Thursday, August 18, 2011

Reviewing the Reviewer: A Response to Bruce DeMara's Attack on Dramaturgy

It’s been some time since Bruce DeMara’s quasi love-hate letter to the Fringe (“How To Spot the Duds at the Fringe Festival,” which essentially ruled out 100% of Fringe shows) was published in the Toronto Star, but reviewing Fringe shows has made me think about it again. And with renewed thought comes renewed irritation, as DeMara proves in his article that, not only has he no idea what Fringe spirit is (if you can have a theatrical experience completely ruined by a somewhat uncomfortable seat, to the point where you eliminate promising shows entirely from your roster, preferring comfort over discovery, then you are officially not relevant to a serious discussion about the festival) but that he has absolutely no idea what a dramaturg is.

DeMara has this odd idea that a dramaturg is there to, I suppose, overthink things; to make the play experimental, obtuse, and boring. To many people, the word dramaturg is equated with pretension. (Well, to many people the equation is actually dramaturg = dramaturge = what is that?) I guess that’s fair – to call back to Avenue Q, the word is scary and German, so “experimental and pretentious? That is German!” But, if a dramaturg makes his or her work convoluted and purely academic, “savagely dissecting” someone’s work, then he or she is not a good dramaturg, which does happen. There are dramaturgs involved in “turgid drama” out there, just like there directors who are dire, playwrights who are just playing at writing and inactive actors. But I have never walked out of a badly written show and thought “That’s it, I’m never watching anything scripted again!” (Except for perhaps John Patrick Shanley’s Romantic Poetry, which was such an abomination that I almost never watched anything again, because I almost clawed my own eyes the way, that show had one writer/director and credited no dramaturg, and it was obvious.)

It’s ludicrous to dismiss an entire profession because DeMara thinks that only pretentious fussbudgets would have a dramaturg for a Fringe show. I, instead, call that treating “even” a Fringe show with the respect and communication it deserves. DeMara posits that a show must be fresh and spontaneous, which rules out the idea of dramaturgy, or, in fact, any careful consideration of the show at all, suggesting that a “true” Fringe show just throws the first thing that comes to mind at the audience. If that is so, the festival should be improv-only, or at very least, allow no rewrites and only one rehearsal from the actors. Rewriting IS dramaturgy. The rehearsal process IS dramaturgy.

The idea that a show should only be dramaturged after its production shows that DeMara seems to have confused a show’s dramaturg with a reviewer. As I’ve demonstrated in this blog, a dramaturg can write reviews – of other people's shows. But dramaturgy, an attempt to ensure a show’s cohesion on the stage, needs to take place before the show opens. It is intertwined with the process; it can’t exist apart from the process. There is a reason that critics aren’t invited in to review a show before opening night. Criticism is reactive, and thus largely useless to the particular production it is about; it’s for the audience, for history, perhaps for the team to think about for their next show. Dramaturgy is, and must be, active.

There is a reason that you get an MA in Theatre, but an MFA in Dramaturgy. That’s because an MFA signifies some sort of connection with the real world (and don’t snicker, I realize that spending money to get an MFA signifies a certain amount of disconnect with the “real world”) as well as an academic background, while an MA can potentially focus on only the latter. The moment I decided that I wanted a degree in Dramaturgy and not Theatre was sitting at the academic conference portion of the show I was involved in staging, and I realized that the active state of translating this academic knowledge into a valid and immediate performance for an audience was what particularly excited me. For an MFA, you have to put your academic background into practice and make it work. You have to work on shows. You have to take a look at the realities of theatre in the current climate. You study season planning, how to create an artistic vision that is also accessible; you study marketing, fundraising, grant writing: distilling a message. You can be as academic as you like at the table read or in the privacy of your own home, but the only things an audience will see out of your production are perhaps a program note and the production itself, not the explanation behind it. So you have to make your intention and message clear and interesting.

An MFA in Dramaturgy should carry with it an additional designation in Communications, because that’s what it is. You communicate the playwright’s wishes to the director, the actors, the designers, and the audience, and you communicate all of those people’s wishes to each other so that you are all on the same page. A dramaturg isn’t there to laugh at and muddle the audience; a dramaturg is an audience’s advocate in the room. A dramaturg is there to ask why a director has decided to stage Polonius’ famous speech in Pig Latin, to ask a playwright why his character has a sudden, inexplicable change in personality, to ask an actor if he has all the information he needs to deal with a complicated Greek legend, a designer why the entire cast of Hedda Gabler has been outfitted as space pirates. A dramaturg is there to streamline and demystify and to make sure everyone respects each other’s contribution to the project.

Perhaps you don’t like a creative team’s aesthetic. Does that mean the dramaturg is terrible, or are we all individual people and it just might not be your cup of tea? It’s like having a bad experience with a doctor and then declaring that “the job of any doctor is to kill the patient.” The job of any doctor is to save the patient, even if the patient sometimes dies. The basic fact that a dramaturg can be an almost indescribable position because it is so many things to so many people signifies that the profession cannot be lumped together as either homogenous or useless.

Saying that a dramaturg ruins things is saying that research ruins historical drama, that mediation is never necessary between creative minds, an issue DeMara touches on as potentially ruinous in the same article. It’s saying that a second pair of eyes is never helpful (again, DeMara criticizes not having enough people on the creative team), and what’s more, it’s saying that a dramaturg doesn’t care about the audience, which I take as a personal affront, because I absolutely care about the audience, and because, furthermore, I *am* part of the audience, so it’s saying that I don’t even care about my own experience. At this Fringe Festival, I guess I was lucky because I didn’t see any “duds.” I saw a large number of artists telling stories, more or less successfully. I guess it’s true, though, that I spotted one “dud” at the Fringe Festival. I think his name was Bruce.


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