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Learning from Your Elders

Emily Anne Gibson discusses the benefits of "practical observation" at Carnegie Mellon.

By Pittsburgh

Just watch and learn.

Part of my curriculum as a dramaturg involves a course called "practical observation." We used to call it ghosting, but I think practical observation is probably a better way of talking about it. Essentially, little second year dramaturgs go through a rehearsal process with big fourth year dramaturgs and watch. We aren't allowed to do any work; we're only allowed to watch the process.

At first, I didn't like the sound of this. I've been the dramaturg of a show before. I've been an assistant, too. But sit and watch and not do anything? That sounded horrible! I discovered that it isn't. Let me explain.

One of the coolest things about watching other dramaturgs work is that we all do it differently. I'm currently observing Mike, the dramaturg for Bus Stop at Carnegie Mellon. In some ways, it's like being able to have one-on-one talk backs - if I have a question, I can just turn to him and ask it. It's a chance for me to learn from the young dramaturgs who came before me. I am not only learning about Bus Stop through Mike, though. I'm also learning about the process of a production.

At the very least, I get to see how one more dramaturg goes through the process. Every show is different. Every director-dramaturg relationship is different. And as I sat in rehearsal the other day, I was filing away information. My brain is starting to acquire these cabinets of folders: Where Does the Dramaturg Sit? How Does the Dramaturg Respond to a Question? Does the Dramaturg Speak Up?

And for every person I watch, I'm filing away answers. In the end, I'll have my own style of dramaturgy - the way I work is different than the way Mike works. It's different than Zander worked when I assisted him on last semester's Mad Forest. But even though I know I'm different, I can pick and choose things I like. I can watch older students grapple with issues and use their tactics in the future.

I had expressed a little frustration to the head of my department about observing instead of doing, and he gave me one more reason to like this assignment. Dramaturgs, very often, must sit and watch. They must sit and watch knowing that they do not have the power or authority to do anything. They can make suggestions, they can talk to the director, but ultimately there comes a moment when we must stop talking and observe...

And observe we shall!


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