This is a question I often find myself answering. Actually, to be precise, is a question I encourage my students to find an answer to for themselves. DV8, Tanztheater Wuppertal, SITI and ZenZenZo are amongst the companies around the world that fall into neither one camp or another. In the West this issue with classification is perhaps more significant than here in the East where ancient theatre traditions tend to be dance based. Even more contemporary theatre movements in Asia have a more dance related aesthetic, butoh being a perfect example.
DV8 says of itself that their ‘work is about taking risks, aesthetically and physically, about breaking down the barriers between dance and theatre’. In its philosophy, SITI says that ‘The theater is a gymnasium for the soul’ and of course Butoh is also called the Dance of Darkness’.
So what do we do when a form defies classification? Well, we call it physical theatre of course, the broadest of all definitions that is so over-used it is almost meaningless. It was therefore with great interest that I read a piece written by Katie Colombus, for The Stageentitled Let’s get physical with dance.
In it, Colombus explores her own assumptions about where the line is drawn -‘I generally belong to the art is life, movement is dance school of thought – if it’s physical then it’s dance, and theatre for the most part is always physical (unless we’re talking floating Beckett heads but this is rare in the extreme)’. She had been to see a piece by LA based company, Wilderness, called The Day Shall Declare It.
Let’s get physical with dance
I often have to answer the question “but why did they train in dance to do that? That wasn’t exactly dancing, was it?” when seeing contemporary work.
This week the roles were switched around when I went to see The Day Shall Declare It, a physical theatre piece by LA company Wilderness, choreographed by Sophie Bortolussi. I was interested to see how non-dancers would cope with choreographed movement, and how theatre with elements of movement is different from physical theatre, is different from dance.
I generally belong to the art is life, movement is dance school of thought – if it’s physical then it’s dance, and theatre for the most part is always physical (unless we’re talking floating Beckett heads but this is rare in the extreme).
The Day Shall Declare It is made up of Tennessee William scripts interspersed with choreographic interludes. The performers are not dancers, they are actors, and although some scenes look like dance phrases, there is a distinctly physical tone to the experience that is really very different from the dance work I’m used to:
More raw, less polished, not perfectly hitting steps or sequences, but committing to the physicality nonetheless.
It adds to the play an extra dimension of communication that really brings home certain points – the seductive tango of when a couple first meets in a post-depression dance hall; lifting and moving around each other in close quarters adding to the claustrophobia of their narrative, reaching upwards and outwards of their small-town banal existence; slamming against window boxes and flinging/falling face first over leather rocking chairs while quaffing bourbon in a squiffy homo-erotic party scene.
Artistic director Annie Saunders is articulate in her reasons for using physical theatre to make a point:
When the recession hit, the personal, private question of the meaning of working – “what do I want to do?” versus “what will I live on?” – seemed to become immediately, drastically public. I wanted to make a piece that explored this and looked to a similar historical moment, the Great Depression, and the extensive canon of American labour plays.
This piece is an effort to creatively conflate these period texts with a free-form theatrical model and contemporary movement score, echoing the responses of the current moment, such as Occupy Wall Street, which for me took on a powerful and spontaneous choreography of its own.
Theatre expressed through movement is rather more sophisticated than merely being mime (thank you, Barrault). Part of it is the focus on the body, the unctuous flow between narrative, physicality, storytelling and expression from actor to actor and to the audience. The best thing about it is the fact it isn’t a slave to music or time signatures or phrases, it can flow purely from the momentum of the moment.
As far back as Artaud, theatre practitioners were encouraged to have a closer experience with the actors – scripts and spoken word alone being a metaphorical barrier to the audience. Since then physical theatre has thrived under DV8, Matthew Bourne’s Play Without Words, Motionhouse, Clod Ensemble and Theatre De Complicite, to name but a few, all companies fluent in both verbal and physical dexterity. Here the actors certainly have a more direct relationship with the audience, we are spoken to, moved around the space, sat by.
Part of it is how the piece has been created – often through group improvisation rather than simply reading parts. It’s an experience that brings you closer to your castmates in terms of proximity, intensity and impact. There is an excitement and chemistry that is palpable, particularly when in closer quarters to the cast (as is the case with Wilderness) – their collective energy and connection.
In essence the performance is more conceptual than a straightforward play, but it’s performed in a way that is intriguing and alluring. The integration of disciplines allows for further development of words, bodies and acting techniques. Expression and gesture can grow and when repeated the experience becomes more ritualistic, there are more layers to peel back.
The Day Shall Declare It hints at stories and alludes to events in distinct sections that don’t need to be understood in the way as linear narrative. It is more than enough to experience than to understand, as their reviews prove. Movement and speech are ultimately two instruments used for the same purpose – communication to an audience. Together, they are a powerful tool.
Over the course of the last few months I have been carefully watching the growing debate surrounding the showing of live broadcasts or recordings of theatre in cinemas and live streaming to anywhere you want to watch.
Theatre has generally resisted these modes of reaching a wider audience, although opera, particularly the Metropolitan Opera in New York and the Royal Opera House in the UK have been pioneering it for a number of years. It comes as no real surprise that live streaming has started to take hold and is expanding rapidly. Cinema-based and arts venue showings are on the increase as well as specific services, like Digital Theatre which allow for anytime, anywhere access to a growing range of live filmed, but post-produced, edited performances.
It would appear that the UK is leading the charge, followed closely by certain North American companies. National Theatre Live started the ball rolling in the UK in 2009 showing live performances in cinema’s across the country:
National Theatre Live is the National Theatre’s groundbreaking project to broadcast the best of British theatre live from the London stage to cinemas across the UK and around the world.
Though each live broadcast is filmed in front of a live audience in the theatre, cameras are carefully positioned throughout the auditorium to ensure that cinema audiences get the ‘best seat in the house’ view of each production. Where these cameras are placed is different for each broadcast, to make sure that cinema audiences enjoy the best possible experience every time.
Satellites allow the productions to be broadcast live, without delay, to cinemas throughout the UK as well as many European venues. Other venues view the broadcasts ‘as live’ according to their time zone, or at a later date.
They have rapidly expanded the programme and now broadcast co-productions, as well as their own work, from across London. The statistics are impressive – seen by 1.5 million people in 500 venues around the world, half of which are outside the UK.
……has attracted little critical or academic interest despite its profile. Whilst the current paucity of literature can be attributed to sheer novelty, its cause is certainly hindered by its lack of a name. Those working within the film industry have found it useful to use the term “alternative content”; those without hanker after a moniker more focussed on what the format does rather than what it doesn’t.
He goes on to say, and this is probably at the core of any subsequent debate and discussion, that
While some aspects of Livecasting may allow a greater number to claim ownership of the ritual, film is at the same time a fundamentally distancing medium; it positions the cinemagoers – structurally – as outsiders, a problem that the architects of the experience spend a good deal of time repressing.
The debate in the UK was really ignited by the decision of the Royal Shakespeare Company to start broadcasting to cinemas too, alongside the National Theatre broadcasting it’s anniversary performances on BBC Television. First to write about this was Dominic Cavendish in The Telegraph with a piece simply entitled, Should live theatre be shown in cinemas?
At around the same time Pilot Theatre live-streamed, for free, its production of Blood and Chocolate, an immersive, promenade piece which is still available to watch on Youtube. It is here that differences start to occur. The National Theatre and The RSC are only making their broadcasts available at a specific time, in a specific venue while Pilot are making theirs available at anytime as long as you have access to a computer. More about Pilot later.
At this point the debate got interesting. The Guardian in the UK, in its editorial pages, wrote that:
In praise of … streaming live theatre
Nothing beats being there, as any sports fan knows, but there are consolations when barriers to theatre access are removed
On Wednesday night the Royal Shakespeare Company joined the growing band of arts organisations that are breaking down the biggest single barrier to access – the need to be there – by transmitting live their top-rated Richard II to cinemas around the UK. Audiences from Aberdeen to Ambleside, Taunton, Tamworth and Thurso – and many more in Ireland, Sweden, Canada and Malta – were simultaneously connected to Stratford for a three-hour rollercoaster ride through medieval England. Thousands of enthusiasts who could never otherwise have got a ticket were able to see the first of director Gregory Doran’s new cycle of Shakespeare’s history plays. Nothing quite beats being there, as any sports fan knows. Yet sometimes it felt almost better: the camera could close in on Richard’s ravaged face, and it could reveal the austere splendour of the gothic set: a seat in the gods and the front row. Being there can’t do that.
This perspective really struck a chord with me. I’ve been to see too many plays where I know I missed the subtleties of the performance because I simply been too far away from the stage – particularly a problem in more modern, larger venues. However, and not surprisingly, there have been those people who simply can’t see the value of live-streaming, even fearing that it will reduce theatre-going audiences rather than increase them. In The Stage last week (the newspaper for theatre professionals in the UK), an executive from a regional theatre labelled the NT Live screenings as ‘Weird’
Stephen Wood ……. warned that the National Theatre’s NT Live initiative must never become a “substitute” for actual theatregoing.
Wood, who worked as head of press at the National in the 80s, has labelled the screenings “weird”, adding: “They are neither theatre nor film, but something in between. That’s not to say they are not valid, it’s just that they are a very odd thing.”
The article, NT Live must not become a “substitute” for theatregoing, goes on in the same vein. However, the accompanying survey and comments would seem to disagree with Wood. Not surprisingly his comments garnered some criticism. My favourite is from the ever pragmatic Lyn Gardner in her Guardian Theatre Blog. This was written only a few days after Wood’s comments, and another live streaming event by an independent theatre, this time of Howard Brenton’s latest play, Drawing The Line, which explores the moment when the line between India and Pakistan was made and British rule in India ended.
Why digital theatre poses no threat to live performance
The early 20th-century conductor Sir Thomas Beecham was not a big fan of the radio. He thought that if people could listen to concerts relayed in their own home, they would be reluctant to visit concert halls. He chided the “wireless authorities” for doing “devilish work”.
I thought about Sir Thomas – who no doubt would be delighted to learn that the devilish Radio 3 hasn’t killed off the live concert – last week when Stephen Wood, executive director of the Stephen Joseph theatre in Scarborough, was reported in the Stage as taking issue with NT Live, which screens productions live to venues across the country and the world.
Upcoming productions include the Donmar’s sellout Coriolanus with Tom Hiddleston. In a single evening, Coriolanus could stream to more people than it will play during its entire run in the 250-seater venue. Wood is concerned that these kind of broadcasts will become a substitute for actual theatregoing, saying: “We must be careful that we don’t arrive at a situation where this type of thing is what people’s only experience of live theatre really is.”
Wood’s comments echo those of Michael Kaiser of the Kennedy Centre in Washington, who in a blog last year raised the spectre that digital downloads and screenings are threatening American regional theatre. He asked whether the baby-boom generation could be “the last to routinely attend live, fully professional performances” and suggested that the allure of being able to broadcast to huge numbers could make organisations who are using digital technology risk-adverse and lead to the collapse of regional theatre. Why will people go out to the theatre, particularly at a time of rising costs, he asks, when they can stay home and download or go to a local cinema? Probably for exactly the same reasons why live gigs are flourishing. Downloading your favourite band’s tracks is not the same as seeing them live.
In both cases, Wood and Kaiser appear a little like King Canutes trying to fruitlessly hold back the waves. In both cases they appear to see digital as a threat to live theatregoing. Perhaps assuming that the 60,000 people who attended live screenings of David Tennant’s Richard II in cinemas are incapable of understanding that it’s not the same as actually seeing a live performance at the RST or the Barbican. I know perfectly well that fresh salmon and smoked salmon don’t taste the same but that doesn’t stop me from wanting to sample both.
Not everyone has a theatre on their doorstep or indeed access to it. Many of the thousands of British schoolchildren who last November enjoyed a classroom streaming of Richard II and a live discussion with Tennant and Greg Doran would not otherwise have had the opportunity to see the show at all.
But that doesn’t mean that their appetite won’t be whetted to go to their local theatre and see a different show as a result. Early research about NT Live found that it was more likely, not less likely to make people go to the theatre, and people who go to the theatre are more likely to go and see more theatre.
More forward-thinking theatres understand this. They are not in competition with each other for audiences, and anything we can do to encourage theatregoing and make it a habit can only be good in what ever form it is distributed. Surely we should be celebrating the fact that the NT reached two million more people through screenings, not getting anxious about it? If anything it should be a spur to make theatres and companies all over the country wonder how might they might use of digital in interesting ways. Many already are. Some are looking at different ways of storytelling in projects such as Unlimited’s new initiative, Uneditions. I don’t think this is an issue that necessarily pits big against small, or London against the regions. It is more about open-mindedness and a willingness to be bold.
It’s certainly not about ditching the way that theatre has been toured and delivered over hundreds of years, but rather about seeing the artistic possibilities of digital platforms and extending reach, capacity and audiences. There are plenty, from Pilot to National Theatre Wales and Hampstead, who are already doing just that. If they can do it then so can the Stephen Joseph, and others too.
Michael Kaiser’s blog for The Huffington Post, that Gardner references, makes interesting reading, but is very doom laden. He suggests that the broadcasting by national companies will inevitably bring about the demise of smaller regional companies. However, he makes assumptions and asks questions with very little insight of the UK experience where it is regional and smaller companies who are embracing live-streaming to widen their audience base and bring in more people to their building-based work. I agree with the veritable Lyn Gardner completely. The mother of a friend of mine who is a regular theatre-goer, but doesn’t live in London, now watches the NT Live productions at her local cinema, but still goes to London to watch other productions, by other companies.
I’m not going reiterate all the positive and supportive arguments made here in the articles and links, but to be able to increase the reach of a piece of work, both nationally and internationally, can only be a good thing. For example, the global live streaming of another of Howard Brenton’s plays last year, The Arrest of Ai Weiwei, has value beyond that of being an artistic and creative sharing. In the UK it means that people living outside London have access to some of the best theatre in the world and those regional companies with smaller budgets, doing exciting things, can have a reach way beyond their original remit, community and intent. The same will be reflected in any country where national theatrical institutions are based in a capital city, but are geographically and/or financially out of the reach of most of its citizens.
With that in mind, Marus Romer, artistic director of Pilot Theatre, announced the launch of a new a project, via his blog, that aims to create a country-wide live streaming service, LiveTheatreStream.TV. Pilot have been pioneering live-streaming of their work and creative conferences for a while now and have a dedicated digital production team. I have posted this before, but here again is their live stream of Blood and Chocolate.
Clearly, having said all of this, what we see now is a variety of broadcasting/streaming options emerging:
Some are streamed live, are free and can be watched again later via a hosting site/computer
Some are streamed live, are free and can be watched for a limited time only, again via computer.
Some are recorded, then edited and then made available for streaming, but at a charge via a subscription service
Some are broadcast live (via satellite) to specific venues, mostly cinemas, and are charged for but are not accessible in any other form
Some are recorded live, then broadcast later to specific venues, mostly cinemas, and are charged for but are not accessible in any other form.
I find it all fantastic and exciting for so many reasons. As a theatre teacher, for so long I have had to make do with filmed versions of plays or one camera set-up recordings of live productions – neither of which are anywhere near satisfactory. As an English speaking theatre practitioner and theatre-goer living internationally, I am, of course, delighted by these developments. Having said that I am, so far, always disappointed when I go to the NT Live website and it tells me that I am 7,500km from my nearest cinema – the distance between Hong Kong and Melbourne, Australia. Mind you, this morning as I was writing, I have been back to the site and it is telling me that the broadcast venues are getting closer – I can apparently now watch Frankenstein and Coriolanus in Japan, the Philippines and South Korea – so now only 1,100km away. One can but hope.
My original intent was to finish the post at this point, but as I said at the beginning and have hopefully alluded to throughout, the whole ‘genre’ is continually evolving, as are the discussions around it. However, a Tweet from yesterday led to another avenue of discussion, which very meaningfully adds to the debate about how we adapt the cultural landscape to take advantage of and make the most of live streaming. Elizabeth Freestone, artistic director of a well regarded small scale British touring company, Pentabus, wrote a blog yesterday, What live theatre screenings mean for small companies which, while supportive of what is happening, raises some very relevant, pertinent questions about the future. Whilst Freestone’s comments are about the UK, they could easily have a relevancy elsewhere as things develop.
I run Pentabus, a small-scale touring company. We tour rural area – village halls, fields, colleges and pubs – taking our work into the heart of a community. We do this because people living in geographically isolated places struggle to have the same access to live arts their urban counterparts enjoy. Transport, pricing, time – all conspire to deny opportunity. So I’m thrilled live screenings give our audiences more opportunities to experience theatre near them. And I’m delighted the income venues get from live screenings (including bar sales) helps them afford to programme more live theatre in turn. But some of the infrastructure surrounding screenings can’t help but pitch one against the other. And if put into competition with each other, venues will always choose live screenings because they are much cheaper to buy than live theatre. The good news is, the problems are solvable.
There a few things I have always had to begrudgingly admit that cinema does better than theatre, and one of them is death. A death – be it by murder, accident or natural causes – on stage is alway difficult. We suspend our disbelief, but when I see someone chopped down in the prime of life in front of me – I’m thinking Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet – it always leaves me (rather than the supposed corpse) a little cold.
So it was with some interest that I read Jane Howard’s article in The Guardian that mused on this most difficult of theatrical acts:
Can theatre ever pull off a convincing stage death?
Playwrights love a dramatic death scene – but stage trickery is rarely good enough for the audience to suspend disbelief
If you’ve been to the theatre even a handful of times, it’s likely you’ve seen a stage death. Our fascination with death seems endless, and proves fruitful picking for playwrights. For the writer, there’s power in making an audience empathise with a character and then ripping that character away, and there’s also power in the vindictive killing of the disliked.
Oedipus Schmoedipus, playing in the Sydney festival, is a documentation and reenactment of the deaths in the western theatrical canon by performance company Post. The billing lists the work as “after Aeschylus, Anon, Barrie, Behn, Boucicault, Büchner, Chekhov, Euripides, Gogol, Goldsmith, Gorky, Hugo, Ibsen, Jonson, Marlowe, Mayakovsky, Molière, Pirandello, Plautus, Racine, Seneca, Shakespeare, Sophocles, Strindberg, Voltaire, Wedekind, Wilde et al”. And these men didn’t stop at one death apiece.
Post’s Mish Grigor describes the work as exploring the “tension between the fact that death is an actual universal, and the western theatrical canon is often spoken about as having universal themes or, these plays speak to all of us. We’re interpreting an actual universal through something that we don’t think is really universal, but pretends to be.”
Is death, then, perhaps an easy way of trying to create a connection with the audience? It is something that everyone watching will have a relationship with, even when other themes a play explores may be foreign?
And yet, we are readily judgemental of watching someone pretend to die. When we’re watching theatre we suspend disbelief in so many ways, buying into the construct of the world and using our imagination to fill in the gaps. But there is something about death that is particularly sticking when it comes to witnessing it on stage.
“I find it quite absurd when an actor dies on stage,” says Grigor, “because we know that it’s a game of pretend: they’re still breathing. You can still see them breathing a lot of the time, and the stage trickery that is employed is usually not that good.”
When you start talking about the practice of death and dying on stage, the same concerns repeatedly come up. Tim Roseman, artistic director of Playwriting Australia, says: “The trouble is, it’s an inherently over-the-top theatrical thing that theatre does, because at the very least you’re left with: what do you do with the body? And so the artifice is always problematic.
“Because I know you’ve got to do it 34 more times before you finish the season and, literally, do you just get up and walk off? Do we get someone in black to come and steal the body in the end? It’s a really problematic thing. And, you know, fake blood. So I think it’s the thing we buy the least.”
It seems that while we’re prepared to ignore the wires helping someone fly, there is something about death that makes us watch for the rise and fall of an actor’s chest or shadowed movements in the blackout.
Maybe that’s why, when I look back at the deaths on stage that have truly impacted and stayed with me, I keep returning to puppetry. The death of the title character of the Adventures of Alvin Sputnik: Deep Sea Explorer, a puppet made from little more than a white-gloved hand and a foam ball, left me holding my breath to not audibly sob. The deaths of hundreds of silent puppets at the hands of Nazi soldiers in Hotel Modern’s Kamp left my heart in my throat and my brain overwhelmed.
I mentioned these deaths to Nescha Jelk, artistic associate at the State Theatre Company of South Australia. “It’s because the puppeteer animates it, gives it that life and gives it that real presence,” she says. “We really invest [emotionally] with the puppets, but it’s so easy to de-animate them and to take that away.”
Grigor agrees: “There’s always life in the person, isn’t there? You always know. For me, I find it very hard to escape that knowledge: that a person is just a person.”
There is also a great article from TimeOut Sydney, Death Scenes, which talks to six performers about how they ‘do’ death on stage. One of the actors interviewed, when asked if their mind wonders once they have been killed, said:
Sometimes you lie there thinking about what you’re going to have for dinner if it’s a matinee
A rather more serious article from theatrebayarea.org, I’m dying out herehas in interview with actor James Carpenter who has ‘died’ many, many times on stage and is an interesting read on the subject.
There is a lot of death in the theatre: sometimes good, but frequently so bad as to make you wonder why anyone ever decided to mess with the formula established by the Greeks. You can’t help but feel that the fathers of western drama had it right when they opted to keep all the gory business off stage – why spoil the performance with a series of unnecessary convulsions when you can send a messenger to report that you expired heroically, with all your tragic dignity intact? Ibsen, Chekhov and Miller got the message: a solemn exit followed by a solitary gunshot, a profound silence and no mess.
Saved, Edward Bond
It is the Jacobeans we have to thank for plays that conclude knee-deep in guts, thanks to their macabre fascination for golden daggers, poisoned Bibles, severed limbs and so forth – which all the followers of Sarah Kane and the Blasted school have enthusiastically revived today. But if one were to identify the absolute nadir of unconvincing expirations, it is as well to start at the Bottom:
Thus die I: thus, thus, thus.
Now I am dead,
Now I am fled,
My soul is in the sky.
Tongue lose thy light,
Moon take thy flight,
Now die, die, die, die, die.
I have seen actors spin Bottom’s soliloquy out for several minutes, at which point the joke no longer seems to be on Shakespeare’s weaver, so much as on themselves. But if the death of Pyramus is daft, Shakespeare also crafted some of the most exquisitely moving death scenes of all time, such as Cleopatra with the asp (“Dost thou not see the baby at my breast that sucks the nurse asleep?”), as well as one of the most defiantly underplayed (Mercutio’s “’tis but a scratch”).
The article I want to share in today’s post really touched a nerve when I read it last week. It was published in the Financial Times, written by Charlotte Eagar, and is about her project to stage the antiwar Greek tragedy, TheTrojan Women with a cast of Syrian women who have fled their homeland’s vicious civil war for neighbouring Jordan.
If you don’t know the play, The Trojan Women is about refugees, set at the fall of Troy. All the men are dead and the former Queen Hecuba of Troy, her daughter Cassandra and the rest of the women are waiting in a refugee camp to hear their fate. Euripides wrote the play in 415BC as an anti-war protest against the Athenians’ brutal capture of the neutral island of Melos; they slaughtered all the men and sold the women and children into slavery. You can download the text of the play as an e-book here, or read it online here.
Eagar’s piece is definitely worth reading. It charts the whole project from beginning to end. It is both immensely inspirational and gut-wrechingly sad. Click the link below for the full article.
My second post today is an article from The Guardianwritten by Haleh Anvari. It is about a rather special piece of immersive theatre that takes place in the back of a taxi, in the Iranian capital Tehran. Just fantastic!
Immersive drama set in a Tehran taxi
Iranian cabs afford passengers a degree of anonymity, paving the way for uninhibited conversations and a new play
That Tehran is beleaguered by appalling traffic and toxic air is no secret. The use of that traffic as backdrop to a play in a moving taxi, especially during some of the most polluted weeks of the year, is testament to the resilient creativity of the city’s young artistic community and their readiness to push boundaries not just in terms of art but physical wellbeing.
“Unpermitted Whispers”, a play by Azadeh Ganjeh.
Unpermitted Whispers is a 35-minute play that takes place in one of Tehran’s “Rahi” taxis, which traverse the city along fixed, often straight-line, routes. Rahis pick up passengers at major intersections and drop them off anywhere along their set route, making for a convenient method of getting around town and one cheaper than the minicabs available in every neighbourhood of the capital.
In contrast to the minicabs, which provide door-to-door service, the Rahi system affords passengers much more anonymity, allowing for candid and uninhibited conversation. Tehranis frequently share stories that they have overheard in these communal cabs; for many, they serve as an extension of the private sphere in which Iranians feel safe to talk about issues of the day. Unpermitted Whispers takes advantage of this unlikely superimposition of public and private to tell the story of three passengers, all women, who are picked up by a male driver at different points along his route.
To see the play, we were instructed to assemble at a busy downtown coffee shop around the corner from the University of Tehran. The modern café, run by a troop of young, funky Tehranis, is an essential part of the production. It acts as the foyer to the moving theatre.
A short wait and a couple of lattes later, we were asked by a young woman to follow her outside to the nearest intersection. We waited on the street corner just as we normally would to catch a Rahi. A nondescript older model grey Peugot stopped at our feet and the usher beckoned us to get in. Before the taxi pulled away a young woman threw herself in beside us, and the play began.
There are four shows nightly, necessitating arduous organizational exertions. For one thing, the sessions can hardly be expected to start exactly on time, since the stage is at the mercy of Tehran’s nightmarish traffic. The taxi’s dramatic maneuvers are an additional cause for concern. Twice during the performance we attended, the driver swerved violently to the side of busy Taleghani Street to facilitate the unfolding drama.
As Tehranis we are very familiar with the communal cab, both its discomforts and its possibilities: the forced intimacy that results from sitting beside total strangers, the unwanted physical contact, the vexingly loud conversations on mobiles, as well as the impromptu debates and spontaneous venting about contentious social and political topics.
The play’s first scene was performed entirely on the telephone, as we eavesdropped on a conversation of a kind with which many Iranian women are familiar: a young bride wants to go to the theatre with her university friends but needs an alibi as her traditional family and jealous husband will not approve.
The second scene involved another young woman, who had lost her brother and fiancé after they were called up for national service. It was confusing and a tad overdramatic – especially when she leapt out of the car while it was still in motion.
The third featured a chador-clad woman from the shore of the Caspian Sea – her perfect Gilan dialect would have benefitted from subtitling – in search of her abusive husband, hospitalized somewhere in the city. We were taken to three hospitals and watched as she disappeared into each to “make enquiries.”
By this point, we had willingly suspended our disbelief and were interacting naturally with her plight, more like actual Rahi passengers than spectators. I and the other woman in our little group told her she should not endure being beaten, while the male passenger resorted to an Iranian adage:“You enter your husband’s household in a white dress and you leave only in another white garment – a shroud.” This provoked a heated conversation which was missed by the actress, then evidently hanging around the A&E room of the last hospital for the sake of verisimilitude.
The play was produced by Urban Arts House, an innovative new collective of young professional artists from different disciplines who are devoted to the urban culture of Tehran. They produce and encourage the making of experimental art in and about the capital, aiming to engage the public with the arts amid the city’s everyday spaces.
The show’s creator, Azadeh Ganjeh, is a scholar of Shakespeare who specializes in environmental art. Her three female characters were ostensibly inspired by major Shakespearean figures: Othello’s Desdemona, Hamlet’s Ophelia and The Taming of the Shrew’s Katharina. I felt that the play would have made better use of its setting had she introduced some male characters from Tehran’s own bustling streets and rounded out the stories with some of the more comical moments we encounter daily negotiating life in the city.
The Rahi drivers are as vociferous as the cabbies in any metropolis and often hold court, directing the conversations within their vehicles. In Unpermitted Whispers the only male character, the driver, was no more than that, a sidekick to the drama of the three women, each trying to overcome her difficult circumstances. At best he served as a symbol for the modern Iranian man, willing to help but unable to effect any real change.
It was a little disappointing, thus, to find that the stories addressed the strains and challenges of just one half of the population. The innovative use of the urban environment, on the other hand, was effective. Our voluntary participation in the drama within this one Rahi amplified the sense of Tehran as a living stage with ongoing dramas in every unseen corner.
We were dropped off some blocks away from the coffee shop where we had started our journey by the apologetic driver, who declared that he would continue to help the lady from out of town find her husband.
Trying to find the way back to our car, we asked directions from a young couple strolling down a quiet tree-lined street. As the man stopped to assist, his female companion ignored us and continued to walk on. There were tears quietly running down her face. Was this a real lover’s tiff or were they both part of the play? For a moment, it wasn’t easy to be sure.
Theatre Room has been on an extended Christmas vacation, but I am back now and have lots to share over the next few days.
I want to start with an article from the Boston Globefrom last week. Written by Joel Brown and entitled Offstage, dramaturgs are playing a prominent role, it explores the burgeoning role of dramaturgy in American theatre. As I have written here before, dramaturgy often defies definition and this great article tries to put that right.
Offstage, dramaturgs are playing a prominent role
The posters and programs for Company One’s “Splendor” last fall offered three credits where there are usually two:
“A WORLD PREMIERE by Kirsten Greenidge
Directed by Shawn LaCount
Dramaturgy by Ilana M. Brownstein”
Playwrights and directors always get prominent credits, but a dramaturg almost never does. The billing for Brownstein was one outward sign of a backstage shift in Boston theater. In today’s theater, dramaturgs do anything from mundane script management to researching a play’s historical background, from suggesting changes in a play’s structure to arranging post-show discussions with the audience.
“The role of the dramaturg was, really, we saw it as a third collaborator,” said LaCount, Company One’s artistic director.
But it’s a job that’s at best dimly familiar to the audience. Partly that’s because the role of the dramaturg changes from show to show and company to company. Dictionaries broadly define dramaturgy as the art of dramatic representation. Even dramaturgs say the job is not easy to explain. In today’s theater, they do anything from mundane script management to researching a play’s historical background, from suggesting changes in a play’s structure to arranging post-show discussions with the audience.
“You ask 10 dramaturgs what they do, and you’ll get 17 answers,” said Brownstein, whose title at Company One is director of new work.
From left: director Shawn LaCount, dramaturg Jessie Baxter, and actor Peter Andersen discussing an upcoming production of “The Flick.’’
From a small-company production like “Splendor” to the Broadway-bound “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess,” dramaturgs have been shaping much of what Boston theater audiences see. LaCount and others say that a dramaturg is especially valuable to a new play, and that’s why dramaturgs have a higher profile here lately. “I think Boston is becoming a player in new work in the American theater, (and) it’s been a while,” said LaCount. “I think the role of the dramaturg is a lot more noticeable and valuable.”
The Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas will hold their annual conference here in June. “The theme of the conference is looking to the future to see where we are going,” says conference chairwoman Magda Romanska, an associate professor at Emerson College and editor of an upcoming dramaturgy textbook. “I think it’s a really good moment for the field.”
Playwrights are artists and rightly protective of their creations. But Greenidge said she was happy to have Brownstein’s input during the development of “Splendor,” which is built around a Thanksgiving weekend and centers on ties of family and community.
“One thing Ilana brought up was, ‘Nobody ever has Thanksgiving dinner in your play — what does that mean?” Greenidge said. By the time of the premiere, the playwright added a brief, dreamlike scene in which all the characters come to the table to get a piece of pie before dispersing again.
Dramaturgy (it rhymes with clergy, though “dramaturg” is pronounced with a hard G) dates to Europe in the 1700s, when the first dramaturgs were sort of in-house critics. Formal dramatic structure was long their main concern. Now institutional dramaturgs may be involved in selecting plays for a company to produce; they often carry the job title of literary manager. Production dramaturgs work on a specific show. Some dramaturgs are freelance, some on staff. Duties and titles overlap.
In the modern era, dramaturgs are known mainly for researching the context of a play to ensure an accurate production, and to provide background information to cast and designers. They have long been considered “the in-house bookworm,” as one joked.
But even that role is not necessarily dull. “Today I’m reading all about S&M for ‘Venus in Fur,’ ” said Charles Haugland, dramaturg at the Huntington Theatre Company.
Dramaturgs enter the field in various ways, but few have had as consistent a path as Ryan McKittrick, director of artistic programs/dramaturg at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge. “I sort of grew up in this theater,” he said.
McKittrick was an undergraduate at Harvard when he fell in love with ART’s work, studied dramaturgy at the ART Institute, and has worked with the company since he graduated in 2000. He works on projects developed sometimes over years at the theater, including 2011’s “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess” under artistic director Diane Paulus that made it to Broadway.
“When I was an undergraduate, I didn’t really know what dramaturgy was,” McKittrick said. “It provides an opportunity for someone who loves academic research but also loves the theater and wants to pursue a life in professional theater. And within the theater you get to do many, many different things.”
Most dramaturgs write program notes and organize post-show discussions. Their quest: “How do we deepen an audience’s connection to the material?” said A. Nora Long, a dramaturg whose job title is associate artistic director at the Lyric Stage Company of Boston.
On productions, a dramaturg may also be responsible for “moment-to-moment rehearsal stuff” that requires a deep knowledge of the script, Brownstein said. “Splendor” follows numerous characters in a fictional Boston suburb over decades, jumping back and forth in time. The cast rehearsed the scenes in the order in which they appear in the play, not in the order in which they happen. So the scene they were working on at any given time might hinge on developments not shown until later.
“So it was one of my jobs for every scene to be the person who was like, ‘Context! Here’s what you need to know,’ ” Brownstein said.
Playwright Walt McGough says he’s always happy to have a dramaturg on one of his productions because they can solve thorny problems. When his “Priscilla Dreams the Answer” was in rehearsal with Fresh Ink Theatre a couple of years ago, he and director Melanie Garber got along great except for “one moment where we just kept talking past each other,” McGough said via e-mail.
The issue on which they deadlocked: when to start playing a Belle and Sebastian song in the play’s final moments. Garber wanted to start at the beginning of the last scene, while McGough wanted to wait until the blackout, he explained.
“We were wasting time trying to explain to each other why one choice was right and the other was wrong,” McGough said. “The dramaturg, Jessie Baxter, was sitting and patiently watching us run around in circles. She spoke up and recommended splitting the difference, and beginning the cue about halfway through the scene, so that it underscored the final moments but didn’t kick in fully until the play had ended.”
That solved the problem perfectly, he said, and exemplified the value of having a dramaturg who “observes the entirety of a play and its production, instead of just one aspect, and makes sure that everything that happens is being done in service to the same viewpoint.”
Baxter also “dramaturgs” for Company One and is working on its production of Annie Baker’s “The Flick,” opening at the Modern Theater in February.
The job all depends on the play, the circumstances and who’s involved. Dramaturgs can be less needed on a well-known work, especially with an experienced director. “If we’re doing ‘Private Lives’ with [director] Maria Aitken, she’s done 12 Noel Coward plays, she doesn’t need me,” said the Huntington’s Haugland.
And there are some playwrights and directors who aren’t so enthused about what dramaturgs have to say. Playwright Richard Nelson gave a speech in New York in 2007 in which he deplored a “culture of ‘development’ ” in which playwrights are thought to need help to do their work.
Boston dramaturgs say it’s often the older generation that has an issue with their growing role.
“I have some people in my family who are theater practitioners,” said Long, “and when I told my uncle I was studying dramaturgy, he was like, ‘As a director, what would I possibly need a dramaturg for? I can do research.’
“But the thing you cannot do is be another pair of eyes,” Long said. “I think the best dramaturgical relationships are about finding a collaborator who knows as much about what you are attempting to do onstage as you do, but who is going to look at it from a different perspective.”
As devised theater and new technologies become more common, younger playwrights grow more comfortable with new kinds of collaboration, said Romanska, who had just returned from a theater festival in Krakow filled with experimental work. “The rigid division of roles, director/dramaturg/playwright, becomes more and more blurred as people move across boundaries,” she said.
There is also an excellent article here, written by Robert Loerzel for Playbill that also tackles the question.
The Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas, mentioned in Brown’s article, is an excellent source of information. It has a resources page, which contains a Dramaturgy Handbook written by Dr Magda Romanska who is the Assistant Professor and Head of Theatre Studies at Emerson College. This is a real find and a must read. Simply click the link above to download a copy.