DRAMATURGE GIVES BEHIND-THE-SCENES DIRECTION
What’s a dramaturge?
Robert Blacker may be hearing that question more often these days, now that his name is so frequently linked to one of the country’s hottest directors at a resident theater that seems to be on the tip of everyone’s tongue.
There’s no question that Blacker’s behind-the-scenes work as associate director/dramaturge for the La Jolla Playhouse is essential to what is seen on stage, particularly when his longtime friend Des McAnuff is directing. But what does Blacker do, exactly?
“The function of the dramaturge . . . usually reflects back on some kind of work with the text--either selecting the text, selecting the people who are going to work on the text, or working with the people in the rehearsal process on the text itself,” Blacker said.
“To me . . . it’s a question of really drawing out the ideas of other people and helping them articulate those ideas.”
Consequently, the 38-year-old Pennsylvania native spends a lot of time listening and questioning. When the playwright is deceased, Blacker must do enough research on the play’s background to ensure that the original intentions are preserved.
He perfected this art during a long stint with producer Joseph Papp’s New York Shakespeare Festival, where he read thousands of scripts and helped nurture hundreds of new writers and directors. One of those newcomers was McAnuff.
That’s when the two baby-boomers started their ruminations on the philosophies of dramatic art. Their first collaboration was a Central Park production of “Henry IV, Part I.”
“I remember facing our first Shakespeare play together with a particularly bright cast (which included Mandy Patinkin and John Vickery). It was terrifying . . . facing this room full of people who are very smart and who are asking you questions about the material,” Blacker recalled.
“I’ve always found--and in many ways Des has been an inspiration for me in this area--that what any smart group will appreciate most (is) honesty,” Blacker said. “What matters is not knowing the answer or pretending to have the answer, but finding the answer, and 30 minds are better than one. Collectively, you can achieve more than one person can who’s just creating his own vision in the theater.
“One of the reasons I admire Des is that he likes smart people. He will take the best idea in the room--it doesn’t have to be his idea. Now that’s the mark of a really fine director and a generous human being.”
Given his dual role as associate director and dramaturge, Blacker’s work extends beyond the Playhouse’s summer season. Winters, he returns to his New York apartment and a large circle of East Coast friends. There he and McAnuff, in close touch with Playhouse managing director Alan Levey, plan the next season, choose directors and designers, hold auditions and work with writers.
During his “spare” time in the spring, Blacker teaches a course in Shakespearean dramaturgy at UC San Diego.
Blacker originally attended Cornell University to study chemical engineering, not because he didn’t love the performing arts, but because he had “fabulous grades in math and science.”
“I remember at one point in college finally sitting up and looking at my classmates and thinking, ‘I don’t want to work with these people for the rest of my life.’ ”
He quickly changed his major to English, with a drama minor, and started performing and writing for the theater. Blacker seems pleased with his choice, even though he has decided his writing isn’t good enough to pursue--yet.
"(At the Playhouse) I get to work with some of the most talented theater people in America, helping to shape their own particular visions in a really beautiful environment in San Diego,” he said.
“One of the ways that Des and I work as a team is he, as a director and writer himself, is very detail oriented. . . . My orientation is much more (to) the overall structure of the material. What we do initially is sit down and talk with the writer about what we would call the through-line of the piece . . . how does this character get from point A to point G, what are the steps in it?” Blacker explained. “You actually talk through the script, character by character. This is really weeks and weeks of work.”
"(Des) is a very, very talented man, and I think I’m a helpful adjunct to his work, but he’s at the center of the creation,” Blacker stressed. “My function is to help him articulate that and sometimes to edit that.”
When McAnuff took over the reins of the Playhouse, one of his first moves was to invite Blacker to join him. Since then, the dramaturge has been involved with every McAnuff-directed production.
Staging this year’s season opener, the musical “Shout Up a Morning,” required six weeks of intensive pre-rehearsal work, Blacker said. Bringing a new musical to the stage, with 29 actors, eight musicians and a creative group of about 15 people, was a monumental task.
They began with no written choreography and no orchestrations, just a unique, jazz-oriented score written over 20 years ago by the late “Cannonball” Adderly and his brother Nat, and a story that is still being rewritten as the musical nears its closing performance Sunday.
The cast returned last week to an afternoon rehearsal/evening performance schedule to ready the musical for its July 15 opening at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington. Blacker and McAnuff have been collaborating on a number of significant modifications. Current performances are quite different from the opening night version, the dramaturge said.
“I realized at some point working at the Public Theater in New York that when you make a commitment to not-for-profit theater . . . it does take over your life,” Blacker said. “Theater is not a medium for fame or money in our contemporary society.
“There’s only one reason to stick with it and that is because you have some passionate interest in where we are as a people, where we’re progressing as a society, where we’re progressing as human beings, and see theater as a forum to address those concerns.”