Reporting from LMDA11: The Dramaturg as Public Artist

13 Jul

Hello all,

The conference of Literary Managers & Dramaturgs of the Americas wrapped up over the weekend, and as usual, I’ve left with not only a new spark and verve for my work, but also a few tangible take-aways.

In this first (long) post on the conference, I’ll offer a summary of the events.

Thursday belonged to  LMDA’s University Caucus, which annually allows dramaturgs with ties to academia present Hot Topics, and then turns those topics out into the room for conversation and weekend-long follow up.  I love the U-Caucus because it’s not only a good jumping off point for the rest of the conference as a whole, it provides a useful snapshot of what the academic-affiliated portion of the field has been thinking about over the past year.  This time we had topics as diverse as:

1. Dramaturgy as a mediation tool between culturally/racially difficult plays and sensitive communities (in this case, a challenging play that needed to reach a socially/racially conservative audience base)

2. Dance dramaturgy practiced as scientific R&D

3. Strategies for restoring women to the canon of dramatic literature

4. Finding ways to honor and evaluate the work of dramaturgs as professors within the academic tenure structure

5. Dramaturgy as a healing process

6. Dramaturg as department chair — how to use the skill set of a dramaturg to question and reformulate something as staid and unmoving as an academic department

7. Explorations of ownership, power, and copyright in the dramaturg/playwright relationship

8. And lastly, a report on the upcoming release of the updated LMDA University Caucus Sourcebook, which gathers together members’ dramaturgy syllabi, exercises, case studies, resources, and the like.

We finished the day with an invigorating and amusing keynote address from Adam Lerner, the curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Denver. He made an impassioned argument for the need to embrace being more awesome. Or, as he put it, we creative professionals spend so much time trying to be excellent, we forget to be awesome.

For him, “awesome” means leaving aside the snobbery and stuffiness and elitism that contemporary art (analogue: contemporary theatre) seems to inflict upon the public. At MCADenver, he instituted the Mixed Taste lectures, which pair two absolutely disconnected lecture subjects into one evening event, then holds  joint Q&A. Examples: Walt Whitman and Whole Hog Cooking; Prairie Dogs and Gertrude Stein; Marxism and Kittens Kittens Kittens. It’s an amusing idea, but also one that unearths completely unexpected patterns in the juxtaposition. It gives attendees time to really appreciate issues of, for example, artificial lighting (which, as I recall, was paired in an evening with Warhol). You walk away with new understandings of things you couldn’t guess you’d care about.  For me, the big idea here was that when we find way to connect art to very fabric of our lives, we give our lives and the art meaning; this is authenticity. (Also, the next Mixed Taste will be the starting point for MCADever’s Pigeon Project, whereby Denver residents can check out homing pigeons to take home, care for them for a while, and then release them to find their way back to the MCA roof deck. Amazing and WTF all at once.)

Friday began with several opportunities to take advantage of Denver walking tours and public art.  Several colleagues and I (including PwritesCom Associate Producer Corianna Moffatt ) decided to get out into the mountains and check out the Buffalo Bill grave and museum. It was terrific — so utterly theatrical in itself, and a celebration of the life of one of America’s consummate showmen. Also, it was wonderfully kitschy. Check out this motley crew of dramaturgical types:

Friday also saw several larger-scale panel discussions, once the morning walkabouts were completed. We began with a group session on the status of the field in response to Todd London’s 2010 book Outrageous Fortune: The Life & Times of the New American Play. There was a promise from LMDA leadership that the comprehensive powerpoint presentation used in this session will be available online soon. Once it’s out there, I’ll link it here.

[Post continues after the jump…]

We continued with a panel on digital dramaturgy, with speakers like Raphael Martin of SOHO Rep, whose FEED Blog is a great model for what dramaturgs can do for theatres/productions when we’re not afraid of tackling the mysteries of new technologies. Amrita Mangus spoke about Arena Stage’s National New Play Map, which is one of the most exciting open-source developments for playwrights in a long time. (PwritesCom will be hosting a workshop on how to use the Map this fall.) Agent Beth Blickers walked us through options for sharing and reading scripts digitally (looks like the iPad is winning for now in terms of ease of use), and Laurel Green spoke about the theatrical use of augmented reality technologies and the importance of the dramaturg/designer relationship in this realm.

Simultaneously, another panel was convened on collaboration between institutions, and how producing and non-producing organizations might best harness the specific resources at their disposal for innovative and outside-the-box opportunities for artists. Examples were presented by Chip Walton, whose Curious Theatre Company (Denver) participates in the National New Play Network; DD Kugler and Brian Quirt, who offered evidence of large scale collaboration through the City of Wine project by Nightswimming Theatre (Toronto); and Heidi Taylor, whose HIVE Project created new connections between many constituencies in Vancouver’s theatre community.

Later in the afternoon we had the option of attending either the panel on Denver’s ensemble theatres, with representatives from Buntport Theatre and PHAMALY; or a panel on theatre in public spaces.  I was shocked to learn that despite the interest from audiences in site-specific work, and the prominence of such theatre in Europe, that there are no American festivals with site-specific performance as their central focus.  (In Boston, ArtsEmerson here has made a strong stand for incorporating it into their seasons, and of course there’s ART’s hosting of Sleep No More by Punch Drunk; Company One will bring Green Eyes to the Ames Hotel this coming season.) LaJolla Playhouse’s Shirley Fishman spoke about the creation of their new festival Work Without Walls that aims to address this lack. Most interesting to me, however, was the work of Mia Rushton and Eric Moschopedis, who challenge notions of regulated public space with projects like Z’s by the C, which encouraged public napping in defiance of local ordinances designed to combat vagrancy.

ASIDE: I’m regretting that I missed the panel with PHAMALY (which stands for “The Physically Handicapped Actors & Musical Artists League”) — conference fatigue had taken over and I basically just stayed in the same room I’d been in for the previous panel. Looking back, I wish I’d been able to hear these company members talk about their methods, successes, and challenges, since I’m working on the ASL-centered Love Person by Aditi Kapil this coming spring.

Friday night, many of us took Adam Lerner up on his offer of free tickets to the Mixed Taste event on Santeria and the Abstract Expressionist artwork of Barnett Newman. The night started on the MCADenver’s roof deck, and continued in a large industrial shed, painted gallery-white. I liked the decor:


Saturday was for me the heart of the conference: a process called Open Space. This is convening technique that allows participants to propose and attend sessions of their own choosing. It sounds inherently crazy, but essentially there’s a group meeting at the start of the day, and then anyone/everyone is encouraged to publicly announce a topic they’d like to talk about, post it on the wall in whatever slot for time/room suits them. There were three time slots laid out, and no limit on the number of sessions that could meet during those times. Conference attendees then chose to attend whichever conversations seemed interesting; or, to bumblebee from session to session; or, to opt out entirely. The only rule of Open Space is that if you’re not learning or contributing at the session you’re in, you must leave. It’s actually pretty liberating, and this is the second year LMDA has used the technique. I’m a fan.  Here’s a picture of how the Open Space sessions look in the planning process:

We wrapped up Saturday with the annual general meeting — a business meeting for LMDA membership about budgets, programs, and next year’s conference.  Finally, we converged on the Wynkoop Brewery for the awards banquet.  In addition to DJ Hopkins winning the Elliott Hayes Award (welcome to the clan, DJ!), we also honored Canadian DD Kugler (one of the greats) for his lifetime of achievement. The speeches were remarkably non-speechy, and were instead deeply inspirational. Once I get the texts, I’ll share them on this blog.

Our final panel was Sunday morning, and addressed productions of Lynn Nottage’s Ruined as case studies for theatre that can make a tangible difference in the non-theatrical world.  I was particularly moved by Simone Saunders’ account of how her small Afrocentric theatre company, Ellipses Tree Collective (Calgary), managed to secure the rights to the Canadian premiere of the play. Undaunted by non-responsive rights-holders, they reached out to Lynn herself, and recounted how they wanted Ruined to be their inaugural production for a city that had no black theatre presence. Not only did Ellipses Tree garner city-wide support for their production, they made connections into the sex worker industry and helped Calgarians learn what could tangibly be done by audience members for exploited women at home and in Africa. Months later, Toronto’s Obsidian Theatre invited Saunders to produce Ruined with them, and to expand the community interaction events. They raised over $35,000 toward support of Congolese women.

Other case studies of Ruined included productions by the Denver Center Theatre, Arena Stage, and the Huntington Theatre. I was interested to learn that all of these productions ended up partnering with either Women for Women or  Women’s Global Empowerment Fund — two foundations that aim to support exploited women through access to health care, food, and education. The WGEFund in particular seems interesting, with its funding of the Fistula Foundation‘s Panzi Hospital, which addresses one of the world’s most debilitating obstetrics injuries. Additional points of interest from this panel include Arena Stage’s Sub/Text page for Ruined, which aimed to give audience members extensive background information on the world of the play and how it intersects with the real world; as well as the Huntington’s own dramaturgical splash page. I also appreciated hearing about how the connection between Denver Center’s dramaturg Doug Langworthy and WGEFund’s director Karen Sugar has continued beyond the production itself, and the two organizations have essentially become longer-term partners in the effort to address the needs of women in Africa. This fall, Doug will travel with Karen to Uganda to take part in a women’s drama festival sponsored by WGEFund which promotes literacy, education, creativity, and self-empowerment. THAT is amazing.

We finished Sunday afternoon with a conference wrap-up session and debrief for the conference committee, and for next year’s conference planners.  I love this part of the weekend — it’s particularly dramaturgical in structure. We just did this thing for four days, let’s talk about how it worked, why it worked, and what we’d like to see happen in the future. Go dramaturgs.

…Next year, Hotlanta!

3 Responses to “Reporting from LMDA11: The Dramaturg as Public Artist”


  1. The promise of Digital Dramaturgy, via #LMDA11 « Meet Me on the Commons - July 13, 2011

    […] mentioned in a previous post on the recent dramaturgy conference that we had a formal panel this year on digital dramaturgy. […]

  2. Report from the 2011 Literary Managers & Dramaturgs of the Americas Conference in Denver | VNPAC - July 15, 2011

    […] Reporting from LMDA11: The Dramaturg as Public Artist […]

  3. Dramaturg as Arts Advocate / Dramaturgs & Designers « Meet Me on the Commons - July 17, 2011

    […] mentioned in an earlier post, one day of the conference proceedings were conduced in a style called Open Space. I took notes for […]

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