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

Tue, Oct 8, 2013, 01:00

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.


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.

Beowulf is the kind of show I aim to make, which achieves masterly inactivity – the holy grail of dramaturgy, where you do very little for a hugely successful show, then quietly claim the credit.


A swinging success
Swing presented a different sort of challenge. Harold Pinter, in his Nobel Prize speech channelling TS Eliot, said: “Our beginnings never know our ends.”

In Janet Moran and Steve Blount we had two of the funniest and most affecting performers in Ireland with a wealth of devising experience. To this came actor and director Peter Daly – all his cat-herding abilities were required to support the two in their work.

Steve and Janet took their dance classes for the show seriously, and took their observations into a rehearsal room and largely created the show “live”.

In this case, my job was to get them to actually do stuff; give them suggested passages of script they could cheerfully dismiss but which made them offer their own version; and work on the structure of the play, so they knew where they were in it. Towards the end, I found myself giving very few – but important – simple notes so they, and the audience, could get the best out of the show’s journey.


Gavin Kostick is the literary manager of Fishamble: The New Play Company. His most recent play is The Games People Play for Rise Productions. Fishamble is currently running a playwright and director mentorship programme in partnership with Pavilion Theatre,
Dún Laoghaire. paviliontheatre.ie

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