Lue Morgan Douthit, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s director of literary development and dramaturgy, has spent 20 seasons at OSF and served as production dramaturg for more than 40 productions, including “The Unfortunates,” “Throne of Blood” and “Equivocation.” Douthit’s presentations are widely known for their understated humor and extraordinary wit. We got together in her office on the OSF campus. This is the first of a two-part column.
EH: What is dramaturgy?
LD: Dramaturgy is the study of dramatic structure. Anything that has to do with how a play is put together is the world of dramaturgy. I happen to be one person that pays attention to that. I’m not the only person that interprets the dramatic architecture of a play. I pay attention to the story to offer advice to a director, actors and designers and to have conversations with audiences.
EH: How much influence do you have in choosing the season?
LD: I am one of many people that (Artistic Director) Bill Rauch consults. Bill is the decider. I help him offering varieties of plays. He is a hands-on administrator and artistic leader, which is kind of fabulous. It all rests on him.
It’s crazy to begin to think about a season two seasons ahead, when you have yet to sell one ticket for the next season. We have no idea if we have guessed right about the season to come, and we are choosing for the season beyond that. Yet it takes seven months to choose a season.
In some ways there are some predictable factors, that is, we’re going to choose some Shakespeare plays. We will always seriously consider one or two of the commissions from the American Revolutions program. We almost always now also seriously consider a musical. At least every other year we are trying to introduce a component of the Global Classic line into our playbill, like “The Clay Cart” or “Throne of Blood” and “White Snake.”
There’s a little bit of luck about that — when something comes available, or someone has seen something, or another play is ready from our other commissions, or a director says, “I’ve got something I would love to do,” and Bill says, “Yes.”
It’s a huge conversation that Bill has with many people on different levels, with many different agendas and points of view. He is amazing in terms of his capacity to hold all of that. And he does it; it’s quite remarkable.
EH: Is there a procedure for picking the plays for a season?
LD: There is a process. It’s called the Boar’s Head process. It’s named after the tavern in “Henry IV.” Thirty years ago or whenever it was coined, my guess is there were five people and they actually did go to the tavern and decide what the season was. It has grown to be 50 people-plus, which represents every department on campus, including actor representation. All artistic production and administration have representation in the room.
EH: Are there common personality traits for theater people?
LD: I don’t think so. One hopes that if you were to go into any art, you’re highly aware that it isn’t for the money, that feeding the soul is as valuable, if not more. I hope that’s true of any job no matter what it is, as long as you’re passionate about it and you don’t hurt anybody. “You match your passion with the world’s greatest need.” Isn’t that what the philosopher said? “That’s going to bring you the best joy.” I think it’s true.
EH: Has the process of choosing plays changed over the years?
LD: The process remains as arduous today as it did on day one, because I think the most important thing we do is to choose these eleven plays. From there, all things then are driven. That process has always been inclusive, and it has gotten more and more with Bill (Rauch), but in Libby Appel’s time, too, it was quite a big committee.
Generally speaking, Bill comes to the table on the first day with a sense of a couple of things: Whether it’s a musical that he wants to do or a new play that is ripe; a passion he has for a particular play; and a couple of Shakespeare’s. From there you start nipping and tucking and chipping and splicing and dicing and work things around. And you test plays against each other: Not enough comedy; too much realism; too many plays set in the sixties; not enough women’s roles.
Every year there are many of the same kinds of conversations, or what I call the mills, to make sure that we have variety on as many levels as we possibly can. At the same time, we are doing some pragmatics: How many roles? What are the demands of the theatrical world? How much video? How many musicians? Do we need children? Can we get the rights? What will be the royalties? All these pragmatics are tossed into this huge mix.
There’s been a high learning curve with Bill in terms of different kinds of literature, but the process is still the same. Commissioning playwrights is still the same, and the biggest difference is the amount of development work that we now do, that we encourage, support, produce, and curate. Now, projects are much more complicated, and there is so much experimentation with form and content, form mostly, and our ability within the structure of the Festival. (Oh, by the way, we’re pumping out a lot of performances.) The logistics of trying to get certain artists to work on certain pieces to develop them, that’s been the hugest change, the scale of that. It’s been fun, but it’s been the biggest change.
EH: What is it about the medium of theater that is so compelling?
LD: I find the power of a story being told in front of a group of strangers to be one of the most powerful human experiences we have available.
I cherish the opportunity (and am humbled every day) by the courage of the people who do this, the actors and playwrights in particular. I hold great respect for playwrights and actors. They are our truth-tellers. Anything I can contribute to keeping that alive, that’s my career. Some of it has been teaching; some of it has been in other venues.
My entire career has been in the theater. What hooks me is I am incredibly moved by watching people act in front of me and show me ways to be. I must be slow of study, because I can’t seem to get enough examples of how to be, and I marvel at how many ways there are to be. I’ll say that everything I’ve ever learned I’ve learned from the theater. And I’m grateful to it.
The Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s 2014 Season runs from Feb. 14 through November 2. For tickets and information regarding plays and events, visit www.osfashland.org or call 541-482-4331 or 800-219-8161.
Evalyn Hansen is a writer and director living in Ashland. She trained as an actor at the American Conservatory Theatre and is a founding member of San Francisco's Magic Theatre. Reach her firstname.lastname@example.org.