Turgs on the Move

DePaul University assistant professor Lenora Inez Brown told a hyped-up audience of about 90 at last weekend’s conference of the Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas that one of the best moments of her professional life came when the artistic director of the Sundance Theatre Lab called her to offer a guest-artist stint and said, “I’m not going to ask you to work on the black show.” Kristin Johnsen-Neshati of Virginia’s Theater of the First Amendment, also at the conference–held on DePaul’s Lincoln Park campus–followed up: “Our theater has made a decision never to bring in black [actors, directors, and playwrights] during Black History Month or women during Women’s History Month.” One of the benefits of this, she said, is to free people up for all the other offers they get during those months. Another might be getting past an innovation that’s hardened into mind-numbing predictability.

Two years after Chicago director Terry McCabe published Mis-directing the Play–a neatly argued book that treats the very existence of dramaturgs as a symptom of the worst problems in American theater–the turgs marched into McCabe’s hometown for their national meeting and pointedly omitted him from their speakers’ list. According to McCabe, who titled a chapter “The Show That Needs a Dramaturg Has a Bad Director,” these newcomers to American theater have diminished directors’ authority by taking over their most vital responsibilities. Now it’s the dramaturg who guards the integrity of the script, befriends the playwright, and brings an understanding of the play’s history, psychology, themes, and structure to everyone else in the production; it’s the dramaturg who is “master of the play.” And it’s a turg’s job to know when to let a text stand. “We considered inviting [McCabe],” says conference coordinator and DePaul dramaturgy head Rachel Shteir, “but not as a speaker.”

The Saturday-morning agenda was all about diversification: of the profession, the audience, and–at the break-out session I attended–the text. Shteir observed that unlike a Theatre Communications Group conference she attended a couple of weeks earlier, where directors all talked about “serving” their communities, turgs are hot to “lead” or “challenge” their audiences. And–in spite of that audible tremor last weekend after a male-on-male kiss in Stephen Sondheim’s Bounce at the Goodman–they’re not talking about anything as simple as sex or raw language. As Des Gallant of Florida Stage noted, most audiences have “come to accept that the word ‘fuck’ is out there and the use of it.” The big problem now is that audiences have a such a low tolerance for confusion. Evidence for this was abundant: The Goodman’s Steve Scott said the audience there objects to “difficult to understand and nonlinear plays” and “despised Drowning Crow,” a version of Chekov’s Seagull set in the Gullah culture of South Carolina’s Sea Islands. And Gallant said his audience hated Rocket Man, Steven Dietz’s play about an unhappy protagonist’s attempt to travel to a parallel universe, because of its unrealistic treatment of time. Mark Bly, chairman of the playwriting department at the Yale School of Drama (which McCabe calls the “beachhead” for the profession’s arrival in this country), said he wants “to see more rage” in the audience. That got a chorus of agreement: audiences need to understand that it’s OK if they hate it, never mind the little problem that creates for marketing. Someone brought up the idea that “Will you hate it?” could be a catchy ad slogan, and someone else that play festivals can function like classrooms, making a rapid change in audience expectations. After that, a lone hand went up to ask whether there might be a relationship between how much an audience pays for a show and how much risk they’ll endure: “Is there a correspondence between willingness to hate something and getting it for free?”

Drinks, Demos, Drama

A year ago, Mark Battaglia, half the founding partnership at Chicago Community Cinema, pulled up stakes and relocated to Los Angeles. That left Mike Kwielford with the workload he and Battaglia had shared since they’d begun the independent film showcase in the spring of 2000. They created it because they needed a venue for a premiere of Sacrifices, a low-budget feature film they’d made after graduating from Columbia College. They liked the vibe at some annual film festivals, especially Film Bureau 606’s Circus Expo, and thought they could keep people better connected if events were held monthly. Taking a cue from the festivals, they solicited sponsors who would show wares at the screenings. They also instituted the factor Kwielford says is most responsible for their success: a cocktail hour with a cash bar where local industry folk can knock back a few and network before the program–which typically consists of a sponsor demo and a half-dozen short films. They held four events at the Vic before moving to their current site, Excalibur. CCC was set up as a for-profit endeavor and began drawing good crowds and paying for itself “right away,” Kwielford says. But after Battaglia left, it was sucking up something like 50 hours a week of his time. Since he was also attempting to run his production company, Vision Pictures, he figured he needed some help.

Kwielford had a resource few business owners can claim: a pool of dedicated volunteers. He invited two of them, Mike McNamara and Scott Lindenberger, to join him on a new board of directors and began to formalize some other tasks he and Battaglia had handled casually. A preliminary screening committee now meets monthly to review about ten (mostly midwest-made) submissions; final program decisions are made by an executive screening committee that meets every other month. In April, McNamara joined the staff as event director, and Kwielford hopes he’ll be able to start paying other volunteers, like those helping with the Web site and keeping the books, in the future. He says the screenings (held the first Tuesday of every month) regularly draw 250 to 300 people, paying $8 each for admission. Now he’d like to snag a presenting sponsor, beef up the advertising, and expand attendance with non-film-industry people. He’s also about to introduce a membership program that’ll offer free admission and sponsor discounts. Headlining CCC’s next event, which begins at 6 PM Tuesday, will be Casey Suchan’s short film Janey Van Winkle; for more information on that see the Section One calendar.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.