Confessions of a Dramaturg or Atlanta Gothic, Part Two — Confessions of a Dramaturg , Jaz Dorsey — AAPEX

Monday, March 12, 2012

Confessions of a Dramaturg or Atlanta Gothic, Part Two

Thirty four years ago I was a fairly happy fellow, in a wonderful relationship with a home, a dog, a job as a librarian at The University of North Carolina and a newly earned degree from UNC- Chapel Hill in International Studies - something of a surprise to myself and my family, as I had graduated high school from a North Carolina state mental institution, where my mother had put me when it was clear that I was determined to "grow up to be an actor."

I also had a mentor.

His name was Richard Thomas Pike and at the time our relationship began, he was the head of the theatrical design curriculum at Chapel Hill- though he was shortly to transfer to Virginia Common- wealth University.

When I had gotten into Chapel Hill, the three years of institutionalization had had somewhat the desired effect and I hadn't taken a single theatre course of any kind - up until my very last semester when, figuring that no one was looking, I took Rick's Theatre History course. However, almost all of my German, French and English classes had focused on dramatic literature and during my year of study on scholarship at the University of Göttingen in West Germany, I had had many friends - including a couple of dramaturgs - in theatres around Germany.

Two weeks into the course, Rick took me aside, told me I was a dramaturg and hired me as his assistant. I was 25 years old.

My first assignment was to dramaturg the heraldry for RICHARD III.

I went to the library and found an awesome book called SHAKESPEARE'S HERALDRY, did tracings of the relevant material and took them back to Rick, who, for a minute, thought I was some kind of genius. Then I showed him the book.

The next thing I knew, we were sitting in the Gramercy Park hotel in NYC and running around the garment district buying materials for the costumes for a production of RICHARD III at the Asolo Theatre in Florida. Not long after that we were on the Army base in Ft. Bragg, NC, building the set for an Army production of CAROUSEL.

That fall, Rick transferred to Theatre VCU, at that time under the Chairmanship of Dr. Kenneth Campbell. The department had decided to create a graduate dramaturgy program, but there was a problem - no students. They needed at least one to keep the program from folding. I fit the bill, so in spite of all my family's efforts to keep me from going there, I suddenly embarked on what has proved to be an exciting but also extremely disturbing career path in the theatre - as a dramaturg. Disturbing because of (sorry, there is no other word) all the bullshit that plagues the American theatre, including some very evil people. For some disturbing reason, these are also frequently among the most successful people.

This is where I think that the 3 years in the nuthouse actually served me well - I was used to the society of lunatics and sociopaths, but in the context of group therapy, which equipped me
with some of the skills needed to identify and protect myself against them.

34 years later, as I stop and assess where this journey has taken me, I find that only about 25% of my time and career have been devoted to tasks that fit the dramaturgical profile - doing production research and working with playwrights - and in those roles I have never been paid. My 2 actual paying theatre jobs - a brief stint as the assistant to the directors at the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta in 1980 and seven years as production manager in the NYC offices of Biggs Rosati Productions, 1990 - 1997 - were not dramaturgical positions per se.

The truth is, there are very few paying jobs for dramaturgs and quite frankly I do not have the temperament to sit in a corner and take a back seat to anyone, which is pretty much what dramaturgs are - or have been - expected to do. So I have spent most of the past 34 years doing what you might call "pro bono" work from setting up an Actors' Reading Room at The Atlanta Public Library in 1981 ( a dismal failure) to founding The African American Playwrights Exchange in 2007 to coordinating a new play reading series for the Metro Nashville Parks Theatre Department, which kicked off in September of 2011.

In the course of all this, I have served "as" many different things.
These include:

Audience Development Adviser
Acting Coach
Vocal Coach
Fund Raiser
Film Festival Administrator
Casting Director
Set & Costume Designer

I don't for a minute think that this inventory of dramaturgical roles is unique to me; in fact, I'm pretty sure that diversification of this kind is one of the trademarks of dramaturgy.

Over the past 30 years, the dramaturgical presence has grown tremendously in North America. There is a wonderful professional organization known as the LMDA - - which connects dramaturgs and literary managers from all parts of the continent, and these days having a dramaturg on board is a source of pride and prestige.

But people can still look at you funny when you use the word dramaturg, and I've been subjected to some interesting permutations of the word, from "drama-turkey" to, well, use your imagination.

Still, I think the dramaturg is here to stay.

Jaz Dorsey
The Nashville Dramaturgy Project

Come to Nashville and Go to the Theatre.

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