ANN-MARIE DITTMANN: I knew I wanted to do something theater related from an early age. In elementary school our next-door neighbor was involved in the University Theater scene and her daughters and my brothers and I ended up appearing in the children’s roles for several University productions, and I stayed involved in theater and dance through high school. As an undergrad I thought that I wanted to be a Stage Manager and possibly a Director. I started out in the Stage Management program at Boston University. But then Freshman year I took my first Theater History class and I knew immediately that Theater History would need to play a strong role in whatever I did in the theater, the next semester I discovered Dramaturgy and I felt like I had truly found my calling, so I switched to the Theater Studies program, which allowed me to peruse Dramaturgy. My first professional job was at Goodspeed Musical. That was a wonderful experience, because I was able to see what went into producing both revivals and new work, and I fell in love with developing new plays.
JL: How do you define dramaturgy? Or explain to people the work that you do?
AMD: I often tell people Dramaturgs are artistic shape-shifters, because they have the skill sets to adjust to fill and support many important artistic roles in the theater. I usually start out by explaining to people that in the traditional sense dramaturgs are the people who conduct the background research to help the director and actors examine and understand the context of the play, and often write the program notes to provide the audience with context for the play. But in contemporary theater a dramaturg also helps playwrights develop and clarify their scripts. Often in an institutional setting they help set or shape a theatrical season, and provide audience enrichment programs related to the productions. In terms of new play development the dramaturg is sort of the midwife for the play, the one who helps things along, the outside eyes and ears that help keep things on track and support the playwright so she or he can produce a vibrant compelling script.
JL: How long have you lived and worked as a dramaturg in DC? What brought you here? Why have you stayed?
AMD: I’ve worked off and on as a dramaturg in DC for eleven years. I came here with my husband when he wanted to move here for a great job opportunity. We have stayed for a variety of personal and professional reasons, but it certainly helps that DC is a great area for theater.
JL: If your work as a dramaturg doesn’t pay the bills, what else do you do? How do you balance this work with your dramaturgy?
AMD: For the past six years I have been a Library Associate at the Arlington Public Library. One of the primary functions of my position is producing Public Programming for adults. I have been very fortunate to be able to incorporate theater related audience enrichment and presenting new theater work as part of my work in that position. Before the budget cuts in the last few years we had a much more robust calendar of programming. I was able to present a number of solo theater works by writer/performers such as Laura Zam, Psalmayene24, and Kathleen Gonzales. We also had a reading of Elsewhere in Elsinore by Caleen Jennings performed by her students from American University and a reading of Chay Yew’s Questions 27, Question 28 by MuseFire productions. I’ve had some great theater related round table discussions including one on Sanskrit Drama, at the time when WSC Avant Bard was doing a series of readings of Sanskrit plays, and a panel on Shakespeare in Contemporary Art and Media. I’ve also been fortunate to have a continuing Meet-the-Artist series that focuses on theater artists.
The past couple of years I have been focusing on Arlington based theaters, but in previous years it has included theater artists from all over the DC area. I also appreciate the opportunity to get out in the field and freelance on shows. For the past two years I haven’t done much freelance dramaturgy, just moderated a few post-show discussions here and there, primarily because I have been serving as a Judge for the Helen Hayes Awards. I have to admit that the commitment to judging for HHA has taken up a great deal of my time for theater. Although, I do try to squeeze in seeing as much new work as possible outside of my Helen Hayes duties. I think it is very important for a dramaturg who is interested in new work to get out and see as many readings, workshops and productions as possible to keep abreast of what is going on. Plus, a lot of area playwrights are friends and I want to support them and their work.
JL: What skills and traits do you feel a successful dramaturg should have to support the development of a new play or a production?
AMD: A love of research and storytelling are key, being an active listener and the ability to articulate one’s perceptions about the play are all important traits and skills for dramaturgs. For new plays in particular it is very important to listen to a playwright and their ideas and then discern if their vision is being communicated on stage. A good feel for Socratic method is important. You need to be able to articulate what you are seeing and hearing and then ask questions or give insight that will help the playwright see what they have so far so that they can decide how and where they want to take the play from there. For works that are already part of the canon it depends on the focus of the production, is the director trying to re-envision it and take it in a new direction, if so is she or he still being true to the text? With an established text I feel that in many ways the dramaturg supports the text and advocates for the playwright, either in helping to clarify or illuminate the context of the play or by insuring that the author’s intent is honored. I feel that one of the most important roles of a dramaturg to be an advocate for the playwright and helps to make sure their vision is achieved on the stage. That support of the playwright and their vision applies just as strongly when the writer is in the room, out of town, or has been dead for hundreds of years.
JL: What is the greatest part of being a dramaturg? What has been your most difficult challenge?
AMD: The greatest part of being a dramaturg is the opportunity to collaborate with so many different talented artists to produce plays in an area that truly values theater. I especially like watching a new play take shape over time and then launch into the larger theater world. I also thrive on the opportunity to talk with audiences about what they have seen on stage, or help to provide them with additional insights into the work on stage; those informal teaching and learning moments are fantastic. For me at the moment the biggest challenge is finding time to practice dramaturgy in an active way, right now I feel very much like I’m just squeezing it in where I can. It’s great, but I’d like to be able to spend more time on it.
JL: Who are your favorite playwrights? What is it about their work that inspires or draws you to them?
AMD: Favorite playwrights, wow, there are so many playwrights in DC whose work I admire. I’ve been a big fan of both Karen Zacarais and Heather McDonald since being introduced to their work while I was at Arena Stage. More recently I’ve been following Ally Currin, Bob Bartlett, Paige Hernandez, Jacqueline E. Lawton,, Psalmeyen24, Richard Byrne, I could go on and on. DC has so many amazing and talented playwrights with strong original voices. Some of the current writers on the national scene I’ve been following include Joe Calarco, George Brant, Jason Grote, Lisa D’Amour, and Caridad Svich. On the musical front, locally I think Matt Connor is very talented and on the national level I really like Adam Gwon and Jeff Bowen’s work. The writers who intrigue me the most tend to look at a variety of different topics and ideas, most of all they tell interesting stories through compelling characters. Each writer might do that very differently in each play, I’m not as attracted to a particular voice as I am a creative way of presenting a unique perspective about intriguing ideas or subjects through nuanced characters. It is the same reaction I have to a play by Shaw or Brecht or Stoppard.
JL: DC audiences are ...
AMD: DC audiences are, sophisticated, dedicated, adventurous, and intelligent.
JL: DC actors, designers and directors are ..
AMD: DC actor, designers and directors are deeply talented, dedicated, resourceful, daring, and innovative.
JL: DC playwrights are …
AMD: DC playwrights are talented, diverse, passionate, complex, insightful, inventive, original and resilient.
JL: DC critics are ...
AMD: DC critics are perceptive, human, operating from a deep respect for and understanding of theater making an honest effort to assess what they see. Having served as a Helen Hayes Judge I have developed a deeper respect for the position critics are in. I really do think that they do a very good job over all. Not that critics and Helen Hayes Judges are filling analogous roles, quite the contrary. But there are some similarities. Theater producers are often not happy with what critics have to say about their shows, they are sometimes not happy about how things come out in the Helen Hayes Awards, but I think by and large both groups are doing a good job and are conscientious about their assessments. The artistic level of theater in DC is extremely high and often undertaken with a fair amount of artistic risk that usually pays off and I think that both critics and Helen Hayes Judges appreciate what goes into creating that work. It’s an incredible gift to be able to see so many fantastic and diverse plays in this region.
JL: How do you feel the DC theatre community has addressed the issues of race and gender parity? How has this particular issue impacted you and your ability to get your work produced on the main stages?
AMD: I think that in many cases the DC theater community is beginning to embrace more diversity of all kinds on stage. I feel that as the number of smaller theaters doing very high quality and often challenging work has increased it has helped to challenge all of the theaters in the area to embrace greater diversity, both in their casting and the breadth of plays they produce. As a dramaturg that shift has certainly begun to opened more doors and create greater opportunities for female and culturally diverse playwrights and provides a much more varied and interesting array of plays being produced. Even with the strides that are being made I think we have a way to go before we as a theater community reach real parity in what is produced.
JL: What advice do you have for an up and coming DC based dramaturg who has just moved to D.C.?
AMD: My advice to an up and coming DC based dramaturg is to identify a small or medium sized company or two and build a relationship with them. Get to know the writers and directors and actors in town, new work emerges in some of the most unexpected places. Be willing to volunteer your time with a company doing things that aren’t necessarily simply related to dramaturgy. Once you start to build genuine relationships you will begin to find more opportunities to practice your passion. Also, don’t expect to pay the bills strictly as a dramaturg these days, or at least not always. One has to decide for themselves how to balance the art and the pay, dramaturgs often teach either theater or other subjects at the high school or university level. Of course the world of the adjunct has changed a lot in the past decade too. Fortunately, the skill sets of dramturgs translate into a lot of other jobs, especially in the not-for-profit world, unfortunately it can take a lot of trial and error to find the right balance. And if you really are driven to try to make your living exclusively through dramaturgy you are going to have to be willing to relocate fairly often, depending on what your other expectations are for your life that may or may not be realistic, especially as the role of the dramaturg in professional theater has been shifting in the past decade.
JL: What's next for you? Where can we keep up with your work?
AMD: My major focus right now is my day job of library programs and my volunteer work with the Helen Hayes Awards. The next Down Stage meet-the-artists program at the library will be on Monday, May 13 at 7 pm with Tom Prewitt, the new Artistic Director of WSC Avant Bard. The program is free and open to the public, so please join us. It will take place in the auditorium of the Central Library in Arlington located at 1015 N. Quincy Street, Arlington, VA 22201. The final meet-the-artist program for this season will be on Monday, June 13 at 7 PM, also at the central library, but I’m still confirming that guest. Then we will begin that series again in September. You can follow library programs at www.arlingtonva.us/library to see the events calendar.