what plays want: thoughts on new play development in Canada

What do plays on a page want, need, and demand from us? How can we encounter these plays in an open, imaginative manner? How do we, as dramaturgs and theatre makers, determine how, and even if, these plays ultimately enter the theatre? What is a theatre?

In my experience, there tends to exist a certain hierarchy when we encounter plays, particularly new plays. More often than not, we regard them as objects — things to be assessed and subsequently modified in accordance with specific ideas of functionality and appeal. We confront them with a set of expectations of what theatre is, shaped by our experiences, tastes, and aesthetics. So by default, we attempt to fit in the new with the old.

This hierarchy partially results from the economics of theatre today: in our world, plays are commodities, items to be sold, investments on which theatres expect and require a return. So, usually the question is: what do we want and need from this play? How much can it give us: how many spectators and how much revenue will it generate?

This type of hegemonic attitude towards art seems to have seeped into our subconscious, effecting the way we regard new plays in general. Texts to us are often products, more or less static objects without a will of their own. The playwright births a text, so to speak, but that process is commonly regarded as a one-way street: not usually does the text-child take on a life of its own – become Frankenstein’s monster, so to speak. But artworks, particularly theatrical artworks, are alive, or at least presumably must be so, in order to be live art.

Sheila Heti’s novel How Should a Person Be? illustrates how texts can take on a life of their own. It features a narrator (also named Sheila), who is consumed entirely by the play she is writing. The script rules her life, tortures her, and infiltrates her thoughts, actions, decisions, and relationships:

I had come too close and hurt her – killed whatever in Margaux made art, whatever allowed her to tell herself that it was alright to be a painter in the face of all her doubts. I knew why and how it had happened. Instead of sitting down and writing my play with my words – using my imagination, pulling up the words from the solitude and privacy of my soul – I had used her words, stolen what was hers. I had plagiarized her being and mixed it up with the ugliness that was mine! Then she had looked into it and, like looking in a funhouse mirror, believed the decadent, narcissistic person she saw was her – when really it was me. Unwilling to be naked, I had made her naked instead. I had not worked hard or at all. I had cheated. Shame covered my face and hands. I would abandon my play for good. I would never tape us again!

Sheila wrestles with her text; it’s always with her, everywhere. It makes her do things and act certain ways – it deeply affects her life; perhaps it even effects it. In other words, her relationship with her unfinished play is anything but a static hierarchy: it comprises a strange tension, a type of master-slave dynamic. If allowed to be alive – if allowed to be art – texts take on a life of their own. Living with them isn’t easy, but should art be easy?

Rarely do we reverse this hierarchy in encountering plays, asking them what they need from us. So rarely are our conversations about the plays themselves, as opposed to about our expectations of what a play is – what we think a play should be. But what if we gave the plays we work with a voice? What if we treated them like a voice at the table? What if we listened carefully to them, to what they want? What if we let them be organic entities that invent themselves?

During the final year of my undergraduate degree I studied a curious phenomenon called closet drama. Romantic poets such as Lord Byron and Percy Shelley wrote plays that they allegedly didn’t intend to be staged:

In publishing the following Tragedies I have only to repeat, that they were not composed with the most remote view to the stage. On the attempt made by the managers in a former instance, the public opinion has been already expressed. With regard to my own private feelings, as it seems that they are to stand for nothing, I shall say nothing. – Lord Byron, Preface to Sardanapalus

However, these plays were nonetheless plays, written in dialogue, with cast lists and stage directions. They contained a few aspects that did make their production difficult, such as long monologues and scenographic challenges: characters floating through space, big fires, mountain ranges, and so forth. On 19th century stages, however, which had a great affinity for spectacle, those challenges were willingly taken on: Sardanapalus was produced repeatedly after its publication, despite Byron’s alleged desire for it to not be. Directors found ways to stage the meandering monologues; scenographers figured out how to build a historic set and light a giant fire on stage. They tended to the demands of the play. They recognized that Sardanapalus’ “flaws” were essential to its success, so they adapted their needs to those of the play. This makes me wonder: 

To what extent do we allow plays to find their stage today? 

Doing so is necessary for the vitality of new drama and theatre. It will, however, require a few significant alterations in the way we think about new plays and their development.

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  1. We must work dynamically, not statically.

New play development must develop plays as theatre; that is, it must move away from developing dramas first, and then yanking them onto a stage. New play development has got to become about the stage itself. We must move away from the notion that theatre is first about plot and narrative, and begin to understand that in the theatre text always exists in relation to space and bodies – which, in turn, also exist in relation to each other. Drama is literary, whereas theatre is multisensory – it’s theatrical. That is to say, theatre is not just about text; it’s first and foremost about bodies moving in space, and only secondly about bodies which communicate.

It is my suggestion, then, that we move away from the reading as our go-to workshop format. I suggest instead that workshops take place in open rooms rather than around tables. That they happen on our feet. That workshops always involve a director and designers, and that conversations must take place consistently between the playwright, director, and designers, before, during, and after workshops. That we thus devise a process that allows plays to find and create their own stage.

Case in point: In April 2015, Laurel Green, dramaturg at Alberta Theatre Projects invited me to a “sketchbook showing” of a play called The Temporary by Col Cseke. She described the piece as “a new verbatim-text play inspired by the true stories, and voices, of temporary foreign workers living in Brooks, Alberta.” The group, which aside from Col and Laurel also included actress Janelle Cooper, sound designer Anton de Groot, and apprentice Griffin Cork, had been working in ATP’s rehearsal hall for a few days prior to the presentation, experimenting with various aspects of the piece, including questions of form.

Curiously, what Laurel had humbly announced as a workshop presentation turned out to be one of the most interesting and captivating pieces of theatre I’ve seen all year. Still discovering its journey and meaning, bold and tentative at the same time, The Temporary comprised a play that tried to figure itself out as it happened, thus offering an extremely apt formal context for one of the play’s basic topics: people discovering a foreign country. This formal context, so radically and honestly grounded in liveness, unlocked themes of fear, the unknown, danger, and vulnerability, just to name a few. It turned the piece into a vast projection screen for its spectators, making our presence in the room necessary for it to come fully alive. In other words, The Temporary’s rawness – its “unfinishedness” – was key to its theatrical success.

This rawness was rounded off by the reading’s informal setting — ATP’s rehearsal hall, the beverages that could be enjoyed throughout, and the conversation that followed the presentation. The showing of The Temporary comprised the first time in a while that I’ve experienced the theatre function as a type of forum – a productive space of conversation about local issues with global significance. I’m not suggesting that all theatre become like that; I’m fully convinced that proscenium stages, big spectacles, and spectators sitting in the dark have their important place in our ecology – especially if used effectively. But the showing of Col’s play made me wonder to what extent we should value the workshop presentation as a form itself. Even on Canada’s small stages – even in so-called site-specific performances and scenarios of “immersive” theatre – I rarely encounter these types of forums. Usually the work is polished and closed, as opposed to raw and open. Its language may be bold and its topics ardent, but if a play consists primarily of a set of locked-in choices, the fourth wall seems to rise, thicken, and become insurmountable. Even if an actor is only an inch away from my face. So I wonder if…

  1. …we must abolish the hard binary between ‘workshop’ and ‘production’ and change the way we think of the new play development trajectory

The sheer theatrical success of Col’s sketchbook showing makes me wonder if the “workshop presentation” is simply what some plays want. What if some plays need exactly that to be great: informality, inclusion, conversation? What if the workshop presentation is a form itself – a form and forum that has the capacity to do precisely what theatre seems to be: a live act of communion?

This reminds me of Marcus Youssef’s play How Has My Love Affected You? whose development and premiere at the Arts Club in Vancouver I followed quite closely. In fall 2011 I attended a workshop reading of the play. My good friend who I’d brought along, turned to me somewhat awkwardly afterwards, suggesting apologetically that it was the absolute best thing he’d ever seen — he’d just been at a reading of one of my own scripts a couple weeks prior. I could only agree; Marcus’ reading was probably the best I’ve seen to this day – raw and unaffected, a captivating and intensely moving family portrait. It also managed, like no other show or reading I’ve ever seen in Canada, to create a sense of authentic ambiguity, which completely tore down any notion of a fourth wall: Veda Hille was on stage, singing at the piano, standing in for his son Zak who was supposed to be there but wasn’t, as Marcus suggested. Throughout the reading, however, Veda’s voice became such an important symbolic presence in the piece, a “stand-in” not only for Zak, but also for notions of “the son”, “the outside world”, and by extension for family, femininity, and maternity, that I began to wonder whether Marcus had duped us. Perhaps Zak was never going to be there? Could he even be there? What would it mean for him to be there? In other words, Zak’s absence became a presence in the piece; layers started to erupt and pile on, opening up so many questions.

In the actual production of the piece a few months later, this sense of eruption had oddly flattened. Its affective potential had ceased. The piece felt staged, Marcus’ uncertainty rehearsed. Authenticity became a problem. Zak was there, singing at the piano, but I never fully understood why, except to create a clear, unmistakable symbol for legacy. Ambiguity was absent from the production. My friend was angry. Somehow on the way from development to production, the play had lost its appeal. Locked into a rigid format, the brilliant script wore its form like an ill-fitting suit. The play hadn’t been listened to. It had been turned into something that it didn’t seem to want to be.

As Col’s and Marcus’ pieces indicate, the challenge of making plays is bigger than making specific choices: it’s about navigating the territory of the unknown, of vulnerability, of rawness – every single night. And it’s our job to figure out how to do that. How can we preserve fragility and ambiguity?

I suggest we begin to mentally ridden ourselves of the binary between development and production. What if we considered the “reading” or “workshop production” a form in and of itself? Again, I don’t think that the workshop format is right for all plays. Rather, I’m suggesting two things here:

  1. Some plays possibly live best in the realm of the workshop. Their “product” is an informal type of forum, and we should acknowledge that form as a viable type of production – as a real goal.
  2. All plays need a sense of rawness, fragility, and authenticity, if their goal is to let the audience be part of it.

If we considered the workshop a possible form, and if we begun to realize that the workshop process contains and delivers certain aspects that must be preserved – rawness, ambiguity, etc. – our development trajectory for new plays would change, forcing us to ask harder questions along the way more often. What if the goal or outcome of a development process wasn’t a set of firm choices, but deliberate, concerted ambiguity? It would force us to think about what a given play wants, as opposed to how we can make certain scripts work. It would change the hierarchy in our interactions with scripts, and steer us away from the goal of the holy polished “product” by relativizing what that even means.

I recently saw yet another play that effectively occupied a space between workshop and production – whose very form was ambiguous. Anna MacAlpine’s play Polonius and his Children, directed by Courtney Charnock as part of the University of Calgary’s Taking Flight Festival was announced as a “staged reading”, but used certain production values so effectively that I wondered whether the script would have anything to gain from a full production. Or rather, how a full production could employ and work with the very obvious theatrical appeal of the staged reading.

Polonius and his Children is a spin-off of Hamlet in the tradition of Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. Polonius, Ophelia, and Laertes meet in the afterlife and a family drama ensues. The script is heavy on dialogue and light on action – dialogue is, in fact, its main action. Highlighting these literary qualities, Anna and Courtney had strewn a number of music stands about the stage – many more than were actually needed for the three performers, who moved freely among them. Comprising a graveyard of sorts, the empty stands also gestured to the play’s literary history: Hamlet and its many other dead characters. Capitalizing even further on the play’s “challenges”, turning its heavily literary nature into theatrical opportunities, Anna invented a narrator for the play. Sitting in a big chair – a throne of sorts – the narrator constituted an omniscient character, and was the only one dressed in Elizabethan clothing. He regularly set the scene and commented on the action of the play, variably as an outsider but also often emotionally affected. Particularly as the play progressed and the story unraveled, the narrator’s commentary became increasingly complex: as if to regain control over the plot, he interjected when characters were speaking, essentially competing with them over who told the story and how it was told.

Anna and Courtney’s treatment of Polonius and his Children is suggestive of Byron’s Sardanapalus: the two artists recognized the play’s challenges and turned them into theatrical opportunities, thus discovering the scripts unique, inventive formal home.

  1. We must develop writers, not just plays

Work like Col’s, Marcus’, and Anna and Courtney’s pushes our form forward. It tests the boundaries of theatre, exploring how and why stories should and need to be told through our medium. It explores what theatre is capable of. It takes nothing for granted, and for that its creators should be celebrated.

So, in closing I’d like to suggest that we must focus on developing writers as opposed to merely concentrating on their products. In order to develop their own aesthetic, writers need a system to support them; a system of honesty within which they’re allowed to explore and examine – to “try and fail”, as Jordan Tannahill might say. Whether that system consists of a single person with whom a writer regularly talks, or a group of people with whom a writer can meet, or an independent space like Videofag, or even of a full-fledged theatre company, might not matter for now: in our current system, each of these options has benefits and disadvantages. But it has got to be clear that only an ecology that nurtures its writers can expect those writers to make strong, extraordinary, and innovative work. An ecology that neglects the writer over her product like ours does, forces playwrights to adhere to those aesthetics they know will be purchased – and their plays turn into works of an old order, not into progressive art.

Canada has a lot of theatrical history yet to write, and much of it will be written by our playwrights. So we must support them.

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Polonius and his Children by Anna MacAlpine. Photo: Brett Tromburg

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8 comments

  1. What a great, thoughtful piece. Thanks for this, Fannina. I have said may time that we need to develop playwrights and not just the play, not just the product, and not just the commodified art. Lots to consider in here. I also tell my students that after they’ve written their first draft, they must now listen to what the play is saying to them about what it wants to be.

    Going to read this again. Thanks.

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  2. Fannina: there are a lot of really exciting and intriguing things in this post, and I’m all for experimenting and customizing the workshop process. There’s so much, for example, that can be learned by seeing the story on its feet: bodies in space, as you say. But there is also, in my reading of it, a very concerning thing about this article: that there is no mention at all of finding out what the PLAYWRIGHT wants – to say, to see, to trigger and/or awaken in an audience, to explore. A lot of people might say that goes without saying: unfortunately, though, we’ve all had – or heard of – experiences where a director and/or dramaturge (sometimes well-intentioned, sometimes driven by other things) has imposed a working style, an interpretation, or their own ideas / agenda / aesthetic on a play, to the detriment of the piece and the playwright’s sense of craft, artistry, and ownership. I’ve been on the receiving end of such experiences as a playwright; and, may I be forgiven, done such a thing as a dramaturge (I really try to live by the lessons I learned in that experience: hence this response). Now I’m not for a second suggesting that the dramaturges referred to in this article have done that: I don’t believe, for example, that Laurel Green or anyone at ATP would impose a way of working such as that described here without close conversation with the playwright. But it does seem to me that your lack of reference to an effort to discern the playwrights’ artistic and/or developmental intentions / needs is a significant example of putting the developmental cart before the creative horse.(another omission, IMO: I would be really interested in knowing the full story behind the choice to not go with the circumstance-driven choices around “How Has My Love Affected You” – specifically, whose decision it was to NOT go with developments and ideas emerging by the what necessity dictated in the workshop. If it was the playwright, surely you’re not suggesting that that playwright should not have been allowed to see his / her original vision put onstage). Ultimately, I think the takeway from this article is that our job as dramaturges, directors (actors? designers?) … let’s say collaborators in the development process is to open doors for the playwright to say “yes” to more possibilities for their play, and for realizing their intentions, than they may have perhaps thought. I believe in, and strive to practice, this, in terms of both creation and development – discerning, from listening to both the playwright and the play, what both the playwright and the play are working towards saying and becoming. Workshops around the table with actors on their feet; improv or scene study, public reading as means or end, aiming for venue-specific production – it’s all possible. As developmental collaborators, we have to be open to the existence of those doors, to be aware of the variety of doors available to us, and not afraid to invent new doors if that’s where the process takes us. But let’s make sure that in taking the play through those doors, we don’t leave the playwright behind. By all means, listen to the play: again, we’ve all had experiences where our work grows and goes in directions and takes on lives we don’t expect. Let’s give the play room to find itself. But as we nurture the playwright, as you quite rightly suggests, let’s make sure that part of that includes LISTENING to him / her, openly, closely, supportively, and without agenda.

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    • Thanks Gordon! This is interesting. Of course, the playwright should never be left behind. But the notion of her authorial “intention” is problematic to me. “Intention” in art is complicated…

      You bring up an important point, though: what are the roles of the playwright, dramaturg, director, and designers in the development process? Of course they vary from project to project, but to what extent are these other forces also *creators* in the development process of a play? To what extent and at what point do they have input, and how is theirs weighted against that of the playwright? I mean, after all, a play is not a painting – it’s a necessarily collaborative process…

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  3. Thanks, Fannina … absolutely, discerning “intention” in any kind of art is complicated – not always knowable, or possible to be articulated … perhaps “impulse” might be a better word, or image – whatever the seed was that started the playwright down the road, a thought or a question or an observation or an anger … at some point, I think, it involves questions of what a playwright wants to communicate, and how, and for me, no matter what hat I’m wearing (playwright, director, dramaturg, teacher, actor), it all comes down to discerning THAT … serving what the project’s creator seems to be communicating, as best as anyone working on the developmental / interpretive process can discern it. For me, there’s an important distinction there: open for debate, of course, but I’d suggest that the individual(s) who have the initial creative impulse are creators, and others are interpreters – with skills, techniques, instincts, and ideas, but present in support of the original … drive? … of the creator(s).

    In a collaborative process I recently completed, for example, I was the primary on text; my colleague was the primary on movement; we fully collaborated on directing, and shaped each other’s work in our respective primaries. The actors we worked with (at times around the table, extensively on their feet) were interpreters of the creative impulse that my collaborator and I were shaping / exploring / digging into. Here again, we get into part of what I think is one of the very valuable points you make: the idea that the development process is whatever the play / project needs, and yes, we need to listen to the play to hear and understand that, but also both listen to and mentor / nurture its creators so that we can ALL look at different POSSIBLE needs, and different possible tools.

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    • This is great. Thanks, Gordon! I love that you use the word ‘interpreter’. Also reminds me of the way dancers and choreographers work … The collaborative project you describe above sounds very interesting. Would you be willing to share what it is called? Is there any other information I could read about it?

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  4. Hi Fannina … your comment about dancers/choreographers is along the same lines as I was thinking of – same as composers and musicians, perhaps? Particularly in the classical field .. I was also thinking further about this post, and thought that the word “illuminators” might be even more apropos – for me it suggests that all of us non-playwrights involved in the development process are shining different lights on what the playwright has written so that s/he can see the work in a different way … and also shine a light on the work for the audiences to understand / comprehend / connect with what is being communicated.,

    The piece I collaborated on (Departures) was part of the Canada 300 touring project that came out of Watermark Theatre this past year. I collaborated with Natasha Martina at the University of Saskatchewan (and hope to again), and the ten-minute piece toured across the country. There are links to it on the Canada 300 website … canada300.ca

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