Note: As a dramaturgy collective, we’ve tried to avoid reviewing the plays we’re working on, especially when it comes to new plays in development. You will often hear artistic directors of new play festivals ask politely audiences to not review plays that are receiving staged readings and there is wisdom in that. As Poor Lessing’s is in its first year, we’re trying to focus on projects that offer dramaturgs paying jobs and when the call went out to hire dramaturgs for Philadelphia Theatre Company’s new play festival, we wanted the event to be represented on our site because it was a program that employed area dramaturgs (more power to them!) In that spirit, these pieces are more dramaturgical musings, and not reviews.
For a listing of all the new plays that were read at PTC (and full plot summaries), click here.
Famiglia!: Samuel D. Hunter’s WHEN YOU’RE HERE at PTC@Play
By Samantha Lazar
My PTC@Play assignment was When You’re Here, a new play by Samuel D. Hunter. The play, which is set entirely in an Olive Garden restaurant, is aptly titled, and anyone familiar with the chain’s slogan can fill in the second half: “When you’re here, you’re family.” I was tasked with reading the stage directions, and since I already had my deadpan down pat I was able to sit back and mull over all things “family” while the actors and director fine-tuned their lines in preparation for the reading.
When You’re Here is nothing if not a play about family: eight of the ten characters comprise two actual families, the restaurant’s staff weave the two together and make a clan of their own, and the play is set in a small town where everyone knows everyone. On top of that, the whole thing is infused with Olive Garden’s forced, if earnest, “famiglia” mentality. Just about all the themes and conflicts revolve around familial relationships as well. While this has certainly been done before, it never gets old.
Thinking about the popularity and prevalence of “family plays,” it seems they’ve been around just as long as the dysfunctional family has – the canon is filled with classics by playwrights ranging from Sophocles to Shakespeare, and more recently from Eugene O’Neil to Tracy Letts. Family is always in vogue. Why is this? Perhaps it’s because everyone can identify with such themes, whether they hail from the lap of luxury or a hardscrabble upbringing. Judging by the audience’s vocal responses to the reading, they identified with even the most unusual and unlikable characters in this play. That’s certainly one thing about family: even if you don’t like it or want it, it’s always there in the back of your head, for better or worse. And for that very reason, it seems like plays about family will always be there, too.
WHEN YOU’RE HERE by Samuel D. Hunter. Directed by Kent Nicholson. Reading Friday, March 9th at Philadelphia Theatre Company. WITH: Davy Raphaely, Rachel Camp, Kevin Bergen, Amanda Schoonover, Tom McCarthy, Maureen Torsney-Weir.
Life’s a bitch, but at least we can laugh at it. This past week, I had the opportunity to work with an excellent group of people on a reading of Michael Hollinger’sHope and Gravity, part of the PTC@Play Festival hosted by Philadelphia Theater Company. The play, which consists of nine short plays fused together, is hilarious. But it’s also deeply moving and incredibly sad.
And that’s really the heart of comedy. You laugh and laugh, but if you aren’t crying a little inside when it’s all done, it really wasn’t a comedy. It was just funny. And we don’t need funny: it doesn’t go anywhere or make us reflect on the world around us. We need comedy. We need to laugh and in the end, realize what we’re laughing at and pause to think why we’re laughing.
A great scene that illustrates this occurs in Hope and Gravity. A woman has a meeting with her boss to discuss her health plan. Instead, her boss co-opts the meeting, attacking her for casting a white student to play Atticus Finch in a student production of To Kill A Mockingbird. In attempt to “diversify” the casting, the boss wants Atticus to be played by a black student, which doesn’t make sense. The scene is over-the-top, full of white people guilt and air quotes around terms that may not be politically correct. But it’s the scene’s end that hammers the point home. Sure, the audience was dying of laughter though the scene. Then the boss, the boss who tried so hard to paint himself as this sympathetic, super-PC character, denies the woman health coverage for her wife. It’s the knife twist that pulls it all together. Without it comedy, all comedy, would fall flat.
“I was having the conversation with people in the theater industry, about how to get new audiences into the theater. And I thought, the trouble is, we’re all having this conversation amongst ourselves. Nobody’s having this conversation with people who don’t go to the theater.”—Emma Gibson
Over in Scotland, a new format of play has become a phenomenon. “A Play, a Pie, and a Pint” gives audiences a pint of beer, a piece of pie and a short, one-act play – all during lunch. According to the Guardian, “Play, Pie, Pint” will produce more shows this season than any other theater. Each runs for a week. Tiny Dynamite’s Emma Gibson, who hails from the UK, has brought the trend to the US, and more specifically, to Philadelphia. The format’s changed slightly – we prefer a slice of pizza to a meat pie and prefer to see our theater during happy hour than during our lunch breaks. Each show runs for just two performances. The first, four-play season occurred in October and the second is about to start this week.
In the spring of 2011, Tiny Dynamite was awarded a Knight Arts Challenge grant to bring “A Play, a Pie, and a Pint” to American audiences.
I recently had the chance to speak with Emma about the funding process for the project, how it differs from the UK version, and just what is so great about the one-act play.
Amy Freeman: How did getting the Knights Art challenge grant shape the project? Do you think it impacted the process?
Emma Gibson: Yes, I do. It was amazing experience getting that award because I hadn’t thought seriously doing the project until they opened the submissions. I’ve always had it in the back of my mind, you know what, I think Philadelphia needs this. This is a thing that isn’t happening here and most other things are. I really wasn’t expecting to get anywhere and then it did, so I began to structure how it would actually work.
It was $25,000 from them, and I had to match it. It was craziness. We got the notification that we got the grant in April or May and I wanted to do the first season in October, so I had basically four months to not only create this whole project but also to raise $25,000. I’d never raised any money before and that was huge. But we did it, and in a way, having that challenge meant I gave the project a much greater budget than I would normally have given it. I think I would have cut edges had I not had that money and I must say it’s been so amazing to have had that amount of money. This current season that we’re producing, one of the directors said to me, can I get union actors? And I’m like, yeah, you know what? Let’s just go for the best people we can get while we have the money because that’s all going to change after March. So I think it made a massive difference, actually. It allowed the project to get started and to get audiences interested in a great way.
Amy: I guess this is a hypothetical question. When you think about not getting the grant, how would you have seen Play, Pie, Pint? Would you have done fewer plays or hired less expensive actors?
Emma: I would probably have changed the venue. When we did the second helping at Fergie’s, I found that it was much more cost-effective and I think that’s what we’d have done, found a pub and performed it there. Society Hill, I love it there, but it’s really expensive to rent.
I wouldn’t have been able to employ union actors. I think I’d have done as many plays. Over here, one of the feedbacks I’ve been getting is people have said, you don’t need to do so many plays. But I think we do. In the UK, certainly, they’re doing way more. But I think this idea that there is such choice. It’s like a mini-season. What normal companies do in a year, we do in four weeks and there’s so much to choose from, they don’t last very long so the value is greater. So I think I would have done four.
Amy: What you were saying about venue leads into another question. So, you did it first at Society Hill, which is a theater, then you did it at Fergie’s, an actual pub. So was it different?
Emma: It was really interesting. Because when we decided to look for venues, I’d gone to Fergie’s and I thought, no, not sure about this, it’s not nice enough. I’m a real sucker for lights and sound and theaters just giving me a helping hand, so when we went first to Society Hill, Fergie was enormously supportive, came to every show. The director of “Peaches and Regalia” (the first play performed in the series) said you know, I think it would really work there [at Fergie’s]. So we tried it and it was amazing.
It almost worked better, I think. It was much more intimate. There were communal tables, so you just kind of ate and watched together. You met strangers. It had a very different feel. We served up pot pies instead of pizza, which was also much nicer, I think.
The show lost some of its nuance. On some nights, there was a lot of sound from downstairs, so the actors had to project. Artistically, it lost a little, but as far as entertainment went, the audiences loved it and we sold out every night.
Amy: Brecht would talk about how people should smoke cigars during shows, would you say it was more like that?
Emma: That’s so great. It was. At Society Hill, nobody really got up and went and got another drink. I would have been angry if they had. Whereas at Fergie’s, the first night we went on there, that’s exactly what happened. When people had finished their pint, they got up and walked in front of everybody, walked in front of the state, went and got their drink. The waitresses were milling in and out. I was getting really wound up by this. I was sitting there, thinking, ‘why aren’t they respecting the actors?’ Then I realized that it was the whole point of this. That they had this freedom and were much more relaxed. Everyone just really enjoyed that informality. I don’t know about the cigars, though.
Amy: How does this compare to the UK version?
Emma: What British pub theater actually is, compared to what we’re putting on, is miles apart. In England, I actually don’t know Scotland, I know in London, you have all these pubs. You buy your pint, and then you go downstairs to a very tiny, claustrophobic black box space and everyone drinks and watches the show. They don’t have to pay that much for rental, because they are making so much from the bar. That’s real pub theater. But I wanted to present something that people would think “oh, that’s British.” But it isn’t the same in anyway. But then again, I think it’s also very different from what they’re shown here.
Amy: Would you ever want it to go in that direction, where it was in a proper pub?
Emma: I would love it to have a home. We’re talking at the moment for two directions for it. I like the idea that it has the Society Hill initial run and then can go off to Fergie’s, then we’re going to try to get it to the Main Line. So it can travel and the shows are constantly fluid and can go anywhere. But ideally, it’d be amazing for it to have its own home, have a place with a kitchen so that we could do proper English meat pies. That would be the big dream. I just don’t see that happening at the moment.
Amy: Going off from that, you work with a couple other companies. You worked with Inis Nua, Iron Age. Do you think eventually you’d like it to be a theater community thing versus a Tiny Dynamite thing?
Emma: I think you always have to have somebody super-producing, just to organize the whole thing. The whole concept was to come into the community here in Philadelphia and say, this is for everybody. The different theater companies obviously communicate with each other and the time of day we’re doing it means that nobody’s in competition with anybody else, so it’s really just trying to create a community. People have a chance to reach out to new audiences, to try out new work, to work with new actors. It’s very low risk for them. It doesn’t cost them anything.
Amy: I read the grant online. It said that you wanted to reach a wider theater audience. Did you notice anyone for whom this was their first foray into theater?
Emma: Yeah, and I think that will grow as well. Absolutly. I truly was not expecting to sell that many seats. I’ve done two Fringe shows and honest-to-god, I knew everyone in the audience. You know, we were lucky to get 20 people. I always keep my expectations low. I care so about the project that I couldn’t bear the thought of people not seeing it.
But we did get a lot of press and that brought in people. And I knew hardly anybody in the audience. There were interesting groups. We had one group that came to Fergie’s who were a meet-up group. They were a group of women who just like going out and trying new things. They’d seen it in the Philadelphia Inquirer and thought, oh let’s try that for our next meet-up. We had a lot of people who certainly weren’t big theater buffs.
I was having the conversation with people in the theater industry, about how to get new audiences into the theater. And I thought, the trouble is, we’re all having this conversation amongst ourselves. Nobody’s having this conversation with people who don’t go to the theater.
I was on the train with my husband and we bumped into this guy who runs a pub in Malvern, really nice guy. We were telling him about the project. And he said, I’ve never been to the theater. And his friends with him all said, they’d never been to the theater. These were just normal people from my community. Then he said, “you know what, if you were serving me a beer and it didn’t take too long or be boring, then I think I might come to that.” I was like, you know what, you’re the people we should be speaking to. Do you want it shorter? We can make it shorter? Do you want a beer with that? Then fine. We’ll give you a beer with that.
Amy: What would you say, besides the briefness of it, is the joy or appeal of a one-act?
Emma: I really like the one-act. I never knew how much I liked it until I started reading them more. They’re so immediate. There’s very little exposition, they have to come straight in there. The characters have to be defined in just a few lines. Generally, there has to be only one location and they have to have a full arc, a beginning, middle and end and a moment of revelation and an “a-ha!” moment. The ones that have that are so perfect. Which one did you see?
Amy: “Peaches and Regalia.”
Emma: “Peaches” was the simplest of them all. We had one play called “Fly Me to the Moon,” by Marie Jones, which I thought was just the most brilliantly written one-act play. It takes you places. It was slightly longer than the others and it really went in incredible directions. So much happened in the plot. I think that’s what I loved. And I love not having an intermission. I would much rather not have an intermission when I go to the theater anyway. I would much rather sit there for two hours than have it broken. I like that about the one-act: there’s no intermission.
This is a problem I came up against this time. My ear is very tuned in to the British one-act. So I can hear when it works. I found it much harder hear American one-acts. It’s a very different style.
Amy: That was another question I had. What was the difference between UK plays and US plays?
Emma: I think there’s a lot of naturalism here. It’s funny, a lot of them are therapy plays. Characters trying to work out issues – issues plays. You can’t do that in a one-act, I don’t think. Most of the plays were in restaurants or diners or bedrooms. I think season two, we have restaruant, bedroom, bedroom. And then the last one is in a taxidermy shop, so we broke the mold there.
With the British plays, I have a head start, because I get a lot of plays sent to me from Òran Mór, who have already tried and tested the plays. So I’m reading stuff that’s already been sifted through. But when I’m reading American plays, I have no idea where to turn to get playwrights, so I’m reading everything, so it becomes harder. I don’t have the ear for it yet, for the American writers.
Amy: I have written down “drink and dramaturgy.” Does the choice of play change based on knowing that people will be having a beer with it?
Emma: No. I don’t think so. I find choosing the plays is interesting. There is one group of people who think I should be more experimental with my choices. But I don’t. I feel that I just want the best writing. I want the writer to be excellent. I don’t particularly care for people playing with form in this situation. I do normally in theater, I’m all for that and and I love to see it, but I don’t think this is the place.
Amy: One last question. On the Scottish website, they have a “critic’s circle.” Audience members can write a short review of each play. Do you think that’s something you’d want to bring in?
Emma: I certainly would. Don’t they get a bottle of malt?
Emma: I should think about doing that, shouldn’t I? Maybe having a slip in the program, or they should email them. I think that’s a great idea.
Amy: I really like that. I wanted to read some of the reviews, but they didn’t have any posted.
[At the time of the interview. There are a few reviews posted at time of publication.]
Emma: That’s another way to get new audiences too.
Amy: Do you think that would be intimidating for a person who’s never seen a show before? To ask them to write 100 words and they’ll get a bottle of whisky? Do you think that’s something would appeal to people because there’s an incentive?
Emma: I think just getting a bottle of whisky may be enough for someone to do it. It could even be kind of anonymous. It’s a great idea.
The second season of “A Play, a Pie, and a Pint” begins March 6 at 6:30 p.m. at Society Hill Playhouse, 507 S. 8th Street, Philadelphia, PA. The plays run Tuesdays and Wednesdays through the month of March. Tickets are $15 and include a beverage and a slice of pizza (pie).
Whenever I see a show, the first thing that I notice is the costumes worn by the characters. Costuming, more than any other aspect of a production (in my mind, at least), gives the audience a clear picture of the play’s dramaturgy. Through the costumes, an audience sees the time period of the play and is given a snapshot of the characters’ qualities and personalities. Excellently designed costumes help push the play’s dramaturgy forward. Poorly done costumes hinder a play.
I recently had the opportunity to sit down and chat about the connection between costuming and dramaturgy with Erica Hoelscher, who designed costumes for August Wilson’s Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, being performed at Philadelphia’s Plays and Players theater until February 11, 2012. Erica traveled to Pittsburgh, PA to perform research on the play along with Heather Helinsky, the associate dramaturg on the production (Nelson Barre was the lead production dramaturg for Joe Turner). The conversation gave me a chance to see how research and dramaturgy helps a designer on a project.
Amy Freeman: What was your process for designing for Joe Turner? Did you do research on your own and then did you talk to Heather Helinsky and Nelson Barre, the dramaturgs, and Daniel Student, the director?
Erica Hoelscher: I did research on my own. In fact, it’s pretty much when I learn that I’m going to be designing something or when I’m contracted, as it were, I start my research process. I’ve done a lot of productions, so I’ve collected a lot of work but what I’ve found with Joe Turner is that there has been a lot of new stuff since the last time I did an August Wilson play. That was very exciting to find books and specifically, what I’m looking for, is visual research more so than text. So that’s where I started.
I had done my renderings and pretty much designed the show before we had the chance to go to Pittsburgh. What I found in working with Heather and what was very exciting about working with a dramaturg is that they are never done. They continue researching even after the play is open. To me, the message in that is that you can always do a play again. There’s always something more than you didn’t do the first time, either by choice or by design, or by accident that you can do the second or third or fourth time you do the production. What I really enjoyed about was that even though I had done my renderings and shopped for fabric, I still found more information [in Pittsburgh] that I could then incorporate into my design. I left enough allowance and I left room so that I could still learn from that.
I think the other thing that working with Heather did for me, or just working with a dramaturg in general, was that her interest was not limited to or even focused on the costumes at all. And, so, I was watching her find things out and it did inform my thoughts about the costumes as well. So, where I ended up with that was really feeling that the clothes had to look like they belonged in Pittsburgh. We found a photograph of Pittsburgh in 1910 that showed how filthy and dirty it was there due to the steel industry. That made it critically important to me that the clothes be clothes and not costumes. At the end, they turn a little costume-y, but that was director’s input. For stylistic reasons, he wanted certain things at the end of the play, he wanted to see a progression.
Amy: Can you explain that, what makes something costume-y versus just clothing?
Erica: Clothes are lived in. Clothes belong to the characters and not to the designer. That’s very important to me. It was Robert Edmund Jones who said “get the ‘me” out of your work.” And to me, that’s what a dramaturg really can do for you. Get the me out of your work and it’s not about the designer, it’s about the play.
Amy: Can you talk about what happened in Pittsburgh and maybe the connection, how you ended up going there?
Erica: The play is set in Pittsburgh and it’s rare that a designer, or anyone in theater gets to visit the locale of the play. Of course, we can’t transport ourselves back in time, which would be handy-dandy, so being in the location at least lets you see what’s left of 1911 Pittsburgh. It’s available, if you search it out.
Amy: Is there a lot left?
Erica: There’s more there than any place else. I knew that, that was kind of a gimme. I knew I wanted to go there and the benefit of having Heather along was that, here was a person really disconnected from what I was doing but really connected to the world of the play and of the playwright. Some of the most informative and exciting things that happened were just our conversations in the car on the way there. We discovered our similar interests and our similar attitudes or opinions about Wilson and the play and where we were coming from with it. That was all the plan that we really made. We didn’t schedule our time to the nth degree, we just went with it. She had good ideas of where to start and I was depending on that.
Amy: Where did you go?
Erica: Our first stop was the Carnegie Library. We to the library and could have stayed there the whole time, they had such a wide array. But what we found was the Pittsburgh Courier on microfilm. That was not available in 1997, I think, the last time I was there. That was very exciting.
Actually, I think the first place we went to was the Heinz History Center. Heather knew that they had this book. There’s been a recent publication about August Wilson and his connection to Pittsburgh and all of the locations in Pittsburgh that have to do with his plays and life. So we went and got that book and accidentally stumbled upon an exhibit of the Pittsburgh Courier. That had a lot of photographs available. We stopped by the Heinz History Center Library, which is where we found the photograph [from 1910] that I mentioned a minute ago.
We went to the UPitt library, which also has an extensive African-American collection. At none of these places did we exhaust the available resources. We didn’t have time. I got a Carnegie library card, Heather already had one. We were checking out books and returning them the next day, making copies, things like that. We could have easily spent an entire week going through this stuff, but we were limited.
We had dinner with an actor who had played the original role of Selig in the Pittsburgh Public Theater production of Joe Turner and that was very interesting. We didn’t sit down to dinner and talk about the play the whole time. We talked about other stuff, but I was able to ask a couple of questions and the actor opened up about it and gave some pertininent details about his experience that were very enlightening and we then pursued those further.
We stopped by the August Wilson Center for African American culture, which was fabulous and incredible but had nothing to do with this play. It did in a profound, but abstract way, so it wasn’t a direct connection. The last thing we did was drive around the neighborhood of the play. We stopped by several addresses that are specifically mentioned in the play and took some photographs. We went to August Wilson’s birthplace, the home. And I was sorry that we didn’t spend more time doing that. I was sorry that we left that to the last because I ran out of time and I had to leave. There just wasn’t enough time to do everything.
It was a really good feeling to come back and feel that I had done all of this work and had this much more full understanding, even if I was not capable of inserting it all into my design.
Amy: Costuming and dramaturgy to me seem like they are kind of connected. There’s more research into the historical aspects for costuming than for other designs. When you are doing sound, for example, I mean you have to listen to historical stuff, but it’s different. Does that make sense?
Erica: It does. The way I think of it is that a set is usually built for a play and then it’s done. Usually, honestly, it gets tossed in the garbage, because it is so expensive to recycle and it’s so expensive to have storage space to keep anything like a set piece whereas costume designers hoard everything. We are the original recyclers, re-users, re-procurers of everything. I have closets where I work that are so packed, they are overflowing with stuff because we refuse to throw anything away. It’s partly economic but it’s mostly artistic. Once we have made it and done it, we know it and we will use it again.
I also think it’s the people connection. Sets are things. They are environments. . . Costumes are hanging on the actor’s body, whereas a prop is in their hand or something like that, it’s slightly disconnected.
Amy: The costumes almost make the character.
Erica: They do, they do. . . anything you wear is a costume if you are wearing it on stage. It may also be, I don’t know if this is part of it, but since I’m an academic, I also have a great interest and love of doing this kind of research and doing this kind of scholarship. So even if if doesn’t inform this play or this production, it’s valuable to me for the future and to my ongoing work as a scholar, so that may be partly why I felt very keenly that I needed to go to Pittsburgh. Having Heather along for a dramaturgical standpoint was just invaluable. There’s no substitute to having her come with me. I couldn’t have done what I did by myself.
Amy: How do you design the costume’s to fit into the play’s dramaturgy? How do costumes push the story of the play or its themes forward?
Erica: The most exciting part about the dramaturgy is the little tid-bits that you find out, it’s like a lightbulb that goes on over your head. You can’t predict them. You can’t expect them. You can try your best to prepare yourself and position yourself to access them but you can’t guess at things like that.
As a for instance, as we were scrolling through these microfilms of the Pittsburgh Courier, we found an article that was also an advertisement for an African-American couple who ran a boarding house. It was a long description of what you’re going to get if you stay there, their amenities, their background, who they are, their history, their affiliations and how great it’s going to be if you come and stay at this boarding house. It was perfect. There was a photo of the couple and it described their interactions and who they are and all this. Their house was just like the play, it was a little piece of the play that was in reality. Just finding that opened the whole world of the play up and I thought, wow, this is real. These are really, truly real people.
Another example of that was another article in the Courier about a man who was a former slave and he somehow came to own a parcel of land. This was not around Pittsburgh, I think it was in Georgia, if I’m correct about this. He became recognized because he grew the most cotton per acre of land for several years running. This article was kind of celebrating the achievements of this former slave, who is now the top of his producing line. But it was written in the most deplorable, racist language you would ever read. But it was published in an African American newspaper. So, I guess I sort of understand who Loomis is now. He’s enslaved by his own thoughts of who he is, his own boundaries of self.
And it is still going on today.
Amy: But today we have more of a reaction, you know?
Erica: Right, we think it’s weird and unusual and we don’t see that the same kind of language and visual representations are alive in our world.
Amy: After finding these things, did you go back to your designs and tinker with them?
Erica: I did, yeah, I changed them. I dyed some fabric, I trimmed things in a different way, I cut patterns differently. Now, after the fact, there’s always things I would do differently. It’s the designer’s curse.
There’s one dress that I would have totally redesigned if I had had the opportunity.
Amy: Why do you say that? Was it seeing in on the actress?
Erica: Yes, it was seeing it on the actress and seeing how she envisioned the role. I brought too much of a white woman’s context to the character.
Amy: I think that’s another interesting aspect, the actors themselves contribute to the dramaturgy of the play. You might actually have a costume that is conflicting with what they are doing in the role.
Erica: It did turn out that way. She worked with it, she made it work, she brought it to life, but it could have been better. I don’t know when she came to this interpretation. The director told me it was later in the process. He could also see it. I first encountered this problem with his reaction which was one of frustration and he said, don’t you have something different for her to wear? I didn’t completely understand it and then I started seeing it. She made it work, though, it was okay in the end.
Amy: When I see the play, will I be able to tell which character?
Erica: I don’t know. That will be interesting to see.
Just as a play does, a piece of dance-theater begins with an idea or the seed of an idea. Unlike a play, though, at least in the case of a collaborative process, creating dance-theater doesn’t involve a single person sitting in a room writing for a while. Instead, the piece takes shape through rehearsal, discussion and research.
I’ve been working with keila cordova dances, a company based in Philadelphia, in various capacities since 2008. I started as the company intern, doing dramaturgical stuff as well as much less glamorous administrative stuff, such as going door to door asking restaurants and other small businesses to buy ads. Last year, I got to costume one of the dance pieces. This year, my role with the company has been to perform research dramaturgy on their Fringe Festival performance, Agnes Falling.
Agnes Falling is described as a “modern day fable.” It’s full of the things you remember from the fairy tales you heard or saw growing up, but placed firmly in our contemporary world and presented through the eyes of Agnes, a young woman who has a spell put on her by a wicked witch frat boy so that she’s bound to continue to do the things she always has, never being able to try new things.
Although Keila was developing her own story with Agnes, she still wanted to see if her ideas connected with anything previously found in fairy tales/fables/folk tales. She sent me a list of ideas to research.
(A note: although you can argue about the difference between fairy tales, fables, and folk tales and whether or not fairy tales is a misnomer, I’m going to use them all interchangeably here.)
Starting research on any topic is the most difficult part. Even with a list of things to look for: the significance of birds in fairy tales, the significance of trees, doors, chairs, shiny balls in fairy tales and fun facts about bird migration, getting that toe in the door is tricky.
My initial search on databases such as Jstor and Project Muse led to articles that looked interesting but ultimately had nothing to do with what I wanted. A visit to the library proved much more fruitful, especially after I recruited the assistance of the literature librarian. It was ultimately the discovery of an old book called The Types of the Folktale, that pushed me onto the correct path.
The Types of the Folktale is a book, first presented by the Finnish folklorist, Antti Aarne, and further developed by an American folklorist named Stith Thompson. The book gives us the Aarne-Thompson Classification system, which, although it may sound terrible and boring, is actually quite exciting.
The two divided folk tales into groups, motifs and types. For example, one group is “Animal Tales” and another “Religious Tales.” Each type has a number, for example, “The Persecuted Herione” is type 510, commonly called AT510. The types even get into sub-types, such as Cinderella, which is AT510A. The AT system was updated in 2004 by Hans-Jörg Uther. Uther’s update, now called the ATU system, included more international tales and older ones. Unfortunately, I couldn’t access it and had to use the AT version from the 1960’s.
Armed with AT types and a better vocabulary for what I was looking for, my research took off. Had I but time, I could have spent months and years at the library simply reading all the different tales from all the different countries about birds or stories about trees. Instead, I choose a Norton compilation of tales which included versions from Perrualt, the Grimms and Basile, among others.
When I presented all my research to Keila, it led to an exciting and engaging discussion on the nature of tales. One concern I always have when researching for anything is that the material I found won’t matter. That was not the case here, as even late in the process or what some would consider late in the process, the information I was able to provide about birds in tales was able to inform and enhance the work.
The discussion with Keila ultimately led to more research being done on my part. Cinderella came up a lot in our discussion, as versions of the tale (and there are many) usually have birds either performing the role of the fairy godmother or otherwise assisting the girl. We all know the Disney version of the story, where the birds come along and help her out along with the mice. In some versions, it’s a tree that provides all the finery for Cinderella so that she can go to the ball.
Keila wanted to know about the history and function of the fairy godmother, as there’s a fairy godmother-type in Agnes Falling (though it’s not who you’d expect) and she wasn’t sure of the history of the figure or what his role should be in the story. Of all the research I did for this show, the fairy godmother stuff was the most exciting (even more exciting than finding out about AT(/U) types).
Research is decidedly my favorite aspect of dramaturgy, especially when working on a new piece. Seeing what starts as pure information transform into a piece of dance or theater is truly exciting. I was in the room only a little bit during the process for Agnes Falling. Since I’m not a dancer and in some ways dance is still a foreign language to me, working as a dramaturg on the edges is preferable and it’s from there that I’m able to do my best work.
Agnes Falling created by Keila Cordova dances; sets by Kata Kolb, costumes by K. Moriah Smith, lighting by Shon Causer, composer/sound designer Cory Neale, video design Jared Grossman. At Temple University Conwell Dance Theater, Broad and Montgomery Avenue, Philadelphia, PA 19122. September 16th & 17th, 2011. World premiere.
WITH: Kate Abernethy, Fatima Adamu, Heather Cole, Kathy Kerner, Melissa Rodis, Sean Rosswell.