On this blog, we try to give our readers an insight into the theatrical process, a window into how artists move from having an idea on a page to seeing the production on a stage. Sometimes we share with you what might appear to be small details, like the process for creating a pregnancy belly or the purpose of a set model. Often, you read the reports of our Cohorts, the group of 30 or so audience members who are following a production from first rehearsal all the way through to opening, as they witness the process firsthand.
This weekend, I had an opportunity to reexamine my own process, at a memorial for one of my mentors. Her name was Virginia Scott, and she was a force to be reckoned with. I won’t give you her whole bio here, but the highlights were that she was one of the founding faculty members of the theatre department at the University of Massachusetts (where I did my graduate work), she was a highly respected scholar of French theatre and a translator of Moliere’s plays, and she was an amazing acting coach. She was also a fierce critic, a demanding teacher, an avid traveler and a self-proclaimed “tough old broad.”
One of my first experiences with Virginia has shaped the way I think about theatre, and the way I try to move through the world in general. I was 21 years old, and had just finished two days of interviewing to become an MFA candidate in the department. Virginia was driving me back to the airport, and she said something to me that struck me even then.
“This is not the field,” she said, “for someone with an ego.”
As a college senior, I’m not sure I really comprehended exactly what she meant. And I probably still can’t understand it entirely – sometimes our egos are our protective shields, and surely we all need protection from time to time. But the older I get, and the more projects I work on, the clearer her words become. Here’s what I think they mean now:
- Theatre is a collaborative art form. This requires a generosity of spirit, and an awareness that the best idea is often someone else’s. So we learn to listen to each other, to observe how other people work and think, how they tell stories. We succeed most when we work in concert, not in competition.
- A dramaturg’s primary job is to help other people tell their stories, and to anticipate how an audience might interpret those stories. As a dramaturg, I try to ask questions, to respond to what I see and hear, and to help other artists find the answers that are right for them. This requires an openness to new ways of thinking all the time, which isn’t possible if I approach the world with a rigid sense of what I might consider the “right” answer or aesthetic.
- And that implies being prepared to be “wrong,” to ask questions instead of providing answers.
- Every theatre artist is working in service of a story. Some artists receive the applause, the awards, the recognition, but a lot of the work in telling stories in this field takes place out of the audience’s awareness. A theatre artist has to be prepared for toiling in the shadows much more often than basking in the limelight.
At this memorial, I was reminded of two of Virginia’s other touchstone phrases. After a long discussion, in which you may have thought you had persuaded Virginia to your line of thinking, she would inevitably reply, “Yes…but on the other hand…” It was a reminder to always look for a new entry point into a conversation, a new approach to a story, a point of view hitherto unconsidered – and to be prepared with the research that supports multiple points of view. Back at my desk today, this feels really similar to the role of theatre, and my own hope that the stories we tell onstage allow each of us to experience that “other hand,” a new perspective that broadens our horizons, and our understanding of what it means to be a person in this world.
And finally, as I look at the stack of plays I need to read, I am reminded of the story told by John Dias, Artistic Director of Two River Theatre Company and a fellow student of Virginia’s. “I cannot open a play,” he said, “without hearing Virginia say that my first job is to find a reason to fall in love with it.”
Is there a better way to approach a project of any kind? If so, I don’t know it.