Keeping Amused, with Leah Zeldes

Dramaturg departs

First Frango Mints and now Michelle Volansky. Pennsylvania has a lot to answer for.

Perhaps you may not recognize Volansky's name. The latest treasure the Keystone State has taken from Chicago was, until her recent departure for Philadelphia, the dramaturg for Steppenwolf Theater. To many theater goers, hers would have been merely a name in a program. Particularly avid Steppenwolf fans might remember her as the woman who's led most of the theater's post-show discussions over the past five years.

But "dramaturg"? What's that? How do you even say it?

"It's 'dramaturg,' with a hard G," Volansky said. "Our friends to the north in Canada say 'dramaturj.' And there is a tendency of editors to put an E on the end of it. There is no E on the end of it. So it's dramaturg ... not dramaturd.

"The way I sort of define it is that I am the advocate of the text. In the same way that the lighting designer deals exclusively with the lights, I deal with the text. And what that does, and how it manifests itself, is that I help to define the words in the play.

"If there's a lot of things that the actors don't understand or that the director doesn't understand -- what does this word mean in this context?" she said. "The operative phrase, of course, is 'in this context.' I help to put the play in its context. The context in which it was written, so I do research on the world around the play -- social, political, economic, all of that. And then whatever sort of avenue interests me.

"For example in 'Closer,' there's a stripper in that play, and so I'm exploring the world of strippers. I do it by making phone calls to strippers, and researching on the Internet and in libraries.

For "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," Volansky toured mental hospitals, and conducted a weeklong workshop for the cast, covering the world of the 1960s, mental illness and more. "'Cuckoo's Nest' was sort of a giant, crazy, wacky experience, just because the cast was so big, the profile of it was so huge. As a dramaturg, it was incredibly rewarding."

Even though the portrayal of psychiatric institutions in that play is not a positive one, Volansky had no trouble getting mental-health workers to talk to her. "I think there's a great fascination with what theater people do. No one has ever said, 'No, I'm not going to talk to you,' ever.

"For my first job, the play was about a yuppie couple and a not-so-yuppie fireman who sort of destroys their lives. And I called the fire department in my town and said, 'will you guys spend some time talking about fighting fires?' And I sat for two hours and tape recorded them.

"I think people in specific audiences for productions want to see themselves represented as honestly as possible, so I think anything they can contribute is a good thing," she said. "When we did 'Space,' another one of my favorite plays, about a neuropsychiatrist who was confronted by patients claiming to be abducted by aliens, which led him to a whole vast exploration of himself and the universe and love ... and it was huge.

"My assistant found an abductee support group in Schaumburg and they came and talked to us. And it was like holy macaroni. And they were amazing. They were terrific and they gave us a huge amount of insight into the psychology of that. And I can't deny that they were abducted by aliens, do you know what I mean?"

Volansky, 32, came to Chicago from Actors Theater of Louisville in 1995, when she became Steppenwolf's first full-time dramaturg and literary manager, and more or less created its literary office. "The literary manager solicits, reads, responds and helps program plays," she said. "So my tasks as literary manager are all about reading, talking to playwrights, talking to agents, finding plays, identifying plays that we should look at, having conversations with the ensemble about plays that they are interested in, going out and getting them, or identifying plays for a particular ensemble member to either act in or direct.

"I also develop plays, so I question the text. If you create this moment in this particular scene, what are the ramifications later on? Or I'm not tracking this story in the way that you want me to be tracking the play, so how can we clarify that?

"So everything I do springs from the text."

Among the dozens of new plays Volansky has helped to develop are "Cahoots" by Claudia Allen, "Valparaiso" by Don DeLillo, "The Berlin Circle" by Charles Mee, "Space" by Tina Landau and "Slaughterhouse-Five," adapted by Eric Simonson. Production dramaturgy she's conducted in the past few seasons has covered such plays as "Sideman," "The Beauty Queen of Leenane," "The Glass Menagerie," "The Playboy of the Western World," "The Man Who Came to Dinner" and "A Streetcar Named Desire."

In her quest for worthwhile scripts, Volansky reads some eight to 10 plays daily. "I certainly have a very active dream life," she said.

"When I read, I look for old stories told in new ways or new stories told in an inventive kind of way."

Besides that, she said, "I think people have a desire for plays that are complicated and accessible to them and moving. I think there's a desire for plays that allow people to connect to each other. I look for plays with honest people in challenging, difficult situations and an exploration of the choices that they have to make. And whether that's manifested in a comedy or a tragedy or a drama doesn't really matter."

Each play is also read by another staffer. "It shouldn't be up to one person," Volansky said. "A playwright pours his heart out." Still, it's hard for a writer to break in. "I get 800 (new) plays a year. And we (Steppenwolf) put on 14. And that's a lot."

Her new theater, Philadelphia Theatre Company, mounts only four plays annually. "There's so much to do here at Steppenwolf. There's just not enough hours in the day. I'm going to a theater that's smaller," she said, and as Philadelphia natives, this is also a return home for Volansky and husband, David Kuntz, who is in the computer industry.

Meanwhile, at Steppenwolf, the job has gotten smaller. Volansky's replacement, Edward Sobel, will have the literary manager's role only; the theater has announced that it will hire free-lance dramaturgs for specific productions.

Perhaps because of Volansky's influence, however, more Chicago theaters are using dramaturgs. "I think it's becoming more and more common. I think if you look at the smaller theaters in town, they're starting to employ dramaturgs. When I got to Chicago, that didn't happen," she said.