Center Stage granted $1 million for project

Dramaturgy: The Mellon Foundation wants to create an endowment supporting specialists who interpret playwrights.

March 25, 2000|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Most people don't even know what "dramaturgy" is. But the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation not only knows, it also recognizes top-notch dramaturgy when it sees it.

The foundation has just honored Center Stage's work in this growing theatrical field with a $1 million challenge grant, to be matched by another million from Center Stage donors. The resulting $2 million will allow the theater to create the first dramaturgy endowment in the country.

Together with the theater's existing $6 million endowment and the $12 million raised in the just-completed Century Campaign for Center Stage, the Mellon challenge grant will bring the theater's total endowment to $20 million, the third highest of the country's regional theaters, after such prominent venues as the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis and the Alley Theatre in Houston. Center Stage's trustees and donors have already pledged almost $770,000 toward the $1 million Mellon match.

Members of a profession that originated in Europe two centuries ago, dramaturgs serve as intermediaries between the playwright and director, working closely with living playwrights and providing in-depth research in the case of dead playwrights. For example, a dramaturg might be called on to explain an obscure Shakespearean term or to elucidate details of a specific period in which a play is set to the director and cast. At Center Stage, dramaturgs also help the artistic and resident directors select the plays that are produced, as well as organize audience discussions and presentations for sponsors.

"The dramaturg's function is akin to that of a curator at a museum," explained James Magruder, one of Center Stage's current associate dramaturgs and its resident dramaturg from 1992 to 1999.

That's the approach that attracted the Mellon Foundation. Catherine Wichterman, program officer for the performing arts, explained that the foundation "has always been interested in the literary aspects of theater."

Supporting dramaturgs "is a really natural thing for us to do because they are the caretakers of the text to a great extent," she said.

Some of the Mellon funds, Magruder predicted, "could be used on projects we think are essential to keeping the theater thinking on a forward course, such as helping commission playwrights." In broader terms, he added, "I hope it raises the visibility of the profession."

The grant is unusual for Mellon in two respects. "We don't normally make performing arts grants of that size. We don't normally make endowment grants," Wichterman said.

In this case, she said, "We want to make sure the institution is secure before we contribute to the perpetuation of the work, and we had confidence that the quality of dramaturgy at Center Stage would continue in the future."

Center Stage has one of the biggest dramaturgy staffs in the country, employing one full-time dramaturg, Charlotte Stoudt, two part-time dramaturgs, Magruder and Jill Rachel Morris, and an intern. The Mellon grant came about after the foundation asked the theater to identify specific areas in need of funding.

The Mellon grant, one of the largest in the theater's 36-year history, isn't the only recent grant allowing Center Stage to expand its artistic horizons. Also just announced is a $55,000 National Endowment for the Arts grant to support a production of Peter Weiss' Holocaust drama "The Investigation," which will be produced as part of the 2000-01 season. The courtroom drama, whose script is taken from transcripts Weiss edited of the 1964 Auschwitz trials, will be directed by artistic director Irene Lewis.

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