Spotlight: Jules Odendahl-James, Dramaturg


What IS a dramaturg? As a professional dramaturg and literary manager, this is the question I’m asked most often. Today, my answer is far different from what it was when I first started practicing, and I assume that it will continue to evolve and transform as the nature of theatre and my views as an artist change. I am sure that my colleagues, as well as others in the theatrical community, and even parents and partners-of-dramaturgs can relate.

This week, we kick off a new interview series on 2AMt that we hope will serve to provide insight into modern dramaturgical practices. This series begins, auspiciously, during Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s birthday week. Lessing is the father of modern dramaturgy, so we honor him today with our first interview – Jules Odendahl-James! (For more on Lessing, look here and here)

Jules Odendahl-James

Name: Jules Odendahl-James
Hometown: Hot Springs, Arkansas (from the age of 10 until 20).
Current town:Efland, NC (an exurbia near the Triangle area of North Carolina).

How do you explain dramaturgy?

A dramaturg is a theater generalist knowledgeable about all aspects of production/reception with a broad understanding of history, cultural  practices and politics, language, and philosophy, who can articulate specific connections and facilitate specific choices for a performance  in an immediate and definitive fashion.

A dramaturg is a theater production’s chief interrogator, internal critic, and problem-solver.  Production dramaturgy works best if the dramaturg participates as an  equal and valued member of the artistic team from the start of a production.

Dramaturgs read voraciously.  Dramaturgs ask probative questions. Dramaturgs listen intently. Dramaturgs negotiate the differences and similarities between what they have read, what they have asked, and what they hear from their fellow artists and  from the audiences who engage a production.

There is spoken and unspoken resistance to dramaturgs in various American  theatre institutions. Notice that I didn’t say dramaturgy. Most  all theatre artists engage in the analysis of dramatic structure and  conduct historical research. But that is just the tip of the iceberg of  what a dramaturg brings to a project. I believe part of the  resistance to dramaturgs can be attributed to our insistence on posing  questions versus just providing information. When we ask questions, we muddy what were once clear waters. Our questions press our fellow  artists to articulate difficult answers or to consider things we’d all rather ignore or to rethink choices that will be expensive, uncomfortable, or unpleasant to change.

A dramaturg’s artistry is often invisible to the audience; however, when  successful, her contributions are woven into the very fabric of the  performance in unmistakable ways.

Dramaturgs anticipate audience reception but try to avoid assumptions and  preconceptions.  We are both the ultimate production insider and the  person who can most fully divorce themselves from the production to  experience it with a clean slate.

How does dramaturgy appear in your daily life? How does dramaturgy inform or relate to what you do? 

I think I’m a little annoying to my colleagues and students because I see the applications of dramaturgy everywhere. One example, since most of my work is done within colleges and  universities, I am constantly engaged in making connections between  theatrical production and curricula. Recently, however, I find myself  studying the dramaturgy of curriculum: how learning is  structured, organized by the university; what is the storyline, if you  will, of a plan of study/degree and how do students articulate their  knowledge over the course of a college education. I firmly believe that  my ability to see connections across and within departments, majors, and institutions directly relates to my philosophy and practice of  dramaturgy.

How did you come to dramaturgy? 

I was introduced to dramaturgy while completing my M.F.A. training in the Directing program at the University of Texas at Austin. I took my first production dramaturgy class from Charlotte Canning. In this class, we provided dramaturgical research to Robert Wilson who was in residence at UT working on his production of Four Saints in Three Acts. What we produced in relationship to the performance was rather mundane; however, the conversations in class were transformational. Looking back on it, a number of fruitful production collaborations were born in that course. Students were mostly a mix of MFA playwrights and  doctoral students in theater history. I remember being either the only or only one of two MFA directing students enrolled in the class. This was a pattern repeated in the New Play Dramaturgy course I took later in my MFA study. I believe such lack of MFA directing interest was due to a general perception that dramaturgy was a skill directors could learn  automatically within their directing coursework versus a separate,  unique set of practices that all theater artists might benefit from  engaging, developing, and interrogating.

Tell me about a few of your favorite stories, plays, movies, songs, etc. and why they are favorites. 

Wow. This is a question I’ll evade with the answer that my “favorite” play  is the one I’m working on at the moment. I really mean it. I find it hard to stick too closely to theatre favorites when my dramaturgical focus and research is constantly changing depending on my production commitments.  I do have a depth of knowledge and experience working with documentary theatre, so that is a particularly provocative  and problematic genre that I enjoying engaging.

I am an addict of crime stories (on TV or in novel form). In my academic research life, I write about the comfort and mastery readers derive from formulaic narratives like police procedurals, mysteries, and thrillers and how or why stories of violence or trauma gain (or lose) popularity at  particular historical/cultural moments.

Higherbrow TV:
The Wire, Homicide: Life on the Streets, Firefly, Battlestar Galactica, The Good Wife, Community
Lowerbrow TV:
Hoarders, Project Runway, Top Chef. Oh, and Downton Abbey 😉

I confess my taste in music is rather mundane. Most of my current  listening choices are driven by the desires of my six-year-old daughter. She’s currently obsessed with classic Michael Jackson, Lady Gaga and her own ukulele accompanied compositions.

The largest collection of fiction books on my personal book shelf are by  authors Margaret Atwood, Jasper Fforde (an author that every dramaturg  should experience!), Jeanette Winterson, and Patricia Cornwell.  On the  non-fiction side of the shelf it is the work of Mary Roach, David Sedaris, Sarah Vowell (another excellent author for those  dramaturgically inclined), and Roy Porter. The most well-worn books on  these shelves are Katherine Dunn’s 1984 novel Geek Love and The Collected Dorothy Parker.

Who/what inspires you? 

My wife, who has been my partner in things dramaturgical since we met almost twenty years ago. She is the dramaturg who I work with on the occasions when I direct. She is the most insightful, productively irritating, and profound thinker about theater performance that I have had the privilege to know.

What is your dream project?

I can’t have just one! I’m going to deflect and list a few texts I’d love to work on in the near future: Enron by Lucy Prebble, Brecht’s Mother Courage, and This Beautiful City by Steve Cosson and Jim Lewis.

If you could choose a team of five collaborators, living or dead, who would you choose? 

I’m not sure how I’d negotiate the working relationships of such a team(!), but here is a list of five folks I’d give my eye-teeth to work with  either collectively or individually: Deborah Warner,Carson Kreitzer, Andrea Lauer, Katie Mitchell, Steve Cosson

What are you working on right now?

This spring I’m working on only one-word titled plays. Young Jean Lee’s Lear. Suzan-Lori Parks’ Venus. And I’m very excited to be stepping into danceaturgy for the first time, with the world premiere of a dance-multimedia performance by Thomas Defrantz based on Jean Toomer’s Cane.

What’s up next for you?

Season selections for 2013-2014 are still being made. One non-theatrical project that I’m excited about actually emerged out of a collaboration with a colleague in Duke’s Nicholas School for the Environment as we brought the PearlDamour performance installation, How To Build A Forest, to Duke in October 2012. As part of our continuing art+science intersections, I’m part of a working group designing a library exhibit that offers an interdisciplinary exploration of the notion of “the anthropocene” and the social, cultural, economic, and political impacts of a new human-driven geologic era.

What advice would you like to impart to aspiring dramaturgs?

Pursue fluency in multiple languages. Find a way to articulate what you do in  one or two sentences (something I still struggle with, obviously!). Develop a  Zen-like ego. Cultivate your own strong opinions about theater but be willing and able to collaborate productively with a host of different artists. Read and see plays every chance you get.

Thank you, Jules!

Be sure to check in tomorrow for another dramaturg interview! We are doubling up to celebrate Lessing’s birthday, but it will return next Thursday as a weekly feature.

  • January 23, 2013
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