Artistic Associate Kittson O'Neill's Reflections on the MFA Playwright's Workshop
Last week I got to take a little vacation to Theater Land. Theater Land is a magical place where you don’t worry about taking out the trash, getting your kid to school or rushing to a last minute audition. It’s a place where you think only about the play you are working on. Where your brain can be in the rehearsal room and NO WHERE else all day. Where you go for beers after rehearsal and talk about all the other plays you love and then go back to your hotel to dream about them all jumbled together. It’s a lovely place. This time Theater Land was the Kennedy Center, where I was taking part in the MFA Playwrights Workshop. The Workshop is a weeklong exploration of six plays by current MFA playwrighting students and is also sponsored by the National New Play Network & Stanford University's National Center for New Plays. InterAct is a proud founding member of the NNPN so I always jump at a chance to work with them. In addition to the MFA plays, an alumnus of the workshop is also invited to attend. This year it was Jennifer Fawcett and I was asked to dramaturg her play.
Now you might be wondering, “What the heck is a dramaturg?” When I first read this title in a program I certainly wondered. I decided they were probably some sort of gnomish editor who showered the playwright with date corrections and grammar adjustments. Well, that might be some dramaturgs at some theaters, but at InterAct my job as the ‘turg is to help the playwright make the play as powerful as possible, to bring it closer to their vision and to always make sure that vision is going to come across to the audience. If you watched any of the Olympics lately, you can think of me as that stoic coach on the sidelines watching every back handspring with my heart in my mouth. It’s not my body on the line and I won’t win a gold medal, but when a new play soars, sings and sticks its landing it's bliss for the dramaturg too.
At InterAct my work as a dramaturg is often done on the fly. In addition to working on the play in rehearsal, I’m reading submissions, making lobby displays and arguing with Seth about why Richard 2 really does fit our mission. I’m also a full time actor subject to all the vagaries and challenges of that mad profession. Oh, and I have a kid. He’s four and a certain amount of every day must be dedicated to pretending to be a Transformer.
When I met with Jennifer in DC she had 70 pages of a play set in the 17th Century and three scenes from a play set now. She knew her story about the demise of midwife at the hands of an ambitious doctor had modern resonance, but she couldn’t make the two stories work together. So, very bravely, she decided to set her modern tale aside and focus solely on the epic world of London in 1606.
This meant an enormous amount of research for me and my assistant: Where did Doctors get cadavers for dissection? What did midwives call the placenta? How do you address an Archdeacon in 1606? It also meant that each day was a vigorous and exciting conversation about science and mystery, about the paranoia of King James 2, about fear and how people use it. Never before have I been invited to be this deeply involved in the formation of a play; to see the writer change the course of her plot, flip our sympathy with a character and then change it all again the next day was thrilling.
It was a productive and exhausting week in Theater Land. I left the Kennedy Center with dozens of questions still buzzing in my head. Jennifer left with 25 new pages and, probably, even more questions. I was proud of her, proud of the progress we made and now, like that nervous coach, I just have to see what she does out there on the parallel bars. I’m sure she’ll stick her landing.