Inside the Broadway Community Project: Hadestown's Dramaturg on Helping Heal the World Through Theatrical Puzzle-Solving and Research

Broadway Community Project   Inside the Broadway Community Project: Hadestown's Dramaturg on Helping Heal the World Through Theatrical Puzzle-Solving and Research
 
If you incessantly ask "But why?" like a child, there's a theatre job for you, says Ken Cerniglia.
Ken Cerniglia and Anaïs Mitchell
Ken Cerniglia and Anaïs Mitchell

The arts and culture industries remain largely at a standstill in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, affecting millions of workers in an already delicate ecosystem. The Broadway Community Project, from industry veterans Greg Schaffert, Tiffani Gavin, Situation Interactive, and Playbill, was developed to shed light on the myriad fields and roles that go into making the curtain rise.

In this new series, we shine a spotlight on the faces you may not see on stage, but are nevertheless critical in creating and maintaining a theatre production. These are just some of the arts workers who have put their stamp on an industry that contributed over $14.7 billion to the New York economy in 2019 and $877 billion in value added nationally; these are just some of the arts workers in need of relief legislation and a recovery plan.

READ: Check Out the New Tool That Maps the Expansive, Evolving Broadway Ecosystem

Learn about dramaturgs and more through the Broadway Community Project on Playbill
Learn about dramaturgs and more through the Broadway Community Project on Playbill

Today, meet Ken Cerniglia, a dramaturg whose career has seen him work with the creative teams of the Tony-winning Hadestown, such Disney Theatrical productions as Tarzan, Newsies, Peter and the Starcatcher, and The Lion King, the new musical Atlantis, and more. Describing his role as an “in-house editor,” Cerniglia encourages a deeper and more accurate understanding of a production through text- and research-based historical and dramatic context. He is a former president of Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas. Learn more about him and his line of work below.

Click here to explore the Broadway Community Project map in full (or submit yourself to be added).

Name: Ken Cerniglia
Title: Dramaturg

What is a typical day like for you on the job?
There is no typical day, but each involves some combination of news consumption, digging into research questions, seeing a show (even if online), reading or analyzing a new play, connecting live with a collaborator or student, and writing or editing something.

What’s the most challenging aspect of your job? The most rewarding?
The most challenging aspect of my job is that if done well, it's invisible to the audience. (And the perennial question: "So what exactly did you do...?") But this also turns out to be the most rewarding aspect: the satisfaction of my secret power to earn collaborators' trust, solve problems, and help a play achieve its best self.

What are three skills a dramaturg must possess?
Curiosity, patience, and puzzle-obsession!

Did you have a mentor while developing your career?
In grad school at Catholic University, Dr. Gitta Honegger instilled old-school Austrian rigor and restraint into my budding dramaturgical practice. Literary manager Cathy Madison fostered my love of a literary office at Arena Stage, where I got my production dramaturgy chops as a (paid!) intern. And when I got to Disney Theatrical in 2003, Greg Gunter and Rick Elice took me under their ample wings and taught me everything I needed to know about musical dramaturgy and welcoming a wide audience to the wonder of theatre. I hope to pass on even a fraction of these mentors' wisdom and generosity to the next generation of 'turgs.

What's your professional life like during the coronavirus pandemic?
I'm certainly grounded at home (and cooking!) more than I used to be, running around town between meetings, readings, rehearsals, and shows. Thanks to technology, I've been able to keep a good armful of projects moving forward and connect to other artists' work, no longer bound by geography.

The cast of <i>Peter and the Starcatcher </i>
The cast of Peter and the Starcatcher Joan Marcus

Do you have a favorite memory from your time on the job?
One of my favorites was when Newsies and Peter and the Starcatcher—which I had worked on for years never expecting Broadway—both ended up there in the spring of 2012. One night, I found myself literally running from the Nederlander Theatre on 41st Street—after the Katherine understudy knocked "Watch What Happens" out of the park in the first act of a 7 PM preview—to the Brooks Atkinson on 47th Street, just as the house lights went down and 12 brave actors entered in a clump at 8:07 to begin Rick Elice, Roger Rees, and Alex Timbers' theatrical take on the origin story of the Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up. Dodging tourists on the sidewalk, I remembered yelling incredulously to my husband, "This is my life?!" Thank Dionysus for staggered curtains! And for granting this California kid opportunities way beyond his wildest dreams, right here in the heart of New York City. May many, many other dreams come true on Broadway very soon.

How would you like to see your field evolve in the future?
I'd love to see dramaturgs become integral collaborators on every play, project, initiative, and organization, on Broadway and beyond.

What advice do you have for those aspiring to work in your field?
There's a welcoming home in professional theatre for the grown-up version of that sincere but annoying kid who incessantly asks, "Why? But why? WHY?" Read and see as many plays as you can. Be curious about everything. One incisive question is worth a dozen valid "notes." Make progress with love.

What does it mean to you to be a part of the theatre community?
Theatre creates community through the shared belief that each time artists gather to share a story with a live audience, our world heals, just a little bit. In this theatre community, we have each other's backs, on stage and off.

How can people learn more about your job?
Check out Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas!

Hear from more members of the Broadway Community Project here.

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