Theater of the mind

Thanks to her work as a dramaturge, retired English professor Stephanie Tucker probably knows more than you do about mark-to-market accounting.

Thanks to her work as a dramaturge, retired English professor Stephanie Tucker probably knows more than you do about mark-to-market accounting.

Photo by Shoka

Catch Red at the B Street Theatre (2711 B Street) through Saturday, September 22. For more information, visit
Enron premieres at Capital Stage (2715 J Street) on Wednesday, September 19, and runs through Wednesday, October 31. For more information, visit

Dramaturge: It’s a funny word and one that those outside the theater community likely aren’t too familiar with. The word is commonly used to mean a person employed by a theater company who deals with the research aspect of plays, and sometimes development of new work.

It’s also used hand in hand with the term literary manager, and the lines between the two positions often blur. In practice, for local theater companies such as Capital Stage and the B Street Theatre, it can mean researching subjects as diverse and obscure as Victorian vibrators, the paintings of Mark Rothko and the Enron scandal—all on the fly. It might seem like an insurmountable challenge, but for local theater dramaturges, it’s all in a day’s work.

In fact, for Stephanie Tucker, a retired Sacramento State University English professor, it’s a dream job—and the culmination of a life spent attending countless plays in London, San Francisco, New York City and Sacramento.

Theater, Tucker says, has been a lifelong love.

“[It’s been] my passion since I was 4, when I saw Peter Pan, and Captain Hook scared me to death,” she says.

During her 25-year tenure at CSUS before retiring in 2010, Tucker published articles on myriad playwrights, including David Mamet and Sam Shepard. Currently, she’s writing a book on British playwright Alan Ayckbourn.

Now, sitting in her comfortable sixth-floor apartment in East Sacramento surrounded by bookshelves, two cats and a dog, Tucker’s eyes glow when she talks about her position as literary manager and dramaturge for Capital Stage. Her primary duty as dramaturge, Tucker explains, is in “creating the book,” an undertaking that includes researching a play’s background (including all reviews of its production and interviews with the playwright), searching out and summarizing other references to flesh out the work’s backstory (a task that can include both fiction and nonfiction books and, sometimes, even films), and analyzing how the play fits in with the historical tradition of theater.

And her compiled research for Capital Stage’s next play, Lucy Prebble’s Enron, is literally book-sized. Tucker plops down a fat binder on her coffee table; it’s filled with articles, pictures and her own notes on the play, which centers around the energy company’s infamous 2001-era financial scandal.

To prepare, Tucker says, she’s giving herself a crash course on the main players and the complex financial dealings

“Do you know how much I knew about business and corporations before this?” she asks with a laugh.

Certainly, Tucker sounds knowledgeable as she tosses out terms such as “mark-to-market accounting” or explains how the Enron scandal can be viewed in a continuum of American capitalism’s boom-and-bust cycles. As her words spill out with enthusiasm, it’s easy to see why Capital Stage co-founder and artistic director Stephanie Gularte hired her.

Tucker’s love and talent for research, Gularte says, is impressive.

“She brings another perspective to the table, as well,” Gularte adds. “She comes from an academic background, and bringing that component into the mix makes the work we do richer.”

Tucker started intermittently stepping in to fill the role of dramaturge for Capital Stage in 2007, when the company was still located in a tiny, cramped space on the Delta King riverboat. Then, in 2011, when the theater company moved to its current Midtown location, Gularte created a full-time position for Tucker—both for how she’s able to quickly access a wide range of information, and because, simply put, she’s “smart as a whip.”

“We feel so lucky to have her,” Gularte says. “It’s kind of a match made in heaven.”

Buck Busfield, co-founder of the B Street Theatre feels the same about his recently hired dramaturge, Lauren Sullivan, whom he recruited “because of need and [because of] her talent.”

In contrast to Tucker, Sullivan is at the beginning of her career—fresh out of college. A native Southerner, she attended Furman University in Greenville, S.C., with a double major in theater arts and German studies. During her summers, she interned at two Atlanta theater companies.

Want to talk Shakespearean wrestling? Lauren Sullivan’s got the dish.

photo by Shoka

Sullivan, who praises Atlanta’s “huge, diverse theater scene,” says she was stimulated by the collaborative process she found there and sought out other opportunities in theater upon her return to college.

Then, in the fall of her junior year, she answered a key question for a professor who was directing a production of William Shakespeare’s As You Like It. The play contained an odd wrestling scene—the only instance of wrestling in all of Shakespeare’s works—and the director was unsure of how to stage it.

Through her research, Sullivan says she dug up some interesting facts on the subject.

“I found out at these certain times of year at these certain festivals, they had wrestling matches,” she says.

This feat persuaded the director to bring Sullivan on as the production’s dramaturge.

The summer after Sullivan’s college graduation, she worked at one of the Atlanta theater companies where she’d interned. That led to a chance meeting in a hotel lobby with Busfield during the 2011 Southeastern Theatre Conference. That, in turn, led to an interview in which the pair discussed the B Street Theatre, its mission and how a dramaturge could help.

The conversation resulted in an internship for Sullivan. Although the company had previously employed a literary manager, it was then working without one and had never used a dramaturge.

Sullivan moved to Sacramento to intern at B Street Theatre during the 2011-2012 season and was recently hired on as the theater company’s literary manager and dramaturge.

Now, she’s jumped into the research for the new season. Her current project requires gathering information for B Street’s staging of the John Logan play Red, a two-person production about a period in abstract-expressionist painter Mark Rothko’s life, during which he worked on two large-scale murals for the lobby of New York City’s Seagram Building.

“What I’m trying to understand at the moment is Mark Rothko’s evolution as an artist and wanting to know how at different points leading up to this period how he saw himself, and what he was trying to do with his art,” Sullivan says. “I want to understand his relationship to people like Jackson Pollock.”

Once finished, Sullivan will take her information to the director and actors and sit in on preliminary meetings and rehearsals to offer input.

For Red, she says, the goal is to flesh out Rothko’s character, in order to render this difficult, prickly character more sympathetic to the audience.

Overall, she adds, her work at B Street, “is not necessarily a streamlined process.”

“It’s kind of different every time,” she says. “There’s a lot about my job that I’ve learned by doing it.”

As such, her role is still evolving, as is Tucker’s.

In fact, Tucker admits to having had to check out books on how to be a dramaturge after she received the request from Gularte to do so for her first play for Capital Stage.

While dramaturgy has a history dating to 18th-century Germany, Tucker says, in the United States, it’s a relatively new position; first filled by Martin Esslin in the late ’70s (who is best known for coining “Theatre of the Absurd”) for San Francisco’s Magic Theater. The first American conference on the subject was held in 1986.

These two women, one expert and one developing talent, are still settling into and defining the place of a dramaturge in their respective theater companies—a clear sign of the Sacramento theater scene’s ever-increasing sophistication.