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Bringing Plays to Life

Dramaturgy grad student's socio-cultural research helps actors inhabit characters
Alicia Hernandez Grande earns Theatre Studies MA, will enroll as fully-funded PhD candidate at Northwestern University

Ms. Hernandez

To fully inhabit a character, an actor needs more than memorized lines, make-up, costumes and props.
She needs a back story laced with cultural nuance and historical accuracy to bring the character alive on stage.

And that’s just what Alicia Hernandez Grande as a dramaturg can provide.

“We are essentially a human version of Wikipedia for an actor or director,” she said. “The dramaturg’s role is to provide all the information the actors and director could possibly want or need for a production.”

To become a professional dramaturg, Hernandez Grande completed this spring her Master of Arts in Theatre Studies degree in the School of Theatre & Dance and will enroll in Fall 2014 as a fully-funded doctoral student in the theater studies PhD program at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill.

Hernandez Grande was accepted to PhD programs at the University of California-Irvine, University of Washington, and Tufts University. She chose Northwestern over the others because of the financial support offered by the university, its proximity to Chicago and the encouragement of her UH advisor Keith Byron Kirk, who earned his PhD at Northwestern.

“As her mentor, I grew to enjoy her desire for engagement with and deciphering of a wide range of dramatic narratives, as well as her finely sculpted dramaturgical interrogations of dramatic narratives both new and old,” said Dr. Kirk.

Digging into research to make creative work resonate more deeply with audiences is what drew Hernandez Grande to dramaturgy.

“It’s a wonderful combination of research and practical applications of that research,” she said. “This field is not too common in the United States yet, but it’s very common in Europe.” Hernandez Grande was born in Paris to Spanish parents originally from Barcelona. Her father’s career in the oil industry gave the family to the opportunity to live and travel abroad.

When Hernandez Grande started high school, the family had settled in Houston. The high school where she enrolled required her to take a creative arts elective and offered her the choice between visual art or theatre.

“I definitely couldn’t draw, so I went with theatre,” she said. She enjoyed the theatre work and developed her interest in it as a hobby.

Ms. Hernandez in front of a mural wall

For college, she enrolled at Rice University with the intention to be a pre-med student with a major or minor in history or English. She continued doing theatre work at Rice and soon realized her theatre classes were the ones she enjoyed the most.

“I earned bachelor’s degrees in English and Theatre at Rice,” she said. “By the end of my time at Rice, I had discovered dramaturgy.”

Hernandez Grande chose to get her master’s degree at UH because it’s one of the few U.S. universities with strong programs in dramaturgy, theatre production and creative writing.

While at UH, she served as a dramaturg for local theatre companies and for several School of Theatre & Dance productions, including the 2013 Houston Shakespeare Festival.

“One of my responsibilities was with Antony and Cleopatra,” she said. “The performance included a historical battle scene that occurred in Italy. I had to be able to describe how that fight actually occurred so that the scene on stage was choreographed in a way that was historically accurate.”

Once the research is complete, the dramaturg also serves as a second set of eyes for the director, often sitting in the rear of the theater during rehearsals to ensure the production is accurate and making program notes.

Hernandez Grande believes one of the biggest challenges to studying dramaturgy is that nobody really knows what it is.

“The theatre – and the arts in general – are often neglected,” she said. “When economics are at play, we find ourselves justifying what we do. For that reason, studying this field can be alienating. My family isn’t even really sure what I do.”

Explaining the importance of dramaturgy to her father – an electrical engineer – presented its challenges. But the unique, international background his career afforded her gave her a distinct advantage in her field. She fluently speaks four languages – Catalonian, French, Spanish and English.

“I was able to refer to Spanish language plays in my Master’s thesis,” she said. “In addition, this past fall we held a workshop on the show, Blood Wedding. The work on that show is still going on and this summer I will be translating the original script from Spanish to English to better fit the adaptation of the show that UH is working on.”

As she works toward her PhD, Hernandez Grande plans to focus her research on Shakespeare and his works’ socio-cultural implications. Once she completes her doctorate, she plans to continue working in dramaturgy and in academia.

“I am excited about living in Chicago,” she said.

- By Monica Byars