May 2nd, 2019
Unless you are a true theatre aficionado, chances are that you have not encountered many career dramaturgs. Yet, as part editor, part audience, and part sounding board, dramaturgs are vital collaborators in the process of creating a new play or reinterpreting a classic one. Sarah Lunnie is a dramaturg extraordinaire, focusing on the development of brand new dramatic works. This spring, three Broadway and Off-Broadway shows Sarah has worked on all opened within a few weeks of each other: What the Constitution Means To Me (in its Tony-nominated Broadway iteration), Hillary and Clinton, and Mrs. Murray’s Menagerie. Sarah, who has a decade of experience working in the literary departments of theatrical institutions including Playwrights Horizons and Actors Theatre of Louisville, frequently collaborates on projects with playwright Lucas Hnath (Hillary and Clinton, A Doll’s House Part 2, The Christians) and The Mad Ones, a group of devised theatre makers (Mrs. Murray’s Menagerie, Miles for Mary), among others. I recently spoke with Sarah Lunnie, in conversations both in person and via email, about how she approaches her dramaturgical process, her collaborations, her role in the rehearsal room, and more.
When did you first encounter dramaturgy as a profession? My understanding is that you did not specifically study dramaturgy in college; you studied theatre and creative writing?
I was an English and theatre double major. Within my English major, I became a creative writing concentrator, which was a track that you could follow in the English department at Boston College. Like a lot of people, I did not know the word “dramaturgy” when I arrived in college. I took a class my first semester called Dramatic Structure and Theatrical Process, taught by a man named Scott Cummings. It was a dramatic literature class. It’s a required class for theatre majors at Boston College, and Scott is the first person who said the word “dramaturgy” out loud to me. He hired me at the end of my freshman year as his research assistant. At the time, he had just finished a book called Remaking American Theater that was about Chuck Mee and Anne Bogart and the SITI Company that was using bobrauschenbergamerica as a case study to talk about their collaboration. He had done a lot of research for the book at Actors Theatre of Louisville, because that’s where the play premiered. He had completed writing the book. I was doing clerical work. I was proofreading and helping him make an index. But that, for me, was a real crash course in beginning to put together a map in my mind of some of the new play development hubs. I really knew nothing about the landscape of professional theatre in the United States, or new play making in particular, but I began to develop an understanding through that collaboration. And also, Scott more bluntly at some point said to me, “I think that this sits at an intersection of some of your interests and different skills, and it might be something that you want to pursue.” I was fortunate to have a mentor who sat me down and said, “This is something that you should learn about.”
What was it about dramaturgy that resonated with you?
I don’t think that I knew that it was the thing that I would pursue professionally, actually. When I had opportunities to serve as a production dramaturg at school, it was much more of a research-oriented, world contextualizing role, which I found really interesting. I think at that point what was appealing about that is that I’ve always loved to read. I’ve always loved to learn about different people and different parts of the world, and it felt like an opportunity to put that kind of inquiry into practice. I never felt strongly inclined toward academia, even though I love to learn. And I think, like a lot of people, my first introduction to the theatre had been performing when I was young. By the time I got to college, I knew that I didn’t want to be an actor, but I had come to really love the community that springs up around a production. The opportunity to participate in that conversation was really appealing to me. But actually, in retrospect, it’s taken on more of a coherence. At the time, the work that I was doing in the theatre department and the work that I was doing within my English major felt almost like two different lobes when I was living through it. They felt really compartmentalized to me. They were different communities and I felt like I was activating different parts of myself. Looking back, something I think that I learned in my creative writing workshops was that I felt as activated reading and responding to the work of my peers as I did by the work that I was generating. I wasn’t a playwright. I was writing poetry and fiction and literary nonfiction. When I got to Louisville later and began to have an opportunity to collaborate with living playwrights on works-in-progress, that felt like an opportunity to synthesize what had felt before like two different pursuits. So, that was the moment when I really began to think, “Oh, this actually feels like a space that’s allowing me to access and express all parts of myself.” It felt more personal.
Now that you’re a professional dramaturg, how do you think about your own dramaturgical practice? How would you describe your work?
I think of myself as an early audience and as a collaborative editor.
The first definition is more spiritual. It speaks to the idea that the work we make is ultimately for someone. Theatre is fundamentally an exchange: an offering of experience and a reciprocal offering of witness. Creating into a vacuum can be draining and disorienting. So the first thing I have to offer, as elemental and obvious as it sounds, is my interested attention.
The second one speaks to the more practical nature of my collaboration. I work with writers, directors, and other generative artists to sculpt dramatic and theatrical story. My approach is responsive—meaning I am looking to the artist who has engaged me to frame and guide our work together. And it’s iterative, not linear—meaning I don’t enter the collaboration with a fixed idea of where we’re going to end up, and progress isn’t always forward. The work can take the form of written exchange or, more often, conversation, and includes both the posing of questions and the offering of more direct proposals. In a production context, my most direct engagement is with the writer and director, but that can vary. With The Mad Ones, for instance, I am also in regular conversation with the actors, who, in our company structure, are also the primary generators of text and the central editorial/dramaturgical hivemind, and the designers.
You have worked with Lucas Hnath over a long period of time. What does that collaboration look like in practice?
It depends. If the text itself is still in progress, and if we’re working outside of the context of an impending production, the first thing I can offer a writer is some structure in the writing process and some company along the journey. Lucas is really good at creating that for himself, actually, so in the case of our collaboration it’s probably more accurate to say that Lucas has learned how to usefully engage me in schemes to create structure around his writing process. When he wrote The Christians, he sent it to me 20 pages at a time, together with letters outlining his own instincts and questions. I’d read them and we’d talk about it and then he’d keep going. At this moment in a process, usually what’s most helpful is just to reflect back to him what’s really resonating with me, what feels vivid and surprising. Or if something confuses me, I might name that, too—not prescribing alternative pathways at this point, just giving him the information, like I’m his audience. Later, when he has produced a complete draft, I’ll note it more rigorously, clocking for myself where the thing is really singing, and where it seems to hitch or drag. If I have hunches about why that might be, I’ll note that, too. And he will have done the same, usually rather exhaustively. And then we’ll talk about it.
With The Christians, the first draft Lucas wrote operated more as a backroom political drama, engaging more with the machinations of the church leadership than with the existential forest of belief, which was really the locus of his inquiry. Something didn’t feel quite right to him. It occurred to me we weren’t hearing from a congregant, so the reframing of doctrine that incites the play’s action and informs its stakes remained rather abstract. I mentioned this to Lucas and we talked about it, about how a congregant might figure into the action of the play, and how that might ground the play’s conversation about faith. He went away and wrote the Sister Jenny scene, rather deftly repurposing, actually, material he’d written for another play and had discarded. Which, when I think about Emily Donahoe’s performance, I just—the scene is so good, and she was so indelible in it, I almost can’t believe it was written, or that it wasn’t always in the play. Jenny, archetypically, is the innocent questioner, whose guileless inquiry exposes a fundamental problem or lie. She asks her questions with total faith that Pastor Paul will be able to answer them. When he can’t, the crack that has opened up in the play splits into a deeper chasm.
With A Doll’s House, Part 2, a lot of our dramaturgical work unfolded at the table with Sam Gold and the actors. Lucas would bring in dozens of pages of scraps—multiple approaches to the same storytelling beat—and the actors would read them and we’d listen and sort of dial test. When an actor bumped on something, we’d talk through the circumstances of the scene. Scene 4—the Emmy scene—was, for a long time, a kind of dramaturgical logjam. Lucas and I joke that this is always the case in his plays, that Scene 4 is the last to come into focus, I think because it’s dramaturgically often the most load-bearing, but his plays want to feel very effortless and sort of inevitable in their unfolding. We would go away from rehearsal and sort of bang our heads against the wall and come back. Sometimes the only thing to do is ride out the discomfort of that frustration. Eventually, he figured it out. I don’t know if I could retrace, now, the path we took to find that scene. In the shape he found, it feels so much itself.
The same was true for Hillary and Clinton—the work was targeted and continued to unfold in rehearsal and through previews. Lucas first wrote the play in 2008 (it’s actually one of the first of his plays I ever read), then rewrote it last year in anticipation of this production. The earlier version of the play was more insouciant and whimsical. But the whole context around it has changed so radically in the intervening decade—both in terms of Lucas’s career and the scale of theatrical production he might have been imagining (Broadway instead of downtown), and crucially, in terms of the world we’re living in now, to which the play must speak. He felt that responsibility very keenly. He was also working on the Humana premiere of The Thin Place at the same time, and I think one of the biggest challenges of this process was simply how to keep the two separated in his mind so he could do the work. I was with him in rehearsal twice a week in New York and the rest of the time he was in Louisville. I remember one week he’d gone back to Kentucky but was still trying to work out some rewrites in Hillary and Bill’s first scene so Joe Mantello could put in new pages with the actors the next day. That night, Lucas and I read through the section together on the phone and then talked it out, and then he’d put in a small change and we’d read it again and talk about it again, just so he could slow down his brain enough to really hear it and figure out what he wanted to try next.
Lucas is able to toggle rather fluidly between his generative and his analytic brain. His editorial instincts don’t tend to have the effect of blocking his creative motor, so I don’t worry about confusing him or sending him down a wrong path. He has a pretty unflagging sensor when it comes to his own work. A common refrain in response to some pitch I or another collaborator might make is, “I don’t understand it.” If the idea doesn’t land on him and resonate in a clear, uncomplicated way, he won’t pursue it because he doesn’t know how. I feel great freedom in that. We’ll riff and go back and forth, trying to talk through what we think the beats of a scene are, or how we think the structure of the play operates, whatever it is we’re trying to elucidate, until one of us hits on something that unlocks it for Lucas. I find it really satisfying, honestly, even inside the frustration, like working a puzzle. Once it unlocks, he usually wants to end the conversation and go write.
How would you describe your collaboration with Heidi Schreck, in terms of your work on What the Constitution Means to Me?
My collaboration with Heidi is, by contrast, relatively new. Though I’ve known her for years, we only started working together two years ago, as she entered rehearsals for Constitution at Clubbed Thumb. In my experience, she is more internal in her thought process. She doesn’t externalize as much as Lucas does. Our conversations about Constitution tended to be much more oblique—not circular, but circling something. I was often surprised by how she would digest those conversations and what she’d bring back into the room. Her work is very precisely structured, but my sense of her process of getting there is that it’s more intuitive and iterative, and less analytical in the generative stages. She lets the impulses surface and then she shapes them. Actually, when I think about it, my sense is that her brain works a lot more like mine does. Our conversations wouldn’t always produce revelation; they would more often seem to teeter on the verge of it. I would see in Heidi’s eyes that she was working something out, and that she was engaging conversation partners to move her closer to some internal understanding. And then that would come out in the work itself.
When we were getting started at Clubbed Thumb, Heidi was still deeply in process shaping the material she had written, and continuing to generate new material, when she and Oliver began staging the play. The feeling was she needed to learn about the container and the event up on her feet in order to understand the text. She was getting feedback from different people that they didn’t understand this recurring motif of the sock monkey, and she asked me to take a pass at cutting the script to eliminate that strand altogether. I did that, and then she and I met to read it together and talk about it. And it was clear to Heidi pretty quickly that, while the cutting might have been functional, it was also wrong. So then we talked more about what felt essential to her in that thread, which culminated with her crying at the airport. She was, not surprisingly, resistant to any articulation that would collapse such a complicated, deeply interior moment into a convenient parable with a reducible meaning. And more pointedly, she really didn’t know why she was crying! The memory, for her, wasn’t grounded in logic or language, but in the body. But in that conversation, she was able to list some of the reasons she might have been crying. I think I offered to her that the speculative catalogue of possible reasons might be the thing she could write that would make legible for an audience the connections she felt so intuitively. Cycling through those possibilities could be a way to let the audience in and to synthesize the monkey’s presence in the larger body of the piece. Heidi went off on her own and crafted the aria that appears in the play today.
Heidi was, of course, right. And when I watch the play, now, it’s impossible for me to imagine it without the monkey. It provides a tangible connection to her grandmother and an expression of her love and care. It makes us laugh, when we really need to laugh. By the time we get to the airport, the sock monkey has become a totemic object. That moment—“I have no idea why I was crying”—has become so indelible in the play and reliably provokes such a profound shared recognition and release. Imagine if she had cut it! To me, that example really crystallizes what felt true watching Heidi make every part of this extraordinary thing she has made. She trusted herself and her instincts and she surrounded herself with collaborators and conversation partners who could help her manifest that vision, including the parts of it she didn’t totally understand yet. She was always in pursuit of a more perfect version of the thing, but she gave herself permission to ignore feedback that didn’t resonate or that betrayed a fundamental lack of understanding of her project. As a woman, I find that heroic and deeply galvanizing.
You mentioned earlier that when you collaborate with The Mad Ones you are in frequent communication with the actors and designers. Can you talk a bit about that process? For instance, what was the experience like when they were creating Mrs. Murray’s Menagerie?
The Mad Ones are interested in the richness and texture that can accumulate in work that’s developed through a rigorous, highly collaborative process. The company’s approach prioritizes collaboration and consensus over traditional notions of hierarchical work structures and individual authorship. There’s also a hybridity to everyone’s artistic identity—most people are wearing more than one hat. The actors are also the writers. Lila [Neugebauer] is a writer-director. The designers enter the conversation early. The company’s “process” is something we must by necessity reinvent with our collaborators, through trial and error and failure and recalibration, every time we make something new.
Here’s what’s generally true. Whatever we’re making, ultimately, the spoken text will be generated through scores of structured improvisations that are recorded, transcribed, rigorously examined and notated, then cut up and resequenced and spliced together by multiple editors to form what we call “Frankensteins.” These are used in the rehearsal room as exploratory texts, which are discussed, amplified through more targeted improvisations, and iteratively shaped into what will become the performance text for the play. Because the spoken text is generated through improvisation, the early developmental work is actually to create the container to hold and support that discovery. Our early process is very outside-in. We think not only about the play-world (Where are we? When are we? Who is here? Why?) but also about its theatrical container (What do we think the set looks like? What opportunities for surprise, obstacle, transformation, revelation, can we build into the space? What structural conventions are we interested in playing inside?).
In the case of Mrs. Murray’s Menagerie, the first big decision was the form of the focus group as the play’s major dramaturgical premise. This dictated a set of parameters that profoundly informed the play we ended up making. We knew that for the first time in our company’s history we were making a play about a group of strangers—our previous plays observed characters who knew each other well. Before we made decisions about who commissioned the focus group, what they were studying, or who was participating, we knew that the moderator’s questionnaire would form the structural spine of the play and drive its forward movement. Relatedly, we began to suspect that we might be on our way to making our first real-time play. We knew that the play would operate on two strata: the business of completing the task at hand (i.e. getting through the questionnaire), but also, on a more subterranean level but of infinitely greater dramatic interest, the tracking of the behavior of the participants and of the relationships that would develop among them. We were interested in the idea that the audience would watch a focus group, but begin to track and invest in the sublimated drama unfolding among the participants—the performance of self, the forming and breaking of alliances—more than in whatever it was that was being parsed on the surface. And once we decided that the subject of the focus group would be a beloved children’s television show, we had to create the show! The show needed to really exist, so the actors could develop their own relationship to that material and respond to questions about it in improvisations. After doing a lot of research into the history of children’s television programming in the 20th Century, we went on a retreat last spring to create what became the eponymous television show, “Mrs. Murray’s Menagerie.”
In terms of specifically what I’m doing in all of this—at this point, I’m really just playing along with them. Like, I think in some exercise we did I postulated the character “Rosie the Rooster.” Which, it’s deeply not in the spirit of the company to lay granular claim to that, but I have to say, when almost a year later I saw the Rosie plush doll on the set for the first time, it felt like some kind of magic.
We actually thought we were going to make a play about death and dying. One speculative premise for the focus group’s reason for being was that the real-life Mrs. Murray was dying—it’s so strange to think about this now—and that she wanted to make an episode about death to help the young children in her audience prepare for and process that loss. We were thinking about Mr. Rogers and the sometimes very difficult subjects he engaged with on his show. We thought it could be interesting to watch adult characters project their fears about death onto fictional characters on a show for children. It seemed to us that might be a usefully oblique way to engage a conversation about death. But when the core company came together with the collaborating actor-writers (Phillip James Brannon, Brad Heberlee, Carmen Herlihy and January LaVoy) for a workshop last fall, the collective interest began to shift. The improvisations began to teach us that, regardless of the content, any invitation to parse the signifiers and pedagogical implications of children’s programming inevitably opens up a space in which what the parents are really doing is articulating and defending their own parenting philosophy—a profound expression of their values. Arguments of interpretation about something seemingly trivial (the plot of a children’s television show) become zones of much higher-stakes conflict, not because the show is dictating the terms of the conversation but because of what the parents see in it. And—this became the locus of conversation after the fall workshop—the way conflict emerges, develops and erupts, or gets managed in a white supremacist capitalist patriarchy has everything to do with how insidiously power structures a room. Even a room that is purporting to offer a neutral space in which everyone’s voice and opinions are equally valuable and valued.
This is what was emerging in the improvisations and in our conversations at the table. And also where, as often happens in a Mad Ones show, the process and the play began to merge. A lot of the company’s plays are about the pain of collaboration. But more than anything we’ve made before, this play, and our collaborating artists, demanded that we confront and interrogate the structure of our process and ask if we were really living up to our values. We had set up a process in which, while the core company and the collaborating artists were all invested in generating text through improvisation, the collaborating artists had not been equally empowered as editors. We had to restructure our editorial process to ensure each writer-actor had agency not only as a generator of material but also as an architect of the play’s shape and meaning. And what we were uncovering together deeply informed what we realized had to be the subject of the play. The question became: if what we’re making is a play that observes the unfolding of a focus group but is actually inviting the audience to observe a kind of ballet of behavior—the jockeying for power that leverages, or at the very least is informed by gender, race, class, casual white violence—inside a container that purports to be neutral but is demonstrably not—how do we sculpt it in a way that gives voice to the lived experience of everyone invested in making the play? How do we make it legible for our audience? How does it accumulate? How do we give it a shape that feels truthful? Whose perspective are we privileging, in the end? These were big questions we began asking in the rehearsal room, and which we continued to ask pretty much until we froze the script, late in previews.
And how would you describe your role in the rehearsal room?
In the baldest terms, I am helping the company think about the play. I am helping them develop and refine speculative premises that can inform the generative and editorial processes. As I observe what they’re building on their feet and at the table, I am reflecting back to them what I am seeing, and offering practical support as we continually revise the premises on which we’re mapping our way forward. In a process so collaborative, of course, everyone is doing this. It’s just that I have the benefit of some distance from the work. I’m listening to what’s happening in the room and trying to help distill and synthesize it.
I am often helping Lila and the collective brain trust home in on and sharpen an organizing structure for the play. For example, as we readied ourselves for rehearsals, I offered to the group that if Miles for Mary was a play in which something that had been building finally exploded, Mrs. Murray’s Menagerie might be a play in which something is building but never explodes, because someone stops it. A lid is put on to prevent something from bursting, and it’s functional in the sense that the focus group completes—but it comes with cost for some of the people in the room. Of course the particular dynamic roadmap of that, from a character and relational perspective, could only be charted in real time with the actors in the room. It had to come from each of them. But I do think that way of thinking about the topographical map of the thing, the idea that our play probably couldn’t tell the truth if we tried to orchestrate a “climax,” informed our exploration and ultimately how we shaped the structure.
On this play, I was also thinking a lot about how to build in subtle, orienting signposts for the audience that could help ground them in the play temporally and proportionally, given its unusual structure. This consisted of some targeted adjustments in the moderator text in transitional moments—how can the moderator orienting the focus group participants also serve to orient the audience when moving from section to section? And also, the addition of some moments of pause or rest in the forward momentum. This is less expositional and more rhythmic; how can the rhythm of the thing as it unfolds give the audience an embodied sense of where they are proportionally inside it?
You’ve worked a lot with director Lila Neugebauer. In your experience, what makes for a successful collaboration between a director and a dramaturg? How would you describe the director/dramaturg relationship?
As a dramaturg, what I have learned is it’s best to treat a director like a cat and let her come to you. That’s sort of a joke and sort of not a joke!
It is an honor to be welcomed into a director’s rehearsal room. Full stop. I think directors are magical and in my experience the best directors are also dramaturgs themselves, whether or not they call it that. One privilege of my work is that I get to observe a lot of directors doing what they do. They work very differently from one another and I find it fascinating. While I’m grateful when a director welcomes me eagerly and incorporates me into her conversational circle from jump, I don’t take it for granted and I don’t take it personally when that’s not how things start—or, as sometimes happens, if we never get there. I don’t assume that she should find me useful. There would be something sort of cart before the horse about that attitude. Just because I’m having a thought doesn’t mean that’s helpful to her in a given moment. I am very wary of crowding a director. That said, my favorite collaborations with directors are those where we find our way toward a relationship that can functionally, additively serve the process she is defining. I’ve had some very rich, dynamic collaborations with directors, and I find that rewarding. In some cases, that becomes as primary a relationship as my relationship with the playwright. Or, ideally, those relationships aren’t siloed and it becomes more of a triangle. That can’t and doesn’t always happen, but when it does, I enjoy working that way.
When a director and I are collaborating more directly, it takes different shapes. Sometimes, we are problem-solving together in a very practical, targeted way, trying to steer a particular storytelling moment in a certain direction through staging or design or a reinvestigation of the text. Or it might be that she just wants me to reflect back to her what it is I’m seeing. If we have built trust and shorthand and rapport, that might be a relationship where I am coming to her proactively with questions or ideas. In the history of my work, the best example of this kind of muscular collaboration with a director is almost certainly my collaboration with Lila Neugebauer, who is herself a brilliant dramaturg. But that doesn’t just happen overnight, you have to build it. We have worked together for a decade and at this point the trust and shorthand are just there. When I get into a room with Lila it feels like we’re picking up the same conversation, right where we left off. In a new collaboration, you have to take it one day at a time. I take it very seriously to respect a director’s process and not to assume anything when I enter the room.
Can you tell us a bit about your approach to your dramaturgical process on a project? How does your role, and your collaboration, change throughout the development of a piece?
My entrance into a process usually begins with an invitation, and the invitations I want to accept come from one or more of the generative artists—often, but not always, a writer. This is so obvious that it seems almost unnecessary to point out, but actually, I think it informs everything about how I approach the work. The role is fundamentally one of service. What is needed in a particular moment (and what I am able to offer) can vary widely from project to project, and even inside a single collaboration. But in trying to sort out my role in a given moment, a question to which I return is, “Can I be useful here?” If so, how? Sometimes the answer is to keep listening.
At the same time, regardless of who it is that initially extends the invitation, once I enter the collaboration, my orientation inside it is not exclusively toward the person who asked me to come join the conversation, but rather toward the conversation itself, and toward the thing we’re trying to make together. Which—this should be obvious, but we lose track of it—we don’t actually know what it is, yet! We have hunches. We might even know a lot. But there’s something that we can’t see yet, that we can’t know when we begin, that it will take the whole process—and eventually, an audience—to discover. Making a play isn’t manifesting pure, untransformed vision in time and space. That would be a largely technical endeavor. The thing we do is much more mysterious than that. It’s more a gradual unfolding, a process of revealing and attending to what we’re finding and defining, together. When we make a play, we pass through a series of thresholds that enhance and refine our collective understanding of where we’re going and how to get there. The first table read is one threshold: what do we learn by hearing the words in the actors’ mouths? The first run-through in the rehearsal room is another: what do we learn about the play and its accumulation in space? Tech is transformational; now we are introducing other, non-textual languages, into the equation. And first preview is another: what do we learn about the play from an audience? At each of these thresholds, some premises or operating assumptions or hunches that have guided our work up until this point are affirmed and clarified, while others—and this is crucial—are complicated, maybe even upended. We have to be open to this revision of our previous understanding. Gripping too tightly on what we thought we knew is deadly. More and more I think that, whatever else any of us is doing in a process, all of us are also accountable to the shared work of constantly re-articulating to the circle what it is we think we’re making together. This is another place where I think I can be useful as a kind of embedded audience to the work-in-progress, and to the process itself: attending to and helping to synthesize those articulations and noticing when, without people realizing it, they might have begun to diverge. Conflict about how to carve a particular moment is natural and, more often than not, productive. But a lack of shared understanding of the pursuit itself can lead to diffusion and haziness. We’re not in the greatest danger when we disagree; we’re in the greatest danger when we think we agree, but actually we’re saying different things.
The Mad Ones have started joking, recently, that we’ve gotten really good at a kind of live, multiplayer “VR”-ing, meaning we can sustain a long-form, speculative conversation about the implications of a particular series of hypothetical editorial moves in a shared brain space, riffing at a high rate of speed. That’s true until it isn’t. When it’s happening, it’s exhilarating. I think the key is to notice when everyone stops having the same conversation, and to reconnect.
What advice would you have for a young dramaturg?
Read and see as much work as you can and think about the architecture and wildly particular governing logic of the work you love. When possible, talk to the makers of the work you love and ask them how they made it. I was so fortunate to spend a decade in the literary offices of Actors Theatre of Louisville and Playwrights Horizons, where I had the privilege of reading an enormous volume of new work by writers at every stage of their career, and of seeing a great deal of theatre at those institutions and on their behalf. You take in a lot of work and you begin to notice patterns, and to develop your own working understanding of dramatic and theatrical storytelling. Because I was responsible for coverage I had to practice writing, quickly and frequently, about the work I was reading and seeing. I think this can be a helpful exercise: to challenge yourself to distill your own responses to things as clearly and specifically as possible. Not in a diagnostic fashion, but in pursuit of a rigorous and expansive understanding. The only way to build those muscles is through sustained practice. Some people do this in graduate school, I did it as an artistic staffer, others do it independently. Wherever you are, cultivate a habit of attention. Approach the work, and your collaborators, with curiosity and love. Relatedly: get comfortable with plunging into the unknown—or, if that is never really possible, try to learn to embrace discomfort. Anne Lamott said in Bird By Bird (she might have been quoting another artist?) that writing is like driving a car home in pitch black with headlights: you can only ever see a few feet in front of you, but you can make the whole journey that way. I love that image. But, particularly when it comes to a form as collaborative as theatre is, and embracing as many systems of meaning, I would add: you may not even know the route yet, or even where you’re going.