Thursday, August 27, 2009

Inspiration/Dramaturgy II : Play As A Construct III

Back to 99Seats' comments about playwrights needing to think consciously about their work, and my last post analyzing the ending structure of my play Orchestration (published by IndyMill Publishing), and I wanted to loop those two discussions back to each other.

When I first began the play, my initial image was born out of a Beirut concert (and specifically, the song "Mount Wroclai (Idle Days)"), and it basically involved a manic, spiraling waltz. It was also going to be a play specifically about Lebanese colonial history--that was my first conscious set of decisions about the play, and although they informed the end structure, I wound up making a different set of decisions, more abstract ones; dramaturgical decisions.

By the way, I'm using the term "Dramaturgical" to mean something a little bit broader than just decisions made based off of historical fact. For a while, I didn't really understand the purpose of a dramaturgist--I couldn't see the distinction between him and a director. This conversation is making me understand that the dramaturgical role is to think about the play in the conceptual, the theoretical, and the historical--in other words, in terms of the conscious--when the director is thinking inspirationally, making gut calls, etc. I still think that both functions should actually be the same person, or part of the same team equally, but as a concept I think that's the role of the dramaturgist.

When it came to the ending, though, I had a clear desire to have the play fall apart (in old Greek Tragedy, the character falls apart; it seems to me that the modernist tragedy involves the play itself falling apart). But I didn't know exactly how. I stumbled (inspirationally) on the image of him lashing out at the audience, kicking them out. My intuition was lead along by how people who lose control lash out: first by yelling (which is why I broke the silence of the piece with him yelling), then by cursing, then by violence (I put violence before yelling in the play later, as a decision), and then finally by withdrawal and rejection.

My dad (an executive in the software industry with a background in development) challenged me on this point, for good reason. He felt that the audience would feel rejected and insulted by me, the playwright, and that the play would therefore end on a strong negative feeling for the audience. I wanted that image to stay with them, but I didn't want them to feel assaulted; it was a balance.

This is when I used the Pragmatist model of decisionmaking, and one which I think artists should use when making decisions about their art. It's a strict way of looking at decisions on the stage, and it's based on William James' Pragmatism.

James was discussing whether or not there was a God, and he asked the question this way: Assume that there is a God. How would the world reflect that? Assume that there is no God. How would the world reflect that? The answers to the question are not as important as the question (his version of the answers to those questions is that in the present, everything would look and feel exactly the same, but in the far future it was the difference between a perfect ending and a slow decay into chaos).

I looked at my play and asked, "If I do _____, what effect does that have on the audience? How would ______ support my central ideas?" And then I selected the ending with the desired effects, and the best support of my central ideas.

The ending I selected (having the orchestrator kick out all of the audience, but having the ensemble and, crucially, myself as the writer-director greet them as they exited) answered the questions thus:

  1. The ending would first give the audience the sympathy and fear of the collapse of the character, would blur the lines between the internal world of the play and the external--both conceptually, because the play is still going on as they exit, and physically because the characters are outside and they travel out of the theater while still experiencing the play. It would also create a sudden, important separation between the world as the orchestrator has created it and the world as I am running it, because I step in to say "hey guess what? The world isn't as negative as this pathetic wreck would force you to believe."
  2. The ending strongly supports the conceptual frame I was operating under, Vaclav Havel's "Power of the Powerless", which states that power only exists as long as the powerful control the truth and the powerless operate under that truth. Once the ensemble rebels against the "Realism" of the orchestrator, the audience is invited out of that realism and into another realism of the real world. Simply by greeting them at the door, I retain the right to completely disassemble his world, without having to directly oppose him in any way. That fits in with the conceptual narrative, and therefore it's the right ending.
Of the thousand of endings I can imagine now, none of them fit the test any better -- although I'd love to hear some better-fit endings! (When I adapted Orchestration for film I had to adjust the ending because in film, it had different impact on the audience).