Dramaturg Michael Lupu passed away on September 5, 2019 at the age of 89.
To limit the definition of dramaturgy to research and gathering of relevant background information is to leave out its true vitality and creativity. Dramaturgy functions as a sort of monitoring device meant to keep the process on course. Whether a barely audible yet persistent whisper or a vocally assertive and persuasive argument, dramaturgy does not emanate exclusively from one individual who qualifies as dramaturg. Rather, it forms the underpinning of all intuitive or deliberate choices, thoughts, debates, and nurtures the passionate search for artistic truth on stage.
-- Michael Lupu, “There Is a Clamor in the Air,” Dramaturgy in American Theater, 1997.
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You can read Michael's acceptance speech of the 2006 Lessing Award for Career Achievement (along with Liviu Ciulei's tribute to him on that occasion) here.
* * *Michael radiated amusement, warmth, playfulness, and kindness. All of this in no way undercut the depth, breadth and height of his intellect. He was both professional and prankster, and that combination was unexpected and it was dynamite. It made working with him exciting and fun. I was deeply touched by his mentoring — though he would never call it that— of my dear Geoff Proehl. It is simply indecent that he is longer among us. But that exuberance has had a profound and lasting influence on the development of LMDA, on our understanding of who the dramaturg is and what dramaturgy is. Michael Lupu, Geoff Proehl and I may have collaboratively edited a six-hundred-page book to answer the question, “What is dramaturgy?” but in his pithy yet rigorous essay, which I just reread, Michael, resisting all the commonplace characterizations — whether pragmatic or esoteric – saw dramaturgy as vitality. How could it be otherwise? Michael made the life of the mind earthy and sociable and, at its best – defiant, unruly, risqué. He was our zeitgeist. He will be missed, but more to the point he will be remembered. Flights of angels, old friend . . .
-- Susan Jonas
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When Jon Jory directed Ibsen's Peer Gynt at Actors Theatre of Louisville, he decided he wanted two dramaturgs instead of just one (or none). I'm grateful that he asked me to join Michael Lupu in what became a lively and provocative conversation both before and in rehearsals. "Miki" was urbane, with a wicked sense of humor, as you might expect from a Romanian theatre person whose colleagues and countrymen Liviu Ciulei and Lucian Pintilie contributed so much to our American experience. Miki may not have been as publicly visible as those two, but his generous spirit and his vast knowledge contributed a lot to the Guthrie, Jory's Peer Gynt, and my own life.
-- David Copelin
Miki was a kind and lovely man and a brilliant force in our field. His insights on dramaturgy had such an impact on my thinking about the profession. For example, as he wrote in Dramaturgy in American Theater: "Simply stated, dramaturgs . . . are not necessarily indispensable. There is sufficient proof that bringing a play to life on stage can happen without the involvement of a dramaturg. For all practical purposes, though, the production will fail or will not happen at all if dramaturgy is blatantly ignored." That hit me like a ton of bricks, the single best rationale for our sometimes-beleaguered profession I’d ever heard. True, not all productions have a dramaturg, but all productions must have dramaturgy. Therefore, it stands to reason that, ideally, if you can, hire a dramaturg!
-- Richard Pettengill
Longtime LMDA Geoff Proehl member wrote this, on the occasion of Michael's passing, recalling his introduction to the speakers on the occasion of the third-ever Lessing Award ceremony at LMDA 2006. Geoff prepared for the occasion, but gave his presentation on July 22nd without notes. Here, he recalls his process, and the event itself.
It was my job at the conference banquet to introduce Joe Dowling, who would then present Michael Lupu with the Lessing Award.
I had thought over several days about what to say. The main purpose of my remarks was to briefly explain what the award was and to then get out of the way. I was conscious of not taking too much time to do this, because I knew there would be several speakers that night: Joe Dowling; Paul Draper, who would read a letter from Liviu Ciulei; Michael’s own remarks; the Elliot Hayes Awards; then Liz Engelman and Brian Quirt, LMDA’s outgoing and incoming presidents. I also knew that I easily fall in love with the sound of my own voice — a tendency that I try, usually without success, to control.
What I had to say about the award itself was simple. I could lift indirectly from the press release that Liz had written. I did not have access to a computer and I had not found time to pull this introduction together before I left Tacoma, so I just made some marks on a copy of the press release I had brought along, circling and under-lining:
Tonight, Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas will present the Lessing Award to Michael Lupu. This award, rarely given, recognizes outstanding achievement in the field of dramaturgy and literary management. It honors dramaturgs of unparalleled distinction and vision. There have been only two previous recipients: Anne Cattaneo (1998) and Arthur Ballet (2002). It is my honor to introduce Guthrie Artistic Director, Joe Dowling, who will make our presentation, an appropriate tribute given the long tradition of dramaturgy at this flagship of the regional theater movement. Joe and the Guthrie have also been extremely warm and generous hosts for our conference.
That was all I really needed to say: quick, simple, to the point. But I also wanted to say just a sentence or two more about this occasion than this basic information.
I thought, but rejected one idea that I thought would get a laugh and underscore Michael’s achievements at the same time.
I thought about telling the story of a phone call that woke me at about 6:15 on a trip to Vancouver earlier in the summer. I had sent announcements to some folks about the award, but did not know the correct address in every instance. It seems I had sent a note by mis-take to this older woman that she received by way of her daughter.
I’d listed my cell number in the contact information, so, this woman— I cannot recall her name — decided to call me. She was more than a little distressed. She wanted to know why she was being contacted about the Lessing Award.
My head was not all that clear. I was not ready to try to explain the award or dramaturgy or Michael to a woman who sounded as if she might be dealing with dementia-induced psychosis, when I was barely awake.
At some point, however, I just said to her, ‘Michael Lupu is a Romanian dramaturg. He’s the senior dramaturg at the Guthrie.’
Her response was immediate, ‘I know that, but how did you get my address.
’The crazy lady did not seem at all confused by Lupu, Romanian, the Guthrie, or even dramaturg. It was getting unsolicited mail that disturbed her. I thought this, metaphorically, was a victory for the profession. It was, as if I’d said to her the name of a president or movie star and she replied, ‘I know who Bill Clinton is, but why is he phoning me all the time.’ I took her words as confirmation that the award was well-deserved.
It’s difficult, however, to know how a somewhat wry story will be read, and so I passed on it.
I decided instead to mention another aspect of Michael that anyone who knew him would recognize: the way he went on a walk.
Michael has visited my house on a couple of different occasions. When he stays with us, taking the family dog Tobie for walks around the neighborhood is an important part of the day. I wanted to describe the difference between how Michael would let Tobie walk and how I let Tobie walk.
Michael, for example, is much more careful for Tobie’s interest Thani am. If Tobie wants to stop and smell where other dogs have peed, Michael lets him stop and sniff until he is sniffed out. I let Tobie get little sniff and then, against his will, drag him on down the side-walk. I found in this a little metaphor for ways of being in the world: Michael’s being willing to take time in the moment and be thoughtful of those he is with; my rushing through the moment with little care for others.
But when I started to describe this in my introduction, I could not think of the word I wanted to use to describe just what Tobie was so interested in. I said ‘urine’ instead of ‘piss’ or ‘pee’ and it felt all wrong: too scientific for an informal moment; too specific for right after dinner. I’d hoped someone would laugh or chuckle at this image, a sign that people are with you, but silence was all that comeback at me. I had wanted to be eloquent and now I felt as if I’d stepped in something fouler than piss, pee, or urine.
I could have also told about how Michael liked to let Tobie say ‘hello’ to other dogs. But what Michael tends not to realize is that Tobie does not know how to say ‘hello’ to other dogs. In fact, most other dogs incite in Tobie a shot of adrenalin that leads him to bark ferociously and wildly lunge at the end of his lead, even if Tobie’s wearing a collar designed to pinch his neck if he pulls. The last time we walked Tobie, Michael sought to give Tobie a little meeting time with another friendly looking dog, only to have Michael’s arm nearly pulled out of its socket.
I decided finally just to say that those who knew Michael would know that he was a frustrating person with whom to take walk. I meant, of course, frustrating in a good sense of the word. I’m not sure, but there must be some name for a figure of speech whereby you name a putatively negative quality in another person but really mean it as a compliment.
I actually don’t find it frustrating to walk with Michael at all. To the contrary, I love walking with Michael if I don’t want to get anywhere in a hurry. Michael walks like my mother walked: he notices, stops, and remarks. I remember walking with my mother and my daughter on visits to the home where I grew up in Northwest Oregon. It’s a small town about an hour by car from the Pacific, a town totally sur-rounded by trees. To enter the forest, all we needed to do was walkdown the railroad embankment and within a couple 100 yards, houses had vanished. But before we could get those 100 yards, my mother would have stopped at least three times, pointing out a bit of Queen Anne’s Lace or some spider’s web or the shiny leaf of some Oregon grape.
Michael’s the same way. To walk with him is to be stopped in order to notice. And the quality of that noticing is, as was with my mother, almost always rich, seldom casual or indifferent. Michael might, for example, notice a point made a moment earlier in a conversation about whether theatre was grounded in hearing or seeing. Michael’s passion, his love, for theatre is sharp, ferocious even, so such distinctions are not to be taken lightly. Nor is it all that easy to conclude about any one point that he might notice. If, tiring of the debate, I ever try to switch to Michael’s side, he, in a moment, swings around to another point of view and urges me to examine yet another perspective. Those perspectives, if not on soccer, most often have to do with theatre and theatricality. He cares for these topics more passionately than anyone I know.
Michael is not all joy and light. Sometimes what he notices excites not enthusiasm, but scorn. A billboard might launch an observation on the ways in which our lives — in and outside the theatre — are continually being coaxed into becoming artifacts of consumerism. At the end of such critiques, Michael usually sighs, shakes his head with a wise weariness, in one way or another throwing his hands in the air, frustrated but not at all surprised by our shortcomings.
But most often, at least if the walk is outdoors, Michael notices the natural world surrounding him with great appreciation and a constant sense of sophisticated yet childlike delight. Again, however, his responses are not always genial: Michael’s thoughts on the weather are as finely tuned as his opinions about theatre. He hates, and he is quite articulate about this, drizzly weather. He would much rather it be quite cold and clear than cloudy and moist. Indeed, moist is for Michael the worst of weather words.
The term, however, that I hear most from Michael’s mouth — especially if it’s something like a fine fall day in the Northwest (crisp, cool, clear) — is fantastic. It’s the word a maple tree splashed with red evokes, the word given to a sunset on Puget Sound that shows water and mountains, moving from one variation of blues and greens to another, as the last of a day’s autumn light blasts over the Olympics and toward the Cascades.
It is this ability to help others see and re-see the world (and theatre) with wonder, with passion, with honesty, and most of all, with a profound love, that for me, most characterizes Michael Lupu as artist and person. It was for this reason that I was most happy that LMDA was taking a moment to notice him, even if, for him, all the attention was a little silly.
I tried to say some of this in my remarks, but felt I missed it for the most part.
I would have liked another run at it. I would take a moment to center myself before launching into my paragraph. I would say ‘pee’ instead of ‘urine.’ I would find time to write it all out more carefully before getting on a plane.
But that’s the way it is sometimes, when making an introduction, when making a life, even when the moment is as important as this one was.
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To read more about Michael's contributions to the field, please see: