Back when I was in grad school for fiction, I felt a bit suspicious of the kids in the playwriting cohort who talked about dramaturgs. For one thing dramaturg with a hard G wasn’t listed in my Oxford English Dictionary. Still, no one ever pronounced it dramaturge. That, and the fact that no one could quite define the word, and no one outside of theatre classes ever uttered it, made it seem like some kind of prank to see who among the prose writers would fall for it.

Fast-forward twenty years, though, and I’m married to a playwright and carving out a new CV category for dramaturgy. My husband’s new play, A Distinct Society, had its public debut Thursday with a staged reading by New York Stage and Film. The play takes place in a library that straddles the Vermont-Quebec border. It’s not a fictional but a real library whose geographic uniqueness has landed it in the international news. That’s because families affected by the Trump Administration’s so-called Muslim ban have used the library to visit one another without having to leave the United States and be denied reentry. Reading about it in the Guardian, I felt like the legal loophole would make for an ideal play setting: all the action is very naturally trapped in one room, so that the space becomes a magnet for the action. So my most valuable work as a dramaturg to date was convincing him to write the play in the first place.

Now that I’m close to being a theatre insider it’s clear to me why no one wanted to admit what dramaturg meant. It’s a far more highfalutin way to say editor. Yes, the work goes beyond the text itself, but so does an editor’s work. The main difference between editing and dramaturgy is that dramaturgs get to have the fun that I always saw the playwrights having together in grad school when I would peer out the window of my lonely writers’ garret. It was as clear to me then as now that the togetherness of collaboration in theatre makes for a more joyful time than sitting alone at a desk for thirteen years, moving words around. Still, I can’t just up and decide to switch to playwriting from fiction any more than I can decide to become a biomedical engineer. Novelist is the card I drew in the game of life. And the good thing is, none of the characters in my novel can quit on me at the last minute due to receiving a higher-paying TV gig.


Praise for A Distinct Society:

“The singular space of the library helps to underscore the disparate motivations and baggage that propel these five very interesting and well-drawn characters through “A Distinct Society.” Manon is a powerful axis for the play to revolve around, and each of the other characters traverses satisfying and surprising arcs. This ultra-specific, small piece manages to explore immigration politics, Canadian history, alienation, identity, and family dysfunction in just a few tightly written scenes. The dialogue is human, often funny, and astutely observed. The ending is a well-earned moment of theatrical magic. I hope to follow this play’s trajectory!” (Nick Malakhow)

“A wonderfully insightful drama that ties together seemingly disparate topics from the Department of Homeland Security to Quebec Separatists to Green Lantern. By doing so it invokes our shared humanity, while at the same time skewering that which we let stand in the way.”  (Victor Lesniewski)

“A powerful journey connected to a magical place. Kareem dissects intersectionality with characters we learn to trust. The unfolding of the plot is worth your time.” (Paul Gabbard)

“A timely piece that is vitally needed more now than ever. Well done with a shattering ending that ensures this will not leave the audience. Bravo!”  (Cheryl Bear)

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John McManus is the author of four books of fiction: Stop Breakin Down, Born on a Train, Bitter Milk, and his latest story collection, Fox Tooth Heart, forthcoming from Sarabande Books in November 2015. He is contributing editor at Fiddleblack, a small press and literary journal dedicated to creative writing with a strong sense of place. His work has appeared in Ploughshares, Tin House, McSweeney’s, American Short Fiction, The Oxford American, The Literary Review, and Harvard Review, among other journals and anthologies. He is the recipient of the Whiting Writers’ Award, the Fellowship of Southern Writers’ New Writing Award, a Creative Capital grant for innovative literature, and a Fulbright Scholar grant for a novel-in-progress involving gay refugees in South Africa. He grew up in East Tennessee and lives in Virginia. His website is: johnmcmanus.net.

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