Spotlight: How a Hands-On Creative Retreat Builds Community Online

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Liz Engelman

Liz Engelman

Liz Engelman’s greatest enemy is the unexamined question. As a dramaturg, her job is to identify the questions a play asks, and the questions to ask of the play. She’s a bit like the confusion police; identifying the difference from good and bad confusion –anything from intentions, to anachronisms to logical gaffes. With her help, a play can be closer to the playwright’s initial vision. In short, she helps make plays become their best selves. For anyone who’s thinking, “There’s no part of my life that wouldn’t benefit from a little dramaturgy,” have hope. You can apply to Tofte Lake Center, a nonprofit creative retreat that looks a little more like your most idyllic summer camp fantasy in Ely, Minn. TLC’s purpose is to apply the principles of dramaturgy to all artistic pursuits. Read on for more about how a very in-person organization builds community online.

How does one become a dramaturg?

“I learned that just because another organization used their website in a particular way, it doesn’t necessarily apply to mine.”

I first heard about dramaturgy when I was a junior in high school, when I was taking a class called Madness in Literature. My teacher said, “Liz, you should be a dramaturg,” and I said, “Dramawhat?” She replied that I had the ability to look at the big picture and relate it to the specific. And vice versa. And I thought, “That’s cool, but how is that a job?”

Later, when I concentrated in theater at Brown, my professor suggested that I create an independent study in dramaturgy. I thought, “Okay, two different people are telling me to do this; I better listen…” So I did.

How did that evolve into Tofte Lake Center?

After 20 years of working as a dramaturg, I began to realize that there are ways of telling stories other than through the theatre. Each media has its own narrative, its own way to tell a story. I wanted to create and environment for these different types of stories to emerge. Often we hear about starving artists who live miserably in a garret somewhere creating their life’s work, and I thought there had to be a way to live as an artist without a struggle – to be nurtured and inspired and surrounded by beauty in the process. So I did what a dramaturg does: articulate the intention, build the story, take yourself seriously… and the dream starts to form.

What kinds of artists visit the center?

I like to say creative thinkers rather than only artists, as many creative people don’t identify as artists. However, most people who come are: they are playwrights and writers of all genres, (novelists and poets), musicians, visual artists, dancers and choreographers. The Stuart Pimsler Dance and Theatre Company has been in residence each of our 4 years, and have become a community face for the center. Our artists have come from all over the country (and Australia!) for their weeklong residencies, and we have been fortunate to receive funding from the Jerome Foundation to support our emerging artists program for artists who reside in either Minnesota or New York.

How do you represent a decidedly in-person creative retreat in the online world?

At first it was hard to think of how to translate an experience that’s very location-based onto a screen. Then I started thinking about how to communicate TLC’s values–conversation, innovation, community, creativity, sun and water. When I thought about how to share the impulses of and behind TLC’s story, the role of the website became clearer.

The website has become a way of maintaining our off-campus community. The site has been a way of deepening and broadening it, to partner with artists and make connections, using the site as a conduit for conversation. I used to think of a website as a static thing. I thought of our old website as an online brochure. Now it’s malleable, evolving — a way to tell our story.

I’ve found images as a way of building partnerships and interest, too. One of the artists whose images we included in our Flickr gallery thanked me for sharing his work. Letting people know I could link to their profile was a major way of building traffic to the site. The partnering opportunities have been more helpful than I’d imagined. I want to continue to find ways to use more photos as an attractor to the site.

Tofte Flicker

A collaborative online gallery of Tofte Lake Center artists

What are some of the most helpful parts of your website?

Putting our applications online has been most helpful. I was getting submissions via e-mail before, and I would have to send each e-mailed application to our review panel, one at a time as I received them, and they had the most difficult task of having to keep track a hundred incoming individual applications. An applicant might resend something, and the panelist might forget where they put it, and worry that something got lost. It was thus immensely time intensive on my part. Now applicants can submit online, and it’s all stored on the website. I heard from someone who applied last year who was so happy to see that the application was now online. It was a mature professional step up.

Tofte Application

Tofte Lake Center's online application for artists

What did you learn through a major website redesign process?

I was not expecting to learn as much as I did. I had been thinking more about the result than the process. It took longer than I thought, and this turned out to be extremely informative. The process was completely dramaturgical: identifying what I was trying to do and the best ways to structure and say it. Working on a website is a continual process. The story keeps evolving.

I also learned that just because another organization used their website in a particular way, it doesn’t necessarily apply to mine. They made certain choices in how to tell their story, but that’s not my story. Realizing that: that’s what a dramaturg does.

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