Friday, 26 June 2015

Restoring Dramaturgy: Laura Ingram, playwright, on Nell and Dramaturgy

The Fringe

GKV: What inspired this production: did you begin with an idea or a script or an object?
Laura Ingram:When I was nineteen, I worked as a follow-spot operator at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane. During my time there, I learned about one of the first English actresses, Nell Gwyn, who caught the eye of King Charles II whilst starring in Restoration comedies at Drury Lane in the 1660s. 

Ever since, I've been enchanted by the era, and it's been a long-held dream of mine to bring Nell back to life somehow. I gave it a few attempts in my twenties - a clunky screenplay, a stage script that had no technique at all, being little more than a collection of biographical scenes. Something told me they were not good enough, and I filed them away, but the project never fully left my

Over the years, I read more about the craft of writing, I practised writing, I joined a writing group, I read a lot about Nell and Charles, I looked at the differences between writing prose versus writing for theatre, and I worked on shows and thought a lot about what made them inherently theatrical. 

Aged 33, whilst follow-spotting The Lion King in Edinburgh, I began to need to scratch the play-writing itch again, and the first line of the play just came out of the keyboard in Nell's own voice - "Do you like my legs?" 

I took it from there, and was lucky enough to meet Dave McFarlane of Black Dingo Productions and Jen McGregor of Tightlaced Theatre, who kindly allowed me to use their Discover21 theatre in Edinburgh to workshop the play there with them. This gave me a deadline, and suddenly all of my research and pondering about structure coalesced and took form. Of course, it wasn't quite as easy as that - I've been re-writing right up until last week - but it was a far cry from my earliest attempts in my twenties.

Why bring your work to Edinburgh?
Because I can. Because I live here. Because I want to be a part of it. Because I want to be a producer, and a playwright, and have to start somewhere - and where better?

What can the audience expect to see and feel - or even think - of your production?
I think they'll feel pleasantly surprised. A lot of people have commented on coming out of the workshops as to how relieved they were that they hadn't been bored! Apparently, there's an expectation that a one-person monologue will be like being lectured for an hour. But what I really mean is they'll be surprised by Nell herself - by how much they warm to her as a person, and to our own actress in the guise of Nell. 

Lucy is truly astonishing in her ability to 'get' the role and become Nell, and she carries the whole audience with her to 1669 and makes Restoration London live again. I also hope they'll laugh a bit, and see some relevance in the play in terms of how women's struggle to survive and compete and thrive has - or hasn't - changed.

The Dramaturgy Questions
How would you explain the relevance - or otherwise - of dramaturgy within your work?

In all honesty, I haven't ever given the concept of dramaturgy much thought. When I first wrote the play, I hadn't even heard of it. But on researching the role of the dramaturg in modern theatre, I can see that I have unwittingly incorporated much of the dramaturgy ethos into the writing and subsequent production of my script. 

 For example, if a dramaturg's role is, in part, to inform the director and actor(s) about the historical milieu behind the work, and to highlight thematic links, then I've done that and will continue to do that myself in rehearsal. I also believe it to be an inherent part of the playwright's job - "If it ain't on the page, it ain't on the stage." 

Similarly, I found a definition of dramaturgy as "collaboration on a needs basis", which is very much how I work as a producer. There is some weird alchemy in theatre, wherein the collaborator is needed, one will appear. Where these useful folk haven't outright worn the various hats of Director or Stage Manager, they have generally and very organically become "Co-Producer". 

It has been invaluable to have this sounding-board person to complement, and at times outright contradict, you as a producer, and "sounding-board" is another description I've seen appended to the term "dramaturg".

From a strictly text-based perspective, I find it easier to envisage the role of a dramaturg with an existing text where the playwright is no longer alive, or at least is not on hand to give input. I can be very precious about my script, simply because of all the work that has gone into getting the structure right and keeping the focus on the main dramatic impetus. 

I wouldn't want someone else advising my director or actors about the thematic stuff. Then again, I've learned the hard way that it's not ideal to direct your own stuff, and that an 'outside' director can find a perspective on your work that you've long ago lost as the writer, so who knows? 

 Maybe if I tried collaborating with a dramaturg, I would find it helpful. Certainly the roles of dramaturg, writer and director overlap considerably (I wouldn't want to hire a director who didn't consider the setting and themes of the script, after all). But, for a new adaptation of an existing story in another format, i.e. a novel, then I find it much easier to see where a dramaturg would come in, in terms of ensuring that the play is indeed a play and not a novel divided into scenes of dialogue. Then again, any good playwright should be able to do that, too.

What particular traditions and influences would you acknowledge on your work - have any particular artists, or genres inspired you and do you see yourself within their tradition?

For Nell, I've very much had to steep myself in the theatrical 'lore' and traditions of Restoration theatre - both comedy and tragedy - in 1660s London. While I haven't been trying to replicate Restoration theatre literally, it has certainly informed my writing in terms of themes and occasional dramatic choices. 

Lucy Formby
For example, it was traditional for all performances of tragedies to end with a jig - a merry dance of hopping steps and skips - to cheer the audience up so that they left the theatre in a good mood and said good things about the play. In my play, Nell refers to this, and we then make a point of ending our own play on a jig! 

Similarly, there was a strong Restoration tradition to bookmark a play with a Prologue and Epilogue. These were spoken by actors, but were often direct pleas from the playwrights themselves to the audiences to bear with them while they tried out a new style, or to forgive them any errors, or to explicate the plot because the play itself had failed to do so. 

Occasionally, public quarrels were played out in these, such as that between the Duke of Buckingham and the playwright John Dryden (both characters feature in our play), wherein the writer could make a public fool of his/her enemy with that person sat right there in the audience. In Nell, I've taken the idea of the Epilogue both literally, and as a metaphor: she is in the final months of her celebrated theatrical career, she needs to use a literal Epilogue as a tool to get her own way, and the play in itself is, for me, a sort of Epilogue to the story of Nell's life, wherein I, as the playwright, get to say, "Look at Nell! How great was she?!"

Do you have a particular process of making that you could describe - where it begins, how you develop it, and whether there is any collaboration in the process?
It always begins with two things: 1) The urge to make something of something, and 2) a story worth producing. Without the latter, there is no point in doing the former, and so I can go long swathes of time doing nothing while I wait for the right project to find me. 

Once I have the play (whether I've written it or not), that theatrical alchemy I spoke of starts to gather the creative and technical team to my side and things start to happen. I just go with the flow. There aren't any lists or formal processes as such, just a mental sense of what needs doing next and by when, and - crucially - what I can do myself, and what I need to delegate to maintain the production's professional standard (collaboration, again!).

In terms of the life-cycle of a production, from script to workshop to polished performance, that depends very much on who I have working with me and what they wish to do next. We generally take advantage of whatever opportunities arise through people we know, networking, and from contacting venues we'd like to perform at. Each play is different, and not all productions suit the same venues or scale of production. Nell, for instance, would work very well in an intimate pub theatre, but not at all (ironically) in a three-tiered playhouse the size of Drury Lane. You have to be very much led by the work.

What do you feel the role of the audience is, in terms of making the meaning of your work?
Whilst writing, re-writing and rehearsing Nell, the audience never leaves my awareness. In any production, they are crucial, and the dynamic between the actors and the audience can make or break a performance, but this is even more the case with our play than in any I have worked on previously, because the physical audience will in effect also be doubling as Nell's period audience in the "Pit" at Drury Lane. 

There is no fourth wall, then, and she talks to them as actors of her time would have bantered with the crowd. If this dynamic falls flat, so too will the whole play. Fortunately, feedback from early workshops was that this risk paid off, and the interaction (nothing too scary, don't worry!) heightened the pleasure of the theatrical experience for the audience (as it certainly did for our actress, too).

The biggest benefit of work-shopping a play multiple times over a year or two, is the opportunity to talk to people who were in the audience(s) about what did and didn't work. It's dangerous to take a single critic's (or indeed fan's) subjective opinion as gospel, but when you're hearing the same comments over and over again, it is imperative that you sit up and listen - and act on the feedback you are hearing. 

 For instance, we learned through doing this that the opening of our play (a chunk I had added on to the original script) didn't work, and this led to us reverting to the original opening line, and also revising the ending of the play to reflect this. I also learned a valuable lesson about clarity. I had previously taken the high ground of insisting I was writing to the "highest common denominator" in the audience, and didn't want to insult their intelligence by stating exposition too blatantly. 

A good writer friend, who had been in that first audience, put me right on that: "You can never be too clear. If you want the audience to know something, state it explicitly, and then say it twice." I took this advice on board and soon realised that my script was better for it.

Something about gaining absolute clarity on what I wanted to say through the process of saying it absolutely clearly then showed me which parts of the script were deadwood and needed to be cut. I am really happy with the script I have today, but I wouldn't have had it if I hadn't been fortunate enough to have the chance to see it from the audience's perspective multiple times, and then have several months to think on what needed to be changed, and what was simply a subjective opinion I didn't agree with.

Are there any questions that you feel I have missed out that would help me to understand how dramaturgy works for you?
I don't think so, but I seem to have written a book already, so it's probably time I shut up and let someone else get a word in... Thank you very much for interviewing me, and I look forward to reading the other entries on your blog.

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