Excerpt from an interview with Madeleine Oldham, resident dramaturg at Berkeley Repertory Theatre and director of Berkeley Rep's Ground Floor, for “The Secret Life of a Dramaturg” by Caroline Anderson (published in Theatre Bay Area magazine, November/December 2012).
How did you become a dramaturg?
What I always say to that question is I got good at being in the right place at the right time. I mean, I don’t have any formal training, I learned everything I know by doing it. So after college I got a three-week temp job in the box office at Intiman Theater in Seattle. I was supposed to be there for three weeks, and ended up staying for three years. And one day, I had a really great boss who said, “Madeleine, what job in this theatre would you choose if you could choose any one?” And I went, “Well, that dramaturgy thing looks really fun,” and she goes, “Well, why don’t you start reading scripts?” and I did, and one day both people who worked in the literary department just left, and so I became the assistant literary manager there. And I kept getting laid off and thinking I was going to do something else, and then something else would pop up. I just kept making plans to move away from it and being pulled back into it and eventually I accepted that the world was telling me this is what I should be doing.
What would you say makes a good dramaturg?
I think number one is the ability to listen. And I think if you don’t have that, please find another line of work. Or if you’re not interested in it. Which leads me to the second thing, which is curiosity. Being able to listen and being curious are the two most absolute crucial things that a dramaturg [needs to have].
Lack of ego is really important. I mean, it is not about you, like the project is not about you, and if it is, again, find a different line of work. A lot of dramaturgs find that frustrating and burn out, which I understand and I think is natural, because you get so tired of facilitating other people’s visions that you’re kind of like, “Ahh, what’s mine?” So I think it’s about finding this balance between being an active participant engaged in the process and having your own contribution, while at the same time as knowing this is not your baby. And being okay with that balance.
What would you say are the perks of being a dramaturg?
Well, when I’m trying to explain what I do to people who are not theatre people, I often in a joking way will say, “It’s my job to take playwrights out to beer,”—but it’s not untrue. And that’s fun. Playwrights are really interesting people. That’s a perk.
I think that if you’re in the right line of work, you’re able to use your brain in a way that you don’t really get to access in other realms of your life. Even just using your brain at work is something I’m very appreciative of because a lot of people don’t get to do that.
What are the downsides?
So, you have this sort of human need for recognition and appreciation, and you don’t get a lot of it as a dramaturg. You have to be okay with that. And it’s hard sometimes. You do want people to kind of acknowledge your participation in something, but it’s not always seen, and I think that’s a downside.
What is a common misconception about dramaturgs?
Ah! Common misconception number one is that we are all bookworms and we like to kind of hide out in a corner and read and write. Another common misconception is that we want to bestow information upon you. And it’s sort of a double-edged sword because half the people expect you to know everything, and then when you don’t, they’re disappointed. And the other half of the people are like, “Get away from me—I don’t want you educating me.”
Another misconception among some playwrights is that we are here to “fix” their play—not all dramaturgs approach a play as if it’s broken, and I certainly don’t. And I think that that terminology is very insidious and horrible.
Have you done any freelancing?
Yeah, but usually if I have a full-time job, I don’t want to take another dramaturgy job. I also referee men’s ice hockey, so that’s my third job; I have the job at the radio station [KALX] and I have my hockey life. But I think because I’ve been lucky enough to mostly have consistent work on staff at a theatre, I don’t want to be doing more dramaturgy in my spare time; I actually want to diversify a little bit. It’s not that I don’t love it, ‘cause I do, but I think one of the sort of bullet points underneath “a good dramaturg has to be curious” is that you have to be curious about things other than theatre. I think that’s crucial.
What advice would you give to an aspiring dramaturg?
Find your people. Jobs like mine don’t—there just aren’t very many. And I think that’s a great thing to aspire to, but if that’s all you want, and that’s the only thing that’s going to make you happy, I think you’re going to set yourself up for disappointment. So when I say, “Find your people,” I mean, “Find your sort of like-minded theatre makers and find a way to make theatre with them.” Those are the people that are going to help you build your network. I don’t think “networking” is a dirty word, and I don’t mean it in a sort of cheesy glad-handy corporate way, I just mean you should build yourself an arsenal of people around you that you love collaborating with. Those people are going to go out and do other things, you’re going to meet people through those people and—these are the people that are going to hire you, and these are the people that you’re going to be making projects with. Something will come of that—it always does.
And don’t get discouraged if you don’t find work that pays you. I think if it’s something you really love, you’ll find your way to it. I think expecting this to be a job and provide your livelihood is a—it happened for me, so I’m very lucky and very fortunate, but I never expected that it would. And for some reason, I think that’s kind of why it worked. I think just be open—that’s the other piece of advice. Be open to whatever comes your way. ‘Cause building a career as a dramaturg is. . .it can look a million different ways.
If someone was interested in dramaturgy, how can they find out if they really want to do it?
I think a good way to find out if it really is something that you want to do is to immerse yourself in it for a year. Reading scripts for people is always a good way to get your foot in the door and have a little glimpse into what’s working—and to see if you like doing that on a regular basis. I mean, that’s a huge part of this work, reading plays.
Also, identify people that do what you think you want to do, and just talk to them. I mean we’re really accessible, and I think people think we’re not sometimes, or they think we’re behind a door and they can’t get through that door. If somebody picks up the phone and asks, “Can I talk to you?” I always say yes.
And volunteer. Volunteering is a great way to do it. Especially for smaller companies that probably couldn’t pay you, but could actually have you doing more, like work that would be more engaging than if you were at a big theatre and they paid people to do it.
Who is your favorite playwright?
Oh, I don’t know that I can choose a favorite. Today, I will just say that three of my favorites, which are usually on the list, are Sarah Ruhl, Will Eno and Oscar Wilde.
Any favorite productions?
I think one that is a favorite already, even though it hasn’t happened yet, is “Troublemaker,” which is going to be in our 2012-13 season. We’ve been working on that for three or four years now. And it’s one where I’ve been really engaged on a deep level with Dan LeFranc, the playwright, on where the script was heading. When you’re with somebody from the very, very, very beginning, and you get to kind of be with them all the way through the end, that’s when it’s really satisfying.
Madeleine Oldham. Photo: Mary Kay Hickox
A Dramaturg’s Secret Life: