Meet the Staff
Elizabeth Williamson, Senior Dramaturg
& Director of New Play Development
By Theresa MacNaughton, Community Engagement Associate
It depends from day to day. As Director of New Play Development, I read a wide range of new plays every year and travel to meet playwrights and see their work. I program the readings and workshops we hold each year here to develop pieces we’re interested in eventually producing as part of our MainStage Season. In that sense, my role is similar to that of an editor at a publishing house. It’s my job to be aware of what’s going on in the field at large and to bring the playwrights whose work I find the most exciting to our audiences here in Hartford. I develop closer relationships with playwrights we work with on an ongoing basis; and as I’m a dramaturg, director, and translator, my role will shift from project to project in the rehearsal room based on the needs of a given play.
Can you explain what a dramaturg is?
It’s a role that shifts a good deal from project to project. In new play development, it involves being an outside eye and a second opinion for the playwright, as well as doing research on the subjects of the play ahead of rehearsals. When working on the classics, the job takes a more scholarly turn. It’s my job as dramaturg to know the play very well, to have done a thorough close reading of it, to have researched the playwright and the context in which the piece was written, and to know the production history. Depending on the choices the director makes in their staging, research may also include whatever period they’re setting the play in or thinking of the play from a new perspective. I also work closely with the Artistic Director in planning our seasons here at Hartford Stage – both the new work and discussing which classics are due for a new revival, etc.
Who or what inspired you to go into the theatre?
I always knew I wanted to work in the theatre. When I was a child, I assumed that meant being an actor. But when I look back, I realize that even at 10 or 11 I was writing and directing plays which I would then coax my friends into performing in—being onstage was never the most exciting thing for me. In college, I studied directing and comparative literature and translated Proust’s poetry. I started in the field as a director and assistant director, but I was often also translating or adapting the pieces I was directing. I started working as a dramaturg as well in my late twenties at Theatre de la Jeune Lune, and then with Mary Zimmerman. It made sense, given my mix of theatrical training and academic work in literature (I did my graduate work in French Lit at Oxford and then trained at the École Jacques Lecoq in Paris.)
With a work like Matthew Lopez’s Reverberation, which will be making its world premiere at Hartford Stage – what role do you play in its development?
By the time I read Reverberation, it was very far along in its development. The main role I’ve played in its development is being someone for Matthew to bounce ideas about the play off of. I’ve read a number of drafts over the last few years. I listen to what Matthew’s thinking about changing and discuss the effects various different changes will have on the play and on how the audience experiences the play with him. The idea is that I’m able to be a little more outside of the process than he can be and bring that fresher eye to give him feedback about changes as he considers and makes them. He’s also working on a very exciting new commissioned play for Hartford Stage at the moment, and it’s been wonderful to work with him on both projects simultaneously.
Hartford Stage has commissioned and premiered work by many talented playwrights over the years- particularly through the Aetna New Voices Fellowship. How important are these types of collaborations and how does it impact the artists involved?
They are critically important. We make very few commissions – 1-2 a year-- and we have a very strong track record of producing the commissioned work. That means that our commissions are a real commitment to the playwright, and to their play from its very earliest stages. A commission buys the playwright some time to focus on writing the play, and our commitment to the play means he or she is writing for us – not in a vacuum, but with a theatre and audience in mind. Commissioning, developing and producing new work is also crucial for the future of the field. If Shakespeare and Molière hadn’t had theatres committed to producing their work, we wouldn’t have their plays today.
What has been your favorite production at Hartford Stage – from a dramaturgical standpoint?
That’s continually changing – usually a project I’m in the midst of. Last fall, I would probably have said Hamlet – it was thrilling to work with Darko on that production. But today, it would more likely be Reverberation – bringing an important new play to life for the first time here for our audiences is always exciting, and this play has been important to me since I first read it a number of years ago. I’m very proud that Hartford Stage is premiering it.
Learn more about Elizabeth’s work and the importance of new play development at Hartford Stage here.