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