Friday, April 25, 2003

The go-to gang: PSC's dramaturgy and education interns

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Perhaps you actually read the programs when you go to the theater. Maybe you even read a bulletin board in the lobby, with a little more information on the play, the playwright, and the setting or topics, and you appreciate the historical authenticity of the performance. At Portland Stage Company, those are wonderful snacks for the public brain, but there is real meat around too: Hanging next to the bulletin board at PSC is a resource guide, and there are copies available for $5 from the box office, the concession stand, or by subscription.

They include information on the history of the play, detailed research and write-ups on themes in the play — even ones just barely touched on or alluded to. The guide is the result of exhaustive work, online, in libraries and archives, and in interviews with people who know a lot more about specific topics than the rest of us (like nuclear physics, say, for Copenhagen).

The elves who put together all this information, used by teachers and students, as well as both serious and casual theatergoers, work in an office they call " the Nerdery, " home to PSC’s five education and dramaturgy interns and their fearless leader, intern alumna Lindsay Cummings. When it comes to learning more about anything that’s in the script, this group is the go-to gang.

Set designers want to know about period architecture, actors want to know what has happened to their characters before the play’s action begins, directors need help planning loosely scripted dance performances, or audiences just ask the question: " What’s it about? " For all of those and more, the answers come from the interns.

Three of them, James Kittredge, Corey Atkins, and Alicia Reid, are the directing and dramaturgy interns, working closely with the directors of each show at PSC. They take turns being the primary dramaturg and learning about directing by watching the rehearsals. It’s a fun job, but a lot of work. A dramaturg basically performs the role of " a surrogate audience member in the rehearsal process, " says Kittredge, giving feedback on what’s working and what’s not.

But when a question comes up, it’s their time to shine. The dramaturg’s job, based on an 18th-century German theater reviewer, is also described as " applied theater history and criticism, " Cummings says.

Reid is working closely with director Ron OJ Parson on Fences, now running at PSC. One character performs a spiritual atavistic dance in a closing scene, and neither Parson nor the actor, Charles Michael Moore, knew really what to do. They had an idea of what they wanted — incorporating elements of African and Native American dance traditions — but didn’t know how to get there. So they turned to Reid. She went to the Center for Cultural Exchange to look at videos of different dances, and talk to dancers in the Portland area.

She also chanced to walk past the doors of MECA one day not long ago and see that Oscar Mokeme, of the Museum of African Tribal Art, was performing. She introduced herself and talked to him, too, before going back to the theater to talk with Parson and Moore about what the dance should look like.

The dramaturg also gets to work with the director to make sure all of the actors know the basic situation of the time and place in which the play occurs, what Atkins called " the solid framework that a play is built around. "

For Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, earlier this season, Kittredge had to research two different time periods, as well as do historical and ethnographical work, particularly learning about a 19th-century system of sending messages by the way a woman holds and uses her fan. " I always like learning new things, " Kittredge says. " It’s really neat to influence the production process. "

In addition to helping out their colleagues, R.J. McComish and Jennie Wurtz do different forms of research. McComish helps pick the new scripts that PSC receives, including the Clauder competition entries. Immersed in new theater writing, he keeps track of what’s come in that really sings, and what could use some work. From this vantage point, he helps plot the direction of PSC’s performances into future seasons, and he calls the job a " scarily perfect " fit.

Wurtz, for her part, puts together the resource guides, the program insert material, the bulletin boards, information for press releases and grant requests, and anything else that allows readers " to have a context for what’s happening " on stage, she says. It’s a job she loves — " you don’t ever get bored " — and has helped hone her research and writing skills.

" Theater doesn’t end when the lights go down, " says Wurtz. It ends when the experience stops, when people stop thinking about it.