Art with Impact Empathy on stage
A craftsman of the theater
A dramaturg is not quite a playwright, not quite an artistic director, not quite a producer. It’s a little of all of these things, but a job entirely its own. Some equate it to a kind of editor in a theater company: a person who solicits original scripts, reads and evaluates whatever texts come in, prepares adaptations and translations, and generally helps set that company’s artistic vision.
A few years back, a group of Loyola University Chicago theater students interested in dramaturgy organized an informal club. It’s a practical seminar, held on Friday afternoons in Mundelein Center—a way to build camaraderie in the Department of Fine and Performing Arts (DFPA), which is expanding its size and ambition. When the students are able, they host guest speakers. And every so often, they land a big fish like Philip Dawkins.
Dawkins graduated from Loyola in 2002. In the 17 years since, he’s built an enviable career as a prolific playwright, with shows routinely staged in influential theaters around Chicago (Steppenwolf, Raven, North Light) and beyond. Four of his plays have been nominated for Jeff Awards, the prestigious Chicago theater prize, including his critical breakthrough, 2011’s The Homosexuals. He was thrilled to hear that Loyola was staging its own production of Failure: A Love Story, his 2012 script about three sisters in the Roaring Twenties, at the Newhart Family Theater. So thrilled, in fact, that Dawkins carved out time to attend the opening performance and, three hours before curtain, entertain Loyola’s budding dramaturgists.
When Dawkins enters the classroom, he is wrapped in a bear hug by Mark Lococo, Loyola’s director of theater. (It doesn’t take much to corral Dawkins, who is rail-thin.) Then he assumes his position at the front of the room—legs crossed, a whiteboard at his back, three dozen students assembled before him. The set-up is reminiscent of Inside the Actor’s Studio, and Lococo stands in as the James Lipton-style moderator. As an interviewee, Dawkins is garrulous and articulate, with a mind that darts around quickly—wind him up and let him rip. After spending nearly two decades in the drama trenches, he’s accumulated all types of useful advice, too.
Playwriting is not a talent—like building a house, it’s a craft that anyone can learn how to do. (“You work hard, watch the house fall down, and then rebuild it.”) Write only when your ideas have had time to simmer; theater should be a “considered response.” Do all sorts of research and then put that research away. (“Don’t prove to the audience how smart you are.”) Don’t get cute and fall in love with your own voice. Show up and demonstrate your competence. Finding collaborators is like finding lovers. (“You know when it’s right, and you know when it’s not.”) Perhaps most importantly? “Remember that most theater is terrible.”