Dramaturgy and the Playwright

I wasn’t sure what I was going to write about this week – Christmas is here, the semester is nearly over, and the possibilities seemed (frighteningly) endless; Should I lament the mountain of submissions that’s been haunting my desk?  Talk about what it feels like to send out job after job after job application as I pray for a professorship teaching playwriting and acting somewhere green (but snowy at all the right times too) allt he while trying to keep up with the algebra class on campus so I can continue to TRY to tutor these kids on absolute values?  Should I talk about my new play?  My new blog that is thrilling me but keeping me up late (www.LosAngelesFAIL.com)?  WHAT SHOULD I WRITE ABOUT?!

Then I woke up to a four-pronged debate happening on the Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas listserve.

Wow.

And I thought, this is going to be an interesting Monday.

Basically (and I haven’t the permissions of those contributing to the debate, or else I’d repost their comments here) the discussion began with someone sharing a post by a dramaturg lamenting the process of dramaturging a show being directed by the playwright him/herself.  (Woof, did you get all that?  Because, I ran that sentence all the way to the finish line!)  I imagine that in such a case as this, even the best intentioned playwright could be a bit unyielding to a dramaturg’s best intentions – (after all,  there’s certainly the chance for a more balanced discussion with three at the table instead of just two) but the firestorm of discussion it stirred showed me that there is quite a lot of contention amongst two of a play’s (very important) team-players…

Because, as with many things put together through community/committee effort, so many voices are sure to have different opinions on just how the idea at hand is to be realized.

Some interesting points made (on both sides):

  • A script ain’t a Play until others (actors, designers, directors, etc) get involved – the argument stresses that you can write a script, but you can’t predict the Play .  And until it’s “played” it’s just words/ideas on a page.

Hmmmmm….. How do you writers feel about that?  Doesn’t it seem just a wee bit pretentious to assume that a playwright can’t fully understand his/her own work enough to be able to “predict” what it will look like and therefore be allowed to expect that the thing will be treated with some form of reverential realization before getting dressed down by an outside “opinionator” (now, that’s a fun new word!) –  Does such a theory indicate the theorizer believes him/herself a necessary component to “helping” the playwright’s “script” become a Play?  And until it’s a Play, is it just, merely, some thoughtful scribble on a page requiring help?

This discussion point alone saw many comments… One of the best (and most balanced) arguments I read stated that “dramaturgy is a function, not just a title, and nobody has a monopoly on insight” (credited to John Guare in regards to a note he once received, and applied, from an usher)  Isn’t it healthier for the working relationship at large if ALL involved are approaching the play with this mindset?  Rather than approaching the play as a thing that needs to be beat into shape by these new involvees (dramaturge/director/etc.)?

  • A text isn’t ever really fixed… This argument was made a few times in regards to plays “evolving” over time from production to production.  The caveat being that “new/emerging plays” (vs. those by dead playwrights) need to be aware of this “ever evolving” theatrical condition (and presumably, more open to dramaturgical responses) than those “dead” plays, long proven to work (Williams, Miller, etc.) or old enough to allow for as much “evolution” as the public will allow.

Does approaching a script as a constant “work in progress” help/hasten the development process, or does this attitude in fact, get in the way of fleshing out what the writer has written?  Jessica Kubzansky, a talented writer/direct and mentor of much esteem, has oft said “Commit to everything, but marry nothing” when working with new plays.  I LOVE this mentality!  For how can you possibly know whether a thing works, if you don’t first try it out – and try it honestly, sincerely, and to the best of your abilities?  It is only then that the “team” producing a script, and the playwright him/herself can truly decide whether the thing works.  But to approach a script thinking “It’s only words, and it’s going to have to evolve to suit those producing it” is a little too close to Hollywood practicum for my tastes…

And this was right about the time that copyright got thrown in the mix… And also about the time that someone piped in with a flippant remark that

  • Copyright is an American invention and European playwrights expect their work will be meddled with. (obviously, you can discern my opinions on this… the commentator himself did not use the term “meddle”)

Look, I’ve had this discussion before – (who hasn’t?)- when I was at the Kennedy Center Page to Stage Festival with one of my plays, I got to speak on a panel with other playwrights, dramaturgs, directors, actors, and development people.  Someone asked how we felt about letting directors have their way with our work, and the discussion suddenly got a bit frosty.  The argument was made that Shakespeare gets re-vamped/reworked all the time, and my reponse was “Yes, but how many of those ‘revamps’ are ever any good?”  The last thing I need is some cocky director looking at my text as his/her own blank canvas… I don’t write that way.  Some might (Thank you, Charles Mee and others, who write in such open and bold manner as to invite collaborators to “play” with your text.) but, until I write a script and include the author’s notes “Do with this text as ye will” – I’d like those directing or producing the thing to honor my intentions.  After all, why produce the thing if you just want to change it all around?  (I do actually write for designers and directors to have a lot of interpretational freedoms in most of my plays – because I see the benefit to varied productions on those scripts… but I include those encouragements in my author’s notes… and they’re prescribed freedoms within the context/world of the play.)

Ultimately, my response to this argument is that we have copyright and licensing laws to protect the text, and I’m THANKFUL for this “American” process!  I am thankful that we, as playwrights, can write with the expectation that our intentions should be honored and that we can also chose to eschew those protections if we see fit.

In any case… I’m not going to sit here and exclaim that the text as I first excitedly print off is the same that will be left on opening (or closing) night… but I am going to declare that until I’ve worked with actors and directors and maybe even a dramaturg or two, the script deserves to be flexed on its own merit.  It needs to be tested, discussed, tried, and re-worked… and I will do the work/revisions based on my interpretations of those readings/run-throughs/and discussions.

For, if a dramaturg wants to write a play, they should, in fact, take up the pen and paper.

If they want to dramaturg a play, they should approach it as a lover of words and “inspector” of moments/theme/consistency… they should approach the script AND the playwright with respect. (and in my experience, most good dramaturges do just this)

If it’s tearing apart and remodeling a person is into, then I think they should consider a career change… Hollyweird is always looking for new development personnel to “Fix” and “Mangle” screenplays… And the pay is way better too 😉

4 Comments

  • By Erica, December 6, 2010 @ 12:25 pm

    A favorite comment I’ve received is “You’ve written a good play. Now go away so we can make it great.” I am positive that my play needed to be reworked, however to presume that it could be done without me was offensive at the time, although only mildly absurd to me today 🙂

  • By Ravenchild, December 6, 2010 @ 1:21 pm

    Loved reading this.

  • By Jen Huszcza, December 7, 2010 @ 12:41 pm

    Your post made me think of George Bernard Shaw and his Pygmalion. He was right. Those two would never end up together even with a Lerner and Lowe score.

  • By Robin Byrd, December 8, 2010 @ 1:24 pm

    Love your description of what it means to dramaturg a play – that’s half the fun of writing.

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