makers making meaning
makers making meaning
Dramaturgy is a word that comes up frequently in discussions of theater- making, and often without a shared sense of what precisely it is. As defined by Michael Mark Chemers in his excellent book Ghost Light: An Introductory Handbook for Dramaturgy:
Dramaturgy is a term that refers to both the aesthetic architecture of a piece of dramatic literature (its structure, themes, goals, and conventions) and the practical philosophy of theater practice employed to create a full performance. Together, dramaturgy is the very blood coursing through the veins of any theatrical production.
In practice, dramaturgy refers to the accumulated techniques that all theatrical artists employ to do three things:
Research (#2 above) is an essential component to creating a play that takes place in a very specific time and place. In developing Clarissa Buys the Flowers Herself, Parley associates unearthed an extraordinary and rich cache of historical, literary, and impressionistic/imagistic context, including but not limited to ...
Dramaturgy in action.
Here's a sample of the dramaturgical research that we shared with the Clarissa actors. This particular research was compiled by Parley Associate Playwright Hannah Merrill:
On the Spanish flu:
Symptoms, from the book "Pandemic 1918" by Catharine Arnold:
"During the devastating second wave of the epidemic, which began in the summer of 1918, victims collapsed in the streets, hemorrhaging from lungs and nose. Their skin turned dark blue with the characteristic 'heliotrope cyanosis' caused by oxygen failure as their lungs filled with pus, and they gasped for breath from 'air-hunger,' like landed fish. Those who died quickly were the lucky ones. Others suffered projectile vomiting and explosive diarrhea, and died raving as their brains were starved of oxygen. Those who recovered were often left with a lifetime's legacy of nervous conditions, heart problems, lethargy, and depression."
Eyewitness account of an outbreak, from Dr. Victor Vaughan:
"I see hundreds of young, stalwart men in the uniform of their country coming into the wards of the hospital in groups of ten or more. They are placed on the cots until every bed is full and yet others crowd in. Their faces soon wear a bluish cast; a distressing cough brings up the blood-stained sputum. In the morning the dead bodies are stacked about the morgue like cord wood. This picture was painted on my memory cells at the division hospital, Camp Devens, in 1918, where the deadly influenza demonstrated the inferiority of human inventions in the destruction of human life."
Quote from Michael Donohue, whose parents owned a funeral home in Philadelphia:
"Our ledger books are all handwritten and the ones from 1918 are written in the flowing fancy penmanship common in that era. In the early part of 1918, things are well documented. You can tell who a person was, who his parents were, who his children. The book lists where he lived, what he died of, where the viewing and funeral were held, where he was buried. But when you get to October 1918, the ledgers become sloppy and confused; things are crossed out, scribbled in borders. Information is scant and all out of chronological order—it's nearly impossible to keep track of what's going on; it's just page and page of tragedy and turmoil. Sometimes we got paid. Sometimes we didn't. Usually we buried people we knew. Other times, we buried strangers. One entry reads: 'A girl.' Another says: 'A Polish woman.' Another: 'A Polish man and his baby.' Someone must have asked us to take care of these people and it was just the decent thing to do. We had a responsibility to make sure things were done in a proper, moral, dignified manner."
Eyewitness account from Bill Sardo:
"From the moment I got up in the morning to when I went to bed at night, I had a constant sense of fear. We wore gauze masks. We were afraid to kiss each other, to eat with each other, to have contact of any kind. We had no family life, no school life, no church life, no community life. Fear tore people apart."
On shellshock/PTSD in veterans:
From the book "The Body Keeps the Score" by Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, who has spent his career treating trauma survivors. These are from his section about veterans.
"Trauma, whether it is the result of something done to you or something you yourself have done, almost always makes it difficult to engage in intimate relationships. After you have experienced something so unspeakable, how do you learn to trust yourself or anyone else again?"
"It's hard enough to face the suffering that has been inflicted by others, but deep down many traumatized people are even more haunted by the shame they feel about what they themselves did or did not do under the circumstances. They despise themselves for how terrified, dependent, excited, or enraged they felt."
"Maybe the worst of [a veteran patient's] symptoms was that he felt emotionally numb. He desperately wanted to love his family, but he just couldn't evoke any deep feelings for them. He felt emotionally distant from everybody, as though his heart were frozen and he were living behind a glass wall."
Arnold, Catharine. Pandemic 1918. New York: St. Martin's Griffin, 2018.
Van der Kolk, Bessel. The Body Keeps the Score. New York: Penguin Books
Information from 1912 for girls considering entering millinery:
"Seasons [for millinery workers]: Twelve to fourteen weeks in the spring and again in the fall. This short season, added to the low wage of the first two or three years, should be looked squarely in the face by a girl who must earn her own living."
"Hours: Long. In the busy season, as long as the law permits."
Source: Dodge, Harriet Hazen. Survey of Occupations Open to the Girl of Fourteen to Sixteen Years. Boston: Girls Trade Education League, 1912.
Finally, a poem of the era.
Repression of War Experience
By Siegfried Sassoon, 1918
Now light the candles; one; two; there's a moth;
What silly beggars they are to blunder in
And scorch their wings with glory, liquid flame--
No, no, not that,—it's bad to think of war,
When thoughts you've gagged all day come back to scare you;
And it's been proved that soldiers don't go mad
Unless they lose control of ugly thoughts
That drive them out to jabber among the trees.
Now light your pipe; look, what a steady hand.
Draw a deep breath; stop thinking; count fifteen,
And you're as right as rain ...
Why won't it rain? ...
I wish there'd be a thunder-storm to-night,
With bucketsful of water to sluice the dark,
And make the roses hang their dripping heads.
Books; what a jolly company they are,
Standing so quiet and patient on their shelves,
Dressed in dim brown, and black, and white, and green,
And every kind of color. Which will you read?
Come on; O do read something; they're so wise.
I tell you all the wisdom of the world
Is waiting for you on those shelves; and yet
You sit and gnaw your nails, and let your pipe out,
And listen to the silence: on the ceiling
There's one big, dizzy moth that bumps and flutters;
And in the breathless air outside the house
The garden waits for something that delays.
There must be crowds of ghosts among the trees,--
Not people killed in battle,—they're in France,--
But horrible shapes in shrouds—old men who died
Slow, natural deaths,—old men with ugly souls,
Who wore their bodies out with nasty sins.
* * *
You're quiet and peaceful, summering safe at home;
You'd never think there was a bloody war on! ...
O yes, you would ... why, you can hear the guns.
Hark! Thud, thud, thud,—quite soft ... they never cease--
Those whispering guns—O Christ, I want to go out
And screech at them to stop—I'm going crazy;
I'm going stark, staring mad because of the guns.
When actors are building an inner life for characters, often they'll begin by creating - in their imaginations - what happened immediately prior to the events of the scene at hand. This is called "The Moment Before."
Of course, most actors don't have the advantage of the playwright's active presence during the rehearsal process! Playwright drew david combs gifted this nugget of short fiction to the actors playing Sam and Cali in his play Sharp Country.
Hey Sammy, I just landed at the airport and I want to have a drink with you. What do you say?
uhhhh who dis?
From Harbor High.
no i remember
Can we meet up?
yeah of course
Is there a bar in town?
we could go to the axe-throwing place
it’s a bar where you can throw axes
let’s go to Lucky’s
i work there i can get us free tater tots
Is there anywhere else we can go?
not that sells alcohol
Lucky’s it is, then. I’ll meet you in about an hour?
Cali wrinkled her nose at Sam’s final response, a string of emojis she couldn’t decipher. The car rolled to a stop and she looked up to see the front doors of her hotel.
“That was fast,” she murmured.
“It was! Don’t forget, five stars Miss.” The driver gave her a goofy grin and a bottle of water as she got out. “Have a good stay!”
As soon as she rolled her suitcase into the room, Cali descended on the mini-bar. She grabbed two of the little bottles of vodka and cracked one open. She clinked them together in a little “cheers” and tipped the first one into her mouth.
“Was that sad?” Cali laughed. “Is it sad that now I’m talking to myself? Or. Or I’m talking to you, Mom? I don’t know if you’re listening right now but…I miss you. I––I don’t know what you’d say if you knew I was gonna see Sammy again. I mean the only reason I’m seeing him again is because of your funeral. This isn’t how I wanted us to meet again. I thought he’d have. I don’t know? Left? I guess you never left either. Ginny never left.”
Cali unscrewed the lid of the other little vodka bottle and drank it quickly. She didn’t actually want to think too hard about anything, she realized, except perhaps what she and Sammy might get up to. She shook her head to clear the thoughts away and set about getting ready to see him.
Sam was already at the bar when Cali arrived. He had gotten them a booth near the back and he waved her over excitedly. Her heart sank into her stomach as she recognized several of the faces at the tables around her. Not everyone was staring, but Cali felt hot eyes on her from every corner of the bar. She hurried over to Sam and the staring intensified.
“Busier than I thought it would be,” Sam mumbled by way of apology.
“Get us some drinks?” The request, delivered in sugary tones, instantly sparked Sam’s flight response. Cali tucked herself into the booth and pretended to check her emails until Sam returned with two drinks.
“To Meredith,” Sam said, raising his glass. Cali froze. “Oh, I’m sorry, I––“
“No, no, you’re right. We should toast her. To Mom.”
The clink of their glasses meeting seemed to echo around the bar. Various groups were taking turns staring with their tablemates. Cali fought a hot flush rising up her neck to her cheeks.
“We don’t have to stay here,” Sam offered. “We could go to my apartment.”
“Can we?” Cali gulped the rest of her drink, to Sam’s surprise. “Let’s go now.”
“Okay!” Sam half-chuckled. He poured the rest of his drink into his mouth and swallowed quickly. “You don’t want those free tots?”
“I don’t. I don’t want those free tots.”
DREW: I think the biggest difference between Sharp Country and other stories like it is that Cali isn’t her best self at any point. Of course we want to root for the protagonist, but Cali doesn’t make that easy, and no one is exactly a hero in this story. Everyone makes a poor choice at some point, but how they deal with the outcome differs. With this play I wanted to examine family ties, and what constitutes a family, and what keeps a family together or apart.
KATE: Can you give us a glimpse into your writing process? What keeps you inspired and motivated to write?
DREW: The things that inspire me are usually phrases or brief situations. For example, I take the bus to work and it drives past a watch repair store. The window’s been broken out so there’s a plywood board with “OPEN FOR REPAIR” and the address, 301, but the way it’s written it looks like “OPEN FOR 301 REPAIR.” What is a 301 and why would it need repair? Then I combine the phrase with a theme or something that’s been on my mind. Because of another very talented playwright in Parley, I’ve been thinking about the way humans connect to non-human objects or machines––robots. So now I have the beginnings of a plot! The way I keep myself motivated to write is honestly bringing my work to Parley. I have a community of people who not only want to read it, but want to help me improve and continue writing it.
KATE: What has being a part of Parley meant to you over the years?
DREW: It’s difficult to overstate the importance that Parley has for me. I joined with the idea that I was going to get a sort of literary salon experience, and instead I’ve gained a community of lifelong friends, not to sound corny. Parley is of course mostly about writing, but there’s always much more than that in the way of support and friendship. I won’t say too much about our meetings except that there’s almost always a point at which we realize we’ve been hanging out and talking instead of discussing work, and it’s a joy to have a group of people like that. I have been very lucky to have Rebecca in my life, almost unspeakably so, and it’s wonderful to meet with talented friends every Monday and talk about art. It’s necessary.
Playwrights Nelle Tankus and Asha Dore review Parley's world premiere virtual workshop of Nelle's play, Yom Kippur! If you haven't seen Yom Kippur yet, it's available to stream for free on our homepage and our YouTube channel.
Yom Kippur was written by Nelle Tankus, directed by Rebecca Tourino Collinsworth, and featured original visual art by Carol Y Lee and Asha Dore. This world premiere had two live virtual performances in November of 2022.
Review compiled and edited by Asha Dore.
Produced by Parley || Make plays, not war.