Overshadowed Theatrical Productions recently completed their fall production “Twelve Angry Men” and “Twelve Angry Women” Yes, you read correctly. We did both versions of this famous play. It was an experiment in marketing as well as acting and directing.
Before I begin talking about that experiment, let me share some thoughts about the play in general.
I was very surprised about the number of our audience members who had never seen this play or the MOVIE! I have always considered this work a classic and a favorite for many film lovers and also high schools. It has become a way to teach the importance of civic responsibility, bias, and that prejudice comes in many forms.
Reginald Rose wrote the original play for the CBS series, “Studio One,” and it aired on September 20, 1954. He says it was based, to a certain extent, on his own experiences as a juror,. He also said that it reflected a time when standing up for your constitutional rights could get you in trouble.
Afterwards, the teleplay was adapted into a film. Although it did not win, “Twelve Angry Men” was nominated for three Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Direction, and Best Screenplay based on mate- rial from another medium.
The real award is that Rose has written something that is lasting. It speaks across generations and racial divides. It makes one think of their own prejudices and the need for jurors who will serve with a moral responsibility. Our audiences sat on the edge of their seats most nights. We had fabulous conversations each night and many audiences members came back the following weekend to see if it made any difference if the cast was all male or all female.
Ticket sales weren’t what we wanted.
But if our goal is to give the audience a night of entertainment that moves them and inspires them–then we definitely succeeded.
My learning curve for social media has been much slower than most people’s.
I started off being afraid of it because I was taught not to trust all the people that were getting information about me.
Then I was afraid no one would ask to be my “friend” or “follow me.”
It wasn’t until way down the line that I realized it was okay to just be who I am and spread my message to the people who want it.
Even if it is only one person.
During the shut down this past year I tried to learn and follow the suggestions of countless mentors and advisors.
1) Start a blog.
2) Have a personal Instagram account as well as a business account. (reba.hervas)
3) Start a personal YouTube account.
Because Reba is different that Overshadowed. Yes, there is a merge most of the time, but advisors teach that it is important for me to have my own name recognition in order to have another road that leads to Overshadowed.
But again, I was advised to not be discouraged by what we have done, but to constantly strive to be better the next time. (Which fits in with our mission at Overshadowed) I think we’ve done that and I’m happy that we are finding our rhythm. Hopefully, we will continue to grow.
Now, I was advised again, who are you?Why should people watch this? What are you all about and why do people need to subscribe to your channel?
Mr. Perry, thank you for investing your love of drama in hundred’s of students at Kinston High School. Thank you, for noticing a student like me and introducing me to a world of theater. To Mr. Unknown Tech, thank you for your life-changing words of wisdom.
To all of you: Remember, your speech is a valuable gift. Use it wisely. Be empowered by the unique gift that you have been given. You are truly blessed.
If you want to thank a speech teacher somewhere you can start by following my blog and my YouTube channel and I’d love it if you’d share this message as well!
Until next time, this is just me talking to you from the wings.
When Overshadowed first opened its doors sixteen years ago we started with a Christian play I had adapted from a novel “Silent Star“. It was a hard hitting, dramatic, cry your eyes out- kind of play with the gospel message strong within it. Why? Why would I start a brand new theater company with something like that instead of a light funny, everyone leave smiling -kind of show?
The very mission of what Overshadowed is- calls to BOTH types of plays. I wanted to declare boldly that I would never shy away from a play that would bring you to your knees even though much of what we do includes the feel good stories.
Twelve years ago we performed Noah! for the first time and it instantly became a show that people talked about and requested over and over. In fact, when our ten year anniversary came around I asked our audiences to pick the season by vote and Noah! came in second….but barely.
So, in 2019 when I was picking the season for 2020, I decided it was time to mount this production again. Who knew that it would tell the story of the first quarantine and reach the depths of our hearts because of the year we recently had?
Well, God did. He is the author, planner, sustainer, comforter and guide. It was the perfect choice.
Noah! has now become the longest running show Overshadowed has done. Not most attended (Because we are limited to 50 audience member still.) But, we have now scheduled 26 shows and we will add more if we sell Easter weekend out. Did I mention this show would be a fantastic show to see Easter weekend?
Recently, I wrote about the set design of Noah! You may read that post here:
A great production requires more than a great story, fabulous actors and an amazing set. It also requires a fantastic costume design. Since Overshadowed began, our philosophy has been that we might not have a real stage, or all of the bells and whistles of a professional theater, but that within our power we would make the production elements that we could afford be fabulous. Costumes became the element that we consistently spent more money and time on. We had super talented people who poured their hearts and souls into some pretty fantastic pieces. We knew that one choice alone would set us apart from other theaters close to us. We wanted to “look” professional and we knew that “clothes make the man” or in this case–the character.
It is amazing to me how often an actor really cements his character once he puts those costumes on. It is indeed the “finishing touch.” Perhaps it is the most important touch.
I had the chance to interview Debra Schott and Margaret Sahli for this week’s episode of From the Wings. I love their vision and can’t wait for you to hear what this process has been like for them.
This week I looked out over an audience of only 38 people. We are allowed 50, but Illinois had a huge snow storm and some of our audience decided not to come.
I always stand in the corner of the balcony at curtain call and glance over to see the audience’s reactions. Will they give the cast a standing ovation? Will they grudgingly stand or enthusiastically reward the cast for their performances? Were they moved by the performances or bored silly?
This past Saturday the cast of Noah! finished the first part of an extended run. We had performed for three weeks. We will now take three weeks off and then come back ready to perform again. Covid restrictions has reduced us from allowing 198 audience members to only 50. It is really empty in there.
(Photo by Francisco Montes)
This show is emotional and tiring and these eight characters give it their all. In fact, so does the technical crew, stage crew, box office and front of the house. So when I saw the audience enthusiastically stand to applaud, I was thrilled. We all worked as hard for 38 people as we would have for 198.
I felt a little badly for them. As an actor, director, we all want sold out, full houses. It is so quiet in the theater with such a small house.
Don’t get me wrong! We are super thrilled to be able to perform! But, what would it be like if night after night we could have the audience of 198? It might not change the performance, but would it change us?
Acting involves a great deal of collaboration from many people. As you build/create your characters you also build/create a relationship with the other cast members. The costumes add a layer to your performance as the hair/make-up and tech also does. Live theater is important because you must be FULLY PRESENT with another group of FULLY PRESENT people to truly be authentic. And especially after this past year, I believe that live theater is not only good and enjoyable, but also necessary for the human spirit.
Theater reminds us that we are not alone. We share each experience with the audience and actors. We connect. Actors and audience agree for a time period that we will take a journey together. Perhaps we will laugh, perhaps cry, but we will do it together.
Live theater is never the same. The script is the same and the actors are consistent. But acting is reacting so if one actor has a little different emotion or reaction it might cause the next actor to react differently. It is a unique experience each night.
Live theater allows us to forget, laugh, weep and many other emotions. For just a brief moment in time we are insulated and can forget the troubles of our days and lives.
So why do we do theater?
Because we want to be that person that can share that experience with a room of strangers. I heard recently that audience’s hearts beat together as one. I’m not sure how that was proven, but if it is indeed true it is a beautiful thought. We are sharing a moment that is so unique that will never be the same. We also want to be that performer that makes the woes of the world disappear.
If that is true, then changing even one person’s life is worth it all.
Large audiences might be a rush, but there is an intimacy in a smaller one. The person is the same. Let’s connect. Let’s take this journey together.
Why do you do theater? How do you feel about performing for small audiences? How does it make you as an audience member feel?
I’ll never forget my first live theater experience.
My aunt took me to see Showboat at the local high school. As I sat in the audience I was completely drawn in by the sounds of the orchestra tuning. I felt the excitement of the parents and friends as they were ushered to their seats and I was entirely a part of the story as the dancers, actors, and singers performed.
There was more that I didn’t see. I didn’t see the people who designed and constructed the set , costumes, light, sound. I didn’t see the people who moved the set and props to make sure each scene was staged perfectly.
That’s true of so many of us. Do you believe you have to choose between either being on the stage or behind the scenes?
I’d like to encourage you to do both. What can you learn by working in some other capacity of the theater?
1) You get to watch as the actors work. You can learn from the experience others are gaining. Also experiencing the show from off stage sometimes gives clarifying moments of the element of storytelling that you might miss when you are focused on your own acting on stage.
2) You learn about all the jobs and responsibilities of the production crew. Work on the sound or light crew and you will understand why it is important to take mic checks seriously. Or work a long tech rehearsal and you will see why it is so important to be quiet when asked or be serious to get the job done.
3) You learn to respect others. You learn why it is important not to touch other props or to put yours back where it belongs. You learn that it is important to respect the people who do so much for you backstage. Maybe it will remind you to say thank you to each of them.
4) You will make new connections. Collaboration is one of my favorite aspects of theater. Making new connections is a benefit.
5) You might learn new skills. Not everyone comes into theater knowing how to sew or work tech, but be involved with these super talented people might give you the chance to learn and who knows maybe you will end up using that new skill in your life. Your focus might be acting, but there is creativity to learn from everywhere.
6) You get to see the show from a different perspective. When you see the show night after night you hear when people say a line a different way. I actually have people that don’t get certain jokes at first, but after hearing something over and over they begin to understand the humor! You see how the other elements (such as lighting) either aids the story or distracts from it.
Recently, I asked several of Overshadowed’s favorite actors/volunteers to share their experiences from a backstage perspective.
If you haven’t spent any time working in an area behind the scenes I hope you will find a place to help out. Here are just a few of the skills I think you will gain:
1) Concentration 2) Organizational skills 3) Confidence 4) Problem solving
The benefit? All of those skills help you ON-STAGE as well.
What are your favorite parts of theater? I’d love to hear from you!
As always, a special shout out to Brianna Valentine, Rebecca Leland and Yohannan Lee for their wisdom, talent and time spent to make this video!
Until next time-this is just me-talking to you-from the wings.
When the clock tolled to ring in 2020 I would have told you that I was very happy with what the year was probably going to look like. Overshadowed had grown. We had a new group of volunteers. We made changes to have some of our newer volunteers take ownership in areas that we consider ministry. I had become a better planner and marketeer. We had a record number of season ticket holders and a fantastic season planned. In short, we had met every one of our goals for the year!
And then COVID. (I know. You are sick of hearing me say that, but honestly I have no other words.)
When COVID shut us down I went through almost depression. I lost my focus. I honestly didn’t have any idea what God wanted me to do.
Slowly, I started to use the time to LEARN. I joined Ken Davenport’s THE THEATER MAKERS. I took an instagram class (Not quite finished with that yet.) And I attended (Virtually) a Writer’s convention (She Writes For Him). All of this was life-changing for me. It sharpened my focus and gave me a little drive to put things into place so that I can be a better leader when we fully open again.
The most important lesson I learned? My voice hasn’t been silenced. I may not get to act/direct right now, but whether I write an email or a blog post…it is still my voice. God gave me lessons and stories–I should share them.
Lesson Two. I’m behind social media wise. I knew that of course, but if I want people to hear me I was told I have to catch up. So. I was encouraged to start a You Tube Channel. This was a big jump for me, but a group of very inspirational people gave me some great advice. Here’s hoping that together we can create content that will inspire others. By the way, it will really help me if you become a subscriber. At present, From the Wings doesn’t even show up in a search. Help!
My blog will still be once a week. My YouTube will probably be more like once a month. Today’s blog contains the first video. As an actor it is important to know the purpose of the spotlight, but are there dangers that you can avoid?
I hope you will support me in this new venture! Please make sure you become a subscriber! If there are topics you’d like to hear us explore please let me know!
I’d like to give a special thanks to Aaron Brewster and Abby Wilken for creative wisdom. I’d like to thank Yohannan Lee for his design of my new logo and for his help and artistic wisdom in getting everything set up. I’d like to thank Mike Larsen and Rebecca Leland for their support in lighting and recording. I’d like to give special thanks to Brianna Valentine for her leadership, organization, and direction and editing. I am so fortunate to have an incredible team.
As always the more you talk about what we have going on here-the more other people will hear.
One of the most common phrases you will hear when you are acting is “Live in the moment.”
It is a command I’ve given as a director and one I’ve received as an actor. I have experienced moments that I was truly connected to my character and connected to everything that was happening on stage and other moments that I was thinking about everything that was happening around me instead of “living” the moment that the character was living.
My most embarrassing moment came during a production of “The Christmas Wish” an Overshadowed original play that we obtained permission to create from a book with the same title. (We got the idea from a Hallmark movie that carried the same name.) I played the Grandmother. I was trying hard not to direct in my head-which is quite difficult for me since that is the area of theater in which I have the most confidence. I walked onto the stage through the door that represented the living room of my character’s house. As I began to say my lines I noticed that the desk hadn’t made it’s way entirely onto the stage and was in fact now half way behind the wall attached to the door I had just entered. My director head noticed and immediately I panicked. I completely stopped listening to the lines that my “grandson” was delivering as I thought about how I was going to get the diary out of that desk. Important, because that was what the play was about. I knew I couldn’t get it out by myself and I didn’t want to do something as unprofessional as move the wall to make the drawer accessible. All of I sudden I noticed that Tim, the other actor, had stopped talking. I looked up at him. He looked at me quizzically. I waited a beat and shrugged my shoulders. Hopefully signifying what I was thinking. “Help! I got nothing!” It must have worked because Tim started talking and covered for me.
That moment has haunted me for years.
I was living in my moment. Not my character’s.
Living in the moment takes an extraordinary amount of concentration. You can totally be in the zone and all of a sudden you become aware of the audience and “Snap!” you are no longer in the moment. It is a very bizarre idea this goal of living in the moment, but the more you think about it the more it takes you out of the moment.
So how can you fix this problem?
Concentration and relaxing exercises. Many beginning actors scoff at these exercises, but I find that the routine you establish is one of the most valuable practices you can have as an actor. We all have different areas that are more difficult to relax so you need to discover those for yourself and focus on those areas. For me, it is my neck and jaw. I need 15-30 mins before I go on stage. I start with relaxation exercises and work my whole body. Next, I listen to music that suits my character and begin to think, meditate, concentrate (Any of those that work for you) about my character. I try to really get into my head. Where is my character? What is she doing? All the things that lead me up to the moment I walk on stage.
Listen. Many times I see actors that say their line, wait for the other characters to talk. They then breathe and then say their next line. Instead, listen to what the other characters are saying. Focus on what they are doing. React. Living in the moment means that you don’t “prepare” to speak. Instead, you hear the line and then respond in truth to it.
Absorb your character and lines. As a director, I know that I am not going to really be able to push my cast until they know their lines. We discuss characters and blocking and relationships beforehand, but the real work comes when they start to commit everything to memory. Only then is the mind free to interpret. Before that it is struggling to learn, discover and remember. Magic is created when you know your lines so well that you don’t have to think about what comes next.
Some actors create from the outside in and others from the inside out. It doesn’t really matter what the process is as long as it is thorough and complete.
4. Don’t be mechanical. Some people prepare so much that they know exactly when they are going to gesture and how they will move. Some people get into such a rhythm that they always say each line exactly the same way. The danger in this is that you become a “rote’ character. You no longer “live in the moment” but instead you are just going through the motions instead of creating the motion yourself! I think that is my biggest struggle as an actor. I analyze constantly…”oh, I didn’t say that correctly” or “I wonder why the audience didn’t laugh at that” or a thousand other critiques. Concentrate on your character not on you!
Recently, I came across an article from an interview with Leslie Odom, Jr., who plays Aaron Burr, in Hamilton! In it he talks about the moment every night when Lin-Manuel Miranda, as Alexander Hamilton, hurled the insult that caused Burr to challenge Hamilton to a duel and ultimately, to kill him, simultaneously ending his own political career.
He said, “Every night, I’m looking for it in his eyes — I want him to make different decisions. I want it to end differently.”
That’s what it is all about. That is when you know you are completely in the zone. When you are so caught up in what your character is feeling that you actually want what your character wants, hope for it to be so, even though you know it can’t happen any other way.….welcome to “living in the moment.”
Did you like this article? I’d love to hear what you think or hear your acting stories!
I’d also love it if you’d follow me or share this article!
Acting doesn’t run in my family. Well, at least it didn’t. My grandfather and most of my relatives are great storytellers, but as far as I know my cousin David and I are the only ones that turned to any form of acting, or directing as a profession.
Then I had children and they did what I never had the courage to do when I was young. They auditioned and had part after part in grade school and high school. Two of them went on and had parts in college as well.
All three of my children ended up in the speech/communication field. They all three have settled in different areas, but the foundation of speech and rhetoric I believe is at their very core.
I never pushed them to love speech, but I’m very proud that they did.
As you already know, I firmly believe in the power of speech and that God gave us the ability to use that powerful gift. It is a gift we must use wisely.
Flash forward several years (Ok maybe more than several, but time goes by quickly) and now my oldest daughter has taught college level speech classes and poured her love of speech and drama into a new generation.
Then, seven years ago, God gave her a new responsibility and she decided to hang up the college teaching for teaching Logan, her first born son, and several years later, Lilia.
I immediately began to count the years reminding her with each passing one….”Only six more years and Logan can come to theater camp at Overshadowed.” To which Becca would smile at me and say, “Oh, Mom, I don’t know if he would ever be interested in that.”
Then, this week happened. Someone asked Becca if she thought that Lilia was old enough to carry off a part in a musical. We weren’t sure, but seeing as the play isn’t until next year and Lilia will be a little older–Becca decided to explain the process to Lilia. (Who will be 5 next month.) At first, Lilia was NOT interested. Then Becca explained to her how much she loved being on stage and about her first part when she was in Kindergarten! Lilia was hooked.
But then, this story gets amazing. As Becca would teach Lilia the song she would point out notes or words or things that could make the audition better. Lilia would respond, “Ok, mommy, let’s do it again! I want to make it good.”
Proud grandmother, and director here. I gotta tell you. That’s rare.
Oh, that she would stay young and innocent. May she always want to do a good job and not be afraid of the work it takes to get there. May she have a teachable spirit and not be proud and haughty.
It’s tough to stay like that in a field like this.
Mother and daughter worked for over an hour. Keep in mind, Lilia was learning, music and words and character. Then, it came time to send in the video audition. Becca had arranged for someone to come play the piano so that she could film, but the pianist forgot. So Becca had to figure out how to record the audition. In the end, she decided that Lilia would just need to sing it without the accompaniment.
After a few takes they decided on this one.
Well, you know how auditions go. You start telling yourself it’s ok if you don’t get the part. You tell yourself that you might not be right for it. You convince yourself that there is a lot of work involved and maybe it’s better if you don’t get it. We all thought all those things.
But then, we thought about how cute she was and how directable she was and found ourselves hoping, but understanding.
The process didn’t take long. The next day we knew that the director had decided to go with an older girl. When Becca went to tell Lilia she thought Lilia would be ok because she hadn’t really wanted to do it in the beginning. But, when you work hard at something……
Lilia was quite sad and responded, “I’m never going to get to be in a play.”
All this time Logan, the sweet brother that he is, watched and encouraged, and even suggested they get Lilia ice cream that night.
At the end. He said he might want to be in a play sometime too.
Well, that makes my heart really happy. So next year, I’m planning that they both come up for Overshadowed’s theater camp! Watch out, Illinois!
Here are my takeaways,
Auditions are hard. No matter how much you prepare yourself you just might not be what the director wanted. Try to learn from it and be better next time. (Even though you might not get that part either.)
You aren’t too young or too old. Get out there and try to do something you’ve always wanted to do, but maybe been afraid of. It’s ok. We are all rooting for you.
Auditions take work. Don’t just stand up and sing a song you don’t know. Work at it. Prepare. Make it better. You’ll be better for it.
Have confidence. Even if you didn’t have time to learn all the words. Sing it out and don’t make apologies for voice or time or anything. The casting panel has heard it all and starts to think of them as excuses.
Lastly, always do your best. Try to have fun and whatever happens enjoy the rest of your day.
By the way, when I went to college I had a tremendously thick Southern accent. For only the third time in my life I got up courage to audition. The University had a group called the Classic Players , a group that did only Shakespeare at school. I performed Lady MacBeth’s monologue . You know the one? “Out, Out damn spot.” Now say it again, with a thick accent.
I never heard back other than they didn’t need me, but my cousin, David, (the other one in my family that I mentioned earlier) was on the casting staff. Leave it to the ones you love to tell you the truth.
David said they all held it together as they said good-bye to me…then almost fell out of their chairs laughing.
When someone tells you a story like that is there any wonder why you wouldn’t audition again?
But listen….my God wanted more for me. He continued to mold me and put the desires of theatre in my heart and now…now I can encourage others and make sure they understand how valuable they really are. I think that’s why auditions are so hard for me. I understand the disappointment. I understand the pain. I truly feel bad that I don’t have the room to give everyone a part or the part they want.
Lilia, you are going to be amazing one day….maybe as a dancer, maybe a singer, maybe a mother, but whatever it is you are incredibly special.
Logan, the same goes for you. How kind and loving you are. Always take care of your sister, but know that you are special in your own way as well.
I can’t wait to direct both of you.
One other thing….there is one small payback issue…..
Becca was talking to Logan about my theater. Logan replied, “Well, she doesn’t do that anymore right?”
Becca said, “Well, yes, that’s what she does. She directs. Why?”
Logan said, “I thought she was too old.”
Just so you all know. You are never too young or too old. Get out there and do it!
I’d love to know about your auditions! I’m really trying to grow my readers so if you enjoyed this please follow me and spread the word! Thank you!
There once was a girl. This girl was afraid of everything. She had recurring nightmares that were so vivid and horrible that she would sit up in her bed at night and be afraid to close her eyes. Her parents didn’t allow her to watch anything frightening because her imagination was so great that any suggestion of horror would torment her for days.
This same girl would hide in the shadows. She secretly wanted to be involved, be popular, try out for teams but the fear of failure was too great. Although she would rehearse at home she refused to let anyone know the secret desires of her heart.
Then, her aunt took her to see her first play. This same girl realized that in acting she didn’t have to show people who she really was. She could gather the strengths that she needed to audition or volunteer to get involved. She reasoned with herself that if she was rejected, people weren’t reacting to her– they were rejecting the “character” she was presenting to be.
I’m not exactly sure how old I was when I put words into how I realized that no one really knew who I really was. In fact, I once teased that I was going to write a book about my life called, “The Me Nobody Knows.” I’ll never forget the look on my friend’s face when I verbalized that. I know she thought she knew me, but she only knew the “Reba” I let the world see.
I think that revelation doesn’t shock too many people any longer because I continue to tell people how insecure I used to be…and how insecure I am.
Why do I feel the need to tell people those facts about me?
I think there are a lot of people in the world just like me. I never knew it when I was younger. But life teaches you that most people aren’t exactly who or what they seem. I think even if you have the skills and confidence I didn’t….you might still need to learn a little from the artists that make up theater.
Theater changed my life.
Theater helped me gain confidence. Theater taught me life skills. Theater gave me some of the closest friends I have.
God used theater in my life to create a theater for Him. I boldly try to reclaim this art form for His glory.
(Those of you who have been reading my blog know what I’m going to say next,)
And then enter COVID.
I’m a little worried that in a world that the arts education is continually being eliminated from the educational system that theater/speech will once again be in danger of disappearing.
I recently learned of an organization. The Educational Theater Association. From what I understand this organization has spent the last months putting together a guide for schools that will help make sure theater in schools doesn’t disappear. They have thought through a whole host of questions and concerns and have pages to guide the teachers and schools. I am so thankful that the arts have people who advocate for them. If this is something you feel strongly about. Please share this organization with a teacher or school so that they can download the free guide. If you’d like to contact me I can give you a link for the guide.
This year thousands of students were unable to complete a normal year of studies. Many were unable to perform in productions in which they had spent many hours of preparation time.Experience lost.
And now what happens? Rumors are abounding about what happens to our students this fall. Will theater be back? Hopefully, people will lead the charge and express the importance of theater in the lives of their students.
I don’t know where I would be without it.
About ten years ago Overshadowed started taking interns for the summer months. A couple of months ago, I thought that this year we would have to say no to that help. I am happy to report, we have THREE this year. Three interns that we will learn from, but also, we will be able to have an impact on. Three interns I will never forget! How do I know this? Because I’ve had so many of you leave a special place in my heart.
Let the summer theater programs begin!!
Next week. Music Man thoughts!
I’d love to know what you think. Please leave me your comments or thoughts and don’t forget to share
I am so thrilled to introduce Nathan to all of you. Some of you may remember Nathan from a few year’s ago when we had the honor of having him at Overshadowed just for a few weeks before he returned home to get married. He made a lasting impression on us in just that short amount of time and I can’t wait for you to get to know his heart in this blog! Enjoy!
When Reba asked me if I would be a guest author on her blog, I must admit I felt both honored and nervous—happy to reconnect with Overshadowed, but also a tad afraid of the topic. She asked me a seemingly simple question: “What is a dramaturg?”
But the truth is there’s no official, textbook definition. The role can vary from show to show, company to company. Not to mention dramaturgs are often overlooked in America. But one thing is for sure—dramaturgs are the chameleons of the theatre. When involved, they enrich every single aspect of a production, even though their specific influence may be hard to define. In short, they are Content and Context experts. Their main responsibility? To ask 3 questions about every play they work on. And to answer them as thoroughly and collaboratively as possible.
Question 1: Why Then?
“How much is a guinea worth?” “Where did swing music come from?” “What were French fashions in 1834?” “What does this Shakespearean monologue mean, anyway? Can I cut it?” “Why was it like that back Then?”
Dramaturgs are tasked with answering countless historical questions for designers, directors, and actors alike. Mercifully, they usually join a production before any other member of the team (unless a playwright is involved). This gives them time to gather a wealth of information to share before any acting, design, and directorial choices are made. These findings are gathered into one large document called the Actor’s Packet. Typically, production team members get a copy during preliminary meetings, and actors receive it on the first night of rehearsal.Now you may be thinking: “Don’t the cast and crew do their own research?” And the answer is yes, they do (or should!). But by doing a lot of research ahead of time, dramaturgs help save them hours of work. But even more importantly is how dramaturgs offer insight into questions that aren’t quite so easily answered with a Google search:
“What’s with the scrims in The Glass Menagerie?” “Why is Arthur Miller obsessed with Greek theatre structure?” “How did religion shape Shakespeare’s plays and characters?”
These are questions of culture—specifically the aesthetics of the playwrights themselves and the societies they lived in. And unfortunately too many productions skip right on by these.
“But why is that a problem?” you may ask. Well, think of it this way: Plays, like any art form, are created in response to something—personal, political, societal, you name it. And so if we divorce ourselves from the original context of the play—and the reason it was written—we not only fail to understand the message itself, but fail to know how to translate it to a modern-day world.
Dramaturgs help us make this connection. Which leads me to Question 2.
Question 2: Why Now?
A dramaturg’s job doesn’t end with the Actor’s Packet. He’s not just handing out a bunch of historical facts and aesthetic recommendations–then walking away hoping it’s all done properly.
No—the dramaturg is an active on-going presence throughout the rehearsal process. Serving as the confidant to the director, the dramaturg keeps this question in sight at all times:
“Why this play Now?”
In other words, “What is its significance today?”
Or—if it’s a new play— “Why is it worth the risk to support this playwright and produce it?”
Dramaturgs keep the team focused on answering these “Now” questions in several ways.
First of all, they champion the play itself. If it’s an established script, they make sure that its original context isn’t lost—or worse, misrepresented for the sake of “innovation”—during the production’s process. To do this, they facilitate meaningful discussion and interpretation of the play, including modern-day applications.
If it’s a new play, dramaturgs work with the playwright directly—consulting them on potential adjustments, maintaining the script’s integrity, and ensuring the play’s present-day message isn’t muddled. Because if it is, then the theatre has lost the reason they took the risk to produce it!
Second, by focusing on “Why this play now?”, the dramaturg reminds the team of why they chose to do this play in the first place. For instance, let’s say the director shared a brilliant vision for the play at the table read. A couple weeks in, the dramaturg asks:
“Is this vision being realized?” “Are acting and design choices in line with these directorial goals? With the text itself?” “Based on how rehearsals are going, will the audience receive the intended message?”
Dramaturgs help directors keep the original vision intact, and they serve as sounding boards for the thousands of decisions that come directors’ ways. While directors may feel they’re making one isolated choice after another, dramaturgs are there to point out how each choice influences the overall vision—and ultimately, how the audience will experience the play. Which leads into Question 3.
Question 3: Why Here?
This question is critical.
Why is this theatre doing this play in this community?
And unfortunately many theatres don’t even think to ask it.
But a dramaturg has it on their radar long before a script is selected in the first place. In fact, theatres with resident dramaturgs often task them with sourcing play options for their seasons. And there are two crucial reasons why.
First, we know any established theatre ought to have a clear and distinct identity and mission. We should be able to say, “Oh yeah, that theatre is known for [family/edgy/comedy/etc.]shows.” And so when a theatre company is looking to pull together a cohesive season, dramaturgs go to work to find plays that fit the theatre’s niche, and even specific themes if desired. A lot of times this is how new playwrights are discovered—dramaturgs are dear friends of new works!
But it’s not enough to know why the theatre is doing the play.
Secondly, a dramaturg helps determine why a specific communityneeds this play. Let’s say you’re a comedy-oriented theatre and you want to do a production of Neil Simon’s Barefoot in the Park—a funny play about a newlywed couple in New York City. But there’s a catch: you’re located in southern Mississippi surrounded by an older community of blue collar workers. The play may fit your niche, but it doesn’t serve your audience demographic.
This audience-centered thinking is the bread and butter of the dramaturg. If a play’s appeal doesn’t extend beyond the theatre company itself—if it’s not a gift to the larger community, speaking to them in specific ways—then the dramaturg should rightfully ask:
“Why are we doing it at all?”
But—when a play is chosen that does meet the theatre’s niche as well as its surrounding community, dramaturgs are in their happy place. In fact, this is personally my favorite aspect of dramaturgy and why I am so passionate about it. Because the dramaturg now gets to create meaning that extends beyond the production itself.
Through presentations to cast and crew, dramaturgs get to express why this play matters to the outside world—the one right outside their door! And by creating lobby displays, program notes, and talkback sessions, dramaturgs show audiences that this production speaks to their lives and experiences right now, right here.
It’s a gift. And it’s personal.
When you choose a play for a specific audience, a specific community, you’re saying:
“I see you. I hear you. I know what you value—what speaks to your soul.”
And sometimes even:
“I know this one will be hard for you; but I think you need it—it’ll help you grow.”
Dramaturgs search for plays that serve their audience. And I kind of think that looks like Jesus.
So to sum up a post longer than I intended, dramaturgs are a vital part of the theatre. Because their three questions—why then? why now? why here?—all answer one ultimate question:
Why it matters.
If we fail to answer that, then we’ve failed to give a gift. And if we fail to give a gift, then we’ve failed to make art.
May we as Christians always be gift-givers.
Ghost Light: An Introductory Handbook for Dramaturgy by Michael Mark Chemers
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