When I first told my boyfriend I did dramaturgy, he thought it sounded like surgery for theatre
by Caitlin Murphy
Caitlin Murphy is a writer, director, dramaturg and regular reviewer for The Charlebois Post. Most recently her play Fruits Unheard Of, about photographer Diane Arbus, was presented in New York City by Working Theatre Artists, and her story "The Perfect Bird" was featured at Urban Tales at the Centaur Theatre. She has also written and directed four short films, three narrative and one documentary; Flushing Lacan (2010) and TOAST (2011) won the Jury Prize Awards at the Montreal ACTRA Short Film Festival. This summer her play Ladies Room will be presented at the London Ontario Fringe, and her most recent play LOTUS will premiere at the Montreal Fringe. She will also be associate directing The Book of Judith with Sarah Garton Stanley.
Not really, I laughed. Or was it?
To start somewhere easier then: there are at least a couple of kinds. The one we most traditionally think of – often referred to as script dramaturgy – involves helping a new text or work come to life; essentially working with others in a supportive/assisting capacity to 'birth' a piece that is in the process of creation. This is of course where the mid-wife analogy works best. Production dramaturgy, on the other hand, involves working with a pre-existing text, one that may have already been produced hundreds of times before. Which is why people might wonder what the heck it is, or why the heck it's needed. Fair enough. “Production dramaturg” is certainly a rare program credit. Especially around these parts. And in most minds it's a luxury. And to most budgetary bottom lines it's a laugh.
As anyone who's written a job description knows, there's the abstract conception of a role, and then there are the actual concrete things you end up doing in it. So by way of defining what a production dramaturg is, here's a list of what I actually do:
The trick is to look for a different excuse each time you go back in (my favourite advice from Sarah Stanley). Are you highlighting allusions this time? Focusing on imagery? Combing for references to colour, time, age, light? Whatever it is gives each reading a new purpose and fervour. You're essentially wanting to give the play a life inside you, and that will take many meetings.
Oh my god, the endless research. Into whatever is relevant to the play. In the case of Top Girls, I was focused on a few major areas: Margaret Thatcher; 1980's in the UK; the five characters in the opening dinner scene (three drawn from history, one from literature, one from art); and the present-day context of the play's concerns (it was written in 1982 but still so disturbingly current). The internet is hell already, but a worse hell for a dramaturg.
This is sort of like an encyclopedia for the show (back to analogies already), where all that research winds up. This time around I made three. Mine are essentially binders full of plasticized pages of articles, essays, maps, photos, quotations. (I’ve elsewhere described dramaturgy as scrapbooking for theatre nerds; if you saw these casebooks, you'd know what I mean.) I like the idea of these binders just sitting around in the rehearsal room like magazines. Some actors devour the material, others might just glance at it when they're bored, a crew member might pick one up one closing night and flip through it. I don't really care exactly how they get used; I care that they live in the room. These days when any one of us can all look up anything on our personal google machines, information feels so ephemeral. There's an actuality, a substance to these binders. They're heavy; they should be. What Churchill accomplished with Top Girls is weighty.
Daily, throughout the rehearsal process, I have been tweeting and facebooking 'from' the Segal Centre; mostly I post bits of trivia about the play, relevant news articles, pictures, videos, and so on. I share these with the company through email every day as well. I'm relatively new to social media, but I'm discovering it makes a pretty perfect companion for dramaturgy. I think we owe audiences not just incessant exhortations to 'come see our show', but meaningful information and content that reveals why the show matters. For me, it's about offering a sense of significance and relevance, and hopefully building connection and community. Not simply self-promotion. That gets boring real quick, no matter where it's coming from.
Finally, I remain at the ready for those random questions that pop up in rehearsal, when time is too precious for the company to waste going down the research rabbit hole.