Every year, July is surprisingly busy. We’re juggling work, weddings, vacations, new projects and exercise routines. I know I’m definitely starting to sweat just considering my conflicting rehearsal schedules, part-time job, and this new writing gig. It’s exhausting. A fun, fireworks display type of exhausting – but still, the kind where you can barely form complex thought afterward. My brain was becoming used to feeling like Jell-O when I met one of City Theatre’s newest staff members, the Director of New Play Development, Clare Drobot.
While me and the rest of my ilk, the recently graduated theatre artists, are running about the city like headless velociraptors, Drobot is contentedly hidden high away in her brightly painted office on the City Theatre’s third floor, her belfry, as she calls it, surrounded by new script submissions and literary references. Apart from working closely with playwrights to develop their work, she also works on choosing plays with City’s Artistic Director and Artistic Producer, Tracy Brigden and Reginald L. Douglas (respectively) for their upcoming season; creating lobby displays; creating research packets for productions; writing program notes; hosting talk backs; and other community engagement events. For her, it’s a dream job.
“I was lucky enough to see one or two productions at City when I was in college, and there is so much love and amazing technical skill in these productions – really fantastic – and knowing that you’re coming to a place whose art is really exciting to see on stage – is special.”
A native of Fairfax county, just outside of Washington D.C., Drobot first came to Pittsburgh as an undergrad student to attend Carnegie Mellon University. While there, she earned a B.F.A. in Music Composition and a B.A. in Creative Writing. Her junior year, she was lucky enough to have a screenwriting class with the late Milan Stitt, American playwright and educator, then head of Carnegie Mellon’s M.F.A. Dramatic Writing program. Drobot credits her professors, and the level of integrity and intensity with which they brought to their work, as having a profound affect on her as an artist and as a person. She also became heavily involved, even serving as its president for a time, with CMU’s Scotch’n’Soda, a student-run theatre organization, producing four full length plays a year. Considering all of the producing, directing, technical, managing, musical composing, and even acting experience she gained with it, I joked with Drobot that she actually graduated with a third, honorary degree in theatre.
Drobot admits that she has “one of those weird, random backgrounds” and it took her a while to figure out how she fit into the theatre world. The CMU career center helped Drobot find a casting internship with the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, New Jersey. Though she cites McCarter as being a huge first step during her formative early-twenties, Drobot finds it difficult to pinpoint one influential experience as having led her to where she is now: “There’s a roll of the dice that leads you from Point A to Point B, and I don’t know if I’d get to any point I’ve gotten to without all of the places I’ve worked.”
Writing has always been a part of her life. Clare recently wrote the book and lyrics for a song cycle The Bakken Formations with composer and friend Fritz Myers. The piece follows the lives of characters working and living in the fracking boomtown of Williston, ND and was part of Ars Nova’s ANT Fest in 2014. Luna Stage, Passage Theatre, and the New York Chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences have also developed her work.
Other than playwriting and the natural intersection of music composition, it’s difficult, even for her, to pin down a chronology of her résumé. My favorite moment in trying to keep up with this was when she laughed and admitted that she even co-founded her own theatre company with a couple of friends, called The BE Company, while she lived in New York City. She describes it as an adult, professional version of CMU’s Scotch’n’Soda, with a focus on staged readings, rewrites, rehearsals, and a second set of readings. Sex on Sunday, by Chisa Hutchinson ended up being the last show The BE Company produced.
At this point, Drobot had already been doing literary work at the Passage Theatre and had interned for New Dramatists. But James McManus’ Cherry Smoke for Clockwork Theatre marked the beginning of Drobot’s pursuit of dramaturgy and fascination with the developing of others’ works. She’s worked with many playwrights: Dominique Morisseau, Noah Haidle, and Pittsburgh native, Tammy Ryan, just to name a few. “Every time you work with a playwright it’s a different process,” Drobot tells me.
“Sometimes you get brought in by the director, sometimes you get brought in by the playwright, sometimes you’re part of the producing organization … It’s exciting. I love that kind of stuff, so it’s cool to jump in to all of these worlds and explore,” she grins through my computer screen during our first FaceTime interview, and the orange wall of her office off sets the glow in her face.
“Each project brings its own joys and challenges. Sometimes it’s work that has a historical or niche factual base, [so] sometimes it’s heavy research. Sometimes it’s more about structure and finding a journey…help[ing] trace the arc of a story… It’s being that sounding board when everyone’s knee deep in a project.”
Although theatre students are expected to think critically like this every day in their studies, dramaturgy isn’t something many undergraduate theatre students are familiar with. Or even some working theatre artists, for that matter. According to LMDA, the volunteer membership organization for Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of America, of which Drobot is a member, the job of a dramaturg is to “contextualize the world of a play; establish connections among the text, actors, and audience; offer opportunities for playwrights; generate projects and programs; and create conversations about plays in their communities.” It makes sense that Drobot didn’t settle into dramaturgy until years later. Her experiences also make her uniquely well-suited for it.
“For me, because I didn’t come up through the M.F.A. route, I was lucky enough to work in a bunch of literary offices. I got to work in a variety of places…and I got to meet all of these different people. It was really influential to me to see that there are all of these different approaches to it. It’s one of those fields that has a malleability to it.”
Before landing the resident dramaturg position at Premiere Stages at Kean University in Fall 2010, she had also been a Literary Associate for a long time with Passage Theatre in Trenton, New Jersey, again involving herself in regional theatre under artistic director June Ballinger.
“I’ve been lucky enough to work with a lot of amazing women in the theatre. From Emily Mann at McCarter, to Emily Morse at New Dramatists, and June [Ballinger], and Laura [Stanczyk], and now Tracy [Brigden]… All of these women have forged a path through theatre.”
Now, she’s thirty-three and she’s moved to Pittsburgh, PA from the Big Apple to take a dream job with City Theatre. With all of her experience in mind, a humble Pittsburgher might be confused as to why she didn’t stay in New York. I would say that the average Pittsburgher doesn’t realize what we have on our South Side. Clare Drobot explains:
“It was specifically about the opportunities, getting to work at a place like City Theatre. One of the wonderful things about the regional theatre community is the fact that is a community and I think it’s different in the way you get to know and interact with your audience than some of the things in New York.”
She tells me how wonderful it’s been to arrive into City Theatre’s phenomenal community. She feels like she’s in really good hands. I wanted to confirm, it’s not just because we’re kinder over here, or something, right? What about the difference in production quality? How does it compare?
“It’s the same spectrum. Both in terms of budgetary worlds and artistic, there is amazing work going on in Pittsburgh and there’s amazing work going on in New York, and yeah they’re different, and they’re slightly different audiences to some extent, but I think that there’s a lot of great work in both communities. Pittsburgh is a very different town than New York, but equally exciting.”
She was excited to come back to Pittsburgh and noticed that “there’s this wonderful energy in the city at the moment. It’s an exciting thing to be a part of.” Specifically, she’s referencing the theatre community. “There is a nice ecosystem of theatres in the city. Working at City has been amazing. We have a fantastic staff and Tracy is a fantastic artistic director. It’s a dream gig. The idea that there are theatre companies who are younger and putting forth different work at the same time, in the same city – it’s exciting.”
After ten years of being away, there were bound to be bigger changes in Pittsburgh’s atmosphere. “To me, the thing that feels the most different now – and maybe I just didn’t intersect with it while I was in undergrad – is that there’s a bunch of younger people who are either staying in town or are coming back to town. They’re trying all of these new restaurants, theatre companies, arts, and music…New York seems to be in the throes of some pretty horrific gentrification right now – and I don’t know if it’s happening in Pittsburgh – but it feels like there are a lot of people who are so Pittsburgh proud that it feels like there’ll be a way to preserve some of the diversity and communities that make Pittsburgh wonderful and make it such a livable city.”
Yes, there are several factors, but isn’t that what theatre artists do? Constantly remembering and creating new communities for people to explore, or more specifically, it’s what dramaturgs do: “Looking at the world from a bunch of different perspectives, and trying to figure out how you become a part of a community and how do you open your doors to a community and say, ‘We hope the work on stage resonates with you.’”
Drobot encourages Pittsburgh audience members to take a risk. See a show. Hug a playwright. “At its best, theatre can introduce someone to new worlds, or even have them think about a subject in an new light and it doesn’t even have to be political. I think that’s what’s exciting about New Play Development. With words that are coming from the present, it’s exciting because you’re telling someone that – even if the form has been used before – the words haven’t necessarily been focused or spoken to an audience. That’s what excites me as an artist.”
City theatre will open its doors on Saturday September 12 with a Backstage Block Party from 1 to 4 pm. The event is free and will feature theatre games and activities for all ages, tours of City Theatre stages and facilities, a preview of City’s upcoming season featuring favorite local actors, food trucks, music, and more.
Come be surprised at what Pittsburgh’s own young, insightful, Clare Drobot-like minds have to say about their world. City Theatre’s Young Playwrights Festival just recently held auditions and will stage six professional productions of the finalists’ one-act plays from September 29th to October 9th 2015.