So this is a very morbid quote to start my dramaturgy King Lear journey. It may sound like I’m begging for a disaster, choosing it as the title for my blog as well as my first post. But I think it’s quite fitting, all things considered.
All things considered should begin with a bit of exposition for you, my soon-to-be devout readers. I’m writing this blog as a journal of my senior capstone experience. My senior project is the culmination of four years of undergraduate study in English and drama at Washington College. This semester, I’m developing my dramaturgical skills in two related classes, as well as assisting the director for our spring production of King Lear in all things everything.
Now for the unavoidable question: What is a dramaturg? There’s no one answer, as evidenced by the two straight weeks of classes my professor monitored, all to narrow down an actual definition. And in the end, we didn’t come up with one. There are hundreds of thousands of possible definitions for a dramaturg: researcher, know-it-all, artistic conscience, devil’s advocate, literary buff, the list goes on and on.
And the actual tasks a dramaturg may fulfill in a theatrical setting is even more extensive: reading new plays, editing and selecting classical plays, negotiating with playwrights before and during a production, creating adaptations and finding translations, finding thought-provoking songs, images, videos and stories for the director, contextualizing plays, assisting the director with everything from casting to tech rehearsals, educating the cast on the historical context of a play, promoting the production, running lines with actors, writing memos and thank-you notes….Needless to say, it’s a rather open-ended job.
We finished those introductory two weeks with our own definitions of the term. Here is mine:
A dramaturg is a library with a soul. She knows words, literature, grammar, writing, style, research, history and media (and if she doesn’t know any of these things, she knows how to find them), but she makes sure they have life, a reason for being there. She doesn’t just collect information from her hours of reading and writing; she soaks it in and discovers its purpose.
Right now, finding that purpose involves regular meetings with our director (we’re still talking about the big idea, his vision, why he thinks a college audience should care about this play) and, on the more practical side, editing and cutting the text.
It’s taken us about six months to narrow down which version of the text to actually use. In case you we were curious, King Lear is one of the most argued-over scripts in the Shakespearean cannon. There is a quarto and a folio version, and scholars are constantly bickering over which one is “legitimate” (kudos to any Lear fans who caught that reference) and, for conflated versions, which aspects of each they should choose.
We’ve finally decided on the Folger version; our director is a gigantic fan of the folio text, which the Folger editors used as a base. The problem? The play’s running time is probably around three and a half hours. As any theatre-goer knows, that’s not cool. Making contemporary audiences interested in Elizabethan drama is a struggle anyway, and keeping them in a theatre for that long isn’t helping our case.
So my job right now is cutting Lear down to size. It’s a challenge, for pretty obvious reasons. Shakespeare’s words are beautiful, and it’s painful knowing some of them will be thrown away. I also have to be careful that none of my selections are taking away from the plot or significant character development.
I’m rereading the play, very slowly, highlighting passages I think are unrelatable for a modern audience (“Goose, if I had you upon Sarum plain, I’d drive you cackling home to Camelot”) or that just explicate plot points we’ve already seen. I’m watching the Ian McKellan PBS staging simultaneously. Actually, I’m listening to it more than anything else. Every time I notice a line or two is skipped, I pause the video, look it over in my script, and think about why they decided to cut those specific words. If it makes sense, I add it to my highlights; if not, I move on.
So simply put, I have no idea what I’m doing. And I’m okay with this. My life is full of order and systems: I am a meticulous scheduler and have a love affair with my planner; my week revolves around the publication of our campus newspaper so I’m constantly thinking about deadlines and meetings; I manage my time so thoroughly that “free time” is practically non existant. So it’s nice to have a bit of chaos thrown into my daily life.
For those who know Lear, chaos is everywhere in the play. It starts with order and balance, a society grounded in a time-tested hierarchy of kings and peasants. One man upsets the system, and the world of the play topples with him. It’s a monumental play grappling with man’s role in the universe; it’s impossible to truly grasp all the complexities and nuances from the text and articulate them onstage.
We really are just playing on a great stage of fools, and all we can do is our best.