A few days ago I wrote a post about writing a play, reflecting on my time working with my friend and dramaturg and director Bob White at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival on my new play, Those White Things in the Ocean. I was pleasantly surprised that through Twitter and Facebook, the post seemed to be of interest to my friends in the dramaturgical community. That being the case, I thought why not expand my thoughts on the activity of dramaturgy from the perspective of a playwright?At least this playwright . . .
I am, in fact, a dramaturg myself although I have never really practiced the craft. My MFA from York University clearly states that I hold that degree in both dramaturgy and playwriting. Back then, my god, 27 years ago, a dramaturg might likely have been the person who knew the answers about an existing script. While at York, for example, we did a production of “The Caucasian Chalk Circle” by Bertolt Brecht. As company dramaturg, I was expected to answer any and all questions from the director and actors about the play, its origins, its production history, Brecht himself, his theatre company The Berliner Ensemble, how being a theatre company in East Berlin might influence his work, what was the nature of epic theatre, what was the nature of communism, the modern history of eastern Europe, the relationship between the German language and the English language — you get the idea. I would think that dramaturgs who work in such an academic way are most often employed by companies such as the one I am currently a guest of, the Stratford Shakespeare festival. One can imagine how exhaustive this activity is for the works of William Shakespeare, for example. Or the Earl of Oxford. Or whomever. Whatever.
One of the most astonishing and gratifying developments in the Canadian Theatre since I have been involved with it, say in the last thirty years or so, is the process that is now in place to help us playwrights write plays that are ultimately produced in theatres across the country. If you are under 30 years old, you may take this for granted, but it wasn’t always so. Arguably, playwriting as an activity that is encouraged in Canada is less that 50 years old, and common practice for less than 35 or so.
Significantly during that time something else happened: the personal computer was invented and everyone got one. Hence, word processing as opposed to typing. I’m old enough that my first ever play, “The Family,” was written on a typewriter. It’s a hell of a lot of hard work to type anything on a typewriter, compared to word processing, let me tell you. (If you don’t believe me, find one and type a letter on it. Imagine 100 pages of that!)
Suddenly there was a legitimate art form in our country and a new way of creating it, which together helped give rise to the place of the dramaturg in our theatre. In this particular guise, the role of the dramaturg shifted from what I had studied, to being more like an editor for a novelist. Another set of eyes, someone to bounce ideas off of. Playwriting is a lonely occupation and suddenly there was another person on the scene to give the playwright support, encouragement and advice. This advice, thanks to word processing, could easily be acted upon, and creating a new draft of a play wasn’t a week of finger crunching work. It’s still work, don’t get me wrong, but of a different and ultimately more satisfying nature.
Do you think that in saying this, I am implying that without word processing there would be no dramaturgy? Well, many of my plays, by the time they hit the stage, go through on average ten drafts. Would I type that same play ten times on a typewriter, from beginning to end? Not bloody likely. I’m not saying it’s an absolute. Let’s put it this way: being able to word process must have made playwrights less resistant to changing their work and more open to the suggestions of the dramaturg. The question that then arises is, and I’ve heard it many a time, Are the plays any better for all that rewriting? Personally, I think so. I know so. I hear of playwrights who believe they are taking dictation from god or something and their first drafts are masterpieces not to be tampered with by mere mortals. But I believe in my heart that my own plays have only gotten better with each new pass at them.
If you want my honest opinion, I think writers who don’t or won’t rewrite are egoistical or lazy or maybe even both, a dangerous combination!
I’ve heard it said best that the dramaturg doesn’t serve the playwright, or the producing company. The dramaturg serves the play.
Nowadays, the person to see a new play first is the dramaturg. This could be based on a personal/professional relationship, which it is in my case with Bob White who functions both as my dramaturg and director (not to mention psycho-therapist). Playwrights’ service organizations, such as the Saskatchewan Playwrights’ Centre or the Alberta Playwrights’ Network, provide dramaturgical support for writers. In some cases a producing theatre will assign a dramaturg to a production. I’ve heard of playwrights who resent this scenario, but I never have. I’ve never encountered a dramaturg who wasn’t well-intended or who was doing anything other than helping the playwright make the play as good as he or she possibly could.
It’s a fluid, dynamic relationship and process, never the same twice. I remember once at the playRites Colony in Banff, ATP’s dramaturg Vicki Stroich was assigned to me and my play, I think it was “Midlife.” We went for a coffee together and she came stationery shopping with me, which is a big part of my process. And then she left me alone which was exactly the right thing to do at that point of that particular process. That’s not to say she didn’t help me in a more textual manner later on, she did. But at that point, she had the sensitivity to figure out how to best support me, how best to facilitate the writing of the play.
That was a process that went quite smoothly, but there have been others. Oh my god, yes, there have been others. When we were getting down to the short strokes with my play “Sitting on Paradise,” I didn’t know what the fuck I was doing anymore. I was a gibbering idiot lying in the fetal position under the table in the rehearsal hall. Bob White bailed me out on that one, to the point that when the play was published, I considered wording it like this: Sitting on Paradise by Eugene Stickland, as dictated to the playwright by Bob White.
I can’t speak for all playwrights, but personally I feel a tremendous debt of gratitude to the dramaturgs in my life, including Don Kugler, the late Larry Lewis, Bob White, Vicki Stroich, James Defelice, Bradley Moss, Johanne Deleeuw and Vanessa Porteous. They have all made me and my plays better than I could have done on my own.
Finally, a couple little jokes about it:
Q: How many dramaturgs does it take to change a light bulb?
A: Does it have to be a light bulb?
Q: How many playwrights does it take to change a light bulb.
A: I’m not changing a fucking thing!