Today we continue our second week of dramaturgical conversations with an interview with the accomplished Maren Robinson of Chicago. I think it is safe to say that Maren is eventually going to work with every member of the Chicago arts community! Maren teaches for two institutes of higher learning, works with dance companies, and, to date, worked on over forty theatre productions.
Hometown: Pocatello, ID
Current town: Chicago, IL
How do you explain dramaturgy?
This is the question dramaturgs are continually asked and I think we are always redefining what it means. In broad strokes, if I am working on an existing play, I am responsible for researching the world of the play and the production. I collaborate with the director and design team early in the process, create packets or blogs of information for actors, do table work, attend rehearsals, give feedback, write program notes, lobby displays and study guides. After the production is running, I go to post-show discussions and engage with the audience about the play and the larger questions that arise from the production.
With a new play or adaptation, I work closely with the playwright and director often through multiple drafts or workshops. I ask questions and respond to their queries about certain scenes, watch rehearsals, do research and give feedback.
When I have been able to work with dancers the process is different yet again, as I often respond to what I see, but I may bring in research as well.
I think what is most exciting about dramaturgy is that I am continually redefining what I do based on the project. I may create an information packet, or I might line the rehearsal room with photos. I like to tailor the work to the project- that is part of the artistry of dramaturgy for me.
How does dramaturgy appear in your daily life? How does dramaturgy inform or relate to what you do?
I am also the Associate Director of a Master of Arts Program in the Humanities so I am continually interacting with students and faculty. It helps to have broad interests and research experience. It also helps to be someone who does work to connect the humanities with audiences. I am used to giving reasons why the arts and humanities are relevant in a world of competing entertainment forms and a rotten economy. I am still idealistic about the role the arts can play in the world at large. I also teach script analysis and dramaturgy at another university which is a much more direct relationship.
How did you come to dramaturgy?
Like many dramaturgs, my path to dramaturgy has been circuitous. I studied English literature as an undergrad, but I continued to do theatre and dance. After I graduated, I performed with Montana Shakespeare in the Parks. This was a transformative experience. I saw the power of bringing art to rural communities and how, if audiences are given the opportunity, they are hungry to interact with live theatre as an art form. I moved to Chicago because most of the actors I knew were hired out of Chicago, however, after I adjusted to living in a city, I found auditioning overwhelming. I was seeing a lot of theatre and an actor friend said I talked like a dramaturg. I had no idea what a dramaturg was and I started looking into it. Through this friend, I met a director who was looking for a dramaturg and she hired me. When I started, I asked myself to imagine what I would want to know if I were the director or an actor or a designer and based my dramaturgical research on those questions. One project rolled into another and after a couple years I decided to go back to graduate school where I was able to create a degree program for myself that involved playwriting, theatre history and theory, essentially creating a dramaturgy graduate degree for myself. I wrote a play and a critical paper for my thesis. After graduate school, I interned at Steppenwolf and continued to work with theatre companies around Chicago. I have now worked on over forty productions or readings and I am a company member at TimeLine Theatre.
Tell me about a few of your favorite stories, plays, movies, songs, etc. and why they are favorites.
Oh, I always hate this question because I have so many favorites. Frequently, I go back to Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own because I like it but also because I struggle with it. Woolf is right that women needed income and freedom to write, but I can’t come to terms with the fact that she discounts earlier female writers one by one as not good enough. It is good to keep wrestling with people and ideas that challenge you. I love Merchant/Ivory films because they are amazing at truthfully adapting literary works and yet they are stunningly visual and appropriate for film. They are a lesson in the translation of genre. I love the Henry James novella The Beast in the Jungle because it is so subtle. I adore the recently rediscovered street photography of Vivian Maier. I love that this woman, who led a quiet life as a nanny, was out there making these beautiful photographs. The intersection of the ordinary and artistry in her works is very inspiring. Those are just the first few that pop to mind. I am pretty omnivorous when it comes to the consumption books and theatre and art.
Who/what inspires you?
I grew up in the Rocky Mountains. I miss them. I think that gave me a strong sense of space, landscape and caused me to spend a lot of time as a child in my own imagination. I have good family and friends who support me. I also love doing creative work that is entirely separate from my dramaturgy projects. I think that keeps me from being possessive when I go into rehearsal and it helps me keep a fresh perspective. When I am in a modern dance performance or knit a sweater or plant or write something, that is the place I have ownership over my work. I have done something that is my own and I have had a look at things from a different perspective. I can bring that broadened perspective back into other projects and I can feel comfortable with the process of sharing which is necessary to good collaboration.
What is your dream project?
I don’t know that I have a dream project right now. I fall in love with each play I work on. You have to do that even when they are flawed because I think that is the only way you want to keep going is to find something personally valuable and fascinating in the work. Often the flaws are places where you can find really fruitful theatrical solutions or the place a discussion is going to start. I am glad that still happens for me each project. I would love to work on some bigger arts project that helped bring art to those who can’t afford or don’t have access to art.
If you could choose a team of five collaborators, living or dead, who would you choose?
Bill T. Jones, I heard him on a panel and he is incredibly smart about his art. He is well versed in art and dance and theory and yet his work is immediate and accessible. He proves that you can look at art intellectually and not mar it. Django Reinhardt would be splendid … just to have that music. I’d also like to work with the German filmmaker, Wim Wenders, and the Belgian philosopher and writer Amélie Nothomb. Finally, the Nabis artist Jean-Édouard Vuillard, he did some massive paintings most of which were on walls in private homes and I find them very evocative. I love his Window Overlooking the Woods. I have no idea what that project would look like, but it would be really interesting.
What are you working on right now?
I just finished working on a production of David Hare’s Skylight for Court Theatre in Chicago.
What’s up next for you?
I actually have a bit of a break coming up which will be the first time in about two years that I have not been working on a production. I am still in the process of season planning with my theatre company. I know always find ways to fill up my time, but right now I am looking forward to having a little free time for reading, finishing knitting projects, and seeing other kinds of art.
What advice would you like to impart to aspiring dramaturgs?
Like most professions in theatre, I wouldn’t count on getting a dream job at some big theatre or university. However, if you are willing to work hard and collaborate with small companies and new playwrights, there is always work. You will probably have to juggle that work with some other more lucrative kind of employment, but dramaturgs have great research and writing skills for other fields. That is never what anyone wants to hear, but frankly in this economy, it just makes sense to have multiple threads of employment available to you.
Also it is important to know yourself as a collaborator. If you want praise or are going to be hurt if you don’t see your name in a review you should choose a more public theatre practice such as directing or acting. If you aren’t worried about acclaim, but enjoy seeing a production come to life and find value in creating the materials that go along with a production or having a conversation with an audience, then dramaturgy is for you.
Finally, it is important to edit yourself. Research is fantastic, and there is value in pursuing those many avenues, but they won’t all help a production or an actor or an audience. Part of dramaturgy is omitting things that you find nifty but don’t help anyone. It can be hard to let things go. Also, you don’t have to be the smartest person in the room. It is collaboration, not a contest.
Thank you, Maren!
Join us again next Thursday for our ‘turg-day interviews!