January 11–18, 2001

cover story|second season arts preview

Offstage Presence


On top of the theatrical world: PTC dramaturg Michele Volansky.

What’s a dramaturg do? More than meets the eyes.

by Cary M. Mazer

There’s a new trend in Philadelphia theaters. But it’s okay if you haven’t noticed: Michele Volansky, Carrie Ryan, Larry Loebell, Shannon O’Donnell, Leslie Hempling and others wouldn’t want you to.

The trend is dramaturgy. For many years, more and more local professional theater companies have been using dramaturgs on individual productions, and in recent years more and more companies have been hiring dramaturgs on their permanent staffs. And while what dramaturgs do affects every aspect of theatrical production, their work is designed not to be noticed. Like Elmer’s Glue-All, it’s invisible when it’s working; you only notice it when you haven’t used enough and things start to fall apart.

Dramaturgs are the official smarty-pants kibitzers in the theatrical process. If your company does new plays, a dramaturg (in this function often called a "literary manager") helps find the script, helps the theater award commissions, reads unsolicited manuscripts and works with the playwright through a development process which might include a sequence of script-in-hand readings and workshop productions. If your company does foreign-language plays, a dramaturg will help you select a translation, commission a new one or make one afresh. If you’re doing a play, say, set in a historical period, a dramaturg (in this function called a "production dramaturg") will help the actors, director and designers research the social and material context of the world that the characters inhabit. And if the audience needs to know any of these things, the dramaturg gets the word out, through program notes, lobby displays, subscriber newsletters and pre- and post-performance discussions.

Some dramaturgs set their sights on other types of theater work. One-time part-time dramaturg at the Wilma Theater Mark Lord, and freelance dramaturg Harriet Power, who make their livings as college professors (at Bryn Mawr and Villanova, respectively), are principally stage directors. Michael Hollinger, literary manager for the now-defunct Philadelphia Festival Theater for New Plays and later part-time dramaturg at the Wilma, is now making it as a playwright. And theater scholar Lee Devin, unofficial mentor to virtually all of the region’s working dramaturgs, chaired the theater program at Swarthmore for decades while building a team of dramaturgs at People’s Light & Theatre Company.

But Haddon Township native Michele Volansky, the newly-hired dramaturg for the Philadelphia Theatre Company, knew she wanted to be a dramaturg and nothing but a dramaturg ever since she studied theater at Washington College in Maryland. First she returned to Philadelphia to study dramaturgy for her master’s at Villanova under then-professor Geoffrey Proehl. Then she was off to Kentucky, for a yearlong dramaturgy internship and two more years as assistant dramaturg at the Actors Theatre of Louisville, a theater noted for its annual Humana Festival of New American Plays.

Fifty-or-so productions later, Volansky was off to Chicago to become the first full-time dramaturg for the Steppenwolf Theatre Company. Two days into her job, barely unpacked in her new apartment, Volansky was sitting in a room with playwright Sam Shepard, who wanted her to help him rewrite his Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Buried Child, for a production directed by Steppenwolf co-founder Gary Sinise.

Now, five years and 75-or-so Steppenwolf productions later, Volansky is back in Philadelphia, working as full-time dramaturg at the Philadelphia Theatre Company for Producing Artistic Director Sara Garonzik, who had given her her first professional internship back in the Villanova days. PTC hadn’t had a full-time dramaturg on staff since Lynn Thomson held the position in the early ’90s. (Thomson later came to public attention when she sued the estate of playwright-composer Jonathan Larson for a percentage of the royalties of Rent, which she had dramaturged.) Now, for the theater’s 25th-anniversary season, Garonzik wanted a full-time staffer to reconnect the theater to the national new-play circuit.

Volansky jumped at the opportunity. Steppenwolf had more than tripled its budget and the number of productions it presents annually in the five years that Volansky worked for them. Now, back at PTC, she has only five productions a year to look after, and so she has time to concentrate on what she likes doing best: everything.

When she’s not identifying and maintaining relationships with new writers, when she’s not writing program notes and the subscriber newsletter and when she’s not leading post-performance discussions, Volansky sits in on casting meetings and helps write grant proposals. And this still gives her the time to be where she’s really needed: in the rehearsal hall, with the director and the actors, helping them solve problems.

"A good dramaturg is a sideline coach and an amazing Monday-morning quarterback," Volansky observed, drawing upon the avid professional-sports-fan vocabulary that had enabled her to earn Sam Shepard’s trust.

The Wilma Theater’s dramaturg Carrie Ryan (only the second dramaturg to work full time for the theater) wrote and directed a play for her senior thesis at Princeton. But when she went for an MFA in Dramaturgy and Dramatic Criticism at Columbia, she discovered that there was a job for her in theater that would allow her to do analysis and research and be creative at the same time. After two years in a dramaturgy internship at Seattle Rep, she came to Philadelphia just as the Wilma was settling into their new theater.

And just as Volansky got socked in the face with rewrites of Buried Child at Steppenwolf, Ryan faced the daunting task of dramaturging Tom Stoppard’s The Invention of Love in her first season at the Wilma. The director and the cast needed to learn about 19th-century Oxford, Greek and Latin poetry and translation, the Oscar Wilde trials and Victorian anti-sodomy laws. And Ryan had the daunting task of letting the audience know what they had to know about these topics, while not scaring them out of coming to the theater in the first place.

Now about half of Ryan’s time is spent in production dramaturgy, preparing the subscriber newsletter, running post-performance discussions and giving and taking notes at rehearsals. And half of her time is spent in literary management, working on the theater’s new commissions.

InterAct Theatre Company’s literary manager Larry Loebell was working in film and media, with an MFA from Temple, without a clue about what dramaturgs do, when, in 1987, his old friend Marjorie Samoff of the American Music Theater Festival (now the Prince Music Theater) invited him to be the semi-official play-doctor for a new Faust-story musical Stauf, co-produced with PTC. Ten years later — several years after writing a short one-act produced by Theater Ariel, and coming off of a four-year contract producing a television program about public education in New Jersey — the West Oak Lane native had a networking lunch with PTC’s Garonzik, who suggested he talk to InterAct founder and Artistic Director Seth Rozin. By the time the lunch with Rozin was over, Loebell was offering his services as literary manager for a year at no pay.

Fortunately for Loebell, and fortunately for InterAct, the theater was just then beginning to spread its wings, adding paid staffers, and had just become a founding member of a 12-theater National New Play Network. Now Loebell is on salary ("not quite full time," he observed, "at least not yet"). Loebell develops scripts, works with new playwrights, is working with several commissions (including local playwrights Marian X and Joseph Sorrentino), does production dramaturgy and is planning a National Festival of New Plays at InterAct for 2002.

Some theaters are starting to concentrate their dramaturgical activities in a single person. But as Lee Devin observes, "dramaturgy isn’t a job, it’s a function." And after years of relying on Devin and a series of jobbed-in guest dramaturgs, People’s Light & Theatre has begun to distribute the dramaturg’s range of functions among a team of company members. Devin has taken the title "consulting dramaturg," and holds a weekly seminar for company members, staff and crew on world drama. Artistic Director Abigail Adams hired as her assistant Shannon O’Donnell, a colleague of Ryan’s at the Seattle Rep, and a former student of Geoffrey Proehl (who had moved from Villanova to the University of Puget Sound). O’Donnell and Project Discovery Production Manager Leslie Hempling work as production dramaturgs. (O’Donnell recently returned from a trip to Lebanon, MO with Adams, designer James F. Pyne, Jr., and actor Leonard Haas, researching Adams’ spring production of Lanford Wilson’s Book of Days.) Resident acting company member Alda Cortese continues as literary manager; and resident acting company member Mary Elizabeth Scallen, who had served as Cortese’s assistant in the literary department, now works as "communications writer," preparing the programs and getting the word out about the productions and their literary, theatrical and historical context.

That People’s Light has moved from an individual to a team of dramaturgs reflects the theater’s structure as a resident company, a collection of individuals, many with full- or part-time salaries as "theater artisans" in addition to their artistic duties as actors, who share a collective sense of their theater’s mission. For companies like the Philadelphia Theatre Company, the dramaturg is the one person who can remind the public of what the company’s mission is, which is why Volansky spends as much time writing grant proposals as writing program notes.

"You’ve got to believe in the mission," observed Volansky. "When you stop believing in it, it’s time to move on."

And as for audiences not noticing that a dramaturg has been at work, Volansky, for one, doesn’t seem to mind: "I’ve got my grubby paws over everything."


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