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TBA Online: News & Features: June 2015

Encore: Philippa Kelly

Thursday, June 18, 2015   (0 Comments)
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Interviewed by Laura Brueckner, communications manager

Visitors to California Shakespeare Theater can expect to see at least three things on their way to the Bruns Amphitheater: gorgeous trees, cheerful picnickers and someone with a microphone speaking to a ring of listeners about that evening’s show. Often, that someone is resident dramaturg Philippa Kelly. Cal Shakes’s preshow Grove Talks have been around for over a decade, but Kelly’s have become so popular that (rumor has it) patrons calling the box office have been known to ask for tickets on nights when she will be the one shining a light on the play’s themes and history, and describing the stellar work of the people—on and off stage—who have created the Cal Shakes production they’re about to see. Married to musician Paul Dresher and mother to an adopted son, Cole, Kelly is also author of The King and I (Shakespeare Now!) on King Lear, and coauthor (with former Cal Shakes dramaturg Laura Hope) of the upcoming book Adventures in Feminist Dramaturgy: The Road Less Traveled, due out in July 2015. 

Philippa Kelly, dramaturg.

Where did you grow up?

I was born in England, and went to Australia when I was four. I grew up as part of a large family in rural Australia. My father built a country motel and ran that. My mother had trained as a pharmacist, so she would, every morning, get up, cook breakfast for everybody in the motel, get breakfast for the kids. She would then drive into Toowoomba, the nearest town, and work as a pharmacist all day, come back, cook dinner for seven, sink into bed.

Sounds like things were busy!

I feel that my parents barely knew what grade I was in because they had five kids and all of this going on. I started college at 16—in Australia at that time, you could basically be self-funded at university. Everybody was paid for. Then, if you got a decent enough degree, you’d get a scholarship to do a master’s or PhD. [It’s] so different from here today; I almost feel like people have to be Einstein to be able to be allowed to pay for a graduate degree.

How did you come to your current role at Cal Shakes? 

Before I met Paul and married him, I was a literature professor in Australia [at the University of New South Wales], with a focus on Shakespeare and theatre generally. Came out here, got a research fellowship, and was thinking, “I wonder what life will hold?” when Cal Shakes asked me to talk in the Grove. My first Grove Talk was about 2003 or 2004. Then Jon [Moscone, artistic director of Cal Shakes] asked me to dramaturg [King Lear]. 

King Lear is a pretty massive undertaking for a first-time dramaturg! 

I mean, King Lear I’ve written two books on. I’ve written countless articles. [But] that first slot, I was so green, I don’t think I was very useful to the director. Then Jon gave me another shot, and I dramaturged [Pericles] for Joel Sass. The year after that, the resident dramaturg [Laura Hope] left Cal Shakes. I was in Jon’s line of vision because I had done a couple of shows. He said, “Hey, could you be resident dramaturg?”

That’s amazing. How has your sense of dramaturgy evolved since then?

I think it’s getting to know the mind of the director, helping them to realize their vision. That sounds very basic, but one’s [own] understanding of the play might run completely counter to how the director sees it. So, it’s somehow marrying what you see in the play to what you see the director as aiming for. 

For me, dramaturgy is not just curating a text, saying, “What are you doing with cell phones when...” It’s protecting those places of ambiguity that people, when they get too close to a work, want to fill up with words. You can see the impulses to stuff that packet and make sure it’s full. But in the fullness sometimes you drain it of that crucial ambiguity. 

Who are some of your favorite directors to work with?

Joel Sass I love. He’s actually a set designer as well, so [he understands] that physicality. Shana Cooper; she’s unbelievably receptive to ideas. Aaron Posner—he’s beautiful. He’s very easy to dramaturg for. Basically, I got his script for the last show the night before rehearsals started. I sat up till four. Made 120 notes. He sat up, entered all my notes. I sent the script in for printing. Out by 11. [Laughs.]

What skills would you advise aspiring dramaturgs to develop? 

I think the capacity and the will for close text work—to be able to spot repetitions, even punctuation. Some of the best dramaturgs are actually designers, because they have to know the world so well and so plausibly. Also, the capacity to create a conversation—not to feel that you have to have the answer, but that you have the place to begin a conversation. Then, the capacity to listen, to really listen. The worst thing is to shove—just because you have information doesn’t mean that it’s time to give it. That’s one of the biggest lessons in teaching dramaturgs how to be good dramaturgs.