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Far from waiting in the wings, award-winning MU dramaturg seizes his role

Monday, May 11, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 11:26 a.m. CDT, Monday, May 11, 2009
Theater PhD student Andy Pierce recently won a national award for dramaturgy work on the play "Quindaro." Dramaturgy is a practice that takes a piece of writing and shapes it into a form that may be acted out.

COLUMBIA — It is easy to see the work of the director, playwright, designers and actors come together when a play is produced. But behind all this, the dramaturg’s guiding hand can appear almost invisible.

The reality is, the dramaturg is as essential as the writer, the designers, the director or the actors because his or her research sets the cultural, social and historical framework of the play.

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Andy Pierce, an MU doctoral student in theater, spent a year and a half perusing old letters, newspaper clippings and encyclopedias as well as interviewing historians, authors and town residents to assemble a comprehensive history of pre-Civil War Quindaro, Kan., for playwright Kathleen McGhee-Anderson and director Ricardo Khan. Their new work, “Quindaro,” was produced by the University of Missouri-Kansas City’s theater department in 2008.

Pierce used this experience to create an entry for the Kennedy Center’s regional theater festival this January. From there, he was chosen to advance to the national festival in Washington, D.C., where last month he competed against seven other dramaturgs and returned as one of two recipients of the Dramaturgy Award for the prestigious Literary Managers and Dramaturgs Association. He and Anne Morgan of Emerson College now hold memberships to two leading theater organizations (the dramaturgs association and the Association for Theatre in Higher Education) and will participate in the O’Neill National Playwrights’ Conference this summer as members of the literary staff.

To spend time in workshops that week with professional dramaturgs and other students at the Kennedy Center, which until this year he had only seen on television, still boggles his mind, Pierce said.

“Since we spent so many hours together, there was more of a sense of camaraderie than competition,” he said. “It’s a rare luxury to spend intensive time with students that may become your future colleagues.”

At the same time, many of Pierce’s future colleagues may not be fellow dramaturgs, but directors and designers. The dramaturg is there to support every member of the production team from the beginning through the rehearsal process, said Gregg Henry, the national festival’s artistic director.

While working on “Quindaro,” Pierce helped revise the script to correct historical inaccuracies, created individual character studies for the actors and presented his research to the production team to aid their designs.

“I look at a dramaturg as another smart person in the room,” Henry said. “One of my mentors had a famous phrase: the smartest idea in the room wins. There’s something about that that I think is important for a good dramaturg.”

The student or students best able to document their contribution to the process are most likely to win at the Kennedy Center, Henry said.

“What makes it an interesting challenge is that each project is completely different from the others,” he said. “Some people are doing new plays. Some are doing Shakespeare pieces. One of the recipients did ‘Little Women the Musical.’ It’s about trying to get a sense by reading each entry on its own merit.”

Quindaro was established before the Civil War as a free port in Kansas by the Missouri River. It was considered too progressive for its time, harboring runaway slaves and allowing blacks to vote in town elections and learn alongside whites, Pierce said on his Web site, andypierce.com.

“Quindaro” had not even been written when Pierce began his research. Halfway through the process, Pierce graduated and moved on to his doctoral studies at MU. He continued to collaborate across state lines with McGhee-Anderson, who is executive producer for ABC Family’s “Lincoln Heights,” and Khan, director and writer-in-residence at the Lincoln Center Institute in New York City. They met again in person just before the final production.

Pierce looks forward to the opportunities he will have at the O’Neill conference this summer, especially with new work, he said. MU and other academic settings do not often present new work in a way that allows the dramaturg a significant role, he said.

Despite this, Pierce said that without MU’s support, he would not have been able to go to the Kennedy Center in the first place. Henry said much the same about the Kennedy Center itself.

“All things considered in this fiscal chasm we find ourselves in, we were very well protected and supported by the Kennedy Center administration, and I thought of that as the students were coming up to receive their scholarship checks and accepting their fellowships,” Henry said.

As students continue to participate in events like the Kennedy Center’s national festival, the economic downturn does not seem to be hurting the theater world’s sense of community, said Henry and others involved in theater at MU and nationally. Pierce said that because he felt connected to his research, he knew the play would create a connection to the Kansas City community.

Fittingly, throughout the process, he was constantly reminded that the word "Quindaro" means "strength in union."


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