Julie Felise Dubiner is one of my heroes. I first heard about her advocacy, fantastic dramaturgical skills, and undeniable sense of humor in 2003 from a friend who had been her intern. I looked her up and was hooked.
With the advent of social media, it’s become easier to connect with the people we admire on a regular basis. I love seeing Julie interact with playwrights, actors, designers, and other colleagues every day. Her ideas and opinions compel me to join the conversation and inspire me to action. Thanks, Julie!
Julie Felise Dubiner
Hometown: Hauppauge, LI, NY
Current town: Ashland, OR
How do you explain dramaturgy?
I came up with the handy 3 C’s when I was teaching: Content, Concept, Context.
I’ve described my work in terms of lifeguarding: I’m here, looking out for you. I will try to figure out if you’re waving or drowning if you can’t tell me yourself. And, if you need me to save you – if you fight me, we will both drown.
I’ve used Red from Shawshank Redemption – we know how to find stuff.
I’m Marie in When Harry Met Sally. I’m Itzak Stern from Schindler’s List. I’m Tom Hagen, the consigliere.
I am Indiana Jones.
I am a very rich man with a powerful coffee addiction on Smash.
I’m a smart girl with glasses, everyone’s best friend. With a powerful coffee addiction.
Mostly, I like to say that we are the ones who double-dog dare theaters, artists, and audiences to dig deeper on all levels.
How does dramaturgy appear in your daily life? How does dramaturgy inform or relate to what you do?
In my actual job, I am using dramaturgy all the time. The obvious ways, like reading plays, or serving as production dramaturg. But, I think once you start thinking dramaturgically, you kind of never stop. We are observers as well as participants, so whether on my job or home with my kid, I am constantly reading the room, trying to ask why we’re doing something a certain way/is there a better way? In these last two years of not wearing the title of dramaturg, I’ve become a better dramaturg. And that, in the end, I feel it is better thought of as a skill than as a job.
How did you come to dramaturgy?
I was a history major who acted and did improv comedy. My junior year, a professor encouraged me to do the background, dramaturgical research with some other history minded students for the university production of Marat/Sade (I also played the Herald – a total dramaturg of a character). After college, I moved to Chicago and was working in the box office of a small theater doing Pride & Prejudice, the director was there one day talking to someone else about historical accuracy, and I just started talking about the period and gender roles – and she hired me to write program notes and then recommended me for an internship at the Goodman. Then I went to grad school. I still can’t believe I got in to grad school with that experience. It’s all worked out fine, but I’m still sure Columbia either made a mistake or just had a slot to fill.
All that said, I don’t know if I was starting out now that I would choose dramaturgy as a career, or sole career. What I was doing 20ish years ago is not what I do now, nor is that kind of research/production based dramaturgy particularly necessary or valued outside of universities and very occasional productions. It is much easier to do your own research now than it was – I may have a deeper understanding of history and trends, and may still be better at explaining or distilling research than your average collaborator, but even I’ve come to prefer people doing their own research and then the best playwrights, directors, designers, and actors find the time to talk it through. But, I don’t think we’re entirely necessary anymore, even for new plays. We’re awesome, especially when we’re wanted and not simply assigned and have the time and proximity to build real relationships – awesome. But being awesome is not the same as being necessary. The literary management side is still necessary for the moment, because at the very least (which is too often the very most), someone needs to handle the submissions pile. I think and hope that is changing, too. Too many artistic directors have relegated really good dramaturgs to just reading and sorting scripts and blocking playwrights instead of engaging in reading plays themselves, or using those dramaturgs to engage audiences, artists, and the institution with process and selection, or elevating those dramaturgs to management or leadership roles.
I will also say that doing improv comedy taught me so much about dramatic structure. More than any of my professors.
Tell me about a few of your favorite stories, plays, movies, songs, etc. and why they are favorites.
Oh, wow. I don’t even know where to start. I’ve never been good at playing favorites. One play-going experience that, unsurprisingly, changed me was seeing Angels in America, both parts on the same day in grad school. I’ve told this story a lot. All of us from the rush ticket line in the morning became friends over the day – moving from the top balcony and sneaking down to the main floor over the course of each play’s acts. But, what I think about even all these years later, is the moment when Belize wanted Louis to pray over Roy Cohn. He mumbled some Hebrew, and all the Jews in the audience laughed. Then we turned to our goyishe neighbors and whispered together, “He just said the prayer for the wine.” And there was a second wave of laughter. And the actors knew it would be coming. That moment of audience/play bonding – I’ll been chasing that for the rest of my career.
Music has always been important, but the songs change. I live with a sound designer/composer, so there is always music around. I sing (poorly, but he doesn’t mind) Billy Bragg’s “Milkman of Human Kindness” and Big Star’s “13” to my son at night. I have several songs that are deeply attached to moments in my life, and bands that are the score of my life (U2….), and even co-wrote a play called Rock & Roll: The Reunion Tour (with Matt Callahan, Sean Daniels, and David Hanbury) about that. I haven’t read the book, but the movie Perks of Being a Wallflower left me completely melted, mostly because the soundtrack was filled with several deeply attached songs.
I’m a sucker for Sleepless in Seattle whenever it’s on. There. I have a heart for all you doubters out there.
I could go on about books and poetry for days, but one of the sad truths of my life in lit is that reading plays all day often leaves me too tired to read other things.
Who/what inspires you?
These days, as sappy as it sounds, my son does. He’s four, so every emotion is huge and powerfully felt and loudly expressed. Every day is filled with a thousand Why?’s. Watching his joy when he learned to crawl and walk was incredible, and now watching him learn to read is truly awe-inspiring – as is watching him fearlessly climb the 25’ rope structure thing in the park. All right, that last one is just terrifying. I don’t want to be one of those horrible people who will say that children make your life complete – my life was very complete without my son, and you don’t need to have a kid to be complete. I was, however, unfocused – that’s me. He has helped me focus, both because time is not my own anymore, and also because now there is someone to work for, and to work to make proud of me.
What is your dream project?
I’d love to do something like Rock & Roll again and again for the rest of my life. Collaborating with beloved friends on entertaining and meaningful projects. And being a generating artistic dramaturg instead of a note-giver and gadfly all the time.
If you could choose a team of five collaborators, living or dead, who would you choose?
I’d love to write a musical with Brecht or Wendy Wasserstein or Deb Laufer and have Jerome Robbins or Agnes DeMille or Twyla Tharp choreograph it to music by the Watson Twins…or Duran Duran…or Hole…
I’m not smart enough to work with Caryl Churchill. I’m not haunted enough to work with O’Neill. Tennessee Williams would find me a bore and a nag…
There are writers and musicians I dream daily of working with again. They know who they are. Same for a couple of directors.
My partner in life and crime, the noise boy Matt Callahan, is the person I always want to work with, and I think all people should.
What are you working on right now?
I’m the Associate Director of American Revolutions: The United States History Cycle at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. We have commissioned 21 of an eventual 37 projects that all deal with moments of change in American history. So, I read a lot and travel trying to identify writers/groups to commission, serve on the artistic staff here, do a lot of administrative stuff. It’s a great job at a great theater with great people.
What’s up next for you?
Naomi Wallace’s American Revolutions project – The Liquid Plain. It’s gorgeous and I will not do it the disservice of trying to blurb it here. Come see it. I’m going to try to blog some of the research and rehearsal process, but I can’t guarantee I’ll pull that off.
What advice would you like to impart to aspiring dramaturgs?
I would really say – and the other dramaturgs can disagree and come at me with torches and pitchforks if they want – not to think of dramaturgy as a job. As I said earlier, it is a skill. And a skill that you should be sharing with everyone around you if they’re not already unknowingly practicing it themselves. I wish I hadn’t been so specialized – I wish I would have continued with directing and writing especially. There are so few jobs in our field, and so few of them are actually fun, and so few of them lead to leadership positions where you can actually put your own ideas into action. You have to really think about what you want to do and make it happen for yourself. Create a path instead of applying for the 3 positions that open each year that get listed in ArtSearch. Aspire. And learn how to read and create a budget. For real. And aspire.
Thank you for sharing your insights, Julie! Watch for the huge coffee cup I’m sending to Ashland to thank you!