New Play Dramaturgy for Nancy Drew – Equal Parts Inspiration and Investigation

by Anna Bosy

The dramaturg’s job is to illuminate the story. As a double major in Theatre Arts and Art History, I was lucky to discover the field of dramaturgy because it encompasses both of my interests. Working as a dramaturg allows me to explore themes, history, and socio-political culture in the hopes of inspiring other members of the production team.
Currently, I am in the process of dramaturging a new children’s play, Nancy Drew and the Sign of the Twisted Candles. Director Damon Kiely is adapting the play from Carolyn Keene’s novel as a Chicago Playworks for Families and Young Audiences production for The Theatre School. The Chicago Playworks series was originally founded as the Goodman Children’s Theatre in 1925, and it continues to provide fun and engaging theatrical experiences for more than 30,000 students and families.
We are already a year into development on Nancy Drew, but even now I’m discovering information that further influences my work. Here are my methods for working in new play dramaturgy:

Step 1) Read the script
When I begin reading a script, my first question is always, what is the world of this play? Is it familiar or foreign? What are the rules of this world? Who lives here? In examining the characters, I start to break down their traits: male or female, young or old, human or not? Are they long-time residents or new inhabitants? As one of the only members of the production team that did not grow up reading the Nancy Drew books (although I did enjoy playing the computer game at a friends’ house), I’m relishing this opportunity to learn about the characters and their world. One of the themes in the play that immediately jumped out to me was the “mystery” of friendship and how Nancy reacts when her best friends, Bess and George, stop talking to her.
I also highlight striking quotes or descriptions, as well as any inconsistencies in the plot. I even draw stars in the margins next to the lines I like, including one of Damon’s stage directions, “With the speed of a panther, Nancy jumps forward!” Then, I take these scribbled notes and turn them into a list of topics to further investigate, just as Nancy Drew would hunt for clues.

Step 2) Research
My research starts with a trip to the library: a quick search of the topic brings up books, movies, music, and much more. (Just imagine how many results would appear after typing “Nancy Drew” into the search engine!)

Sifting through my library finds turns into a case of "The Dramaturg and the Mystery of Researching Nancy Drew"

I have found books to be the most helpful resources while working on this play. Even so, in order to remain objective towards Damon’s adaptation I have not read the book Nancy Drew and the Sign of the Twisted Candles that our production is based on. As a result, most of the sources I’ve used are collections of expository essays, including Nancy Drew and Her Sister Sleuths: Essays on the Fiction of Girl Detectives, and The Nancy Drew Scrapbook, which summarizes the series’ history and examines the books’ cultural significance. The most valuable title so far has been Girl Sleuth on the Couch: The Mystery of Nancy Drew by Betsy Caprio. I was originally drawn to her book simply because of the whimsical cover, but then I discovered her work is a treasure trove of character psychoanalysis and even maps of Nancy Drew’s world. Other books I’ve borrowed from the library cover the topics of Foley sound effects and an overview of 1960s history, which are both necessary for a full understanding of the world of the play.
So, pile of books in hand, I head home to (hopefully) answer some of my questions and comments about the script. If they are not answered, you’ll find me back in the library the next day.

Our actors and director in Foley rehearsal.

Step 3) Workshop
We were incredibly fortunate during the creation of Nancy Drew to workshop our piece with actors last November. Damon’s script calls for the actors to not only perform multiple roles, but also to also help create the world of the play through live Foley sounds. Developed in the late 1920s, Foley is the art and craft of designing sound effects to enhance the action of the story, and is most often used in radio, films, or television. For example, in Nancy Drew, the script calls for the sound of shoes crunching on a gravel path and the opening of a creaky door, so we had our actors squeeze bags of gravel in time to footsteps and slowly open an old Igloo cooler lid. One of the biggest advantages of the workshop process was seeing how the actors handled the props and how much fun they had making the Foley sounds.

The workshop ended with a staged reading in front of an audience that included adults, children, and Theatre School students. Then, after the reading I led a post-show discussion, where I asked questions like, “What were some of your favorite moments?” and “Did the Foley sounds help you envision the story?” to give Damon and I an understanding of how everyone was able to follow the storyline. The adults and students were mostly interested in Nancy’s dilemma

The cast of the reading sets up their music stands.

when her best friends, Bess and George. Although the children were also interested in the friends’ fight, what they really wanted to talk about were the old-fashioned Foley sounds and props. Hearing their responses was especially important because we got to hear firsthand the moments that fascinated our intended audience!

Step 3) Elucidate and Consolidate
With new audience reactions come new drafts, and with new drafts come further research. Damon has since written about three new drafts that address our workshop discoveries, such as the issue of how to expand the role of Carol, a girl working at the Twisted Candles inn, or where to add further Foley sounds that engage the audience.

But soon we will be starting rehearsals and, before that begins, I need to finish my actor packet. Right now I’m working to condense all of this information I have gathered – from my director, the workshop actors and audience, and my own research – into an packet for our actors, as well as a teacher guide for the schoolchildren who will be coming to see the Chicago Playworks performances this winter.
It’s crucial that the information I provide is both relevant and understandable. My inspiration for the design of these packets stems from the idea that the audience (and actors) must also serve as detectives to help Nancy solve her case. Soon, these packets will be available online for you to enjoy, as well.

Step 5) Share
Once I have finished both packets, my dramaturgical work won’t stop there. I need to generate questions for a post-show discussion with an audience of almost 900 Chicago schoolchildren. This talkback will differ from the one that followed last year’s staged reading because it’s meant to provide a forum for the audience and Nancy Drew cast to discuss issues and themes in the play. The conversation is expanded upon during another event that I’m monitoring, called the ice cream social. The ice cream social allows the students to not only ask the actors questions, but to also participate in an interactive activity with them – after eating their ice cream, of course.
Although Nancy Drew has been around since the 1930s, creating her world for the stage requires thorough investigation and a little bit of imagination to solve the case. Hopefully my dramaturgical work will inspire future generations to join Nancy on her journeys and start a little sleuthing of their own.

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