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Johnian magazine issue 49, autumn 2022

Discovering dramaturgy

Written by Deanie Vallone (2011)

5 min read

Deanie Vallone (2011) studied English at St John’s before pursuing a career in dramaturgy. Having previously worked as the Literary Director of Milwaukee Repertory Theater, Deanie has recently decided to branch out and begin a freelance career. Here she explains how she got into the theatre industry and what it takes to get a play from the page to the stage.

Please tell us a bit about your background. Did you always want to work in the creative arts?

I’ve been a voracious reader and dedicated writer my entire life. I attended St John’s to read English for two years on the Davies-Jackson Scholarship, coming in with undergraduate degrees in English and Creative Writing. When I started my degree at Cambridge, I intended to pursue a career in publishing. As I was looking for an extracurricular activity, a friend suggested I sign up to be a producer through the ADC. I ended up working on a production of Look Back in Anger and absolutely fell in love with theatre. I was completely taken in by the thrill of bringing a story from the page to the stage while collaborating with a group of talented, like-minded artists. But I also loved researching, writing and reading – and producing wasn’t quite that. After working on a few shows, I stumbled upon the term ‘dramaturg’. It was like a lightbulb turned on.

From there, I did several dramaturgy apprenticeships and fellowships at major regional theatres across the United States, honing my craft directly with seasoned professionals. As I was finishing up a fellowship in Baltimore, Maryland, I got a job at Milwaukee Repertory Theater and moved back home to join the literary team there. I’ve spent the past five years on staff, the last two serving as Literary Director.

Deanie stands to the right of a whiteboard with notes about a new musical on it.
Deanie Vallone in a new musical writers room
Deanie holds up a notebook to seated playwright Catherine Trieschmann. Both are in masks.
Workshop with playwright Catherine Trieschmann (photo: Don Rebar)

What are the main responsibilities of a Literary Director at Milwaukee Rep?

During my time as Literary Director at Milwaukee Rep, I supported around a dozen active commissioned playwrights working on new plays and musicals for our New Play Development programme. My work included helping to create commission contracts, reading drafts of scripts-in-development, producing workshops, preparing materials for grants and more. One of my favourite aspects of the job was that there was no ‘typical day’. From managing a multi-million dollar budget and facilitating audience programming to attending rehearsals and travelling the country scouting for new plays, no two days were alike.

What does a new play dramaturg do?

Some dramaturgs take on lots of different roles while some spend their entire careers working in specialised areas such as devising, Shakespeare, or theatre for young audiences. New play dramaturgs specifically work on plays in development, sometimes in association with an institution and sometimes freelance. Much of our work focuses on direct collaboration with a playwright to develop the script from idea through drafts into production. The dramaturg is a bit like an editor: reading drafts, offering feedback, facilitating deep story conversations with the writer, brainstorming solutions and championing the work. When a writer and a dramaturg work well together, it can be an incredibly fruitful and long-term partnership.

What is the most interesting project you have worked on?

Deanie is in between Mark Clements and Ayad Akhtar - they are all leaning over some papers on the table. Ayad is making notes on the papers.
Mark Clements, Deanie Vallone, and Ayad Akhtar working on the script of Junk (photo: Austin Bean)
A man in a suit is sat on a chair in between five other men in suits.
A production photo from Junk (photo: Michael Brosilow)

One of the most interesting and challenging projects I got to work on was about a topic I
never thought I’d have any interest in: Wall Street financiers. In January 2019 Milwaukee Rep was scheduled to produce Pulitzer Prize-winner Ayad Akhtar’s play Junk. It had recently received its world premiere at the Lincoln Center Theater (LCT) in New York, and then went on to be produced in Germany. The LCT production was three hours long with an intermission; the German company had done edits, reducing the show to two hours with no intermission. Normally this kind of script editing is considered copyright infringement, but Ayad actually really liked the reduced production. I was brought on to help figure out what the German production had done with the script, and work with Ayad and Director Mark Clements to create a similar English adaptation for the US stage.

My first task was translating the script from German – and I don’t speak German! That was quite the adventure. After that I compared the two English-language scripts, creating a giant document tracking the differences. Ayad, Mark and I then sat down with the script and figured out which changes worked and which didn’t, creating the Milwaukee Rep version.

The opportunity to continue developing an already produced play doesn’t come around too often, so this was an exceptionally exciting experience. At the end of the process, we’d developed a fast-paced, incredibly thrilling piece of theatre that had an entirely different energy to the one produced in New York. Since then, our version has gone on to be produced at other theatres, including Arena Stage in Washington, DC.

I also did extensive research into the world of the play in order to support the actors. The plot takes place during the insider trading and junk bond scandals that unfolded on Wall Street during the 1980s. I spent a lot of time digging into this topic, helping the team understand the complex financial terminology in the script, the context for the play’s plot, and the deep socio-cultural world of Wall Street at this time. Never in my life would I have expected to be reading 600+ page books about finance for work, but I did and I loved it.

One of my favourite parts of being a dramaturg is that I never stop learning. I have worked on plays about Artemisia Gentileschi, child soldiers in Liberia, the RMS Titanic, Evangelical Christian summer camps, Peter Pan, the Black Death and more. It’s always a thrill to see what rabbit hole I’ll fall down next.

What are you working on at the moment?

I recently left my full-time position at Milwaukee Rep to focus more on my own creative writing and to start building a freelance career – though I haven’t gone too far! At the time of writing this, I’m in rehearsals at Milwaukee Rep for a world premiere play by acclaimed playwright Eleanor Burgess called Wife of a Salesman which opens in September, and this winter I’ll be freelance dramaturging a production of Much Ado About Nothing for the theatre. Milwaukee Rep has also commissioned me to co-write a new musical about Irish music and storytelling, so I’ll be diving into researching and writing that very soon.

What advice would you give to Johnian students or alumni hoping to forge a career in theatre?

Theatre work isn’t your typical nine to five job; the hours are long and the breaks are few and far between. Some people thrive on that. Sometimes it’s exhilarating. But a lot of the time it’s deeply exhausting work. My first piece of advice: take time to consider seriously if it’s your true passion and a lifestyle you can sustain.

If it is, there’s no one right way to build a career. But I’m a big proponent of hands-on experience. Education is great but it cannot replace ‘learning by doing’. Whether that means taking my route and doing fellowships, or just producing your own readings in the back of a pub or your room, you will learn an incredible amount about the work by just doing it. Theatre is such a human-focused world, so also putting generosity and kindness at the forefront of your practice will go a long way to sustaining a career. And, of course, see as many shows and read as many books as you can.

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Written by

Formerly Literary Director of Milwaukee Repertory Theater, Deanie is a freelance dramaturg and writer. She specialises in new play development.

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