Saturday, June 30, 2007

Dramahound Dramaturg

In school, I learned that the first dramaturg was Schiller. He was helping Goethe out on a play. But they had a difficult time figuring out exactly what Schiller should be doing, so he only had the job a few months before Goethe let him go. In German, "dramaturg" is "dramaturg" (the "g" is hard). In French, it's "dramaturge" (the "g" like a "j"). In Polish and Romanian, dramaturg actually means playwright. In English, people seems to spell it without the "e," but pronounce it either the French way or the German way. Which is strange. It's like when I was a kid, the accepted spelling was "theater." But somehow, by the time out of college, all these theaters were spelling it the French way (or aping the Brits, spelling it that way).

Dramaturg means different things to different people. Some theatres say it's the equivalent of a literary manager. Others say a dramaturg is the person who helps the director with his research- both the history of the era in which the play is set, and the production history of the play if it's a revival. To me, being a dramaturg is more like being a copy editor. You have a piece, you want to keep the writer's voice in in and your voice out of it, you want to keep it accessible and clear. You don't want to leave big black paw prints all over it.

Particularly if I'm working on a good play, being a dramaturg is fun. You get to observe somebody else's writing process, you're the second set of eyes, you help them make the play better. Very rewarding, emotionally and intellectually if never financially, but that's okay. Very like teaching, actually.

But if it's my play, dramaturgs make me really nervous. I had a bad experience with one early on, who insisted a comedy of mine really needed marijuana-induced jokes in it, and I couldn't get away from her fast enough. Would have totally undercut who the characters were, and the world they were in. Or as David Chase had Carmela say to AJ when he was smoking dope at his confirmation party, "You're an animal!"

In the best of all possible worlds, to steal from M. Voltaire, I am blessed with a good director who has worked on new plays before and knows what he or she is doing. That is a complicated enough relationship; adding a dramaturg is like having a third person in bed with you. Of course if it's not my play, it's totally different.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

More Drama, Less Hound

Over the past few days, I’ve noticed this blog is more “hound” than “drama,” and I’ve asked myself what’s up with that. I’m not unqualified to write about theatre. I went to college, then grad school, joined The Dramatists Guild (http://www.dramatistsguild. com/), wrote plays, wrote more plays, taught, dramaturged (not a pretty word, certainly not when used as a verb; it basically means helping the playwright shape their play into what they want it to be, either before or during rehearsal), wrote the libretto and lyrics for two short musicals, taught, wrote, etc.

Part of my reticence is never wanting to sound like the voice of God. I can’t get a roomful of students to agree on “what a play is”- nor should they. A playwright without opinions can’t be much of a playwright. Some years ago, I had an incredibly talented student who kept blowing off my class. He didn’t even bother to be sneaky about it- I’d see him hanging out in the hallway with his girlfriend. When I confronted him, he said, “You’re trying to tell me how to write.” I was astonished. Really. I said, “I’m trying to give you tools to help you write. I’d never tell you how to write. What would be the point of that?” He never missed a class again.

Writing plays is sort of a strange process. Unless you write with a partner, it involves a great deal of solitude; the discipline to not let the rest of your life (blogging, friends, bills, email) distract you for blocks of time; the continuing act of will to keep at it, despite the fact you will invariably be rejected many more times than accepted (I mean, of course, the work being rejected, though it often feels infinitely more personal than that); and the willingness to commit something of yourself to paper. A very smart director friend said to me once that the act of writing a play means that you believe that something that is emotionally true for you is true for everyone else. She was right, and I’ve never forgotten that.

And then, if you’re lucky, you go into rehearsal, and everything changes. You talk (to the producer, the director the designers); you take notes; you ask the director questions; you rewrite scenes that don’t work. You listen (to the director, the actors, the designers, the producer). You rethink characters. You rewrite lines that assault your ear like a car alarm. You invite someone you trust professionally to rehearsal, and listen to what they say. Finally, you reach the day that the script has to be frozen (no more changes, not even moving a comma), or the actors will rise up and kill you. And then, you can’t do anything. Which in its way is the hardest part of all.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Sodom by the Sea, Part Deux

So my friend Mark, my boyfriend and I made the pilgrimage to Coney Island on Friday afternoon. The breeze made it a little cool, so there were no old, roly-poly Russian guys wearing Speedos smaller than a dinner napkin, marinating on the sand. There were people fishing from the pier; several crabbers with traps baited with fair-sized chunks of raw chicken; and lots, lots of little kids with their parents. The seagulls were competing with the crabbers- they'd swoop down to the water, catch a crab in the beaks, and then fly back to the paved parts of land to smash the shells and feast on the meat.
I tried to envision it all gone- the food places (there's a great place called Ruby's with amazing fried clams), the bars (there aren't many other places in NYC where you can drink a margarita and walk at the same time without risking arrest), the Hit the Freak game (the freaks never seem too freakish- I look at least that bad awoken from a deep sleep), the bumper cars, Nathan's Famous. I couldn't do it. Those pieces of Coney Island seem inextricably linked to the land they're on. My understanding is the Cyclone is landmarked (I don't think anyone builds wooden rollercoasters anymore), but that's the only piece that is.
There was an article in the "Times" this week, and another in "The Brooklyn Paper" about the developer's new plan. He won't build condos, since there was widespread criticism of the condo idea. He'll build ... three luxury hotels! Three? I'd have thought one was a dicey idea. Unless he can build them as luxury hotels, and then convert them to luxury condos once he can't fill the hotel rooms. Pretty clever, eh?
Won't the Mermaid Parade have lost something if they promenade in front of luxury condos? Hardly seems an inspiring setting for live theatre, does it? Because I think that's what really gets me about Coney Island. You got the ocean, the boardwalk, the little businesses, the rides, the games, and then all of these people, as different as you can imagine, interacting in this setting that isn't like anywhere else. And for the most part, everybody gets along.
It's pretty miraculous, if you think about it like that.

Monday, June 18, 2007


I had a busy day today- Mondays, you know. Setting up meetings, a stack of scripts to read for a contest, a residency proposal to write, asking friends if they’d let me give their names as references- normal playwright activities. So when the day is finished, when I’ve stopped the activities and the dinner dishes are done and I’ve talked to my boyfriend, I settle down to watch Simon Schama on Channel 13. I like Schama on TV- I always learn something and never feel like it’s hard labor. But it’s Schama on Picasso. I certainly have painters that I love, that I look at over and over again, but I really don’t much like Picasso. Most of Picasso I feel about like I feel about most of Egon Schiele- the narcissism leaps off the paintings in waves, and there’s often misogyny in there, too. Plenty of craft, sure, but I don’t like what they’re saying.

But Mr. Schama had beat me to it; he described Picasso’s “sad, thirty year decline… as a poster boy for Stalin.” The centerpiece of the TV show was “Guernica,” which in some ways is so unlike Picasso I can forget that he painted it. The first time I came to New York, I was a senior in high school. My parents brought me to audition for the acting program at SUNY Purchase (I would’ve gone to school with Edie Falco- imagine that!). We went to MoMA, and I saw “Guernica.” After that, every time I came to New York, I’d go to see that painting until it was sent back to the Prado. There was a bench in front of it, and I would sit on the bench and stare at it, sometimes for an hour, just trying to take it all in. Every time that I’d leave it, I knew I’d missed something in the painting. But it’s never left me.

I’ve written speeches in plays about it, which I invariably wind up cutting, because it’s too much me and not enough about the character. My latest attempt was in a play about two Hungarian immigrants who fought in the 1956 revolution, and then fled to Austria (very loosely based on the life of a friend of mine). In “Geography,” the sister (Katinka) wants to become an actress, and the brother (Brown) wants to make films. They’re telling each other about their new lives in New York in 1957, and he says to her:
“I go to Museum of Modern Art. I see Picasso "Guernica". Lucky there is bench by painting. My knees tremble, I cannot stand. I read in books about shaking knees, but I never can feel it until that day. So much- so much in painting. As much as in a film.”