Sunday, April 27, 2014

Sunday Feature: Caitlin Murphy, Dramaturg for Top Girls

The Blood-Letting
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.

When I first told my boyfriend I did dramaturgy, he thought it sounded like surgery for theatre.  
Not really, I laughed. Or was it?  

Regardless, he hit on an odd truism about the craft for me: I always end up stepping away from it, standing alongside it through analogy in an attempt to explain what it is. Unlike other theatre jobs that I could describe pretty easily head-on, dramaturgy sets me scrambling for similes, usually finding that so many fit. At least a little bit. Being a dramaturg is like being a cheerleader. It's like being a curator. A defence lawyer; a midwife; an ambassador...  Sort of.

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.

I'm currently serving as production dramaturg on the Segal Centre's Top Girls, directed by Micheline Chevrier. It's a dramaturg's dream. Not unlike the last dream I had serving in the same capacity on the Centaur Theatre's Intimate Apparel, also with Micheline. Why dreams? Because they're plays that are steeped in history and involve complex and vibrant socio-political-cultural settings. They offer so many points of entry, suggest even more lines of inquiry. They were being directed by an artist I deeply respect and admire. And ultimately, they're just bloody well written. 

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:    

1.  Read the play many, many times.
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.

2.  Research.  
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.  

3.  Creating casebook(s)
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.

4.  Promotion and Audience Outreach
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.

5.  Continued research as needed
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.

There are a few other things I've been up to, but that mostly covers it. And given all this, I confess that I do have a preferred analogy for production dramaturgy. It's a gruesome one: a blood-letting. I imagine getting the play to bleed out as much and as far as possible. I guess the image of rippling out in the water could work too. But it's not the image that comes to me first, so the blood must matter.  Because a good play is a living beast? Because blood stains? Because the surgery simile works a little bit after all?

As far as what kind of background one should have to be a dramaturg, there isn't really a single identifiable one. Personally, I have a Master's Degree in English Literature, a background in playwriting and directing, as well as a career as a CEGEP teacher. But I firmly believe that what's most required for dramaturgy is unquenchable curiosity.  That would probably be my first line of the job description: “Must be curious.”

I drop in on Top Girls rehearsals whenever I can, but it's challenging: this time around I have my son. Nicolas arrived in my life about the same time that my work on Top Girls began. And I've tweeted before at the hashtag #dramaturgysavedmylife with good reason. The brilliant text of Top Girls, and the many worlds it conjures have provided my fitful mind with the happy playground it desperately craved during maternity leave.

Though rehearsals in earnest only began a few weeks ago, Micheline requested an earlier week of table work which we sat down for in January. She offered that I could bring Nicolas in. It was an invitation that I was not only supremely grateful for (especially in the depths of winter) but felt dramaturgically fit with this play. The messy questions Top Girls asks about womanhood and motherhood and ambition and career weren't only being tackled in abstract conversation, but in practice. I also heard from the actors that the mere sounds of my son in the room, his presence in the process, gave the many babies mentioned in the play – born, dead, taken, given away or given up – an eerie resonance. If I contributed nothing else to Top Girls as the production dramaturg, I'd be pretty happy with that.

In fact, one of my favourite mementos from my experience working on Top Girls is a sign that the stage manager, Elaine Normandeau, printed out and hung outside the room that my son would nap in as I gratefully tiptoed back to rehearsal. It reads: “Baby asleep. Mother in lab.” Hmm... maybe a scientist analogy works a little bit too? Add it to the list.

As for why the heck production dramaturgy matters, I suppose I hope that can be gleaned from what the heck it is. An actor in Top Girls was telling me that being so focused on her one slice of the story, it’s almost her job to narrow her vision to her own self-interests and needs. “But dramaturgy helps me understand the world I'm in better,” she said. And it's my firm conviction that we all get to benefit from that.  

April 27 - May 18

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