“The wheel is come full circle”
A reflection on my role as dramaturg — The conclusion to my drama department SCE
After he has been set in the stocks, Kent speaks a beautiful, often ignored line: “Nothing almost sees miracles/ But misery” (II.iii.180). For such a small statement, it embodies much of what our staging of King Lear intended to portray. Shakespeare was writing about power, but also foolishness, corruption, forgiveness and rebirth. Only through pain and suffering does Lear realize the gravity of his mistakes. In turn, the play’s surviving characters – Edgar, Kent and Albany – learn from Lear’s tragedy and grow into open-minded, capable leaders. The line also encompasses the painful and rewarding process of bringing a play to life. King Lear, widely considered one of if not the most difficult of Shakespeare’s plays to stage, requires innumerable hours of time and energy. In our case, there were towers to weld, lights to hang, costumes to wash, blood to mix – between class time, rehearsals and tech work, the production team lived the play nonstop for almost an entire semester. As student dramaturg for Washington College’s The Tragedy of King Lear, I spent much of my time at my computer instead of in the rehearsal room, but I encountered my share of roadblocks and drudgery as well.
One of the most frustrating aspects of my role, initially at least, was how little my research seemed to contribute to the production. As we continued, however, I realized that contextualization is instrumental in helping a director and cast navigate a play; my work did not always directly impact performance, but it opened up conversations about authority and leadership. Understanding what the play meant to its intended Jacobean audience instilled for us the thematic focus on power, but it also presented a major challenge: How to convey meaning through centuries-old language. Shakespeare’s audience connected with the play on social and cultural levels that are completely foreign to a 21st century audience. Many of the references he makes – bastardy and inheritance laws, servitude and knighthood, paganism and divine authority – have no place in modern society. It is this disconnect that Andrew James Hartley argues makes the dramaturg’s role so crucial to Shakespeare in performance:
…Present day actors and directors are committed to the present, as they should be; theatre is about communication in the performative moment, to an audience of the performers’ contemporaries who necessarily struggle (consciously or otherwise) to connect with plays that are wholly different in form and method from drama that is written today…it is thus vital to recognize that the dramaturg – like the actors and director – is invested in the NOW of the theatrical moment, and is thus working for the present, living audience who will attend the show. The dramaturg’s paramount concern, therefore, is making the play work in the present, for the living, rather than being interested solely in the archaeology of the past or in the ways that performance can be considered an exploration of textual or theoretical ideas (17).
Hartley calls the Shakespearean dramaturg a production’s “intellectual presence,” someone with access to answers, but she only provides them when necessary (18). His definition of the term mirrors the approach I took during the collaborative process. I asked questions more than I answered, and although I conducted extensive research on the world of the play, I wanted the actors to experience moments of discovery on their own. My research on Shakespeare’s King Lear was a catalyst for thematic exploration and provided alternative ways of reading and understanding the text.
There was a learning curve to overcome, of course. My first dramaturgical assignment, for example, was completely unglamorous: I spent hours of my winter break junior year slogging through versions of King Lear – the Folio, the Quarto, two conflated editions – comparing, contrasting and identifying which version we might use for our production. At first, it was a miserable, eye-numbing process. Then I started looking at it like an assignment from one of Dr. Michele Volansky’s drama theory classes. I logged my likes and dislikes about each version without worrying about what the director expected from me; I used my best judgment, a lesson I looked back to time and again later in the production process.
When I returned for my spring semester, Rubin and I had another set of obstacles to tackle: putting together a cast, cutting down the text, and, what became the focus of my work, exploring the world of the play. I spent most of that semester doing basic research on the play and assimilating myself with Jason’s vision as much as possible. At first, his interpretation seemed completely at odds with my own; I’d read King Lear as a family drama, a story about the resilient nature of compassion and love, while Jason seemed to be focusing more on the political than family side. It was a struggle, at first, reorienting myself to match his vision. Later in the process, however my instinctive interpretation was an asset. It is impossible for a production to be solely about politics or family; there has to be a balance, and even if the focus is on one aspect over another, both need to be addressed. Our conversations about the play benefitted, I think, from my input on the more personal, intimate themes.
Rubin’s conviction about the play’s theme was a great help as I started doing research into the world of the play. While investigating concepts of power in the early 1600s, my focus became obvious: James I and Divine Right of Kings. The parallels I found between James and Lear were extensive and illuminating. I gradually came to see the play as a parable about the abuse of authority and divine rule. This was just one of many real-life foils to Lear Jason and I found, along with Lyndon B. Johnson, Vladamir Putin, Charles I, Pope Benedict, and George H.W. Bush. These observations reminded us that Lear is not just a character in a story; he is a part of all of us, and even after 400 years, the questions his journey raises are still pertinent. This preliminary research opened stimulating conversations between us, and although I can’t speak for Rubin, I would like to think they gave him a broader perspective of the play as we neared rehearsals.
The audition process brought to the surface one of the biggest obstacles we would face during this project: delegating responsibilities between me, Rubin and Dr. Kathryn Moncrief. Auditions were awkward: Rubin was giving actors direction, Moncrief was giving them notes about the text, Patrick wasn’t sure what he was supposed to do yet as stage manager – and I could hardly get a word in edgewise. Rubin or Moncrief sometimes asked me to explain a plot point or character to an actor, but for the most part, I felt like I was monitoring a giant game of tug-of-war. After we had made a final cast list, I posed the question about what our individual roles in the production would be. Moncrief was initially disappointed that Rubin did not want her at many rehearsals, but I felt relieved knowing what my role was in relation to theirs: Rubin ran rehearsals, Moncrief ran the class, and I was the bridge between the two. Once the class and rehearsals were underway, this chain of command turned out to be less seamless than I had hoped, but at this point in the process, I had validated my position and felt at least somewhat more prepared for the spring.
Looking back on these early stages, I regret not being more assertive. The solid, give-and-take working relationship Rubin and I established took time, not because of any conflict over the play, but because of my self-consciousness. I was nervous about embarking on this process with a faculty member as not only director, but as my colleague. I was not even sure how to address Rubin in our initial meetings – I felt uncomfortable stepping out of our student-professor relationship, and it was not until the class began that I fully asserted my role as dramaturg. I was in the middle of Volansky’s dramaturgy class that fall, and I was still discovering exactly what the role entailed, particularly within a Shakespeare production. Had I expressed some of my concerns earlier, about the delegation of responsibilities for example, the production team may have avoided some of our later challenges.
My trip to England helped me come fully out of my dramaturgy shell. At first, the Cater Society grant was just an opportunity to pursue more in-depth production history research, but the experience was ultimately far more valuable than I could have anticipated. I completely immersed myself in Shakespeare’s theater world, and I gained a comprehensive understanding of what King Lear meant and how it was performed four centuries ago. I also grew to appreciate the research aspect of dramaturgy; I was intimated about spending hours and days in archives at first, but I ended up enjoying every moment of my work in London and Stratford. More than anything, it made me feel like a scholar – when I returned and prepared for my opening presentation with the class, I felt qualified to make assertions about the play. I was also comfortable answering and asking questions, which helped establish the effective working relationship I had with the cast. I finally felt like I was capable and ready to tackle the immense work we had ahead of us; I didn’t have all the answers, of course, but when Rubin or a cast member asked a specific question, I could confidently respond, “I don’t know off the top of my head, but I can find it and get back to you tomorrow.” My research skills were solid enough that I provided that answer time and again without any hesitation.
My relationship with the cast was one of the most rewarding aspects of my work on the production. I was unsure about when to reach out to them at first. I wanted the actors to start thinking about the play from a broader perspective and understand what my role as dramaturg entailed, but my options were limited. I initially wanted a collaborative visual board – I fell in love with the concept in Volansky’s class — where the actors could post photographs, art, poetry, anything they thought related to the play. My options were limited at this point, however. Actors were home for winter break, and they would be swamped with rehearsals as soon as the spring semester began. I was aware that few would check their emails while away from school, but I was determined to reach out to them as early as possible – so I started a Facebook group. For the first few weeks, I was the main participant, posting blog updates and articles I found online. The excitement caught on, however, and by the time rehearsals began, actors were posting almost daily. It became a digital version of the bulletin board I wanted to make, a way of connecting the production team in a casual, informative manner. Actors posted jokes, news articles, parodies, video and music clips, even Internet memes. I wanted the cast thinking about the play as something other than just words on a page, and the Facebook group validated that my encouragement worked. More than anything, the group made King Lear fun. We were bogged down by rehearsals, fight calls, class, homework, tech calls – we needed an outlet where we could talk about the play in a lighthearted manner.
I was also impressed that the cast actually read my blog. At first, it was more for my own purposes than anything else; it was a convenient way of keeping all my research and portfolio materials together, one that Rubin and Volansky could access as well. Once I invited the cast, I thought more about what they might benefit from reading, not just material I wanted to organize. I tried to balance text with images and videos, and varied my topics as much as possible. My main goal with the blog was to address the Why This Play Now question, but I did not want to answer it; I wanted the cast to constantly think and rethink the question as they worked through class and rehearsals. I posted updates on the Facebook group wall, particularly when my blog posts related to a class discussion, and the cast responded regularly. It was encouraging to see that my work was not going unnoticed and that the actors were thinking critically about the play outside of rehearsals.
My working relationship with the cast sparked after I returned from England. On the second day of class, I presented a visual exploration of the play’s stage history, touching on its Iron Age roots, through Nahum Tate’s rewrite, and finishing with 21st century adaptations. Each image presented a unique insight into the play and posed questions about how performance choices influence a production. I provided information with each slide, but I was more invested in how the images challenged the class’ ideas about the play. I was pleasantly surprised when an actor raised her hand on my very first slide to ask about the play’s original source. From there, the class responded to almost every image, commenting on theme and character and asking questions. It was promising to see that I was working with such a devoted cast; one of the obstacles I had anticipated – motivating the actors to think about and question the play critically – turned out to be one of my favorite responsibilities.
My only regret about my relationship with the cast is that I did not make time to discuss contextualization in person. Rubin and I discussed the play’s relevance at length together, but other than through my blog, I had few opportunities to discuss such topics with the cast. I communicated with actors primarily electronically – it was not until later in the rehearsal process that I started working one-on-one with them. Class time was devoted to whatever staging or textual question Moncrief and Rubin wanted to present; because I wanted the actors to discover their own answers, I limited my own classroom input as much as possible. In retrospect, I regret not asking Moncrief for a few minutes of class time each week, to present an image or video clip, ask a big question, or discuss a recent news item that related to the play. These would have reminded the cast that the play is much bigger than words on a page or four performances, that it is still a relevant and challenging story. Rubin and I knew and talked about this, but I think we were so focused on putting all the staging pieces together in time that we neglected to address it with the cast.
The class was effective, however, in encouraging the cast to consider how staging choices influence meaning. We examined specific scenes at length, investigating movement, inflection and text and comparing which choices were most effective. We employed this critical approach to staging as we delved into rehearsals; actors were encouraged to consider each movement, vocal inflection and expression as it related to the play’s themes. Rubin specifically asked them to approach their characters with power in mind: “You’re each trying to fill the space with how you think the kingdom should be run,” he said in one rehearsal. Even the “good characters” were trying to achieve a specific goal, and that motivation needed to come across in every choice the actors made. My cache of performance examples helped immensely as actors examined how their characters would speak, move and interact. During a discussion about how to convey the nature of Edmund and Edgar’s relationship, for example, I remembered a moment from Act II, stage i of Barry Kyle’s Globe production; in his staging, the brothers embraced each other before staging the sword fight, implying a close relationship and in turn, emphasizing the enormity of Edmund’s betrayal. Rubin liked my input and employed this staging choice in our production. While we did not use most of the examples I called upon, they were useful to consider as the actors embodied their characters in more complex ways.
Most of my direct contributions to the production began after spring break. Rubin asked me to attend as many rehearsals as I felt necessary and to make observations about characters and staging. For the first couple of weeks, most of the notes I took were about character development. I identified acting choices and posed questions about those that felt out of place. Some were particularly difficult – the Fool, Kent, Edgar, Cornwall – and I struggled to understand their motivation and choices at all. Rubin agreed with most of my observations; in many cases, I addressed thoughts he had already tried to convey to the actors to no avail. At that point, he set me free to work with actors one-on-one. I pulled actors aside during breaks in rehearsal and we discussed motivation, relationship with other characters, movement, meaning of the text, even diction. I talked with the Fool, for example, about balancing his anger with entertainment and fondness for the King; we even discussed specific moments where he could employ more humor. I talked about motivation with Kent (“How do you feel toward Lear when you’re following him in the storm? How can you express those reactions physically without distracting from the focus?”) and Edgar and I worked on how to effectively covey the trajectory of his transformation.
In later rehearsals, I focused on how the story was told and where the actors could more clearly express the story. I found specific lines where additional movement might enhance meaning and suggested options to actors. I also helped Rubin identify lines that could be eliminated to shorten performance time. I specifically looked for moments that seemed dry or redundant, then discussed them to Rubin and the actors. I mentioned cutting Oswald’s rambling recount of Kent’s assault in Act II scene I, for example; it was repetitive and slowed down the action of the scene. After discussing the cut with Zach Weidner, the actor playing Oswald, Rubin eliminated the speech. While watching the final performances, I noted a few more instances where cuts might have been helpful – moments where scenes slowed down and the audience became restless – but for the most part, our choices were effective.
One of the most direct staging contributions I made was during a Thursday class. It was a free day, a class set aside for scene work, and Rubin let me choose what needed the most work. I had been talking to some of the knights after rehearsals, and they all seemed uncomfortable with what their roles meant and how they should behave onstage – how to stand, when to bow, where they were allowed to react. With those thoughts in mind, I asked to work on Act I, scene iv and how the knights could interact with and react to the Fool, Kent and the King. Following that rehearsal, the knights brought a refreshing urgency to the scene; Lear’s actions suddenly affected those around him, and the knights’ behavior emphasized how impactful his mistake was on the entire kingdom. We also worked on the altercation between Oswald and Kent, which had been coming across flatly during rehearsals. Kent and I talked about why he was angry at Lear and how to build his anger through vocalization. Although we only did this in-depth work for two scenes, the actors employed those notes throughout the rest of the play. I thought this was one of the most helpful classes of the semester, and it would have been useful if we had incorporated those kinds of workshops earlier.
As we neared April, my work began to focus more on audience outreach and making production materials. Rubin said he wanted to stress to the audience the emphasis on power, but without a painfully explicit program note. I decided then to use the lobby display to convey those themes, as well as provide historical context for the play. I divided the history of the play into three: Leir’s world (the original source of Shakespeare’s story), Shakespeare’s world, and the play’s stage history. I narrowed down display material based on what meshed with our production’s themes. The first poster focused on images of power from Iron Age England, including a crown, weaponry and gold coins. The second was about the political atmosphere during Shakespeare’s time, particularly King James’ philosophy of Divine Right of Kings. The third highlighted prominent King Lears and their conveyances of power and authority. I presented a lot of information, but I chose the facts I presented carefully, highlighting only those that were thematically relevant. I wanted people to go into the performance with at least a subconscious understanding of how our production of The Tragedy of King Lear was part of a much larger, centuries-old conversation about kingship and authority. My program note addressed the notion of King Lear in the 21st century, tying the historical exploration from the lobby into our own production. I wrote about the current political and social atmosphere and how it parallels with the world of the play. I emphasized how the play’s production history tends to correlate with societal chaos to give the audience a sense of why we were staging The Tragedy of King Lear at Washington College.
It was difficult to tell how much of an influence my production materials had with the audience. I like to think that on some level, my note and display impacted how they contextualized the production, but I can say with certainty that I made contributions in other areas. I’m particularly pleased with my research, not so much the extent of it, but how effectively the production team employed it. I was prepared for most of my archival and historical work to go on ignored; learning about James I and Jacobean theatrical practices was fun, but I imagined that was as far as the cast would employ it. I was delighted to discover that my research was immensely useful throughout the rehearsal process. It opened conversations about how the play and notions of authority have evolved and its place in 21st century America. It also gave me the tools I needed to assist Rubin and the actors wherever necessary; I could answer questions confidently and had an array of materials to employ when necessary.
I credit much of this effectiveness to the way I presented my research. I had an extensive amount of information available about the play’s history, but I was discriminate about what I wanted to communicate to the cast. The work in these first two chapters, for example, was at my disposal, but I only used it when necessary; I did not want to overwhelm the cast or restrict their creative exploration of the play. I think my communication is what I am most proud of about my work on The Tragedy of King Lear. I had to express a variety of ideas to a variety of audiences in a variety of mediums: I talked candidly with Rubin about staging and characters but I was much more delicate with my notes to the cast; my blog was a personal outlet for me to organize my research, but I presented it so that even a curious audience member could understand my work; my production materials prepared the audience for the performance, but I was careful to be discriminatory and accessible. There were certainly communication flaws, particularly with the King Lear: Text and Performance class, but I was mostly pleased with how I employed my research in a collaborative setting. More than anything, this experience instilled in me the importance of dramaturgy, especially with such a challenging play. Rubin and the cast had minimal time outside of rehearsals to think about the play in bigger terms, but I had the time and resources to encourage further exploration of the play. Ultimately, the cast’s intimate understanding of the text came across in their nuanced performances. My dramaturgical work was difficult, often frustrating, but it was exhilarating to watch how it contributed in ways I never could have imagined that opening night.