I am based in the DC area, and for the past few weeks, every evening that I travel from the district into Virginia or vice versa, I enjoy the blue and purple tones reminiscent of the Northern Lights emanating from the Kennedy Center’s Nordic Cool Festival. For today’s interview, I want to extend my Nordic leanings and travel across the Atlantic. Michael Evans is an American ex-pat who has lived and worked in Norway as a dramaturg and translator for over twenty years. He is a staff dramaturg at the Rogaland Teater and advocates for both new playwrights and young directors.
Michael E. Evans
Hometown: Palo Alto, Ca.
Current town: Stavanger, Norway
How do you explain dramaturgy?
Dramaturgy is the field of study concerning how plays (and by extension, movies, etc.) are typically written, and in particular, how they are structured. Where is the main turning point? Is there a well-developed protagonist? If there is, does she/he win, lose or something in between? What are the characteristics of the fictional world the author has created? These are typical dramaturgical questions. This is what dramaturgy is – as opposed to what dramaturgs do. Dramaturgs do a lot of other stuff, but the core of what they do and what they are is dramaturgy as defined above.
How does dramaturgy appear in your daily life? How does dramaturgy inform or relate to what you do?
I’m active in local politics, and I’m told my speeches are better than most. When discussing, for example, new zoning restrictions, I try to tell a story.
As to the second part: Dramaturgy – i.e. knowing something about how plays are (typically) written, informs nearly everything I do on the job. When I commission a translation, I try to make sure that the dramaturgy of the play in the source language has been successfully rendered in the target language. This will often mean fudging a bit on the semantic meaning of the original words in order to render the action of the words. When I talk with directors about concept or see their run-throughs, it’s often structure I’m dealing with. Is the story coming through? Does that costume help tell the story? When working with playwrights, I try to help them see the structure of their work. They often find this useful. I don’t tell them how to write, I try to get them to see for themselves what they’ve written.
How did you come to dramaturgy?
I moved to Norway in the early 1970s and stage-managed for 5 years while I learned Norwegian. When there was an opening for a dramaturg, I applied and got the job. But it wasn’t quite that easy. While stage managing I offered my services to the house dramaturg for free. I wrote reports on plays, articles for the program and the like. This was deliberate positioning. I kind of became the inevitable choice when the position opened up. I did study theatre – both in the US and in Norway. Theatre history, criticism, the usual stuff. The only part of my theatre studies I find important today were the lit and playwriting classes. Theatre history, beyond the most basic level, is unimportant to me. Reading Beckett with Ruby Cohn or taking playwriting with Ted Shank were very important. Stage managing was also good preparation: seeing the same scene done a thousand times really shows you how scenes and plays can be put together–how a good actor can milk a line in a hundred ways you never thought possible.
Tell me about a few of your favorite stories, plays, movies, songs, etc. and why they are favorites.
Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. A modern myth, a myth for our time. As good as any of the Greek myths. (But it’s not a good novel…)
You haven’t heard of my favorites, because they’re all contemporary European plays and the US never produces contemporary European plays (unless they’re feather-light, like Yasmina Reza’s plays). But here goes anyway: Astrid Saalbach (Denmark): Blessed Child, End of the World, Pieta, Red and Green. Jonas Hassen Khemiri (Sweden): We Who Are a Hundred, Invasion. Jon Fosse (Norway) Winter, Nightsongs. All of these plays have done very well both in their home country and abroad.
M*A*S*H, Short Cuts (both by Altman), Casablanca (for its precise dialogue: “We’ll always have Paris” is wonderfully tight and pregnant).
Favorite snatch of dialogue not yet found in a play or movie:
SHE: I’m leaving you.
HE: What’s his name?
(A whole little story in six words – beat that!)
Who/what inspires you?
First, the playwrights mentioned above. They have taught me more about theatre than anyone else. I had no idea that theatre do what their plays do. Secondly, a few directors here in Europe.
What is your dream project?
Getting contemporary Scandinavian plays produced in the US and Canada. You guys don’t know what you’re missing.
Writing my second book, on contemporary Scandinavian playwrights.
If you could choose a team of five collaborators, living or dead, who would you choose?
Oh, there are so many. I’m actually quite satisfied with the ones I’ve got. I especially like working with young, “hot” directors. They’re crazy, but inspiring. Keep me on my toes.
What are you working on right now?
I’m finishing up an English translation of a stage adaptation of Das Boot, a novel about a German U-boat in WWII. A producer in London is apparently interested.
What’s up next for you?
Looking forward to working with Astrid Saalbach on translating her new play, a wacky, brutal comedy about four female hairdressers.
What advice would you like to impart to aspiring dramaturgs?
1. Don’t think you can be a good dramaturg merely by getting your degree (unless it’s from a really top-tier school). I would never hire anyone right from school. Figure on doing other stuff in theatre first: stage managing, PR work, whatever.
2. Learn to write. Really well. And no, I don’t just mean “correctly.” I mean clearly, cleanly, interestingly. If you can’t do that, find something else to do with your life. (I really mean this.)
3. Be curious. Study something else as well. Get a solid minor in something that interests you. (I did a minor in linguistics and have found those courses more valuable to me today than most of my theatre courses.)
4. Learn a foreign language and use it. It amazes me that the US has so many monolinguistic dramaturgs. You have simply no idea what you’re missing.
Thank you, Michael! I am inspired to find out more about Scandinavian work!