For someone who practically never works with a dramaturg, I sure love dramaturgy. I love learning about the text, learning all of the history and backstory and background and cultural themes that contribute to the rich tapestry of the play. I haven’t thought of myself as a dramaturg, despite pretty much every dramaturg I know assuming that I am one. Not that long ago, I realized that a lot of the work I do in the process of directing is essentially dramaturgy. I can’t go into a rehearsal process without a deep understanding of the threads that weave together into a script. Dramaturgs also do a lot of the script preparation work that I usually do myself, like cutting and formatting, making doubling charts, making choices between ambiguous words (sullied/solid/sallied), etc. So I’ve started describing myself as a director and dramaturg, although I’ve only ever been credited as a dramaturg in two productions (Much Ado, Maryland Shakespeare Festival, 2005, and Comedy of Errors, Pigeon Creek Shakespeare Company, 2009).

One thing I’ve been contemplating recently is how to communicate some of the dramaturgy to an audience. By the time a show goes up, the actors have a solid understanding of the politics and relationships that structure a story. But will the audience catch all of that? Particularly if, as is the case with many of Shakespeare’s histories, the author expects the audience to know these details already. Our modern audiences don’t come into Henry IV, for example, with the same understanding of the hierarchy of the English nobility or the confounding family tree of the royalty that Shakespeare’s audience would have had. So how do we help them?

I have a few ideas about this, some of which I’ve tried out or experienced in person, and some I’ve only heard of.

  1. Decide if it really matters that much. In Antony and Cleopatra, for example, the precise relationship between Octavius and Agrippa is important for the actors, but it’s fine if the audience just sees Agrippa as, “A bossy Roman leader-type guy.” Feel free to decide that the audience doesn’t really need to know every single thing. But be clear about which things those are. In my recent Richard III, I felt like it was important to establish that Lord Grey was Elizabeth’s son, because the story is so driven by her grief over the loss of her children. I wanted to make it clear that her losses were massive and compounding–not only her husband, not only her little princes, but her older sons as well. In our production, the role of Dorset (her other son) was so heavily cut that I couldn’t invest much in who he was, but I took the time in rehearsal to make her relationship with Grey clear, and to devise some mother/son moments for them. This is the kind of detail that another production might elide. I had seen several productions of this play before, and didn’t know they were even related before doing the dramaturgy on my own production. That’s a fine choice. Part of the point of good dramaturgy is to clarify the story we’re trying to tell. A good script never has just one definitive story. An excellent play contains multitudes.
  2. Lobby displays and program notes. These are interesting, if time-intensive. I’ve seen these done incredibly well before. For a production of The Women of Lockerbie (Eastern Mennonite University, 2009), the lobby display included glass cases with actual articles of clothing that had been salvaged from the real-life plane crash. The reality of these objects, in a production that had a somewhat dreamy quality to it, enhanced my experience of the production. Likewise, a program note in a production of The Dream Play (West Virginia University, 2003) connected themes of consumption, pain, and being eaten from the inside out in that play to Strindberg’s own struggle with stomach cancer. Again, this information gave the show a dimension and clarity it would have lacked otherwise. That said, these kinds of dramaturgical sharing often feel pro forma, and don’t add much. I want to push back on the assumption that this is the best or only way we communicate dramaturgy to an audience, and think about radically different models.
  3. Stop-action dramaturgy. Eric Minton reported on an event at Southwest Shakespeare, where Susan Willis, the dramaturg for their Henry IV, Part 1, did a lecture-ish-thing that involved actors playing scenes that she would interrupt to provide context. She literally shouted “STOP!” and the actors froze in place while she described what was going on. The performance included only about an hour of the actual play text; audiences would come see the whole show another night, and, one hopes, have a richer experience thanks to this event. I imagine this would appeal to a very specific audience demographic (me), but for those of use who are into that kind of thing, it would be awesome. I’d like to try this out with a production sometime, but only if I were working with or as a dramaturg–not for one where I was doing directing and dramaturgy all rolled together. I think I would have a hard time staying in my dramaturgical lane, so to speak.
  4. Incorporate it into something else that you have to do anyway. In the theater, we often have to do bits of this and that that aren’t necessarily part of the show. We have to ask for donations, publicize our next thing, tell everyone where the fire exits are, etc. I have long been interested in the ways theaters find to get the business done while building the world of the play. One of the earliest examples I can think of (which is entirely paratheatrical) was from when I went to Disney World as a kid. I have a vivid memory of getting on the Haunted Mansion ride, where a vampiric butler was saying, “Two or three bodies per car, please. Two or three bodies per car.” Even as a ten-year-old, I appreciated the way they conveyed the boring, but important, safety information while not breaking the world. Since then, I’ve enjoyed the preshows at the American Shakespeare Center, which until quite recently were performed in character (I think their Richard III, directed by Jenny Bennett in 2018, had one of these, but they are no longer standard). At a performance of American Idiot at James Madison University last fall, the curtain speech was replaced with a brilliant, student-composed, Green-Day-esque song called “Turn Off Your Fucking Phones.” It had all the important information–fire exits, run time, no intermission, our next show is ____–while being both highly entertaining and a perfect introduction to the world of the play. This is the space where I’ve been doing the most experimentation in my own work. I usually write inductions for my shows, and crack myself up while doing it. Beginning with Antony and Cleopatra, I have been trying to work with how to use those inductions to get audiences up to speed on the details of the world, as well as reminding them to turn off their phones and introducing them to the basics of “original practices” Shakespeare. I had Enobarbus and another Roman soldier discussing the political situation (the other guy had just returned from a posting in Britain and was out of the loop). They described the triumvirate and the rumors about Cleopatra. I was surprised and encouraged by how well that worked. One particularly successful bit was about Lepidus, the useless third triumvir. I stuck in a joke about how forgettable he was (“Who? Oh, Lepidus? He’s basically furniture.”). To my delight, the audience laughed every time Octavius or Antony ignored him or shut him down. I don’t think they would have if we hadn’t been explicit about it from the beginning.
Kate Bode
Photo by Seraphina Zorn

For Richard, I pushed it even further. Kate Bode gave the induction, and she came in carrying the banner we see later in the play on dead Henry’s corpse. She talked about how ticked she is that Edward (“the usurper”) keeps a merry court when everyone knows it should be her holy husband on the throne. She described the ridiculous pageants that Edward puts on (“They do a thing called ‘cross-gender casting’ where men play women. King Edward himself once dressed as a woman to portray Our Lady in a Christmas pageant.”). At the end, she said that Henry Tudor, the Duke of Richmond, was already preparing to invade, and she unfurled his Tudor rose banner, which he brings in at the very end of the play. I haven’t had a chance to ask anybody who wouldn’t have known the story whether that helped them, but I think it had to. It definitely established the conventions of the production, including the banners standing in for people. It set up one of the key conflicts of the play–and one that would be confusing to someone who hadn’t seen the rest of the War of the Roses plays (I remember seeing Richard for the first time and wondering who Margaret was and why she was so upset…). It also was fun to write, and more interesting than “the fire exits are here and here.”

I’m curious to hear what other examples of audience-oriented dramaturgy you’ve seen in the world. What should I try next?

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