Art of Work

Some people seem to have been born to their vocation. You’ve probably observed them at work. Whether they are baking pizza, directing traffic, singing an aria, or anything else, they are creating art, drawing you in with their unique, personal style and obvious joy in their work. I recently had the pleasure of getting to know one of these fortunate people, Jenna, a teacher, historian, and dramaturg. Are you asking, as I did, “what’s a dramaturg?” Please hold that question for just a few paragraphs while I introduce you to our heroine.

Jenna knew in the sixth grade that she wanted to get a Ph.D. and teach. She grew up in the Twin Cities, but frequent travels and outings with her mother filled her childhood and teenage years with museums, theatre, historical sites, opera, and even a chance to live in Europe for a few months. When she talks about the theatre or history or a book she loves, her smile lights the room, and her excitement is palpable.

The day arrived when Jenna had to decide on a college major. She considered theatre, history, and art history, but only a theatre degree would require in-depth knowledge of all three. So a theatre major she became, and in 2010, she earned her Ph.D. in Drama at Tufts University in Boston. Now, ready and eager to share her learning and enthusiasm with students, all she needs is a classroom.

I could present you with a laundry list of all of Jenna’s accomplishments, but no doubt you would rather hear about what a dramaturg does. So let me ask you to pretend you have read the laundry list and are as impressed by it as I am.

Imagine if you will, watching the movie Titanic. You are so swept up in the story that you don’t notice the carpets on the floor or the bottles of wine or any of the other touches that create the environment that brings history alive. Not all movies use a dramaturg, but if one was involved, that is most likely the person who gave history its first breath of life. She would have read historical accounts of the Titanic and gathered thousands of photographs, survivors’ testimonies, newspaper articles, ship manifests, and other primary research sources. She would have known there were 37,000 bottles of wine and 40 tons of potatoes on board. She would have been depended upon to provide the producers, writers, director, and set and costume designers with all the information needed for them to imbue the film with authenticity. So you could immerse yourself in the story with no thoughts of dramaturges or ship manifests.

Even this simplified example makes it clear that teaching or practicing dramaturgy requires depth in history as well as all aspects of theatre. Before the recession, there were enough teaching openings to maintain a balance of supply and demand. Now however, education budget cuts have led colleges to eliminate classes, and in some cases, entire programs, resulting in fewer openings and a substantial increase in the number of applicants, including many with years of experience. New Ph.D.’s in any of the liberal arts now search an average of two to five years to find a full-time teaching position for anything more promising than a short-term contract.

You know Jenna well enough by now to know she has a Plan B, and probably C. In addition to liberal arts colleges, Jenna has applied to community colleges, theatre and film companies, and private schools. To teach public school in Minnesota, she would need to take several Education courses to qualify for teaching certification. Clearly, Jenna has quite enough college debt already!

In the meantime, she is grateful to have landed a part-time job two years ago serving up espresso at a popular chain. That position took her two months of persistent calling and follow-up to land. You may be amazed, as I was, to learn how competitive the hunt is for “barista” jobs.

For now, Jenna is living at home with her wonderfully supportive parents. She remains optimistic by using this time to grow. She has volunteered on many theatre productions, continued to lecture and publish, and has been able to spend time with friends and try out new recipes on her family. Many of her 3,472 “or so” books are in storage until she has her own place, but she continues to add to her extensive, and eclectic, collection of World War I post cards and memorabilia.

If you are a parent, Jenna is the kind of guide you want teaching your children. If you are a student, she is the sort of professor you imagine having, and hopefully, before you graduate, you will have an opportunity to learn from Jenna and experience her passion for theatre, and art, and history. Perhaps she will even lend you a book, or teach you how to make a perfect latte.

If you would like to contact Jenna, you can visit her LinkedIn listing or let me know by completing the contact form on this website. 

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