San Diego Playwrights

Getting San Diego Playwrights Produced on San Diego Stages

How to Work with a Dramaturg–An Interview with Jessica Ordon

on December 18, 2014

California Jack Cassidy has compiled a list of dramaturgs and editors who work with San Diego playwrights. https://sandiegoplaywrights.wordpress.com/dramaturgeseditors/ Here is his interview with dramaturg Jessica Ordon.

Jessica Ordon

Jessica Ordon

As a dramaturg, you help make new plays work. You have a greater enthusiasm for your job than most people I know. Can you talk about that?

Maybe it’s just youthful idealism. But yes, I’m very excited about helping make new plays work. I think my enthusiasm comes out of a deep passion for theatre. This may sound trite, but I believe theatre has the potential to make the world a better place by starting conversations and by amplifying the voices of those whose experiences and stories are underrepresented in mainstream culture. How do we keep theatre relevant, and important, and world-changing? We keep writing good plays! And we keep encouraging and inviting people of all backgrounds to write, so that our theatre can be a richer, more varied, more diverse mosaic of voices.

You’re working with the winners of the California Young Playwrights Contest. What’s that like?

It’s always a joy to work with such smart, creative young people. Most are good students– they remind me of me. 😉 But also, every year, I’m pleasantly surprised by what young writers bring to the stage. I find myself reading or seeing the plays and thinking, “A 15-year-old wrote this? That writer is 17?!” Because I think that the themes and the stories in these plays, as well as the honesty and poignancy with which they are approached, are worthy of any experienced adult playwright. This year’s Plays by Young Writers Festival is no exception!

You also work with Native American playwrights as your day job. That must open you up to different views of modern culture.

Yes, I work as a literary assistant for Native Voices at the Autry, which focuses on the development of Native American theatre artists (though I am non-Native). Working with Native Voices has definitely heightened my awareness of diversity (or lack thereof) in mainstream theatre. It’s made me much more sensitive to issues of cultural representation onstage. But what I love most about Native Voices is their play development process, which lends itself so completely to the writer and his/her development as an artist. I feel like the company cultivates a real culture of generosity, collaboration, and care around new playwriting. I don’t know that it’s necessarily a Native thing– but to me, it’s the mark of a great theatre company under really good leadership.

There are cities with larger and better-funded theater communities than San Diego. Why do you work here? 

To be honest, I moved to San Diego just to try it out. It was my boyfriend’s idea and it was a good one, because we like it here. But there is a definite tension surrounding the fact that there are larger and better-funded theatre communities elsewhere, as you say, and we’re two young people who really need to work! So there’s some pressure to migrate. On the other hand, there’s always the optimistic notion of staying to help build a larger, better-funded theatre community right here. We’ll see what happens!

Do you have any tips for playwrights on how to work with a dramaturg?

The first tip is to try it, if you haven’t before! The second tip would be to trust your dramaturg. Take advantage of having their feedback, and use it as a learning opportunity about how to see your own work. Evaluating your play for strengths and weakness is difficult to do objectively on your own, but it’s a great skill to try to develop. Use your dramaturg to double-check your gut instincts and observations about your play. Final tip– don’t be afraid to push back. Don’t be a limp noodle! When a dramaturg makes a suggestion, it is truly with the best interests of your play at heart. But if you feel confused about where that suggestion comes from, how to implement it, or you simply don’t like it– don’t be afraid to disagree! Have your own opinions! The only thing more alarming than working with a playwright who makes no changes to their play at all is working with a playwright who makes EVERY change suggested to them and completely compromises the integrity of their play.

San Diego Playwrights has a listing of dramaturgs who work with local writers. I love the idea of getting help on my plays. But I don’t have much experience with this. What steps should I take to get off to a good playwright/dramaturg relationship?

This is a wonderful question and I’m glad you asked. For anyone interested in being a dramaturg or curious about hiring one, the Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas (LMDA) offers a brilliant (free) resource called the Employment Guidelines. (Find it here: http://www.lmda.org/resources/employmentguidelines) In this document, you can read up on different situations in which a dramaturg may be hired, as well as industry standards on services dramaturgs offer, how to credit the dramaturg, how to come up with a contact or letter of agreement, etc. There is even a page of suggested fees for different types of dramaturgical services.

What I’ve learned from these guidelines (and from past experience) is to always have an honest conversation at the outset of any project or collaboration about what either party expects from this working relationship. For playwrights hoping to hire a dramaturg, you should begin with a discussion about what you want to get out of the process. Be clear about your expectations, and your dramaturg should do likewise. For example, if you want feedback on your play, it’s important to agree with the dramaturg on what constitutes “feedback.” A page of written notes? A phone call? Script coverage? Also, set an end goal. Are you looking to finish a first draft for submission? Are you polishing a nearly complete draft for production? What’s your deadline (date) for completing the script in its current form?

Once you’ve sorted out these details, it is highly recommended that there be some kind of written contract or letter of agreement. This doesn’t have to be scary or difficult– think of it instead as a guideline or a way of documenting what you hope to achieve. Get this part done early so that it doesn’t get in the way later.

Thank you, Jessica! It’s great to have you on our dramaturg resource list. And we’re looking forward to the Plays by Young Writers this year.

There are two different programs that will be presented from January 22 to February 1, at the Old Globe.

For more information and reservations, please contact Playwrights Project at (858) 384-2970 or write@playwrightsproject.org. Visit http://www.playwrightsproject.org.

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