Earlham grad earns national honors for best dramaturgy in college theatre

Spencer North had two reasons to celebrate when they graduated from Earlham College in May.

Not long after the dust had settled on commencement, North was awarded national honors in the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival for best overall dramaturgy. Awardees were also given an all-expenses paid residency at the Wildwind Performance Lab, a selective summer theater program on the campus of Texas Tech University.

“I was still in my suit that I had worn for graduation,” North recalls of the moment they learned about the award during a Zoom call.

“I burst into tears almost immediately,” they said. “I was so thankful to have been considered for this award and to have been given the opportunity for my work to be recognized.”

Moments of joy and unexpected surprises have become common for North, who graduated with a degree in ancient and classical studies and a budding resume as an up-and-coming theatre artist. In four years, they were cast as a dramaturg in five plays, studied abroad in Greece and performed at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in Scotland as part of a fully funded excursion through Earlham’s EPIC Advantage initiative.

 “I am really grateful to Earlham for the opportunity to have done all of these things. The EPIC Advantage isn’t something that every school has, but part of the reason I also chose Earlham was that it was a smaller school and professors get to know their students on a personal level. We all know each other and that let me pursue the kind of education I wanted. — Spencer North

 “I am really grateful to Earlham for the opportunity to have done all of these things,” North said. “The EPIC Advantage isn’t something that every school has, but part of the reason I also chose Earlham was that it was a smaller school and professors get to know their students on a personal level. We all know each other and that let me pursue the kind of education I wanted.”

No dramaturgy classes, no problem

With an emphasis on history and performance arts, dramaturgy is at the intersection of North’s intellectual pursuits. 

“Dramaturgs have two main jobs: One is to look for historical accuracy,” North explains. “They also work really closely with the director to discern the themes that the director wants to pull for a show.”

Coursework in dramaturgy is uncommon at small, liberal arts colleges, but Earlham’s curriculum and focus on the liberal arts offers the necessary training to get started, said Lynne Perkins Socey, Earlham professor of theatre arts.

“Script analysis and history is in a lot of our courses and other academic programs on campus,” Perkins Socey said. “A dramaturg’s work is all about research and analysis, synthesis, creative problem solving, and the creation of materials that support the artistic team and curate audience experience.”

North’s first foray into dramaturgy was as a sensitivity reader for the College’s production of Company. In preparation for performing at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, North researched steampunk literature for the College’s production of The Misadventures of Martin Hathaway, a story written by a Wayne County, Indiana, author and adapted for stage by Perkins Socey.

Earlham students perform at Scotland’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2019.

North’s most extensive work in dramaturgy came during their senior year on campus during the College’s production of Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play, a dark comedy about the aftermath of an unspecified apocalyptic event as described in an episode of the cartoon series The Simpsons.

North penned a program note and developed a lobby display for the production. Part of their preparation for the production involved research with the Geology Department to better understand the relationship between nuclear reactors and geological events including earthquakes. 

“I used interdisciplinary knowledge in order to make the show more accessible to the audience,” they said. “The lobby display was in phases which helped to set the places and times for the show, and I collaborated with the people who marketed the show to invite audience members to participate in the lobby display.”

Their work resulted in winning three awards at the 53rd annual Region III KCACTF in January. The awards included best program note, outstanding lobby display and overall student dramaturgy.

Regional winners also earned an invitation to virtually attend the KCACTF’s national event, which included opportunities to attend workshops, meet with guest artists, and compete for national recognition.

“Earlham did a pretty great job of preparing me to be a dramaturg but it was cool to watch an actual dramaturg work with different kinds of material and get to ask them questions,” North said. 

Ultimately, North’s resume and extensive experience with college theatre changed the whole trajectory of their summer.

With virtually no time to prepare, North was on a plane flying to Texas to participate in the Wildwind Performance Lab’s summer program. “I got the call and a week later I left,” North said.

Two ‘incredible’ weeks in Texas

The residency at Wildwind Performance Lab was a fitting encore to North’s undergraduate experience on Earlham’s campus. Once they arrived on Texas Tech’s campus, they were assigned housing and given a food stipend and access to workshops and networking experiences for each of the two weeks.

“Each week of the program there is a new play that they bring in,” North explained. “They fly the playwrights in to campus. We read through the scripts of their play and we talked about how things could go better—we actually workshop it!

“In the mornings, they also fly in guest artists to do workshop. It was incredible.”

North also learned a lesson in self-care. 

“At 5:30 p.m. everyone would mentally clock out and we’d hang out,” North said. “There’s such a stereotype of the starving artist in theatre having to work to the bone in order to follow your passion and be successful. 

“It was awesome see it modeled that these people, who are professionals, would stop to relax. I learned that you could also set boundaries and take care of yourself.”

The experience further cemented North’s interest in becoming a professional dramaturg at some point of their career. But for now, North is taking a gap year to work and save money before pursuing a Ph.D. in ancient Greek theatre, perhaps to become a college professor. “I also plan on spending part of my free time interning as a dramaturg at playhouses in Kentucky and other locations,” they said. 

Just don’t put a label on North’s future pursuits.

“I think you set your own boundaries that way and it gets difficult to go beyond that,” they said. “I want to teach but I also want to be a dramaturg. I’ve been thinking about different ways to say I’m a jack-of-all-trades or, ‘I’m a renaissance person,’ because there are so many things I want to do. 

“I really do believe there are ways I can blend my interests to do all these things, but I think trying to label myself really could set me back. I’m excited to see what happens.”

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