The last blog I wrote talked about what I do when I first read a draft of a play as a dramaturg (read my Dramaturgy Checklist here) but there was one area I didn’t mention. It’s a huge part of being a dramaturg and although is maybe not quite as sexy as telling someone to butcher their play it is still nevertheless an integral part of the process.
It’s basically making sure everything makes sense. This sounds simple and obvious but it’s crucial to get that outside eye to double check and make sure that things haven’t got confused in redrafts or had their meanings mangled. Below are some examples of specifics that need checking, they are by no means exhaustive but I think illustrate my point.
The first is my favourite example. Helen offers Martin a cup of tea – milk, one sugar naturally. Helen leaves to make the brew, Martin opens a draw and Helen returns to catch him in the act. Drama ensues. My question is – how long does it take to make a cup of tea? Has the kettle just boiled? Do they have an urn in the kitchen? If Martin knows how long it’s going to take why does he go rooting around? The practicalities of tea-making should also be applied to making someone a sandwich, getting changed, reading a letter in silence, the examples are endless. Time is a real factor in each of these things and needs to be considered and they should not be simply a function to get someone out of the room!
Family trees are also great fun. Regardless of whether they appear in the play or not, I expect the writer to know how old the parents of each of the characters are (were), did they have siblings? Older/younger? Genders? What were their names? Where are they now? Actors (and directors) might make different decisions (and if they’re not mentioned in the play then they have every right to) but the playwright needs to know how all of this affected the characters they are writing.
Timelines also tie into family trees. The number of times I’ve read about two people who were at school together have a 15 year age gap, different accents and don’t know any of the same people. This is where diagrams and drawing out complicated timelines can be really useful, complete with the years and dates of all the events mentioned, or implied in the script. If you’re not rigorous, directors, actors and eventually audiences will find you out so do the work.
Respect and cultural greetings/traditions are also an interesting one. I don’t always think the dramaturg has to know the correct way a Roman solider from 4th century AD would greet another, but they should be aware there are rituals that follow everything and test the writer on their research. Religions and different peoples should be carefully researched otherwise why are you writing about them?
To finish us off with a happy ending – I will mention references. It is important to be aware of what linguistic, cultural and historical references you are making – and are they the ones you are intending to convey. If someone is being tortured, to use an example from a play I was working on recently, what does the method of torture say about the background and previous experiences of the torturer? Waterboarding brings with it the controversy of the Enhanced Interrogation Techniques scandal and being handcuffed to a radiator feels like a direct reference to John McCarthy. Both of these things are perfectly acceptable to reference but as a dramaturg it can be useful to highlight them to the writer as occasionally there is a reference that the writer had not intended and completely changes the intended meaning.
As I said at the top, these rarely take up large amounts of discussion time, unlike the order of scenes, or which character to cut, but this work is no less necessary. It is mainly about challenging the writer and making sure they have done the work that they have to have done before giving their play to a creative team and ultimately an audience. If they haven’t they will become unstuck and it’s amazing how much a great play (and writer) can be undermined by the younger sister being a different age in act 2.