In Defense of Dramaturgy: An Interview: Walt McGough

I met Walt McGough in July 0f 2011, when we both descended on Washington D.C for the Kennedy Center’s first New Play Dramaturgy Intensive. I was a dramaturg, and he was a playwright whose work was being workshopped. I was not working on his play, but I did see a reading of the play at the end of the week, and was impressed. McGough’s writing is thoroughly immersed in wit, humor, and emotion. He has the ability to elicit laughs and tears simultaneously.

As a person, Walt is funny, kind, and has a self-deprecating sense of humor (when he got busy, for instance, and could not get to my email for a few days, he responded “I am the wooooorrrssttt.”) Hardly, Walt. Hardly. Anyway, before I backtrack too much, I want to discuss briefly why I am interviewing Walt, and other playwrights in the first place (besides the fact that they are awesome). As you may have noticed from a previous post, I came across an article that referred to dramaturgs as “less-informed wikilinks.” I was very disappointed that people who work in the theater view dramaturgs in this way, and wanted to do something about it.

This, so to speak, is my “In defense of Dramaturgy” series.

1.) What’s keeping you busy at the moment? Work and non-work related.
  • I’m currently juggling a couple of projects: I recently started a two-man monologue show about the drone war in Pakistan, which has me balancing the writing side of things with the research end (turns out there’s a lot to learn about tribal life in Northwest Pakistan; who knew?). I’m also working through some rewrites on my play Paper City Phoenix, in advance of a production with Boston Actors Theatre this summer, and putting the final pieces in place for a couple other potential things for next season that I can’t talk specifically about yet but are going to be awesome. Life-wise, I’m trying to see as much theatre around town in Boston and praying desperately for winter to be over because seriously, this winter has been ridiculous.

 2.) Describe for me how you get ideas. I’m in the process of editing and working on some young adult fiction, so I’m reading what some of my friends call good young adult fiction. Do you also get inspired by reading other writers? 

  • I definitely try to read a lot that syncs up with what I’m writing, but what that reading ends up being specifically depends on the project. For more historical- or issues-grounded pieces, I do a fair amount of researching (but I also try to find the most compact research available, so as not to end up drowning in pages. My ideal research text is a comprehensive review of the subject, somewhere between Wikipedia and primary sources on the credibility and detail scales.) For the more purely fictional plays, I look a lot to genre fiction or drama that fits the feeling I’m going for. I read a lot of comic books for Paper City Phoenix, a lot of Dashiell Hammett and John Le Carre for The Farm (which is about spies), and a lot of swashbuckling romance stuff for my play The Haberdasher. Fiction often inspires me as much or more than plays on a subject level, but reading great plays is the best way to get new ideas structurally.

 3.) What’s your writing process like?

  • Messy, all-over-the-place and alternatingly joyful and depressing. I try as hard as I can to write regularly, but with a few different day jobs and a few passing attempts at a social life, that can get tricky. Deadlines are my best friend, since they make it easier to lock down and focus when there’s a goal in mind. (They also induce a fair amount of panic, but that’s just part of the fun.) I almost always write sequentially, although I don’t generally outline unless it’s absolutely necessary. I do a lot of mental planning and arranging, instead, since it allows me to stay flexible but also feel like I’m going somewhere. Rewrites tend to focus on one character or storyline at a time, as I gradually get everything moving in the same direction. And whatever phase of the process I’m on, I pace pretty much constantly. Which is why I prefer to write in my office, as opposed to a coffee shop or library, where walking laps around the room is generally frowned upon.

4.) When you work with a dramaturg, what do you look for? What qualities do you want a dramaturg to have?

  • I look for someone who is both supportive and ruthless; my ideal dramaturg is as passionate as I am about the subject, and willing to geek out at length about it, but also willing to get down to brass tacks and make me do the same when it’s time to work. I need someone who will both identify the shortcuts I take, but also help talk me through ways around them. I love cooperating when I work, so I look to a dramaturg to not just identify soft spots in the play but to also bounce ideas around for ways out of them. And while I want someone who will call me on my shit, I also want to feel like my dramaturg is always on my side. This is all a pretty loopy and vague way of saying that a dramaturg, to me, is someone who is as excited about my play as I am, but even more excited about making it realize its potential.
5.) What did you get out of the Kennedy Center’s New Play Dramaturgy Intensive? Would you recommend it to other playwrights?
  • The Kennedy Center intensive was fantastic because it was a chance to take part in a process with amazing, seasoned and passionate professionals, and have them treat me like I belonged in the room. Which, on a lot of levels, I didn’t yet, but having all of these amazing artists act like I was one of the gang helped me to up my game, and earn my spot in the room. I came in with a half-formed draft of a loopy idea, and all of a sudden Lisa Adler and Mame Hunt and Mark Bly and Sandy Shinner were taking it seriously and asking me questions and really investing themselves into it (Mark even laughed at a pun in the script about the Mercator Projection, which, c’mon), and having them not just take the time to work with me but actually seem to want to do so was more invigorating and amazing than I can express. I made a lot of progress on the script itself, but I feel like I also made progress as a writer, because I was being treated like one and expected to act the part. So, yeah. It was pretty okay.

6.) Do you have any negative experiences with dramaturgs? Explain if you can.

  • Honestly? No. All of the dramaturgs that I have had the joy to work with have been uniformly brilliant and amazing and exciting. IN FACT, I’m going to hijack this question and use it to tell a story that I think epitomizes what a dramaturg does: I was in tech week for a production of a play of mine, and the director and I were going around and around discussing the final moments at the end of the show. She wanted it one way, and I wanted it another, and we had pretty much drawn the battle lines and, despite having a great relationship otherwise, we just could not find a way to convince each other. Ultimately the dramaturg, who’d been sitting and listening to us talk in circles for five minutes, spoke up with an idea that was, literally, the exact mid-point of the two extremes the director and I had been arguing about. It was a perfect compromise, and exactly what the scene needed, but without that outside eye seeing the problem from both ends, we never would’ve gotten there. It was magical.

 7.) How do you like to workshop a play? Do you go in with a specific idea of what you want to happen? Or do you like to observe the process? How involved do you like to be?

  • I generally come into the workshop with a few specific goals in mind, but I usually end up making them subservient to the questions that the actors, directors and dramaturgs ask about the play. I’m a big fan of table work in the early stages, with everybody working through the play as a whole and discussing the parts that aren’t jiving, with me trying to talk as little as possible (and usually failing; I’m a bit chatty, I don’t know if you can tell). I then try to work on the chunks that folks have the most questions about, and usually by the end I’ve managed to tick off the items on my worklist by doing so, and in ways that are much more solid and well-done than I would have ever arrived at on my own.

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