New Beginnings or Beginnings New?

Joshua Jaeger (Contributor) is a fourth year Theatre Arts Major. He hails from Louville, Kentucky. Some of his other work can be seen on his band’s website, Lionlimb, or on Flavorpill Chicago, the online blog where he is currently a contributing writer and editor. His previous work includes Director of Language of Angels by Naomi Iizuka, Assistant Director for Crave by Sarah Kane, and Assistant Director for the upcoming Medea by Euripides.

As rising upperclassmen and on-the-brink-potential professionals in an undergraduate theatre conservatory, surely none of us needs to sing along with Maria and the children to remember that the beginning is always “a very good place to start.” Our specific training program is heavily based in a foundation-first ideology that seeks to systematically provide students with ever-stackable building blocks of perspectives on theory and practice, each subsequent one manufactured especially to fit flush with its forerunner and, thereby, to strengthen the sturdiness of the structure as a whole. While this approach to training, especially training in theatre, is theoretically ideal it has its cracks. Sometimes it takes ending another kind of first-hand educational experience to understand just how essential those beginning, basic building blocks truly are.

As one of those boots-shaking, on-the brink professionals mentioned before, it is with a certain amount of regret that I admit I am only just beginning my formal coursework in Dramaturgy theory and praxis. This admission feels more regretful still when weighted with a second admission that I’ve previously performed dramaturgical duties at The Theatre School during my time here. My work on those productions was under-developed, at times misguided, and, in a great many ways, immature. Yet, it was also incredibly impassioned. And while walking almost entirely blind into an assistant dramaturgy production practice may not be the keenest idea in hindsight, I’m fairly confident that educational experience I received in doing so was better for it.

How does one truly teach another to be a dramaturg? We’ve been struggling for the last fifty years in America just to define the damn word much less make it a viable theatrical profession. Because of the extremely personal nature of production dramaturgy, the very term and practice itself is elusive; it is meant to be. It’s impossible to teach another how to be deeply interested in a play, how to feel their imagination burned incandescent by its content, how to find enjoyment in sucking the juices out of the most delicious parts of the content, how to savor them, and find ways to make that taste available to any and all interested. And, on top of all that, to somehow explain how it all relates back to Gotthold Lessing, the eighteenth-century critic many champion as the first dramaturgical forefather. Even the best professors can only do so much. 

While I won’t necessarily advocate a reconfiguring of the foundation-based approach to theatre training, I will argue my belief that perhaps we should rethink certain aspects. Chiefly, it’s a dangerous practice to idealize before one ever realizes. Dramaturgy is a tough enough field. The last thing we need is a bunch of people complaining that the practice isn’t all they thought it was cracked up to be. If everyone were required to assist on a production or to observe a process before ever taking a formal course in dramaturgy, perhaps everyone would enter that coursework with a bit more certainty of what a spine is. Sure, no conservatory program would ever allow an actor to pound the boards without first establishing a strong foundation in technique. But perhaps we have to train our dramaturges differently, to imbibe the pioneer spirit of head-first discovery and wonder passed down from our predecessors who initially practiced the art without a working precedent.

My experience of diving into the metaphorical pool of production dramaturgy influenced and continues to influence my understanding of dramaturgy far more than if I had finished all the relevant coursework first. With that experience under my belt, however flawed it may be, I can now consume class discussions and undergo revelations and apply them directly to my own work, not just some illusory, imaginary process on which I hope to embark sometime after finishing the course. When analyzing the delicate, potentially volatile nature of the relationship between dramaturg and director, I now have first-hand knowledge of what that experience is like and potential ways I could’ve handled things better. That hindsight is both mouth-watering and bittersweet; it leaves me wishing for a chance to improve the past but, more importantly, hungry for the opportunity to evolve in the future.


One response to “New Beginnings or Beginnings New?

  1. With over 30 years of directing under my belt, it hit me some time ago that I had directed probably over two dozen productions prior to my ever taking a directing course or entering into TTS’s MFA program in directing. There’s little doubt in my mind that my formal directing training has contributed substantively to who I am, who perhaps better stated, who I think I am as a director. But I can’t deny that the practical experience that I brought with me to the “formal academic table” gave me a perspective that many of my peers lacked. So, in a nutshell, the “Which came first? The chicken or the egg” conundrum is perhaps more relevant to arts training vs praxis as it is to any other academic discipline. As I prepare for my Introduction to Theatre Studies course in January–a course btw that I have never taught before–I have lying around my study a number of plays alongside a number of critical writings penned by the playwrights themselves. I’m thinking right now of Howard Barker’s exquisite play “Victory” and his critical text “Arguments for a Theatre.” So the question is this? Am I to have students first read the play and then the critical piece? Or is there something to be gained from reading the critical piece first and then taking that knowledge of Barker’s mindset into the reading of the play? To be frank, I think both can be used effectively and with positive results, so my decision will most likely be to combine the two. Or I think of scholar Richard Gilman, whose writing on Chekhov is incomparable. Gilman writes of Chekhov in a way that propels one into Chekhov’s plays, and vice versa, if one knows Gilman’s work. As for my own personal method, I find it intriguing to get inside the art of the playwright via the critical literature before tackling the playwright’s work itself. Is that “cheating”? I hardly think so.

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