Derrick Turner, a senior history major at Eastern Mennonite University, reads the book that the play "A Year with Frog and Toad" is based upon. Turner won a Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival award for his dramaturgy work with the fall 2015 campus production. (Photo by Andrew Strack)

EMU theater experience has been ‘soul-snatching’ for this history-major-turned-award-winning-dramaturg

Senior Derrick Turner believes in letting theater speak for itself. His position as a dramaturg facilitates exactly that – providing a design team, cast, and audience with the information necessary for a play’s message to be conveyed.  Turner’s intensive research and insight for Eastern Mennonite University’s fall 2015 production of the musical “A Year with Frog and Toad” was awarded the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival‘s (KCACTF) Student Dramaturgy Award.

“I didn’t know what award-winning work looked like,” says Turner, “I just do!”

Compiling notebooks and creating study guides

Derrick Turner in the stacks at Hartzler Library, one of the places where he conducted dramaturgy work. (Photo by Andrew Strack)

Dramaturgy is a loosely defined field – its main goal, in any setting, is to provide informative direction for the members of a theatrical production to create the highest quality performance possible.

For “Frog and Toad,” a children’s theater piece based on the adventures of a sour toad and an upbeat frog, Turner’s dramaturgy work took the form of extensive animal and author research, compiled into notebooks for each cast member.

One cast member had never seen a toad before, “so when doing movement exercises where they embodied their animal, he was at a loss,” Turner says. To add authenticity to the play, he had the actor watch videos of toads to emulate their motions.

Additionally, Turner compiled a study guide for approximately 600 elementary and middle school students who attended performances.

“He also generated accessible and useful details about previous productions of the script “autobiographical insights on author Arnold Lobel, and hints on how best to connect with children based on the work of educational theorists,” says EMU theater professor Heidi Winters Vogel.

“Frog and Toad stories are a wonderful way to teach empathy to children,” says Turner. “I wanted to stay true to that.”

Working closely with each cast and design team member, Turner helped shape the production to its Shenandoah Valley locale. A farmer mouse, an electrician red-spotted newt, and a turtle with a washboard belly were aesthetic and cultural choices to give the play a home in Rockingham County.

Derrick Turner-Hickory Dickory
Derrick Turner performs in “Hickorydickory,” a performance which earned a nomination to the KCACTF regional festival in West Chester, Pennsylvania, this spring. (Courtesy photo)

In Turner’s words, that is another role of the dramaturg – to “keep it grounded” – by being aware of context and giving critical feedback.

A change of heart

“I’ve always had this love-hate relationship with the theater,” explains Turner, who got his first taste of the drama department when asked to operate the lighting system for the spring 2014 performance of “Into the Woods.” From there, he says, “my soul slowly but surely got sold to the theater,” culminating in an independent study in dramaturgy with Vogel.

Turner’s performance in “Hickorydickory” in the fall of 2015 earned a nomination to the KCACTF’s regional festival in West Chester, Pennsylvania, yet he held no visions of grandeur when submitting his “Frog and Toad” portfolio for the dramaturgy competition. In fact, he left before the award ceremony with others carpooling back to EMU. Vogel texted him to inform him of his accolade.

“Shut the front door!” Turner responded. “It was almost like being struck by lightning.”

National participation pending

Vogel puts Turner’s win in perspective: “Derrick, representing KCACTF Region 2, is now one of eight student dramaturgs from across the country eligible to present their work at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. He bested student dramaturgs from all over Northern Virginia, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Maryland, New Jersey, southern New York state, and eastern Ohio.”

In March, Turner will find out if he is one of four students invited to compete at the national level at the Kennedy Center’s April 2016 festival.

While his vocational dream, as a history major, was to curate at a Smithsonian museum, Turner now sees career opportunities in dramaturgy. He is currently involved with a campus production of “Distant Witness,” and is applying for a summer fellowship with the Shakespeare Theater Company in Washington, and was recently contacted by the Dramaturgy National Coordinator for KCACTF to discuss Turner’s interest in the profession of dramaturgy.

“Doors are opening; I just have to continue walking,” he said with characteristic understatement. While Turner prefers to “fly under the radar,” the acclaim his dramaturgy has garnered speaks for itself.