HFA Alumni Profile: Amy Levinson Millan
Amy Levinson Millan ‘04/’07G, Theater alum as well as Literary Manager and Dramaturg at the Geffen Playhouse, discusses working with Bill Pullman '80G for The Jacksonian and learning Yiddish to complete her dramaturgy project at UMass.
Where are you from? What brought you to UMass?
I was born and raised in Los Angeles but knew that I wanted to head to the East Coast for college. My brother had attended Brandeis and I fell in love with Massachusetts when we visited. I transferred to UMass in my junior year after a year abroad and then had the great good fortune of being invited to stay on in the MFA Dramaturgy program. Truth is, I would have stayed in Massachusetts permanently had I found the right job at the right time.
What did you study at UMass?
I got my BA in theater although when I first arrived at UMass, I didn’t really have a specific area of interest in the theater. I had been stage managing for some time because that was the job that gave me the most time with the scripts. It wasn’t until I took a class with Virginia Scott who was teaching Theater History and Dramaturgy that I discovered an entire field focused on text analysis. I became a truly driven student, maybe for the first time in my life. I couldn’t get enough of studying plays in their historical contexts. I know that sounds incredibly nerdy—an attribute I rather embrace.
As the Literary Manager and Dramaturg at the Geffen Playhouse, could you tell us a little about your path after graduation to this position and what you do?
Having had a difficult time finding a theater job straight out of grad school, I opted to come home to Los Angeles and work in the family business: television. I worked at a big agency for about six months which was pretty horrendous, then at Warner Bros. in series development. About a year after I had moved back to LA, a Literary Associate job came up at the Geffen Playhouse and I applied. It was a relatively new theater, still establishing itself in the city of Los Angeles, and I was hired. A couple of years later, I was promoted to Literary Manager and in August, I will have worked there 14 years. The theater has grown exponentially every year. We built a second space a few years ago and we are now producing 8 plays each season and the primary part of my job is helping to select those eight plays. I always say that even on my worst day, I read plays for a living, and you can’t beat that.
Would you tell us about a typical day in the life of a dramaturg?
There is actually no such thing as a typical day in the life of a dramaturg because your role changes so drastically from one project to another. When I am doing production dramaturgy, which is quite different from literary management, my job is solely based on the needs of the writer and director. If I am dramaturging a new play, I will spend a lot of time reading drafts and giving notes to a writer, which really means having detailed conversations about the direction that they’d like to take their play. It often involves sitting in rehearsals and readings and workshops and then discussing the changes that might need to be implemented along the way. But oftentimes I am not involved in a given production and so my job focuses on reading plays, talking to writers and agents and traveling to see other work going on around the country.
You recently had a run of The Jacksonian with another UMass alum, Bill Pullman ‘80G. What was your favorite part about the process?
Apart from finally working with Bill, which really was a pleasure, there was a sense of danger about this play that really kept us all on our toes. This was an incredibly exciting project for everyone involved. Beth Henley, the playwright, is such a thoughtful and provocative writer and with a play this dark it is impossible to know how the audience will receive it. My favorite part of the process was once the audience was present, waiting to hear their reaction to the play. It was so exciting to hear them gasp for the first time, and even talk to the characters at times. The play really caught audiences off guard— it allowed them to laugh initially and then shift in their seats as the story became darker and darker.
You also translate Yiddish drama—could you tell us a little of your background in that and how you got into translation?
Truth be told, I learned Yiddish for the sole purpose of completing my second year dramaturgy project. Harley Erdman who had become a mentor to me, second only to Virginia Scott who introduced me to the world of dramaturgy, insisted that I work on a translation project that meant something to me. He wanted it to be more than an intellectual exercise. I had minored in Jewish Studies as an undergrad and he mentioned the completion of the Yiddish book center in Hadley, and it just seemed as though the stars had aligned. I started the process of SLOWLY learning Yiddish, and meanwhile I read every Yiddish play I could find in translation. When I hit upon the play I wanted to translate, Sholem Asch’s God of Vengeance, I was overjoyed. I was so excited about the process and the project and Harley continued to push me to finish the translation and prepare a script that was ready for production. One of the second year directors, Laura Tichler, opted to direct the translation as her thesis project and Harley was the production dramaturg. It became the centerpiece of my three year program and my thesis was focused on the translation itself. Since that time, I have not kept up with my Yiddish although I can still read it when push comes to shove but I hope to continue my study of the language and complete a collection of translated plays—if time ever allows.
What’s your favorite or funniest memory of UMass?
My favorite memories all involve the Rand Theater with its less than chic orange carpet everywhere. I learned more in that room than I would have ever imagined possible. I watched Ed Golden turn OUR TOWN- a play I had always written off as nostalgic hooey- into one of the most life changing productions I have witnessed to this day. I watched Harley Erdman wildly scratch notes on a script to be relayed to a director that changed a moment in the play from vague and indiscernible to crystal clear. I learned how to look at light, how to hear a play, how to operate a light board, and mostly how to do the job of a Dramaturg in the Rand and as much as I complain about it needing a facelift, I am forever indebted for all I learned within its orange walls.
Any advice for those students interested in a career in theater?
All of the advice I have to offer was passed down by my UMass professors. They instilled in us that if there was another field that appealed to us as much as theater then choose the other field because theater is incredibly difficult and will never pay very well. And while both these things are true, I think there are very few professions where the people who work within it, love what they do so passionately. If this is the path you choose, you have to do it because you love it like crazy, there’s no other reason. Dramaturgy, in particular, is an unseen discipline if you are doing it right. It means that the script flows as it should, that the audience is armed with all of the right information to make the play as enriching an experience as possible, and that there is no incongruity. Theater is funny in that way, we know that we have made something that works when all of our hard work looks entirely effortless. But for those who understand that it’s a tough profession and still opt to pursue it, rest assured you will love what you do for a living and that is no small thing.