Artists I admire: Harley Erdman

When I was a graduate student at UMASS-Amherst, I had a dramaturgy professor named Harley Erdman. He had arrived at UMASS the year before I started, so he was also relatively new to the department when I started in September 1995.

Harley became an important part of my graduate school experience, and I'm happy to say that he continues to be an artistic and academic mentor for me. I learned how to teach by serving as Harley's teaching assistant over four semesters, and he guided me through my master's thesis project as my committee chair.

One of the most important lessons Harley taught me came in the second semester of my first year. For our dramaturgy workshop course, we had to select an Elizabethan or Jacobean play and prepare a script for production, focused primarily on cutting and glossing. Glossing is the process of replacing words that have fallen from the current lexicon with more contemporary equivalents. In a verse play, those replacements need to match the original rhythm of the line. The project was daunting, but I wanted to make an impression. At that time, I thought I wanted to make a career out of directing plays from this particular period, and I thought I really knew what I was doing. Ah, youth...

I set to work on my cut and gloss of John Webster's The Duchess of Malfi, and after several weeks of work, I proudly submitted my production script. I had cut quite a bit of the superfluous language, and I felt confident that the script was way more accessible for a contemporary audience.

Three professors read the cut and gloss, and each of them had different thoughts and opinions about what I had done. Harley's comments were balanced between positive and critical, but he gave me one piece of feedback that has stayed with me for 20 years. Harley wrote that while I had successfully cut the play and streamlined the plot, I had also cut some of more beautiful moments of poetry from the play. Some of what makes the play special had been cut away for the sake of what I thought was clearer storytelling. I unconsciously silenced my artistic sensitivities for the sake of making something more efficient.

Sounds like a simple piece of feedback, but it's had lasting impacts beyond cutting and glossing a play for production. I often think of Harley's feedback when I'm collaborating with a writer on a new play. I try to be sensitive to why a piece of writing might be there, even if it seems to be "extra." I also try to listen to my own text and the text of other writers multiple times before I make or suggest a cut. I don't want to cut the poetry or the poetic moment without giving it ample time to work in a reading or performance.

That moment in May 1996 represents just one of the many lessons I've learned from Harley Erdman, and that learning continues as he models what it means to be an accomplished academic and a working playwright, adapter, and translator. Harley's feedback had a domino effect into other areas of my artistic work for which I am most grateful, and that's why he's the artist I admire for this week.