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The Production Dramaturg: Oliver Twist

Emily Anne Gibson describes her her first foray into the world of professional theater.

Quentin McCuiston, Ames Adamson, Andy Paterson in Oliver Twist
(© Gerry Goodstein)
"We are glad to have its moral doubted; for in that, we find assurance that it needed to be told."

-- Neil Bartlett's adaptation of Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist

However much I enjoy doing research and writing essays, there is nothing like working on a production. Any theatre artist knows what I'm talking about – it's all-consuming, it constantly tests you, and it results in a product that finds new life every night. I study drama, of course, but I live for making it.

I am writing this article the night before the opening of Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist at The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, the first professional production I have had the pleasure and pride to work on as a dramaturg. I got the position after interning at the Shakespeare Theatre over the summer in the Education Department, where I worked under Brian B. Crowe, the director of Oliver Twist. He invited me to be his dramaturg and assistant, and I gladly accepted, not knowing exactly what was in store, but excited for a chance to work on the Main Stage.

It has been an extraordinary challenge. While I've worked on countless productions, even dramaturging a few, Oliver Twist was my first foray into the professional theatre world. I've spent the past four weeks up to my eyes in research and rehearsals and meetings and emails, and the whirlwind of tech and preview week has made it nearly impossible for me to think about anything beyond Saturday night, when the show opens and my work is officially done. It has been a wonderful experience, and I am once again reassured that this is the kind of work I want to pursue.

Last semester, I wrote an article about what dramaturgs do. It is sometimes the case that dramaturgs have difficulty articulating what they contributed to a production, but I think that I can. I did the research that is expected, of course, creating an online casebook as well as an audience packet for theatre-goers. But I also was in the rehearsal room, watching the progression of the piece, there to offer my opinion on the text, to compare the adaptation with the original text, to help the director come up with answers to problematic dialogue or scenes. I was a point-person for research questions, from collecting a list of 19th-century British insults to coming up with options for the kind of prayers Fagin might offer up in his final scene. I became a surrogate audience member while the director worked scenes with actors. I made French macarons for the green room. (Okay, that last one might not be in the job description.) Basically, I always felt useful, always knew that I was really and truly a part of the production.

Aside from the material I have for my portfolio and a program with my name in it, what will I take away from this production? An incredible learning experience. For the first time, I found myself in a theatre surrounded by people who were not students or teachers or people with day jobs – their occupation was making this production the best is could be. I got to work in a professional theatre setting, not as an intern, but as a member of a company. I learned about the inner workings of a regional theatre production, came to understand how much time and effort working professionally will take, and made connections with so many wonderful artists that I know I will keep. I also got to contribute to what I believe is a stunning and engaging piece of theatre that will speak to its audience night after night.

Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist, adapted by Neil Bartlett, is currently running at The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey through October 7.