Montclair dramaturg Kaitlin Stillwell asks the right questions
by Kate Mulley, music composed by Andy Peterson
Feb. 1-March 4
555 Valley Road, West Orange
By GWEN OREL
Mix research, performance, communication and history and you come up with a singular position in theater: the dramaturg.
Dramaturg Kaitlin Stillwell and playwright Kate Mulley had a virtual retreat one snowy week in December.
Some of it was less virtual, as the Montclair dramaturg spent time at the playwright’s New York apartment.
Stillwell’s mission? Asking the right questions, to help Mulley clarify her characters’ wants and needs for the new play “Razorhurst.”
The final script for the musical, which opens next week, is still coming together. It portrays two Australian mob bosses in 1929: Kate Leigh and Tilly Devine.
The phone calls were epic, Mulley said, about “what sort of twists in the draft that needed
to be done, and what questions we had, and what still wasn’t clear.” The goal was to figure out “what needed to happen to have a draft that was fully coherent,” she said.
Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, the first dramaturg at the Hamburg National Theater, coined the term “dramaturg” in the 18th century. He described what he did as “dramatic judge.”
Stillwell, who has worked as a professional actor, touring nationally with “Fiddler on the Roof,” received an advanced degree in England.
“Dramaturgy’s my thing,” she said with a laugh. Her
musical theater background, including a degree from Ithaca College, brings her day-to-day understanding of the practicalities of a theater production. She got a theoretical and textual foundation in England, and did a year’s internship at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton.
A dramaturg “can be so many things,” she said Sunday in a conference room backstage, while composer Andy Peterson went over new music with the two-person cast. Heavily Post-it-noted books of research sat on the table. Mulley sat behind her laptop, her own annotated book at hand.
“It can be someone who is helping to shape the trajectory of the play with the playwright, helping them to ask them questions to help them uncover their own best version of that piece,” Stillwell said. “And it can also be someone who talks to audiences and tries to give context around production so that the audience can be more deeply engaged with the ideas and the process of that piece.”
Artistic Director Cheryl Katz, who directs the play, worked closely on script development in the fall. So when Stillwell began talking to Mulley, she brought a fresh perspective to the piece.
The play takes place long after the characters are dead, as the spirits resurrect their histories and continue their rivalry.
The show takes place in a coffee house, and some audience members will sit onstage. The coffee house set will actually serve as a coffee shop before the play begins, Stillwell said.
The discussions helped to distill “a lot of major character choices that felt like they were a little all over the place before we started working together,” Mulley said.
Together the playwright and dramaturg realized that something that had happened in Leigh’s childhood was a source of deep shame — and that it was something her rival could exploit.
Mulley described “Razorhurst” as “a show in which two women who know a lot about one another to use the information that they have to try to take the other one down a peg.”
In keeping with the dramaturg’s role as a person who interacts with the audience, Stillwell lit up when she described the Context Room at Luna Stage. On its website, Luna describes this room as “an interactive museum.” For “Razorhurst,” there will be a wall that depicts Devine and Leigh. There will be reproductions of period newspaper articles — there were a lot, Stillwell said with a laugh. “We will have a fun photo both where people can take their fun ’20s-themed pictures,” she said. “We always like to include articles and prompts, questions that help us think about where some of the things in the play resonate today.”
The playwright said, “The more things that have happened and the more I write the play,
the more I feel like it’s a sort of necessary piece of theater, even though it is this fun round about these bad women.”
There is a parallel with the way “we think about women’s roles in society,” Stillwell said. “The way we like to put women in boxes, and grapple with them in very specific terms. Those are all things you can see in these characters. There’s a lot to be mined in how one connects to them personally.”