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The ABCs of Dramaturgy

This past week, I finished reading Dramaturgy in the Making by Katalin Trenscenyi. In a word, it was: delicious. It asked and answered theoretical questions, provided helpful quotes, context, and examples, and helped me re-realize why I love dramaturgy so much. Trenscenyi calls the dramaturg more than just the “in-house critic”, a term which sounds way too uppity. I’ve never been referred to as that, but I’ve been “the guy who writes the program notes,” “the guy who talks to us about stuff,” “the guy who makes the packets,” and “…him, whoever he is. But I am so much more. Here’s just twenty-six roles a dramaturg plays, one for each letter of the alphabet. I’m not all of these for every single show, but that doesn’t mean I couldn’t be. Sometimes I’m just one or two; sometimes I’m all that and even more. So, buckle up, because you’re about to find out that a dramaturg is…

  • An advocate. Make sure no actors, characters, playwrights, directors, or animals are harmed during the making of this production. Speak up for the absent playwright, the overworked director, the actor who isn’t understanding what he’s talking about. Don’t let it go if it means that much to the production. Be a helpful reminder of who we are, why we are here, and what we are here to accomplish.
  • A builder. “why do you build me up, build me up, buttercup baby…” Just had to add that. The dramaturg is not necessarily the builder of the sets or the costumes, but helps to build the world of the play and keep it from crashing down. Even the campiest of plays and musicals need to have atmosphere, or else there’d be no room to breathe the erstwhile stale air.
  • A curator. Lobby displays are some of my favorite things to work on. It keeps my mind and body occupied and out of trouble at times, and usually they come out looking pretty darn impressive. My first foray into lobby installation was in high school, when I took photos of the cast during rehearsals and hung them on the walls of the lobby. For the next show, I took headshots of the six principal actors and put them on easels outside the theatre (I wanted to do everyone in the show, but that was around twenty people and we didn’t have nearly enough time or easels). My high school principal told me that he felt like he was in a professional theatre. My favorites have been the coffin I wrote an entry about awhile back and the time I transformed the lobby of the Merkaz into an all-American high school, complete with lockers, flags, and bulletin boards.
  • developer. Not only do we build, but we help to make sure all the pieces fit together, and that they go as far as they can to reflect the best work of the director, cast, and crew. It’s important to mind boundaries and not overstep them, but sometimes providing some helpful research, whether it’s sharing pictures of your great-grandmother’s gravestone (which got rebuilt as Fruma-Sarah’s grave in Fiddler on the Roof!) or giving advice on how to be a cheerleader (which I wanted to be in college, but…no, it did not happen). If there’s an idea, we can make it work and see it through.
  • An extra pair of hands. It helps to be handy, partially so you can prove to whomever thinks you’re a drama-nerd or a drama-turd that you’re actually a valuable member of the team. I’ve re-upholstered chairs, sewn costumes, hung lights, swept the floor, and once caught a stage manager who was twice my size when she was walking backwards and fell off the edge of the stage.
  • A fact-checker. Carcanet is a necklace, and it sounds like “carson-net.” She is reading in Yiddish, so she’d be turning the pages of the book in the opposite direction. In Dresden, bottle caps were manufactured differently than anywhere else in Germany. These are all things I have looked up, double-checked, and have ultimately enhanced the show.
  • A guide. I’m Jacob, and I’ll be your docent for this process we call the theatre. I write guides and I act as a guide, telling you helpful hints and places to go to get that perfect Snapchat angle. Welcome to your world, actors, directors, stage crew…enjoy it and treat it well.
  • A Houdini. Dramaturgs make the magic happen. My most badass dramaturg story is one for another time, but I’ve managed to whip up some pretty fancy Harry Potter-esque delights with limited time and resources. Getting a program insert typed and printed, helping an actor have a golden moment of awesome that impresses the pants off the director, transform the lobby into another country.
  • An interpreter. This is sometimes tricky, but a dramaturg who is effective is one who can communicate. Between the playwright and the cast, the script and the director, any sort of combination. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, but usually it’s a Bundt cake or a candelabra or the meaning of life. It’s also important that interpretation be known as something that’s not just the opinion of one person, but is something that is agreed upon in the production – not always the dramaturg’s decision, but the actors or director. And if it works, if it doesn’t, it’s not necessarily right or wrong – it’s just an interpretation.
  • A jewel miner. Help find the hidden gems, whether it’s a joke in the script that keeps getting glossed over (such as the Ireland joke in The Comedy of Errors that I attempted to parlay into the rest of the production by sewing a flag of Ireland onto the lower back of Nell’s jacket, which exactly one audience member noticed, on the last night, yelling out, “SHE’S GOT AN IRISH FLAG ON HER BUTT!”) or pointing out a special moment (two actors having particularly good chemistry, or something that someone ad-libs that makes the scene better).
  • A knife. Not the murderous butler, but someone who’s not afraid to give the script a big old chop. See “peacemaker” for the full story.
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  • A mapmaker. Sometimes you get to make and show the cast a literal map, like of the Federated States of Micronesia or the migration patterns of 16th century spice traders, or a royal family tree, but other times, it’s helping the director map out scenes so that they are cohesive, kind of like a storyboarder. The atlas is your friend because many a time will come when a city, country, or building will come up and no one else in the room has any context.
  • A navigator. Whether it’s through the murky waters of the River Nile or the depths of The Iceman Cometh, being the guy or girl with the compass to get everyone through not necessarily as the leader, but the right-hand, the first mate, seeing that nothing is going off the rails – that’s the person everyone wants on their side. Getting out of dangerous territory should be a prerequisite for the job. Only the strong survive.
  • An observer. Silence can be your friend. Just being a set of eyes in the room to oversee things can keep people in line, especially if you have a notebook (not a laptop, something with paper) and write as if you’re giving a grade. You can treat certain parts of the rehearsal as just a break from speaking, or thinking, and just watch.
  • A peacemaker. Sometimes a production can be like a bad family dinner, or a session of the United Nations. People don’t always see eye to eye on everything, and if there is an opportunity to make it better for everyone, and no one’s doing anything, just take the initiative. The worst that could happen is you could get told to mind your own business. One of my (less successful) attempts was on a production that was just too damn long. I was friends with the lead, and there was so much dialogue and extra scenes added into the script that when he and I read through it at my place before a rehearsal, him reading his lines and me reading everyone else’s, it took three hours. And that wasn’t even including set changes, or any stage directions. He begged me to say something to the director because there was no way he was able to memorize it all, or have the stamina to perform for that long every night. We went to rehearsal together, and took the director aside beforehand. I told the director what we did, and that there needed to be cuts for the sake of the cast’s sanity, because it was a long, melodramatic show. Being the impetuous jackass that he was, he said “it’s too late in the process, I would need to have the specifics.” I pulled out my script, handed it to him, and said, “Cuts are marked in green.” He took it and pretty much ignored it and continue to BS me about “I need to have something else to put onstage in its place” (no, you really don’t) and he started the rehearsal without us coming to a conclusion, but at least I tried. The show went on, nothing was changed, they managed to get it to run under three painful hours each night, and the cast and crew bonded over how much they hated the experience, and their self-obsessed director.
  • A questioner. Ask, ask, ask! Questions of the script, questions of yourselves, questions about the questions. If nobody has any questions, create some, and challenge people. Theatre is living and breathing; if you don’t question it, you won’t get any answers. And speaking of answers…
  • A respondent. Answering questions is important too, no matter how big or small. When I was working on Fiddler on the Roof, the actress playing Golde asked me to watch her as she lit the candles and sang the Sabbath Prayer in said scene, and tell her if she was doing anything wrong. It looked great, so I made sure to tell her just that. If it wasn’t, I would have been honest about that.
  • A supporter. The director’s not getting the actors to focus. The actress can’t remember her lines. The lighting designer keeps missing a cue. There’s a last minute casting change, medical emergency, or lack of money to fix something. It’s not necessarily the dramaturg’s job to be the fairy godmother and fix every damn thing, but just being a supportive presence can really make a difference, especially in a high-pressure environment where people often come off harsher than they mean to, or something just doesn’t fit quite right. One of my proudest moments was when I was both acting/dramaturging for a show, and one of the actresses was clearly frustrated about something, and taking it out on everyone around her. During a lapse in action, I took her outside, and just asked her what the hell was going on, because something was definitely amiss. She didn’t know what to say at first, but then I reminded her that we need her to make the show what it is, and we are all here for her, myself included. Then, it all came out in a flood of sobs; some personal stuff was going on, one of our cast mates was giving her a hard time, and her wig was extremely itchy. I had a pen and paper with me and wrote down the show-related things that we could try to fix, and slipped it to the director. Her attitude improved substantially – she got a new wig, and I think the problem with her and the other actor get resolved. Either way, she made sure to thank me before we went home for the evening.
  • A translator. Whether it’s between two different languages, or within a language (see: Shakespeare), translation is a necessary skill to have. If the actors have no clue what they’re talking about, neither will anyone else. And there’s the subject of cultural translation too. I’ve translated two scripts between languages (Hebrew-English, Slovak-English). Both are pretty shitty. But one day, I’ll go back to them, make some edits and cuts, and see how I can fill them out to the extent of the original – not just in words but in meaning.
  • An upside-down, inside-out…person. Look at all the angles from the space, back to front, top to bottom. Be a potential audience member who’s just excited to be here, not just an “in-house critic.” See more at “x-ray technician.”
  • A volunteer. Understaffed can be the name of the game in the theatre. In addition to being an extra pair of hands, I’ve been a ticket taker, a rehearsal room wrangler, a space booker, someone to run down the street to pick up last-minute light bulbs for two that burnt out just that afternoon. Most of these things are easy, and it can earn you extra points with the group as a whole, or someone who might not have liked you before.
  • writer. In many theatres, the dramaturg’s job is to write the program note. Sounds easy, but you don’t just want to write any program note. If given the chance to communicate with the audience via the program, you should take the time to make something that will keep the conversation going after the audience leaves the theatre. I’ve seen everything from maps to quizzes to word searches, and I make every opportunity count. Once, I was listening to a song on the car radio that had nothing to do with the show when inspiration struck me, and I wrote down something that really impressed the director despite it being about comparing Desiree Armfeldt to Lady Gaga. For The Great American Trailer Park Musical, I got to write a fake newsletter with in-jokes from the show; it was funny, and if you paid attention to what you were watching, it was even funnier.
  • An x-ray technician. Sometimes you need to look at the negatives. I’m not talking about something bad, I’m talking about what’s not there. Sure, the usual goal is to tighten the play, but if there’s something about the show that’s stuck inside and needs to be extracted. For example, I was dramaturging a play for the Baltimore Playwrights Festival. The protagonist was a mother dealing with her son, a soldier returned from Iraq in a severe state of trauma. Spoiler alert – the play ends with the stage going black, and it’s implied that the son killed himself. I watched it during dress rehearsal, and the last thing we heard was the mother screaming, and then the lights came up on her as she recited her final monologue. After one of the final dress rehearsals, I went up to the playwright and director, and said “you know…you just spent two hours building Rosie up as this strong, bold woman, and I couldn’t believe she just went out with a screech like that. I felt like I knew her, and that it was something she wouldn’t do. I actually lost all my respect for her at that moment.” There was a moment of silence, and the director and playwright looked at each other curiously. At the following night’s rehearsal, when that moment came, instead of screaming, we heard the mother pleading, “Just wait for me, son, mama’s coming…I’ll be there soon…just a little longer…mama’s coming…” Then, a moment of complete silence and darkness before the lights came up on Rosie’s final monologue. I was stunned almost to the point of tears…I felt like the character was Sisyphus, attempting his final push on the boulder before it rolled down the mountain and crushed him. Intense stuff.
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  • zebra. Because why be a human when you could be a zebra.

This is one of the longest and most insightful posts I’ve ever written.

God bless us, every one.

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Wisdom from Pleasant Diversions

This past week in Chinese and Japanese drama class, we read portions of an ancient dramaturgical text entitled Xianqing Ouji, or Pleasant Diversions, by Li Yu. Li Yu was an author and theatre theorist who lived in China in the 17th century, and Pleasant Diversions centers on his thoughts and theories on drama. He also seemingly had a way with words; maybe the translation helps bring out the humor, but nobody else in class spoke up against the translation and almost all of them speak Chinese. So, I thought I’d share some of the wisdom I learned from Li Yu,

Section 1: On Dramatic Structure

Though one’s ability may be limited, if skill is honed and put to good use,  one can still achieve distinction. Otherwise one might boast of huge talent  and claim vast learning, but if one’s essays are full of allusions to the dead  and gone and one’s books are only useful for covering sauce jars, all is in vain (33).

Not everyone can write a play.

Section 2: On Forgoing Satire

The sword of the warrior and the pen of the literary man are both instruments for killing people. Everybody knows that swords can kill. It is not widely known that pens can kill, but still some do know (37).

Yeah writers!

For a long time I feared I would have no sons to carry on my line, now I have five sons and two daughters, wives who are pregnant, wives who have given birth but will be pregnant again. Although none of my progeny show promise, yet  they give me comfort in my declining years, and relieve me of the worry of having no kin to turn to (40).

My kids suck.

Section 4: On Getting Out of the Rut

There is an old saying, ‘the most expensive fur coat is made from the fuzz from more than one fox’s armpit’, which is most apt to commend the new plays of our contemporaries (43).

You had me at “fox’s armpit.”

Section 9: On Plot and Personality

If his speech is not dull and predictable, one or two sentences out of ten will break the mould; if his writing is not prosaic, one or two passages in a composition will be creative. This will be someone capable of writing plays. Otherwise he should look for some other occupation, not expend useful energies on a profitless pursuit (54).

If you can’t write a play, get a job.

Section 13: On Wordliness versus Conciseness

I would in fact prefer to save my energy by giving latitude to the actors; the problem is, there are intelligent actors and stupid ones: can I be sure that their amplifications all accord with the author’s intentions, and they will not introduce irrelevant and superfluous stuff (59).

Don’t allow actors to fuck your shit up.

Section 16: On ke hun (light relief)

If your diction is good, your plot good, but your light relief bad, then not merely will your vulgar playgoers be turned away, even your gentlemen of high culture will nod off. The dramatist must be adept at driving away the demon of sleep. Once the demon of sleep has come, though what ensues may be celestial music or the divine ‘Dance of the Rainbow Skirt’, they will still fall on stopped ears and closed eyes. It will be like bowing to statues, discussing the sutras with a clay Buddha (65).

Don’t be boring, but if you are, make sure you have a topless scene; chances are the audience won’t notice.

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Mi Primera Post en Puerto Rico

Greetings from Puerto Rico, where it’s day 3 (I think?) of my trip to Puerto Rico for the week. I think that this is so far the most surreal leg of the trip, but I’ll quickly give a rundown on the funzies in Arizona first.

Getting to Arizona, I was immediately greeted by ATHE, in a way; my friend and fellow dramaturg Walter ended up having a ticket on the same shuttle as I did (his flight from Newark came in slightly after mine). Also in the van was a woman who was going to ATHE who hadn’t been in years, but was glad that grad students were there.

At the Fairmont Princess, I check in to the conference first and the room second (priorities!) and see the first of my three roommates, Kathleen, on the way, walking with Carrie and Sarah. At our room, C1122, which is actually in a pretty good central location, I see Bryan, the second of the three roommates, and find out that the fourth in our group, LaRonika, hasn’t arrived yet due to storms delaying her plane in Baltimore. The first night of the conference is usually blah, waiting for something exciting to happen, but the most excitement I had was spending $40 on a margarita and a tiny bowl of grilled vegetables, and going to the Transit Performance, which wasn’t spectacular but did lead me to meet Eleanor, Matt, and Dorine, the latter two of whom I kept running into throughout the weekend. LaRonika finally arrived at some late hour and we prepared for an early wakeup call for Pre-Con.

Thursday: Pre-Con! The first dramaturgy Pre-Con ever! Hooray! Bryan rented a van and packed twelve of us ‘turgs inside (Walter, Carrie, Sarah, Kathleen, LaRonika, Shannon, Kristin, Ben, Jean, Maria, Lindsey, and myself) for a day at Taliesin West, Frank Lloyd Wright’s southwestern home. It normally costs $32 to get in, but with grants and a deal, it ended up costing us only $5 each! Char, our tour guide, was fascinating and the home itself was brilliant, with light and beauty around every corner. We all had a great time. Afterwards, I bought a tiny journal in the bookstore, and asked everyone to offer some thoughts or reflections in it over lunch. Being dramaturgs, everyone wrote something meaningful, and I spent most of my lunchtime catching up with Maria, who was sitting next to me.

Opening night! The keynote and official opener were great as always, and Luis Alfaro was pretty funny. The reception at the exhibit hall was great; I wasn’t as boozed up as last year so I think I probably made less of a fool of myself. I met Cissie, a wonderful new friend all the way from the Netherlands, spent awhile talking with Jane, and then found Iris for our traditional wine-glass-selfie, this time in front of the ATHE banner. We spent awhile hugging and catching up with each other and it’s just so great that she’s lucky enough to come in from Taiwan every year. I picked up the usual stack of catalogs, and then hit the pool for awhile with Bryan and Kathleen.

Friday: Panel time! In the morning, I saw Bryan/Kathleen/Aoise/Sarah’s panel, and then went to a panel on playing games where I saw Annalisa. My panel was, unfortunately, poorly attended (3 panelists and 2 audience members) but it was in the death spot, where everyone is doing stuff at the SAME TIME, including ANOTHER dramaturgy panel with Walter, Talya, and Joan. The plenary was that day, I think, and I sat with Karen Jean the Dramaturgy Queen.

Friday night was one of my favorite conference times, DNO or Dramaturg’s Night Out. It was more of a Dramaturg’s Night In as we congregated at the Plaza Bar. I met newbie and recent grad Jacob, and immediately liked him for his name. At least he is Jacob D. and not H. I got to say hi to Joan, and had a nice catch-up chat with Cindy. By the end of the evening, I’d talked to so many people that I can’t remember them all, probably I’ve already mentioned everyone but D.J., Julie R., and Shelley, who made a surprise appearance, driving in all the way from San Diego. And then it was pool time, where I met Rosa and her friends who drove in from Los Angeles for their Saturday night performance.

Saturday: Panels, panels, panels. Also attended a workshop. Also, it was Dramaturgy Focus Group membership day, where I gladly handed over my title as Grad Student Rep. Honestly, I think Walter and LaRonika probably did way more than I this past year, but all three of us got some very nice praise. I had a quick chat with Talya, which turned into a several hour chat over Starbucks. (I think that happened Saturday but I might be wrong). Dinner was at La Hacienda with Bryan, Kathleen, LaRonika, Sarah, Carrie, Walter, and Jacob D., and even though it was, again, expensive, it didn’t really matter because we were all together, our little family, and we had so much fun and booze. After, we went to see the Banned Plays performance. We missed the first piece, but came in midway through the second, which was Rosa and her group – who were amazing – and stayed for the third, which was also awesome. I ducked out for the final performance though.

I get back to the room, and a lightning storm hits, and of course, LaRonika was planning for this night to be her pool night, so she was feeling blah. But we cheered up when she did a dramatic reading of the spa menu; I don’t think I’ve laughed that hard in a long time. That spa menu though. It dried up outside, and while Bryan took a phone call, LaRonika, Kathleen, and I shared a swing – we fit perfectly, just like roomies! – and when Bryan came out, we moved to a ledge, where we sat, drank, and laughed for awhile, mostly about equipment and Kwame Kwei-Armah/Quvenzhane Wallis. So many other ATHE people walked by but we were too drunk to care.

Sunday: The worst day of the conference, every year; time to say goodbye. Bryan and Kathleen left rather early, and LaRonika got some pool time in before leaving as well. My flight was not until 1:15 AM, so I caught up with Claire, found a geocache, and took a swim before heading to the airport.

Fast-forward to Monday.

8:00 AM EDT: I arrive in Charlotte, dazed and confused because I got on a plane four hours prior in Phoenix where it was 1 AM. My breakfast was something from Starbucks, and I jumped on my San Juan flight, totally in disbelief that this was actually happening. I watched Saving Mr. Banks on the way, which was delightful, even though I was super tired. We touched down early in beautiful San Juan and I managed to get to Thrifty pretty quickly and use my Spanish to pick up the car, and then…I was on my way! Driving in San Juan! Crazy!

My directions took me not to Isabel’s place but a lovely nearby church where she came and found me. We hung out, caught up, and then Axel came back and we went out for dinner. Four meals (us three + an extra for me should I get hungry at night) was $50, only slightly more than 1 meal at the Fairmont Princess. I wasn’t tired, but by the time we got home around 8 PM, I was getting there, and officially turned in at 11:30 after being half asleep for two hours.

Yesterday: Early wake-up to go exercise with Isabel and Axel, something I haven’t done for ages (more like two weeks). It was fun and we went to a panaderia (bakery) afterwards for food. Eventually, after resting at home, I went to find Riley, which was really tough because iPhone Maps and Puerto Rico are not friends. It took me way too long, over an hour, but we went back to Isabel’s place, walked to Condado Beach, and had four glorious hours of swimming and laying on the beach. We had Pizzeria Uno for dinner – surprisingly cheap! – and then I took him home.

Today (finally): Was supposed to go with Isabel/Riley to Ponce, but it didn’t happen for various reasons 😦 maybe tomorrow. Instead, we went for a lovely breakfast, and I just rested until about 3, when I went out to Old San Juan for 4 or so hours of exploring. I found 6/7 geocaches I looked for in pretty good time, and just about sweated my face off. My phone died, but I’m clever enough to get back here on my own, and that’s where I’ve been for the past two hours.

Going to get some dinner now, probably on my own, and then see what tomorrow’s plan will look like.

Vamonos!

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Late Night with Jacob Letterbrienfallonmeyers-Winfrey, Your Dramaturg

I’ve always had interest in the theatre and thought I wanted to be an actor, but performing can be stressful and I suck at memorizing lines. Because I love pretty much all sides of theatre, from costumes to sets to writing to acting, I became a dramaturg.

Most people think that dramaturgs are the ones that hide behind books and paperwork, and only peek into the daylight to give a short rehearsal presentation or sneak in a lobby display, but dramaturgs are so much more than that. One of the great things about being a dramaturg is that you really get to be your own dramaturg. If sitting in the back of the theatre is your thing, then go for it. If being in on the action is your thing, there’s times for that too. Though I treasure research and academia and all that goes with it, I’m a social animal and when I want to, I can be outgoing and engaging.

Those skills come in handy when leading a talkback, especially the one I led tonight after Richard III.

I went to the show tonight with five friends. We all sat together in the front row and watched what was, obviously, a fabulous show. Then afterwards, I got to put on my dramaturg hat and lead the talkback with the director and the cast. I’m super awkward in real life, like a good deal of people, but my inner performer really comes out when leading talkbacks. I like to think of myself as a host, kind of like Oprah, Ellen, Sally Jessy, Steve Harvey, Ricki Lake, Wendy Williams, David Letterman, Jay Leno, and Conan O’Brien all wrapped up into one. That would actually be an awesome combination, and slightly scary. While the cast was changing out of costume, I engaged the director in an open conversation, and the cast filtered in for about three or four moderated questions from the audience and a final “button question” from me (what was the most enjoyable part of the experience? what was fun?) to seal the deal. Basically, it’s like I get to have my own talk show.

Even though I try not to judge myself, I inevitably do after each time I moderate a talkback. Like any good performer, I take stock in what I do and usually find myself giving myself both praise and criticism. This time around, it was no different. On the good side, I remembered to get dressed up for the show; I don’t quite have a uniform, but in my black jacket, black pants, teal Oxford shirt, and a touch of makeup, I thought I looked pretty jazzy tonight. I started on kind of an awkward note, as I thought that the director would announce the talkback, and then he gestured to me to start by the time people started getting up and leaving, which they would’ve done anyway, but I might’ve been a few seconds too late. Plus, I was kinda caught on my phone/keys/wallet and I didn’t want to walk onstage with that kind of entourage. Since it was my first time doing a talkback in this space, I also might not have been loud enough in my announcement, but out of about 100 audience members, 20-30 stayed, which was not bad. Also, the actors didn’t stay onstage, nor were they able to change quickly, so it actually was the Jacob Show for a few minutes.

I started to get a little nervous as the crowd started to leave, but then the director joined me onstage. I introduced him to some applause (yes!) and then we sat down and I asked him a few questions while the cast was getting ready. I made them pretty open-ended and general, because I definitely wanted him to take the spotlight and say what was on his mind, rather than talk about the show myself. I do not come from the Jeff Probst school of event-hosting. After a few minutes, the cast started filtering in, so I did the “go-around-and-introduce-yourselves” thing, and then another round of applause. After this, I opened the floor up for questions, which ended up being a little awkward since some of the characters with more extensive costume/makeup started filtering in, so we needed to pause every so often so I could welcome/introduce the new arrivals. I almost made a booboo when I didn’t see someone in the corner of the audience, and the cast pointed him out for me to call on – hey that’s my job! – but granted, he must’ve raised his hand after I looked away, and I managed to officially call on him after a momentary twirl to get things back on track. I like it when the whole cast gets to speak, but due to the time and the gigantic cast, a few people didn’t get to say anything; one of the larger-cast shows that I led the talkback for was A Streetcar Named Desire at Spotlighters in Baltimore, and I predicted that most of the audience’s questions would be directed towards Blanche/Stella/Stanley, so I made sure to jump in at a brief lull and ask Negro Woman and Mexican Woman to give us their take on being citizens of Tennessee Williams’s New Orleans, which hit the dominoes for the rest of the chorus to speak, which is something I strive for – to make everyone feel special.

For some reason, I have a pretty good sense of time when it comes to these things, and I cut it off at just the right moment, after my button question, with no awkward lulls along the way and concluded by thanking the audience, cast, director, and everyone everywhere. Ending is never fun and this was not one of my best attempts; I hate getting all thank-y, but at least the audience left happy and the actors seemed to be pleased to continue on with their night. Of all my friends, only Kelly stayed throughout the whole thing, and I’m really happy she did. She mostly stayed because she was watching my keys/phone/wallet, but since she did, I introduced her to the director and to Richard himself, to whom she was ecstatic. Combine that with a front row seat and an escorted walk back to her dorm and that’s a red-carpet, VIP experience all for the price of $16.00.

Oh, and one more thing that happened, which was kind of unexpected: when an audience member asked about how the actors learned about Richard and Shakespeare and all the history, one of the actresses pointed me out and thanked me publicly with a “we’re not worthy”, which some of the actors echoed. The director chimed in that I did a good job, and led a brief round of applause for me while I gave an “aw-shucks” face, with a slight bow to the cast and to the audience. That’s never happened before.

I always leave a talkback feeling exhilarated, like I did a performance myself, walking offstage with a beaming smile and a bit of graceful spring in my step. It’s like magic. Yay for dramaturgy!

So..hey NBC, can I have my own talk show? I’ll dress up for it and everything; I’d like late-night and afternoon, but I could be coerced into primetime, or even a hangover slot…will you think about it? Give me a call…please?

 

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Flip The Script: Nora Vagi Brash, Which Way Big Man?

As a dramaturg and a PhD student in theater, scripts occupy 75% of my reading, both for class and in my personal life. There are actually theater students out there who abhor reading scripts and prefer monographs and theoretical writings on theatre, and vice versa, but I like it both ways. Theory, criticism, and history can get dry or jargon-y after awhile, and getting lost in a good play is a quick and easy way to mix pleasure reading with a performance in your mind’s eye. It also helps that rare is the play that goes beyond one hundred pages, so if you claim that you don’t have the interest, time, or patience to read a novel for fun, I suggest plays.

For a recent project (okay, one that was due today that I just sent to my professor right now), I chose to look at a play I’d heard of from the island nation of Papua New Guinea. After I had a copy of the play sent to me all the way from Penn State, I found several other plays that fit the category in the library, including one that was in three different booksSo, I switched up my topic, and after reading Which Way, Big Man? I’ve become the newest fan of playwright/actress Nora-Vagi Brash.

I’ve written several book reviews, and I’ve wanted to transition into writing reviews of some of my favorite scripts, old and new, so here’s a new segment I’ve just come up with entitled Flip The Script. Lame, I know, but I couldn’t think of anything better. Remember, my mind is the same one that came up with Masterpiece YouTube and wrote a whole post about puns, so there you go. I’ll include the basics (playwright, year, character, setting, context, etc.), aim to limit my word count on plot description, and include some pictures and commentary. So, without further ado, I present the first episode of Flip The Script right…now.

The Basics

Which Way, Big Man? was written in 1976 by Nora-Vagi Brash, and premiered in Papua New Guinea that year.

Characters (In Order of Appearance)

  • Gou Haia – Public servant and the newly-appointed Director of National Identity.
  • Sinob Haia – His wife
  • Peta – Their servant
  • Hegame – Gou’s cousin
  • Private Secretary – Sinob’s social secretary
  • Papa – Gou’s father
  • Marian – Gou’s typist
  • James – Gou’s clerk
  • Chuck Braggin-Crowe – Businessman, owner of perfume corporation
  • Vi Braggin-Crowe – His wife
  • Saga – A local university student
  • Professor Noual – A linguist
  • Mrs. Ura Kava – A news reporter
  • Dr. Ilai Kamap – An academic
  • News Announcer – News announcer (offstage/recorded)
  • Also, a character named Tau, a co-worker of Marian and James, is mentioned and spoken to, but does not appear in the cast list nor say any lines.

Setting/Plot

1976, the Haia home in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea. Gou has been promoted to Director of National Identity in the newly independent Papua New Guinea, and his wife Sinob plans a cocktail party in his honor. Gou’s father comes from the village to surprise him, much to Sinob’s behest. At the party, Sinob tries to impress her upper-class, white friends while insulting/ appropriating Papua New Guinea’s culture, language, and traditions. Upon seeing her father-in-law along with Marian, James, and Saga smoking and chewing buai, a tobacco-like substance, Sinob lashes out, only to be called out as neo-colonial for exploiting public funds and wearing a dress she had “specially made,” which is a knock-off. Sinob turns her anger towards Marian, calling her a pamuk (adulterer) for dancing with Gou earlier at the party, before slapping Marian in the face, who does the same to her. Gou steps in and she calls him an adulterer to his face and storms off, ending the party and leaving only Gou and his father on stage to reflect on the situation, especially in light of Gou’s new position.

My Thoughts

A great and simple take on colonialism through a postcolonial lens. Brash makes everything pretty clear-cut. It’s the perfect text for a discussion on postcolonialism and I can’t wait to read more from her.

Historical Background

As a nation who gained independence in the latter part of the twentieth century, Papua New Guinea entered a new world, and along with it, a new worldview. The colonizer-colonized relationship dynamic is one that invokes a clear line between who is in power, and who is not. Under colonial rule, there had been less of an upwardly mobile option for native Papua New Guineans. Even with the advent of higher education, the presence of the colonists undoubtedly affected and most likely limited the amount of autonomy the locals could exert over themselves. The House of Assembly established by the people in the 1960s had enhanced the voices of the island’s colonized residents, yet still the conductor’s baton was still held in the hands of the Australian administration. As the 1970s brought the nation ever closer to independence, the opportunities for social climbing increased as more local representation was needed in order to create an efficient and effective transitional government to bridge the gap between colonial status and independence. With independence came a greater emphasis on social class, and the creation of a new Papua New Guinean elite composed of the literate and the educated colonized people using neocolonialism to perpetuate the cycle of exclusion.

Major Themes 

1. Class. Sinob and Gou, of the newly rich, attempting to impersonate their colonizers, and putting down those who are less educated.

  • Sinob and Gou’s servant, Peta, and although they pay for his education, still require him to call them his “master.”
  • Sinob calls Gou’s father low-class, since he has “betel stained teeth” and doesn’t speak English. She also derides her husband for letting him borrow his clean white shirt, since he will only “get it dirty.”
  • Sinob requests that crystal glasses be ordered for the white guests, and plastic cups for the others.
  • Sinob requests hot and cold Western-style appetizers, calling betel nuts “low-class.”
  • At the party, Sinob calls Marian “just a typist” and orders that she refer to her as Mrs. Gou Haia from now on (which she later gossips about with Vi Braggin-Crowe).

2. Cultural appropriation. This is the practice of picking and choosing elements of culture to share, while branding others as irrelevant or less-than.

  • When Papa suggests a singsing or a traditional party with betel nuts and a pig-roast, Gou tells him that a cocktail party is the thing to do now.
  • Sinob insulting the flower that Papa wears in his hair to the party.
  • At the party, while Sinob slams Tok Pisin and other elements of PNG culture and traditions, Sinob wears a dress made of local fabric and cut in a local style, appropriating the style of dress made by islanders and sold in the markets.

3. Language barriers. Sinob and Gou Haia attempt to navigate two interstitial zones: one of formerly low-class islanders who have risen to a higher social class, and another of English, the language of colonialism and the local Tok Pisin language.

  • In the first scene, they speak only in English, but are clearly able to understand Tok Pisin as Sinob barks orders in English at Peta, the servant, who responds in Tok Pisin.
  • In Scene V, upon the arrival of Gou’s father, we see the extent of the lapse in communication between Gou and his father.

GOU: Father! How are you? We – er – weren’t expecting you.

PAPA: Eh! Pikinini bilong mi! Yu tok Inglis. Na mi traim tok olosem. (Ah, my son, you speak English. I’ll try too.) Your house here, is too far up hill and road. My bones tired from walk. Now I find you is good.

GOU: Father, I have been promoted. I’m to be the director of the Department of National Identity. Do you understand?

PAPA: Pikinini, yu tok wanem long dispel? Mi no save. Yu tok Inglis, na mi no kisim as long tok bilong yu. (Son, what are you talking about? I don’t understand. When you speak English I can’t get to the bottom of what you say.)

GOU: It means I’m to be the boss of a big office. The number one boss.

PAPA: Number one, eh?

GOU: Yes. Tonight, Sinob and I are having a party to celebrate (Brash 154-155).

  • In this brief exchange, we  how Gou’s status has affected his relationship with both his father and his native language. Gou greets his father in English, who responds in Tok Pisin before attempting to keep the conversation going in English. Gou’s choice to respond in English rather than in Tok Pisin (which we know he understands, although we have not yet heard him speak) and his word choice increases the distance between the two. Gou’s father, whose confidence and knowledge in English do not match his son’s, switches back to Tok Pisin. Despite the fact that Papa says “when you speak English I can’t get to the bottom of what you say,” Gou continues in English, refusing to switch to Tok Pisin. On top of the obvious master-servant relationship between the couple and Peta, now we see the insinuation of the English-speaking son putting his native father – both his actual Papa and his first language, the language of his fatherland – beneath him.
  • Scene IV. Dr. Ilai Kamap, the academic, brings up the subject of national language. Despite her position as the wife of the man who is now charge of the task force to discover national identity, Sinob is dismissive of the two dominant non-English languages of Motu and Tok Pisin, calling the latter Pidgin, a nomenclature originated and utilized by the English. She calls them languages of the “village people” and that everyone should speak English, citing the current English-based educational curriculum and that it would “cost a lot more to rewrite the texts (Brash 160).” Professor Noual, the linguist, takes umbrage to the idea, but is ignored by Sinob, who has already moved on to a conversation with Ura Kava about her new dress. As Sinob leaves, Dr. Kamap suggests the creation of a language based on the “seven-hundred-plus languages here…which would include elements from each basic dialectal area,” to which Professor Noual points out the fact that this language already exists and is a national language: Tok Pisin.
  • After his wife storms off and the guests take their leave, only Gou and Papa are left on stage. As soon as they are alone, they have a conversation exclusively in Tok Pisin. According to the footnoted translation, Papa excuses himself to go stay with a cousin, but Gou apologizes to his father for his wife’s display and the toll that urban life has taken on him. Papa responds with understanding, but instead of solely blaming city life, also points out to his son how Sinob bosses him around. He then invites Gou back to the village to join himself and Gou’s mother for Christmas, and that they will make a big feast. Gou insists to his father that he and his mother should not spend money on feeding him, to which his father says that he will be ashamed among the village if Gou will not come home for Christmas. As it is late, Gou offers his father the bed in the guest room, but he refuses, preferring to sleep on the hard living room floor. He does so, leading to the closing image of Gou putting a pillow under his father’s sleeping head to elevate it off the floor, and contemplating his new position with the play’s closing line, “[a]nd so…here I am, your son…the director of National Identity.” It is clear here that Gou is caught in the middle, not only between English and Tok Pisin, but between the comfortable bed of the present and his father, the past, happily sleeping on the floor. In this way, Brash leads her audience with the provocative question of reconciling with identity.
  • Character names: The name of protagonist Gou Haia is a homophone of the English phrase “go higher,” referring to his political ambition as well as his rise in socioeconomic class. His wife is an aptly-named snob, both in her name, Sinob, and in her nature. The haughty white businessman and his wife whom Sinob is desperately trying to impress are named Chuck and Vi Braggin-Crowe, alluding to both Sinob’s and their own tendency to “brag and crow” about their position in society and their opinions of the lower class. A case can even be made for Dr. Ilai Kamap, the academic who suggests the creation of a new language for the new nation, as his surname is a hint to the phrase “come up,” indicating that he is also among the newly-risen members of society.

I have more to say but I’ll stop and publish here because I’ve basically just recreated like half my paper, but stay tuned for more on this play. This entry will probably be edited a few times.

Also, anhyeunasayo to my first visitor from South Korea, and to my 10000th visitor (at least according to my Revolver Map), from Kanata, Ontario, Canada. Not bad, eh?

Works Cited

Beier, Ulli, ed. Voices of Independence: New Black Writing from Papua New Guinea. St. Lucia, Queensland, Australia: U of Queensland P, 1980.

Brash, Nora-Vagi. Which Way, Big Man? in Voices of Independence: New Black Writing from Papua New Guinea, ed. Ulli Beier. St. Lucia, Queensland, Australia: U of Queensland P, 1980.

James, Adeola, ed. PNG Women Writers: An Anthology. Melbourne, Victoria, Australia: Addison Wesley Longman Australia, 1998.

Waiko, John Dademo. A Short History of Papua New Guinea. Melbourne, Victoria, Australia: Oxford UP Australia, 1993.

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More Realistic Motivational Statements

Let’s get real here: motivating yourself sucks.

Motivation is tough. It’s not even the fact that I’m a PhD student; it’s still so freaking cold outside that I need a mountain of motivation to get myself out of bed, fed, clad, and off the couch every day. I managed to move from bed to couch at around 11 AM, but didn’t even leave the apartment until 5 PM. Granted, it was hovering around 0 degrees for most of the day, but I could’ve gone to the gym or something. Instead, I watched all the YouTubes, did all the crossword puzzles, watched blog stats, played Word Strips, and finally spent 2-3 hours agonizing over a dramaturgy project like a maniac before leaving the house to get Target and food.

Thursdays are always like this: I go to bed the night before thinking that I will get started on things on Thursday and not put them off until Sunday night. I spend the majority of Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday doing anything but work (social, tv, even cleaning the apartment), and then freak out Sunday night as I attempt to read several hundred pages while I hate myself for having wasted 4 days. Monday through Wednesday are pure torture as I spend every free waking moment working or worrying, only to breathe a sigh of relief on Wednesday night, promise myself I’ll do better next week…and then the cycle continues.

So far, I’ve only wasted about 70% of the day; I read and took notes on half a chapter for Monday. PROGRESS.

Motivational quotes are all over my Facebook feed, and they’re all just, so, trite. So, in a vain attempt to be creative on a frosty brain that is resisting the urge to resist doing work, here’s a list of realistic motivational statements.

20 Totally Made Up Realistic Motivational Statements/Suggestions/Stuff/Things

  1. This one is from my dad – the best way to confront a crisis is head-on. Except if that crisis is a speeding car coming in your direction.
  2. Don’t tear out your hair; nature will do that for you.
  3. Nobody is grading how clean your apartment is, so cleaning it can wait. Unless you’re having it shown, in which case, clean like a crazy person for 30 minutes. You will feel so much better, and ready to work after a short break.
  4. Shakespeare didn’t write all of his plays in one sitting, you don’t have to either.
  5. If it’s on TV, chances are it’ll be on again. If not, it’ll be on the Internet. If it’s really important, like the Olympics or the Oscars, just wait for the BuzzFeeds, they’ll edit out the boring parts.
  6. If you actually get stuff done, you’ll be able to concentrate on beating that game and know that you earned that time.
  7. Move to a different spot on your apartment. You will be able to see yourself in a different light.
  8. Think of someone really successful. They are most likely slacking off right now, so if you do your work right now, you’ll be one-up on them in your own mind.
  9. You know how much you hate that person who’s gotten all their work done and is now bragging about it? Beat them to it. Works every time. And it’s even better when you tell that person “oh yeah, I just did nothing all day,” secretly knowing that you did, indeed, do the exact opposite.
  10. Pretend like there is a bomb in your apartment and if you can hit that “I’M DONE” button (aka “save” or “send”) before a certain minute/hour, the bomb will be destroyed and you will have saved the world. Yes, THE WHOLE ENTIRE WORLD. You’re Buffy.
  11. Make that an actual button. Have your mom/dad/sister/friend’s number programmed into your phone, and when you press “save” or “send” simultaneously press your phone and then tell them about it. But check the time first, and calculate time difference.
  12. Make dinner or a yummy treat and race against the oven timer to get your work done.
  13. So many amazing things were invented by unmotivated people. Think of how much you could do in a motivated state of mind.
  14. If you miss that TV show, there will be no consequences. There are always consequences to not finishing your work. Nobody likes the c-word.
  15. Tell yourself that if you don’t do your work, you will end up living in a dollar store shopping cart with an needle full of cocaine in your arm and stray, rabid cats licking your bare feet. That is a scary, scary thought.
  16. Think of someone who told you that you couldn’t do something. Do your work to spite them. Let hate fuel your rage, and channel that into doing your work.
  17. Heat up soup or make coffee or something, then challenge yourself to get something done before it cools. Cool = failure.
  18. Someone else, if given all the work that you have to do, would throw up their hands and call it a day. If you can even do a little bit of it, congrats – you’re not that person.
  19. Remember – somewhere else, someone is being arrested, being stoned to death, getting dumped, giving birth, getting divorced, getting a shot, starving, lost in the woods, locked their keys in their home/car, or has twice as much work as you. Revel in that for a moment, then do your work.
  20. Just fucking do it. Just go over there, not here, not on the couch, over to the desk, and fucking do it.