A Dramaturgy of Elliot B. Quick
This post has been collected and edited by Piehole (Tara Ahmadinejad, Allison LaPlatney, Alexandra Panzer, Emilie Soffe, Ben Vigus, Jeff Wood)
Just before New York City’s theaters went dark, and everything changed, the worst thing happened: Elliot B. Quick died.
Among the many primal screams vying for air, this one, shared by many of his friends and collaborators, felt important to publish here: You need to know about Elliot’s work! Because he was so smart, because he cared so much, and because it might make you a better artist and friend.
Elliot was a gatherer: he brought artists together, and sparked many new collaborations between directors, designers, actors, stage managers, and writers. In this spirit, we attempt here to gather artists who worked with him, to reflect on his collaboration and work in the theater.
We obviously have not been able to gather in person — Elliot’s memorial was postponed due to stay at home orders in mid-March — but instead have been attempting virtual mourning, like so many around the world. But perhaps this is an appropriate context from which to consider Elliot’s work: alone, together. Elliot valued a nice pairing of solitude and togetherness, and was especially moved by theater that allowed audience members to experience the work as individuals (albeit in a shared space), work that allowed you and the person sitting next to you to have strong, contrasting reactions. He loved bringing incongruous things together, he loved celebrating that they didn’t go together, and he also loved discovering when, improbably, they fit together perfectly after all. This tumblr account was his favorite.
Elliot worked in many different capacities of theater, often as a dramaturg [he was after all, a Yale Man, a dramaturg — if you know that Law and Order episode] — but also as a producer, a writer, a performer, and a director. But whichever hat he wore for any given project, he was always doing dramaturgy. But what did that mean? Elliot spent his career looking for the meaning of this elusive concept, and with the following we attempt to honor him and continue his quest by articulating what Elliot’s dramaturgy meant to us, his many collaborators and friends.
We’ll focus on his work because that’s where he threw so much of his own passion, energy, care, and attention. We’ll attempt to Frankenstein together 14 different collaborative processes into a fantastical collective artistic process.
We’ll start at that terrifying and exhilarating moment — that blank page / empty space phase before you’ve made a single mark on the canvas — when an artistic project could be anything. Elliot participated in many such moments, and helped turn them into an actual beginning.
CAST (in order of appearance)
MORGAN GREEN • JAMES RUTHERFORD • DEEPALI GUPTA • ALEX MIHAIL • KATHERINE COOPER • ALLISON LAPLATNEY • KRISTEN ROBINSON • DEVIN BRAIN • TARA AHMADINEJAD • JEFF WOOD • CAITLIN MORRIS • RON DOMINGO • ALEXANDRA PANZER • ALYSSA K. HOWARD • MADELINE WISE • SOPHIE SHACKLETON • CAROLINE V. MCGRAW • MASHA TSIMRING • EMILIE SOFFE • JIEHAE PARK
Timeline of Shows Referenced in This Document
2009: Tenticle: A Canticle (NYC)
2009: (The American Museum of) Love & Geography (NYC)
2010: Tall Skinny Cruel Cruel Boys (Yale School of Drama/New Haven)
2011: 2 Stories that End in Suicide (NYC)
2011: A Midsummer Night’s Dream (NYC)
2011: Yale Summer Cabaret Shakespeare Festival: Rose Mark’d Queen, The Tempest, As You Like It (Yale)
2012: The Seagull (Yale)
2012: The Cherry Orchard (NYC)
2013 – 2015: Old Paper Houses (NYC)
2013: Hannah and the Dread Gazebo (Ojai)
2013: Ultimate Beauty Bible (NYC)
2013: The Importance of Being Ernest Hemingway (NYC)
2014 – 2018: Minor Character (NYC)
2014, 2015: Vermont Summit (Vermont)
2014: Last Days of Mankind (Bard)
2015: Tall Women in Clogs (NYC)
2015: Peerless (Ojai)
2016: We Shall Be Monsters (NYC)
2016: I Get Restless (NYC)
2016 – 2017: Ski End (NYC)
2017: Breath of Kings (NYU)
I. INCEPTION OF IDEA
Morgan Green (director/creator | New Saloon | Minor Character) Elliot was the one, initially in jest, to suggest that we layer three translations of Uncle Vanya on top of each other…for the duration of the play. It was his audacity that launched this remarkable challenge, Minor Character, which brought us together on different stages, different rehearsal rooms, and different kitchen tables for years. The work was endless, and with Elliot, it was joyous.
James Rutherford (director | Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Importance of Being Ernest Hemingway) Elliot came to see my graduate thesis, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Dream. I had spent months working on that play because one night on a subway platform years earlier, Elliot had offhandedly mentioned that he’d “be interested to see what I’d do with it.” So after the show I asked him if it measured up to what he had imagined. I don’t remember what he said. Probably not much; I suspect it doesn’t really matter. What matters was that in some baffling way, it had all happened because of him.
Deepali Gupta (composer | Minor Character, Ski End) Working with Elliot felt so exciting because there was always so much potential involved—he knew how to engage with possibility, and how to take the advice of the imagination. Elliot understood how music is relational and layered, and can be employed in all these different directions. When I read through our texts, I find ideas for deviant revivals of Broadway musicals, half joke and half proposal.
Alex Mihail (director | The Seagull, The Last Days of Mankind) The feeling that Elliot was the only person who heard, understood and better articulated my artistic voice will last forever. Even now, I am still struggling to start dreaming about a piece of theatre by myself without Elliot.
Katherine Cooper (performer/creator | Tall Women in Clogs) I experienced Elliot’s dramaturgy as a writer more than anything. Whenever I had just an inkling of an idea for something he’d be there with stacks of books, pdfs of plays, screenshots of poems, silly quotes, texts to light the way so I could keep going, keep writing. You’re not crazy, all this context seemed to say, there’s an idea in there somewhere. If you’re lucky, you have a collaborator like Elliot that introduces you to your own world in this way. When that person dies we not only shoulder a collective responsibility to reconstruct his world, we also realize all the invisible doors he held open, the final pushes he made and the quiet kindnesses he gave us.
Allison LaPlatney (performer/creator | Piehole | Tenticle, Love & Geography, 2 Stories, Old Paper Houses, Ski End) Elliot helped us lay foundations and create structure, but they were not structures designed to maximize efficiency, they were designed to maximize magic. Not to fast track things toward being something as a company, but to ensure things would always be as authentic to our artistic and human intentions as possible.
Kristen Robinson (scenic designer | Yale Cabaret: Summer Shakespeare Festival,The Seagull, The Last Days of Mankind, Old Paper Houses, Minor Character) It was as if we who were blinded by our love of an idea were coming to him to compose our letters, because we lacked the language to express what we felt so deeply. I think of him as continuously starving to tackle any artistic problem no matter how epic. In fact I would say it was an addiction. His dare was, don’t tell me it is impossible. If you lay it at my feet, I will create something beautiful out of it. I will create a universe with you.
II. ROLLING UP YOUR SLEEVES
Devin Brain (artistic director/director | Yale Summer Shakespeare Cabaret | Rose Mark’d Queen) I remember him saying as we were exploring a piece for a reading, that he worked on a script to learn why to love it.
James For the six months comprising pre-production and rehearsal for The Importance of Being Ernest Hemingway we were inseparable. We spent so much time together that I have no clear sense of what came from him and what from me. Every decision no matter how slight, from the script to scheduling to casting to staging to the wording of emails, grants, press releases, was made in tandem. At the time I joked that I’d never spent so much time with anyone I wasn’t sleeping with, but truthfully the connection we had was not un-loverly.
Tara Ahmadinejad (director/creator | Piehole | Tenticle, Love & Geography, 2 Stories, Old Paper Houses, We Shall Be Monsters, Ski End) We were dissecting this play called Love and Geography. We became obsessed with creating a museum performance out of it. We separated out the script by character, and assigned a different geographical biome to each character, and created a color coded map in powerpoint or something. We made it so gleefully and we couldn’t stop cracking up the entire time we turned this completely absurd and whimsical idea into reality. And if Elliot hadn’t been obsessed with maps, and didn’t propose that we create a map, I’m not sure that crazy project would have even happened. He proposed a system that ensured we would fulfill our creative impulse.
Kristen In its unedited state the text of The Last Days of Mankind is something like 800 pages long. Multiple dissatisfying translations existed. Alex and Elliot combed through the entire play, transcribing, choosing, and adapting the language as they felt was natural. What this meant is that, for each line that was deemed unsatisfying, Elliot would read fully in character each possible translation of the text. Then, both being perpetually dissatisfied, they would throw out those solutions and create a new one wholly original to them. To me this encapsulates this ability to make sense of a total mess.
Jeff Wood (performer/creator/designer | Piehole | Tenticle, Love & Geography, 2 Stories, The Cherry Orchard, Old Paper Houses, We Shall Be Monsters, Ski End) We were working with teenage theater-makers at Abrons Arts Center on an adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and we wanted the teens to have as full a knowledge of the novel as possible, from which to draw when improvising and devising. But they would need it impossibly fast. No problem! Elliot quickly condensed the entire novel into a 26-page version of the text that mixed carefully chosen unedited passages from the text with quick bullet points of important events that happened in between them. He took other passages and adapted the language into a sort of play-dialogue format, in order to make plain all the different shifts the novel makes between narrators and points of view. So this dramatic process really, truly began with a supernaturally-condensed literary seminar on Shelley’s Frankenstein, in which Elliot’s passion about the text led smoothly into critical conversations with the teens about it; before they realized it, they felt so casually conversant in this novel and empowered to pick up and play with its elements, that they quickly began to improvise as different characters, rewrite scenes, parody romantic tropes, and generally enter the novel with generosity, vulnerability and playfulness.
Getting on our feet
Caitlin Morris (performer | Minor Character, The Cherry Orchard) At the start of each new Minor Character rehearsal process, we’d have part of one tablework rehearsal dedicated to Elliot’s dramaturgical findings. He’d walk us through Russian history, the emancipation of the serfs, the shifting class dynamics, Chekhov’s own work as a doctor and as a shepherd of early modernism. His adoration for these lessons engendered our own – he was totally captivating and (bless him) patient with our ignorance.
Allison Elliot didn’t just do research. He performed it. I remember him bringing in a passage from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s journals that broke open my understanding of utopianism, failure, and civilization. And boy, it needed to break open because we had about a week to figure out how to finish [our play] and we were stuck. But I realize now that I’d seen that passage before, and I’ve encountered it since, without fully registering its meaning. Elliot’s ability to read a text aloud and communicate exactly what you needed to know about it was profound.
Jeff Elliot had a passion for making texts accessible—often through innovative and laborious methods—in a distinctly empowering way; he opened up a text’s complex world as a toolkit for a whole room of collaborators, sowing seeds in fertile ground and enabling a whole creation process to blossom.
Ron Domingo (performer | Minor Character) His intelligence was alluring but intimidating. When we first started Minor Character, I wanted so badly to understand the play but was apprehensive to ask for help. But at one point during rehearsal, it became obvious to me that he was, in fact, the Oracle of the Chekhov gods. So I remember asking him questions. His thoughtful, specific recommendations and advice always had me coming back for more. He would crystallize moments for me. I asked so many questions – too many questions…but he always responded with patience and kindness.
Caitlin In working through Chekhov, both on The Cherry Orchard and on Minor Character, I was constantly amazed by his ability to be meticulous, exacting and enamored of the historical and theatrical context for the play and yet, simultaneously, prepared (almost enthusiastically so) to throw out all stodgy context in favor of an inventive idea. He could revere and challenge the form in equal measure.
Alexandra Panzer (performer/creator/designer | Piehole | 2 Stories, Old Paper Houses, Ski End) For a mind so capable of creating order and meaning, Elliot always saved a little seat at the table for things that didn’t make sense.
Allison Elliot’s work was cerebral and textual, sure, but it was also physical, gestural, spontaneous. The concepts that became gestures that became shorthand that became jokes that became bedrocks of our understanding of how theater works…well, we’d tell you about them but they transcend language.
Caitlin Elliot was an outright infectious presence. No one and I mean NO ONE laughed with as much bubbling, genuine pleasure as Elliot. Rehearsals felt more fun and adventurous with him there –even during the difficult, trudging days, with one of his mirthful outbursts, they’d be lifted to the sacred realm of mini-performances for an Audience of ‘El.’
Devin He could help cut a script or diagnose the stumbling block in a performance. And he did it all with laughter and joy. He helped three radically different directors work side by side and all feel heard and supported, he helped designers juggle the demands of divergent directorial visions, and he helped actors find a contemporary truth in a piece of text written by a dead man.
Alexandra I know everyone talks about Elliot’s laugh, but it really was such a powerful force. After he finished grad school, he came to a rehearsal for a show I was in, written, directed and produced by a group of pretty serious dudes. Elliot started laughing the moment he sat down. It made me feel strong – not least because he made me feel funny. It made the space feel safe. It made me feel like we were here to play and no one was going to get away with any bullshit. And I remember so distinctly thinking “Thank God Elliot’s back.”
Alyssa K. Howard (AKH) (stage manager/performer | The Seagull, The Last Days of Mankind) My main memory of The Seagull was during one rehearsal in the lovely, warm-hued Room 221 at 149 York Street. Alex had proposed some idea that Elliot vehemently objected to on fundamental artistic grounds. “But no, I want to do it,” Alex insisted. “Sure!” Elliot nearly shouted back with the incredulous smile of a man absolutely mortified beyond belief by what he was witnessing. “Sure, you can! I’ll just never speak to you again!” Alex was undeterred.
We took a break. Alex went downstairs for a cigarette. Elliot went with him. When we got back from break, Alex thoughtfully reported that he had ceased pursuing his original idea but we were going to try something else. The rest of the room breathed a collective sigh of relief that mommy and daddy hadn’t gotten a divorce.
Alex You can imagine the constant arguments, disagreements, questions and doubts, but also, you should imagine the electrifying excitement behind all our arguments, the pure joy of colliding thoughts and impulses and, mostly, the immense trust and delight we had in each other. There was no misunderstanding, no hard feelings, no personal drift and no right or wrong.
AKH If I had to pinpoint any one thing as being a turning point in my understanding of the meaning and potential of artistic collaboration, it would be that show. And it would be because of Elliot and the artistic family that could not have existed without him. It was possibly one of the most valuable things that I took away from my three years of graduate education.
Madeline Wise (performer/creator | New Saloon | Minor Character, Tall Women in Clogs) For Tall Women in Clogs, Elliot was our benevolent peacekeeping emotionally-stable scout leader.
Sophie Shackleton (performer/creator/producer | Tall Women in Clogs, Vermont Summit) He kindly and gently suffered through every ugly disagreement and emotional moment that four 5’9”+ opinionated women could drag up (MANY) while telling us we were amazing and brave and wearing his TALL WOMAN t-shirt the whole damn time.
Madeline He would watch as the four Tall Women muddled through things – which often meant we were sobbing – and then he would help us pull out what was relevant, good, entertaining, and what was just therapy.
Devin He would hold my feet to the fire when the whim of the moment threatened to overwhelm the central idea, he drew another director back to earth when their dream production threatened to capsize the actual production, and he helped the third push her work beyond a simple devotion to the text.
Caitlin A moment in the text doesn’t work, Morgan turns to Elliot, whose lap is usually spread with multiple translations of Uncle Vanya. Elliot, with almost frightening precision, turns to the exact line we’re considering and offers a translation from the Senelick, say, that might solve the problem. It does.
A microscopic shift happens in a scene, one of those tiny little acting discoveries that often bubble up unnoticed in rehearsal work, and Elliot fully guffaws in appreciation.
Devin He was the person that everyone talked to about their work. He listened and managed to amplify everyone else’s voice by doing so.
Are we gonna get there?
Katherine The word “dramaturg,” like many of Elliot’s aesthetic sensibilities, came from the ancient Greeks: “dramat-” means drama and “ergos” means worker. Living up to his title, Elliot did the work in the theater that had to be done: he balanced budgets, ordered pizzas, stayed up late talking about ideas, made “packets,” taught, fought, admitted he was wrong and made you feel like you were right–that you should keep going and that the show would go on.
Sophie What Elliot called ‘dramaturgy’, I called ‘producing.’ He understood how to facilitate every aspect of an event, and wanted to quietly guide the production to its best self.
Kristen Elliot’s ability to give voice and language to ideas we couldn’t articulate is rooted in the fact that he was an incredible listener. You could give him as many rough starts, and half baked impulses, and he would take it in, and then ask you the best question.
Caroline V. McGraw (playwright | Tall Skinny Cruel Cruel Boys, Ultimate Beauty Bible, I Get Restless) I always hoped Elliot liked my plays because I trusted and admired him, but liking to Elliot was almost beside the point. He was always able to find something interesting in everything, and, because he was also a generative artist, he was empathetic to the difficulty of creating a new piece of theater.
Deepali Our collaboration on Minor Character was revelatory for me, and deeply significant in my journey as a composer in theater. Elliot proposed over an intermission cigarette one evening that the music in the show was Yelena’s music–Yelena the pianist, the choir representing her interior music, her desire for Astrov, whose words she sings. Elliot understood music. He had a complicated relationship with it, like I do, and he understood how my music was always very intensely personal, intensely emotional.
Masha Tsimring (lighting designer | The Seagull, Minor Character, Last Days of Mankind) I have no recollection of Elliot and I ever talking about lighting, as in lighting in the theatre. We must have, but I don’t remember it. I remember we talked about light, in the world. And we definitely talked about lamps. Talked and texted and emailed and crossed cities about them. Over the years the lamps garnered their own nicknames. Lighting is abstract, lamps are human. And I think Elliot was the best, among many many talented people, at making the abstract, human.
Devin In the summer of 2011 we led the Yale Summer Cabaret together. We were producing three Shakespeare texts that would run in rotating repertory while sharing a single ensemble. We had a total of 10 actors each of whom would be in two productions. It was an insane idea, and one that depended entirely upon Elliot’s unique set of skills. Elliot was both one of the architects of the madness and the dramaturg for all three productions.
Morgan Elliot was the scholar, team mom, generative artist, and peer counselor all in one.
Devin On top of all of that he led the charge in developing the summer’s educational offerings, curating audience discussions, and helped proof and critique marketing materials.
Masha I loved camp counselor Elliot, dance captain Elliot, and assistant costume designer Elliot as much as brilliant adapter Elliot.
Devin Part scholar, part critic, part producer, part director,
Sophie …scripts, directing, tech, scheduling, marketing, trash collection,
Emilie Soffe (performer/creator | Piehole | Old Paper Houses, Ski End) …builds, strikes, trips to and from the storage facility, driving uHauls around the city, packing vans, unpacking vans, lifting heavy things, staying up too late, waking up too early.
Allison Cleaning up a flash flood an hour before a show. Finding incandescent delight in the mathematically precise arrangement of flats in a storage space.
Emilie Creating immaculate spreadsheets and charts that made you feel safe, supported, and (dare I say?) seen,
Jeff …wheeling an antique rusted plough between boroughs on the subway,
Allison …awake for 24 hours in smeared elf make-up and a santa hat, baking a pie, reciting Beowulf in Old English, tap dancing…
Masha He just wanted people in a room together, making something real, talking about something real, ideally with coffee and snacks.
Devin [People] quote Coleridge a lot [when talking] about acting: “the willing suspension of disbelief,” but Elliot’s work was the incarnation of the second half of that quote “the willing suspension of disbelief that constitutes an act of poetic faith.”
Alexandra Elliot was a finisher. I can think of countless nights where my tank was empty, and thoughts of “well, it’s probably good enough” or “but do we really need it?” threatened whatever elaborate detail we were trying to polish off at 1 in the morning. Elliot stored finishing juice like a camel: “It’s tech week, and we need an industrial-sized helium tank? I’ll run and grab that from [somewhere].” Finishers are precious gifts to the Arts. In a world defined by ideas, a finisher is there when the “what if” juice is tapped.
Kristen Elliot was an unflappable optimist. This doesn’t mean that he wasn’t burdened with doubt, or fear or bitterness. It was just, in his soul he wanted to always believe an artistic solution existed for any challenge. He was non-discriminatory in the genre of his solutions. He would so warmly and generously, and without judgement, shoulder something a little bit insane.
Allison One of our earliest projects, Tenticle, which Elliot directed, involved a large tent operated by two people whose only role was to wear outfits more or less sewn into the tent fabric, and to sit with their legs as wide open on the ground as possible while leaning forward, and then slowly sit up to make the tent rise ominously. This is difficult to describe because it was a truly unreasonable solution, but there we were. In this context I remember Elliot saying that Piehole was a project worth pursuing because Piehole was our friends agreeing to get sewn into a handmade tent in order to make it pop up in a particularly unsettling way. He could see the wit and generosity that they brought to performing this almost (literally) invisible role, and that’s what made the whole enterprise exciting and worthwhile to him.
Devin He was a ruthless critic, but there was never any doubt that every critique was founded upon faith in the form, in the text, and in the artist he was talking to in that moment.
Tara When he was working on the Yale Summer Cab, Elliot would come to NYC on weekends to co-direct 2 Stories (for which I was co-director but also a performer). We all eagerly looked forward to the weekends to show him everything we’d spent the week trying out, to show him every moment of “we have no clue,” and for the moment to arrive when he would work his magic, unlock our stuckness, and inject faith into the room.
Kristen Elliot was at the center of keeping the faith. When the actors were unconvinced, Elliot was always there to provide perspective, to inspire. Now we should not take from this that Elliot was a blind follower, no. It was that he was a constant questioner that made you trust his commitment, his faith. You knew however he responded it was coming from a place of deep mining and research. He also was delightfully free in expressing when he felt an idea was wrong. He embraced healthy conflict. I think of him like Jacob, continuously wrestling the archangel Gabriel.
Alex At absolutely every stage and in every aspect of the making of a piece, from the positioning of a chair to the dramatization of a text, to a radical cut, if something made sense to Elliot, it was going to work; if I could make him agree, if I could make him see, if I could make him feel how I feel, then I could be absolutely certain that we made the right choice. No, more than that, that we would be on the path to unequivocal glory…
Alexandra I think one of the reasons we took on such ambitious projects was that there was a shared sense that unless the project had the potential to really fail, it wasn’t earned. Our show Ski End was based on a room where half the drywall was missing. That was it! That’s not enough! But if it worked, that would be a pretty cool miracle. Elliot was one of the reasons we could get away with leaps like this. It was easier to walk the line between hope and doubt – our favorite line – both because Elliot put stock in the tension of this line, and because with Elliot there, how wrong could you go?
Tara I invited Elliot to see everything I was working on as an “outside eye,” even when he wasn’t working on it — at the critical moment when everything seemed like it was maybe definitely going to collapse. Elliot would watch, laugh at an idiosyncratic set of jokes, and tell me with such care and precision what it was we’d made, and what might be the biggest questions to address in the remaining critical production time.
Caroline Elliot was definitely the coolest-under-pressure member of the Tall Skinny Cruel Cruel Boys production team, and whenever the cast would have a million questions and I’d be fretting over how to tell the story I wanted, he would guide me back to my first impulses with the play and help me figure out what I wanted the audience to feel and to know; he was deeply attuned to how a story landed in an audience in a personal way, and always had an incredible perspective of how to get there.
IV. MOST TREASURED COLLABORATOR
Devin During that summer I remember we were talking with an audience and they asked what a dramaturg was, Elliot and I joked that “no one knows” and then decided the best description was perhaps “german theater ninjas”. We were in a bratty mood at the time. The truth is that Elliot defines what a dramaturg can be because Elliot as dramaturg was simply the perfect collaborator.
Caroline I don’t know that any true artist—and Elliot was a true artist—can separate their work from their daily life. I went through old emails and found our notes to each other, almost the same as any day-to-day emails with a friend—inside jokes, forty back-and-forths as to where, exactly, we were going to get iced coffee—except in there, Elliot would have detailed, humane ideas and notes about whatever we were working on together.
Allison Elliot made it his business to understand the full humanity of the people he worked with. The best evidence of this, for me, is the fact that no one has ever been better at teasing me without hurting my feelings than Elliot was.
Alex Our “process” was beyond friendship; we spent so much time together in rehearsal rooms, on walks, in bars, in each other’s homes.
Masha One of the first, selfish, things I thought of when I learned of Elliot’s death was that no one else has ever aligned with me so closely in terms of taste in art, music, experience, whathaveyou. And who would I run to with my obsessions now? But of course that isn’t really the truth. I think the key to my feeling in that moment is that Elliot was always game and always curious. He would go down rabbit holes with you, and share your passions, and dance with you to the music you dragged him into.
Alex Over time, Elliot and I achieved a unique form of symbiosis – for me, close to a dependency. For people who worked with us, [our] profound connection became clear early on: actors would ask Elliot for directions, and designers would talk to Elliot about putting my mind on the right track. In school, teachers would hold Elliot responsible for my poor choices. Some called us “mommy and daddy,” some “husband and wife,” because it was clear to everybody that the fluidity in exchanging those gender roles in the birth of a show was the fluidity of our creative process.
Our symbiotic way of working is still a mystery to me, after so many years. Our “process” was beyond affinity: we sometimes vibrated to the same things, but most of the time for different reasons, and we often didn’t like the same things at all.
Morgan He was my confidant. I talked to him about the text, staging, design choices, but a lot of the time it was just about how to be in the company. How to lead in a way that felt good to me and to others. There wasn’t anyone else I could talk to about these things who was both a part of it, and still on the outside. He didn’t judge me, but would listen and give intelligent feedback. Sometimes it was hard to hear, because he was always honest, but somehow I could handle the hurt because I knew that we were in a kind of protected space.
Alex With Elliot, together, I felt most myself: safe, sane, courageous, and there was no wall that could not be broken.
James When so much is left unsaid, uncertainty creeps into the space between. In these moments of doubt I make my way back to opening night in August 2013, where Elliot and I are sitting together in a corner of the bar laughing quietly to ourselves. We feel as though we have gotten away with some outrageous heist. We can hardly believe that our shared dream has really come to life— and that hundreds of others are entering into it. Our marvelous dream, this dream of our youth and our potential, our fantasy of doomed romance, union, and identity. Memory, loss, despair, and love: the birth of theater.
V. “I WASN’T THE ONLY ONE”
Alex And yet, to my surprise (and, in all honesty, sometimes jealousy), over the years I found out that Elliot had a whole bunch of such unique artistic partnerships with artists or groups of artists as different as you can imagine. He was the closest collaborator to a couple of playwrights who were putting the first shivering drafts of their plays in his hands with the utmost confidence.
…I always hoped Elliot liked my plays because I trusted and admired him, but liking to Elliot was almost beside the point. (Caroline, Playwright)
He had a similar role of co-creator that he had with me with other directors whose work couldn’t be more different than mine.
…he was always honest, but somehow I could handle the hurt because I knew that we were in a kind of protected space… (Morgan, New Saloon)
He had a number of opportunities that he took with full force to be an arts administrator and curator. He was a dedicated teacher and had interests that went beyond the “creative process.” He had a creative and artistic home in a devised theatre company,
…concepts that became gestures that became shorthand that became jokes that became bedrocks of our understanding of how theater works…(Allison, Piehole)
and he had friends, a dog, and a life apart from our symbiosis.
…woof woof! (Keira, Elliot’s dog)
My Elliot, the one without whom I couldn’t conceive theatre, was also at the center (was the catalyst?) of other people’s work too.
Jeff All of these very different artists in Elliot’s life were isolated from each other by the usual atomizations of the industry—individual creative processes, the discrete walls of rehearsal and devising rooms, the untranslatable birthing-crucibles of production processes. And while many of us who knew Elliot agree he kept it this way by design, it is also clear that competing with this compartmentalizing tendency in Elliot was the impulse to fling all of these people together, to take the menagerie of creative partners he could see from his vantage of fluidly moving between them, that mental assembly of “impossible people,” and make it exist in new collaborations and physical gatherings.
Sophie We organized two artist residencies in Vermont, for two consecutive years. Elliot imagined a four-day narrative arc: from meet and greet, to meals, to group outings, to final performances. He leapt out of bed at 6 each morning to make sure breakfast was ready, and was serving drinks, water, and inspiration until well past midnight. He knew exactly who needed help, and who needed space.
Ron He always supported my work and recommended me to others. He advocated for me. He was my hero.
Tara Elliot was a connector. I met a lot of wonderful collaborators through him (designers, stage managers, composers, actors), and I know I’m not the only one. And that fostering of creative relationships, that act of bringing people together…it wasn’t this breezy thing he did at a party. It was real labor –– and it was rigorous, creative, and generous.
Jeff Old Paper Houses was a show about utopian longing, and after each performance we invited audiences to participate in a utopian hang out space featuring different artists from different disciplines and mini-spaces that offer opportunities for both social and private engagement. Elliot took the lead role in organizing, producing and curating these spaces. He poured himself into producing and caring for this space/event and its guest artists and hosts, and I think that was partially because it was a chance to create a real space that more closely resembled the community inside of Elliot’s brain, a place where a slew of very different people, usually seen pursuing the line of their own strange, even conflicting, outlooks in their art, would just spend some damn time together.
Emilie As a dramaturg, Elliot wore a million and a half hats, and one of those hats was Performer, and sometimes, as a performer, he wore actual hats. One such hat was a dirty old baseball cap that he donned while playing one of the most beloved of Elliot roles: the Pizza Delivery Guy who brought joy, warmth, and old-fashioned good vibes to the post-show Utopian hangouts of Old Paper Houses. Weirdly, surprisingly, our attempt to create Utopia … actually kinda worked! Turns out Utopia is community and friends and music and standing around and all those things we always figured it might be. And central to that Utopia was Elliot, a bright-eyed mythic character coming through a door with a dirty baseball cap, an infectious belly laugh, and just enough pizza for everyone.
Sophie The art and friendships forged in those days in Vermont stay with us years later. His work went so far beyond traditional dramatic composition: he not only wanted to understand text, he wanted to understand life.
VI. SO WHAT IS A DRAMATURG?
Madeline On our way into Ireland, the customs guy asked Elliot what his profession was, and Elliot said “dramaturg,” and the customs guy said “what the hell’s that?” and Elliot explained, and the customs guy looked down at Elliot’s form and said, “alright, so I’ll write ‘unemployed’ then.” And Elliot thought that was hysterical. He laughed so hard at being roasted by a customs guy.
Allison A confusing aspect of the dramaturg’s role, or the dramaturg as embodied by Elliot, was, of course, that it was all-encompassing. What could be harder to define than something that is everything?
James You would spend a day working with him and not know what precisely he had contributed, just that it would have been nothing without him. Maybe it’s hard because what was most significant about Elliot as a collaborator was his influence, his insight, his sight. He saw you clearer than you could see yourself.
Devin He was a quiet whirlwind, a force that drove the season forward without anyone ever feeling pushed. Elliot was the unsung hero of that summer…
Masha Elliot’s dramaturgy lay in humanity. He had a very holistic way of regarding his collaborators. I felt that he saw each person as a complete artist and mind, not hemmed in by their particular role on any production. Similarly, his definition of his role in any process would shift and grow to whatever was most fruitful.
Jiehae Park (playwright | Hannah and the Dread Gazebo) Elliot directed my play for the Ojai playwrights conference in 2015—there was already a director attached for the production, who couldn’t do it, so I put out a call to some colleagues asking if they might know someone smart and thoughtful who wouldn’t have their ego bruised by coming to direct something they wouldn’t be able to move forward with after…possibly someone who considered themselves a dramaturg first, since I had a lot of work left to do on the play. And when I met Elliot I immediately understood why he’d been recommended. He palpably exuded humanity and decency.
Allison Reading through old blog posts, shared documents, and notes, it becomes difficult to tell who wrote what. I find I can’t even reliably recognize my own voice, and Elliot’s voice becomes Tara’s voice, becomes Jeff’s voice, and on and on. In an industry that values star power, in a culture that worships a very narrow definition of “success,” allowing yourself to meld with your collaborators is, perhaps, a dangerous choice.
Alex I remember Elliot saying in one of our few off-topic conversations that nobody knows what a dramaturg is or does, and there is no real role for a dramaturg in the American theatre (which, by the way, might love roles more than theatre itself). I don’t remember him saying it in anguish or hopelessness, but I could sense how his idealism was taking a hit. I don’t remember him saying “I’m gonna create that role for the American Theatre.” He wouldn’t make such bombastic statements, but I knew this was exactly what he was doing.
Tara We played around with titles and credits for Elliot, never feeling satisfied with how to sum up his role in a project. He never led this discussion, we had to pry answers out of him about this kind of thing. Like he wanted to disassociate from the egoistic nature of titling, despite acknowledging/suffering the very real consequences of improper or insufficient crediting….
Jeff A major problem with naming Elliot’s contribution is that it existed somewhere in an impressive and truly unwieldy list of tasks, and our culture doesn’t know how to celebrate or value labor that looks like this. He laid the groundwork for artistic creation, and he shared responsibility for it.
He is a sort of anti-Great Man of History.
Allison To take a role as frustratingly invisible as “dramaturg” and allow it to be even more diffused throughout a collective is, I think, to offer a radical admonishment to endless growth and toxic individualism. It’s radical because it’s a genuine sacrifice. Even if all of us in Piehole were engaged in the ego-challenging practice of collective authorship, most of us still had the pleasure of occupying easily identifiable roles like performer or director or designer, so that we could enjoy the warmth of recognition when all was said and done.
Jeff That rejection of hoarding agency or glory for the individual is in some ways inherent to Piehole, but as a dramaturg, the floating signifier of theater—
Allison —Elliot actually had to face the personal, sometimes painful implications of modeling the theater world – and thus the society – he wanted to see. To me, that makes Elliot’s approach to his work inherently political and genuinely radical.
Jiehae It was a joy to be in the room together. Our conversations felt almost like dramaturgy of a life in the theater—trying to understand the complex, ambivalent rollercoaster of love/rage/joy/despair that we all go through from moment to moment engaging with theater and theater institutions, and he always seemed to be grappling rigorously and honestly with all those contradictions.
Alex These days, we are too blinded by numbers, categories and quorums to see the exceptional person who transcends boundaries and becomes the great tamer of contradictions. Elliot, the dramaturg, was the exceptional one who lived by and will live on in the belief that theatre and theatre–making is a conversation between opposed points of view, contradictory passions, and human paradoxes, all tamed within the artistic act itself.
Tara Elliot made his rounds — attending multiple rehearsal rooms each week, bringing clarity and insight to various stages of all these processes, ensuring that each project lived up to its promise. When I describe Elliot’s dramaturgy like this, it sounds like the role of an artistic director. Elliot did this work independently for a lot of us. In some ways, he was the artistic director of a theater that didn’t exist. He didn’t get paid or recognized for this work. Sometimes it seemed like he might end up in one of those positions eventually, and yet, he wasn’t exactly working his way up in the ranks of large institutions. Perhaps if he did, he would have had to close off certain parts of himself too much — he wouldn’t have been able to work on so many different kinds of projects in so many different capacities. In the theater industry as it existed, that juggling act was unsupported and unrewarded, and therefore unsustainable. But it is how Elliot drew from himself so deeply, so personally, in devotion to this or that unthinkable project, with artists he loved and who loved him.
Alex How rare and how wonderful is it to believe in and live for the love of so many voices?