Excerpt from an interview with Philippa Kelly, resident dramaturg at California Shakespeare Theater, 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?
I began my career as a Shakespeare scholar. Originally I did a Ph.D. in Shakespeare and then I went on a Fulbright postdoctoral fellowship to Berkeley, came back to Australia [and] taught for several years. I’d always loved Berkeley, and, on the back of a Rockefeller award to Bellagio, I took the chance to undertake sabbatical research in Berkeley. That’s when I met my husband, [composer] Paul Dresher, and his son Cole.
Paul and Cole and I pretty quickly became a family, and I gave up my tenured professorship in Australia and moved over here. In about 2002 I happened to meet [Cal Shakes artistic director] Jon Moscone, who asked whether I’d like to come out and do [pre-show audience] Grove Talks at Cal Shakes, because their main speaker, Joanie, was away for the upcoming season. Then Jon asked me to dramaturg “King Lear” in 2007; then again to dramaturg “Pericles” in 2008.
What does your job entail?
Well, over the winter, I start writing actor packets for the different productions upcoming during the next year, and I actually do those even for shows I’m not dramaturging, because I have a passion for it and am happy to do it. Before rehearsals I’m also usually editing the script and finalizing its details for the director. Anyway, so then we’re in rehearsal. My heaviest part of rehearsal is the first week, when I’m helping people with any script issues, glossing of words or phrases. We usually have a voice/text coach and I’ll do line interpretations, but pronunciations are usually with someone else.
By line interpretations you mean...?
Glossing of lines, so, you know, how was this line used in the 16th century or even the 18th century or whenever—or even the early 20th century if we’re doing a [play by] Coward, as we are this year. The first week’s the heaviest, then I usually come in and out. And then you have run-throughs and previews, and during all of that process I’ll be giving notes and just basically making myself available from the beginning of production to the end for what’s needed.
Audience enrichment is an area that I’ve really enjoyed building up a lot at Cal Shakes. Jon Moscone is very enthusiastic about this area, so he really opened the door for me to do that. This includes all the talkbacks after Sunday matinees, moderation of all the Inside Scoops [pre-production audience events], organizing the Grove Speakers and then writing a season-long blog called “Ask Philippa!” (Jon set this up during Beckett’s “Happy Days” because there were so many audience questions.) With each production, any audience member who has a question, or a thought, or a misunderstanding or an unhappiness about a show can say, “Hey, this didn’t work for me, could you tell me why that choice was made?” Or, “Could you tell me what was the position of women in the 16th century?” Any question they like, and I always answer them, because I think every question brings up something that can be turned around to be useful. Even, you know, a question that is very negative about a production.
Generally speaking, what would you say a dramaturg does? What does the job entail?
The basic requirement is preparing scripts and preparing context for the company. Then you use your own unique set of skills to build on top of that, as and where it feels right for the company you are with.
Can you explain what you mean by “helping prepare a script?”
For scripts that are over 70 years old, you can adapt them without permission, and so all the Shakespeares are entirely open to cutting, pasting, reallocating lines. . .So what a director will do is say to me, “Hey, I’d like to reallocate these lines to give them from Bassanio to Antonio, could I do that and still make sense?” And it’s my job to work out whether that is going to work, and so in a way, the curation of the script’s storyline rests with the dramaturg.
Often a director will say, “Hey, overnight, could you prepare a list of classical references,” say for “The Tempest,” so I need to be available to do those things. Writing actors’ packets. I try to write original material, because I really like to think that I can prepare something that is not just a compilation of the thoughts that have already been written. I’ll try to look at the performance history of a particular production so that we can call a range of performance options to mind if the director wants that input.
What would you say makes a good dramaturg?
I think a good dramaturg has a way of thinking that is both innovative and cautious. I like to think of the dramaturg as a vein that can run right through the production from the very inception. And when I say a vein, you are touchstone for feeling, and a touchstone for ideas. You don’t become a dramaturg if you want to be the driving force of a production. You’re there as a living pulse. So there has to be a degree of intellectual experience, perspicacity, and, I want to say, humility—not in the sense of being a doormat, for the director or the actors, nothing like that; a sense that, “I have this information, it may be useful, it may not.”
You have to be confident. You also have to be able to practice the willing suspension of disbelief, in that this may not be your dream production: how, in this circumstance, do you support what is taking place? The dramaturg supports the vision that’s emerging for the director and the creative team and the actors, without being a drudge. You know so often dramaturgs are presented as these mother hens that flap around a production, not ever saying what they really think. This isn’t who we are, nor, actually, who the directors want us to be. But you are not the heart of the production – the director is that. You are, as I mentioned before, a ventricle that feeds the heart. So for me, the relationship with the director is really important, so I might write them at night and say, “This is what I felt about this particular scene today; I worry that this may not be coming across clearly enough.” In other words, you have to have, or establish, that channel of communication. You’re actually an organic part of the process.
Essentially, as a dramaturg, you have an understanding, an empathy, that you cultivate. You have to be able to understand a production by more truly understanding yourself and your own thinking. Everything in my life in some way informs my understanding of the process of production. So for me, for example, the most important thing in my life over the past few years was the death of my beloved brother. From a vibrant, brilliant, warm man, he went to nothing. Suddenly all of Hamlet’s angst transforms from the realm of intellectualization to the realm of how we live, and ache, and hope. It’s only by really understanding yourself that I think you can be of real value to a production. Otherwise you’re either the mother hen or you’re too scared, too unsure of your own thinking, to actually be able to be of value—or, maybe, too sure of your own thinking, to be able to key into what the conversation is about. I see a dramaturg always as a person who’s equipped, by nature and skill, to come into a conversation, and really hear what’s going on, without trying to take it over.
A really important thing for a dramaturg is not to become skilled at simply giving the director back what you think the director wants to hear. So, hold a mirror up to the director so they can more clearly see what they are thinking, but don’t just try to please. I think that’s an important kind of skill to develop.
What is a common misconception about dramaturgs?
That they’re boring. I mean, maybe we are boring. Nobody ever thinks they’re boring! That they’re going to be eye-rollingly pedantic about a text. I think they’re the two most common misconceptions.
What advice would you give to an aspiring dramaturg?
First and foremost, find a way to support yourself financially, so that you’re not dependent on dramaturgy to make your living. So in other words, find a way to do it as your passion; if it comes to something more financially viable, that’s great, but it’s very hard to work with your passion when you’re scared about where your next meal will come from.
How could someone who is interested in dramaturgy find out if he or she wants to pursue it?
You have to find a way to build experience. At Cal Shakes I wasn’t aiming to become resident dramaturg. I wanted to give these talks out at the theatre, and was so delighted to do that—I was not actually working my way “up” from the bottom steps because for me, those steps were where I wanted to be—with the audience. But I was thrilled to grab the opportunity to go further when it was offered.
Philippa Kelly. Photo: Jay Yamada
A Dramaturg’s Secret Life: