Teaching Pirates Dramaturgy

© 826 Valencia

“Everyone here knows what the fourth wall is, right?”

Stares. Heads shake side to side. “No.”

“That’s great!”

It is probably true of any profession. Any obsession. Anything one spends their time doing: it is easy to forget that not everyone knows the lingo. Why would writing tutors at the famed 826 Valencia know that the fourth wall is the invisible, nonexistent wall that separates actors onstage from the audience—that it is the line that separates the fictive from the real? They aren’t playwrights. That’s why I’m there, standing in front of them in a room designed to look like the hull of a pirate ship, stumbling through the basics of playwriting and dramaturgy in my allocated hour.

To forgo all suspense: it went great, and next Tuesday 20 freshly-minted new-play dramaturgs will enter the field. 826 Valencia is teaming up with A.C.T. and the project-based Downtown High School to help students “who have not experienced success in the district’s comprehensive high schools” craft monologues and 10-minute plays that will be published in a fully-designed book.

The experienced 826 tutors have taught fiction and essay writing, but never plays, so I was asked to come in and answer a few simple questions: “What are the differences between plays and other genres—especially film?” “What are the parts of a play?” “What are some tips you can give the tutors to pass on to their students on how to make their plays stronger?”

Wow. Great questions. And spending the past two weeks thinking about how to answer them strengthened my belief that if you want to do, you really should teach first. I learned academic writing by teaching freshman comp. for two years. I continue to learn how to write for dramaturgical publications by mentoring our yearly fellows. And now, for the first time, I was articulating for myself what a play is. What the role of the dramaturg is.

I said a lot of stuff yesterday morning. Theater is different from film because of proximity, focus, and language. Instead of going into Aristotle’s parts of a play—which I never really got behind—I talked about the loss of and search for stasis. I broke monologues down into categories. I explained how scripts are the beginning of a collaboration, not an end in and of themselves. Nothing surprising. But I was proud that I distilled new-play dramaturgy into a simple two-part formula:

“What are you trying to say?” —> “This is what I hear.”

We’re compared to consultants. Therapists. Editors. But really, dramaturgs are professional audience members—that talk back. It isn’t our place to make plays better: it is our place to help playwrights understand what they have so that they can craft their plays into what they want them to be.

© DC Comics

2 thoughts on “Teaching Pirates Dramaturgy

  1. Uh, you rocked. Really. I said to one of the kids at Downtown High School, “How cool was that guy?” And he agreed. “That guy was cool.” Turned out he was talking about Nick and I was talking about you, but, really. Both of you are cool.

    I loved being knighted as a dramaturg. And that “no one but the playwright can make the play better.” And, in theatre “anything is possible.”

    So, thanks.

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