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Interview with Dramaturg Nina Steiger

14 January 2015 Natasha Sutton-Williams

London Calling catches up with Soho Theatre's dramaturg, Nina Steiger, to find out how she helps storytellers. Nina Steiger is a dramaturg, director and playwright who has worked extensively in the US and the UK.

Nina Steiger is associate director of Soho Theatre where she commissions, develops and helps produce new plays. She works in a freelance capacity with companies and artists both in the UK and abroad.

London Calling: What is your definition of a dramaturg?

Nina Steiger: It’s not a word I love to use to describe myself because it’s an unfamiliar term for many. Simply put, it’s a person who works with storytellers to maximise impact for an audience. Dramaturgs work with writers, producers, performers and directors to help bring the work to audiences in the most successful ways. Though it’s not necessarily a known term, the dramaturg serves a known function and it’s been a role that’s existed in every form of storytelling, live performance and theatre since the beginning of time.

LC: What are the important skills you need for this job?

NS: Liking writers and liking creativity is important. Taste and style are important. Honouring the fact that people take different times to do the work is important. But the most important thing is being delighted to say the same thing five times in different ways until you’ve said it the right way. The note ‘raise the stakes’ can be said in a hundred different ways. It’s about the infinite ability to reboot and say it better till it lands.

LC: When and how do you get involved in a production?

NS: You can come in at many different stages: sometimes you’re in from the outset in suggesting an idea to a writer, commissioning it, nurturing the process through to production and then exploring the further life of the show. Sometimes you’re in very late in the day, coming in for the last run through, giving notes and never seeing it again.

LC: How does your relationship differ when working with devised theatre-makers versus more traditional playwrights?

NS: When I’m working with non-text based theatre-makers my job is to help them find ways to tell a story with as many layers as possible; to think about an overall shape and structure that serves the piece and its purpose; to find a coherence between an artistic style and the story; and explore all the opportunities to make it as consistent and powerful an experience as possible. It’s about making the how and the what of the story have a dynamic relationship. When I’m working with straight playwrights my absolute joy is to tease out an idea to its fullest expression and help them tell a formidable story. I also have one eye on the larger context: Why now? Why here? What does this piece bring to the wider world? How does it speak to audiences and break new ground? How is this piece game-changing and why would people want to see it?  

LC: What themes are contemporary playwrights drawn to?

NS: Right now it feels like writers are really interested in talking about the questions of morality, security and privacy thrown up by the Internet, the corrosion of values in today’s world, and the atomisation of modern life. Those three things are totally connected, resonate across public and private spheres and because of this, you see one project after another deal with these themes.  

LC: You work with both emerging and established playwrights. Is the process different when you work with younger playwrights?

NS: Completely. When I’m working with new young playwrights there’s two things I want to find out, ‘Do you think what you’ve written is what I think you’ve written? If you think it’s something really different, what have I missed?’ I like to give the five hardest notes and see if they know what I’m talking about, if they agree with it, and if they can execute it. Promise isn’t quite enough. Can they deliver on that promise quickly? Can they turn a note into a real step forward for a play? That’s what I’m always looking for in young playwrights.

LC: What do you do when a playwright disagrees with a note?

NS: Oh, I love it. That’s the best part and it’s when you learn most about the script. For young writers, my advice is often to try and really hear the feedback, without the pressure to respond to it right away.  The best way to do this is sometimes just write it down. Ask for it to be clarified or repeated.  Give yourself time to reflect not just on the action point but the purpose of the note, its essence and impact within the play. That’s the beautiful economy of the theatrical collaboration: you don’t need to say everything. Once a particular note has clicked for a writer, they are able to trace through its function in the play and make other helpful adjustments at the same time. Regardless, I don’t take the discussions around a note as resistant or awkward, I find them exciting.

LC: Do dramaturgs and playwrights walk a similar tightrope?

NS: In the ideal scenario, playwrights and indeed, everyone they collaborate with, including actors, designers, directors and dramaturgs, are engaged in story-telling.

For more information about Soho Theatre and to book tickets please click here.

 

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