Questioning Authority: Rundle on the Art of the Dramaturg

Thursday, March 1, 2007 - 12:00

Questioning Authority recently contacted Erika Rundle, assistant professor of theatre arts, about her work as dramaturg for the upcoming production of Week 16 of Suzan-Lori Parks’s 365 Days/365 Plays. The plays will be performed March 2-4 at Mount Holyoke’s Rooke Theatre. They are free and open to the public, but reservations are strongly advised.

QA: First of all, what is a dramaturg?

ER: Always a great question, because the term is relatively new to U.S. audiences and because the work of a dramaturg varies according to the needs of each individual project. A dramaturg is someone with a good deal of knowledge about the history, theory, and practice of the theatre who can help playwrights write their plays, directors conceive their stagings, and actors understand their roles. A dramaturg can also help a theatre plan its season.

QA: Are there special challenges when working with a series of very short plays rather than one feature-length production?

ER: We are actually working on 11 short plays. Normally each week features seven plays, but our week, Week 16, contains an extra play because when Parks wrote the plays it was leap year. Combine these eight plays with the three “constants,” plays that can be performed at any time throughout the year, in any order, and as many times as you like, and we have 11 playlets with the potential for endless permutations.

Even though each play is short, the same artistic and technical elements required for a full-length play are needed, so the most basic challenge we are facing right now is logistical. We’re not putting on just one play, which seems like a Herculean feat no matter how many times you’ve done it, but rather eleven, and they’re not just being done once by one artistic team, but a number of times with different faculty and student directors and different artistic teams. It’s something new for us, and for every participating theatre, whether they’re university-based or professional. It’s an experiment that requires a great deal of tolerance for chaos, and the accompanying faith that something beautiful will emerge from it.

The unique challenges of such a project really make it clear that theatre is a collaborative venture, requiring so much but ultimately providing a kind of community you can’t find elsewhere.

And for anyone who’s ever read or seen one of Parks’s plays, it’s evident that her writing not only challenges our preconceptions about dramatic form and genre, but expands our ability to think about so many other issues--American history and culture, the slippery nature of identity and its relation to power, and the incredible force of theatre itself as a method of social engagement.

QA: Do you have students helping you with the project?

ER: Our student dramaturgs, Eliza Laytner '08 and Hannah Montgomery '08, are doing an impressive job of pulling the many facets of the project together. I love working with them on this project--they have lots of terrific ideas and bring so much energy and enthusiasm to the work. Their creative perspective is invaluable.

QA: Have you been in touch with other dramaturgs who are working on the same week of plays?

ER: I haven’t spoken with any of the dramaturgs from the other university or professional theatres performing Week 16. I think we’re all too busy trying to get the plays up and running. The talking will happen once the shows have gone up, and we can see and appreciate each other’s work. Rebecca Rugg, the 365 University producer and project archivist, is writing a book about the experience. I suspect we won’t really understand the full impact of this national event until we’ve had a chance to process it all. I look forward to being part of that ongoing discussion.

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