~ A Dramaturg’s Perspective on ‘Beneath The Surface: Real Life Stories’
As we await the next incarnation of The Quest storytelling performance inspired by The Velvet Rage… Paul Woodward, the production Dramaturg reflects here about how the original production Velvet Rage: Real Life Stories was shaped and structured, and the processes which brought the piece to fruition….
What is a ‘dramaturg’?
It’s a weird old word, German in origin (and boy does it sound it), which when I describe myself as such makes people check my breath, to see if I’m drunk and trying to say ‘dramatist’ or ‘director’ – in actual fact, its kind of a specialized combination of both of these things. I’m going to resort to Wikipedia here (the academic in me shudders at this of course) for the clearest definition I could find:
Dramaturgy is the art of dramatic composition and the representation of the main elements of drama on the stage. Dramaturgy is a distinct practice separate from play writing and directing, although a single individual may perform any combination of the three. Some dramatists combine writing and dramaturgy when creating a drama. Others work with a specialist, called a dramaturg, to adapt a work for the stage.
Dramaturgy may also be defined, more broadly, as shaping a story into a form that may be acted. Dramaturgy gives the work or the performance a structure.
And that’s basically what my role was for this project. I was the structure and shaper guy for the piece, the guy in charge of production design, and who took a co-directorial position, alongside Darren Brady, who was taking the reigns on this particular project, as facilitator.
I’d previously worked with some of the core cast members (all of whom were non-professional actors and previous participants of The Quest Weekend Exploration Workshop) on the first wave of The Quest storytelling workshops and performances, which took a more physical theatre and performance installation approach and which I conceived and delivered between November 2011 – March 2012. I then flew off to Melbourne to take up a double scholarship to complete my PhD over there and left the storytelling workshops in the capable hands of Darren, who I knew would add his own flavor to the work in progress. Of course when I found out that we had been given the go ahead by Dr Alan Downs to create a stage adaptation of The Velvet Rage to coincide with the Gay Utopia: going beneath the surface weekend, I knew I had to get my butt back on a plane to be involved again and see how my intrepid storytelling crew had developed whilst I had been away.
The first rehearsal I attended on Sunday 23rd September 2012 quite simply blew me away. Darren and I had been communicating via skype and emails in preparation for my imminent arrival into the rehearsal process and decided that the best thing to do would be to let me see all the material that had been gathered, since Darren had been working with the group in my absence. One by one and in no particular order the cast of 10 men performed their stories to an audience of themselves, Darren and me. I was left shaken and stirred and very emotionally drained by the end of the afternoon. Darren had created a safe space for these guys to go deep into their past and help craft them into beautiful postcards from the edges of past traumas, joyful reminiscences of childhood and teen innocence, to desolate stories of loneliness, abuse, addiction and depression.
What I was struck by was the willingness to share fearlessly of themselves and the undeniable sense of tenderness they showed to each other as listeners to each others stories. It was as if there was as much to be gained from hearing these stories and absorbing them, learning from them, growing from them, and that this was as important to the individual as the telling of their own story.
The afternoon melted and merged into one long celebration of suffering and survival. I have always maintained that true stories told by the protagonist are always uplifting stories of survival. No matter how dark or upsetting the tale, it’s always a cause for celebration because they clearly lived to tell it. I held on to this belief as each successive story told with beautiful poignancy tore into me and made me recognize the simple truth that although we may so often suffer because we feel are alone with our pain in this world, in reality as gay men we have many communal experiences of hurt and rejection and trauma which once shared powerfully can dramatically lessen the pain of our suffering. In short, these stories broke my heart, then remade it stronger than before.
I was then left with the daunting task of taking these stories and making a structured and cogent performance piece out of them.
I suggested to Darren that we leave it a few days just to let the stories settle in our heads and hearts before we met to work on the structuring process. During this time I wondered how the cast would react to this external imposing of a form and structure on their own personal autobiographies. I confess to being very nervous and anxious about how we were going to manipulate such personal material whilst preserving its integrity and emotional impact.
The day of structuring turned out to be an intuitive flurry of post it notes on the walls of Darren’s flat, as we started a process of building a show from the stories. Identifying those that most spoke to us at first then placing these alongside other stories to start to develop a map of interdependencies and conversations between them. The closest thing I can think of to describe this process would be as an artist relates to a canvas, making strokes with brush and paint to achieve harmony of intent and composition, colour, light. One of my favorite quotes about the importance of structure in theatre work is from the celebrated director from the 70’s Charles Markowitz who said “feeling without form is like a passionate letter without a postage stamp”. We certainly had an abundance of feeling, but without a carefully wrought frame and format for this then we could alienate our audiences, and if they didn’t feel communicated to then the whole enterprise would fail and the performers left prone to accusations of indulgence, or worse, narcissism. In short Darren and I had a duty to everyone to get this right.
We had to jettison many stories, which we decided we would put in a pool of stories called ‘the bank’ which we may well use in future projects. In this way we felt less heartless in that no stories were rejected they were merely ‘banked’ for future use. We both felt excited that just in this material alone we had the makings of at least three separate shows, which bodes well for the future.
I had been worried about presenting the proposed structure that we came up with to the group, as often performance ensembles can initially reject the conceptual structure and liken it to a straight-jacket which inhibits the free flow of emotion and impedes the autobiographical imperative. The ensemble however collectively voiced their trust in us, and the artistic choices that were made. They seemed remarkably un-phased even when we presented them with some surprising amalgamations of stories and challenging non-linear narratives. I think that there was real tenderness here, certainly from our behalf in molding these stories as sensitively as we possibly could to create a theatrical whole, but also from the performers who graciously gave us the trust needed to organize their life histories in such a way that enriched the performance as a whole.
What struck me most about the rehearsal process was the friction and tension between the form and function of the performance strategies employed and how these served to contain the often very corrosive and visceral material. Some of the material. especially in Act 2, our darker act, explored themes of sexual compulsion, substance addiction, abuse and suicide which remained shocking even after hearing it performed many times in rehearsal. This was high-risk material for both the autobiographical storyteller to confess to and for an audience to receive.
I think that the most important contribution I made to this performance as the dramaturg was in the containing structures themselves. Some stories overlapped so as to support each other, some stories were deliberately positioned to provide buffers for some of the more shocking and visceral tales. This safety net of structure helped bond the stories and provide support for the tellers themselves. Darren did an excellent job in facilitating and nurturing the performers, so that the rehearsal space became a safe space to play in, in which the performers could play with elements of their own lives that were deeply confronting, whilst the stage space I helped create was equally potent and psychodynamic in its ebb and flow of bodies in space, so as to provide a kinetic space that was both stimulating and comforting for both audience and performers alike.
To this end, I introduced the quick fire sentence or number interludes known as ‘chimes’ in which the performers would physically and verbally demonstrate their support of a speaker in simple sentences, words, or even numbers,. These ‘chimes’ acted as a supporting mechanism to powerful revelations of taboo areas of gay experiences from another performer on stage. So for example, after a scene that had involved tales of cruising in public, the rest of the cast stood next to the those who had told the story and revealed what their approximate number of sexual partners was. It was an act of solidarity and support and provided relief for the exposed storytellers who had wrought their stories about sexual compulsion and shame. There is a saying within The Quest workshops – ‘don’t shame another’s shame’ – and I believe that we achieved this in such moments of united confessionals. The message implicit in such moments was clear – We are all in the same boat, so lets help each other get to shore.
I believe that in autobiographical performances like this there is a dual responsibility – the audience themselves needed to feel safe as much as the performers – in some close to the knuckle autobiographical performances the rawness of the material can sometimes be traumatic for both performer and audience if there isn’t a powerful sense of crafting and control. Just as when you are at the circus watching a high wire act there can be what performance psychologists call ‘affiliation through anxiety’ – your senses are sharpened in the face of sensing real danger for the performer – you feel the risk taken both emotionally and physically – through the body –which means, as a director there is a duty to the audience and the performer to provide safe passage through the material. This is imperative when dealing with material that is taboo – there is a danger that the material is rejected by an audience who may not be ready to receive it and are shocked into detaching from the performance and so leaving aside the support necessary for the performer to complete his ritual of confession. I think with this performance piece there was always a risk that it could come across as ‘car crash theatre’.
I believe that what pulled the performances through in the end however, was the real and present element of togetherness. I mean this both from the point of view of both performance ensemble and audience.
What was achieved on stage was the result of a unique and powerful process. This wasn’t just a structured series of rehearsals for a performance, this was a self-developmental journey for the cast in which they confronted aspects of themselves and their lives they might have previously preferred to have kept hidden. There were many victories won as a result of this along the way. In fact one cast member felt that his journey was so full and complete for him personally that he chose not to go on to the performance stage. This process clearly wasn’t just about the applause and validation provided by an audience – it was about something much deeper –a journey towards authenticity and the eradication of shame.
The nature of The Quest work is to excavate and analyze the past, so that we might lead more an empowered present. And the final proof of this was for the performers to share their stories with others, as a victory over the past and as a gift to their audiences.
It was scary at times as a dramaturg, because I grew to be both proud and protective of the cast – and I felt their nerves as they prepared to make themselves so vulnerable in the face of others.
In the end my worries evaporated as I sat in the lighting box watching both the show and the audience intently. It seemed we were only seconds into the performance when the audience showed us who they intended to be for us. I think it started with nods of approval, then grunts of recognition, then laughter of the most giving kind – then just a wave of support… it was palpable even from way up from where I was. They just got it, the audiences role was to complete the work – to provide a safe space, a safety net of intense and compassionate listening, in recognizing the casts remembered pain, they had access to feel their own – and so the circuit was complete, connected, together.
In work like this, the audience become both an individual and a communal witness. This is not a passive role – a witness remembers and records intently so as to be able to recall and make visible and tangible a sequence of extraordinary and notable events so that direct action can be taken as a result. Think of the role of the witness to an accident and having to engage with police or even courts of law. The role has a deep sense of responsibility attached to it. From witnessing comes testimony, from testimony comes legislation – a direct action point between the personal and the political. I believe the audience’s responsibility in this case was fourfold – to the cast, to themselves, to their fellow audience members and beyond the theatre walls out into the world at large.
It was this feeling of togetherness which remains with me today, looking back on the experience. The way the cast fought themselves internally to come together, to come together and trust each other as a group, the audience coming together so perfectly in compassion and empathy, and all in the hope that this feeling can be more than just a dream of theatre, but last well into the daylight of our lives., and make a difference to them.
The next outing for this project will be on Wednesday 6th February 2013 at The Royal Central School of Speech and Drama at 7pm – for more information, click here.
Paul Woodward 2013 ©