Words, Words, Words

It’s never surprising that when doing online research, I will find myself tumbling into internet rabbit holes.

I’ve been reading up on The Man Who Came to Dinner by Kaufman & Hart after watching the movie with Bette Davis. There’s a scene part way through where Davis’ character loses a gambit to save her lover from the conniving movie star played by Ann Sheridan. Davis has almost no lines in the scene but you’re very much aware of her presence and watch her reactions as her dreams fall apart. Under Sheridan’s attack, Davis visibly shrinks in on herself. Her character knows she’s beaten.

Image from Wikipedia

I next started researching Davis and her work. This led me to reading Martin Shingler’s article, “Breathtaking: Bette Davis’s Performance at the End of Now, Voyager” which discusses the melodrama inherent in her work. Then it occurred to me that I don’t consider Davis’ work to be melodrama. It’s just, well, awesome. It’s definitely a heightened reality but it is also a truthful performance which I felt exempted it from the melodrama category.

One of the few contemporary performers that I’ve seen capture that style of performance from Davis’ hey day is the female impersonator, Charles Busch.

The mellerdramas I’ve watched were overblown for comic effect. I’d read somewhere that Victorian performances weren’t like that. Rather they were done earnestly and somewhere along the way the ironic detachment became the performance.

After citing several reviews of Now, Voyager Shingler broke down Davis’ performance of that classic film:

The final scene from Now, Voyager reveals Davis to be in total command of her vocal technique and able to use it to tremendous effect. She seems to know exactly how to pitch her voice and how to vary volume and tempo in order to convey changes in the character’s mental and emotional state.

It is a bravura display, as she glides through her character’s ever-changing thoughts and emotions, all subtly conveyed through the actress’s body and voice. One of the most remarkable aspects of this performance is the fact that the scene culminates in a line of dialogue that some consider one of the corniest in Hollywood history.

Yet the strength and subtlety of Davis’s performance makes it possible to accept the line when it comes as a truthful and heartfelt expression.

Remarkably, the infamous final line, “Oh Jerry, don’t let’s ask for the moon, we have the stars!” hardly feels like an aphorism at all. Somehow Bette Davis makes one of the great rhetorical flourishes of Hollywood melodrama seem real.

From here Shingler explores the nuances of Davis’ work in creating that scene. Language is an everyday tool to make our way in the world that we give little thought to. But to truly focus on a section of text and really see how sentences are structured, the shape of chosen words, and how variations in pronouncing them can color the meaning of the message is sheer delight. It gives you an awareness of how flexible language is. It has a power to influence people’s opinions or to get them to pass the salt.

It is instructive to pause here and consider the kinds of critical decisions Bette Davis had to make in order to play this scene. For instance, she had to decide which lines and which words to emphasize. She had to consider how to vary the rhythm of her speeches using differences in pace, pitch, tone, and volume: for example, which words to whisper, which to project firmly or even loudly. She had to work out the best places to pause and decide in which pauses to breathe. She had to think about how much breath to use. She also needed to consider when to move, and, when speaking, where to look: up or down, at or away from her costar.

When my first play was being produced by classmates in college, we engaged in similar work in the rehearsal process. There is never time to spare and yet Kimberly Bouchard, the director, chose to spend several of those days on the opening monologue. She had the actor slow down her reading to the point that each phoneme was isolated. Then she sped up, tasting the shape of sounds and how each was articulated.

There is a Royal Shakespeare Company series led by John Barton that discusses close text analysis of Shakespeare’s works. It was on You Tube last I’d check and is fascinating to watch. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that it is populated with RSC alumni that I’m quite familiar with from film & tv. https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=105518406

Diving in to savor the minutia of a script and pulling back to incorporate all the pieces into a performance never gets dull. There is a duality in it where one is immersed and beside a script at the same time. This idea is reflected in this final quote from Shingler quoting Davis’ 1962 autobiography.

…. Davis wrote: With young actors who talk about becoming the character and losing themselves in a role, I must argue. There is a part of you that must hold the reins and control the projection. There is a part of you that must be aware of pace and timing. Without discipline and detachment, an actor is an emotional slob, spilling his insides. This abandonment is having an unfortunate vogue. It is tasteless, formless, absurd. Without containment there is no art.

And it occurs to me that This Random World also deals with containers…

Shingler, Maring. “Breathtaking: Bette Davis’s Performance at the End of Now, Voyager.” Journal of Film and Video, Vol. 58, No. 1/2 (Spring/Summer 2006)

Tempus Fugit

by Dona Black, Ariana Burns, & Tim Waterman

I think Tempus Fugit was the closest I’ve come to writing a 10-minute play thus far. It was the opener for a Theatre Outside the Belljar show. I wrote it with two wonderful friends and still like it. It was a part of the “I got this place in my head that ain’t right without you” series that I was writing back then. Below is a snippet.

EMCEE
Ladies and Gentlemen, this is a performance piece. If you derive any pleasure from this piece, it is strictly coincidental. This is art, and as such, should be view by the audience with the same appropriate gravity as any beleaguered granting agency. This piece, in triplicate, has been sent to our advisory board for review. A moment please, I can’t work without a cigarette hangin’ out of my mouth. . .Art is.

TWO
Art is a sedative for the obsessive compulsive.

EMCEE
It consumes.

ONE
It penetrates.

TWO
Hurry!

 EMCEE
Admit One.

 TWO
Are you an Enemy of the Future?

EMCEE
Art rips your heart out.            

ONE
But you think you did it to yourself.

Dramaturg—A what?!

This last spring, I had a new play produced at my alma mater. Since it’s also my hometown, I was able to attend rehearsals as the new piece took its fledgling steps. The play was directed by Professor David Lee-Painter (DLP), a member of the university theatre faculty.

During rehearsals, DLP told me that a student had joined the company as dramaturg. Then he had to tell me what a dramaturg was. At that point I was a bit miffed. Here I was. The playwright with my extensive collection of research already completed and you bring in a—a—a what? No, really what was that word again?

Much to my surprise dramaturgs have been around since the 1800s and perhaps longer. I’d never heard of the profession and can only conclude that I missed that day in theatre history class.

After my show opened, DLP asked me if I would dramaturg his next show, This Random World (TRW) by Steven Dietz in the fall. Researching someone else’s play was vaguely terrifying. I knew nothing about how to do it. In the past, I would’ve fled. This time I said, “Yes.”

I had all summer to put this—whatever together AND learn dramaturgy. I’m already an anthropologist so I’m down with research—love it, truth be told. This project would happen outside of work and my other responsibilities which I’d been avoiding since my play went into rehearsals way back in February.

A few weeks after my play closed, DLP was invited to direct a summer show that would go up in less then a month, Sarah Ruhl’s The Clean House. He asked me to put something together which I agreed to do. I’m not sure why I said yes but I was already doing research. Another play didn’t seem like that big a deal. (Q laugh track.)

While he was out of town, I planned on a month free to work on other things. BUT he liked what I assembled so much that he asked me to get TRW done sooner rather than later. He wanted the design team to have it over the summer as they began their work.

So this summer I learn dramaturgy.

Dramaturgy, like many of the loves in my life, was something I backed into. Within this blog will be ruminations on things I discover on my journeys. Space will also be made for my other myriad interests.

#dramaturgy #DLPAnotherFineMess
Photo by Daniel Haley