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.

The Clean House Joke

Photo by Daniel Haley

Riffing off Ruhl, my posts on dramaturgy are not necessarily faithful descriptions of my process but rather views of certain aspects of it from just to the left of the experience. 

After The Three Keys of Captain Hellfire opened my director, David Lee-Painter (DLP) asked if I would dramaturg his next project, This Random World by Steven Dietz in the fall. The idea of 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.”

So it was that I began learning dramaturgy and researching The Clean House.

The perfect joke makes you forget about your life.
The perfect joke makes you remember about your life.
The perfect joke is stupid when you write it down.
The perfect joke was not made up by one person. It passed through the air and you caught it.
A perfect joke is somewhere between an angel and a fart.
—Sarah Ruhl, The Clean House

Sometimes I’m thinking so hard that I miss the joke.

The Clean House opens with a joke. A joke told in Portuguese. It is a long joke. Being unable to understand the joke itself, the audience is left with only the shape of a joke. A device to make the audience observe the joke from the outside (Muse). It is another way of making the familiar strange. Ruhl let us into The Clean House on what was for me—these are my ruminations—an abstract point of entry that proved to set the tempo for the rest of the story.

From: DLP
Subject: The joke
I’m ruminating about the opening of The Clean House.
THAT first joke is super important. It’s in Portuguese
– and we can’t understand it.
WHEN is Matilde telling it? To whom?

“WHEN is Matilde??” With that trigger, ideas move. Ruhl’s story has an elasticity. It’s a joy to pull and stretch. The freedom she gives to explore. Burning through ideas but ultimately returning to the truth of the story she has created. To read it again. And again. The script is a tether.

It’s the past. Before she’s a comedian in deed.
Before the perfect joke comes to her.
It’s Brazil and somewhere safe.
May be with her parents.

It is now and the death of her parents cloak her
from telling the perfect joke which she also fears.

If top of show is the future, then she’s moving
backwards through time in the null space?
At the end of the story is her birth.

In her dissertation on comic dramaturgy, Jennifer Goff references the writing of Andrew Stott. (I know quoting someone else quoting is a no-no, but this is a blog.) In the realm of stand-up, a comic can present multiple perspectives in setting up a joke. Often they show us one point of view before presenting another that is incongruent with the first. “….like a silent but parallel conversation that could audibly erupt at any moment.”

Goff describes the technique as a “comic subversion.” She finds that Ruhl uses it and repurposes it “in service of a deeply profound view of the power of the joke.”

Are jokes apples?

There’s something compassionate about humor; it has a saving power. It seemed to me that if you took the most sublime version of a joke— the Platonic ideal of a joke—that it could transport you somehow. I remember when my father was sick that humor was a form of grace in the household. Humor pushed to an extreme, like any emotion, has a transformative power. In the play the joke is abstracted, but we see the compassion of one woman killing another woman with a form of euthanizing humor. Mathilda is willing to do this for Ana without even thinking about it—she takes pity on Ana and kills her with a joke, and that’s the emotional heart of the play.—Sarah Ruhl  (Weckwerth)

From: Ariana B
Is Clean House trying to be the perfect joke?

From: DLP
Damn fine question – the joke is so important –
both kills her mother and Ana. 
One causes great pain,
one relieves great suffering.  

From: Ariana B
Or may be both relieve great suffering.
That final transformation……

“Heaven is a series of untranslatable jokes.”
–Sarah Ruhl, The Clean House

#DLPAnotherFineMess #theatre #dramaturgy
Photo by Daniel Haley


Dunne, Will. The Architecture of Story: A Technical Guide for the Dramatic Writer.
Goff, Jennifer Ann. “If More Women Knew More Jokes…” The Comic Dramaturgy Of Sarah Ruhl And Sheila Callaghan, dissertation, Wayne State University, Detroit, Michigan, 2015.
Muse, Amy. The Drama and Theatre of Sarah Ruhl.
Weckwerth, Wendy.  More Invisible Terrains, Sarah Ruhl, Interviewed by Wendy, Theater (2004) 34 (2).
Zuheir Al-Shamma, James. Grief and Whimsy in the Plays of Sarah Ruhl, dissertation, UC-Santa Barbara, 2008.

Tennessee Williams: A Guide to Research and Performance

Discovered this book recently. Very nicely laid out but I think the chapters devoted to a book does a disservice to the plays within. Most informative.

I didn’t post the cover because…well, it’s not all that interesting. The good stuff is inside.

Off the Questia page:

 ….each is written by an expert contributor. Each chapter includes a discussion of the biographical context of the work or group of works; a survey of the bibliographic history; a summary of major critical approaches, which looks at themes, characters, symbols, and plots; a consideration of the major critical problems posed by the work; a review of chief productions and film and television versions; a concluding overview; and a bibliography of secondary sources.

https://www.questia.com/library/3549431/tennessee-williams-a-guide-to-research-and-performance

It Begins

Think of subtext as to the left of the language and not underneath it. –Sarah Ruhl

Riffing off Ruhl, my posts on dramaturgy are not necessarily faithful descriptions of my process but rather views of certain aspects of it from just to the left of the experience.

After The Three Keys of Captain Hellfire opened my director, David Lee-Painter (DLP) asked if I would dramaturg his next project, This Random World by Steven Dietz in the fall. The idea of 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.”

So it was that I began learning dramaturgy and researching This Random World—I mean The Clean House.

A few weeks after we’d spoke, DLP messaged me. In about sixty days he would be directing The Clean House. On a whim, I sent him some articles on Sarah Ruhl.

From DLP: Can you also dramaturg Clean House?

I was so new to dramaturgy that I didn’t know what I was making or what it was called. And now he wanted two whatchamacallits. I did it.

Research is an immersive process for me. Consequently, I’m voracious in collecting information, possessed with a desire for thoroughness and continually frustrated by the nagging thought that I have not seen everything on the subject at hand.

When I compiled history notes on 18th century pirates for the cohort producing my play, I quickly came to the heartbreaking realization that not everyone is interested in the pictureless, scholarly articles that I savor. Crazy, I know.

That was my first lesson in dramaturgy.

Compiling my research on the two upcoming productions would involve rendering what I found down to its essentials. I wanted to create something informative and readable.

The Clean House & This Random World are shows well-suited for dual research. I found them to be different parts of a whole. They would make for a crazy double-bill but that was not the goal this time.

Both plays engage in making the familiar seem strange, bumping the audience into a different level of awareness, if only for a moment. Typically when attending the theatre, I anticipate becoming immersed in the story presented on the stage. These scripts deal with topics that are so much a part of our lives that it is necessary to bump us to prevent complete immersion. With a subtle shift, we as viewers watch something well-known “as if for the first time (Jestrovic).” From that prospective we are able to look at it, think about it, and respond to it consciously.

Johann described Ruhl’s style as “visionary and fantastical. As though the playwright has a shamanic role of reaching into the void and bringing back visions that explain us to ourselves (Johann).” The Clean House’s world has characters eating apples on a balcony and being able to chuck the remains into Lane’s home at a distant location. The two places exist in the play’s physical world and yet overlap in some fashion that allows apples to span distance and time. And they become more than apples. These symbols of original sin clutter Lane’s clean house with the messiness of a lived existence.

In This Random World, estrangement is the underlying architecture of Dietz’s story. He derailed the viewers’ expectation by having scenes happen offstage or not at all. “[Dietz says] ‘What if I subverted this? What if that was a list of scenes that cannot be in the play?’(Pender)”

A break-up is not shown to the audience but described by Claire after it has happened. Gary attempts to correct her narrative, but her story shapes what we understand happened. We are forced to rely on her interpretation of the event.

Dietz’s various characters are expected to meet and finally have a much anticipated encounter. They never do. Denying the audience this jars it into another view of the story and engenders a different response.

Both Dietz’s & Ruhl’s writing styles are different. I find Dietz’s to be more relaxed, easing me into the story and the ideas therein. His interviews read like casual conversations over coffee. His vision and process are apparent and relatable.

Ruhl crushes me with her philosophical background. The course I took in college made me feel like I was drowning as I struggled to understand the concepts presented and here I was once more. Drowning. It was a challenge to analyze her interviews and then apply them to her work, to understand the architecture she built. The Clean House was written crisply and sparingly. Sitting in the audience, I’m not aware of the architecture’s presence but studying the script, I see the overwhelming strength that structure gives to the entire work.

After studying and reflecting of the anatomy of their scripts, I reassembled them, stepped back, and looked at them holistically once more. Then I wrote up my findings. The Clean House packet was finalized and sent to DLP shortly before he left for rehearsals.

From DLP: GOLD – pure Gold. Is it possible to have this done for Dietz sooner rather than later so the team can ruminate on this GOLD earlier?

Oi.

It’s a good thing I love digging for buried treasure.

#DLPAnotherFineMess #theatre #dramaturgy
Photo by Daniel Haley


Jestrovic, Silvija. Making the Familiar Strange in Theatre and Drama: From Russian Formalist Avant-Garde to Brecht, dissertation, University of Toronto, 2002.

Johann, Susan. “Sarah Ruhl,” Focus on Playwrights, Portraits and Interviews, University of South Carolina Press, 2016. https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctv6wgmrn.17

Pender, Rick. “Ensemble Theatre Is Growing, Thriving in OTR,” Cincinnati CityBeat, Oct. 9, 2017. https://www.citybeat.com/arts-culture/theater/media-gallery/20978565/ensemble-theatre-is-growing-thriving-in-otr

Ruhl, Sarah. 100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write: On Umbrellas and Sword Fights, Parades and Dogs, Fire Alarms, Children, and Theater, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015.

EVERYTHING CHANGES

Everything changes. You can make
A fresh start with your final breath.
But what has happened has happened. And the water
You once poured into the wine cannot be
Drained off again.

What has happened has happened. The water
You once poured into the wine cannot be
Drained off again, but
Everything changes. You can make
A fresh start with your final breath.
–Bertolt Brecht

Translated by John Willett
Bertolt Brecht POETRY AND PROSE
Edited by Reinhold Grimm with the Collaboration of Caroline Molina y Vedia
2006

Ghost Light: An Introductory Handbook for Dramaturgy

I found these two books to be particularly helpful in learning dramaturgy. Ghostlight also has a section on different theories to use when analyzing a text. I was already familiar with these from my anthropology courses but the refresher was helpful. Ghostlight was also written cleanly and not bogged down with a lot of academic language which I found in other texts on theory. Both are from Southern Illinois University Press.

http://www.siupress.com/books/978-0-8093-2952-6

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