Lessing Award Acceptance Speech: Liz Engelman

Kansas City, Missouri, June 29, 2024
By Liz Engelman

Liz EngelmanThank you.


Mark, it’s always impossible to follow you — and yet it’s an honor to do so! 

But the only word I can say is Wow.

For those of you who have read Anne Lamott’s inspiring book Help, Thanks, Wow you’ll know that I just jumped right to the end. How completely undramaturgical of me! 

Yet still, Wow. 

Ok, now I’ll start at the very beginning, a very good place to start.

With Help.

One can’t be a dramaturg in a vacuum — it’s inherently relational. So, for me, was the path to dramaturgy. Help appeared to me in the guise of mentorship, and this has taken so many forms. The greatest gift that we can give is to see someone for who they are at their core — even when they might not know it yet themselves. If it hadn’t been for my teacher Ann Ciccolella, who told me in my 10th grade Madness in Literature class that I should be a dramaturg (what a fitting class to discover this in!), and for my college Professor Tori Haring-Smith, who suggested I create an Independent Study in Dramaturgy who knows if I’d be standing here today. (Though I sure hope I would be!)

Help came along when I didn’t even know what questions to ask, or how to ask the questions, and this help was the true gift of mentorship – I’m grateful that our friendships remain strong to this day.

The mentorship I’ve received from those who didn’t know they were helping has also been profound. A look at the list of the past Lessing Award winners whose company I am now honored and humbled to share, is for me, an education in the embodiment of dramaturgy:

Anne Cattaneo, who proved what was possible by bringing people together around shared passions, questions, and vision. This was foundational.

Arthur Ballet, a fellow Minnesotan, I might add, who wanted to – and did - make a marked difference in both the university classrooms and theater rehearsal rooms - and nationally outside of those rooms as well.

Miki Lupu, our dear resident intellectual provocateur, who loved a great conversation - and an even better argument - and invested in Dramaturgy as a process more than the dramaturg as a person. (Who also chose Minnesota as his home – just saying.)

And Mark -- who exudes eternal curiosity, who visions and heads towards expansive horizons, who creates worlds of possibility, engages in ever deeper excavation, who harnesses endless passion and power and optimism for the evolution of our field with a ferocity of faith.

Mark, it’s somehow fitting and full circle that my current home is literally down the street from where you used to live in Minneapolis. It is figuratively too.

And DD Kugler, our consummate reminder of the importance of rigor and ritual, who continually constructs his own path even and especially within systems and institutions, who always challenges the prevailing norms by doing the work he believes in in his deeply DD way.

And Morgan Jenness, who even when working inside a theatre was always working for the capital A American Theatre, who inscribed the role of dramaturg as activist, citizen, and advocate, who visions beyond what is here and now, demands a better world, and carves a way closer to it.

And Geoff Proehl, whose passionate compassion, gentle rigor, stubborn obsessions, whose poetic spirit and spirited poetry, whose emotional depths and psychological insights into the beautiful human mess of it all, gives unique purpose to our landscape, dramaturgical and beyond. This – he- brought me into the organization and has kept me here.

And Bob White, whose impish wit, feisty challenges, intense commitment, and generational stewardship in his many hats as dramaturg, director, and Artistic Director in Canada and across borders gives me faith in the importance of longevity.

And Brian Quirt - I’ve said so much about - and to - you over these years. Your consistent care and commitment, your die-hard dedication, unique process (or as you call it, pro-cess), your innate genetic wiring for hosting and collaboration, your creative innovative core, and your constant colleague and comradeship inspire me on the daily.

These esteemed predecessors taught me the great importance of such traits which I hold dear:

They were often the firsts of their kind. Their uniquely tuned internal compasses set them each on paths that made something from nothing, that turned the invisible in which we all traffic brightly and brilliantly visible. Each cut their own cloth and wore it proudly as their whole self, and those whole selves birthed organizations, initiated programs, wrote books, stewarded generations, found new avenues of funding, forged new dramaturgical opportunities and pathways. As humans they all share their own brand of keen intellect, wit, and charisma. 

Each teach me to learn, love and laugh.

Those of you who know me well know that my favorite line from movie history comes from Monty Python’s Life of Brian. (Not Quirt, the other one.) In it, some guy (I can’t remember it well enough, and, as a dramaturg, I should), is standing at the window, looking out at the rabble crowd who is screaming “We’re all individuals! We’re all individuals!” Then one single lonely guy in the back raises his hand and shouts “I’m not!”

At least that’s how I remember it. I love this line so much. I love those who dare to be different. Who decry and defy and depart from the group. Who carve their own swathes. Who walk to their own drum beat because it’s virtually impossible not to. They can’t not. And so they do.

I also love the line because it’s funny.

So now, Thanks. And by thanks, I mean deep gratitude. And by gratitude, I mean the love and appreciation I have for the friends and colleagues in my life who have shown up in so many ways across the miles and decades. I do not take any of this for granted.

So, thank you all. I’m here because you’re here. I’m here because 32 years ago at my first LMDA conference, having just graduated college and wondering what my future might look like, I walked into a room at the Seattle Repertory Theatre and was welcomed with the same generosity and openness of spirit by the man who just introduced me – Mark Bly. And, also, Geoff Proehl, and the late great Lee Devin. I’m here because LMDA was here, because Anne Cattaneo and Morgan Jenness and David Copelin and others were once in a smaller room envisioning a larger one.

I’m here because they had a vision, and behind this vision, the passion, to create an organizational and foundational path that led to some of the longest and strongest friendships of my career.

In my 32 years with LMDA, I’ve been a student member, then represented institutional theatres, and later freelancers, and later later universities; I’ve planned conferences, served as Regional Vice-President, served on past Presidents’ Executive Committees, served as a Board Member, Board Chair, President, Past-President, then Board Member again. Needless to say, there is not enough time in this evening to thank every one of my friends and colleagues for all that we accomplished together on this path. Remember, we do not do this job in a vacuum - and I’m so honored that we are all orbiting the same solar system. 

My thanks also to all of you for helping to create, define, and evolve what it means to walk in this world as a dramaturg. A special shout-out goes to LMDA past-President Michele Volansky, my 1992 fellow intern and cubicle-mate at Actors Theatre of Louisville, to whom I first looked desperately for help when asked to make coffee for the rehearsal room. She saved my life and we’ve been best pals ever since. And Cindy SoRelle – thank you for your literal Lifetime Achievement. You are here, tonight. Alive. Now THAT is an open heart. Your support, encouragement, belief, and faith in me and this field has meant the world.

Now, let’s get to Wow. Wow for me is awe, it’s joy; it’s the awe and joy that gets unlocked in an ah-ha moment of understanding. It’s the intake of breath, the pause at something that shocks and surprises in its inherent beautiful truth. It’s the subsequent exhale of breath, which brings me back into the flow of the present moment with renewed energy and gratitude.


This moment, this honor of the Lessing Award was a shock and a surprise. When our fearless leader Lynde (another now-Minnesotan, for anyone counting!) lured me onto a Zoom call to speak to a small group of dramaturgs, I understood her to be asking me to speak to a small group of emerging dramaturgs. She asked if I had a free 30 minutes and I gently gave the note “shouldn’t it be an hour?” – I mean, there is so much to talk about when we talk about dramaturgy! 

Little did I anticipate the real reason for the call. When it was shared with me, I inhaled - shock and awe. 

I exhaled gratitude. 

As dramaturgs we talk often about the line we walk, this tension between visibility and invisibility. I struggle with this line constantly as a human. It’s easier for me to work with a playwright to find, tell, and own their story than it is to share mine. I will put the cheer in cheerleading for my students, colleagues, and collaborators and will leave my own horn at home. At the same time, I am innately, perhaps stubbornly, driven to follow my own heartbeat and march to my own drum, which has taken me outside of rehearsal rooms and landed me under trees, which has traded my office for a dock, and designated the paddleboard as my vehicle for giving notes. For me, the most important gift we can give ourselves – and by ripple effect, others -- is to create the circumstances in which to live the best version of ourselves. We do this for our collaborators; we guide, challenge, coach, and mentor them towards their fullest self-expressions. So, dramaturg, turg thyself.

For me, this looked like a Fish Camp, Tofte Lake Center at Norm’s Fish Camp, to be exact, where for 16 years now up near the Boundary Waters of Minnesota, I’ve created an environment where dramaturgy is three dimensional – it is process and person, and purpose - where both it and I can be inherently curious, forever playful, innately holistic, ever-caring, scrappily inspiring – an enthusiastic deliverer of the WOW.

And now, back to Thanks. I am honored and humbled to receive this Lessing Award tonight, to continue the legacy of our OG Dramaturg, a fellow Aquarian, born 295 years and 5 days before me. (Or, as Harvey said yesterday, “That German Guy.”)

Liz is the founder and director of Tofte Lake Center at Norm’s Fish Camp, an interdisciplinary creative retreat center adjacent to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in Northern Minnesota. Liz moved back to Minneapolis from Austin, TX, where she taught in the Playwriting/Directing Area at UT Austin. Liz has served as the Alumnae Relations Coordinator at Hedgebrook, a retreat for women writers on Whidbey Island, as Resident Dramaturg at Mixed Blood Theatre, as the Literary Director of the McCarter Theatre, the Director of New Play Development at ACT Theatre in Seattle, Washington, Literary Manager/Dramaturg at Seattle’s Intiman Theatre, and as Assistant Literary Manager at Actors Theatre of Louisville.

Liz has worked on the development of new plays across the country and abroad, including The Playwrights’ Center in Minneapolis, Bay Area Playwrights Festival, ASK Theatre Projects, New York Theatre Workshop, the O’Neill Playwrights Conference, South Coast Rep, Denver Center, and Florida Stage. She has directed new plays at The Illusion Theatre, Mixed Blood Theatre, The Playwrights' Center in Minneapolis, and Carleton College. Liz has been a guest at Washington University in St. Louis, the University of Puget Sound, Cornish College of the Arts, and has taught playwriting at Freehold Studio Theatre Lab and The Playwrights' Center.

Liz studied dramaturgy and new play development at Brown and Columbia universities, where she received her BA and MFA in theatre and dramaturgy, respectively. Liz is the co-editor with Michael Bigelow Dixon of several collections of plays, and a book on playwriting exercises; two volumes of monologues with Tori Haring-Smith; and a collection of Hedgebrook plays with Christine Sumption. She has written articles published in Theatre Topics and Theatre Forum.

Liz has served as President, Board Chair Board Member of LMDA, Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas. She is on the board of the National New Play Network, and member of the National Theatre Conference.

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