reading new plays from the margins

trauma! in the lit office

I wrote this in September 2019, a month into my Actors Theatre of Louisville apprenticeship as an indirect response to a play that sent me to therapy. It's meandering and about surviving abuse, content warnings, dramaturgs + playwrights of color, white supremacy, j-school baggage, all that jazz. I thought it had something to say adjacent to We See You, W.A.T., so here you go.

Soundtrack for this essay.

One of the reasons I nearly flunked out of my journalism major was I chafed against objectivity and “the view from nowhere.” Which is in the American theater canon, too, and what we describe as “universal” stories. So what I’ve appreciated about theater is that emotion and bias are what make art, specific is relatable, and personal reactions and first impressions are valuable to script analysis.

I appreciate that a dramaturg’s humanity and identity aren’t considered conflicts of interest. But I struggle to separate my emotional response to this play from formal analysis, and the depth of this reaction is unlike any other play I’ve read or seen. It’s different from evaluation or reporting being skewed due to personal stakes — it’s visceral, for my health I can only think of this play sparingly, it’s retraumatizing.

I don’t believe in explaining race to white people, or volunteering personal information for sympathy, or mining trauma for content, and I won’t share why reading this play felt like shitting a cheese grater from the butthole of my soul.

I don’t think I’m special because I tick some minority boxes. Someone somewhere read How to Defend Yourself and spent the rest of the day in shock, too, or maybe someone somewhere in another literary office also witnessed an accidental death by [redacting this reference, kind of a pre-coronavirus proprietary secret?]. There is no way to pick away at a script pile and know what you’re getting.

I don’t move through life seeing all Asian and queer plays as minefields, and it would be ludicrous and offensive to any script reader to preface anything with “this play deals with x community, so it might upset you.” I had an idea of what I was getting into by page 5, and I have no regrets. I’m glad I read it, it just ruined my week.

I like content warnings as an audience member, which I realize are probably written by us, who are the first to lay eyes on said content. I also think the content warning for this play would amount to “gun violence” and little else.

(Can a trigger warning really help when all trauma is unique? It’s one thing for someone who’s never been near a gun to be upset by live gunfire because of current events, it’s another for a play to uncannily model the behavior of one person’s abuser — a blanket “child sexual abuse” warning for How I Learned to Drive does plenty, but what if an abuse survivor feels appropriately prepared by that warning, and then they’re triggered by something more minute, a certain turn of phrase, oysters? What if a CSA survivor is triggered by Oklahoma!? I think “trigger” has been hijacked for any content warning you’d want on an MPAA rating when an actual trigger is a smell or a silhouette or a turn of phrase, you know?)

I’m not describing a problem in the system of reading new plays. Maybe. The job of literary management feels like corporate roleplay that forgets we handle living, volatile art. It’s healthy and noteworthy for a script to shock me out of office mode. Part of me thinks we should read scripts by candlelight, in bean bag chairs, with tissues and therapists close at hand, but I guess plays that annihilate dramaturgs with trauma are few and far between. Or we just don’t talk about it.

I really think theater is dangerous for everyone involved. I think a literary office is something like a first line of defense, or an embassy, or a scout sent to the front lines of war. These are all combative metaphors which unfortunately make new plays sound like disease and literary management an immune system. If you want to invert these from defense to offense, there’s also something weird and imperialist about saying we’re frontiersmen.

I think about Sarah Ruhl’s love note to dramaturgs. I’ve known what a dramaturg is for less than four years, but the image in my mind is blank, “the view from nowhere” also seems like another way of saying “the audience before the audience,” and what is a theater audience or a news market in the middle of America but overwhelmingly white? A dramaturg is inherently supportive and peripheral to theater making and there in service to a writer or institution or audience, so it’s easy for me to slip back into my journalist’s guilt about being selfish or distracting from a work in progress.

I think all dramaturgs are vulnerable and choose to be vulnerable to discover new plays. But I also think dramaturgs can be “flayed open and exposed,” which Sarah Ruhl says of playwrights in rehearsal. We are vulnerable in order to be brave for writers and audiences.

And I think of the dynamic I frequently see, of a white literary team producing a writer of color, or a dramaturg of color teaching a white writer or director, and there’s a hierarchy that leaves the POC vulnerable no matter their position. This is also true of a non-Black POC dramaturg or director working on a play about anti-Black racism and vice versa. We give up less as outsiders and burden others to embody or explain their oppression, all while feeling like allies who amplify unheard voices. 

If a dramaturg is there for a second opinion, and their value is that they are not the playwright, or that they live outside the work (where the playwright never could), then the implication is that they are “the view from somewhere else.” To go to a logical extreme, a dramaturg should share nothing in common with the playwright, or a dramaturg with too much of a personal stake has an interest that conflicts with the job they’re there to do.

This is my loose understanding of Mary Overlie’s Viewpoints, or at least as described by Anne Bogart on collaboration. She said Overlie considered calling them Windows, and it takes many people looking at an event through vastly different windows to create a clear picture. She means technically, with a play on its feet, how a lighting designer can see something a director misses, but I think the same is true of text. Is there danger in a playwright and dramaturg sharing a Window? Mechanically, they don’t since their roles are different, but I also think Viewpoints can mean cultural and experiential difference, in which case — is there danger in homogeny?

Of course most of us don’t want to be siloed away into a certain kind of work or collaborator, whether that’s some kind of race separatism or actively avoiding working with your own people. But I also think rehearsal rooms with no white people are safe. Even if we’re working on something that hurts, it’s safer to collapse with people who share trauma.

It’s not so much that a dramaturg who is part of a play’s community is less able to work than someone with more objectivity. They will work differently, and whichever one is better for the play is a case-by-case question.

But literary management is a blunt task, in a way the antithesis of production or developmental dramaturgy. We promise each script consideration, which like any service is self-effacing. There has to be times that erasure is harmful not just to the script reader, but to the playwright. It’s valuable to know your script has the desired effect on the exact community you wrote to and that they’re represented in the literary office, but if they’re expected to evaluate your play like it’s any piece of writing, it’s the same stupid question plaguing newsrooms: why hire reporters of color if ultimately you will force them to conform to “the view from nowhere”?

While overt censorship or editorial whitewashing aren’t an actual practice in the internal, archival purposes of script reporting (as far as I’ve seen), how do we evaluate plays we can’t compartmentalize into “this is what I see the play doing” and “this is what this play makes me feel” when the most consuming thought is this is what this play did to me?

We shouldn’t avoid plays that destroy us like this, since our reactions have value distinct from impartial assessment. I think what I’m going for is there should be space for more than plain evaluation.

I don’t see that much written about dramaturgs feeling things, just love notes from people who think we have our shit together, and advice from dramaturgs with the privilege of distance from the plays they read and work on.

I think we’re first responders. It’s an intellectual and emotional labor to dive into and then step away from a script, and we don’t always make it back out. 

The metro council president who also represents my district is a former LMPD officer (lol), and they passed the 2020-21 budget last Thursday with no major cuts to policing—details here thanks to the Courier-Journal’s Darcy Costello—so we’re far from done with calling for divestment.

The following action items are from Root Cause Research Center’s Invest/Divest Louisville toolkit. Use these scripts for direct and social media messaging.

  • Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer fired the LMPD chief after the National Guard murdered David McAtee. Fill out this police chief survey and tell the metro government to defund and dissolve LMPD.

  • Call 502-574-2003, email and tweet at Greg Fischer to demand justice for Breonna Taylor, and that LMPD fires Jonathan Mattingly and Myles Cosgrove and revokes their and Brett Hankison’s pensions.

  • Call 502-564-2611, email and tweet at Governor Andy Beshear and state legislators (I’m hitting up my Louisville and old Paducah reps, because why the hell not) to repeal Kentucky’s Blue Lives Matter law and mirror Breonna’s Law at the state level.

And from BLM Louisville:

I’m diving into Lorenzo Kom’boa Ervin’s 1993 essay Anarchism and the Black Revolution, which I recommend for anyone with time on their hands who’s new to abolition and/or looking to read Black anarchists.