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DR A M AT URGS BRING ‘RICHNESS A ND L IGH T ’ TO T HE AT ER W I T H HIS TORIC A L RESE A RCH A ND S TOR Y T EL L ING SK IL L S
Jeanie Forte Smith sits with scripts on a prop couch at the Pear Avenue Theatre in Mountain View, where she’s staff dramaturg.
by Rebecca Wallace
hen TheatreWorks put on the play “My Antonia,” Vickie Rozell worked with a railroad museum to make sure the 19th century train tickets looked right. For “Distracted,” the story of a woman struggling with her son’s ADHD diagnosis, Rozell created a chart of medications. She’s researched wars and family trees, Stephen Sondheim’s life, August Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle of plays. The fruits of Rozell’s labor are stacks of books, photos and carefully organized binders that live in the rehearsal room. Whenever actors need clarity or a historical touchstone — Was the U.S. at war yet during this scene? Who’s that artist the script keeps mentioning? — they know where to go. “I never know what I’m going to learn about, but I get to learn something new all the time,” says Rozell, who is TheatreWorks’ resident dramaturg. It’s a plum and not-socommon job. For audiences, the work done by most theater artists — actors, designers, directors — is as clear as a spotlight. They may not realize that there’s sometimes another person behind the scenes helping bring the world of a play or musical to vivid life: the dramaturg. One dramaturg in his time plays many parts. The New York Times once covered a 2002 symposium at Mount Holyoke College on the role of a modern dramaturg. Participants had a tough time giving a quick and fast definition of their profession. They tossed around such phrases as “a great equalizer” and “a mediator between the actor and the director.” Ultimately, reporter William H. Honan wrote, they agreed that a dramaturg is “a kind of
theatrical and literary adviser who helps the actors and the director understand the play they are presenting.” The tradition probably dates back to the 18th-century German dramatist Gotthold Lessing. Besides doing extensive research on the history and universe of a play, dramaturgs often write program articles to share that context with audiences. They may sit in on talkback nights at the theater, so that after performances audiences can ask them questions. Along with having a penchant for detail, dramaturgs also have a taste for good storytelling. Many work with playwrights to develop new scripts (sometimes translating from foreign languages), and go through piles of scripts to find ones suitable for their theater companies. At the Pear Avenue Theatre in Mountain View, staff dramaturg Jeanie Forte Smith plays a major role in choosing and improving new scripts. Smith, a Palo Alto resident, has a Ph.D. in drama from the University of Washington and is also The Pear’s associate artistic director (she is also a frequent theater critic for the Voice). The Pear, with its own Pear Playwrights Guild of writers, has a strong affinity for new works. This is Smith’s seventh year with the annual Pear Slices festival of new short plays. She works with Pear artistic director Diane Tasca and board member Robyn Braverman to field script submissions, choose plays and find directors. This year, they chose eight scripts from the 26 sent in. As a dramaturg, Smith is mainly looking for “that kernel of good storytelling that’s theatrical,” See SCRIPT, page 26
NOVEMBER 27, 2009 ■ MOUNTAIN VIEW VOICE ■
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Vickie Rozell used these books as part of her research for â€œA Civil War Christmas.â€?
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rather than written like an all-talk novel. â€œIf we find it interesting, compelling, amusing, engaging, maybe thereâ€™s something there,â€? she says over coffee in a Palo Alto cafe. â€œI also think about how much development the piece could need: editing, fleshing out, rewriting. Is it too much?â€? Once the scripts are chosen, Smith may work extensively with the playwrights, making sure a script has a good arc, that its scenes hang together. Then come initial read-throughs of the plays, and Smith, Tasca and Braverman exchange feedback. Smith coordinates all the feedback and works