Dramaturgy Meets Biography
The Theatre Times, May 18, 2017
Dramaturgy Meets Biography
I am a dramaturg. I am also a biographer.
As a dramaturg, I try to help a playwright tell the story of her play. As a biographer, I try to tell the story of a life. Does one role feed the other? Do the skills required for one art overlap with the skills needed for the other? Is there a dramaturg-biographer collaboration?
The first biography I wrote, in 2001, was Lucille Lortel: The Queen of Off Broadway, about the New York theatrical producer and philanthropist who, beginning in the late 1940s, dedicated herself to supporting a burgeoning group of new American and European playwrights. These dramatists’ anti-traditional, frequently edgy plays were not suited for the audiences, enormous houses, or profit-loving producers of Broadway, so Lucille ensconced their work in Off-Broadway venues, notably the Theatre de Lys (now the Lucille Lortel Theater) on Christopher Street, in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village. Lucille had gone to some grand theater in the sky by the time I was asked to write her biography, so I never had the chance to talk with the lady herself, although I had met her once, briefly. As a result, the dramaturgical-like challenges of the biography primarily involved research, the kind a dramaturg might do for a dramatist or director engaged with a play set in a remote time, an unfamiliar place.
If this sounds like drudgery, it absolutely isn’t. Similar to the textual research a dramaturg might pursue is the biographer’s joyous search for letters and clippings and photographs that reveal previously unknown relationships or events, that connect a childhood experience with an adult accomplishment. There was, for instance, my foray to the Library of Congress, where I found the lone testament to Lucille’s brief acting career, a short, black-and-white film she made with the Japanese movie star Sessue Hayakawa. And there was the unexpected discovery of a battered brown suitcase, which contained love letters and telegrams from the man Lucille ultimately married.
For the biographer, of course, research often involves the sort of text you do not find in a library. Lucille Wadler (for that was her original name), was born on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, and I remember walking around what used to be a Jewish neighbourhood, looking for a tenement, long gone, on Attorney Street, and trying to imagine what that world was like in 1900.
Fifteen years after writing about Lucille Lortel I am writing a biography of Emily Mann, the American playwright, director and, since 1989, artistic director of the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, New Jersey–a nationally acclaimed regional theatre. The book’s working title: Emily Mann, Rebel Artist in the American Theater. In the annals of the women’s history of the American theatre, about which so much still needs to be written, Mann deserves an eminent place. First, as a politically attuned dramatist who primarily writes plays that the late South African director Barney Simon dubbed Theater of Testimony.
In Still Life, which uses only the words of interviews with a Vietnam War vet, his wife and his mistress, Mann explores how the violence of the battlefield extends to domestic violence. In Execution of Justice, about the trial of the homophobic former policeman who, in 1978, assassinated San Francisco’s mayor and a gay City Supervisor, Mann uses the murder trial to dramatize a city’s polarization, and by extension our country’s ideological battles–battles that, almost 40 years later, we are still fighting. At a time when women are still derided in the public square for daring to lead, and our bodies–indeed, our entire selves–are too often still considered the property of those who employ us, it is vital to pay attention to a person who has spent her life rebelling against predetermined limits of what a woman of the theater can write and direct and achieve.
In contrast to my biography of Lucille Lortel, I am now writing about a woman who is alive and creating. I regularly take a train to Princeton and meet with Mann either in her study at home or in her office at the McCarter. Surrounded by framed photographs of the people who are dear to her, and posters of productions she has directed or written or produced, we sit at the small round table in her office, me with my pages of questions and my iPhone/recorder, she with her salad or piece of fruit. And we talk.
This is very much a collaboration in the way a dramaturg and a dramatist collaborate. At times I’m the dramaturg, asking questions, calling forth memories, trying to reach across and behind all the natural barriers that anyone has when talking about what they thought or did or didn’t do when they were 5 or 30 or 50. Like a dramaturg, I am trying to learn and be sensitive to how a person becomes an artist: how she imagines, how she creates her life and navigates the world around her.
At other times, Mann is the dramaturg, pointing me toward a friend or colleague or member of her family who might add details, elaborate on an event, add a recollection. She is the dramaturg, clarifying a moment in her life, disabusing me of an assumption, reinforcing a conclusion. She is the dramaturg and I’m the recipient, the listener, who then takes the material–a mixture of fact and memory and interpretation–and shapes it into a narrative.
It is as delicate a relationship as that between a dramaturg and a playwright, a dramaturg and a director. It has been said about dramaturgs that we are the objective ones. Editors, in a way, of a play or production, we supposedly stand outside the creative experience with a critical eye. But we all know that being a dramaturg is also a personal, subjective, sometimes raw experience, one that involves establishing an intimate psychological connection with a dramatist or director. As with theatre dramaturgy, so with a biographer and her subject. Always there is that emotional and intellectual current between two people who need to inquire and expose and talk things through so that the work can ultimately be full, truthful and engaging.
Finally, though, there is one fundamental difference between the dramaturg’s work and the biographer’s. As that extraordinary American dramaturg Mark Bly recently said to me, dramaturgs “lead these lives of benign invisibility.” A dramaturg could work on a play for months–years even. But ultimately it is the playwright’s or the director’s work that the public (and critics) evaluate. The biographer, though, is a visible collaborator. The interpreter of record. Just as the dramatist writes and rewrites in a room of her own, so the biographer ultimately is on her own, deciding, from all the material amassed, which events or actions or reactions will illuminate a life. A biography is a visible interpretative gesture, and I will be damned or praised for it.