Monday, August 10, 2009

Dramaturg's Diary: Preparing for the Big Day and Beyond

Kirsten Bowen is Signature Theatre Company's Literary Associate, and the Signature dramaturg for The Orphans' Home Cycle

As Signature’s Literary Associate, one major aspect of my job is functioning as our resident dramaturg. Now a dramaturg can perform a variety of functions in the production and development of a play. We can be sounding boards for playwrights and directors, helping to track how the story is being told and acting as a sort of “in-house audience” during rehearsals. We also facilitate other lines of communication between the production and audience by creating lobby displays, newsletters, or writing program notes and blogs (like the one you’re reading now). Lastly, another large part of a dramaturg’s job is researching the world of the play and disseminating those findings to the playwright, director, actors, and you, the audience. This research will help the actors flesh out and more fully embody their characters, provide factual or inspirational references for the director and playwright as they create this world, as well as context for the audience member watching it.

Researching the world of The Orphans’ Home Cycle is at times overwhelming, but mostly fascinating and even fun. We also have quite a team assembled to get the job done: me, Signature’s Artistic Interns Elizabeth Carlson and Farrell Parker, and Hartford’s Senior Dramaturg, Chris Baker. I mentioned that there are nine plays, right?

Despite the two memoirs and many personal essays Horton left behind, as well as the first-hand stories about his family and childhood he passed on to the friends and family involved in this production, we dramaturgs still have our work cut for us. The Orphans’ Home Cycle spans the years 1902 to 1928. In addition to a detailed glossary of each play citing every obscure reference from the value of $11.50 in 1904 to the history of the Romany population in Texas, we created actor packets that include American history timelines, post-Reconstruction Texas timelines, information on the economics, music, education, political and social trends of the period, and other key topics like Texas’s convict lease system (one play takes place on a plantation that employs convicts as labor, a popular practice in the post-Civil War South), the 1918 Flu Epidemic, and copious sections from Horton’s memoir, Farewell: A Memoir of a Texas Childhood. Liz and Farrell also spent two days conducting visual research at The New York Public Library Picture Collection, combing through photographs and advertisements from the 1900s through the 1920s. Many of these images will be plastered to the walls of the rehearsal room in Hartford.

So we’ve done a lot of work to be as prepared as possible on the first day, but questions always come up in rehearsal that you never expect. For example, in the glossary we provided a thorough and rather graphic description of the symptoms of malaria (made all the more so by Chris’ dramatic reading of it during tablework), but director Michael Wilson wanted to know what time of year malaria is most prevalent in East Texas. This was not mere idle curiosity on his part – he needed to know in order to help determine in what season Lily Dale takes place, which is crucial information for costume designer David Woolard. These seemingly minute questions are just one ingredient to telling this story, as Michael, the actors, and designers build this world both in and out of the rehearsal room.

Now, I leave you with a sampling of some of our findings, selected by Liz and Farrell: etiquette tips from the 1905 handbook, Everyday Etiquette: A Practical Manual of Social Uses by Marion Harland and Virginia Van de Water.

“Expressions such as ‘God bless you!’ or ‘I love you,’ or ‘Love to the dear ones,’ are in shockingly bad taste except under cover of an envelope. Postcards are a solecism.”

“It takes very little to set tongues wagging. The married women should exercise extreme care in her relations with other men in public places such as a summer hotel or boarding house, while it may do no harm for a married man to flirt with other men’s wives. Promiscuous intimacies at summer resorts are a great mistake. A woman may be pleasant toward all, and intimate with none.”

“A proper young woman will never be proactive in the courting process. The girl who waits for the young man to ask if he may call her, and who waits for the young man to ask permission to write to her will be considered a prize that was difficult to win, and therefore more worthy of his true love and devotion. The apple that drops, over-ripe, at one’s feet is never quite so tempting as that which hangs just beyond reach.”

“In the home, the proper husband will always offer his wife the easy chair in which he sits when she enters the room, but “knowing that he is weary after a hard day at the office, [she] will not take the chair, but she will appreciate the little attention, and love him better for it.”

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