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Spotlight: Hannah Daniel, Dramaturg

02.21.13 | Comment?


CATEGORIES collaboration, dramaturgy, education, q & a, spotlight, the process

For many viewers, this week’s episode of Smash was their first introduction to the word dramaturg. Unfortunately for the TV show’s musical, Bombshell, (and for those of us who need to re-explain what we do to our friends and families) the function of dramaturg was misapplied. Many of my colleagues have written about the episode already, including the clever Jenn Book Haselswerdt.

Fortunately, though, there are hundreds of wonderfully creative dramaturgs doing marvelous work all over the world. Catch up on what some of these dramaturgs are up to right here on 2amtheatre! Today, we feature an interview with Hannah Daniel, currently the Arts Discovery Programs Coordinator at People’s Light & Theatre in Malvern, Pennsylvania.

Hannah Daniel

Hometown: Richardson, TX
Current town: Malvern, PA

How do you explain dramaturgy?

When I first started to explain dramaturgy to friends and family, I said: Hitler’s PR goal was to dumb everything down to the lowest common denominator, reducing his arguments and aims into the simplest terms possible. My job is to do precisely the opposite: I meet my audience (be they design team, actors, marketing, audience, students, etc.) where they are and seek to bring them up to the same place.

When I explain my position today, I say that my job is sometimes to make sure everyone (design team, actors, audience, staff) is in the same world of the play, sometimes to acquaint everyone with the world crafted by the playwright then molded by the design team. Sometimes it is simply to provide context, whether that is historical or otherwise (ex: exploring Texas in 1987 or exploring the dynamic between characters). Some people respond, “Oh, research!,” to which I quickly reply, “Well, that’s part of it.” My job is integrating what I know or learn with the vision of others (and my own) to inform those involved with the show (and that includes the audience). Part of my job is knowing what information–text, graphics, interactive media–best serves my intended audience, be they patrons, box office staff, users on Facebook, or actors. Dramaturgy gives context.

How does dramaturgy appear in your daily life? How does dramaturgy inform or relate to what you do?

I was raised in a home with a mother who excelled at analysis and remediation. Today, that translates in my brain dramaturgically because I can see what appear to be disparate elements are actually connected–when does what’s happening in our development meet what’s going on in the rehearsal room and how might both of those connect to social media, for example. If dramaturgy gives context, then dramaturgy exists constantly in my day. I interact a great deal with parents, teachers, and students. When I’m describing a program, I’m giving context for how what we do, our focus on ensemble work, engages with their world and their lives. I think it leaks into the rest of my life the way someone who is analytical might determine more efficient ways to wake up in the morning or prepare a meal or someone who has an eye for design maintain a creative interior of their home. It isn’t so much that they are still “at work” but their brains are still “working.”

How did you come to dramaturgy?

I transferred high schools by applying for and being accepted into the theatre magnet of Richardson High School. As part of the theatre magnet, we had a Thespian Troupe and we participated each year in the Texas Thespian Conference. My junior year, before we exited the bus, one of the directors went over the rules and also pointed out a workshop on dramaturgy and hinted that someone should attend. I asked him what dramaturgy was, but he merely winked and smirked, thus ensuring that my curiosity would get the better of me. (Sidenote: I think avid curiosity, while not a requirement, definitely supports dramaturgy.)

I showed up to the appointed room to discover I was one of six people attending, and the only student. As I was utterly clueless, I mostly listened. The dramaturg from Houston’s Alley Theatre ran the workshop, I remember that, though not her name. (Many apologies to you, wonderful enlightener!) Teachers talked about how they were trying to integrate or introduce dramaturgy into their programs. One teacher, and I fell in love with this idea, required every student to write a one page report on a topic related to the show for which they desired to audition. She gave the example of The Crucible, and had students report on the McCarthy trials, the Salem witch hunt, Puritans, and other such topics. I spent the rest of the conference begging my high school director to let me dramaturg our spring musical Into the Woods. He finally caved, though I now wonder if that was his goal all along.

I can’t say, knowing what I know today, that I did a fantastic or even presentable job, but I had been bitten by the dramaturgy bug. I didn’t even know I was supposed to be part of the design team meetings! I did give a few pre-show talks to the audience, briefly discussing fairy tales in our lives.

I continued to work on- and off-stage in high school, but when I finally sat down to explore college options, I looked specifically for dramaturgy and a BFA program. (The BFA part ended up being moot; I graduated with a BS.) Only two schools at the time offered focuses in dramaturgy at that time: Oklahoma University and University of Evansville. Although I looked at other schools, I chose UE. There I was tested and tried, succeeded and failed, but I hung on to dramaturgy like a pit bull. My shortcomings typically provided better lessons than the projects which I found easy. There was just something about this discipline that stuck to me. And thanks to my professors who both encouraged me and, in training, showed me how much more I had to learn/discover, I kept at it.

So, that’s how I came to dramaturgy. These days, I wear a different job title–Arts Discovery Programs Coordinator–but dramaturgy impacted the way I approach the work I do. And I develop dramaturgical content and resources as part of guides we produce for all our Family Series productions.

Tell me about a few of your favorite stories, plays, movies, songs, etc. and why they are favorites.

(Sidenote: You do realize the danger of asking a bookworm to recount favorite books, I hope? I shall endeavor not to prattle on ad nauseum.)
(Editor’s note: I do. I keep a list so I can read everyone’s favorites!)

I enjoy reading as an escape, so epic fantasies–The Lord of the Rings, The Kingkiller Chronicles, The Hobbit, The Chronicles of Narnia–all capture me. But I also love reading to learn, so books like The Tyranny of E-mail: The 4,000 Year Journey to Your Inbox and At Day’s Close: A History of Night win out some days. I surprised myself by enjoying It’s All About the Bike: The Pursuit of Happiness on Two Wheels, a non-fiction about a man building his dream bike; history of bicycles is sprinkled throughout. I’m constantly impressed by books that live under the umbrella of YA novels, because really they should be read by everyone. I think of The Giver and Ender’s Game. Anything by the Green brothers, but most recently The Fault in Our Stars and Paper Towns (seriously, if I had that book in high school, Walt Whitman would have made sense). If you’re ever looking for a new book, I’d say start with the YA section (preferably with a librarian in tow) or look at Newbery Medal and Honor books.

V for Vendetta is a perennial favorite, and only more so after I learned the history of the Gunpowder Plot while studying abroad. My favorite moment in The Two Towers is when Sam tells Frodo the reason they are doing this, the reason we listen to stories of heroes, is because there are some things worth fighting for. I should also explain that my DVD shelf occupied is divided between Die Hard/James Bond on one side and Disney/Pixar on the other. There’s a mish-mash of everything from Rachel Getting Married to Cassanova behind that.

Okay, I’m wrapping it up, I promise. I will blast my radio for Pink’s “Perfect” and know all the words to Cee Lo Green’s “Forget You.” I love turning on Pandora to Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, The Rat Pack, or Big Band/Swing while I clean my room and tidy up. There’s something incredibly pleasant about driving down the highway singing along to the oldies station or cruising to classical. Most recently, I’m jamming to The Amazing Octopi, a pop/chill band from Austin featuring an accordion; Paolo Nutini, a young Scottish performer who makes for great cruising music and his lyrics are uplifting without crossing over to cheesy; and Ingrid Michaelson. As long as it isn’t heavy metal, screamo, or headbanger, I’ll probably enjoy it.

Who/what inspires you?

I’ve been blessed to encounter strong people along the way, although I don’t think I recognized their impact and inspiration until after they were no longer in my life. I’m impressed by the quiet acts of kindness, strength, courage, and hope I catch out the of the corner of my eye or with the tip of my ear.

I keep a camera constantly on my person and I love snapping random moments. Sometimes they are blurry, but sometimes they are wonderful, either beautiful or humorous. Looking back on those images inspires me. Knowing the stories of my coworkers and friends inspires me. Reading great journalism inspires me. Life inspires me: to breathe, to laugh, to observe, to consider, to rejoice, to mourn, to challenge, to accept, to continue. Inspiration doesn’t always arrive from beauty; I think it arrives from the stirring of a deep passion, be it amazing or terrible.

What is your dream project?

I used to say Into the Woods; there’s a piece of me ruing my high school self for an opportunity missed and there’s a piece of me loving anything by Sondheim. But after two summers of curating R&D labs here, that’s changed. For me, a dream project would be one in which the voices of all collaborators are valued and we’re making discoveries together. There might be a script, or there might not be. Developing something from a single idea is so exhausting, so exhilarating; it feels and seems a little bit like teaching, to me: daunting but impressive and engaging.

If you could choose a team of five collaborators, living or dead, who would you choose?

My immediate reaction is that I have no idea because I don’t keep up with who’s who in the theatre world. I really don’t. I think it would entirely depend upon the project. I’d love to work with John and Hank Green and Stephen Sondheim, but I don’t know if they’d work well together. Unequivocally, I’d want to work with Madeleine L’Engle. Maybe Thomas L. Friedman or Jonah Lehrer and round it out with either Alan Rickman or Emma Thompson.

What are you working on right now?

Currently, we’re in the early stages of preparing for our spring and summer programming for Arts Discovery; I’m processing registrations. The Winter’s Tale is currently onstage and I’m coordinating with our teaching artists and high school teachers in the area to bring workshops on Shakespeare and the play to their students. I’m also part of the team that runs the social media for The Winter’s Tale as well as Arts Discovery, so I keep an ear and eye out for interesting, engaging content and brainstorm ideas. I’m reading books we can recommend to students if they enjoy our next Family Series production, Stargirl, based on the book by Jerry Spinelli.

What’s up next for you?

Most of what I’m currently doing is leading up to what’s next. Mostly, what’s next is keeping one foot in the present and the other ready to land in the future.

What advice would you like to impart to aspiring dramaturgs?

Explore. I’ve been amazed how much something I studied for fun or random trivia has come into play during my work. Know where you live (and where your audience lives). Try. Be willing to fall flat on your face. It may be horrendous or it could be stunning. So I guess a part of try would be risk it. Find a mentor. Ideally, someone nearby, but also look at groups like LMDA and find someone who can work with you, fairly critique and analyze your work and push you further. Even if you’re self-motivated, it is essential that you have outside eyes looking at your work and progress; they make an amazing reality check. Limit yourself. I don’t mean say you can’t do something, but know what your limits are. Analyze the best ways you can use your resources, including your self and your time.

Thank you so much, Hannah!

Laura Esti Miller

Laura Esti Miller is a theatre artist and educator currently based out of Washington, DC. For more, see http://lauraestimiller.wordpress.com/

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