Research Musings: Dramaturgy is difficult

Today was a classic example of my English literature brain clashing with my drama brain in an epic battle for dominance. I’m supposed to be writing a short essay for my next supervision meeting on the dramaturgical structure of The Changeling. Dramaturgy, by nature, involves using a play’s construction to make comments about how it might present in performance or, in the case of a particular production, commenting on the performance text as related to the scripted text. It’s therefore rather difficult to avoid the slippery slope that leads to close reading the text without attention to the performative possibilities it offers. 

This happened to me today: there I was, merrily writing about editorial differences in scene assignments and lineation, and I got to over 2000 words before I realised that I had yet to say anything at all about how this might apply to a performance of the play. In fact, I hadn’t even considered how it might apply. 

Fortunately, I didn’t have to ditch everything I’d written–I just had to assume a twentieth or twenty-first century, cast, creative team, and audience in order to make comments on the overarching structure of the play relevant to performance: actors working from cue scripts and without a director probably weren’t concerned about or even aware of the fact that the turning point, a crucial scene for De Flores and Beatrice-Joanna, falls smack in the centre of the play, for example. 

Hopefully it all comes together…wish me luck! 

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Julius Caesar: dress rehearsal

Tomorrow’s the big day! That gender-bending production of Julius Caesar I wrote about a few weeks ago opens tomorrow, for one night only. It’s been such a fun production to work on, and I can’t wait to see it all come together.

Perhaps the most interesting element of this production, for me, has been the work on Caesar’s death. Simultaneously playing Caesar and coaching the cast in contact improv (CI) work has been quite a challenge–it’s not always easy to see or sense how your own body is working in relation to others’ (which is one of the reasons I’m very grateful to have had such a wonderful director and assistant director!). It requires a special kind of spatial awareness to surrender control and body weight to another person while still remaining conscious of aesthetic. After all, it doesn’t matter how cool the movement feels if no one can see it or it looks ridiculous. It’s one of the reasons that Laura (our director) decided to use CI in the first place: it can help to create stage violence that has a dance-like aesthetic, resulting in something simultaneously beautiful and horrifying, aesthetically pleasing and psychologically terrifying.

I think that this kind of work is going to pay huge dividends for this particular production because it makes more sense that the scripted stabbings for the world that we’ve created for this play. There’s an old theatrical/literary saying that men stab and women poison when they want to kill. This is meant to suggest that men kill with force and women kill with cunning–it’s a violent twist on the mother’s line from My Big Fat Greek Wedding: ‘The man may be the head of the family, but the woman is the neck.’ So what happens to that dynamic when it’s a woman heading the ‘family’–or in Caesar’s case, the country–and her husband is sterile?

One of Laura’s answers–and consequently one of the production’s answers–is that Caesar is killed not with knives, but with unarmed hands. There’s a kind of primal brutality to beating someone with fists rather than with weapons, and a clear message that the perpetrators are physically stronger than the victim.

In our version of that scene, I, as actor and as character, am not in control of my body in the sense that I’m bound, by the rules of the CI game, to follow impulses given to me by my fellow actors. I’m also required to give them my body weight and allow them a measure of control over that. And while as an actor I’m conscious that I’ve made the choice to participate in a stylised movement sequence, as the character of Caesar I feel that it’s far more violating  and humiliating to be denied control over my body in this way than to be stabbed or poisoned. The aesthetic we’ve created will (hopefully) give the illusion that my power over my own body is being forcibly taken from me, which provides a huge power rush for the conspirators as well. In addition, each of them has a moment or two with Caesar all to himself, giving them the opportunity to get personal about their involvement in the assassination. Each of the men (and they are still all men) doing the killing has, at some point, individual control of Caesar’s body. They don’t just assassinate Caesar in this production, they torture and humiliate her. The fact that Brutus gives the death blow after watching most of the scene from the sidelines makes it all the more horrible, and yet oddly beautiful. The final position for Caesar and Brutus looks like nothing so much as a ballroom dance dip.

I’m very excited to see how all of these things read to our audience tomorrow. That’s the fun of this kind of experimental work: you never know if anyone will “get” it or not. Fingers crossed on tomorrow’s audience!

 

Now Write Something

Writer’s block: it comes to us all. Despite the fact that I churned out a little over a thousand words in less than four hours yesterday, today I found myself with nothing to say.

It’s times like these when I’m really grateful that I went to theatre school. Anyone who says a drama degree will not help you in “real life” clearly has never held a drama degree. In this case, it was a trick for character that was taught to me by several different people in several different contexts: stream of consciousness writing.

The basic idea in drama terms is that you can create an awful lot of character history and really “get inside” a character simultaneously by writing, non-stop, for about ten minutes. I’ve also seen this used as a creative writing exercise. You start from a single word, phrase, or idea and simply write whatever comes into your head for the duration of the exercise. For me, the first minute’s worth of writing is usually complete nonsense or, in the case of my first go at this technique, comments on how stupid and useless the exercise will be. But eventually, faced by ten uninterrupted minutes of constant writing, I begin to settle into the exercise and just let my mind wander where it will. Amazingly, it usually wanders on-topic and brings up bits of research I’d forgotten or connections that I hadn’t consciously realised were there.

Of course, the writing style is very casual and sometimes completely fragmented; you can’t actually use the product of stream-of-consciousness writing as anything more than a starting point. But it certainly does help to get the ball rolling, particularly when I’m really struggling just to start something. I’ve found it equally useful for writing papers, working through a character, and solidifying ideas for a production I’m directing. It’s almost like mind-mapping (which I also love!), but with a more linear structure.

Who ever said drama training wasn’t useful??

Research Musings: Frustration and Productivity

It’s been quite some time since I’ve posted here, despite my initial resolve to write something every day. In the past couple of weeks, I’ve felt completely submerged by my research, to the point that I struggled to find any kind of meaning in all the data that I had collected. I referred to it as ‘research nesting’ to a friend last week, but now I’m not sure that was the right way to describe the feeling: it’s more like research hoarding. There was an awful lot of gathering and collecting and holding on to potentially insignificant things, but I couldn’t discern any sense of order or meaning in what I had accumulated; I think this is why everything I read felt simultaneously fascinating and entirely useless.

As my wonderful supervisor kindly reminded me when we met last week, I’m only two months in: it’s normal to feel overwhelmed and anxious to begin the ‘real’ work of writing the dissertation (although, objectively, I’d like to believe that the research is as much an end as the written product of the research. But that’s for another post, perhaps). As Kate and I talked through the work that I had done so far, we could both see themes and potential hypotheses emerging that I hadn’t been able to see whilst I was working on my own. It was a huge relief to realise that, actually, my research hadn’t been nearly as aimless and meaningless as I had perceived it to be   and to realise that I could trust myself to know what to do.

So what were those themes and hypotheses, you ask? They all stemmed out of my insistence on combining theory and practice: I truly believe that practice without theory is impotent, and theory without practice is blind (thanks for letting me bastardise your quotation, Albert Einstein!). Apparently most people studying Middleton and/or The Changeling disagree with me, since there is a huge gap in the research around scholarly analysis of the play (any of Middleton’s plays, really) in performance. From Bawcutt, Scott, Neill, and others one can piece together the bare bones of a performance history, if one defines ‘performance history’ as a list of which productions occurred where and when and a basic outline of their aesthetic and/or thematic components, but little, if any, analysis of what these things actually mean when considered together with scholarship on the play, socio-political contexts, and available edited editions.

Since the release of the Oxford Collected Works of Thomas Middleton, however, there has been at least one production of The Changeling every year in London, and a significant increase in the frequency of production of other Jacobean tragedies as well. This indicates to me a potential relationship between the printed, edited text and the staged and performed text of The Changeling. I have a feeling that this relationship might be more direct than is usually supposed, although I know that I’ll have a hard time proving that. At best, the increase in productions since the release of the Collected Works is correlative, and I learned in Psychology 100 that a corollary relationship must not be mistaken for a causal relationship. So how to go about testing my hypothesis? One strategy is to look for other spikes in productions that occur close to major publications, and vice versa. Another is to seek for relationships between productions and contemporary printed texts: is it possible to find ways in which a particular production responds specifically to the version(s) of the printed play which is used as its script? More specifically, can connections be made between a print version of a play and the productions that are staged close to its release?

I have a feeling that these relationships are more complex than I  would like them to be. For example, most producers choose a season based on a wide variety of factors, including their target audience, their ticket take from the previous season, and their budget. If they expect or desire school audiences, they have to look at the curricula of the age groups they’re targeting (The Changeling was added to the AQA A-level curriculum within the last three years, incidentally). Early modern and other out-of-copyright plays become more appealing when the budget is tight, particularly if the director is willing to a modern interpretation or at least use costumes, props, and set already in stock. And plays have a way of becoming contagious: if one theatre successfully produced The Changeling in the 2011 season, it’s more likely to show up at other theatres in 2012 and 2013. So it’s not as easy as saying that the Oxford Collected Works catalysed The Changeling‘s recent popularity on London stages; I will (hopefully) argue, however, that the publication of new editions of the play might have more of an influence on a theatre’s season than is usually supposed. It’s still very early days on this, so I’m afraid I can’t say much more specifically at this time. 

 

Another theme that emerged from my hoarding was that of the tension between specificity and chaos, or order and disorder, in the play, both on the page and on the stage. In discussing Joe Hill-Gibbins’ soon-to-be-revived production for the Young Vic with Kate, I talked about how his version of the ending struck me as a perfect commentary on the play as a whole. It had the appearance of complete and total chaos: bits of food were everyone, most of the characters and the stage were covered in strawberry sundae sauce and other consumables, the cacophonous noise of overlapping lines from Isabella and Vermandero competed with Alsemero’s epilogue, which was shouted into a microphone whilst ear-splitting, discordant electronic music played over the top of it all. It was a chaotic image, aurally and visually, and yet the practitioner in my knew that something that appearance of disorder on the stage masked a precision in direction, a specific choreography of sounds and motion. This same tension between seemingly chaotic but actually ordered scenes and images runs throughout the text of the play as well, and this is the subject of the written work I’m doing this week. Despite depicting the breakdown of established social codes (‘You must forget your parentage to me’, De Flores says to Beatrice) and the disastrous consequences of mad excess and unbridled desire, the play has an impressively precise dramaturgical structure. A simple example is in the distribution of hospital (subplot) scene and castle (main plot) scenes: after the first scene, the only scene which actually takes place outside Vermandero’s walls, there is a stable pattern of one scene set in the hospital followed by three scenes set in the castle; this holds true even when the plots converge in 5.2 and 5.3. While the quarto doesn’t divide the acts into scenes, there is a stable ratio even in the numbers of lines associated with each location, irrespective of the number of editor-determined scenes. This is complicated, of course, by the fact that Middleton and Rowley’s (or at least their 1653 printer’s) lineation is not always as regular (read: Shakespearean) as their editors would have it be; I’m currently crunching numbers to investigate whether some kind of ratio holds when quarto lineation is used rather than edited lineation. In any case, it’s still just a suggestion of order rather than something totally concrete: no manuscript exists for The Changeling and even if it did, we probably wouldn’t know what the playwrights actually “intended” for the mise-en-page of the play.

What is clear, however, is that I’ve come through the first of many tunnels to find a little bit of light. And I promise to be better about updating here from now on (or at least until Christmas…).