It was a smaller group than usual, I’m guessing because we were coming off the long weekend, and the reminders landed in inboxes and on feeds that weren’t seen while people were actually off their devices and enjoying sun and friends. Which all sounds good and right to me. And which makes me think about having the open office hours outside one of these days …
I decided to call this not “The Dramaturgy Open Office Hours”, but “The Dramaturgy Open Office Hour Project” because I didn’t have expectations for it, so much as an experiment I wanted to make. However many people show up, feels like the right amount for the week. (I do spend some time wondering whether I need to be better at publicizing, and then I do some more publicizing, and then I try to get back to dramaturging.)
And when there is downtime between visitors, I catch up with the guest dramaturg, which is always a treat. This week, I got to share conversation and a brownie—both excellent—with Molly Marinik. Molly freelances as both a dramaturg and director.
And, she was my dramaturg on this project. When I had the question, “what would it look like for a couple of dramaturgs to sit in a public space and provide dramaturgy for a few hours a week to anyone who wanted to stop by?”, she was the person I brought it to; her involvement gave me the incentive to write a proposal draft; she listened and asked smart questions and gave feedback and helped me get this on its feet. (Yes, dramaturgs need dramaturgs, too.)
We got some questions this week from a writer about assembling the text itself—in terms of readability, format, amount of stage directions to include, what sort of character/setting details.
Molly and I were in agreement that, as with most things, there is no single correct way to approach these elements; being educated and intentional about every aspect of your script is important, but the "right way" depends on what your vision is and how you want to communicate it. Molly’s astute advice, about this and in general: if you’re new at something and not sure how to go about it, see how the people who have been doing it for a longer time and with success have been doing it. Read other scripts. Ask around.
If you don’t have strong feelings that your script must be formatted in a non-standard way in order for it to be understood, I’d suggest doing it in the accepted standard format (see here), which has become such for its easiness to read. But anything that doesn’t make the act of reading of a play a chore, doesn’t generally bother me. (It’s ironic to be discussing this topic on the blog this week, after adjusting its own look to the critique that the white text on dark gray background was difficult to read. Sorry, folks.)
As a reader, I am looking at the script so that I can try to imagine what it would be like onstage—and often, more specifically, whether the company for which I’m reading should consider producing it. If you want to futz with the formatting in a way that makes it easier for theatermakers to imagine your play onstage, that sounds great. Your diversions in format might evoke diversions in content or structure, for example; again, as long as they aren’t maddeningly difficult to read, that’s fine with me. Great writers including Suzan-Lori Parks have done this very effectively. Futzing in ways that don’t specifically inform the stagecraft feels more about shaping the reading experience as an end in itself, and isn’t helpful in my thinking of the script as a staged experience.
We also got asked about stage directions. Molly pointed out that as a director, while it is her obligation to make sure the dialogue is spoken as written, it's unlikely that all stage directions will be strictly adhered to, for a variety of reasons. Writers should include those that they consider to be necessary to their storytelling, or that help a reader (whether that’s a director or producer or whoever else might be considering your play for opportunities or collaboration) to follow certain dramatic moments or shifts that would be clear when embodied in a theater. They can serve a similar function for a reader as regular punctuation—which is to say, that they can indicate where a phrase or beat ends. But the heavy lifting should and will be done by the dialogue, and describing the entire play’s staging or the characters’ emotions, is not necessary.
Character listings and setting descriptions came up, as well. These can also allow a reader to more easily envision the script onstage. Producers want to know whether they can support the cast size your play requires, so it’s helpful when playwrights make the cast size/range clear—indicating the number of roles, and possible or required doubling—as well as the characters’ ages and genders, and whether the play is ethnically specific. If the casting isn’t specific in these ways, indicating that you encourage diverse casting is good practice. Charles Mee has a great version specific to him and his work here.
If your play has many settings, include your thoughts about how you see those being staged. Having specific solutions isn’t necessary—through the beauty of collaboration, a set designer will likely imagine something wonderful that you wouldn’t have thought of—but it is good to be mindful of whether your bedroom-to-zoo-to-alleyway scene transitions need to be represented literally/elaborately, or can be negotiated with minimal scenic/light elements. When you see shows in different spaces, ask yourself what it would take to produce your play there. Could your multiple settings be placed onstage at once, with lighting coming up and down on each area as needed? If the stage is smaller, or the lighting too basic, for that, would set changes be required (with pieces coming on and off), which would take up stage time and require a crew? Thinking about your play in three dimensions can help you decide which theaters to submit your work to, how to articulate what is essential to your story and what is ancillary, and possibly, how many locations to use.
Why not make it easier for someone to envision saying “yes” to you? Especially if you plan on submitting your play to people who don’t know you or your work. I think about this attention to the on-page version of your play as being akin to what actors do when showing up to auditions. In order to make it that much more likely for the people behind the casting table to imagine them in a role, actors will dress in a way that suggests them embodying that character. This doesn’t mean going in costume (nobody needs to see someone with a hunchback to envision that actor as Richard III), but simply highlighting their glamor, or that they’re down-to-earth; that they can be very business-like, or more rough. A savvy actor can put themselves in the director’s position, think about what the director is looking for, and come up with ways to make sure those qualities are visible—in addition, of course, to their talent.
In the time between attendees, Molly and I talked about the importance of good theater journalism—and, in particular, theater reviews of smaller productions that are unlikely to be reviewed by major publications. Molly started a website that does just that—Theatre Is Easy, or www.theasy.com—which has been active for six years now, providing guidance to theatergoers, and helping create a lasting record of productions and individual artistic work that would simply evaporate if not documented in this way. For the majority of us who play outside of the narrow spotlight shone on the select group of mainstream theater personalities, how do we share what we’ve made and what we’ve learned? God bless Adam Szymkowicz, whose I Interview Playwrights series (here) is creating an Internet presence for the phalanx of contemporary writers whose work has yet to make it into American Theatre or to be published in self-titled collections. Thank goodness for the Times’s In Performance series (here), which puts on camera a mix of the best-known and simply the best stage performers, sharing snippets of their work on camera. I’m glad that HowlRound’s NewCrit series (here) provides a platform for theatermakers to discuss each other’s productions. And major kudos to Molly Marinik and the crew of writers she employs at theasy to see and seriously discuss the range of theater being made in New York. Intelligent words in print about our art aren’t the only source of legitimacy for us, but it keeps our art alive and in conversation with the work that came before it and is coming after.
Last week’s blog entry on the Dramatists Guild and its stance on dramaturgs, came up in discussion with Molly and one of the writers, as well. It was great to move past talking about the Guild’s stance on the relationship between dramatists/generative artists and dramaturgs, and on to actually talking about that relationship. I’m hoping more of these conversations will ensue, and I will continue to feature updates in this blog about how that progresses.
More next week.