Amy Wegener ’94 is the Literary Director at Actors Theatre of Louisville, a professional theatre company in Louisville, Kentucky that is nationally known for its annual slate of world premieres, the Humana Festival of New American Plays. She heads the literary department at Actors Theatre, which includes overseeing production dramaturgy for shows throughout the season, coordinating the reading and selection process for the Humana Festival, and working in myriad ways—both in and out of the rehearsal room—to support the development of new work. In 15 seasons with Actors Theatre and four as literary manager at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, she has worked as a dramaturg on more than 100 workshops and productions of new plays and classics, and has co-edited 15 published anthologies.
What was your earliest exposure to the arts?
My parents were both English teachers, so the Wegener kids always had access to tons of books around the house and people who would read to us, and an environment where storytelling and exercising the imagination were valued pursuits. I grew up in Omaha, Nebraska in a family that really encouraged exploring the arts—among my siblings are a visual artist, an architect, an art director in advertising, and a design critic—but because my folks were juggling six kids and financial priorities, we didn’t get to attend live performance much. I tagged along with friends on the occasional trip to the Omaha Community Playhouse, a big force in the city’s arts landscape, and as a child I saw plays through school trips to the Emmy Gifford Children’s Theater, now called the The Rose Theater. But I never became involved or considered theatre as a profession until I got to Princeton. Princeton opened up that whole world for me.
Share some highlights of your experiences studying or participating in the arts at Princeton.
I was always someone who read a lot. I loved getting lost in novels, and it was pretty clear from early on that I was going to be an English major. So my initial gateway into the theatre was through reading dramatic literature. I remember taking amazing courses at Princeton on modern and contemporary drama, on Shakespeare, and on many of his equally wild but seldom-produced contemporaries—all of which really captured my imagination. And then my entry point as a participant was through performance: taking acting courses, playing small parts in plays on campus here and there, getting involved with Theatre Intime. But I also signed up for just about every theatre class I could get my hands on at 185 Nassau—playwriting, directing—and worked backstage on several shows to earn my certificate, which provided invaluable insight into all that goes on behind the scenes. I am so grateful for Princeton’s openness to students just diving in and trying things; even though I was a relative theatre newbie, I got to do so much. The classes were small, the professors were working artists from the field and excellent teachers, and the program felt very inviting.
My senior year, I teamed up with some classmates and we all worked on a creative senior thesis together. It was a new play called Found Object (which loosely took inspiration from King Lear, as well as from court transcripts concerning an actual event in the news), written by Bill Watson-Canning and directed by Greg Smalley, both fellow P94’s. I was one of several actors from the senior class. At the time I had become fascinated by different theories of what the actor actually does—Grotowski, Stanislavski—and I read and studied them alongside the show’s development. Though I’m pretty sure I had no idea what I was actually doing, that fun and challenging early experience collaborating on a new play probably helped set the stage for things to come.
Tell us about your key arts advisors and mentors at Princeton, and describe those relationships.
Michael Cadden was my thesis advisor, and I can’t say enough about how important his teaching, encouragement and guidance were during my Princeton years, and in ways that I’ve carried with me far beyond. He was also the person who first explained to me what a dramaturg does, and suggested that it would be a profession that combines a love of reading and research with collaborative rehearsal work. I’ll always be thankful that he detected that potential affinity, and took the time to help me figure out what might be next. Looking back, I think something clicked for me during a moment when I was sitting in his contemporary drama class. I remember that course, in particular, as one where I got to read a lot of plays (like Angels in America, and several by Caryl Churchill) that blew my 19-year-old mind. Michael was describing a rehearsal of a famous play in which something happened that fundamentally altered the writing of a scene. Hearing him talk about the play as a living, evolving thing as well as a product of its historical moment—something that seems so simple to me now—was at the time such an eye-opening idea. Every classic had once been a new play—and how cool would it be to witness the discoveries in that room? The challenge of that course, Michael’s brilliance as a lecturer, and the way he examined the worlds of plays made me want to see if I could learn how to think like that.
I also have such good memories of courses taught by Melissa Smith, Mac Wellman, Elinor Renfield, and Roger Babb. The program gives students access to a lot of fantastic visiting artist-professors who are thinking about theatre-making in diverse ways. I realize now, perhaps even more than I did then, what an opportunity it was to be in their classrooms. And I also have to mention that so many terrific courses in the English Department provided the foundation for me to become a more insightful reader of texts. I remember wonderful seminars with Esther Schor and James Richardson, and Shakespeare and the Representation of Gender with Susan Wolfson…among many others.
How did your study of the arts complement or enhance your area of concentration?
I majored in English and chose the concentration in theatre, so my studies at McCosh Hall and 185 Nassau fed one another in many ways. Having the chance to closely read Shakespeare with a leading scholar in one class and explore performing a scene in another, or to read seminal 20th century plays and then study with an acclaimed avant-garde playwright, you can’t help but think of theatre as a form that keeps reinventing itself, and of plays as living texts—both traces of past performances and blueprints for future new ones. Being able to bounce between rigorous scholarship and theatrical practice kept my head in both worlds, in a way that probably helped wire my brain for the dramaturgical life I lead today. And while I gravitated toward dramatic literature, I also took a lot of incredible courses reading fiction, poetry, history, and philosophy. All of that made me a more thoughtful reader and writer, and set me on the path to becoming someone who could look at a work from many angles—its social context, what may have been groundbreaking in its style or structure. I also think that for this careful introvert, participating in theatre helped me begin to trust my own voice a little more, and to risk looking foolish. Hopefully it made me an incrementally braver and wiser communicator across the board.
Tell us about your work and life experiences since graduating from Princeton.
Right after Princeton, I moved to Chicago for graduate school at Northwestern University. At 21, I was still trying to figure out a game plan, and I suppose the structure of a program where I could deepen my knowledge of theatre, without being adrift, appealed to me. Several years focused on research, writing, and teaching toughened me up, but I soon realized that I really missed having a hand in the process of making theatre. So I finished my master’s degree, eschewing the doctorate route, and started looking for opportunities. I was waiting tables, volunteering to read script submissions, and doing some freelance writing. And then, a friend forwarded me an opening for an entry-level dream job in the literary office at Actors Theatre of Louisville. It seemed like an insane longshot, but I threw my hat in the ring, and the serendipity of that 1997 decision has pretty much led to a whole career in the arts, many wonderful friendships, and a job that is never, ever boring.
I really cut my teeth as a dramaturg during my first several seasons at Actors Theatre. Thanks to a generous mentor there and some good early forays working with gracious Humana Festival playwrights and directors, I began to learn how to be an incisive and supportive sounding board in a rehearsal process. Before long, it dawned on me that I’d landed in a great place to have a hand in many rewarding projects—dramaturgy for both classics and new work, scouting scripts for a national festival that fully produces six new plays each year, doing a whole lot of writing and editing, and training bright young dramaturgs through the theatre’s Apprentice/Intern Company. In 2003, a new adventure came along, and I left Actors Theatre for four years to go work as the literary manager at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. At that time the Guthrie was moving into its new building and was expanding its initiatives with new plays, and while living up north I was introduced to new perspectives, many local playwrights, and the ecology of a different, thriving theatre scene.
But then in 2007 a position opened up back in Louisville, and going home just felt right. I’ve been heading the literary department at Actors Theatre for five years now, and it’s very consuming but really rewarding work to advocate for playwrights and to help curate and develop plays that audiences from all over the country will see. It’s a job where you never stop learning (and feeling humbled by all the things you don’t know). As a Midwesterner, I’m also glad to have built a career in regional theatre, out in the middle of the country; it’s palpable how much Actors Theatre means to this city, and exists to serve and encourage dialogue in the community.
How did your study of the arts at Princeton inform your professional life today?
Princeton definitely set me on this path. I hadn’t seen much theatre while growing up in Nebraska, much less participated. So landing at a university with such strong and inclusive arts opportunities, alongside well-balanced coursework across the humanities, was hugely influential. What was also so great about the Program in Theater and Dance, studying with all of these working artists, was that it suddenly seemed possible to have a life in the arts. The program brought in legendary figures to talk with us about their work and careers, too—I remember visits from Suzan-Lori Parks, Edward Albee, Athol Fugard, and Joseph Chaikin. Being a train ride away from New York City and next door to the McCarter Theatre opened my eyes as well; I saw and wrote about performances that stretched my idea of what theatre could be. I’ll never forget venturing into New York to see the premiere of Suzan-Lori Parks’ The America Play at The Public Theater, and then grappling with writing a review for Michael Cadden’s theatre criticism seminar. I’d never seen anything like Parks’ work, and having to find the language to talk about a groundbreaking piece, on its own terms, is such an important facet of what dramaturgs must do.
Today, my work integrates so many discoveries that began at Princeton. I’m fortunate to witness new plays taking shape, and to help support that process. And every process is different, depending on what’s needed from me as a sounding board. For example, this past season I was the dramaturg for two Humana Festival world premieres simultaneously: Charles Mee’s The Glory of the World and Erin Courtney’s I Will Be Gone. Erin’s funny and moving play, about friends in a small town dealing awkwardly with grief in the shadow of a nearby ghost town, was one that I’d fallen in love with while reading plays during festival selection. So it was wonderful to be in conversation with her as she revised the script over the course of a workshop and full rehearsal period. The Glory of the World was a very different project, but equally thrilling. Commissioned by Actors Theatre, its jumping-off point was the 100th birthday of Thomas Merton, a Kentucky-based Trappist monk and one of the leading spiritual thinkers of the last century. The play isn’t a biography, but rather a response to Merton—a raucous party that explores his many contradictions and wrestles with big questions about happiness, love, heaven, and more. Chuck was not with us during rehearsals (he preferred to stay away, not joining us until previews) and so my role was primarily to support the director, Les Waters, as another pair of eyes in rehearsal. There’s a ton of dance and spectacle in the piece, and both silence and noise, and a gigantic fight—and so the physical storytelling was being built in the rehearsal room. It was fun to work on a show with a moment-to-moment logic so entirely its own.
What piece of knowledge or advice would you share with your 18-year-old self?
Oh gosh, there’s so much advice I would dispense to my much younger self, if I could! But I’ll just say this: while they’re in the thick of it, I’m not sure undergraduate students always realize how remarkable it is to have four years that are all about their own agency and curiosity and learning new things, and that the world may never again be constructed, to this degree, for their own enrichment. I think that at age 18 I was acutely aware that this education was an incredible privilege—I didn’t take Princeton for granted in the least—but I might tell my serious former self to slow down just a little, to breathe and savor it all more in the moment. I remember joking with some friends at graduation that we would have gladly stayed at Princeton another year. I wasn’t kidding—it was amazing, and it went so fast.