MSG: Distance Dramaturgy/ You Don’t Know What You Don’t Know/ Trust Where You Are


We checked in with the playwrights involved in MSG Lab – VACT’s program that supports new theatrical work by emerging and mid-career Asian Canadian artists – to find out about their experience with their PTC dramaturg. Joanna Garfinkel is working with playwright Gary Mok on i broke the ocean; Heidi Taylor is working with playwright Sangeeta Wylie on The Boat People, and Kathleen Flaherty is working with playwright Yumi Ogawa on Japanglish 2 .


Distance Dramaturgy

Dramaturg Joanna Garfinkel and playwright Gary Mok have a technology-accented distance – they “meet” every other week on Google Hangouts, and share live documents and email in between about i broke the ocean. Joanna thought it might be fun to meet on the topic of their distance.

GM: It’s my first time with a dramaturg not in same city, without traditional face to face – it forces me to ask better questions. When I’m working, it’s five, six a.m. your time, I’m not expecting a response right away…I’m learning to be very specific when I do have you with me, learning how to prep properly, as I don’t have the luxury of texting my dramaturg in the morning, “What do you mean by this?”

JG: You could text me in the morning, but I might not answer.

GM: That’s great. I have to figure it out, or do my interpretation. I try to transfer my notes from paper to computer, but sometimes things get lost in translation. Sometimes I miss things, and I don’t know til you bring it up 2 weeks later.

JG: As much as it seems like we’re in the same room on hangouts, it became clear that it’s not, when we were last week…It makes us more efficient, I save up notes, and I don’t get to do my terrible drawings

GM: You gotta get some drawings in, we have try that out.

JG: I like to make weird sketches, and they’re terrible, and hopefully they’re enlightening…

GM: Whatever works.

JG: How has this process/distance dramaturgy affected i broke the ocean?

GM: It’s so hard for me to separate how you’ve helped me find new life in the piece, versus what is from how we’re far apart….but from where the piece was when I sent it [to MSG], versus where it is now…I love how you’ve challenged me about how beautiful everything has to be, and how perfectly crafted everything has to be.

One of the reasons I like to write is that I like to solve puzzles. I like to make my own puzzles and solve them. For a piece that explores father-daughter relationships, something that is very rarely perfect, and having the way we explore it mirror that in process…

The relationship that is messy, having you have me explore a messier style, has uncovered rougher edges in relationships, and new ways to tell the story, that is exciting to me. Especially when we talk about how style is driven by the story, if we have a story that is not so perfect, and messy, how to bring that messiness to how we tell the story in a productive way.

JG: Watching this piece transform…those are the same ways I’ve been inspired, to see you explore new tones, and breaking out of some patterns that didn’t turn out to be integral to the piece. What do you want people to know?

GM: That you’re great. Joanna is great. (laughing, we both are laughing, so maybe the joke is on me?-jg)

GM: What I love about PTC, is that it has a focus on process, we’re all driven by process… In our art form, there is such little celebration of process, relative to results, places like PTC or Workshop Montreal, they make me feel better about the world and make me feel less like a naive person and artist. And that’s nice.


You Don’t Know What You Don’t Know

Dramaturg Heidi Taylor in conversation with playwright Sangeeta Wylie about The Boat People.

HT: What has been the most surprising thing you’ve learned about your own process while creating your play?

SW: About three months into the process, I realized I needed to go back, and dig a little deeper with my subject. There was something missing, and I could not put my finger on what the missing piece was, or how to find it. An instinct led me to go back and interview the daughter, who was four at the time of the journey. It led to the revelation of what the whole piece is actually about. It surprised me that something inside me knew specifically what to do, without me knowing why I needed to do it. For all of the process and planning, sometimes it is just about being open, and letting yourself go; to be at the mercy of where the piece needs to go, and how it needs to get there.

HT: What did you expect working with a dramaturg? How has it been the same or different?

SW: In hindsight, I had low expectations of what a dramaturg would bring. I thought she would be an ear, a sounding board for ideas, my ideas. Instead I was challenged to go places I hadn’t thought of. To explore ideas I wouldn’t have thought of. It’s like that saying, you don’t know what you don’t know.

You exceeded my expectations well beyond what I could have imagined. You encouraged me to stretch in different directions, to think about things from new perspectives and also, to understand the inherent value of a thing…to know when it is enough to know it, and let it go. I was able to explore ideas from different positions, not always my own position; and then further define what my position would be vs. that of the character’s.

HT:  What are you most curious about going into your own public reading of your first play?

SW: I’m curious as to what will surprise me most when I hear the piece. It goes back to you don’t know what you don’t know. I think I will have moments where I cringe, and moments where I am pleasantly surprised. After that, I’m excited for these moments to teach me something about what the piece is really saying, and what it needs to say.


Trust Where You Are

Kathleen Flaherty talks with Yumi Ogawa about the development of Japanglish 2.

KF: How does dramaturgy fit into your writing process?

YO: I’m actually still finding my writing process.  I always thought I would want a few drafts of a script under my belt before seeing a dramaturg. So I can be clear when I meet him or her, on what is it that I want with the play. But with Japanglish 2, I only had a bunch of individual scenes, that had been workshopped with writing groups. So, it was a more collaborative process which I appreciated. It’s exciting to brainstorm and see what the play could be.

KF: What has surprised you most about the process of writing this play so far?

YO: It really made me look at myself. The times where I felt like I was gripping and working too hard, and I wondered why I was doing that. And I’d notice the time I spent away from my husband and daughter, and put this pressure on myself to make them proud! The times where I had instincts about where the script should go, but I didn’t trust myself because I wanted to do it right. It was a lot more of an emotional journey than I expected.

KF: When you started this piece, it was a follow-up to your piece Japanglish, which you performed yourself.  What are the differences between writing for yourself to perform and writing for other (unknown) actors?
YO: Because Japanglish was based on my personal experience, I felt like I already had such strong connections to the words on the page. As simple as the words would be, I would emotionally connect to the story I was telling because I had gone through it. Writing for other actors, I feel like I have to be more specific and explain it on the page more, whether it be choosing different choices of words or incorporating more stage directions. Originally, I intended Japanglish 2 to be a solo show. But having the process of having other actors read it and workshop it, it’s more challenging and I’ve learned a lot!

KF: What do you wish I had told you when we started to work together?

YO: To throw away any expectations. I thought I would have a “production draft” ready to go by the end of this program. But I know that my script is still in development phase. There’s so much more to explore. And I’m not going to have all the answers right away. I may have to leave this script, for a month or so, and then come back to it. It takes the time that it needs.

To trust where you are. Kathleen did tell me this. But I wish I listened. I’m a perfectionist, and I felt like there were times I wanted to be further along than where I actually was.