Thursday, August 19, 2010
Phoenician Women Part One: Introduction to the Process
When I was asked to be the dramaturg on the Columbia MFA actors’ thesis production of Euripides’ Phoenician Women, directed by Columbia alumna Karin Coonrod, I was very excited, and approached the project with several goals in mind. First of all, I wanted a chance to do in-depth research. One of the most rewarding facets of dramaturgy is that it develops and utilizes research skills, as each new project often requires both quick and thorough acquisition of knowledge, particularly in the case of historical drama. I was initially unfamiliar with this play, and similarly unfamiliar with the Phoenician civilization, so I was looking forward to the opportunity to learn about both. However, being able to amass information wasn’t the only important task. Being a good dramaturg involves becoming not only an expert but also an effective teacher on any number of subjects. This project was important to me for both the research and teaching opportunities it provided, as a somewhat obscure and quirky classic involving a civilization likely outside the knowledge base of most students. The rehearsal timeline was generous and the cast size large, so I was confident we would really be able to delve into the play in a rewarding way.
On the other hand, a challenge that I often face as a dramaturg is knowing when to extricate myself from research and focus on practical matters. Just streamlining all the information I could gather into a manageable actor packet would be difficult enough. This play would prove an educational balancing act between my desire to be cerebral and my desire to put out a watchable and engaging play. One of the frustrating things about being a dramaturg is the difficulty of communicating the research behind the play, because, aside from a short program note, you can’t present most of the analysis and information to the audience, so much as let it inform the production. The ideal, then, is ferreting out what research is necessary for the actors and production, and to translate that research into aspects of the play; costume, gesture, character, even word inflection.
Phoenician Women was an especially intriguing choice because it tells an extremely well-known story, is written by an extremely well-known playwright, and yet is an almost unknown work, and certainly produced extremely rarely. (This is likely because twists, molds, and fractures the story in bizarre and shocking ways, but that's a subject for another post.) It was a fantastic opportunity to have such freedom in presenting a Greek tragedy, without the weight of layers of recent past productions. There was almost no production history in recent years – Professor Helene Foley of the Barnard Classics Department mentioned that she had seen one of little note in New York many years ago, but that was all – and so I saw no need to go digging up obscure production histories; that meant there were no seminal productions staring us in the face, and this was extremely liberating. It meant that the play would be fresh and new to almost anyone who saw it; an unknown quantity from one of the Western World’s most famous writers. It was a tremendous opportunity. We saw in this a chance to exercise our own aesthetic on the play, but in a very simple way. There was no great need to put a new “stamp” on it, because the play is relatively fresh; we wanted to be simple, clean, exciting, and focus on telling a good story.
I was interested in learning from the process of creating the production. It was vital to me that I got in as close to the ground floor as possible in order to use dramaturgy to tie each piece of the project together, making sure all creative elements of a production were on the same page of continuity and ensuring that one specific vision - that makes sense - was presented. It is important for me, as an early-career dramaturg, to identify and define what functions make a dramaturg indispensable, for only by being indispensable, and producing results that convince ourselves and others of that same conclusion, can we help ensure that the job continues to exist.
The last thing to mention about the process is that, while this was my thesis, first and foremost it was the actors’ thesis. I was responsible for the thesis of seventeen other people, which meant that I specifically was interested in how I could be most useful to the actors and how to make the process a positive and rewarding learning experience for them. This made it essential for me to be in the rehearsal room as much as I could.
The most rewarding thing about a thesis production, and really any production, is the constant exchange of knowledge and experience. Not only were the actors busy trying to imbue a difficult text with passion and humour, but they would also be particularly crucial in helping me to better understand the best way to use the process of creating the play, because actors epitomize practicality in the theatre. It was the actors who were responsible for bringing the research down to earth and incorporating it into the production. Because the actors were responsible for this transmission, it was particularly important as a learning experience to see what information they could make use of, and what was extraneous. Arguably, more information is always better, but not to the point where it overwhelms. The actors were prime candidates for this conversation because of the combination of academic background and acting training each one of them brought to the table; everyone had experience with personal dramaturgy. They were extremely eager to learn about the world of the play, and most had familiarity with the main myths the play deals with, so it made more of an impact when we discussed how Euripides fractures the basic story.
The actors and I developed a symbiotic relationship of synthesis. I would present information, they would absorb and incorporate it into their performance, and then, watching said performance, I could, as a surrogate audience member, see how much of the knowledge and analysis was coming through in the performance. If seemingly necessary information was not coming through, this was a sign that either I was not communicating it or its importance properly, or that the actors had decided it was actually not relevant to the stage picture. Both of these possibilities were valid, and it was up to me to figure out whether to try communicating the information again, or to let it go.
Finally, I was very excited about this project in part because we were going to be fashioning our own script from other translations of the play. While this was by no means as extensive a project as creating our own translation, sampling other translations instead of using just one was a great way to shape our vision of the play and its themes.
The only element of the project that was less than ideal for my current goals was that it was not fully original; a version of it had already been done at A.R.T. There were definitely changes to be made, but some ideas of direction were somewhat set at this point (though Karin as a director was always willing to let the actors explore from the starting point of her vision). This was, however going to present other exciting challenges to work through; that is, taking a work that had in essence been workshopped and holding a critical eye to the product that had resulted. I needed to make sure that I could bring new research and ideas to the table, while respecting the previous production, and I needed to make sure that both the new and old choices were dramaturgically sound – and dramaturgically sound in relation to each other.
More on Phoenician Women to come!
(Photos: Bari Robinson as the First Theban Soldier and Kelly McCrann as Jocasta/Cast of Phoenician Women; photo credit Ilana Lucas)