NextFest Artist Spotlight – Christine Sumption, Dramaturg

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Christine served as a dramaturg for the writing intensive of Stanford Story (working title) which was workshopped last week.


  1. What is a dramaturg’s job in the theater – in general?

In the new play process, a dramaturg is like a midwife. I support the playwright through the process, provide historical context, consult on the development of the dramatic action, serve as a sounding board and work to make sure that the writer has the circumstances that he or she needs in order to do their best work. I share ideas, ask questions, listen to the playwright’s intentions and mirror back what I see emerging from the work. While also being very clear that it’s not my play. I’m not the writer (it’s not my baby).

Every playwright is different. Every project has different needs. It’s the dramaturg’s job to be flexible in the service of the play and the playwright. Sometimes it’s a deeply collaborative process, while at other times it takes place at a bit more of an arm’s length. It depends on the relationships and the specific requirements of the project at each step along the way. There’s an intangible element of chemistry involved; playwright and dramaturg have to be a match, have to trust each other and find value in the working relationship.

In the production process, the dramaturg’s work continues to be about supporting the playwright, but may also extend to supporting the director and cast. I work in consultation with the playwright and director, provide concise written material that contextualizes the work (and may be useful to the theatre’s marketing and development staff as well as the Board). I serve as an extra set of eyes in the rehearsal process, keeping the playwright’s goals front and center and offering constructive feedback as needed. Just how active the dramaturg is in the production process relates significantly to the specific personalities of the artistic team and the particular needs of the project.

There are certain playwrights I would drop anything to work with, and Cheryl L. West is at the top of that very short list. She’s an amazing writer, a keen intellect and a genuinely good person, and her work is full of joy, dignity and deep exploration of human complexity. I always know when I work with Cheryl that we will roll up our sleeves, work hard, ask tough questions, tell the truth and have a ball. Laughter is a big part of the process.

  1. As a dramaturg, how does your job differ when working on a piece in the early phases of development- like Stanford Story – from working on an already-complete play?

I’ve done a substantial amount of work on Ibsen, Shaw and Shakespeare, as well as on the work of contemporary writers whose plays are being produced for the second, fifth or tenth time. In those circumstances, the primary working relationship is generally with the director of the production. I analyze the play in depth and detail, investigate its production history and research its historical and cultural context in an effort to provide a solid foundation for the director in developing his or her approach. Sometimes the research is primarily text-based, while at other times it’s mainly visual or auditory.

I do my best to anticipate the questions that may arise in the rehearsal process, making active use of traditional research methods (libraries, archives, online databases, etc.) as well as seeking out the input of experts in various fields. In 2002, for example, I was the production dramaturg for Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen at Seattle Repertory Theatre, a play about the relationship of physicists Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg. Since I possess only the most modest understanding of physics, I sought out Mott T. Greene, a MacArthur Award winning science historian, who was able to not only enlighten the artistic team about the scientific principles explored in the play but to help us all understand why this meeting of Bohr and Heisenberg was so significant. He helped us see them not only as icons but as men.

Through the rehearsal process on an existing play, I keep my eye on the big picture, noticing how the story unfolds onstage, and offering observations as the work progresses toward production. It’s useful for the director to have a fresh set of eyes on the work, to get response from someone who understands what he or she is aiming for but hasn’t been in the room every day.

  1. Why do you do dramaturgy? What aspects of the work excite you?

As a dramaturg, I’m a kind of professional question-asker. I love the pursuit of understanding through research, discussion, and the exchange of ideas. I spend my days exploring history, literature, art, music and humanity, and discovering how much more there is to learn. What could be better than that?

And I love playwrights. I love their ability to make language sing, to take human experience and mold it into a dramatic form that has the power to inspire, move, challenge, offer insight or call us to account. I consider it a privilege to support the work of artists who are engaging in meaningful questions about the world we live in.

  1. What was your preparation process for this writing session?

When I joined the project in late June, early July, my first task was to dig into the factual background of the play. I read whatever I could find about the ATO fraternity at Stanford and the furor that erupted when they challenged the white, Christian clause of the national organization in the early 1960s. Lucky for me, Stanford has excellent libraries as well as generous archivists who shared documents from the period. From there, I branched out into the history of American fraternities and the process they went through in the mid-20th century to become more inclusive. That naturally turned to a larger exploration of what was happening in the U.S. during that time period, in society, politics, music, television, you name it.

Cheryl and I met regularly to talk about the aims of the project and what would help her create a dynamic world for this play. It was important to her from the beginning that this not be a superficial, self-contained story. (“Gee, isn’t it great that these fraternity guys at Stanford in the early 1960s invited Jewish men to pledge?”) She wanted to create an experience that would not only tell the story of what happened at Stanford, but what was happening in the country as a whole during that time. She wanted to spark audiences to consider how events then relate to the world we live in now.

In April of 1964, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke to a huge crowd at Stanford, urging them to join the movement for racial and economic justice. “Human progress never merely rolls in on the wheels of inevitability,” he said. “There is always a right time to do right . . . and that time is now.” It was a galvanizing moment for students, many of whom joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in Mississippi for Freedom Summer that year. For Cheryl, those historical events provided a crucial foundation for the combination of heightened stakes and purpose to drive the characters in her play. The events of 1964 provided an opportunity for her to speak to the idealism of the Stanford students as well as their relative innocence about the world beyond their relatively privileged existence.

I compiled the highlights of my research into a booklet for the artistic team to prepare for a trip to Stanford organized by Stanford alum Jim Towne, so they would be prepared to meet with ATO alumni and learn about their experience in the early 1960s. Then, when they returned from Stanford, I supported Cheryl as she developed a preliminary outline of the play and some scenes to launch the work. We walked into the writing retreat with a framework for the project and open minds about how it might grow and change.

  1. Any time periods you love to work in? Any you despise?

For me, it’s less about time period and more about the people involved in the project and the depth of their thinking. I’m interested in work that embraces the full expanse of humanity.

Interview conducted by CHARLIE JOHNSON, NextFest Media Manager

To find out more about NextFest, and other New Works programs at The 5th, click here.

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