Not-so-Springlike, Not-so-Breaklike

Hello everyone!

I’m back from “Spring Break”.  I put this phrase in quotation marks because it was neither Spring, nor a Break.  I did make a trip up to Quebec with my best beloved just to get away from town for a while.  Think about that: Canada.  In March.  It was very cold.

It was, however, absolutely beautiful.  We got to see the Hôtel de Glace (the only ice hotel built in North America by the way; it’s built and re-built every year in January and only open for a few months.  They build it differently every year so each experience is one-of-a-kind.  Yes you can actually stay the night; no we didn’t; and after being there for a few hours I’m extremely happy with that decision since brrr it was COLD).  The rivers

View from the old city walls

View from the old city walls

were almost completely frozen over, if not solid enough to spot trucks driving over them.  We got to see the ice flows (just beautiful) and the sugar loaf at Montmercy falls.  All in all, being in the old city was like being in Europe; complete with getting to practice my French skills (…there’s nothing like the opportune moment to realize that you don’t remember the word for “check” as in “may we have the check, please?”… it’s “chèque” by the way… ain’t that embarrassing?)  This mini-vacation definitely wasn’t a “spring-like” pursuit; but the added bonus is that it was SO BLOODY COLD that when we returned, even the Massachusetts I-won’t-ever-give-up winter felt warm by comparison.  Temperatures have decided to plummet today and we’re expecting more snow on Wednesday.  Because New England is a vicious, vindictive, vermin.

It also wasn’t much of a break.  Though I did take a long weekend away, when I returned there was a backlog of e-mails, projects, lesson plans, and various things which required my attention.  I spent the tail half of the week scrambling to get back on top of things before classes started again (today).  I also managed to book two more classes to teach this semester on top of my current coarse load (my OSHER class, of course, and I’m also going to be teaching stage combat workshops for the kids over at Charlestown Working Theatre… this is extremely exciting because what could be more fun than spending a few hours every week teaching kids to safely beat each other up?  Oh, by the way, I get paid to do this.  This is my job.  Go ahead and be envious, I’ll understand).

Additionally, I’ve got two more FD gigs lined up (the main stage at Tufts has asked me back for their third and final production this year – OR directed by Sheriden Thomas, and I will also be working with Zeitgeist Stage Company on their up-and-coming show Good Television).

So, really, I’m hitting the ground running here.

As an aside: I recently received an e-mail from a reader asking about the proper pronunciation of the word “dramaturge”.  Here’s the e-mail:

Please help us Dani. Brother and I want to know the correct and widely accepted pronunciation of the word dramaturg? Is it with a soft g as in the French interpretation typically spelled with an e at the end or is it with a hard g as one would assume having come from the Greek root? Thank you for your time and assistance in clearing this up for us. We will submit to your opinion.

Never fear, dear reader; since this is one that I deal with on a daily basis, let’s have a chat about it now.

Since I don't have a picture of me duking it out with someone in a sumo suit, you'll have to settle for a shot of the "Frozen"-themed room at the Ice Hotel

Since I don’t have a picture of me duking it out with someone in a sumo suit, you’ll have to settle for a shot of the “Frozen”-themed room at the Ice Hotel

As you note in your e-mail, “Dramaturge” is from the French work “Dramaturge” and, before that, the Greek word “Dramaturgos” (“Drama” meaning exactly what you would expect it to, and the suffix “-ergos” meaning “worker”).

Also as you seem to be experiencing, there’s actually a great deal of dissention about the pronunciation of this word.  Since it’s from French, you would expect it to be pronounced with the soft “g” (the terminal “e” also indicates this pronunciation), but some scholars prefer to spell it “Dramaturg” and pronounce it in the German way using a hard “g”.  This quirk is in honor of Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, author of the Hamburg Dramaturgy (a compilation of essays written by Lessing over the course of his career first as the lead critic of the national theatre in Hamburg then as various other theatre-type-things over the course of the eighteenth century) who is often considered the father of modern dramaturgy.

I, personally, tend to pronounce it the German way (though it depends on what day you catch me and if I’ve been translating Molière recently).  Unfortunately, I have to tell you that both you and your brother are correct; if you walked up to a group of Dramaturges (with a few Dramaturgs mixed in) and each of you took a turn saying it in your own way, you’d both be accepted amongst the group and invited to join the communal festivities beside the fire noting the disparagements between bad Hamlet quartos while being offered egregious amounts of wine to drink.  I should add the caveat that, in the plural, it’s more elegant to use the hard “g” and so that generally is what happens (though, really, when do you run into a group of wild Dramaturgs?  The only time we band together is at conferences, and then usually it’s so we can acquire food without being thrown into nearby dumpsters by the local sports teams who smell our nerdom from a block away and have trouble repressing high school instincts once those pheromones are in the air).

I hope this is helpful even though it’s not conclusive.  If you’d like a better way to settle this between you two, I often find that these sorts of arguments, where neither party is correct nor wrong, are best solved using inflatable sumo suits and copious application of ridiculous sound effects.  After all, it’s very hard to argue victory when you’ve been tackled to the ground and piled on top of.  If you do decide to fight for glory and honor this way, please send a picture.  Nothing would make my day more delightful than a (safe) knockdown, drag-out fight to the finish over quirks of the English (….French…. German… Greek….) language.

A Comedy of Errors

In celebration of my triumph, my beaux took me to see a show this weekend.  And not just any show.  A SHAKESPEARE show.  A show that we’ve both been dying to see for some time now and which displayed great promise in its advertised concept.

The new-to-Boston Anthem Theatre Company performed a four-man Comedy of Errors  at the BCA Plaza blackbox.  At ninety minutes with no intermission and some creative application of props/costumes, it was a high-octane performance with great entertainment value.

Unfortunately, the performance was (for me) overshadowed by an egregious lack of judgment on the part of the production company.

I’ve always thought that a program bio for a dead playwright was a bit odd.  Granted, sometimes it contains useful information for an audience (especially if the show is meant to be an “introduction to [playwright]” for a crowd who wouldn’t normally see this type of theatre).  It makes slightly more sense when there’s a dramaturge working on a production with expertise in the subject matter who can craft a bio with good/entertaining tidbits.

Anthem, however, made a cardinal mistake: they copy and pasted from the internet.

The bio in their playbill is attributed to and has all the usual axioms about Shakespeare.  The piece which bothered me most was this paragraph:

“Shakespeare died in 1664; it is not clear how he died although his vicar suggested it was from heavy drinking.”

 At first I couldn’t tell if this was a joke.  The timbre of the show was irreverent; maybe this was some sort of wink to that.  A little investigation brought me to realize what was going on here: the error is reprinted verbatim from its source.  The issue wasn’t purposeful, it was simply a careless copy job.

First of all; Shakespeare died in 1616.  He was born in 1564.  The playbill misprint is likely

doesn't it look like we're private eyes in a noir movie?

doesn’t it look like we’re private eyes in a noir movie?

a transcription error on the part of which was propagated by simply cutting and pasting the bio without fact-checking it.

It’s almost the first thing I tell my students when they walk into my class: never copy and paste off the internet.  And certainly don’t do so without a bit of investigation of your own.  One google search would have divested the truth about Shakespeare’s death date to whomever curated this playbill.


The bit about heavy drinking was a fairy tale I hadn’t heard before.  After some poking around, I see that (like so much else about Shakespeare’s life) it’s a reasonably common myth with an unclear origin; certainly not canonical fact, and not something that I would include in a reliable bio.

Why was I so enraged at this incident, you may ask?  Because first of all it undermines the authority of the work.  How am I supposed to trust that these people know anything about Shakespeare?  How am I supposed to respect the hard work of the actors/company if I can see that their playbill is thrown together by someone who simply doesn’t know any better and hasn’t bothered to find out?  What do they have to contribute to this conversation, or teach to an audience of Shakespeare-beginners, if they can’t get their basic facts straight?

The second reason that this made me angry was that it didn’t have to be a problem.  If the company wanted a dramaturge (or even just someone to write a smart playbill note), all they had to do was send one e-mail to any theatre department in the Boston area.  Said department, I can nearly guarantee, would have had a student willing to work on this project for free.  Suddenly, the company is engaged in a mutually beneficial relationship with a scholar; the dramaturge gets a resume byline, and the company gets an accurate piece of micro-scholarship.  Problem: more than solved.  And no fuss/no muss.

Really, this hits at the heart of an issue near and dear to my heart.  If scholarship can’t feed and serve practice, then what’s the point of scholarship?  And if practice refuses to acknowledge scholarship, then how can it serve its purpose?  Without a healthy dialogue between the two, we’re stuck in a combined death-spiral to mutual-but-separate oblivions.

It baffles me even more that companies who do classical work seem less likely to hire dramaturges than companies who do contemporary work.  Wouldn’t you think that a company who specialized in Shakespeare would want someone around who knows the ins/outs/back ends/front ends/historical tidbits/correct pronunciation intimately?  Or how about a company that generally does contemporary plays but is taking a dip into the Shakes-world; wouldn’t you think they would want someone to converse with about any questions they may have even more?

So long as we continue to put our hands over our ears and sing loudly to ourselves that our work is the only legitimate work, we will not grow as a community.  Without understanding and helping each other, we risk stagnation as artists and scholars.  So please, for the love of all things bardy, hire (or at least consult) a dramaturge.  If you find a good one, I promise that your work (and theirs!) will benefit from it.

Measure still for Measure

For those who have been following the saga, Measure for Measure opened on Thursday.  At this point, it’s nearly halfway through a two-week run.  I was there to see the show opening night and, let me tell you, that was an interesting feeling.

I’ve been living with this project since last April when I sent an introductory e-mail to the director.  Over the course of June/July, we spent a great amount of time cutting the script and crafting an acting edition (the first time I’ve ever had the chance to do this).  Her goal was for the show to run two hours.

It ran two hours on the dot with a fifteen-minute intermission.

Getting prepped for final dress; you can see that I was eagerly telling such to my twitter feed

Getting prepped for final dress; you can see that I was eagerly telling such to my twitter feed

Since June/July, my level of involvement has ebbed and flowed.  I team-taught a text workshop to the cast (along with my colleague who was ADing the show) to get them acquainted with the language.  I called it the “quick and dirty method to opening up Shakespeare for actors who have never studied him before”.  Who says brevity is the soul of wit?

For the most part, it worked.  The product was definitely not conservatory-level, and there are notes I still would have given, but art is art and art is never finished nor is it ever completely satisfying to the true artist.  On the whole, it was a show which I enjoyed (and that’s saying something; anyone who follows this blog can attest to how harsh a critic I can be), a show which I was proud to present to my cohorts, and a show which I had the opportunity to see grow from a seed of an idea to a fully-mounted production.  That is a process which is always satisfying.

Over the course of working on Measure, I would occasionally get e-mails asking not-so-random (but sometimes seemingly so) questions.  Do Catholic churches ring out the time?  How long does it take to become a nun?  What does this word/sentence/phrase mean?  Some of these questions are things I could have predicted (seriously, “Prenzie”?), some of them I never would have imagined.  But that’s part of what was so exciting about this; in working closely with the text and the director, I had the opportunity to come to new understandings about a show I (honestly) hadn’t put overmuch thought into before.

One of the tasks which I enjoyed the most was crafting a timeline of the action.  When does this scene happen?  How much time passes between Act I and Act V?  (…the answer, for those who are curious, is somewhere between six days and three weeks depending on how much time passes between when Angelo takes office and when Claudio is arrested.  After I.ii, the rest of the play’s events occur over the course of five distinct days).  It was gratifying to be able to sift and sort the text and make some sense of it in a useful, tangible way.  This, ideally, is what my job would always be like; someone has a question which needs answering, they ask that question of me, I go through what I know best and find an answer.  Alas, if only everything were so simple!

My partner in crime, who was able to attend opening with me, told me he saw my fingerprints on the show.  That, if nothing else, is perhaps the most gratifying part of my job.  I also received a lovely e-mail from our department chair complimenting my work on the essays in the show’s program (double wonderful since those essays gave me such a headache when I was working on them).

2013-02-14 20.00.10

Opening night. Yes, I know, the set looks basically the same from final dress. Sorry for the redundancy!

So, I declare my first official project as a dramaturg to be a success.  I thoroughly enjoyed the process (even if sometimes it kept me up at night… literally.  I was up until 2AM the night before opening sending out notes to actors) and will gladly do it again.

…maybe after a little break though.  Twelfth Night is relatively time consuming and I do need to catch up on the desk-piles again.  I really wish my papers would start writing themselves.

Scholarship in Practice

One of the perks of my job is that I frequently get to converse with some pretty neat people.

Today’s neat person was award-winning playwright/director Robert O’Hara (author of such works as Insurrection: Holding History, Antebellum, and The Inheritance). Robert is a Tufts alum and all-around interesting, intelligent guy.

He came in to speak to my African American Theatre/Theory class in a round-table style conversation during which we got to ask him free-form questions which he answered in an equally free-form way. What this meant was a look at theatre (and specifically some aspects that we’ve been thinking a great deal about) from a very different perspective.

He spoke for some length about research and how much research an audience/actor/playwright should do when interacting with a piece. An audience, he says,

Sometimes, scholarship looks like this…

should be able to walk into the theatre without any prior knowledge of the piece’s specific topic and still be able to connect to the show. You can’t expect an audience to do anything but pay the ticket price, attend the play, and enjoy it from their seat (wherever that seat is situated culturally on a given night). Actors, he says, should perhaps know slightly more about a piece, but not so much that their playing of the character becomes bogged down in information. He gave the example of Insurrection (a play about the Nat Turner rebellion and what happens when a modern individual winds up accidentally time-traveling and witnessing it first hand). The day-to-day realities of slavery are horrific; but for the actors (and the characters they are portraying), these day-to-day realities need to be day-to-day realities. It is the audience who must have the cathartic life-moving experience while viewing the play. If an actor becomes too enwrapped in that cathartic experience, he deprives the audience of having it. The playwright should know something about what’s going on, but even he can research too deeply. It is counter-productive for a playwright to have too many other voices knocking around in his head when he’s trying to spit a play onto paper.

In the end, the important distinction (for O’Hara) is this: you can’t stage information.

For a dramaturge and, perhaps more immediately, a theatre scholar, this idea is a bit scary. What do you mean that research impedes the artistic process? That information can be a road-block rather than something freeing?

For an artist, I see his point completely. It’s why I think that the dramaturge is an important voice to have in a production room. If it’s my job to research and know things, then the hands-on creative types don’t need to be bothered with an excess of facts. They only need to know what they need to know, no more, and it’s up to them to tell me when enough is enough. Their job is to create; my job is to provide them with the information they need to create.

Today’s conversation only enforced, to me, the necessity of having that one person. It’s like having a living, breathing filter. A wall to block the outside world of facts from the inside space of the rehearsal room. Someone to take the barrage of raw data and ensure that it doesn’t crush the fragile cocoon of creativity being created in that room. The creative process is a delicate one and one disrupted by any number of things (some articulable, some not). Having the ability to control as many factors as possible isolates items which may impede this creative process.

When asked if he read scholarship about his own work, O’Hara laughed and likened theatre scholarship to someone asking you what kind of panties you were wearing on a given day. He said it was like someone opening up the book of your soul, examining it with the precise efficiency of a medical doctor, poking it, prodding it, observing it unfeelingly, then putting it away.

And I can’t help but think that he’s correct.

It’s why I prefer to work on dead playwrights. An autopsy is much more human than a vivisection.

…but maybe it needs to look more like this… (yes, yes, more As You photos… that’s me and my best Gay Angelo playing Oliver in the front and the lovely Ashley as Celia looking concerned behind us)

This is something that plagues me about literary criticism. All throughout my Master’s, I continually found myself hung up on one thing: oh, sure, it’s all well and good for us to apply Marxist criticism to Mary Shelley, but there’s no way that one author could have written into a piece everything that scholars read out of that piece. At a certain point, you’re dealing with lenses which may tell you something about the piece, but not anything what the author intended. Yes, I know, to be a true literary critic you have to let go of most sense of author intention… but it bothered me. And it still does, to some extent.

In the Drama department, I deal with history. I deal with things that actually happened, things that might happen, or things that will happen. My work isn’t solely based on a text (though there’s nothing shameful about a text). That’s part of the strength in this sort of work: you learn more from it than you might from theory alone.

O’Hara’s observation about scholarship is not unfounded. Art is a piece of ourselves; a part of our human soul that we choose to bare to those around us because we feel that the audience could benefit from seeing it. Scholarship often takes this humanity and reduces it to cold equations or (perhaps worse) bends it to some greater argument that the scholar contends about the world at large.

But if this is so, how can we do both? I would say without hesitation that all of my departmental compatriots consider themselves theatre practitioners as well as theatre scholars. How can we justify this kind of slaughtering of our own young?

Well, it’s slightly different when a practitioner becomes a scholar. When you know both sides of the table, you are more likely to be gentle with the art. We don’t want to kill it, but rather understand it better. Theatre practitioners make keener scholars since we see things that book-learners don’t tend to; what are you actually looking at here? What are you looking for? What are you seeing but not seeing that only some knowledge of the other side of the curtain could give you?

So yes, we poke and prod, but I would like to think that scholar/practitioners at least do it with human hands rather than cold metal instruments.

Mostly, what O’Hara instilled in me today is a sense of hope. His ideas about theatre are inspiring, his opinions about story-telling are resonant, and his thoughts on the industry are both entertaining and moving. I know that O’Hara teaches and I can only hope that his students walk away from his class with ideas similar to those that he gifted to me today.

Three is Company

Right now, I’m living with some really interesting roommates.

You may recall last year at about this time when I announced that my current couch-surfer was RSC director Peter Brook. This is a similar situation. I find that, when you’re truly in the thralls of research, the process takes on a body of its own. It whispers to you in the night, alternately taunting and teasing you, sometimes telling you things you had never thought of before (though for me, it usually waits to do that until I’m in the shower).

Right now, my research doesn’t have a face (it’s so much easier to personify when it does). More, it has a body. I’m living with a few different projects and, consequently, a few different plays.

As you know by now, I’ve been serving as dramaturge for Tufts’ February production of

book piles next to my desk… teetering dangerously on the brink of collapse

Measure for Measure. Over the summer, the director and I put hours into creating a two-hour cut of the script (no small task, especially for a text-purist like yours truly). Now, we’re girding to enter the rehearsal process. This also means that it’s time for me to send my deep thoughts on the play to the theatre manager for inclusion in the program/department newsletter thingy. I’m also preparing to teach what we’ve lovingly dubbed “Shakespeare Boot Camp” this weekend; a three hour text workshop tag-team-taught by myself and the AD in order to ensure that our cast doesn’t go into the rehearsal process without some tactics to deal with Shakespeare’s language. All of these things should be a lot of fun, it just means that dystopian governments and broken chastity vows are constantly at the back of my mind. Not the most pleasant backdrop for your day, let me tell you.

There’s a lot at stake in Measure (and certainly a lot at stake which speaks to us particularly in an election year). We’re dealing with a city built on crumbling foundations. We’re dealing with an aging government that can no longer connect to its people. We’re dealing with extremists; extreme absolutists, extreme libertines, and extreme fundamentalists. We’re dealing with characters who disguise themselves for various reasons and utilize that disguise to trick each other into pursuing courses of action which would otherwise have proved impossible (or at least unpalatable).

We’re also dealing with a comedy that isn’t all that comedic. The ending seems a mere nod at the conventions of comedy (every one of the play’s four marriages are forced/arranged either by law or circumstance). Death is an ever-present force on the stage and at least one character suffers a grisly demise during the play’s action. The play includes a rape or near-rape (depending on how it’s staged). Oh certainly we have a few clowns to lighten the mood, but there is nothing airy or fairy about Measure‘s deeper themes (or even its not-so-deep themes).

The instinct to call Measure a “problem play” and leave things at that is one that I find horribly simplistic. It’s like calling Richard III a history. While I understand the need for short-hand categories, reducing Shakespeare’s more complicated works to one catch-all word does them a disservice. Yup, Measure has its problems, but the play is so much more than those problems. The problems open avenues of exploration through which we can delve into something deeper; what makes a comedy? What does a comedy need to have? If a play has all those things, can it still be something else?

My desk right now with books and sundry stacked work

In addition to this, a second specter has been haunting my footsteps similar to its iconic title character’s father. Hamlet seems to be everywhere I turn (more so this semester than usual). In a little over a week, I will be in Nashville at ASTR speaking about a paper I wrote which involves Garrick, Hamlet, Shakespeare, and the canonization of all three. Hamlet remains the most-referenced play in my studies, there are at least two productions of the show going on in Boston right now, and I’m relatively certain that the other night I dreamed I was performing the “too too solid flesh” speech in front of an audience of extremely intelligent (and extremely receptive!) chimpanzees…

Is Hamlet is in this fall? Is it my personal bias? Or is there just something about Hamlet?

That’s not even to consider the two research projects/seminar papers which are still in their budding stages at the moment. I haven’t yet immersed myself in them completely enough to be having haunting visions or dreams, but it’ll happen sooner rather than later.

Suffice to say that things are getting pretty crowded over here. I’m pretty sure that I could build a fort with the library books on the floor next to my desk, and (as usual) the deeper I plunge into the semester, the more appealing this course of action becomes.

Password is “foul fiend flibbertigibbet”. No boys allowed.

…except my man Will. And maybe a certain Danish Prince.


Over the weekend, good friends and readers, myself and my partner in crime will be migrating to its very own server.  You shouldn’t notice much change on user-side (at least for a bit…. I do plan to add some shiny new features as soon as I have access to my back end (… insert rude joke here)). 

 For now, please enjoy the following list of random quotes which have appeared in my life during the past few days:

 Partner: We still need to migrate DaniProse….
Me: Oh, yea!  To my very own Server!  And I shall be Queen of the Server!  And all shall love me and despair!
Partner: Well… it’s a shared server…
Me: Do I still get to be Queen of it?
Partner: Of course!  AND the Princess!

QP: What are you doing today?
Me: Learning German…
QP: Again?
Me: It takes a lot of time!
Me: ….. ich liebe dich weiter!

Director: Okay, we need to cut approximately 4,500 words from this script.
Me: *cracks knuckles, grabs red pen, eats a piece of chocolate*
Director: You go, girl. 

…it should be noted that when I came into work the next day, there was a small array of beautiful hand-crafted chocolate on a plate by my chair.  I looked at my director, “Is this a bribe?”
Director: If it gets you to cut more, I’ll provide chocolate. 

….later in that session when we hit a bit long speech… 

Director: (looks at me) Have some more chocolate! 

Have a fantastic weekend, and I’ll catch you on the new server!