FAEDRA CHATARD CARPENTER: Actually, I think I got into theatre relatively late. I was an English major at Spelman College and while I took classes in the theatre department and jumped at every chance to perform in various student-run productions, I never planned on entering theatre in a serious way—I never even thought about claiming it as a minor field of study (although I probably had enough credit hours to do that). But I loved it. I really loved working with an ensemble to create something for others to enjoy. So, it wasn’t until I was faced with the “What Now?” question at the beginning of my senior year in college that I began to consider what opportunities might be available in the world of theatre. I began to think about how I could blend my enthusiasm for theatre with my interest in writing and literature. And that led me to my first phase of graduate school—a MA program in Drama. Of all the professors I encountered in that program, the two that really impacted and influenced me were both artists rather than strictly academic types. One, Philip Boehm, is a director and the other, James Nicholson, is a playwright. They were not only amazing teachers, but they were also the first people to introduce me to the world of “dramaturgy.”
JL: How do you define dramaturgy? Or explain to people the work that you do?
FCC: I usually don’t attempt to define dramaturgy, rather, I tend to share examples of the kinds of things I’m doing or did in my role as a dramaturg. Dramaturgy is so dynamic—it’s such a shape-shifting role. What a dramaturg does can really vary, all of it highly contingent upon the specific needs of a project and the artists involved, so it’s a real challenge to offer some all-encompassing definition. A lot of words come to mind in terms of “things I do”: I advocate, question, clarify, bridge-build, facilitate, affirm…that being said, maybe I could define dramaturgy in terms of “artistic advocacy.”
As an artistic advocate, I am cultivating a perspective and sharing insight (insight gleaned from innumerable sources) and then taking these ideas and expressing them in myriad forms in service of the production and its audience. When it comes to production dramaturgy, it’s not only about researching all possible angles and aspects of a play (i.e. its social, historical, or literary elements), but it’s about mining a text to help uncover a play’s riches and bring them to light. The goal, of course, is to know the work intimately and champion the play’s cultural nuances and refrains. In dedicating myself to the work in this way, I can help generate dialogue and facilitate the proliferation of new perspectives within, and beyond, the confines of the theatre.
When it comes to new play development, I’m still an artistic advocate: I’m a “sounding board” for the playwright, charged with assisting a writer in bringing his/her dramatic vision to fruition. It’s my job to understand the impulses and intentions of the playwright while simultaneously concerning myself with the experience of potential audience members. I try to keep in mind how the choices made by the playwright affects his/her intentions as well as audience interpretations. All of this is about serving the art, artists, and audiences.
JL: How long have you lived and worked as a dramaturg in DC? What brought you here? Why have you stayed?
FCC: I actually moved to DC to become a professional dramaturg! After getting my MA degree, I moved to DC in the early 1990s to serve as an Allen Lee Hughes Literary Fellow at Arena Stage. When my fellowship ended the folks at Arena invited to stay on as the Associate Literary Manager. As thrilled as I was to have that experience, I was soon granted the opportunity to advance my dramaturgy career even further by becoming the Literary Manager for New Jersey’s Crossroads Theatre Company—a company that was dedicated to work of the African diaspora. I spent a few years at Crossroads, but then I decided I needed to stretch myself even further, so I ended up leaving Crossroads in order to earn a PhD in Drama at Stanford University. I came back to DC in 2001 to marry my husband, but I always knew that I would return the DC/Metro area, sooner or later. I just love it here: it’s such a rich place in terms of history, educational opportunities, diversity, and artistic happenings, and—last but not least—a really great place to raise a family. It’s really a perfect place for me to work—and live.
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?
FCC: Currently, I’m an Assistant Professor in the School of Theatre, Dance, and Performance Studies at the University of Maryland, College Park. As a full-time faculty member, I teach and advise both undergraduate students and graduate students, so that keeps me pretty busy. While I no longer work as a resident dramaturg (and it was a true gift to have that kind of experience), I’ve been granted some wonderful opportunities as a freelance dramaturg in the DC/Metro area. My most recent projects have been with Theater J, The John F. Kennedy Center’s Theatre for Young Audiences, and Baltimore’s Center Stage (where I’ve served as a recurring guest dramaturg since 2008). Again, I’ve been really fortunate in all these instances. First of all, I feel really lucky because these are outstanding institutions and they host amazing artists and productions. In the second place, folks have been incredibly generous in terms of helping me negotiate the ever-pressing “balancing act.” This goes beyond just working with my schedule—it also includes creating spaces and opportunities for my students to assist me in projects so that they, too, grow from the benefit of working as a dramaturg in a professional theatre company.
JL: What skills and traits do you feel a successful dramaturg should have to support the development of a new play or a production?
FCC: For a new play? Mmm…a solid grasp of dramatic literature and embodied theatre, balanced with an openness to innovative content and dramatic strategies. Critical generosity and genuine curiosity. A real good and honest dose of humility. And a true desire to serve rather than be served. Oh, yes: and very strong communication skills are a must, too!
JL: What is the greatest part of being a dramaturg? What has been your most difficult challenge?
FCC: Being in the room, feeling a part of the ensemble, receiving confirmation that something you said or offered or did helped an artist or audience member have a fuller experience—there’s nothing better than that! Now, what’s difficult? Probably the greatest challenge for me is that I’m so accustomed to thinking about theatre and figuring out how particular projects work, that even when I’m not working on a play I find it harder to be an audience member who can just sit back and enjoys the show. I don’t think this is an uncommon experience among theatre makers, though. I’d wager that many of us are so invested in understanding and/or analyzing the craft that it often challenges our ability to simply experience a performance.
JL: Who are your favorite playwrights? What is it about their work that inspires or draws you to them?
FCC: A favorite playwright? Oh, I hope this doesn’t like I’m trying to be coy, but I really don’t have an answer to that question! I just don’t have favorite playwrights, but I can talk about favorite plays. In fact, this is actually a great follow-up to the last question because one of the plays that continuously captivates me and forces me to experience its power and potency is Dael Orlandersmith’s Yellowman. When I first read Yellowman, I was so moved—shaken, really—by the poetic way Orlandersmith reveals and revels in discomforting truths. I find it to be such a disturbingly beautiful piece—it offers these intense moments of tenderness, and then contrasts them with moments that make me ache with sadness and rage. Bottom line: it makes me feel —it makes me absolutely cognizant, in a purely visceral way, of my own humanity and the humanity of others. But it does this while also charging my mind to recognize the complexities of race and culture, and in doing so, it prompts me to reflect upon my own ideologies as well as the belief systems of others—and all the “what” and “whys” therein. And when I first saw it staged, it did the same thing. And then when I read it again (and again, and again, and again) its effect on me did not diminish. So, that is the “what” and “why” of one of my favorite plays…
JL: DC audiences are...
FCC: DC/Metro area audiences are incredibly sharp, insightful, and invested in the arts. When they come to the theatre, they are not simply interested in being “entertained”—they also want to be engaged in a communal dialogue. They want to learn and grow, as well as assert and share. I don’t think I realized just how invested our audiences are in talking through plays (as opposed to just talking “about” plays) until I started working at Center Stage in Baltimore. I remember sitting in the audience during the intermission of Joe Turner’s Come and Gone and being so incredibly impressed by the conversations surrounding me. Folks were discussing the play itself as well as August Wilson’s canon, the cultural and political intricacies found within the Decade Cycle, the controversies surrounding Wilson’s artistic mandates and contentious calls, the intertextuality found between Wilson’s plays and the dramatic texts of others—I mean, I was blown away! These conversations weren’t among some specific group of students or scholars. These were many different and separate conversations among single-ticket holders and subscribers. So, the depth of knowledge and awareness exhibited by our audiences, I think, is pretty exceptional.
JL: DC actors, designers and directors are…
FCC: Incredibly gifted and generous. And there is such a rich community of theatre professionals here. I find folks strikingly supportive of one another: they forward each other information about calls and auditions, they support each other by seeing each other’s shows, they constantly find ways to collaborate and extend their artistic networks. To be truthful, I don’t know if this is entirely unique in comparison to other cities, but considering the fact that the DC area is unique in terms of both the quality and quantity of theatre companies, I have to believe that this is a very special place in that way.
JL: DC playwrights are…
FCC: What strikes me about the local playwrights I’ve worked with is that their level of talent and ability suggests that writing is their number one, all-the-time object of concern. Yet, in every instance I can think of, these playwrights are double and triple threats! Yes, they are bona fide playwrights—with all the accolades to prove it—but they are also highly accomplished actors, directors, dramaturgs, singers, visual artists, educators, curators, activists, and scholars. And they bring this interdisciplinary perspective to their work—which makes the work all the richer.
JL: DC critics are...
FCC: I don’t think I can offer much of a perspective on DC critics because I haven’t catalogued enough of the criticism to be fair or objective. When I worked at Arena in the early 90s, I did pay attention--too much attention, probably. At that time, I remember feeling particularly frustrated by one critic because the criticism (in the harshest sense of the word) always seem to be about the play text versus the production. That always annoyed me—especially since the works we were doing were not new works: they weren’t plays we had developed ourselves—they were already “set” scripts. So fine, you don’t like the script, it’s not your cup of tea, but what did you think about how we interpreted the script? What about the production? The frustration I experienced in my earliest years in professional theatre probably helped quell my interest in reading reviews—I just don’t run to read them anymore.
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?
FCC: Well, the numbers simply speak for themselves. When it comes to sponsoring development workshops and new play festivals, women and folks-of-color are fairly-well represented. BUT when it comes to what happens on the main-stage, that representation dwindles noticeably. And then there is the issue of deconstructing the racial and cultural binary of what “representation” has been, historically speaking. Too often we think solely in terms of Black and White. So, theatres may successfully check their obligatory “diversity box” by staging “a Black show.” But what of Latino/a playwrights? Asian American plays? How can theatres really exercise and exhibit true inclusion? That being said, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that Baltimore’s Center Stage is unique in that it is guided by a mission to reflect the community and demographics of Baltimore. Accordingly, Center Stage has long devoted a third of its programming to the work of black artists. It would be lovely to see other theatres consistently follow suit and be as diligent and proactive as Center Stage is when it comes to issues of inclusion.
Now, as far as how all of this impacts me: due to the number of demands on my schedule, I simply can’t do a lot of freelance dramaturgy. However, I often wonder how much (more) work I would be offered if I actively pursued more opportunities. The issue is two-fold: On one hand, there are a lot of theatre companies that already have dramaturgs on staff and there are quite a number of freelance dramaturgs in the area (and only so many gigs). Yet, there is also the fact that I am an African American dramaturg. Now, I’m also a university professor whose scholarly and research interests focus on African American drama, so I want, as much as possible, to do work that enables the various vectors of my life to intersect. The folks at Center Stage and The Kennedy Center know me and know of my interests, and so they continuously offer me the chance to work on plays that allow the type of convergence I seek. An important addendum to that, however, is that the folks at Center Stage and The Kennedy Center also offer me opportunities to work on “non-black” plays, so it is clear that their faith in my ability is not contingent on my “blackness.” But I don’t know if other theatre companies would consider me with such an unbiased quickness. Would my name come up at another local theatre if they needed a dramaturg for a contemporary “white” play? I don’t know...
JL: What advice do you have for an up and coming DC based dramaturg who has just moved to D.C.?
FCC: Seek hands-on opportunities, including non-paying gigs. Not everyone would agree with me on that, but I think that exposure and experience is a form of payment for early career dramaturgs. Some of the greatest, life-changing opportunities (like internships) pay very little, but are absolutely invaluable in terms of who you can meet, what you experiences you gain, and what lessons you learn. Don’t be afraid to reach out to Literary Managers, Dramaturgs, Directors, and Artistic Programming folk at theatres, both big and small and, and ask if there may be some work available. It doesn’t hurt to ask—and it just may get you in the door. I’ve heard many, many stories of up-and-coming dramaturgs establishing relationships with a director or theatre because they asked—and that query eventually led to real work. Also: network! Join LMDA (Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas) and use LMDA to meet other dramaturgs and artists. You all can create opportunities for yourselves and each other. I can attest to the benefit of this kind of networking: there are several jobs that I’ve led other dramaturgs to, just as other dramaturgs have kindly connected me to theatre companies and specific projects. So I would strongly encourage DC/Metro dramaturgs to invest in the community here—you may make some friends and find a job!
JL: What's next for you? Where can we keep up with your work?
FCC: Well, I’m once again haunting the halls of Center Stage. This time, however, I’m assisting Gavin Witt (Center Stage’s Associate Artistic Director and Resident Dramaturg) by supporting his developmental and production dramaturgy work on The Raisin Cycle. The Raisin Cycle refers to the repertory productions of Bruce Norris’ Clybourne Park and the world premiere of Kwame Kwei-Armah’s Beneatha’s Place. Both of these plays are inspired by Lorraine Hansberry’s canonical drama, A Raisin in the Sun. In working with Gavin, I’ve been offered the chance to “dramaturg” the programming and conversations surrounding these repertory productions. I’ve never worked as a dramaturg quite in this way, so it’s a really interesting and unique opportunity.
In terms of my work outside of the theatre, I just completed my first scholarly manuscript, tentatively titled Whiteface to Postrace: Whiteness in Contemporary African American Performance. The book explores what I call “enactments of whiteness” in plays, TV journalism, comedy sketches, street theatre, visual art, video, and voice-over work from 1964 to 2008, all the while commenting on how these explorations of “the Other” speak to both inter- and intra-cultural issues of identity and community. I’m also working on several journal articles and book chapters. These, notably, are inspired by my dramaturgy work in some way: they either address the actual practice of dramaturgy, or they closely analyze a performance text from a dramaturgical perspective. So, again, my dramaturgical work is integrated in everything every thing I do. I guess it’s because dramaturgy is more than just something I do—it’s something I really love.