Thursday, November 1, 2012

On Dramaturging

(Tricia Brooks and Neal Honda in Terry Boero's play. Set design by John Wilson. Photo by Rachel Golden.)

These days I write to educate. Twice a week, I sit down to write lectures for my “Writing About Theatre” students. But I also have a new editor at the Weekly who, when we recently met to talk about the purpose of theater criticism, told me that he especially values reviews that teach the reader something. Additionally, for the past two months, I’ve been dramaturging a play called The M Documents, written by Terry Boero and directed by Nara Dahlbaka, which recently finished its run at the SFSU Fringe Festival.

This was my first official dramaturgy credit, though I’ve had dramaturgical moments before. As dramaturge Alicia Coombes recently said in a guest lecture to my class, every theater person is a dramaturge. If you’ve ever thought a script’s second act needed work, she said, you’ve been a dramaturge. If you’ve ever looked up a term or a historical context to better understand a play, you’ve been a dramaturge. Even if a production has no designated dramaturge — and many, many don’t — that doesn’t mean nobody does dramaturgy; dramaturgical duties can (and must) be performed by actors and directors, designers and publicists.

But what is dramaturgy, this scary, distinctly German-sounding word that makes you want to say “drama-turd”? First of all, I’ve been told it actually comes from Greek words that, when compared to other words with similar structures, signify a “conjurer of drama.” Dramaturges are advocates for plays. They work with directors and playwrights to make the play be as true to itself as possible. They are experts in the world of a play. They look at what a script suggests about its world and, through research, flesh it out so that artists and audiences alike have a better contextual understanding of the play.

Dramaturges also have many other functions; there are probably as many different job descriptions as there are dramaturges. For M Docs, I was primarily a researcher. The play examines interstitial moments in a Macbeth that has traces of medieval Scotland but also exists in 1950s America. Its only characters are Lord and Lady Macbeth, and the playwright explored the characters’ marital relationship as well as their childhoods. She believes we can see much of Macbeth’s gender relations — too much — in our own society.

My main task was to provide the actors with information that might help them broaden their interpretations of their roles. I focused on two research aims: finding out how Macbeth and Lady Macbeth had been interpreted throughout history, and providing an overview of gender roles in medieval Scotland, Shakespeare’s England, and postwar America. Here are a few of my favorite findings:

Ellen Terry (1847-1928), a famous Lady Macbeth, once said, “Everyone seems to think [L.M.] is a Monstrousness and I can only see she’s a woman — a mistaken woman — and weak — not a Dove — of course not — but first of all a wife.”

I also took another look at Shakespeare scholar Jan Kott's groundbreaking book in search of this quote, which paints Macbeth as a kind of idealist in a world in which the only dream is a self-defeating one: "In a world upon which murder is being imposed as fate, compulsion and inner necessity, there is only one dream: of a murder that will break the murder cycle, will be the way out of nightmare, and will mean liberation.”

It was so great to be involved with a production again, even though my role was small. It’s been three years since I’ve worked on a show in any capacity, and I thought it was high time that as a critic, I remember what it’s like to be on “the other side.” Critics see only finished products; it’s easy to forget how many choices go into what’s presented on opening night. I didn’t attend many rehearsals of M Docs, but in one of the first read-throughs, I especially loved seeing how, even in a cold read, our actors, Neal Honda and Tricia Brooks, brought a special intelligence, a magic, to the words they read aloud that non-actors just don’t have.

I even got to see my production reviewed, so I truly did get a taste of my own medicine, but only because I forced my students to review the show (no conflict of interest for them at all! BWAHAHA). Hearing and reading their criticisms, I felt myself both understanding what they were saying and feeling defensive, wanting to argue with them. Ah, so maybe this is what it’s like, I thought. Except not at all, I’m sure!

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