Dramaturgical labor is so expansive in scope that defining it is a fool’s task. Any definition is sure to miss some aspect of a dramaturg’s varying contributions to a production. The last time you saw a play, did the joke land right? Probably the work of a dramaturg. Were the costumes believable? Probably the work of a dramaturg. Did the monologue on race relations actually speak to the lived experiences of communities of color? Definitely the work of a dramaturg. I spoke with Amauta Firmino, the dramaturg for Slave Play, to get his take on what dramaturgy is and its role in challenging theaters to avoid lazy storytelling.
The dramaturg is an influencer of theatrical work that can be involved from start to finish. They are involved in the writing process, making sure that the playwright’s world building respects historical realities. They have an active presence in the rehearsal room, making sure that actors understand the lived experiences and context that informs a piece of dialogue. On opening night, they can see the fruits of labor, a piece of art that meaningfully adds to a particular discourse because it is so carefully tied to historical research. The research itself is not what you expect. You might be picturing dusty books piled high in a library. That’s definitely part of it, but it also goes beyond that. Perusing memes is part of it. Watching reality TV is part of it. Becoming an expert on relevant Twitter discourse is part of it. In doing so, the dramaturg is able to build an encyclopedic knowledge of relevant topics that keeps a play honest and away from stereotypical representations.
Firmino’s dramaturgical work for Slave Play helped ensure the work effectively demonstrated the power dynamics between interracial relationships where one partner is white. In the play, three interracial couples undergo a new form of couples therapy that leverages roleplay to make sense of the racial power dynamics within each relationship. The roles to be played by each couple: master and slave. This bold premise resonated with theatergoers of color, and garnered 12 Tony nominations, making it the most Tony-nominated play in history.
Firmino’s involvement spans from its inception as a piece for the Langston Hughes Festival at Yale to the play’s Broadway run at the John Golden Theatre. In my conversation with Firmino, his experiences provide useful insight into what being a dramaturg actually looks like. To him, being a dramaturg means pushing against institutional norms and making clear to old white men that their stories aren’t relevant anymore. At the same time, it means leveraging his own lived experiences when appropriate. Firmino reflected on his own experiences as a white-passing Latinx person when working with Jeremy O. Harris to develop Dustin, a character in Slave Play who confuses his olive skin tone for melanin and readily claims the oppression that comes with it.
With the 74th Tony Awards finally taking place last month, this conversation will make you wonder why there was not a category for best dramaturgical work.
Alexi Chacon (Rail): How did you get involved in dramaturgy?
Amauta Firmino: I went to NYU Gallatin and pursued a course of individualized study. I studied art history/media and theory/performance art and authenticity. It was like theater, but not theater, per se. I was a lot more interested in art history, performance art, and artists who use their bodies. And I thought I was going to be a curator. I ended up in some internships at MoMA and the Whitney, then found out that curation is really administrative. So, I started moving away from that dream. I started looking for something that was a little bit more hands on and collaborative. I ended up working for the City of New York as a Program Officer at the Department of Cultural Affairs. My job was to help arts organizations around the city finish their applications for city funding. I had the luck of having a handful of theater organizations in my portfolio that I was working with. I would meet with artistic directors or people putting together the season for different theater organizations and talk about plays, what it's like to put together a season and talk about audiences, how to sell theater to audiences and selling theater to the government as a civic value. In those conversations, I got more and more into the idea of theater. I had a few people say to me, “You know, you think like a dramaturg.” I had never heard of dramaturgy. I looked up “What is dramaturgy?” and “How does one become a dramaturg?” I ended up finding Yale’s dramaturgy department and I applied on a whim.
Rail: The definition of a dramaturg is often fluid and can really range anywhere from being a researcher to a “Script Doctor.” How would you describe the role of a dramaturg?
Firmino: It really depends on every single project. It has mostly been an outside eye that is able to put some distance between themselves and the work at every stage. Being able to look at the work from a distance, look at the whole world around before and after the action in the play and ask questions that help guide the text into a place that makes more sense. And then in rehearsal being able to sit at a distance, and look at how this text is living. Is this work moving in the direction it wants to move? Is the director reading certain scenes in the appropriate way? Or is there a disconnect between the director and the playwright? Are the actors fully living in their character? Is there any way that I can bring in some additional material that would help bridge that gap? A lot of my work as a dramaturg I can do because my name is not on the show’s poster. I have less skin in the game. I can ask questions that people whose name is on the poster don't ask themselves. There's less ego around it, which can lead you to be a little bit more self-critical.
Rail: How necessary are dramaturgical insights?
Firmino: The work that often gets assigned to a dramaturg is labor that everyone in any theater process should be doing all the time.
Everyone should be reading around a play.
Everyone should be watching film around a play.
Everyone should be reading theater pieces around a play.
Dramaturgical labor is essential.
It is essential to have a dramaturg.
There is a bit of anti-intellectualism in the way that theater currently gets produced. It’s anti-theory. It’s anti-relevancy. People want to do the same revivals, put on the same shows, and talk about the same issues. But they don’t want to look at new urgent relevant ways that these conversations are being had outside of the theater. They don’t want to bring in theory. They don’t want to bring in Twitter discourse.
Rail: Tell me how you got involved in Slave Play and how your dramaturgical process changed as the work developed?
Firmino: It started as a school project at Yale. The first time I saw any sort of text associated with Slave Play was when Jeremy sent me the first 20 pages in October 2017. The beginning of our dramaturgical relationship was really just about reading, watching movies, sharing links, memes, articles, and quotes, and sitting together on couches until four in the morning together. It was learning about a bunch of references that were even tangentially related to the world, or to the characters, or to the idea, and having these long conversations. It was a prolonged gestation period.
Then we had a full script, which happened pretty quickly. Jeremy is the kind of person who stews and doesn't write anything for months, and then suddenly in eight hours will spit out an entire script. Once we had a full draft and we got into rehearsal, my work was bridging the playwright’s vision with the text’s possibilities. This was the first play I'd ever been with from beginning to end. Once we got into professional productions with Robert O'Hara directing, the scripts were in a place where both Jeremy and I were very happy about where it was. We had basically put the lock on it. The dramaturgical process was a lot more “light touch.”
Rail: As the play matured, you became an arbiter of cultural reference. How did you know you were catching all the resources that you needed to effectively establish the parameters in the play?
Firmino: I don't think I ever knew. I don't think there's a way to, though. It was very intuitive. The big lesson I learned working as a dramaturg is that everybody is their own dramaturg. Every actor is their own dramaturg, every director is their own dramaturg, and the only thing I can do is have dialogue with them about it. It’s about having that kind of referential conversation since every actor is already doing research and asking questions about their specific slice of the play.
Rail: In your dramaturgical process, even though you rely on theory and pop culture, how do you work in lived experiences into the process and development of the work?
Firmino: Lived experiences in many ways were worked in during the early part of writing. Being a racially ambiguous/non-white, but white person, is a conversation I had a lot with Jeremy. I'm a first generation American. My parents are from Peru and Guatemala. I'm a person of color here, but I'm white everywhere else I go. There's something really unstable about the idea of being a person of color. In the United States, there's something really slippery about it, especially as a Latinx person. For me, a certain set of privileges, a certain set of lived experiences comes with skin that tans and also pales. I am white, and so it's hard for me to identify as anything other than that. Characters like Dustin and Patricia in Slave Play hold some of those contradictions in them. The way that they express those contradictions comes from conversations that Jeremy and I had about either my own lived experience or lived experience with people that we saw or that we knew.
Rail: Slave Play faced some institutional opposition at Yale. What advice do you give to artists who are trying to establish and develop a project in the face of opposition? And did you face opposition outside of Yale as Slave Play progressed through New York Theatre Workshop and on to Broadway?
Firmino: To the second part of the question: surprisingly, no.
I think that was the case for a lot of reasons, but the biggest reason was that we were being treated as professional artists and as colleagues in the industry in a way that schools don't. The inherent power structure of an academic institution is that you're there to learn. And the scary thing I think, for institutions and for students, is that even when you are learning you're also actively working outside of your institution. It's even scarier, when you're there to learn and you're also actively making waves and changing the field and pushing the institution into this existential crisis. It's the key existential crisis that all should have and that older generations of white people are experiencing right now. They’re saying, “Oh, I'm not useful anymore. My stories aren't useful anymore. Nobody wants to hear my stories. What do I do?” With Slave Play, we ran up against a very similar kind of thing. There are a lot of controversial images and ideas to work through in Slave Play. It's a play that starts conversations. But the institution definitely wasn't ready to have that conversation when we were in school. They weren’t ready to allow us to pose those questions either.
Rail: Do you think there should be a Tony Award for dramaturgy?
Firmino: If there were a category for dramaturgy, I wouldn’t trust anybody to judge what good dramaturgy is or isn’t. It would be really hard.
Rail: What are some insights you can give to dramaturgs who are new to the field?
Firmino: I had a teacher tell our whole cohort that as a dramaturg you are either going to have to get a doctorate and teach theater or marry rich because there is no other job for you. My teacher wasn’t wrong. They really don’t pay. Dramaturgical work in theater does not pay a living wage.
As long as it is impossible to make a living as a production dramaturg, the future of dramaturgs is to be as multi-hyphenate and as collaborative as possible. I now work mostly in film and television because there is just better work that pays and treats artists well. I really don’t know what theater is going to do.
In theater, you might get a stipend where you are paid 60 dollars a day for dramaturgical work. How does anyone expect anyone to survive on 60 dollars a day?