Playwriting and Dramaturgy

A couple of nights ago David Lane held a session at the Bike Shed theatre on dramaturgy and on how he worked with us on ‘The Disappearance of Sadie Jones’. I recorded the event and will post material from it here soon, but for now, here are my thoughts on the topic.

‘The Disappearance of Sadie Jones’ photo (and lighting) by Gary Bowman

I was introduced to the idea of dramaturgy and the role of the dramaturg while making performance in Amsterdam ten years ago. I’ve started thinking about the dramaturg as a kind of guardian of meaning. A dramaturg ‘reads’ a performance and makes associations, connections, constructs narrative, identifies what drives the work and how the world it conjures up functions. There are various definitions of ‘dramaturg’ – different in different countries and disciplines, but basically the etymology of the word sums it up: drama = action, aergon= rules/workings. Dramaturgy = how the action works.

David Lane’s role as dramaturg on this project had three parts, the first, to help get a handle on the script before rehearsals, the second, to plan ways of mapping out and getting a handle on the script, the world, the characters at the beginning of our development process with actors and the creative team, and the third, to watch run throughs/rehearsals and to help keep what was happening on stage on track with what we wanted to communicate. David helped us to uncover the meanings that were under the surface of the play, and then once we’d discovered them, he helped us to keep them visible.

Stephanie Greer, photo by Eileen & Chris Long
Stephanie Greer, photo by Eileen & Chris Long

It was hard for me to maintain the kind of distance needed from the work. At some stages in the process I was just so delighted by what the actors were doing that I didn’t realise what we were losing. It took me a while (years) to uncover what I already knew about the work …I didn’t know it consciously.

I invited David Lane to be the dramaturg on this project because he read the script on its own terms. He saw it as something that he didn’t understand, but rather than being put off by that he wanted to know more about it and look closer. It’s the kind of play that needs to be read several times, which takes a good few hours. That doesn’t mean it needs to be seen many times, but it’s not written for the page, and although many people will say that of course all plays are written for performance…I disagree.

There are various development processes out there, ways of working, unwritten rules, structures and  hierarchies that somehow impede on what and how a writer writes. It’s quite unusual to be able to devise your own process. I needed to find our own way of developing this piece because it’s not a play that will work in a read through, a rehearsed reading, a three week rehearsal process, it’s not easy to discover how to work with this play, how to re-write it, how to direct and act it, or what it means. That’s why we’ve learned so much along the way.

I wrote a play that I didn’t understand. This is probably the biggest reason I needed David’s help. I didn’t understand the play, but I loved it. Every time I read it, it did something to me. But I had no distance from it at all. I was beginning to worry that the feedback I had received might be true. I thought it was an emotional play, I thought the characters had emotional journeys, it certainly affected me emotionally, and knew I’d written it right from the gut, but on the page people were just seeing it as poetic, literary, clever….(heavy criticism in this country).

photo: Eileen & Chris Long
photo: Eileen & Chris Long

I didn’t understand the play because I didn’t plan it at all. I didn’t think about theme or character or structure before writing it. I had read plenty of ‘how to write a play’ books, but found that going into writing with all of that in mind just stunted my ability to write. I would bore myself before I got to ten pages. If I’m planning out what I’m going to write in advance, then it’s going to be predictable and unoriginal. I don’t think well with that part of my brain. But when I let my unconscious take over I was able to write something more complex and emotionally ‘true’ than anything I could have planned.

I wrote ‘The Disappearance of Sadie Jones’ as a stream of consciousness. I wrote it from an emotional, physical impulse. I wrote it in one go, and then spent the next three years trying to figure out what it was. It was a protest play. A protest against the plays I was seeing, against the voices in my head telling me how I should be writing, against a realisation that no one was going to produce my work anyway so I may as well write whatever the hell I wanted. It was drawn from my own unconscious and emotional experiences – I’m only realising to what extent now I’m seeing it in front of an audience.

Often a writer writes a play, and then the dramaturg or whoever, takes them through a process of ‘development’ which helps them to find out what it’s really about, and then armed with this knowledge the playwright returns to the work and makes it more coherent, makes it fit a structure  that everyone ‘gets’, makes it work on the page. We didn’t do that with this play.

That isn’t to say I didn’t do any re-writing, one of the first things I did was get rid of the large chorus of tall thin people…. But I didn’t start adjusting things with the aim of clarifying meaning until we’d spent a month rehearsing/exploring the work in performance. David describes the later changes as ‘anchors’ – little clues that will help the audience construct their own narratives and images in response to the work. We cut two pages yesterday during our tech when the fact that it wasn’t right to have a light change at a certain point made me realise that it wasn’t right to have that section at all.

Now I know what the play is about, I can talk about the characters, the back stories, the emotional journeys, what I want the audience experience to be etc etc. I couldn’t do any of that until now. It’s taken three years and over a month of work on the play with a team to get here. We’ve got here through trusting that what I wrote had all that in it, just in a way we weren’t accustomed to.

I have had the opportunity to choose who I work with, and to put together a team that was keen to go on a journey of figuring out with me, figuring out how to talk about the work, figuring out how to perform it, direct it, design it. This process was a layering that involved David Lane’s kind of mappings, my kind of musical approach, Amit Lahav’s kind of choreographic and emotional approach, and then a return to the script and a re-layering of our process in a way that served the play. To be able to go on a journey that includes many moments of not-knowing, and to be able to continually renew the way in which we worked was a privilege.  This process has made it possible to do something that I believe can be described as ‘new’.

7 thoughts on “Playwriting and Dramaturgy

  1. Dear Hannah, I am so glad you have written all of this down. Documented it. I totally understand and agree with what you are saying. There is no ‘defined way’ to write something. My process is very much like yours. I do not, cannot plan the narrative. I have to let it flow from my gut. I do not know what it is I am writing about often, but I ‘feel’ it. That is the only way I can describe how it is. I write because I have no choice. I write when there is nothing left to do, but write. Trying to write for writings sake, choosing a subject or idea in advance, tends to end quickly, and in a form that I find unpalatable. As you point out, some work just isn’t for reading. It can’t often be read and easily understood. It needs something more. It needs time and space to grow. It needs trust that it is all it needs to be. That it arrived already complete.

    1. Hi Stephen, thanks for reading, and it’s good to hear from you again.
      I guess we all work differently but with so many ‘how to’ books and courses and workshops that focus on the more cerebral approach, seems that there’s a place for us to talk about other ways…
      All best with your work.

  2. A deep and honest collection of thoughts, Hannah. A pleasure to read. And of course, all true.
    Passion, doubts, reality and surreality…and maybe re-finding bits of ourselves along the way .. It all seems dramatically but amazingly connected to Art. Well done.

  3. Sounds like a very intriguing piece of work! I hope to see it someday.
    It’s also great to read about the creative process and see how perseverance, hard work, and trust can bring results in the end, even when it’s a mystery how you’ll get there until you actually arrive!

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