In the spring of 2020, the leadership at The National Theatre approached Jared Strange, dramaturg for the Teens Behind the Scenes program, with an idea for keeping the program going during the global pandemic. Instead of generating study guides for traveling shows, Strange and the rest of the team would create a series of websites documenting the history of The National Theatre. Each site would focus on a different aspect of The National’s life and showcase some of the priceless materials housed in The National Theatre Archives. It sounds simple enough, but it was actually quite a lot of work. So, how did these sites come together?
First of all, what’s a dramaturg?
Dramaturgs are vital contributors to modern theatre-making worldwide, yet they are often misunderstood. Part of that is down to the fact that dramaturgs can take on a number of different roles in a given production. They can head up the research to make sure a production team has a clear understanding of the world they are portraying. They can collaborate with a playwright to keep an eye on a play’s structure and advocate for the writer during rehearsals. They can head up audience engagement, whether by putting together lobby displays or running talkbacks. They can even participate as writers, performers, directors, designers, and so on. Many dramaturgs also serve as literary managers or in-house dramaturgs for leading regional theatres. In short, dramaturgs can fill a variety of roles. Whatever the specifics, they are most often keeping an eye on the text of a play, the creative decisions made in the production of that play, and the context in which the play is presented to help ensure it is all working together for a common purpose.
Obviously, in the case of these websites, dramaturg Jared Strange was heavily focused on the research component. In fact, you might add “historian” to the list of roles he played here, though he depended a lot on the work produced by historians before him, including Douglas Bennett Lee, Roger L. Meersman, and Donn B. Murphy, who wrote Stage for a Nation, and the many volunteers who helped managed The National Theatre Archives. Apart from learning about how The National came to be, Strange was also keen to explore some of the most significant shows and events to cross its stage. This meant investigating how these works were made, the world their creators were living in, and what it means to look at those works now. After all, theatre is a living, breathing thing, and acknowledging how it changes over time – and how our society has changed over time – is vitally important.
Why these particular topics?
Early on, Strange and The National Theatre team decided there should be five sites, each one should be devoted to a different aspect of The National’s history. Obviously, a site like A Brief History of The National Theatre would help provide a big picture view of The National. Then, a site discussing some of the most famous productions ever to have their pre-Broadway tryout with The National would showcase the special place it has in theatre history, hence Big Before Broadway. The team also figured diving into one particular show might be particularly exciting, especially if The National could snag someone great to do an exclusive interview. Enter Chita Rivera, who lit up West Side Stories with her wisdom and enthusiasm. Finally, any theatre that has hosted some of the greatest performers of the past two hundred years and some of the most powerful people in the world deserves showcase some of that history. The National’s Leading Ladies provided a great opportunity to spotlight some of the biggest stars to walk The National stage, along with a look at how the roles of women in theatre have changed over time. Finally, The National’s many entanglements with power made the ideal subject for National Theatre, National Politics, which took into account everything from presidential visits to the fight for desegregation.
How did the sites come together?
The overall project was a little over a year in the making. By and large, each site was sketched out prior to the start of research, though sometimes discoveries in The Archives or the Library changed the direction of a particular section. After that came a lot of reading and note-taking, along with periodic visits to the Archives to fact-check and scan materials. Strange then drafted each site and incorporated photographs, quotes, citations, and other materials as necessary. After each site was drafted, the rest of The National Theatre team took a look and provided their notes, which led to changes and sometimes further research. All in all, many, many hours went into making these sites. We hope it shows.
It’s important to note that while Jared Strange is the primary creator of these sites, the overall project was a team effort. Executive Director David Kitto, Director of Operations Olivia Tritschler, and Program and Office Administrator Emily Schmid provided invaluable insight throughout the process. They were in charge of arranging the logistics for visits to the Archives, suggesting edits and revisions, and working with the Nederlander Organization in New York, which oversees The National’s programming. Without them, this project would not have come to fruition. The sites have also benefitted greatly from the contributions of Dr. Carmen White, a theatre-maker and educator whose work you can find in the Activities section.
We hope you’ve learned a lot from these sites and that you’ll take every opportunity to share them. The National has a rich history worth sharing; you can play a part in that today.