Origin Stories

My first memory, as I refereed to in my last post, was a class field trip in preschool to see a high school production of Once Upon a Mattress. The memory is from the final moments of the play, the denouement of the court jester pulling an odd assortment of uncomfortably sharp things out of the mattress (for those of you unfamiliar, the musical revolves around the “Princess and the Pea” story). I do not remember anything else about this experience other than a feeling of vague anticipation on the car ride over, but I very clearly remember that jester (who it is worth noting-was played by a female actress, possibly the inciting incident in my thoughts about the importance of cross gender casting?) pulling pointy object after pointy object out of this mattress. How did everything get in there? How did she not feel it? Theatre is a unique stage for the only kind of magic left in our universe.

Origin stories have such an important place in our communities at large, but the further and further I crawl down the theatrical rabbit hole, I realize that we, as theatre, have our own origin stories as well. I have no memory of a life without theatre, which seems both casual and profound to me. Ask any person to tell you their story of how they got into theatre, they will recall exactly how it happened, how they felt, and how it changed their life. We are a people with a keen sense of origin because we are constantly acquainted with the living organism of text. We have the text of our two origin points (for the purpose of western theatre{particularly as it pertains to the English speaking world which is the reference point I come from}, I believe that we have two points of origin; Ancient Greece and Elizabethan England) that at any moment are given breath and life. We live our history in such a way that the potential to return to the past happens at any moment (theatre as time travel-I’m getting to that post). Our origins are important and more relevant than most because we are capable of returning to them.

Because I believe in the dramaturgy of my own life, I googled “once upon a mattress high school Virginia 1994” (approximately the time and place this memory occurred). It led me to a few results, mostly of modern production of Mattress taking place. But there was one promising result, Glenelg High School to Present Winter Musical. Published in February of 1994, the director said that the cast “has had a ball rehearsing the show” and it promises to be the “best bet for weekend entertainment”. It was about an hour away from where I was being raised in Fairfax, but I do remember a sense of anticipation in the long car ride.

I have no way of knowing this was the performance I saw, but it’s nice to think “this could have been it”.

The Dramaturd

Today on the phone at work (by day, assistant manager in a box office, by night, dramaturg) someone asked me if I was an actor. My response was with the same gusto as many people use to tell their captive audience that they used to play football or do gymnastics or compete in those super marathons (as though acting was an exercise that wore on your knees) (though it can be an activity that wears on those joints, but that’s aside the point) (haha, get it, aside?)

“Oh I used to be an actor, I mostly work as a dramaturg now.”

“A drama-what?”

“A dramaturg.”

“A dramaturk?”

You can see where this is going.

The first time I encountered the word “dramaturg” was in high school on my twelfth grade production of Twelfth Night. I was playing Olivia, and I didn’t need any help from the dramaturg, my ex-boyfriend, who’d only gotten the opportunity because the assistant director role was already cast. I was eighteen, I’d been in a number of Shakespeare plays, and I was reading Stanislavski’s “An Actor Prepares” and sobbing to myself backstage, getting into character. I didn’t need a dramaturg. So I very maturely decided to refer to him as the “dramaturd”. In all rehearsals, in all conversations, every note session, he was the “dramaturd” (why yes we had a terrible messy break up, what makes you say that). Because I made all of the programs, this was also his credit in the program.

Call it divine comedy, providence, karma that I ended up in this field, and now the d-word is so much a part of my life.

Referencing my post on What is a Dramaturg?, if we accept the idea that the dramaturg is the “mystic responsible for both metaphysical and physical content”, I often draw on the physical content to tell people what I do. “Oh, I’m installing a lobby display this weekend,” “Sorry, can’t get drinks, I’m writing an actor packet,” “I’m communicating with playwrights,” etc.

I dropped the d-word for the first time to my chiropractor at my last appointment when I was talking about what I had going on.

“Nothing much, just working on these dramaturgy packets.”

“I’m sorry, your what now?”

“Dramaturgy packets.”

“You just dropped that word on me like everyone knows what that means.”

I think one of my biggest problems as a theatre artist is that I am so involved (and lucky to be so), that I often struggle to conceive of the world that does not revolve around renewal season, reading scripts, budget deficits, whether or not something fits a mission statement, seeing theatre, critiquing theatre, performing in theatre, endless conversations over coffee or wine about story structure, character development, and a general sense of perpretrating existential angst created though the idea that I live my life in a medium that people say has been dying for close to 400 years.

Because we all remember a time before we knew what this was (or some of us do, my first memory was my pre-school field trip to see Once Upon a Mattress) and that kind of theatrical innocence sparks such a joy in me. Because we all remember our first reaction to theatre that made us say “this is it, this is what I want to do”. And it’s it beautiful when we can help spark that joy in others. There is no feeling like sitting in a darkened theatre watching a jester pull comically sharp objects out of a bed, just like there is no feeling like crawling onstage in an Old Green Grasshopper costume to an auditorium of screaming children thinking one of these kids in here might fall in love with this.

Which is why I’m always so thrilled to get to explain what a dramaturg is. Because it’s a moment where I get to illuminate, a task fitting for a mystic.

William and I decided to learn French together (because I’m a history nut and he eventually wants to move us to Montreal so he can be in Cirque de Soleil) and just the other day he came across the word for playwright.

It’s dramaturge.

“You’re just a playwright with a funny accent.”

 

What is a Dramaturg?

I went to the LMDA (Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas) conference in July of 2016, and found most panels to be filled with the same kinds of questions.

“How do I find work?”

“How do I communicate with a playwright?”

“How do I convince people that I matter?”

“What is dramaturgy? What is a dramaturg?”

These questions are completely valid questions to be asking in an artistic world that’s of very little value in our country. But there tended to be a sense of hopelessness in the voices of young dramaturgs, particularly the disparity in reconciling the idea of being an armchair philosopher who gives actors and directors information about the script, and taking up arms as modern day activists. I found this dichotomy to be interesting (not just as a Libra woman) because if my dramaturgical research has taught me anything it’s usually that there’s less to the binaries that construct our world, and typically it’s “less to do with hate and more with love” (I mean, the blog is called Shakespeare and Me, we must get our referenced in where we can).

In my first panel, Mark Bly told a story of working with a playwright, where they would go for walks and begin by talking about anything other than the play. “Did you catch the game on Saturday?”, “Frightful weather we’re having” gradually turned to conversation around the play and then eventually, the playwright was ready to go back to writing. “You’re like a mystic,” the playwright said, “You lead me through the story, you help me fight the battles, you navigate the terrain, and then in the end, I’ve emerged in a clearing and you’re gone.”

As part of the Harry Potter generation (my personal feelings of Harry Potter aside) I had to admit I liked the idea of being a mystic. There’s very little left in our world that’s truly magical. I grew up Catholic, and it often causes me to throw up my hands and accept mystery instead of really investigating the problem (looking at you, Tessitura Network). It’s something I’m very guilty of as a person who thinks to myself (perhaps a little egotistically) “I know a lot about a lot of things, I don’t need to add this to my repertoire of knowledge”. Besides, we enjoy preserving mystery; I had fun for the ten minutes when I genuinely believed my apartment was haunted. But when we do decided to dig deeper into the mystery, we discover there was no ghost, there was only a poorly placed command hook that fell on the Christmas lights that caused the string to vibrate. But then again, theatre people love a good ghost, I’ll have more thoughts on that in a later post. All that being said, who doesn’t love digging into a good mystery?

Alright then, if I am a mystic, can I please be Gandalf? Gandalf is the ultimate dramaturg. Gandalf gets a hunch about Frodo’s ring maybe being THE RING and goes to Minas Tirith to do research, he checks in with his mentor Sauruman (which ends up being a bad idea), he joins the Council of Elrond as the only member who knows the entire history of the ring, he agrees to venture with the Fellowship into Moria where he fights the Balrog and ultimately dies, only to return to aid the Fellowship again. In the end, after many battles have been fought and won, he retires with Frodo to the Gray Havens.

For me, the idea of the mystic, Gandalf, resolves the tension between thinking and doing because it marries the two. A dramaturg is both metaphysical and physical, wherein we are responsible for the transmutation of theory into reality. Therefore, you could say that we occupy two realms, one of thought and theory, and another (perhaps a Middle-earth?) practical realm that deals in the physical materials we produce. Metaphysically; I lead people through the text, help the director craft a path to the playwright’s intention, spend a lot of time thinking “what does it mean?”. Physically, that metaphysical thought manifests in lobby displays, emails answering questions about the text, script notes, researching, program notes, and dramaturgical protocols (from the Kristin Leahey school of “why call it an actor packet if it’s not just for the actors”).

Therefore, I’m never scared that I exist too much in the realm of thought and philosophy. I’ve earned my time in the philosopher’s armchair after a long journey through the text.

 

A Disclaimer

I could be wrong about everything I post. I’m not perfect, and I will be wrong at some point. I think one of the most important things about dramaturgy and theatre in general is the willingness to be wrong. Don’t get me wrong, I love being right (hell, that’s probably why I like dramaturgy so much) and it’s definitely a hit to my ego (like when I posted that video link to the Mid Atlantic Accent and it just sounded like people talking under water) but I learn more when I’m wrong than when I’m right.

When I took my first theory class in college my final project was to position myself between theorists, borrowing and taking what we liked and challenging what we didn’t agree with, and presenting our own theory to the world. I can’t remember all the specifics of mine (other than my reasoning with Foucault to explain the amount of sexuality in the theatre world and the joy of discovering my love for bell hooks), but the most important part was being able to take and borrow our own parts of theory into the world with us.

I want you to feel free to take everything with a grain of salt. Take what you can, and leave what you can’t take with you.

I primarily want to use this blog as a way to explore theories and thoughts I have around life and theatre. I don’t think William is tired of hearing me talk (yet) but I’m eager to add my thoughts to a larger community.

 

About the Blogger

I’m Claire, the blogger behind Shakespeare and Me. I’m a twenty-five year old New Mexican living in Seattle pursuing a life in the arts.

I’m currently working as a Box Office Assistant Manager and a Dramaturg. I live with my playwright and fiance William, we’ve been engaged since May of 2015. We’re in the last months of wedding planning, our wedding is on June 24th at the NMSU Center for the Arts, the theater we spent the last year of college living and working in (the theater we worked in for the first three years of our undergraduate, the Hershel Zohn Theater, was demolished in 2014).

We graduated in May 2014 from the department of theatre arts at NMSU after being named their two outstanding seniors and moved to Seattle to start an adventure in the Pacific Northwest in a town that had a reputation as a good place for fledgling artists and start up theatre companies. In January of 2016, we became two of four co-founders of Frozen Sea Theatre Collective, a company geared towards art that breaks up our assumptions of society and forces us to look within. You can read more about us here, I’ll definitely be sharing about the joy and chaos of running a theatre company. William primarily works as a playwright and writer, and I primarily work as a dramaturg and I’m excited to have a platform on which to share some creative thought, explore processes, and talk a lot about the challenges and excitements of being in a field that’s rapidly developing.