Scene4 Magazine: Michael Bettencourt
Michael Bettencourt
Doing The Dramaturg

What a dramaturg does gets a fuzzy explanation in American theatre, but primarily the dramaturg serves the needs of the rest of the production's crew — for information, for insight, for text review, and so on.

I like doing dramaturg work and so agreed to work with a production that will bring a new script to the stage, an adaptation of a novel, something I have done in my own work and feel I know a lot about.

The producer and director want me to work with the playwright on his script — or, more accurately, to get the playwright to enliven the script in dramatic ways, to move it away from its somewhat pedestrian mimicking of the source work and make it a true dramatic work.

Except that the playwright, despite having a roster of productions (all of them adaptations, by the way — he's said several times that he can't come up with a narrative on his own), didn't really have the "dramatic sense" a playwright needs, that instinct of how, as one does with a good joke, to set-up and pay-off with every word, every line, every scene.

Instead, I had a playwright married to his words, i.e., suggested changes were taken as challenges and discussions were limited to whether the proposals for change added or took away information.  It became difficult to discuss anything about subtext, building a character's "arc," and so on.  I had a stenographer for a playwright.  And, as I learned after our first discussions, it's easier to be Daniel in the lion's den than work with a playwright married to his words.

I don't fault the playwright for any of this — at least in the theatre, the dramatic writer is respected as a writer and is not treated as a hack for hire, and so he has every right — and a duty — to protect and defend the constitution of his words.  And my suggestions have to be offered as such — even if I know the solution to the dramatic problem, I cannot impose it but simply suggest, cajole, demonstrate.

This process also got me thinking about "ownership" when it comes to doing theatre.  In one sense, the legalistic sense, the playwright owns the script — he registers it with the WGA or the copyright office, he puts the © symbol on the title page, and so on and so on.  His rights to his creation are thus protected (at least until many decades after his death).

But the meaning of ownership becomes fuzzy once the artifact of the script gets put into the bodies of the actors and the hands of the designers and the collaborative mill of the theatre begins to grind.  The production process is not about excavating the page for its hidden trove; much of what will happen on stage has not been defined or even imagined by the author.  In this respect, the script acts more like a recipe: a guide towards a particular end but with room for the variation of ingredients, spices, timing, presentation.  And as with most recipes, their original author is less important than the current "chef" reading the recipe and putting the instructions into gear.

Of course, the difference is that, unlike the original recipe-writer, the playwright/recipe-writer is often sitting in the room with his variation sensor on high.  And this is where I would say that the playwright has to learn how to accommodate the alchemy that is going on around him.  The fruit ripening in front of him is, and is not, his play. It resembles his play, but it is not the same thing as his play.  People are discovering connections and meanings that he didn't know were there because they are bringing the forces of their selves to bear and infiltrating the recipe with new and unaccounted for spices.  Designers are extracting the third dimension from the flat plane of the script's pages, bringing the unimagined to life.

If a director calls for line changes or rearrangements, wants a scene deleted or expanded, a character's motivation re-examined, the playwright can't take this as a challenge to his authority or a criticism of the writing but should take it as a chance to re-think what he thinks he knows so well, as a way to re-test his tested solutions to the dramatic questions at hand — in short, to fully participate in the transformative morphing that is going on around him and not simply sit there, Delphic-like, holding onto the sacred writ.

Yes, the playwright still "owns" the play, but it is so much better if, during the production process, he can let the play, now fully staffed and provisioned, own him, and that everything that he had thought set and cemented had now slipped its moorings and was available for a fresh report.

I wish this playwright had more "play" in him in this regard, but he doesn't, and so we have to submit to this situation and do our best to work around the roadblocks he's set up by working against the grain he's laid down, prying out surprises from unsurprising material, and so on.

For me, this experience has become another confirmation of why I want to write for the theatre: the chance every production brings to unseat the set-piece, to freshen the eyes, to be "disowned" in the best possible manner.

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©2009 Michael Bettencourt
©2009 Publication Scene4 Magazine

Michael Bettencourt is a produced and published playwright and a Senior Writer and Columnist for Scene4.
Continued thanks to his "prime mate" and wife, Maria-Beatriz

For more of his commentary and articles, check the Archives

 

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June 2009

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