Tag Archives: dramaturgy

You Need a Dramaturg (Because Clowns are Creepy, and Other Semiotic Shifts)


I should be sorrier for this than I am.

Like everyone (right?) I have a running joke with a friend about how scary and creepy clowns are. It’s just a joke– considering I sleep every night with a Dell’Arte-trained actor, it’s obviously not an indictment of physical theatre professionals, for whom I have enormous respect. It’s not even related to physical theatre at all– it’s about the imagery. The idea that clowns in full makeup are creepy is now a pervasive cultural trope that everyone recognizes, whether they personally agree or not. It’s now more present in our culture than any other trope about clowns. Yet this was not always the case. I’m not interested in getting into why or how this happened (I’m sure someone’s writing a dissertation about this very subject). The point is that it HAS. And that this kind of cultural shift happens ALL THE TIME.

My husband in a student performance at Dell'Arte International with a fellow student.

My husband at Dell’Arte International, performing with a fellow student.

So my friend recently sent me this 2008 BBC article about the University of Sheffield study that surveyed 250 children between the ages of 4 and 16, and found that clowns were “widely disliked,” prompting researchers to urge children’s hospitals to consult with (shocking) ACTUAL CHILDREN before decorating their hospitals. The article goes on to quote a child psychologist:

Patricia Doorbar is a child psychologist in North Wales who has carried out research into children’s views on healthcare and art therapy.

She said: “Very few children like clowns. They are unfamiliar and come from a different era. They don’t look funny, they just look odd. (emphasis mine)

“They are unfamiliar and come from a different era.” OK, she knows clowns do indeed exist in this era. The ACTUAL point she’s making is that the semiotics of the clown– what that imagery means within the context of our culture– has changed dramatically from previous generations to today. In my father’s generation, children’s shows featuring clowns and clown toys were much more common. The trope about the scary clown existed (this Smithsonian article blames it on Grimaldi via Dickens and Deburau via . . . um, child murder), but was far less prominent in popular culture. In two generations, the meaning of that imagery in context changed enormously. When someone creates a clown character in popular culture today, it’s more likely to be something creepy than something lighthearted and fun, because that semiotic has shifted. Clowning for children still exists in popular culture, of course, just usually out of traditional makeup. A picture of a clown on the wall of a hospital, once (evidently) a comforting sight to most children, is now a frightening sight to most children. The “creepy clown” has supplanted the “happy, funny clown” as the primary trope about clowns in full makeup in our culture, and it happened fast. Lights up on a clown in full gear 50 years ago would generate a different audience reaction, and create a different set of expectations, than lights up on a clown in full gear today.


Seriously, what do you think is going to happen next? Balloon animals or murder? From “Top 5 Clown Makeup Ideas” on designsnext.com

And so it goes with imagery, tropes, characters, and narratives throughout the entire history of dramatic lit. When we stage classic plays, we’re looking at material that comes from a world that no longer exists– a world full of symbols and tropes that have shifted meaning. For example, Taming of the Shrew was, in context, taking a bit of a stand. It stood out from the many popular shrew-taming comedies of its day in that it did NOT advocate beating women into submission. It instead advocated isolating them, starving them, gaslighting them, and denying them sleep until they became tractable and obedient. The Christopher Sly framing device demonstrates how well gaslighting works (and it’s inescapably connected that Sly, like Katherine, is in a position of social inferiority and relative powerlessness). You can convince anyone to believe anything as long as you control what they see, hear, and, ultimately, think. While Petruchio’s techniques are horrifying to us today (you can see them all codified in Biderman’s Chart of Coercion, a tool used by Amnesty International and domestic violence organizations to help people define and understand abuse), they were a gentler approach in the context of the time. Check out the scold’s bridle if you’ve never heard of it.

The idea that a woman who isn’t obedient and who speaks her mind is a “shrew” who needs “taming,” while not fully banished from our culture, is no longer mainstream. Petruchio’s techniques are now considered abusive. But understanding the historical context of the play provides a window into the playwright’s intent and opens the possibility of a recuperative staging that preserves that intent. And while Shrew may be an extreme and controversial example that some feel is unrecuperable (I’m honestly not even certain where I land on that myself, although there’s a local production about to open with an amazing team that I’m dying to see– if anyone can do it, it’s these badasses), the point stands. A dramaturg can help you navigate the wily waters of narrative and text in historical context if that’s something you’re not already doing yourself. And even if it is, a dramaturg might have access to resources or knowledge that you don’t possess, bringing in points of view or historical context you didn’t even know to look for.

Theatremakers are divided into three categories: Those who have no idea what a dramaturg does, those who think dramaturgs are for new plays, and dramaturgs. OK, that’s a joke. But I see people approaching classic work all the time with misguided points of view. Either they’re beating the playwright’s intent to death on the rocks of fussy (and ultimately egotistical) purism, or they’re making changes in the name of modernization that don’t make sense in the context of the work, that obfuscate rather than illuminate the work. If you’re not into historical linguistics or history, and/or if you don’t have a clear understanding of the culture and semiotics of your audience, get a dramaturg. Work with her before the first rehearsal. Let her help you conceptualize the work in a way that will preserve the writer’s intent, which means the engine of the play– what makes it kick ass, what makes it endure, what makes it work for audiences for decades or even centuries– remains intact and clearly presented for a 21st century audience. And that’s IMPOSSIBLE to do by just “doing the play” without thought to the distance between the play’s original cultural context and current one. Insisting on a purist interpretation is essentially insisting on changing the meaning of the play. The older a play is, the more this is true.


Vivien Leigh and Marlon Brando in the film version of A Streetcar Named Desire.

Even in plays that are much closer in time to us– Miller, Williams, O’Neill– there are symbols and tropes that either have completely lost their meaning, or whose meaning has shifted. For example, a man enters a living room where his sister-in-law is standing. The man removes his outer button-down shirt and is now just wearing a T-shirt. In 2014, that symbology would likely go completely unnoticed– a T-shirt has become perfectly acceptable public attire. Even an A-line undershirt is acceptable public attire. It’s no longer inappropriate for a man to take off an outer shirt and wear a T-shirt in his own living room in front of his sister-in-law. The original semiotic attached to that moment has been lost. If you want to preserve the intent– a man doing something that most people in the audience would consider inappropriately intimate– you need to do it another way, such as create that feeling through the acting. And if you don’t understand the historical context, the playwright’s intent for that moment is completely lost on you, or you may misread it as something else entirely. If you’re not well-versed in the history– and that’s no shame, plenty of great directors aren’t– a dramaturg will help you find and work with moments like these.

Conversely, a working knowledge of contemporary (and local– geography can change everything) symbology, popular culture, and slang can be crucial to speaking successfully to your audience. Terms change meaning, and the new usage may be obscure. You may think a line or a word means one thing to your audience when it really means another. I once saw a local director post on facebook that the community here is far too supportive and uncritical, so much so that people refer to it as the “Yay Area.” Or take, for example, the way words such as “mod” and “ratchet” have taken on new meanings. Think for a moment: There will be people in your audience who have never heard either term used ANY OTHER WAY. Sure, older people will think first of the Kinks and socket wrenches– but that’s my point. Understanding how meanings change in different contexts is important, and if that’s not your jam, then find a dramaturg, because I assure you, it’s hers.

I’m barely covering the beginning of what a dramaturg can do. A dramaturg is your in-house expert in research, narrative, semiotics, and history. Consider working with one! Wondering where to find a dramaturg in your area? I bet the fine folks at LMDA can help you.


By Jon Wolter, from keepingwolteraccountable.tumblr.com


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A Common Problem I See In Plays By Women Playwrights. It’s Not What You Think.


Will Hand and Jeanette Penley Marker in Impact Theatre’s Toil and Trouble by Lauren Gunderson, a fantastic play by a brilliant woman with a kickass female character. Check out EVERY WORD LAUREN’S EVER WRITTEN because you will not regret it. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs.

My theatre company is in heavy season planning mode, so I’ve recently read dozens of new plays. I’m always reading new plays, but this time of year, I’m reading a lot of plays, all day long. We’re making an effort to find more plays by women playwrights. We get between 300-400 unsolicited submissions each year, as well as submissions from agents and theatre professionals (playwrights, other ADs or LMs). 75% of those plays are by men, without fail. Unsurprisingly, 75% of the plays we’ve done over our 17 seasons have been by men. So we’re making an extra effort to find women playwrights and ask them to submit.

My company does new plays by “emerging” playwrights (I understand the controversy around that term, but this post isn’t about that, so let’s move on), so I’m reading unpublished plays, many (if not most) by early career, relatively inexperienced playwrights. I noticed a trend in the writing style of these early career women writers, a trend that initially confused me.

I’m seeing a significant amount of plays by women with female characters structurally positioned as the central character. However, that female character isn’t driving the narrative– she is, instead, just reactive to whatever the male characters are doing. It’s a woman sitting around wondering what to do about some man in her life, talking to her friends about some man, interacting with some man about his decisions or actions. It’s still a story with a central male character, just told from the woman’s point of view. If it’s a lesbian play, just change that male character to a female character. The structurally central female character is just as reactive.

Here’s the weird part: I ALMOST NEVER SEE PLAYS LIKE THIS FROM MEN. When I get a play by a man, the central character, male or female, almost always drives the narrative and has an active arc.

Ensemble pieces don’t change anything– they work the same way, just in the plural.

So what the effing eff is going on here? I rarely see this from the more experienced, accomplished women playwrights, but it’s shockingly common from early career women writers.

I thought a lot about this, talked about it with friends, got into a lengthy discussion on facebook (of course) about it. Here’s what I think is going on.

Some playwrights, particularly those who are new to it, are drawing heavily from their own lives and are writing central characters that are reflective of themselves. Sometimes they write plays that are about some perceived injustice they suffered (WHY WON’T HE LOVE ME? WHY WILL NO ONE PRODUCE MY PLAYS?) which can put their central character into a reactive position. But the gender difference, I think, can only be explained one way.

As women, we’re taught to be reactive– to pay careful attention to the needs and opinions of others and react immediately to them. Most women become masters of reading body language and gold medalists at empathy. Not all (of course) but most, because we’re taught that being any other way is unacceptable– at home, in the culture, in plays, films, books, TV shows. Men, however, are taught to be active, and are taught that men who aren’t– who are reactive– are not “real men.” We (unfortunately) re-inscribe this into the culture over and over and over.

Being empathetic and reactive aren’t necessarily bad things, but these received narratives of how to “correctly” perform our genders are having an impact on the way some playwrights are writing, and that impact is working against some women playwrights’ ability to tell their stories.

When you structure a play with a central character, you’re writing someone who occupies the same position in your play that you do in your own life, right? Every person is the central character in his or her personal play/film/video game, because your own life is experienced, of necessity, from your point of view. So when a woman sees herself as inhabiting a reactive position in life, she’s likely going to write a central female character as reactive, because that’s how she perceives what living as a woman IS.

When men write central characters– whether that central character is male or female– those characters are almost always reflective of the active position they’re taught to see as “normal.” Men don’t write reactive female central characters because they see an active self-perception as “normal” in general.

This is, obviously, just a guess, but I don’t know how else to explain what I’m seeing, and I’m seeing it over and over.

Plenty of women writers don’t make their central female characters reactive, but I see enough who do to make me think we should be deliberately and consciously teaching women playwrights to CLAIM THEIR OWN STORIES (the way men are taught to do from the cradle by every corner of the culture). Because a reactive central character isn’t as strong or as interesting as an active one, as women develop their voices as playwrights, I see less and less of this in their work. And of course there are some women writers who never do this. But the ones who do need to be taught to value themselves and their stories. BECAUSE THEY ARE VALUABLE.

So let me tell you now, early career women writers: YOUR STORIES ARE INTERESTING. YOUR STORIES ARE IMPORTANT. YOUR EXPERIENCES ARE IMPORTANT. YOU ARE IMPORTANT. You are important to me, to our work, to the theatre community. YOU ARE MORE THAN YOUR REACTIONS TO SOMEONE ELSE. So write that. And send it to me.

(PS to the men out there writing strong, compelling, active roles for women: Thank you. The women actors of the world also thank you. Don’t let anyone tell you that you don’t have the right to write stories for women because you don’t have “authenticity.” Jesus Timberlake Christ, do they really want there to be FEWER roles for women?)

UPDATE May 2015: For a blog post with only 22K hits, this wins the prize for being the most educational for me as a blogger. One of the most important things I learned from this early post is that the kind of people who will call a stranger an “asshole” or “disgusting” in public for something as small as a relatively unknown blog post are the most likely to be reacting to what they imagine is in the piece rather than what is actually there. I learned that the people who legitimately disagree with the ideas discussed in a post are the least likely to use abusive words. I learned that the people who legitimately disagree with the ideas discussed in a post are awesome, always making me reflect and interrogate my point of view. I learned that engaging with hateful people is always already a lost cause. I learned that I will engage with them anyway. I learned that there are dozens of theatremakers across the country who disagree with some of my ideas and with whom I would dearly love to share a pitcher of beer and an evening of lively discussion.

If you’re here for the first time, I would like to invite you to read some of my newer posts. Click around and see a little more of who I am and what I write. While comments for this one piece are now closed, I approve all comments that are not abusive, so feel free to disagree. Maybe one day we’ll get to share that beer and talk about it in person. Whether you like what you see on Bitter Gertrude or not, I genuinely thank you for being here.

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