A Dramaturgy of Distance

by Mike Doyle

What inspires you? While this is a question that forces us to see beyond ourselves and set higher goals, it is one that I have always shirked away from. I think part of the reason for my distrust of this question is that I conflate the word “inspire” with the word “aspire.” So whenever I hear “inspire” I am actually thinking what or who do I “aspire” to be. Aspiring to be someone or to be so connected to a particular thing or idea that I then seek to become that idea or that person turns me off. I like to believe that I am very independent and that I seek solely to be myself (whatever that may mean). Thinking about aspiring to embody an ideal or the livelihood of another person has always been frightening territory for me.

Despite my qualms with “inspiration,” I would say that I am inevitability “influenced” by outside sources. Over the past couple weeks I have been pondering what or who influences me as a dramaturg and how that influence will change over time as I become more experienced with both life and art. Right now my primary influence as I work on Faustus (playing at Theater Wit on Belmont) is Kenneth Tynan’s approach to his work while he was the literary adviser at the National Theatre of Great Britain. Tynan did not attend rehearsals frequently, so when he was present his critical approach retained more of an outside perspective. In dramaturgy class we recently read a series of interviews conducted by Mark Bly with several American dramaturgs. Some of these dramaturgs discussed the notion of objectivity and how it can or cannot be achieved by attending fewer rehearsals. Many of them seemed to believe that attending as many rehearsals as possible was vital. They really tore apart the reasoning for staying out of the rehearsal room. This caused me to have doubts about my following of the Tynan model. Many of the arguments stress that subjectivity is more important than objectivity. I agree wholeheartedly. I do not believe it is possible to be objective in art. Ever. Each of us brings our own conception of the world to a play, we bring our understanding of language, so these very subjective elements influence how we view the play. However, I do believe that something can be accomplished by a dramaturg staying out of rehearsal. The dramaturg is not taking a more objective position, but is instead serving as an outside eye.


However, the outside eye approach lives too close to the role of the critic for some directors who view it as a cold and callous approach to dramaturgy.  I do not perceive it this way at all. I am intimately tied to Faustus and want to see it succeed. My dilemma has now became how to explain this approach as collaborative and loving as opposed to callous and authoritative. What I need is a slight twist on my Tynanian influence. Looking at Anne Bogart’s description of visiting the Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco helps me find a new way to think about and explain dramaturgy.  She talks about encountering a massive painting that stopped her in her tracks (http://www.sfmoma.org/explore/collection/artwork/171). This made me think what if I thought of theatre as a massive painting? How do I fit into that? I decided that the director is the painter, applying brush strokes to this massive canvas. A painter has the luxury of stepping back from the canvas and looking at the painting from a distance, then deciding what adjustments need to be made. In our theatre our painter (director) is in a sense chained to the canvas, which only affords him/her a few feet of distance from this colossal canvas. He/She is not able to take it all in. The dramaturg has two choices in this instance: they can either chain themselves to the canvas with the director or they can stand back and watch the director paint while taking in the whole canvas. Either choice is a viable option and allows the two to collaborate to determine what ends up on the canvas.
For Faustus I am choosing to stand back, so that I can take in the entire canvas. I have an understanding of what the director hopes to achieve. I can suggest places where the director may want to apply paint, what color or hue it should be, and how thickly it should go on in certain places. The director has the brush. They ultimately determine what goes on the canvas. They could make the painting without me, but it would inevitably be a different painting. Someday with a different production I intend to chain myself to the canvas with the director and suggest different options from a relatively similar perspective. In some cases the director may choose to pass the brush to me for a moment. In this conception of dramaturg-director-canvas, the dramaturg is not an authoritative position, but rather an alternate perspective that aids in shaping the production.
I believe this element of distance that Tynan has inspired me to include in my dramaturgy is also present in other elements of my life. It may be why I try to divorce myself from things or people that inspire or influence me, and maybe why I squirm at the notion of inspiration at all. I also find with friendships and romantic relationships maintaining a strong distance in some aspects of the relationship helps my relationship with that person to flourish. Distance, playing the important role it does in my life, seems to have bled into my art.

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