting images the cast and Woolly staff took when they visited Hobby Lobby stores. Once we extended the invitation to interact with the blog to the whole Woolly team people started bringing me things specifically to post on the blog—my favorite moment was finding a flyer at my desk detailing exactly how the world would end. As the set, props, and costumes started to take shape in the shop, I would go and take pictures of the progress to post on the blog, and again everyone got very excited about contributing to the blog, seeking me out when they had something cool for me to photograph.

The blog didn’t just act as a site for interaction and conversation around the production, but really became a resource for the rehearsal room as well. When an actor would mention an article or video they thought really resonated with a particular scene, I was able to find it online, post it, and anyone working on the production could find it there. Not only did this crowd-sourced dramaturgical research generate a wide variety of high quality information, but it also gave more people a sense of ownership about the project, that I think contributed to the consistent number of daily visitors to the page and the amazing conversations about this show that took place in the rehearsal room and all over the theatre.

Based on this success, I was very interested in continuing our digiturgical experiment as the Assistant Dramaturg for Woolly’s production of Mr. Burns, a post electric play. Since Mr. Burns takes place in three acts over 82 years, pulls on pop culture references that span over a century, and takes places in a post-apocalyptic world inspired by books like The World Without Us, “time” presented itself as a really clear way to organize actor packet information. That lead me to Dipity, a site that lets users generate online timelines.

I plotted each of the play’s acts, the origins of the major cultural references, predictions about the “post-electric world,” and historical examples of nuclear disasters and abandoned cities on two Dipity timelines and embedded them in a blog, so that each timeline entry linked to a blog post with more images, videos, and information about each event. Then I added tags to every blog post so that the whole site could be easily organized and searched by topic. This thing is heaven in blog-form for my inner nerdy kid.

We are just now entering the second week of rehearsal, so it is early to make any judgments about the success of this Mr Burns blog. Hopefully this way of organizing information will be a helpful resource for the cast.

~Cameron Huppertz, Literary Assistant

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A Short Theatrical History of Bootycandy

During the run of Clybourne Park last year, we often asked our audiences if they were familiar with its inspiration: Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun. Hansberry’s Broadway sensation launched a canon of African American family dramas that August Wilson prolifically expanded in the 1980s and 1990s. These hits unquestionably diversified the “Great White Way,” although they established a trope of generally hetero-normative, upwardly mobile black families grappling with the legacy of segregation.

But between the Broadway reigns of Hansberry and Wilson, two off-Broadway provocateurs at the Public Theater began a counterpoint to these mainstream family dramas. In 1975, Ntozake Shange shattered conventional characterizations of African American women with her play For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf. Shange structured her show as a collection of poetry and prose rather than a single narrative. Her characters voiced their experiences solo—without sharing the stage with husbands and children.

Shange’s celebrated hit was both an inspiration and a subject of satire in George C. Wolfe’s The Colored Museum, which appeared at the Public Theater in 1986. Wolfe assembled his series of scenes, speeches, and songs as exhibits in a “museum” of African American identity. Icons of both high and low black culture—including A Raisin in the Sun—were displayed, spoofed, celebrated, and subverted. Shange and Wolfe created new theatrical forms to fit their subject matter, expressing a spectrum of African American experiences so wide and varied that they couldn’t be contained in a single narrative.

Robert O’Hara’s Bootycandy responds to this tradition, creating a fresh series of satiric counterpoints to the mainstream black family drama. Robert’s interwoven short plays pounce on existing tropes of African American identity and add even more layers of complexity: gender identity, sexual orientation, interracial affairs, and even mental illness. The scenes themselves include a playwright character named Sutter, who may or may not be Robert’s alter ego. The play also includes scenes written by Sutter. Most significantly, Robert’s play takes breaks between these scenes to acknowledge its present reality: it is a play at Woolly Mammoth, being performed before an audience that may not be entirely comfortable with this material. Bootycandy confronts us with risqué language and politically incorrect characters that may alienate, offend, or confound the viewer.

The play’s meta-theatrical frame provides space for the actors to acknowledge the audience’s possible discomfort—and then entices us to continue. And it’s nearly impossible to turn away from this show no matter how scandalous we find it, because it’s so damn funny. Like the work of Shange and Wolfe, Bootycandy transcends our assumptions by placing them center-stage and then turning them upside down. Robert’s work responds to a complex tradition of African American theatre, and also ups the ante. Like all our favorite Woolly Mammoth plays, this is something we’ve never seen onstage before.

~ Miriam Weisfeld, Production Dramaturg & Woolly’s Director of Artistic Development

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A Look Behind the Authenticity of Playwriting

What business does a white dude from Boston who’s never set foot in California have dramaturging a Chicano re-imagining of Sophocles’ Oedipus that’s set in a South Central LA barrio?

A few nights ago, I moderated a post-performance dialogue with Oedipus el Rey Scenic and Costume Designer Misha Kachman and Lighting Designer Collin Bills. After I asked the designers to reflect on how director Michael John Garcés’ interest in authenticity impacted their designs, an astute audience member asked if it’s possible for white designers living in DC to create an authentic portrayal of a South Central LA barrio? This got me thinking about what business I have serving as dramaturg on this production.

I came to work at Woolly several months ago from the world of new play development, where I had the opportunity to work with lots of exciting emerging, established, and mid-career playwrights, each with their own distinct stories to tell. For instance, this past summer at PlayPenn, I dramaturged Samuel D. Hunter’s The Whale, which centers on a 600-pound gay man from Northern Idaho reuniting with his estranged daughter. Weeks earlier, at the Seven Devils Playwrights Conference, I dramaturged Jen Silverman’s Gilgamesh’s Game, which centers on a cult-like, high-stakes, life-or-death “game” involving mankind’s deepest, darkest, sickest fears (think: leeches, sharks, suffocation, electrocution, etc.).

I’m not from Northern Idaho. I’m not morbidly obese. I don’t have an estranged daughter. I’ve never swum with sharks, covered my body in leeches, or been suffocated or electrocuted. But I still think I had something meaningful to contribute to these scripts by helping to sharpen the authenticity of the storytelling.

This is also true for Oedipus el Rey. I’m not Chicano. I’ve never set foot in California let alone South Central LA. But as a dramaturg—particularly as a new play dramaturg—I’m not just the person responsible for providing the rehearsal room with sociopolitical and cultural context, especially since LA-based, Chicano playwright Luis Alfaro was so heavily involved in Woolly’s production. So, within the Oedipus el Rey rehearsal room, I focused on providing structural rather than cultural perspective for Playwright Luis Alfaro and Director Michael John Garcés.

The version of the script that Woolly is currently producing is significantly different—especially in terms of its structure—than the versions of the script that the Magic Theatre and Boston Court produced as part of the National New Play Network’s rolling World Premiere. Sure, all of the different versions of the script end the same way. It’s Oedipus, after all. But it’s how the characters and you, the audience, get to the end of the play that’s different.

For the Woolly production, Luis reordered, cut, added, combined, and reconceived scenes and whole chunks of the play, as a result of conversations that Luis, Michael, Woolly Artistic Director Howard Shalwitz, and I had about structure. Essentially, Luis’ rewrites investigated and reconsidered the authenticity of the storytelling to make sure it builds and unravels in a way that resonates with you, our DC audience.

~ John M. Baker, Literary Manager

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Luis Alfaro and Washington, DC: “A Great Love Affair”

Some people make their discoveries through a map, directions, or even a little GPS. Playwrights do it through the body. Sometimes it is the literal body and sometimes the body of an idea, building, or even a city.

Today I am thinking a lot about how much I love actors. The way they move in space, but also in showing the expression of your thoughts and the interpretation of your story—all of it done through their amazing bodies. How extraordinary to think that those limbs are a tool and the rich tones of their voices make your words sound like poetry. If I was born in an earlier time, I am sure that I would have been a company writer for a repertory.

I fall in love with actors all the time. Not literally, because, hey, they are “actors” after all, and post your play, they have to move on, whether you like it or not. But for the moment, they are in my heart in such a deep and profound way. I listen to the rhythm of their voices, the cadences that are uniquely their own. Mostly I am looking for the authenticity of their character (not the one they are playing) and trying to write towards that tremendous strength.

On the actor level, Washington, DC has been a great love affair for me. Some of these artists I had known through seeing or hearing about their work. The director Lisa Peterson had told me that J.J. (Creon) was a special actor indeed. Natural and free on stage—she is right. Mando (Coro) is a talented playwright in his own right, whose production at the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater in New York I had heard good things about. David (Laius) is one of those celebrated New York LAByrinth Theatre actors with a body of work that I am in awe of. Gerard (Tiresias) is the local that is new to me, but he is lovely, funny, and a great conversationalist. I saw Andres (Oedipus) in a play by the great Naomi Iizuka where he played Orestes, and I was blown away by his tremendous talent. Jaime is new to me and yet we have had a series of conversations about art and journey that have given me so much hope. I love these guys. They feel like a band of older and younger brothers to me. As for the only female in the company, Romi Diaz, I am in total artistic crush with. Romi and I have already had a journey with Jocasta because she essayed the role in San Francisco. She not only makes me want to write—I am impassioned to think of all the roles I want to create for her.

The director, Michael Garcés is an actor, too. We have known each other for a long time. He is a great colleague, friend, and a fellow Angeleno who runs one of the most important community-based theatre companies in the US—Cornerstone Theater Company. But he’s also more than that. On a play, he is my confidant, my hand-holder, the interpreter of my vulnerability. And what’s really special about him is that he a great director. He brings himself into the work. If you read the script and then see the play, you know what he brings to the experience. When I look over during previews and he is going spastic watching something on stage, he is sharing it with me in a way that is profound, but also weirdly personal and shared at the same time.

So, how is the journey of this play different from the Getty Villa in Malibu, the Magic Theatre in San Francisco, or the Boston Court Theatre in Los Angeles? Well, this is a version of the play that has benefitted from watching things move in space and reaped the benefit of some wonderful actors who have handed over to me a bundle of emotions and ideas that I had not quite considered in this piece before.

It helps that the Artistic Director, “The Shalwitz”, (as he will be called), and dramaturgs that include John Baker and a fun focused staff make it all seem like a place you want to live in.

So, what about Washington itself? I love this city. We’ve just started dating, so it’s complicated. I’ve been doing these residencies across the country, some a year long, some shorter, and each city blooms beautiful colors and unwittingly reveals other shades as well. This is a racially complex city. It’s a rich and poor city as well. It’s obviously very politicized. I can feel it on the long walk from my rented apartment up in the U Street/Cardoza neighborhood all the way down to Woolly at 6th & D Streets. I’ve loved taking the Metro to work every day, because the beautiful faces of the city are as extraordinary as the history and the buildings themselves. I’ve been humbled to visit the universities here and I can see that it is also a city for the young and the old. Maybe, from the outsider’s perspective, a city that is wrestling with change (gentrification) and tradition, is what I am very conscious of.

The monuments are great, but one late Monday night, Michael Garcés and I were looking for a place to have a beer and nothing was open. We gave up and got on the Metro. Getting off in our neighborhood, we came across this Central American/Mexican place called El Paraiso. Michael leans his head in and asks what time they close. He says 2 am. Yay! We sit down for a Modelo and some pupusas, and suddenly we are in every city in America. We are at home.

~Luis Alfaro, Playwright

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Glossary of Spanish Words & Phrases

Luis Alfaro’s Oedipus el Rey is certainly written for an English-speaking audience. But as a Chicano adaptation of the Greek classic, the play is peppered with Spanish words and phrases. The seamless combination of Spanish and English is an important part of the South Central LA culture that provides the backdrop for the play. Below are some basic Spanish words as well as some of the more colorful (to say the least!) phrases you might hear on stage.

an alleluia

religious, born-again Christian

asi

like that

baboso

stupid, a slobbering idiot

barrio

neighborhood

bendito

“simple soul”; blessed

botanica

a shop that sells herbs, charms, and other religious or spiritual items

bruja

witch

cabrón

bastard, son of a bitch (also a Billy goat)

carnal

buddy

chamaco

kid (male)

chi-chi

breast

chingada

a variation of chingado, meaning fucked up

chingon

bad-ass; big shot

chisme

a piece of gossip

chismoso

a gossip

cholo

Chicano male in “gang style”

chula

pretty one, beautiful

churros

strips of fried dough (like a donut)

como no!

of course (lit. how no?)

consejo

advice

cuidate!

but, take care of yourself!

curandero

healer

entonces

then, anyway

ese

what you call your close friend, something like dude or homeboy (used mostly by Chicanos in Southern California)

eso

that, exactly

feliz

happy

la gente

the people

hermano/a

brother/sister

hijo

son

hueseros

bonesetter

huesos

bones

huevon

lazy-ass, stupid

jefe

boss, chief

joven

young man

limpia

cleansing

miedo

fear

mierda

shit

mistico

mystic

mocoso

snot-nosed kid (masculine)

negocios

business

novela

soap opera

ojos

eyes

oye

Hey! literally it means ‘listen’ or ‘to hear’

pendejo

idiot, dumb ass

pinché

fucking (as an adjective curse, not as in sex) also worthless

pleito

argument

puta/puto

whore

rabia

rage

el sobador

uncertified chiropractor/masseuse

tecolote

owl

vato

homeboy

viejo/vieja

old man/woman

ya callate

shut up (NOW)!

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Whitney Louchheim & Penelope Spain on Mentoring Newly-Released DC Youth

In 2005, Whitney T. Louchheim and Penelope J. Spain founded Mentoring Today, a DC-based organization that serves youth both before and after they are released from incarceration to support their successful reintegration into their families and community. Mentoring Today’s advocates and mentors help youth with critical issues such as education, employment, and housing as they enter adulthood. Through these comprehensive, client-centered services, Mentoring Today strives to improve the juvenile justice system and empower young people to recognize their dreams and realize their aspirations. A few weeks ago, Oedipus el Rey’s Production Dramaturg, John M. Baker, and Woolly’s Connectivity Director, Rachel Grossman, had the opportunity to sit down with Whitney and Penelope.

Can you give us an overview of Mentoring Today’s goals and history?

Penelope Spain: Generally speaking, we serve youth who are transitioning out of juvenile incarceration back into the DC community. We pair youth with volunteer mentors about 4-5 months before they are released. We help their mentors build a relationship of trust and build goals as they are transitioning back into DC, and continue to support those goals.

What we do is target the youth who are most at risk of entering the adult criminal justice system, typically 17- or 18-years olds who are repeat, violent, high-risk offenders. It’s a voluntary program; they have to say they actually want to be a part of it.

Whitney and I are also defense attorneys on the side. We represent kids in the delinquency court in DC. These are younger, lower-level offenders, but that really helps us see the whole array of kids just entering the juvenile justice system—all the way to those who, unfortunately, do re-offend and are sent out to Federal Bureau of Prisons facilities all over the country, and come back after that.

We started as an organization when Whitney and I were still in law school. In 2005 we got non-profit status, and in 2006 we took on our first group of kids. We actually took our first group of kids before we had any funding. It was a very scary and risky moment because funders didn’t want to support our work until they could see not what we were going to do, but what we were already doing.

Our first office was literally in a closet in a community center in Northeast DC. It had no heat, no air conditioning, and no windows. It was located right next to the largest open-air heroin market in DC. We would literally be escorted in and out of the building by some of the dealers. So we earned our street cred, and people—including our kids—would come and look at us and wonder what we were doing.

Eventually, we got off the ground, and were able to serve a greater number of youth, and hire more staff. But with the current economic environment, that expanded model wasn’t as sustainable.

Have you also seen the current economic environment impact the youth with whom you’re working?

Whitney Louchheim: Unemployment is definitely becoming a bigger and bigger problem, though I have to say it was already a huge problem. I feel it’s gotten worse, but I don’t think we’re seeing the huge impact that other people in the country are talking about. I just feel like it went from really bad to even worse.

PS: Even east of the Anacostia River, they say that there’s a 30% unemployment rate. When you actually look at the real unemployment levels—who has stopped working and who is not even on the radar—I would say it’s upwards of 50-60%. All of the youth we serve are boys, and there are so few father figures, or men in their community, especially ones who are working.

We had one young man who, prior to getting locked up, had been working three jobs at a time. He was die-hard. This was back in 2005 and 2006. Then he got a felony record, and he came out. He had gotten his GED while he was locked up. He read the dictionary, we sent him books galore, and he really came back a better educated and more determined young person. I think it took him about nine months to find his first job, and it was through a government program. Eventually, once he had a job, he could transition into other, better employment, but for our kids coming back from either the juvenile or the adult criminal system, just getting that first job—it’s next to impossible. Not only can they not find work, but they also quickly lose hope. At some point, they just give up. What are their other options?

Besides employment, where else do ex-offenders find hope?

PS: I think that’s where mentoring comes into play. We’re trying to shore up the young person’s sense of hope. And, to be quite honest, providing the young person with some of the most basic connections.

WL: Meaning even a phone. They can come in and use our phones. They can come in and use our internet. They can make copies of things. That’s a really huge thing for them to be able to have. It sounds basic, but it’s not out there.

Also, positive role modeling. Over the years, it’s been striking to me how our kids have no real models. Getting up in the morning everyday and going to work—that’s not a concept that really exists in their histories. So, we often try to give our kids internships in our own office to give them a sense of office culture, telling them they have to be here, and they have to be here at a certain time. When we work to get them jobs at other places, we tell them what they have to wear, tell them to call if they’re going to be late. But it takes a long time for that to sink in. It’s not at all obvious to them what you have to do to get a job. Often, even when our kids do get jobs, they quickly lose them because they don’t really get certain protocols to keep a job.

In DC, what’s the impact of incarceration on family solidarity?

WL: One of our kids just returned to his neighborhood, and he realized all of the other males had been locked up. So, he found himself surrounded by single mothers and their kids.

PS: We see so few fathers who are really engaged. And a lot of people who we serve have children, or while they’re in our program have their first child.

WL: I would conservatively guess at least half of our kids were, at some moment in their lives, in the child welfare system.

PS: And we see a lot of women–by the time their child comes to our program–whose children have been in and out of the juvenile justice system for five years or more, usually.

PS: So, sometimes, even though these kids are only 16 or 17-years-old, their caregivers have already checked out or given up. They just think, “You know, life is a lot easier when he’s locked up.”

WL: And these caregivers don’t have just one child. They have four other younger kids in the house. And they don’t want those kids going down that same road.

Do you see gangs acting as surrogate families in DC?

PS: Most of the kids we engage with are not involved with a formal gang. But certainly, neighborhood crews become family. Whitney mentioned the guy who came back to his neighborhood where all of the other males were gone. That has an impact. Even if our kids have lived in Northwest for the last five years, they’re still going to say they’re from Barry Farms, over in Southeast. That is where their “family” is, where their heart is. I think Mentoring Today tries to, in a way, redefine what that quasi-family is.

WL: And loyalty, and camaraderie. We definitely see the guys have an intense sense of loyalty and honor, and they connect it to a neighborhood. We praise that loyalty and that honor and that desire to be part of something—because those are good values. And we encourage the guys to put those values into better action. We want them to feel that it’s good to think that way, but we just don’t want it to go in the wrong direction.

PS: Unfortunately, so many people from their community have been locked up, that there is no longer a stigma. In many cases, I think they see being locked up as a rite of passage. That makes you a man. That’s where their friends are. That’s where their buddies are. Unfortunately—and this is rare—but we do see kids trying to get locked up again. I don’t know if they’re fully aware of it.

WL: Or if they would ever admit to it.

PS: But that’s where their friends are: locked up. And that’s where they know how to survive on a daily basis.

WL: It’s also where they know they can get three meals a day. In a very real way, we’ve definitely had kids tell us that either they don’t want to leave a juvenile facility, or that they’re trying to get back, because of the stability of having a bed to sleep in and three meals a day. That is scary but true. That happens sometimes, which is a horrible thing to think about.

For more information about Mentoring Today, visit http://www.mentoringtoday.org.

~John M. Baker, Production Dramaturg and Literary Manager

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