Shirley Serotsky is a well respected director and dramaturg. She is the Director of Literary and Public Programs at Theater J. Her directorial credits include Mikveh, The Rise and Fall of Annie Hall, The Moscows of Nantucket and the upcoming History of Invulnerability all for Theater J. Other area credits include This is Not a Timebomb for Source Theatre, Five Flights and Two Rooms at Theatre Alliance, Birds of a Feather at Hub Theatre, and Juno and The Paycock for Washington Shakespeare Company. Being a production dramaturg is not an easy job, especially showing playwrights that their work needs changes. For example, when a script is 500 pages and six hours long – it is Shirley’s job to make suggestions on how to streamline it. Thankfully playwrights respect what Shirley has to say.
What was your first professional job?
My first professional job as a director was directing a solo show about a woman obsessed with Nabokov’s Lolita, at a tiny storefront theater in the Lower East Side of New York. That happened a few weeks after I graduated from my second school (North Carolina School of the Arts).
How closely does the dramaturg work with the director and playwright?
I think this varies, depending on the needs of the play. On a new play, the relationship can be very close, with the dramaturg as present as director and playwright. On a play that has already been produced, it depends on the needs of the rest of the team and that particular production.
Can someone be their own dramaturg if they are directing a show, or does it help to have another person handle that job?
I actually like doing the work I do as a dramaturg on a play that I am directing as well. It helps me to get into the world of the play. That said, I recognize the value of having another brain in the room. With new plays, again, it’s a little bit different. Having a dramaturg present in the room, who both the playwright and the director trust, can be really useful if there is ever a communication breakdown during the rehearsal process. Playwrights can sometimes feel cornered; a good dramaturg can be a really great advocate for a playwright’s vision.
I imagine you read a lot of scripts that are just EHH!. When you give notes to a playwright how do you do it without being nasty?
I make an effort to point out some ways in which a play is effective, as well as giving feedback about what didn’t reach me, or the moments I wasn’t able to buy into. One of my colleagues says she has picked up the phrase “I’m not sure that’s useful” from me, and this goes a long way. Elements of a play that are “less useful” to the story-telling – I try to share that kind of feedback, rather than ever telling someone what they should do with their play. It’s their play. I can only react in terms of what I do or don’t understand, what I do or don’t find compelling, and what I do or don’t follow. I would never be “nasty” in that sharing, what would be the point of that? It takes great courage to write a play (it takes great courage to embark on any artistic endeavor) and while I aim to be honest, I hope never to be demeaning.
Of the productions you have directed so far – which ones are your favorites?
That’s like asking a mother to pick her favorite child! I have enjoyed working on so many of the plays I’ve directed, and for very different reasons. Some of my first work in DC was collaborating with writer/composer Shawn Northrip–and the irreverent musical theater pieces we produced have a special place in my heart – Titus X, Trixie Tickles, Cautionary Tales for Adults, and Lunch. I also loved the plays we produced at Catalyst Theater (now, sadly, closed) and getting to work on two plays by Sheila Callaghan there – We Are Not These Hands, andCrumble. Also References to Salvador Dali Make Me Hot by Jose Rivera at Rorschach Theatre, which was a challenging play with a wonderful cast and design team. The Rise and Fall of Annie Hall by Sam Forman, at Theater J, which was a super-fun script to work on, with people who wholly embraced the tone of the play. And Mikveh at Theater J, for the chance to work with an international team (our playwright and scenic designer were both Israeli) on a translated play, which presented a whole new slew of story-telling challenges for me – in dealing with both cultural and language differences.
Shirley Serotsky’s website.