Challenging the audience
By Rebecca Fox | Posted: Sunday September 8, 2019
Chicago-based producer and director Tanya Palmer will have some advice for young playwrights when she visits Dunedin for next weeks Unesco Cities of Literature Short Play Festival. She tells Rebecca Fox it is part of making sure theatre remains a vital live art form.
Tanya Palmer's introduction to the theatre came by playing Leroy the Janitor, who gets burnt alive by the evil girl, in her Canadian high school production of The Bad Seed, by Maxwell Anderson.
"I beat out the boys and got the part. After that I was hooked."
That experience turned out to be pivotal for Palmer, who only became interested in theatre because a few of her friends were in the drama club.
"While I was amazing as Leroy the Janitor, I wasn't a great actor and I was more interested in writing and thinking about theatre rather than being in it."
She realised while she had a lot of admiration for actors it was not "where I saw my path".
Palmer loves the community feel of theatre and working with a variety of people in a way that is hard to do outside the theatre context.
"It's such a collaborative art form."
But it was her fascination with human behaviour - why people say what they do, and do what they do - that really hooked her.
"Theatre is an amazing laboratory for exploring and trying to unpack and decipher why people behave as they do."
So she went on to study for a bachelor of fine arts degree in theatre at the University of Calgary and then finished her masters at York University, in Toronto.
She began writing plays, which allowed her to imagine whole new worlds.
"It combines that impulse to create on your own, in your own head, while also allowing you to join with a group of other artists to make something new."
Her career started out with an internship at the Actors' Theatre of Louisville, in Kentucky, which has the internationally renowned Humana Festival of New American Plays.
After she finished studying, that led to a role as the theatre's literary manager.
"I knew I was interested in new plays so it seemed like the place to be.
"I had an opportunity to work with some of the US's most accomplished and exciting playwrights - and to imagine different ways theatre could be created and presented."
From there she was hired by Goodman Theatre in Chicago to build up its new play programme.
"I've spent the past 14 years there helping to expand and deepen the theatre's commitment to playwrights and producing new work."
The theatre was originally founded in 1922 and was named after a playwright who died in an influenza epidemic in 1918.
While it began as a professional theatre, it became a children's theatre and educational institution in the early 20th century.
Then in the 1970s, with the support of the National Endowment for the Arts, it again became a professional theatre and started developing new plays.
Since the 1980s it has gained a national reputation with award-winning productions of new plays and American classics under artistic director Robert Falls.
Palmer's work includes running the annual new play festival, New Stages, which holds workshop productions of new plays as well as staged readings.
She also oversees its commissioning programme, commissioning three to eight plays a year, and a residency programme for Chicago-based playwrights called the Goodman Playwrights Unit.
In addition, she scouts for new work and new writers locally and nationally and dramaturges and produces new plays during the season.
As a playwright, her work includes Body Talk, Fatherland, Barbra Live at Canyon Ranch, Spring and Trash and The Memory Tour.
Being a dramaturge involves providing playwrights and theatres literary, cultural and artistic insight before, during and sometimes after a production.
"It changes somewhat depending on the project and the artists."
For Palmer the role involves a lot of conversations with the writer of a work about what they are interested in exploring and then trying to provide the resources they need to do that.
As the play develops, she often reads multiple drafts of the script, giving feedback based on her understanding of the playwright's goals.
Once it is in production, she attends rehearsals and serves as an early audience member, reflecting back to the playwright and director what she sees.
"So they can hopefully get a sense of how an audience might read the play and if it's communicating what they want it to communicate."
Once they move into performances, she also spends time sharing information with the audience about the play and artist.
"I do it because I love the process of collaborating with writers - and helping them make a play that is as close as it can come to the vision they've had in their head."
Some of the plays she has worked on as a production dramaturge include the world premieres of 2666, by Roberto Bolalo, adapted and directed by Seth Bockley and Robert Falls; Smokefall, by Noah Haidle; The Happiest Song Plays Last, by Quiara Hudes; and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Ruined, by Lynn Nottage.
For Palmer the works that stand out are the ones with big ambitions. Either the story they are telling is "epic", like the adaptation of Roberto Bolano's novel for 2666 which "spanned 100 years and several continents", or the process of creating it was particularly complex, like DANA H, by Lucas Hnath, which she dramaturged.
"It was created entirely from a series of recorded interviews, spliced together and then lip-synced to by the sole actor of the show.
"I'm interested in works that challenge audiences, both because of the complexity and nuance of the story being told, but also because it pushes the limits of what we perceive is a play."
Her love of the role has led to a new job in Indiana University's Department of Theatre, Drama and Contemporary Dance where she is developing a master of fine arts degree in dramaturgy to begin next year.
The qualification is for those who are interested in building a career in dramaturgy, producing and arts leadership.
She sees developing new work as critical to theatre's future as a "vital, live art form".
"We have to support the work of writers who are writing about the current moment - and because plays are blueprints for performance, in order for playwrights to hone their craft, they need to have the opportunity to see and explore their work with collaborators up on their feet."
So she is interested in helping develop the next generation of theatre makers and audience members.
"I always learn a lot from my students and mentees - they challenge me and make me think about the work in a new way."
As one of the guest speakers at the Short Play Festival in Dunedin, she hopes to share her knowledge of new play development and production in the United States, in the hope that some strategies or approaches could be useful for participants of the festival.
"I also look forward to learning more about theatre in New Zealand."
But her advice to aspiring playwrights?
"See as many plays as you can and take as many opportunities as you can to hear your work out loud - plays are meant to be spoken and embodied and you will learn much from getting actors in a room together to speak your words".
University of Otago Department of Music, Theatre and Performing Arts head Prof Stuart Young says Palmer is a valuable addition to the event, which is part of the university's 150th anniversary celebrations.
"Tanya will add an immeasurable wealth of insight, experience and knowledge and is well qualified for leading the appraisals and panel discussions of the new work that will be presented. She has extensive experience in framing feedback sensitively to apprentice and emerging writers, and I know they will benefit greatly from her input."
The other guest speakers are former Burns Fellow and playwright Victor Rodger and playwright and dramaturge Dr Fiona Graham, director of the MA in dramaturgy and writing for performance at Goldsmiths College, University in London.
Unesco Cities of Literature Short Play Festival at the University of Otago, September 12-20.