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She's the Secret Ingredient in Three Hit Plays

By: Billy McEntee
Date: Apr 08, 2019

How dramaturg Sarah Lunnie helped birth What the Constitution Means to Me, Mrs. Murray's Menagerie and Hillary and Clinton


One of the most vital roles in new play development is also the most inscrutable: the oft-misunderstood dramaturg. But Sarah Lunnie is happy to demystify what she does. "I think about my role as that of a collaborative editor," she explains.

Like a theatrical midwife, dramaturgs help writers shape their plays, refining their ideas and working with the rest of the creative team to craft a piece that's sound and rigorously examined. Lunnie has been doing this for over a decade, and she helped hone three buzzed-about plays currently running in New York: Lucas Hnath's Hillary and Clinton and Heidi Schreck's What the Constitution Means to Me, which are both on Broadway, and Mrs. Murray's Menagerie

After graduating from Boston College where she studied theatre and creative writing, Lunnie launched her career at two of the country's most prominent incubators for new plays: first at Kentucky's Actors Theatre of Louisville, evolving from literary intern to literary manager, then at New York's Playwrights Horizons, where she was the literary director until earlier this year. "I was lucky to begin at Louisville where there is a very strong history of valuing production dramaturgy," she says. "I was assigned to be a production dramaturg on a few mainstage plays and a few Humana Festival plays every year. So, depending on whether I was working on a new play or a classic, my dramaturgical role varied widely."

Creative connections blossomed at Louisville. In fact, three relationships she forged there are directly responsible for her busy spring. First came Lila Neugebauer, who was a directing intern the same season Lunnie was a literary one. "It was clear to me very quickly that Lila was one of my teachers," says Lunnie. In 2009 the two became founding members of The Mad Ones, the lauded devised theatre collective behind Mrs. Murray's Menagerie, currently running at Ars Nova.


"Sarah's ability to zero in on, articulate and refine the fundamental pulse of a theatrical narrative is utterly remarkable," says Neugebauer, who directs Mrs. Murray's Menagerie, about a focus group of parents evaluating a 1970s children's television program. "Her attention to detail, and her insight into structure, character psychology and theatrical signification render her indispensable to any project she's a part of. Sarah is one of my most trusted outside eyes on anything that I make."

Next came Hillary and Clinton playwright Lucas Hnath, who submitted The Courtship of Anna Nicole Smith to Louisville's 10-minute play festival. "We received like 1,300 submissions a year," Lunnie recalls. "Lucas was unknown and unrepresented at the time, and his play ended up in the stack the interns and I were charged with. I read the play and thought, who is this person? I was excited by his voice. That was my first experience of advocating for a writer who was new to me."

Due to Lunnie's championing of his work, Louisville went on to mount Hnath's Death Tax at the 2012 edition of its prestigious Humana Festival of New American Plays. "That was my first time working on a production in the collaborative way I do now," Lunnie says. "Because we had been in conversation about his work over a period of years, Lucas and I came into the room with some shared language and trust. There was a lot of discovery in that process. Ken Rus Schmoll directed, and it felt like a really muscular, dynamic relationship with him and Lucas. I thought, this is how I want to work."

It's fair to say that Lunnie has been instrumental in Hnath's success. She dramaturged The Christians, which premiered at the Humana Festival and then played at Playwrights Horizons in 2015. And they made their Broadway debuts in tandem with A Doll's House, Part 2, which earned him a Tony nomination. Now she's helping him with Hillary and Clinton, Hnath's examination of Hillary Clinton's failed 2008 bid to become the Democratic nominee for president.

"Sarah and I have worked together for so long that there's a lot of shorthand involved," Hnath says. "She will read the play, but then I will tell her -- often in writing (I call these documents 'Dear Sarah Letters') -- the story as sharply and specifically as I can. And I will tell her what I think is effective and interesting, and where I feel the story falls short of what I want it to be. Then when Sarah and I talk, she'll respond to my account of the play. We'll just go back-and-forth, talking out the story. I'll say it one way, Sarah will counter with a different take or different pathway from A to B, and then I'll counter with another, back-and-forth until I feel like I know what I want to write."


Lunnie met What the Constitution Means to Me's Heidi Schreck at Louisville, too. "She was playing Mrs. Cratchit in A Christmas Carol," Lunnie says with a grin. They reconnected when Schreck's Grand Concourse ran at Playwrights Horizons in 2014; a few years after, the writer-performer asked Lunnie for assistance with Constitution, an almost solo show that's an insightful blend of autobiography and analysis of our country's founding document.

"I had seen a work-in-progress sharing of it at Dixon Place, so I was aware of what Heidi was working on and thought it was exciting," Lunnie recalls. "We later ran into each other -- she and director Oliver Butler were getting ready to begin rehearsals at Clubbed Thumb, and she was still writing the piece -- and she asked, 'Would you like to dramaturg this?' I emailed her soon after and said, 'If that was a real question, then yes.'" After earning raves Off-Off Broadway, the show was picked up by New York Theatre Workshop and has now transferred to Broadway for a limited run.

While Lunnie's title remains consistent, the scope of her role shifts from playwright to playwright, production to production. "What dramaturgy consists of in practice depends on the project, where we are in the process and how my collaborators like to work," she says. Just like audiences who may be unclear about what a dramaturg does, she isn't always sure what she's getting into when she signs on to a project. And that's what makes her chosen vocation so exciting. "I think of myself as an early audience," she says. "While every collaboration takes its own shape, the spirit is always one of partnership with the generative artists in pursuit of the thing we are making together. The great gift of this work, for me, is that what it asks of me is to be in conversation."


TDF MEMBERS: At press time, discount tickets were available for Hillary and Clinton and What the Constitution Means to Me. Go here to browse our current offers.

Follow Billy McEntee at @wjmcentee. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.

Top image: Heidi Schrek and Sarah Lunnie in rehearsals for What the Constitution Means to Me. Photo by Marielle Solan, courtesy of New York Theatre Workshop.

Billy McEntee is a freelance writer and arts journalist. He's the Theater Editor of The Brooklyn Rail, instructs with The School of The New York Times and helps promote shows with shorter runs through Staff Picks (@paffsticks).