January 2005

Scene4 Bumper Cars The Steiny Road to Operadom Gertrude Stein Invents A Jump Early On by Karren Alenier
Karren Alenier and Gertrude Stein
The Steiny Road
to Operadom with
Karren Alenier

 A travelogue of the work-in-progress opera
Gertrude Stein Invents A Jump Early On

For prior installments, click here

17In creating the libretto for Gertrude Stein Invents A Jump Early On, the Steiny Road Poet has had to come to terms with this fact:  her expertise is poetry and not drama. In this installment of The Steiny Road to Operadom, the Poet will discuss some of the creative partners who contribute to the development of an opera libretto. Specifically she will define the dramaturg, director, and artistic director. However, as the discussion of making Gertrude Stein and Virgil Thomson's opera Four Saints in Three Acts stage ready will reveal, the creative partners often defy pigeonholing.


Most theatergoers are familiar with the job known as director. A credit for this theater professional appears in every playbill. Theater work cannot be done without a director. The director of a play or an opera is responsible for all aspects of the production, including developing the conceptof the production, briefing the set and lighting designers, and working with the players to plan how they move and to rehearse their parts. For opera and music theater, the director also interacts with the music director and possibly a choreographer. The director is the lynchpin responsible for how everyone else's contribution works to make an integrated performance.

The artistic director can carry the same responsibilities as a director, but additionally is concerned with the entire theater organization, which includes the goals of that group and how its audience responds to the works offered. Usually a director is more concerned with his or her own personal signature on a production. So one might think of a director as a theater professional who is free to move from one theater group to another while the artistic director always remains with the same theater organization.

Less familiar to the average audience member is the theater professional known as the dramaturg. What the dramaturg does seems to vary depending on the needs of the director and other members of the theater organization. Some definitions of dramaturg divide the job into desk dramaturg, similar to the duties of a literary manager, versusfloor dramaturg, which is associated with a production's need to communicate with the prospective audience. In smaller theater groups where money is limited, the artistic director may also assume the duties of dramaturg. What the dramaturg does can include:

Desk Dramaturg

    Revising and editing scripts or serving as dramatic editor.
    Adapting a non-theatrical text into a script.
    Translating scripts from other languages.
    Evaluating or interpreting scripts to answer questions about the text, the language, the period, the manners and mores of the characters, the clothing, and the customs.
    Providing various types of historical research.
    Serving as the theater's historian and librarian to preserve research information that may come various sources, production notes, newspaper and media reviews.
    Advising playwrights writing or workshopping a new script.
    Acting as liaison between playwright and director.  

Floor Dramaturg

    Serving as critic or "official representative" of the audience to the theater company.
    Organizing lobby displays, post-show discussions, seminars.
    Writing program notes.
    Consulting with support staff on mission statements and grant narratives.
    Working with the education staff.


The dramaturg's work with a playwright seems to be an intersection of responsibilities ascribed to the desk and floor dramaturgs. In the United States and Canada, the major role of the dramaturg is working with the playwright to support and realize the deep structure of the piece in development. Maxine Kern, a dramaturg based in New York City and an active member of Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas , says that in working with a playwright or librettist on a developing piece, a dramaturg should operate as a "third eye," maintaining a "somewhat neutral perspective that serves the best interest of the new work."  

A helpful dramaturg offers questions that facilitate new approaches that the playwright might not have considered. According to Kern, this is just part of grounding each element of the overall work. "If a writer does not know a character's intention, it is possible that character is a mimicry of something the playwright has seen." However, in the process of answering questions about the character's intention, the playwright might then be energized to reshape the character within the world of the play. Kern also says each play or libretto has its own structure and does not necessarily follow the Aristotelian arc of setup, confrontation, resolution. In the case of Gertrude Stein's work for theater, Kern says a director might use a Zen approach to understand where and how the action manifests and plays out its drama.

Because the artistic director is concerned with audience reaction, an artistic director acting as dramaturg may be overly conservative. Also directors tend to fix aspects of the play or libretto that are not working by cutting out offending text. Understanding the playwright's or librettist's intention and working within that framework is where a dramaturg can be invaluable.

German philosopher, playwright, and critic, Gotthold Ephraim Lessingthrough his work at the Hamburg Repertory Company in 1767 and throughhis series of essays entitled Hamburgische Dramaturgie (The Hamburg Dramaturgy), published from 1767 to 1769, was responsible for the creation of the first dramaturg. European theater has actively employed dramaturgs since Lessing's time. Kern says that dramaturgs head up the organizational structure in European theaters because they are responsible for preserving the national identity through its language.   

In the United States, dramaturgs did not have a role in American theater until Robert Brustein at Yale University in the 1960s reorganized where a drama critic would be trained, moving dramaturgy from the English to the Drama Department. Also the University of Iowa Writer's Conference began to train what they called playwright's advocates. Then regional theaters such as Minneapolis' Guthrie and DC's Arena Stage began hiring dramaturgs.


Gertrude Stein had a reputation as a jealously competitive artist who dismissed other creative people who vexed her. Had Virgil Thomson had the resources to hire a dramaturg to sort out how to present Four Saints in Three Acts, Stein probably would have refused Thomson her permission to move forward with their opera. By chance, Thomson's domestic partner was Maurice Grosser, a visual artist who took an active interest in Thomson's work. In his painterly way, Grosser conceived a series of tableaux that grounded what Stein had written. Steven Watson in his book Prepare for Saints — Gertrude Stein, Virgil Thomson, and the Mainstreaming of American Modernism called Grosser a scenarist. What Grosser did was similar to what dramaturgs do, he interpreted Stein's highly experimental text and served as the interface between Stein and the other creative partners that produced Four Saints.


In her absolute naivety, the Steiny Road Poet envisioned Gertrude Stein Invents A Jump Early On as a triplet of tableaux vivant that moved from still life into action and then receded back into its still landscape. The Poet saw this as sprung theatre. Sprung meant that the libretto was liberated from ordinary character development and linear storyline. The intention was to examine the artist's struggle to overcome her critics. In the Stein opera, the critics were her brother Leo, the American audience who regarded her a curiosity and not a serious writer, and the Nazis who invaded her adopted country France. In the original creation of the Stein opera, the emphasis was on poetic language, sound, and rhythm. The Poet believed she was working in the style of Gertrude Stein and under the influence of the French absurdists, such as Eugene Ionesco and Samuel Beckett.  

Theater, whether play or opera, is always a collaborative endeavor. If a playwright or librettist wants his or her idea to reach the stage with live players shaping his or her words, what the creative partners say must be understood and incorporated into the final work. In the Stein opera, the Poet's collaborators helped her see the importance of going deeper into the relationship Gertrude Stein had with her brother Leo. Also, experience in writing work for the stage gives a librettist more credibility in persuading the creative partners that an experimental approach is worth the risk. Lacking a succession of live theater experiences with attending audience and professional critics, an inexperienced writer must rely on her creative partners and feedback from the workshops where singers, pianist, music director are hired, trained, and put on stage to perform the new work.

Another aspect a writer must consider is what audience does he or she expect to address? Is the work written to reach as many people as possible or is the work narrowly focused on certain people who have enough knowledge to make the intellectual leaps with which the writer flies? The answer does not remain with the writer. In the case of the Stein opera, the composer, artistic director, music director, and singers have all provided valuable comments that have opened up the work to a wider audience than the Poet had unknowingly confined herself to.  


As the Stein opera moves to its world premiere in June 2005, the Poet has been taking long walks listening to a seminal interview with the world-renowned mime Marcel Marceau . The Poet has heard that establishing emotional content through body language first will strengthen and focus the words for new theatrical texts. Given the discussion she has had with Anthony Tommasini about Virgil Thomson's difficulties in working with poets (first with Gertrude Stein and later a failed attempt Kenneth Koch) and Mark Adamo's advice to start with single action verbs first (in her interview with him and other composers on what is American Opera ), the Poet is ready to try a different approach in writing new work for theater. Nancy Rhodes says, "it's Drama 101." Without taking offense for an apparent lack, the Poet answers that it's just another opportunity to exercise her Cubist education .

Clearly the Poet is blessed. Her synchronistic good fortune led her to pick a subject — Gertrude Stein — that opened doors that otherwise would have remained solidly shut, including that door belonging to artistic director Nancy Rhodes of Encompass New Opera Theatre.  The Poet continues to learn that there is no single way into the world of opera and no single way to traverse that harrowing road of creating an opera. One must stay open to possibilities, form good relationships with collaborating partners, and above all, keep learning as much as possible.

©2004 Karren LaLonde Alenier

Karren LaLonde Alenier, an award-winning Lindy Hopper,
is the author of five collections of poetry,
including Looking for Divine Transportation,
winner of the 2002 Towson University Prize for Literature.
Much more at www.steinopera.com

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