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ASU faculty member receives international award for teaching, mentoring

School of Music, Dance and Theatre assistant professor of dramaturgy recognized for impact in theater community


Professor Martinson stands at a microphone smiling

Karen Jean Martinson

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July 03, 2023

Arizona State University faculty member Karen Jean Martinson, assistant professor of dramaturgy in the School of Music, Dance and Theatre, recently received the Leon Katz Award for Teaching and Mentoring from the Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas (LMDA). 

The award is given to individuals who demonstrate excellence and impact as mentors within their communities. Martinson was recognized at a celebration at the annual LMDA conference in Banff, Alberta, in Canada. She said the recognition is an honor and holds great meaning to her.

“I didn’t think I had a chance, because there are so many legendary teachers and mentors in the organization,” Martinson said. “It means a lot to me, the recognition of what I'm trying to do. I think it's also really important for ASU. It’s a recognition of the power and the value of our mission that ASU — a big public institution — can be a site for fostering really exciting dramaturgy.”

Martinson said the role of a dramaturg in a production is varied. It involves researching and analyzing the message of the play and how it can speak to the current moment. Dramaturgs examine the historical, socioeconomic and political context of the play, considering how audiences can engage with the material while balancing how to honor the intent of the playwright.

“Dramaturgy is an act of advocacy, an active curation and a deep attention to storytelling,” said Martinson. “It brings care and attention to all stages of the production process, to make a piece that is deeply researched, cared for and considered.”

Growing up, Martinson loved theater but didn’t want to be an actor. Once she discovered dramaturgy existed, she knew it was what she wanted to do.

“It takes all the things that I really care about, but puts them in service to something bigger than my own interest,” Martinson said. “I love the research; it's so much fun.”

At ASU, one of the most visible ways dramaturgs work with the plays produced by the school is by creating immersive, informational lobby experiences for audiences to engage with the production and process the play. 

“People come from all walks of life. There's somebody in the audience who's never seen a play before and there's somebody who has been to every play, and you have to reach all of those people,” said Martinson. “Creating this experience and curating this experience for the human beings who live in the community around you is really something beautiful.”

Martinson mentors student dramaturgs through the process. She has also facilitated collaboration between dramaturgs in the theater program and graphic designers in The Design School to create displays for some of the shows.

Martinson said her favorite part about mentoring dramaturgy is seeing the students’ creative process.

“I love seeing what the students come up with,” Martinson said. “I love working with them and being able to say yes to all their ideas.”

ASU theater alum and award-winning playwright Straton Rushing nominated Martinson for the award, which Martinson says is a recognition of the work by her students at ASU. 

“The nomination was a beautiful collection of the students’ work and the way that dramaturgy had impacted their theater practice,” she said. “Seeing that was a gift. It is so great to know how your work impacts others, and this award is the icing on the cake.”

Martinson said she is proud of the work she has done building the dramaturgy program at ASU and that she’s excited for the road ahead. 

“I want to continue to build dramaturgy here at ASU so that it becomes even more established,” she said. “I hope more students are interested in taking it, especially because undergraduate students likely haven't heard of it coming fresh out of high school.”

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