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
The readings stage
All our plays go through a series of readings with professional actors in our little meeting room. I no longer read along with the script but put my hands comfortably over my tummy, put my nose up, listen and try to visualise. I take mental notes, but I don’t write them down, as they can make the playwright twinge.
Usually Jim Culleton and/or myself will let the conversation flow, and actors are an invaluable resource, but you have to keep your ears pricked as to where things are headed. The trick is to prioritise. If an entire scene doesn’t work, there’s no point discussing line tweaks within it.
Show in a Bag is an initiative between Fishamble, Dublin Fringe Festival and the Irish Theatre Institute. Since 2010 it has had its home in Bewley’s Cafe Theatre. Performers come forward with some kind of impulse for a show and we work closely with them to make a tourable production that they then own.
This year we had Swing (a Little Gem award winner) with Steve Blount and Janet Moran, Beowulf: The Blockbuster with Bryan Burroughs, Small Plastic Wars with Pat McGrath and Counter Culture with Katie O’Kelly.
This year, all the shows were positively received. The key is that the performers and I agree very early on – by March – as to exactly what show is being made. I try to hammer home the point that this is work being made that comes from the impulse of the performer and is aimed at really communicating with an audience.
This year, Counter Culture and Small Plastic Wars were the most typical. We sat up in the little meeting room and I got out a flip chart and we tried to make good basic decisions. Niggly problems on day one are often niggly problems at the opening. In these cases, it was delightful. They are personal and yet fully informed works by actors with something to say, and a complete, modestly expressed confidence in their ability to pull it off.
Every couple of weeks we would meet until they had completed their drafts, and then they moved on to their mentor directors, Donal O’Kelly and Alan King, to take them into performance. Much later, I saw runs and I put in notes to the director and performers.
I see this work as more hands-on dramaturgy. The performers are often coming with a mass of life experiences, and I find myself saying, “Okay but we’re making one play here.”
Having said all that, Beowulf was the least hands-on so far. Bryan Burroughs came in with at least three versions of the poem plus essays, and I tried to fox him by quoting bits in Anglo-Saxon (if I had my way, we would do it in the original). He’s also a man who thinks in movement, so he and director David Horan got a room in the Lir, and spent the summer creating it on its feet. In August, I was invited in for a showing and it was marvellous. I emailed my thoughts and they used them where they were helpful.