Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Need A Dramaturge?

By Dennis Johnson, Community Theatre Coordinator

As we approach the fortieth anniversary of the founding of Theatre Ontario, a significant event in our history has just happened. For the first time, Playwrights Canada Press, working with Theatre Ontario staff, is publishing an anthology of full-length plays originally premiered by community theatres in Ontario. GRASSROOTS includes five new plays, each of which has had at least one local production by an all-volunteer community-based company.

Originally, thirty-eight plays were submitted, narrowed down to a short-list of ten. Sadly, only five can be published. The number of new plays written for community theatres in the last decade (and produced by them) is very encouraging indeed. So is the potential for future productions. Three of the five plays in GRASSROOTS have already been staged again by other community theatre companies. Two of the anthology playwrights are about to have new plays premiered next season. The credibility of local playwrights, and the interest in new plays by community theatres, have both gone up a notch.

What interests me is the prevalence of mentors for these emerging local playwrights. Most of them were lucky enough to receive dramaturgical support from someone in the profession.  Joan Burrows made use of the talents of Allan Stratton who adjudicated an early version of Staff Room.  He also taught Theatre Ontario summer courses in playwriting, which enabled Joan to develop her second play.  Sandy Conrad was invited by Anne Chislett to send her play to the Blyth Festival where it was workshopped by dramaturge Anne Turnbull.  Subsequently A Year In Edna’s Kitchen went through several incarnations before it was finally produced by the Kincardine Theatre Guild.  Michael Fay’s Never Such Innocence Again, was adjudicated by Ron Cameron-Lewis who was then asked to workshop the play and helped Michael develop a second version which was performed at the Sheridan/UTM Drama Program.

There is a lesson here. Support from a Dramaturge can result in a stronger play script, or at the very least a more confident playwright.  What’s a Dramaturge? Sounds like the straight line for a joke.  But there’s no punch line here. Just a new word. At least for community theatres. And a new need we are only just beginning to be aware of.  If we are to continue developing meaningful plays for production and re-production, we should seek input from people who have been doing it for a long time.

The word Dramaturgy can mean many different things. European “Dramaturgs” are different from North American Dramaturges. There is Production Dramaturgy and there is Literary Dramaturgy. It can all get very confusing. The key question is: What can a Dramaturge do for us?

In professional circles, Dramaturge is often the new word for Literary Advisor. A theatre company producing a period play, or any play where the playwright can’t be at rehearsals (or is dead), hires a Dramaturge to stand in for the playwright, advising on the author’s intent, the meaning of words, the literary content, the original context of the play, etc. A Dramaturge can also develop educational materials and prepare research for the show programme, the press package and the company website.

But Dramaturges are even more useful with new plays—and here we come to the point.  Dramaturges (whether their experience is in playwriting or directing) help us hold up a mirror to a new text and examine its strengths and weaknesses.

Last Spring I received a call from the Guelph Little Theatre asking if I would set aside a weekend in November for play polishing their Christmas production – an original play they had just cast.  I suggested that instead of a play polishing at the end of the rehearsal process, why not consider a dramaturgical workshop to explore the brand new text?  They decided to do both.  Lindsay Price was available and she came to Guelph to work with the cast on character development and a first reading of the script. The play’s author was an observer, furiously taking notes the whole weekend. By the end of the process, he was inspired to revamp and strengthen the text.

Community theatres often have play selection committees to plan their upcoming seasons.  They read a number of submitted plays and select a season they think will challenge the company and sell to the public. But selecting the repertoire is just the start of the process when new scripts are available. I would suggest that company program planners identify worthwhile new scripts a year in advance, and plan workshops and public readings to stimulate company and public interest in the project. The process of selecting and preparing a new play for production, is a longer process than most of us are used to.

If community theatres are to be successful at producing new work (and the playwrights of our province surely need them to be) then we should plan to give those new plays the same development and nurturing that professional theatres do.

Here is a list of Theatre Ontario Talent Bank members in the Creative Writing Category.  These people are available to workshop new plays and mentor new playwrights.  You may also wish to browse our website and look for directors and others experienced in new play development. Here’s a link to our Talent Bank.

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