Martine Kei Green-Rogers

The views and opinions expressed by speakers and presenters in connection with Art Restart are their own, and not an endorsement by the Thomas S. Kenan Institute for the Arts and the UNC School of the Arts. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Martine Kei Green-Rogers is an author, educator and dramaturg with decades of experience, having worked as production and new-play dramaturg at theaters all over the country, from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival to Houston’s Classical Theatre Company and Chicago’s Court Theatre. 

This past summer she took a leave from her position as associate professor in the Department of Theatre Arts at the State University of New York-New Paltz to become the interim dean of the Division of Liberal Arts (DLA) at UNCSA.

In this interview with Pier Carlo Talenti, Martine explains how the key to ensuring a healthy future for the American theater is to cultivate questioning and adventurous minds in artists and audience alike, essentially encouraging all of us to approach art with a dramaturg’s curiosity.

Choose a question below to being exploring the interview:

Pier Carlo Talenti: Before we start, could you please explain who a dramaturg is and what she does.

Martine Kei Green-Rogers: At the base of what a dramaturg does, we essentially help designers, playwrights and directors write and tell the best story they can tell. Some of that is by asking questions in the room; some of that is by asking questions of the playwright. We have to be really familiar with varying types of dramatic structures and varying modes and genres of the presenting of plays in order to be able to really say, “If this play lives in this genre, what is the best version of this play in this genre when we put it onstage?” So really asking the questions that need to be asked. 

I think part of the work is about quality control. Some of it is about being a continuity person. Some of it’s about just asking the questions that need to be asked of the producing organization because I think that’s an important part of the work that I do. But all of this is in service of telling the story. None of the questions that I ask are based in my own ego; none of the questions that I ask are based in anything besides, “Let’s poke at this thing and make sure we are telling the story we meant to tell. And if at any point we’ve decided that we need to be telling a different story, let’s be clear about what that story is so that we’re all on the same page.”  

Pier Carlo: I’d like to start our discussion on a positive note. As you survey the theater world right, what currently makes you optimistic about the future of American theater?

I find that students and the ideas that they are bringing to the table bring me so much joy, so much joy! ... just having people who don’t have any preconceived notions about how this is supposed to go is so useful.

Martine: Oh, my goodness, that’s a good question because I feel like I have 1 million and 2 answers. What encourages me is the future generation of theater workers. I find that students and the ideas that they are bringing to the table bring me so much joy, so much joy! I think part of the reason why is because we need, as a field, fresh eyes all the time because I think we all get stuck in our ruts sometimes. I think just having people who don’t have any preconceived notions about how this is supposed to go is so useful. So that makes me really happy.

Pier Carlo: What kinds of ideas are you seeing and hearing these fresh eyes and mouths bring to the table? What’s surprising you?

Martine: Well, I’m going to own that I’m a very design- and tech-based thinker in terms of dramaturgy. 

Pier Carlo: I think designers make some of the best dramaturgs, so I’m with you on that.

Martine: Right? Exactly! I’m reaching a little bit into the way-back machine, but case in point, I had some students who did some devising work and ended up creating an entire group, a theater company called Who’s Louis? They are really pushing the boundaries of what is theater and what is film and what is immersive theater and how do you think about space and place and storytelling if you’re merging both the theater and film world. I just think that’s so exciting. Everyone should Google Who’s Louis if you get a chance just because their work is a lot of fun.

I don’t know if they have anything running right now, but one of the last pieces they ran was this interactive thing — they were running it out of their apartments; everyone who’s in Who’s Louis lived in the same complex, on the same hall — where you could either physically go and travel through their spaces or you could travel through their spaces through the internet. And then they figured out how to make ways where people who are coming in through the physical space could interact with people who are coming in through the virtual space. It was just such a cool, cool, cool experiment. 

Pier Carlo: What else is making you optimistic?

Martine: I think just my work at The Playwrights’ Center is making me super optimistic. I work specifically with the many voices in the Jerome Fellowship. By the way, if anyone who’s listening is a playwright, you should totally check out the fellowship programs at The Playwrights’ Center in Minneapolis. Number one, The Playwrights’ Center is just amazing. Two, they’re basically a service organization for playwrights, and so the services that they offer, the fellowships that they offer and just ... .  I mean, there’s a whole entire group of people whose only job is to support playwrights and the plays they’re trying to write right now. So just a great organization.

But to get into the specifics of it, it’s kind of the same thing. A lot of my playwrights right now are blurring form and function. I’m thinking about Lucas Baisch, who’s just one of my favorite playwrights. I encountered Lucas at the Kennedy Center in the MFA showcase that they have there every year. I ended up being his dramaturg for a piece called “404 Not Found” that’s really getting into these amazing questions about surveillance technology and the internet. It’s got a little bit of a sci-fi edge because someone is jumping back and forth through time, but then it also has this moral edge to it because what you end up finding out over the course of the play — I’m not giving anything away; the real stuff I’m not giving away — one of the premises of the play is that this person is going back and forth in time to fix something that they did. But they also know that every time they go back and forth in time to fix this thing, they end up killing someone. So then the moral question at the heart of it is, are a few lives more precious than an entire whole? If you can stop the destruction of man by just killing a few people, is that worth the risk? This is the part where I’m almost getting too close to giving away some stuff, but he ends up finding out that maybe someone a little too close to home, if you catch my drift, ends up being part of the collateral damage.

Pier Carlo: You’ve just mentioned several really young, exciting artists who are blurring boundaries, doing exciting work. If you could wave a magic wand and changing an existing system that makes it harder for this type of work to reach an audience, what would you change? What would make it easier for these re-inventors of theater who are pushing the boundaries to get their work in front of their intended audience?

Martine: Oh man, we’re getting into some systems right now!

Pier Carlo: Oh, yeah. I warned you.

There are people who are telling brilliant stories that come from other traditions of storytelling that are not being given the proper due because people are trying to encounter it from an Aristotelian point of view as opposed to taking it for what it is and taking it from the traditions that they come from.

Martine: What would make it easier? I think our general field’s reliance, or not even reliance, insistence on Aristotelian modes of storytelling becomes problematic sometimes because there are people who are telling brilliant stories that come from other traditions of storytelling that are not being given the proper due because people are trying to encounter it from an Aristotelian point of view as opposed to taking it for what it is and taking it from the traditions that they come from. I think that’s part of it. 

Especially as we’re sort of “coming out of the pandemic,” I think there are a lot of places that don’t want to do work by new artists because they just need to make money, and so they’re putting on things like Shakespeare, etc. Not that there’s anything wrong with Shakespeare. That’s a whole other can of worms to open. And I actually love me some Shakespeare. Go “Titus”! It’s my favorite one. That probably says a lot about me as a human. [She laughs.] But I think capitalism really ... I’m going to end up always pointing back to capitalism because it’s always part of the problem. We don’t have enough funding for the arts, and therefore people are hesitant to “take chances,” which doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me honestly because every playwright at some point was a new playwright and someone took a chance. So there’s that. 

I think also there’s a cultural-competency lack that’s partially embedded in this question or idea about storytelling structures. Then also as a Black woman I think one of the things that ... . People, for some reason, majority-white audiences love a play about downtrodden, enslaved Black people, and that’s not where everyone is in terms of their storytelling. I don’t write a whole lot of plays, but if I were to sit down and write a play today, it wouldn’t center around any enslaved people because that’s not where my brain is. I think there are just so many trends and modes of unconscious bias and all sorts of stuff that we need to rid our entire field of somehow some way. I think there are places that are taking steps in order to do that, but we still have a long way to go as a larger field in terms of really encountering this and really doing something different and being different. 

Pier Carlo: You’re reminding me of when Lydia Diamond’s play “Stick Fly” was on Broadway. This is a while ago now and certainly there’s been a new brand of Black plays that are on Broadway since, but “Stick Fly” was a play about upper-middle-class, upper-class Blacks in Martha’s Vineyard, if I remember correctly.

Martine: Yep, I like to teach that play, so I’m quite familiar with it.

Pier Carlo: And if I remember correctly, white audiences and critics couldn’t figure out what to make of it because it didn’t fit that cultural mold that they had made for Black theater.

Martine: Right. And I think the thing that’s so interesting is that we’re seeing playwrights push against that. I’m thinking about Branden Jacobs-Jenkins in “An Octoroon,” and I’m thinking about James Ijames’ “The Most Spectacularly Lamentable Trial of Miz Martha Washington.” Plays by Black artists right now, even if they include enslaved populations as part of their character list, are really pushing against this idea of the downtrodden slave. Both Branden Jacobs-Jenkins and James Ijames had these amazing stage directions that are something akin to, “Let’s not lean into stereotypes of what enslaved Black people are like during this time because you weren’t there and neither was I, so how would you know? [She laughs.] How would you know? So just play these people as people.”

Pier Carlo: That’s awesome. You mentioned one thing that would be important is for the field to look beyond Aristotelian modes of storytelling, but it seems to me that our audiences have been trained to look for that. I was always frustrated when I worked in the theater that so many of our audiences seemed to want to watch TV onstage basically.

Martine: Right.

Pier Carlo: How would theaters go about training their audiences to expect different kinds of storytelling? And is it what audiences really are hungry for, especially younger audiences?

Martine: I think so. Just to get into your first question, I think the only way to really actually train an audience to think about different modes of storytelling is just to present the different modes of storytelling. I mean, I can write the most beautiful program notes in the entire wide world, but I think in a field where really we’re trying to show and tell simultaneously, it’s harder to just preface and say, “This thing is different,” than readily just say, “OK, let’s just show you what the difference is.” 

This is the thing that’s so interesting. I feel like I was destined to be a dramaturg in some really weird way because stories are just interesting to me. I grew up reading all sorts of books from all different countries. Basically if it’s been translated into English, I’ve read it. Then once I got into my master’s degree and my PhD, at that point then, since I had to have a language requirement for both of those degrees, I went for French, and so basically a lot of stuff that’s French I’ve read too. And I’ve also started teaching myself Korean because I’m really just low-key- or maybe even just high-key-fascinated with Korean theater [laughing], so that’s a whole other thing. But it’s really about the exposure, it’s really about the exposure. We have to say that these stories are A, equally important as the stories that we’re used to telling and then B, saying, “OK, yes, we’re not used to stories unfolding in this way, but that doesn’t matter. The question is, what are we supposed to take from it?”

To get back to your question about how do we train audiences, it’s really about recalibrating. I think there’s a lot of circular storytelling, for lack of a better shape. In African modes of storytelling in some ways it’s more like a spiral because it isn’t about a point. It isn’t about a beginning and a middle and an end; it’s about what you’re taking from the journey. It doesn’t matter if the protagonist is changed at the end. It is more interested in poking you to see if you’re changed at the end by going through this story. So basically taking plays on their own terms. 

I have a friend who writes in a very sort of crystalline mosaic structure. Essentially what that boils down to is if you think about a mosaic and how there’s this tiny piece of a larger picture … . The way that she starts is by creating almost little squares of stories that as they continue to build upon one another there comes a point where you start to see the tiny picture and then you start to see the bigger picture and then next thing you know, you have the whole thing in view.

I think those kinds of structures really ask us to sit and retain information because we don’t know what information is going to be useful or not useful later, just holding onto as much of it as possible until we start to see what is unfolding in front of our eyes.

That’s so amazing and so great because it’s really challenging us to say ... . It’s back to the same thing: What are we taking with us along the journey? How are we seeing the little milestones, the little pictures that then give us the larger picture at the end? I just think that these are ways we can get back into some old-school things. I think when we talk about critical-thinking skills, to me part of critical-thinking skills is really putting the puzzle pieces together. I think those kinds of structures really ask us to sit and retain information because we don’t know what information is going to be useful or not useful later, just holding onto as much of it as possible until we start to see what is unfolding in front of our eyes. I think that is a thing that makes me excited. 

But getting back into your even earlier question, those kinds of storytelling narrative structures are really fascinating and interesting to me. As I’m seeing more and more of them, I’m like, “Yes, give me more!” [She laughs.]

Pier Carlo: Yeah, it makes for a more active, engaged audience because the audience is not only engaged by the story but by the process of assembling the story themselves, right?

Martine: Right. And I think the inherent danger of being a dramaturg in this place right now — I don’t mean in this place physically; I just mean in this field right now — is I average reading over 400 plays a year. So in some respects you’ve got to do something different because someone like me, I’ve read enough plays over the course of my dramaturgical career that I’m the worst person to take to a new play and the worst person to take to a movie because I can usually identify what’s about to happen less than a third of the way in.

And then it’s about confirmation theory. But then that’s the thing, if some play manages to really subvert my expectations, I am enraptured. I’m like, “Give me more of this! Who’s this person? Who is really playing with form and function so much that I can’t figure out in my head where you’re going?” And I like that. I like it when I’m surprised at the theater.

Pier Carlo: Oh yes. At any art. Since you work most closely with playwrights, what would be your advice to a young playwright who’s just starting to dream of a career in the theater?

Martine: I think first and foremost integrity of your story is important. There are so many people with money who are going to try to tell you who and what you should do with your play, and you should never say yes to something that really makes you feel like you’re compromising your integrity or your value system in order to get a check. I know that’s easy for someone like me to say, considering I’ve “made it.” But I have lived that place where I’ve worked on a show that totally was just not my jam on numerous levels, including potentially even morally, and it’s just not a good place to be. 

I think we’re trying to push our system to be better than that. Or at least I’m trying, in my little pocket of the universe to try and make it better than that. Obviously if someone’s giving you a good note, take it, but if someone is asking you fundamentally to do something so different to your play that you don’t even recognize it as yours anymore, just — as I affectionately say, and I’m totally going to date myself right now with this — just do a Dionne Warwick and “Walk On By.” [She laughs.]

Pier Carlo: Martine, that’s timeless, that’s timeless. Come on!

Martine: I’m sure there’ll be plenty of people Googling that song now.

Pier Carlo: I have an unfair question for you, and I’m actually glad I didn’t send this to you in advance. This is a biggie. If you were handed the keys to your own theater, what would it look like and how would it operate?

Martine: Oh, no!

Pier Carlo: Yes!

Martine: Oh, no. [Deep sigh] If I was given my own space, I think I would reject traditional proscenium plays first and foremost, but that’s because my interests are A, technology-based and B, in creating varied experiences. I love immersive theater, but I know that’s not everyone’s bag either.

Pier Carlo: So you’d prefer not to inherit a proscenium space?

Martine: I would prefer not to inherit a proscenium space. I would just love a big whole room because that’s the other thing: Then we can start playing with form and function of just the space generally. What does it mean, for example, to have a space that’s just a room and we can carve out maybe even sections of the room to do things? Or we can just transform the space in whatever way that we need in order to do whatever it is we need to do then and then scrap it and do something different for the next thing? I want that kind of flexibility. 

I also crave a community-based space because I think one of the things that makes it so hard for up-and-coming companies as well as just artists is just to sometimes find space to have a reading, to have a workshop, to do all these things. 

I mean, I’m going to own that what I also need besides someone just handing me some keys is also many, many never-ending bags of money. [She laughs.]

Pier Carlo: Right, let’s presume they’re there, for the purposes of this question.

Martine: Right. Then if that’s the case, I would love to have spaces where people can come and just be. They can write, they can live and they can ... . To have an artist-type colony because I think that’s also a problem. Sometimes some of the best places you want to have your work done are in places that are ridiculously unaffordable as an artist. 

And then getting back into the larger problem, I mean, really the problem is why are artists compensated so poorly? But I think as a good middle step as we tackle that problem, what would it mean to have artists-in-residence that aren’t even artists-in-residence specifically because they have to produce something for me or for the organization? What if they were just there because they contribute to the culture of this space just by virtue of being there and creating whatever their work is on their own? 

When I talk to people who are outside of the things that I’m doing, I find that sparks in my head just fire. All the synapses start firing. So what does that mean if we just really create a space that is just for art?

And I would love a space that’s multidisciplinary because I find that some of the best work comes out of people being pollinated by different areas. I’m a dramaturg, but when I talk to my designer friends, when I talk to my orchestral friends, when I talk to my visual-artist friends — I also do have a bit of a visual arts background — when I talk to people who are outside of the things that I’m doing, I find that sparks in my head just fire. All the synapses start firing. So what does that mean if we just really create a space that is just for art? That’s what I want. I want people coming and going. 

Pier Carlo: I love then that it blurs the boundaries between participant and audience, that it goes back and forth.

Martine: Yes! And that just seems so exciting to me in a way that now I really wish someone was just handing me some keys and never-ending bags of money, because I would totally do that. One of the things that’s so interesting about The Playwrights’ Center is that they just bought a new space and they are in deep, deep conversation with the artists that are in Minneapolis and St. Paul to really think about, “How do we create a space that is showing up for everybody?” That is just the most beautiful thing in the entire wide world, which is actually giving me all kinds of feelings. 

Pier Carlo: Let’s turn to your role now as an educator and specifically right now as an educator to budding performing artists. In this crazy time in our country, what do you most wish for your department and its professors to impart to these artist students as they go out into the world? 

Martine: That’s a good question. I feel like a lot of the skills in DLA, even though they’re very practical, they’re also just really good life skills. I say things like, “Dramaturgy is life skills.” I say, “Understanding the science of the world around you gets you closer to being able to tell the stories around you.” Understanding just on a fundamental, basic level how this world works just puts you in a really great position to ask the tough questions through your art, to do the tough things in your art. 

At least specifically in DLA I think our interest in interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary work is going to be really important moving forward. Because I think that’s the thing: A lot of artists right now are not just sitting in one genre and not sitting in just one very specific area. I’m a dramaturg and generally that’s what people know me as, but I also write plays on occasion. Obviously I’m an educator, so I go into classrooms all the time. There are so many other aspects to who I am, and those things help create the artistically and emotionally fulfilled person that I am. Part of the reason why is because I am bringing in all these things that I’m learning and reading about into all of the things.

I am interested in being a holistic person. I’m interested in being a global citizen. I am interested in all these things. And I think that’s what DLA is really interested in as well. I’m always asking questions about sustainability, both in terms of a fiscal, ecological, etc., basically any way that you can dissect sustainability and how it intersects with the arts. I’m interested in those questions because I’m really about intergenerational thinking: How is the work that I’m creating now and the ways that we’re going about creating work now either helpful or harmful seven generations down the line?

Think about the possibilities of what we do with our art if we’re willing to think seven generations down the line, versus what happens if we’re only caring about the here and the now.

These are things I think we all should be wrestling with. We cannot be so individualistic as to be like, “The only thing that matters is me, here, now.” Because that’s just not fair to future generations and it’s not fair to our own art. Think about the possibilities of what we do with our art if we’re willing to think seven generations down the line, versus what happens if we’re only caring about the here and the now. 

I think civic engagement, and I mean that on multiple levels. How does the work that we are doing cross into things like, how does a sense of design help you in terms of thinking about city planning? How does a sense of space and place allow you to think about architecture? These are just all the things that I think we are interested in, but I’m also interested in civic engagement in terms of thinking about, what does it mean to be in space?

I think one of the things that’s really important that has come out of the movement to give land acknowledgements, for example … hopefully when someone learns who the Indigenous people, the original caretakers of the land are, hopefully they go do some research and find out more about them. But then also getting into what I was talking about earlier in terms of the capitalism of it all. 

The other thing that we have to reckon with is, how many sets of people have been displaced in order to have this building here and now? I think about that just even in terms of where UNCSA sits. One of the first things I started doing was digging into the history of, what is this neighborhood that the school is sitting in? Who used to be here before the school was here? How did they acquire this land? These are all really important questions to ask. Obviously I can’t go back and change time in any way, shape or form, but maybe the art that I do in the future can harken to the history of this space and place and really ask people to think about that as we engage with space and place.

Pier Carlo: I love that, because if you’re creating students who know how to ask the right questions here, you’re essentially creating a lot of mini-dramaturgs! 

Martine: And it’s life skills. Dramaturgy is life skills.

September 20, 2021