Behind The Scenes: James Monaghan, Dramaturg

Behind the Scenes: A series of articles featuring theatre makers from the other side of the stage 

November 27, 2017

James Monaghan '18 is currently pursuing his MFA in Dramaturgy at Columbia University. Since completing his undergraduate degree with distinction at NYU, he has worked as an actor, director, and teacher at various theaters and institutions in his hometown of Houston, Texas. This week, we chatted with James about his background, theatre and the role of the Dramaturg.

How did you start working in theatre?

My theatre origin story is a variation on the class clown turned classical actor trope. When I was a kid, or maybe a younger kid, I used to make movies with the neighborhood gang. Writing, directing, acting, and editing, we all sort of did whatever was necessary to tell the story. I had done a play here and there through class projects, mostly because I was loud, but when I got into high school I discovered Shakespeare in a production of Midsummer. The combination of those amazing words, their ability to create community among the creative team and the audience, as well as the opportunity to dive deep into the other elements of production, was all it took to seal the deal. I got my undergrad degree in theater with an acting focus and immediately starting working as a teacher, actor, and director, in Houston.  

Why did you choose Dramaturgy for your MFA?

I've always been interested in the medium holistically and all the things that have to happen before a person in a space can start to tell a story. I've never been comfortable with the idea that grad school is a process of narrowing, eliminating all other interests to specialize in a single field; just seems antithetical to an inherently collaborative art form. So for me, dramaturgy encapsulates that. It's very tricky to define what dramaturgy is for all people in all cases because it's so project and team specific and I find that flexibility thrilling. But it also has an eminently practical quality of unlocking the text and other theatrical elements to serve the story for a particular audience in this place and time. As a dramaturg, you have to be a theatre generalist with a broad base of knowledge but have the tools to dive deep on a topic or question as needed. The reality is, dramaturgy happens in a creation process no matter what. In my experience, having a set of eyes on those concerns clarifies the art and makes it more robust. 

What kind of theatre are you interested in doing? And what kind of theatre you’re NOT interested in? 

I'm interested in theater that leaves room for the audiences as the final and perhaps most important collaborator. If the project isn't aiming at that, to challenge a live audience to fit itself into the art, I question if it should be in the theatrical form. I'm interested in theater that is innovating the theatrical event and asking questions about how we can engage an audience beyond: buy ticket, sit in seat, and consume narrative as a kind of cultural pat on the back. I'm interested in telling more diverse stories in more geographically diverse places across the country to people who don't think theater is for them. I'm interested in how the regional theaters in this country could actually be doing a lot to push the art form to take risks. I'm interested in theatre that is joyful.

If you could change something about the industry, what would it be? 

I'd continue the trend to diversify the field in as many ways as possible: which stories, who is telling them, and who decides. It's also important to me to raise the profile of theater that is happening all over the country to help break down the perception that good art only comes from discrete cultural temples held by many audience members we could be cultivating. I would also increase the amount of attention paid to theater and art in general in the education system across the country: art and art making have to be an integral part of shaping minds if we want to create the strongest creators and thinkers of tomorrow.