Behind the curtain: the dark arts of dramaturgy
Help the writer deliver the best play possible. Get the basics right early. Do very little for a successful show, then claim the credit. Welcome to the tricks of the dramaturg’s trade
Janet Moran and Steve Blount in ‘Swing’
Gavin Kostick. Photograph: Juno Lilly Kostick
Ryan Andrews and Seána Kerslake in Fishamble’s production of ‘The Bruising of Clouds’. Photograph: Pat Redmond
Bryan Burroughs in ‘Beowulf: The Blockbuster’
The word “dramaturg” is not universally popular among the playwrights of Ireland. I was in a reading with one of my favourite writers, who gave out splendidly about the uselessness of the “dramaturkey”. He then paused and said, “I don’t mean you, Gav.” It was a moment of quiet pride.
Writing a play, like the creation of many artworks, has been compared to giving birth to a baby. I have seen my wife give birth twice; the two things are not comparable.
However, I did start to wonder if writing a play is like bringing up a child. You begin by dreaming all sorts of ideas about how the child will be – play for Arsenal, international rock-climbing cellist, and so on – and you gradually realise that you have to shift to helping the child to be the best person that they can be.
At its simplest, what I try and do is help the writer deliver the best play they possibly can. This means understanding that the play itself will start to suggest the way in which it wants to develop.
I’m the literary manager for Fishamble: The New Play Company. Sometimes people ask why we pick some plays and not others. For me, it is when my hands shake and I start chortling and say to Jim Culleton, the artistic director of Fishamble, “you have to read this”.
That happened once when a playwright, Sean McLoughlin, now known as Sammy Gleeson, sent in a first script. That script had seven characters, and at the time we had the possibility of a slot for a two-hander, so we put this to Sean. He said he had just the thing, and leapt up from his chair and performed chunks of what was to be Noah and the Tower Flower. To this day I don’t know if he had written it, or if it was just in his head and he was seizing the opportunity. In any case, it went on to win best new play at the Irish Times Irish Theatre Awards that year. Now Fishamble is presenting Sean’s third work for the company, The Bruising of Clouds, as part of the Dublin Theatre Festival.
Sean’s works are like a series of dramatic short stories that are all about character. I once made a line suggestion to him, and he said, “Yeah that’s good – but then you’d see the writer, writing.” In Sean’s world, that’s a crime. You see the characters, not the author’s opinion of the characters.
Because his work comes out of central Dublin and because he is a playwright, he has been compared to O’Casey. But Sean refuses the moral and political arguments and judgment of O’Casey. I’d see him more in line from Chekhov, where the characters see the universe from their own eyes, are entirely themselves: one is never quite sure what the writer thinks about the world at all. He is not a “state of the nation” playwright; he is a “this is how things are” writer.