Tuesday, 26 June 2018

Stories from the Professional Theatre Training Program: Aaron Jan

Our Professional Theatre Training Program (PTTP) offers financial support for unique and flexible training with a chosen mentor in any theatrical discipline (except performance.)

Aaron Jan training in dramaturgy with Marjorie Chan at Cahoots Theatre in Toronto

(May 4, 2018)

So what happens if your show doesn't happen?

This is something that came up during a strategic planning for Cahoots a few weeks ago.

If your company and work just vanishes, what happens? In a week? In a month? In a year? In five years?

Does anything really change? Who did you empower when you had a company? Does the city lose anything if your company vanishes off the face of the earth?

My tenure with Cahoots has me thinking of permanence versus impermanence, specifically in what it means to have space and take up space by putting work out there. We can't stop taking up space. It's in our nature as humans. We're not ghosts. We consume resources in real time, we create waste, we occupy physical space.

So if we are to take up space, how do we make sure that our work helps as many people as possible? How do we make sure that our work is able to reach as many people as possible, that our company is of the community on land that doesn't belong to us, that if we take up space with the size, effort and waste of our productions, we do it so it is inclusive of the physical territory that others have taken up for years?

Is it in the way we word things? Is it in the way our website is organized, the way we meet with people, the photos we take? Is it how we curate our company profile, how we do our outreach, how we make ourselves available to others? Is it in our programming, our casting, how we assemble our teams? Is it in how we conduct ourselves online, how we brand ourselves, of who we choose to co-pro, our desire to call out versus call in the public or private spheres?

If you're on a stage (or whatever performance space you choose), if you have funding, it means that someone else did not. It means that someone else lost funding, someone else didn't get the rental, someone else's story or experience isn't told. This could be joe from around the block who puts up a new play every month, or this could be someone (an individual or a person) who never gets programmed, or has never been, or maybe doesn't see themselves in the theatre. We all take up space, it's our responsibility to see how we can share it – how we can use all of our resources to invite as many folks as possible into the square of land we call our show.

On Dramaturgy

When I direct, I take up space. I have a vision. I drive the ship forward. I unite the group with a vision. While I try to be equitable in the room, the fact remains that we are sharing one united space. The space is curated so it suits us, but our footprint is unified.

As a new dramaturg, I think I'm starting to understand it as a negotiation of space. The playwright comes in with their own space, I come in with mine. If I impose my space on theirs, does the space still belong to them? If I have observations about a work, I need to make sure that it's not infringing upon the artist's vision of their space. It's a tricky negotiation that I'm starting to get better at, as often it's a question of form – letting the artist articulate the space and form they are trying to create with the work so they lead the conversation and my input addresses their questions in realizing the container they have articulated. I am obsessed with product as a director, about getting it right and working things through. With dramaturgy, it's a different conversation, one at a different pace and led by a different person.

Going back to the strategic planning session, something I've found quite useful in my dramaturgy is identifying the core of a piece – that piece if you strip the entire play away, all of the characters, all of the themes, all of the plot, what is left in the play? What is the play really about? What fascinates the playwright about the story? What is the core idea that caused them to write the thing in the first place?

This of course, changes drastically when a show is scheduled for production, or if a company is interested in producing work. My current negotiation as a dramaturg is figuring out how to let the playwright discover the core without writing their play for them – but while also giving them exercises and having them feel like the support I provide is sufficient. Marjorie has said her primary job as a dramaturg is to get the playwright to write, so I've been adapting this into my own practices as I help develop a fringe play that I'm developing for the summer.

I've been able to sit in on numerous meeting Marjorie has with playwrights who were both awarded Cahoots' RGTC and were not. Even when she has no interest in programming an artist, she's still willing to meet with them and be a resource if they request it. I think that's something to take into my own dramaturgical practice. Even when Marjorie is invested in a playwright and is interested in programming them or giving them space, she lets them articulate their need and questions first. Based on that, she then adapts to their ask. It's a small gesture, but the fact that she never imposes on that container is something I take to heart for my own dramaturgical process. Marjorie is very clear with playwrights whether Cahoots is or is not interested in their work and she never sugar-coats her opinions, but she never let

These meetings occur inside Cahoots' studio. There's a fold out table, usually a plate of food (Cahoots always seems to be very good at having snacks), but the idea is that the artist is invited into the Cahoots space. No matter whether they are programmed or assisted by Cahoots in any way, the artist is made to feel at home in Cahoots. It's such a simple way that the company is able to share their space, but it creates this idea that the company is open to the artistic community. The website/season pamphlet is also a negotiation of space – where Cahoots put the artists of their playwriting unit on the front page.

Contrasting to this – and this might be a little soap box moment of mine – but  I think to a recent intermission article – specifically one about accepting open script submissions. While I strongly disagree with the notion that theatres are charities for artists that are opening their doors for the greater good (for myself, I recognize that theatres are indeed a business and if they are to look at unsolicited script submissions, dramaturgs/literary managers must be compensated for the overtime hours – which simply cannot be accounted for due to the limitless nature of unsolicited submissions)  the thing that sticks with me in the article is the image a company creates and maintains through how they approach the artists they're interested in.

In a way, the maintenance of the company image is a larger scale of curatorial dramaturgy, one that is of a growing interest to me in my own artistic life. How do we make sure our container (to use a directing term) is unified in vision from all positions and not just in the work we create?

I'm excited to continue the work with Cahoots and to continue to observe and participate in the development of Jani Lauzon's epic opera-play hybrid, I Call Myself Princess this summer.

Onwards and upwards!

ED: Aaron was also part of a panel at the Literary Manager and Dramaturgs of America conference on June 22, 2018 - the recording of the livestream can be viewed below. 

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The next application deadline for the Professional Theatre Training Program is October 1, 2018.

Learn more about Theatre Ontario's Professional Theatre Training Program

Theatre Ontario’s Professional Theatre Training Program is funded by the Ontario Arts Council, an agency of the Government of Ontario.

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