Archive for the ‘theatre (dramaturgy)’ Category

It seems to be that every time I have received these report forms (5th, 10th, 15th, 20th, 25th, 30th) in which to articulate what the heck is going on in my life, I have been on the verge of moving or have just moved to a new city.  This is not a wild coincidence as I am a person who has moved more often than most, with a (mostly) happy accumulation of living experiences under my belt and the best adventure (Manhattan!) yet to come.

The following is a version of what I submitted for my Harvard College 30th Class Report, which was in turn slightly adapted from a panel presentation in which I participated at the July 2009 Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas annual meeting in Washington DC.  Our panel topic was freelance dramaturgy.  How most of us had come to the discipline and profession from a range of points of origin — other professions, other kinds of training.  And how the dramaturgical perspective can be adapted to a range of professional endeavors.  My remarks here end up sounding like a kind of manifesto but so be it.  So to my college classmates and to myself I wrote this statement of life course and current status.  I am a dramaturg.

I am a dramaturg. Observer.  Reader.  Synthesizer.  Conducting research for productions, writing about productions, collaborating with playwrights on works in progress, reviewing scripts. Taking advantage of the interdisciplinary mind I honed for a while at Harvard all these years ago.

I came at this backwards, not with a BFA or MFA and then seeking a range of uses but with training in related fields and coming home to theatre.  In my 40s.  I started with a love for theatre then spent 20 years in social policy jobs with a special interest in adoption, foster care, family support, and early intervention programs.  I honed skills as an observer, note taker, synthesizer of perspectives and multiple sources of information.  And these, my friends, are the skills of a dramaturg.  You read carefully a work in development or under consideration for a  theatre’s production season.  You observe rehearsals, run throughs, other events, and provide your feedback.  You synthesize materials for actors and designers and audiences

It took me many years and a range of work experiences to return to the work I began while at Harvard: theatre.  I did not manage to figure out the dramaturgical role I now love back then, but all my related experiences are fodder for current projects.  I’ve lived and worked in many places since my childhood in Grand Rapids, Michigan.  Cambridge and Somerville, Massachusetts; St. Louis, Missouri; Ann Arbor, Michigan; Pittsburgh, PA; Washington DC; Chicago, IL; Philadelphia, PA; and soon New York City.  In DC I finally started looking closely at this research-to-theatre fit and return to my roots.

I lived in DC for 8 years and for 6 of those years worked at a national court research organization.  My multidimensional educational history led me to this organization where I observed and wrote about what I saw: AB in English and American Literature, a masters in social welfare policy, a year of law school, and a lot of years toward a public policy PhD I never had the gumption or inclination to finish.  At Michigan during those PhD years I kept getting distracted by the theatre department .  But policy research jobs accumulated and in DC I ended up studying courts (primarily family courts and juvenile courts) and their procedures across the country.  For this organization the COURT is the client, hiring us to observe and report back on innovations and processes – what they do right, what they can improve.  That kind of thing.  A typical project would have several components: reviewing case files and other court case data for variables/information of interest; interviews with court personnel, judges, attorneys, and often the families that came before the court; and court observation.

Each case observed was for me a little play.  The cast assembled on the stage of the courtroom.  I’d imagine their lives outside and the specific issues the court was to decide, e.g. “was the foster care placement working out?”, “how was the spouse doing in his batterer program?” I’d muse about the intersection of these lives “off stage” / out of court.  And I was doing the work of a dramaturg in a court researcher’s disguise.

When I decided that life was too short not to follow my drive to focus on theatre, I shifted to work on plays in development, rehearsal processes, performance reviews.  The skills honed in social science research are directly applicable to the close observation and careful attention to language and movement that I bring to dramaturgical work.  A 2005 move to Chicago allowed me to apply these same skills as a freelance dramaturg — script reading and production dramaturgy.  During a year in Philadelphia I have read for several play festivals, worked with a playwright’s organization, a spent a great deal of time in nearby New York City.  By August of this year, following a job for my spouse, I will be located on the west side of Manhattan.

Observing. Synthesizing. Applauding the work of fellow professionals.  For me, these skills translate.  I am a dramaturg.

[For more resources on dramaturgy, start here: http://www.lmda.org/tags/what-dramaturgy]

© Martha Wade Steketee (June 25, 2010)


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One storyteller on stage, evoking a time, a story, a history – perhaps a call off stage, or a silent second character serves to prompt further story telling.  Yes, the one person play.  One act or full length with song (such as Elaine Stritch at Liberty) or sound effects.  Or just a human being in one on a stage.  Settling in for a good story with our narrator as the focal point. That’s it — clarity of focus and purity of intention and there’s nothing better when done well.

I am a dramaturg working with a group of theatre professionals assembling a one woman show about trailblazing makeup artist Dottie Ponedel — first woman member of the Hollywood makeup union, IATSE Local 706.  [See project blog at http://dottieponedel.wordpress.com/].  As background research, I draw upon my own long-term ongoing passionate interest in the one person play about historical figures, especially individuals in the arts. In our work on our play about Dottie, I analyze the strengths and weakness of particular dramatic choices from the scripts on my library shelves and the playbills in my own archives and the performances in my memories of stage adventures past.  As we research the life of a woman about whom there are no published memoirs or biographies (working closely with a relative who holds her archives), I assemble raw material in rational sequences.  I develop the raw life history.  And at the same time I attend to the details and events and interactions that have dramatic potential.  I ponder which events might frame a scene or begin an act or propel action through an intermission or resound in a play’s final moments? And in particular, I analyze what we can  learn from examples of other one person (or limited cast) plays also inspired by the lives of particular non fictional characters.

In September 2009, as I was just wading into the experience of working with my play development colleagues, before I started interviewing and researching and assembling the timeline of Dottie’s life that I continue to augment — I crafted a research memo on the structural questions suggested by one person plays.  I was asked to suggest some one person plays to the group (more blog posts on this theme to come on specific works) offering examples.  And this I did from my own experience of reading and observing and actively consuming this art form for the past 30-odd years.  My suggestions ranged from Belle of Amherst (Emily Dickinson) to Master Class (almost one person about Maria Callas) to Tea at Five (Kate Hepburn) to Gertrude Stein Gertrude Stein Gertrude Stein to Golda’s Balcony (Golda Meir) to Lillian (Lillian Hellman) to Full Gallop (Diana Vreeland) to Tru (Truman Capote) and on and on.  All of these plays offer ways of framing a life as a theatrical experience.  And all of these models require deep knowledge of the subject and the willingness to pare down a fascinating life into key and evocative details.

Before I knew many details of Dot’s life, I offered a summary of the possible elements of a life around which an evening of theatre could dramatically be structured. How could we root the show, I wondered.

  • Is there a particular pivotal event in Dottie’s life? from the Garland history perspective I’d vote for the drama of the BBC interviewers taking their “poor Judy” agenda into their interview with Dot but that’s Garland-specific … were there others?
  • Was there a loss of parent?
  • Were there career decisions and/or career transitions as in the Vreeland play?
  • Were there long lingering final illnesses that led to confessions?  Or dramatic pivotal events like the eviction as in the Stein play?
  • Were there late life accolades. For example: the Chaplin movie with Robert Downey Jr. used the event of Chaplin receiving an honorary Academy Award toward the end of his life .. were there events like this in Dot’s?
  • Would the pared down “an evening with Dot Ponedel” work as a structure?  Mark Twain Tonight and Clurman (about Harold Clurman) take this approach.  The character tells stories, using the audience as an audience that individual in character may have had at a public event.

I am struck in reading the original version of these words from 9 months ago that so many of these questions (now answered) have indeed provided initial dramatic structure to our developing enterprise.  And now I rise.  And now Dottie does begin to rise.  And our work continues.

© Martha Wade Steketee (June 24, 2010)

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On Friday November 13,  2009 I attended a screening of SANDY (1926) at the Museum of Modern Art with a stalwart crew of fellow theatre fans and colleagues working on a theatre piece on the life of Dorothy Ponedel.

After we convened at the Education and Research Building at 4 West 54th Street a few minutes before our 3pm screening appointment, we signed in and were soon permitted to ascend the open stairway up to the second floor.  On the way up the stairs you could look out a glass wall into the MOMA sculpture garden.  We continued to rise past a solid wall of yellow and pink Warhol wallpaper cow faces to the second floor, a lot of “staff only” signs including a staff cafeteria, to a screening room.  “The Time Warner Screening Room.”  Past a flat screen television mounted at right shoulder height as entering a nondescript door … we entered the beautiful and comfortable six-eight row, perhaps 50 seat screening room haven.  I could live there.

We were greeted by film enthusiast and MOMA employee, our host and projectionist Charles Silver.  On the way to New York from Philadelphia by train that morning  I had by chance begun the splendid 2007 biography of Dot’s great friend Joan Blondell entitled Joan Blondell: A Life Between Takes (by Matthew Kennedy).  Inveterate acknowledgement / introduction reader that I am, I was thrilled to see our same Charles Silver of MOMA thanked by this author.  I was such a geek about this I asked Mr. Silver to sign my copy of the book by the mention of his name.  I think he thought I was a little daffy, but he obliged me.  And, when I asked about snapping cell phone photos during the 90 minute screening experience he said “as long as I don’t know.”  I love him.

We had been prepped to catch the momentary appearances of the object of our affection, Ms. Ponedel, by her niece who provided to us some stills featuring the uncredited Dot as a dancing girl and flapper (smile) from this 80 year old, fragile, precious movie.  During the screening we allowed the beauty of the celluoid, the luminiosity of the images, the simplicity of the story telling, to envelop us .. we laughed, we sighed, we smiled.  We cheered this piece of our cultural history.  And we embraced yet again our Ms. Ponedel.  And just felt the story.

A few images:

© Martha Wade Steketee (November 16, 2009)


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[reposted from the Rivendell Theatre Ensemble’s production blog for These Shining Lives, 23 December 2008

“I never dreamed I’d have a now of my own that looked this good.”

It is 1922. Prohibition has a three year track record, and U.S. women enjoy their second year of the right to vote. One of the most popular songs in America is Al Jolson’s version of Toot Toot Tootsie (Good-Bye). Silent film stars Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks celebrate their second anniversary and the League of Nations (the precursor to the United Nations) celebrates its third. U.S. women comprise less the 25 percent of the work force and of those women who work, approximately 25 percent are in white-collar jobs, 25 percent are in manufacturing jobs, less than 20 percent work as domestic servants, and most of the balance work in agriculture. Women begin to don the haircut called the “bob” sported by actress Colleen Moore in the 1920 silent film Dinty. This year the Radium Dial Company continues its recently relocated business in a town named Ottawa, Illinois, about 80 miles southwest of Chicago. And in 1922, Catherine Wolfe Donohue begins a new job at this company located just blocks from her home.

The work at Radium Dial involves painting luminous numbers on watch and clock faces for pennies a “dial”. The material Catherine and her colleagues use to paint constantly glowing timepiece dial face numbers is laced with a valuable newly discovered ore called radium. This element was tested for scientific purposes, used during the World War in airmen’s and soldiers’ timepieces and asserted to have medicinal, therapeutic and cosmetic uses. The women of Radium Dial ingest this new compound while doing their work, painting the dials, pointing their paintbrushes between their lips, breathing the radium-filled dust, and sitting near the completed dial faces stacked beside them at their work stations.

And for Catherine, this was her way into a new life, this new American woman, this independence. As dramatized by playwright Melanie Marnich in These Shining Lives, Catherine revels in the sensations of working after her first day of work .

“I walked home that night in the dark. A girl walks differently when she’s making money. I thought to myself, ten years ago a girl like me couldn’t even vote let alone make this kind of money. Couldn’t do better than her father and just as good as her husband. Couldn’t even smoke … But now? I never dreamed I’d have a now of my own that looked this good.”

This real tale of freedom and independence for Catherine and hundreds of women like her in Illinois, New York, New Jersey, and elsewhere quickly becomes a story of corporate ignorance, malfeasance, and ultimate responsibility. Legal actions brought by women in a New Jersey radium dial company result in settlements in the 1920s, and the women of Ottawa continue their work. In 1925, the U.S. Department of Labor orders a general survey of all radium plants to investigate radium effects on occupational diseases including the newly identified “radium necrosis”, and the women of Ottawa continue their work. Medical opinion during the 1920s is divided on the effects of radium on the human body and the women of Ottawa continue their work. A Public Health Service conference in December 1928 considers the problem of safeguarding workers in industries using radium, and the women of Ottawa continue their work. And by 1937 the Radium Dial Company stops its work in Ottawa, only to continue it in New York State

In 1922 our dramatized Catherine Donohue is in awe of the “now” that is possible. Sixteen years later, the dramatized and well-documented Catherine testifies on behalf of herself and other dying former Radium Dial employees as “Ottawa’s Living Dead.” This play is their story of humor and independence. And so much more.


“All Radium Plants in Federal Inquiry: Labor Department States Search to Discover the Cause of “Radium Necrosis”, Hears of No Other Cases, New Occupational Disease Would Affect the Workmen’s Compensation Law”, New York Times June 21, 1925.

“Important Events of the 1920s”
http://www.enotes.com/1920-american-decades-about/important-events [accessed 12/2/2008]

Kovarik, Bill (2002). “The Radium Girls”, originally published as Chapter Eight of Mass Media and Environmental Conflict. http://www.runet.edu/~wkovarik/envhist/radium.html [accessed 12/2/2008]

The Louise Brooks Society, Louis Brooks Chronology. http://www.pandorasbox.com/bio/chronology.html [accessed 12/2/2008]

“75 Experts Meet On Radium Disease: Washington Conference Urges Surgeon General to Name a Board of Inquire, Would Codify Safeguards, Watch Company Official Says Use of Steel Stylus Instead of Brush Obviates Ill Effects” December 21, 1928

“The Story of Radium: Madame Curie’s Discovery Followed Years of Striving – How America Took The Lead”, New York Times May 15, 1921.

“Woman Tells of ‘Living Death’ at Radium Quiz: Former Watch Painter Faints; Halts Hearing”. Chicago Daily Tribune, February 11, 1938.

© Martha Wade Steketee (December 23, 2008)

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