Thursday, July 23, 2009

Dramaturgy for devised work

As we get closer to the next stage of workshops on the Trilogy, I’m working closely with Brian Woolland on the dramaturgy of the third play (and a bit on the first two as well). It’s a new departure for us to work with a dramaturg – though Mahesh took on this task in Shanghai, and Brian is taking it up now, so we’re making a pretty heavy commitment to the idea. Dramaturgy is the art of mediation between text, rehearsal, theory and cultural / political context. In some cases, it can involve a significant element of writing. With devised work, I’ve often felt that the visual and theatrical aspects can be much stronger than the dramatic, the storytelling, the key conflicts and changes. By bringing in dramaturgical voices, I’m hoping we can redress the balance a bit.

For an experienced playwright, like Brian or Mahesh, the job probably feels quite strange. They are used to working alone, imagining the characters, setting them goals and actions, working out their decisions and the stakes. Here, the characters, and many of the dramatic situations, or at least their theatrical realisations, already exist. The way of beginning this process with Brian was to present him with the DVDs of our improvisations in Shanghai.

On our first day working together, Brian laid down lots of challenges to me about aspects of the work so far which didn’t make sense, which were under-developed, or which simply weren’t dramatically interesting. This led us to pull together a potential new structure. To begin with, Brian wrote this, with lots of new ideas. We batted it backwards and forwards, with me weaving into his storylines for different sets of characters the material from the workshops which I felt to be particularly strong theatrically. Sometimes this led to some very surprising alterations: some scenes which we had made around particular characters turned out to be about different ones.

Today, we’ve been working through it again, asking how the various events in the stories can be about the characters doing things – and how the decisions to do these things can be made more significant to them – raising the stakes and putting obstacles in the way. This has been hugely productive, and has started to make the different storylines intersect far more. Brian has also written one scene (to give two actors a new starting point), and we’ve picked out two more which we think he’ll probably need to write once they’ve been workshopped some more.

It feels like a very exciting way of working. Breeding devised theatre with what writers do best. Nice to feel a distinctive approach emerging for us.

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