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Ten Questions for Elliott Hayes Award Winner Robyn Quick
In August 2010, LMDA president Danielle Mages Amato sat down (virtually) with Robyn Quick to ask her some questions about her background in dramaturgy and her work on the groundbreaking New Russian Drama Project that won her the 2010 Elliott Hayes Award.
1) How did you get your start in dramaturgy?
Like many people, I suppose, it came over time and from a few different sources. I had some great inspiration in dramaturgical thinking, even before I knew it by that name, from various teachers and collaborators throughout my education as a very young actor and director. Later, at the University of Michigan, I studied with John Russell Brown, who ran the MFA in dramaturgy. Although I was a PhD student, I had the opportunity to take the same classes as students in that program and refine my skills in script analysis. Conversations with my classmate Mary Resing, who started working as a dramaturg in the professional theatre while we were still students, as well as research into the work of other dramaturgs, helped me learn more about the practical side of the art. When I started teaching in the Department of Theatre Arts at Towson University, I was eager to find as many ways as possible to connect my teaching in courses like Script Analysis and Theatre History to the students’ work on productions. I began serving as the dramaturg on department productions and involving students in the process. I also honed my skills by working on productions outside the department.
2) In two or three words, how do you see your most important function as a dramaturg?
Probably the best two-word answer I know is Mark Bly’s wise statement: “I question.” I hope that is a good description of how I work with a script in order to open up its multiple resonances. Certainly I hope the questioning spirit I bring to collaborations with colleagues helps inspire our thinking about what we can do together and challenge our initial assumptions so that we keep developing and refining our ideas. Through the questions I ask and the resources I contribute, I aim to enrich the possibilities we see in a script and in what we can create in performance.
3) The New Russian Project is impressive in its scope and achievements.
Did you set out to undertake such a major collaboration? How did it grow?
My earliest idea was simply to build a semester of my production dramaturgy class around the new Russian drama and perhaps produce one of the plays in our department. But that’s not really the beginning of the story, because the project grew out of the work that Philip Arnoult, founding director of the Center for International Theatre Development, has been doing for over 10 years to make artistic connections between the U.S. and Russia. He has taken over fifty U.S. artistic directors and dramaturgs from major regional theatres to Russia. The Russian drama section of the LMDA website is just one result of those efforts.
It was my trip to the New Drama Festival in Moscow with a CITD group in 2006 that inspired my interest in the plays. I thought that the young characters and frank treatment of social issues often found in the plays would appeal to my students, while the plays’ insights into contemporary Russian culture would offer them a valuable learning opportunity.
After I returned from Moscow, I approached my chair, Jay Herzog, to propose the class and production. Through conversations with Jay and Philip, this idea quickly grew into the notion of a collaborative project between CITD and our department that would include four new Russian plays as our department’s mainstage season for a year and a professional conference that CITD would organize to be hosted at the university and include the performances.
As we looked at ways to produce the plays, we also sought every pedagogical opportunity we could find to build up to and accompany the season. Interest from Stephen Nunns, the director of our graduate program, helped add to the coursework offered and to integrate both undergraduate and graduate students in the learning. Eventually, Stephen directed MFA workshops of two additional plays, which expanded the season.
The other two members of our core planning team, Moscow Times theatre critic John Freedman and Russian director Yury Urnov, helped us make the selection of plays and commissioning of translations part of the project. Ultimately, Philip developed the CITD professional outreach to include events at the Segal Center in New York, conferences such as the Humana Festival, and the distribution of CDs with 26 translated scripts.
As we started developing these plans and putting them in place, excitement grew and other partners became involved. Two playwrights on our faculty, David White and Juanita Rockwell, as well as playwright Kate Moira Ryan, joined the translation process. David and Juanita each collaborated with Yury on a play and Kate created a new adaptation of Olga Mukhina’s Tanya Tanya. Ultimately, four of John Freedman’s translations and one by John Hanlon were also part of our season. David integrated several of the translations into his play reading group and play development course here at the university, which added both to the translation process and the learning opportunities for our students. The season grew further with a workshop production initiated and directed by MFA student Joseph Ritsch, who became interested in the work after taking a seminar in the translation process that John, Yury and I taught together. Additional productions in Baltimore were the result of Philip’s relationships with Single Carrot Theatre and Generous Company, both of which produced new Russian plays over the last year.
Given the scope of what was developing and our belief that the plays could offer
people in this country valuable insights about life in contemporary Russia, I wanted to provide as many learning opportunities in and around the project as possible. Thanks to the Fulbright Scholar-in-Residence Program, Yury Urnov spent the entire 2009 – 2010 school year with us, not only teaching and directing in our department, but also making connections across campus through such activities as a film series and guest lectures in a number of departments.
Another exciting cross-disciplinary collaboration was a course in Russian theatre and politics that I team-taught with a political science professor. We also expanded our audience outreach. With support from the Maryland Humanities Council, we offered production programs with essays on multiple cultural references in the plays and a project website at www.newrussiandrama.org, as well as post-show conversations with experts on Russian society from a variety of disciplines.
And that’s the short version of my answer.
4) Why do American audiences need to see these Russian plays?
The answer has to do in part with the specific generational experience of the playwrights and the role that the plays have in Russian society. By the end of the 1990s, young people who were raised in the Soviet Union and discovering themselves as adults in the midst of the promise and chaos of a society undergoing a similar process of discovery, started bringing their perspectives to the stage. In this wave of writing that has been dubbed “new drama,” twenty and thirty-something playwrights create work that blends discussions of contemporary social issues with bold experiments in theatrical style. The plays have been at the leading edge of conversations within Russia about how to navigate the transition that had been thrust upon its citizens – the sudden disappearance of a country and a way of life, and the effort to create a new society.
While most of us in this country are aware of the major political events that occurred in that region of the world in recent years, we may know less about how
those events have impacted our contemporaries in Russia. The plays take us into everyday struggles, fears, and longing of Russian people. Given the historic tensions between the Soviet Union and the United States, as well as the environment of misunderstanding that still permeates our country’s relationship with Russia, insights we might gain about this culture from the plays seem particularly timely and necessary.
John Freedman suggests that the plays also have resonance beyond what they tell us about the particular dynamics of contemporary Russian life, because we are all “living in a world of change and transition, often of cataclysmic proportions.” He thinks that makes the drama coming out of contemporary Russia very important because, “when our world falls apart and we're left with the task of picking up our lives and starting over from scratch, we will be able to look to Russian drama for some ideas about how to do that.”
5) You say that the project unfolded in four parts: translation, production, pedagogy, and professional outreach. What was the most challenging part of the project for you?
Each part had its great rewards and presented new challenges and new things to learn. I learned the administrative end of commissioning translations and creating contracts. That happens to be something I had not previously handled. For the productions, I gave myself the challenge of extensive audience outreach, with expanded program material – largely created by students -- and post-show conversations with scholars of Russian society from a variety of fields. Given the size of our season, that was quite a bit of activity to coordinate. The pedagogical part of the project offered the opportunity to invent new structures for student learning around our guests and productions. The effort to build new partnerships and reach out to new audiences was very rewarding, but required some real energy.
While CITD led the professional outreach, I was responsible for many of the logistics of hosting the conference. Learning how to do that well would have been more of a challenge if not for the amazing assistance of MFA student Cat Hagner, who served as our season production manager and conference coordinator, and other graduate students and colleagues at the university.
6) Was there a moment that was most satisfying or a moment when you thought: *this* makes it all worthwhile?
There were several such moments surrounding the conference in early May. The day before the conference, we organized an event called Pizza with the Playwrights, which was an open forum for students to converse with the Russian conference guests: critic John Freedman, directors Oleg Loevsky and Yury Urnov, and playwrights Vyacheslav Durnenkov and Yury Klavdiev.
The students came in droves – even after the pizza was gone – and they were thrilled to talk with the Russian artists about the work they had been studying and performing. For their part, the Russians were excited to see how the plays resonated with these young people in the U.S. This mutual interest and genuine dialogue between the two cultures was at the heart of what we hoped to achieve. And it all centered around the plays – which confirmed our sense of the value this work might have for U.S. audiences.
I had similar feelings during the conference as I watched our guests engaged by the plays and curious about the world in which they were created.
7) What does the future life of this project and these plays look like?
There are a few articles in process about the project and some more material that will soon be added to our website. Thanks to the interest that the project has generated and the hundreds of texts that have been shared via the CDs that CITD created and distributed, it seems that the plays are starting to find a home in the U.S. Maksym Kurochkin’s The Schooling of Bento Bonchev was just published in the spring issue of PAJ and there are other individual play publications and a complete anthology in the works. Kurochkin was also in residence this summer at WordBRIDGE Playwrights Laboratory to work with John Freedman on the translation of his play Kitchen.
Upcoming productions include Yury Klavdiev’s I am a Machine Gunner by Generous Company at Baltimore’s Theatre Project. Graham Schmidt and Breaking String Theater, with the Rude Mechanicals, plan to host an entire new Russian drama festival in Austin, Texas at the end of January. Artists from Woolly Mammoth and Cutting Ball theatres who attended the conference
are now planning trips to Russia. So that’s a good start. Stay tuned for more . . .
On a related note, John and Philip have just begun the New American plays for
Russia project. In partnership with artists and major theatres in both countries,
they’re working to develop quality Russian translations of contemporary American plays. I’m excited to see another bridge between the two cultures – this time with an opportunity for Russian audiences to gain some insight about us through our plays.
8) Which of your skills as a dramaturg were most demanded by this project and this process? Do you think there are skills that make dramaturgs natural leaders when it comes to this kind of complex undertaking?
There are many ways that the project demanded dramaturgical skills. Although
I suppose it’s equally fair to say that my way of engaging with the work as a dramaturg contributed to the shape of the project. The fundamental dramaturgical question “why this work at this time for this audience” helped establish a vision for the project that informed activities we planned. That vision was also important in my efforts to serve as a passionate advocate for the work, which is another function dramaturgs can perform. For this particular project, I also played a major role in fundraising, through the grants I wrote. The dramaturgical skills of articulating a vision and of research and writing proved incredibly helpful with that task.
The dramaturg’s role of bringing the world of the play to the artists and to the
audience helped inspire everything from courses and guest artist residences that were part of the project’s educational component to the program essays and post-show talks that our dramaturgical team developed surrounding the performances. Here again, research and the application of what I had learned to the needs of the project were useful skills in providing all concerned with a context for entering the plays. Certainly collaborative skills were equally important in connecting with the various communities involved in making the project happen and in sharing the plays with as many people as possible.
Since this was a play-driven project, perhaps it made particular sense for a dramaturg to play the kind of role I did. But the dramaturgical skills involved in asking questions, developing a vision, learning about the world in which the work was created, planning and implementing activities around the performances, advocating for the work, and developing collaborative partnerships, all seem particularly useful in initiating and coordinating this kind of multi-faceted project, regardless of the focus.
9) What advice do you have for dramaturgs looking to initiate projects at their universities or theatre companies?
Based upon what I learned, I would encourage them to trust their initial vision. If a dramaturg believes work has an audience or potential function within a community, it is absolutely worth pursuing. But I would also recommend asking questions and allowing time for ideas to develop in collaboration with others. It’s important to keep the vision clearly in mind when finding the best means to put it into practice. That vision will also guide efforts to generate excitement about the project with potential partners, funders and audience members. Dramaturgs (or others) wanting to pursue such projects should also make sure they are invested in the work enough to want to spend years to make it happen. It should really matter to them.
I also learned the value of finding partners to supply the necessary resources and to help the work resonate with multiple audiences and communities. At the latest LMDA conference, Morgan Jenness initiated a conversation about how collaborative partners can share resources and create work that speaks to diverse communities. Someone mentioned the tale about stone soup as a good analogy for this kind of collaboration. One great way to involve partners is to start off by making an offer of something that might be of use to the other party -- such as a Fulbright scholar willing to speak to a community group. That offer could lead to conversations about other ways the partners from different kinds of institutions can collaborate. This may be particularly useful in an economic climate that requires us to get creative about money. But there’s a larger idea at play in terms of what we can create for and with each other.
10) What's the next project on your agenda?
I’m still writing about the project and I have material to add to the website. I don’t think new drama and I are quite finished with each other yet. I’m studying Russian this year and there are some exciting possibilities for me on the Russian horizon. I’m also interested in seeing what other explorations we can make out of the collaborative, international, interdisciplinary model we created for this project. Perhaps there are other conversations and exchanges to initiate...