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Dramaturgy Without Words

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By Kathleen Flaherty

In our random occasional “What do dramaturgs do?” series, PTC Dramaturg Kathleen Flaherty talks about two of her more unusual company collaborations.

One of my favourite “guilty pleasures” is a television series called Project Runway, where clothing designers compete to win resources to kickstart or step up their careers.  Every season of Project Runway comes the much anticipated and/or dreaded “unconventional materials” challenge – making clothes out of materials found on airplanes or in candy stores or in hardware stores. Sometimes I get to work on a project that makes me feel like I imagine those designers feel when pushed to make ball gowns out of beach balls – kind of dizzy with a combination of excitement and fear.  Right now, there are two such collaborations, one ending and one just starting, asking me to help do the dramaturgy of objects and the dramaturgy of the pop music playlist.

Some of PTC’s company collaborations are more focused on process design than on scene analysis and beat structure.  My relationship with Robert Leveroos and Metamatter on High Water has been like that. Because, let’s face it, how much do I have to offer on the subject of putting objects in a fish tank filling up with water, then taking them out again?

What we really needed to figure out was how to develop a theatrical event that consisted of objects going in and out of a fish tank.  And then do it. We decided on a series of experiments, starting with finding out how long it takes to fill up a fish tank with a variety of sizes of hose, so that the parameter of the program length could be established – the ideal length, we instinctively felt, would be around an hour.  In the backs of our minds, we were asking what would be at stake for the audience as the tank filled up – would they even notice?  what would be the strategies around making them aware of that? would it overflow?

Robert Leveroos High Water

The next series of experiments involved the labour-intensive task of putting objects in the tank one by one and in groups, playing around with them, figuring out how long to leave them there, and taking them out.  The work of these experiments seemed mind-numbing to me – the curiosity of a child combined with the dexterity of a tightrope walker is not my strength.  So this part of the was left to Robert, with his designer/puppeteer eye and with Elysse Cheadle serving as dramaturg/director, both of whom found joy in it. After two weeks of work, they had a list of three dozen water experiments to keep, some of them composite events, all of them with names  like Ping Pong Mountain with Solo Swimmer, Zero, and Japanese Rocks Slurpee Shark.  Then they went for the equivalent of a first draft – putting the actions together in some kind of sequence – something that we call an event structure.   When we watched a series of these events, it was clear that some of them created emotion and “meaning” and others did not.  Then, like any other draft, it was a question of moving things around, deleting and adding, in other words, shaping the “narrative”.

That’s one of the things I learned working with game design ideas – that this kind of narrative would be something the individual audience member would create in their own head.  Would your narrative be the narrative of the physics, a narrative about ecology, science fiction, or something else entirely?  The questions of what to include in the sequence would depend more on what threw audience members (or me) out of the piece rather than what I thought at a given time or if I thought what was intended.

Another big question became, “Who is the person manipulating the stuff (scientist? clown? demonstrator?) and how does he relate to the audience? Does he speak?  Look at us?”  Another basic question, “How does it end?”

Several audiences have seen stages of this process and it is always exciting to hear what engages audiences and how they endow it with meaning.  There is something magical about working with artists who start (and end) with instinct, who trust the audience beyond logic – and here it’s the dramaturg’s job to apply rationality to things that aren’t rational, ask questions that may or may not have answers, and enjoy the ride.

From water to wonder

More recently, I leaped at the chance to work with Fairlith Harvey and Geekenders on Alice in Glitterland.  The Geekenders have a burlesque approach to dramaturgy, which starts with the music, a playlist. In this case, Fairlith is creating a framework for an audience to be immersed in a version of Alice in Wonderland that combines dance and music with occasional bits of dialogue to lightly address questions of neuro a-typicality and difference in Alice’s absurd universe. When you enter, you can choose to follow several characters and switch at will. Which means there are several simultaneous scenes every three or four minutes.

a multi-coloured chart of scenes for Alice in Glitterland

Again, I am consulting on process and focusing on the initial script development process. We’re looking at it from three different angles:  what is each character’s “story” (or maybe path would be a better word)?  how does that relate to the overall structure of the piece (in both story terms and the emotional and rhythmic terms set by the playlist)?  what is the overall emotional arc of the playlist?

Part of the dramaturgy is figuring out how we communicate the “script” to each other. So, there is the chart of the whole, the script of the scenes in a general order, then the script for each individual character.  This is a job for which my secretarial training has prepared me – Fairlith creates, we put in on the chart and swap scenes in individual scripts until it all makes sense in three dimensions.  Then we listen to the whole thing again, move songs, change songs.  Return to the beginning.  Eventually, this all gets sorted out.  Meanwhile, we deal with the “big” questions of where these scenes fit in space, how various audience members are introduced to the space and given the rules, how to create safe words and safe space for everyone.

This processing is inherently challenging because it is a constant evolution of chaos to order to chaos – and that’s before the dance portion starts!  Again, the meaning will largely be created in the heads of the individual audience members, who choose to follow whichever parts of the action they wish for however long they want before switching.  Alice in Glitterland, like High Water, is all about audience pleasure and personal meaning.  What could be more risky to create than that?