Monday, 13 July 2015

Bewitched by Dramaturgy: Dan Coleman @ Edfringe 2015

Dawn State Theatre Company Presents
VENUE: Pleasance Courtyard (Attic), Venue 33
TIME: 3.15pm (1 hour)
DATE: 5th – 30th August 2014 (no show 18th August)
TICKETS: £6 (previews), £7/£6 (Mon & Tues), £8/£7 (Wed & Thurs), £9/£8 (Fri, Sat & Sun)
BOX OFFICE: 0131 556 6550,

A new play about power, fear and fanaticism from the company behind the 2014 Fringe smash The Man Who Would Be King.

“Superb … A classic piece of mythology as well as a contemporary political drama.” **** The Scotsman (on The Man Who Would Be King)

Dawn State returns with a world premiere inspired by the true story of Britain’s bloodiest witch-hunt. It’s 1615, and two men are on a mission to arm their countrymen against a plague of devilish outsiders. Until now their chief weapon has been Jennet Device, youngest of the Pendle Witches, the girl whose testimony condemned her entire family to the noose. But now Jennet has grown up, her eyes are starting to open, and tonight heads will roll. 

The Fringe 

What inspired this production: did you begin with an idea or a script or an object?
Dan Coleman: It started with my wife turning round one day and announcing that she was descended from one of the Pendle Witches. Half an hour later I was reading The Wonderful Discovery of Witches in the County of Lancaster - a first hand account of the trial and execution of the 16 men and women who died in Britain's biggest witchcraft trial - and getting quite excited about the modern parallels it was throwing up. 

The way we interact with the rest of the world at the moment - be that immigrants, Greece, Russia, Islam, or even the SNP - seems to be defined by a politics of fear. It was the central characteristic of the last election, and it's the same language we used to attack witches in the 17th century. On top of that, Gareth Jandrell (the play's writer) and I were both really taken by the girl at the centre of this particular witch-hunt; Jennet Device, the 9 year old who stood up in court and testified that her entire family were witches, leading directly to their execution. We wanted to explore why she might have done that, and what might have happened to her afterwards.

Why bring your work to Edinburgh?
We haven't been around that long (this is our second show), and for a company like us the Fringe is one of the best showcases in the country. We came last year and had a cracking time with our début The Man Who Would Be King, so we feel like we've got something worth building on here.

What can the audience expect to see and feel - or even think - of your production?
Expect a firecracker. The Wonderful Discovery of Witches in the County of Lancaster is an incendiary new play about power, fear and fanaticism inspired by the true story of Britain's bloodiest witch-hunt. It's a thrilling drama punctuated with haunting music, and the three performers (Amy Blair, Dan Nicholson and
Christopher Birks) are stonkingly good in it.

The Dramaturgy Questions 

How would you explain the relevance - or otherwise - of dramaturgy within your work?
I think rigorous dramaturgy is a really important part of how Dawn State make our shows. For me it's the way you make sure the work communicates something tangible and compelling; that it's rich in meaning. 

It's also the yardstick you use to make sure a piece of narrative drama is actually telling the story that you want it to tell; that the gap between the intention of the maker and the experience of the audience is as narrow as possible. As a company we're always trying to tell stories that are - deliberately - far too big for the resources and time we have available. So we have to think very carefully about how we create the theatrical short-cuts we need to condense the story down and still carry an audience along with us. 

Sometimes those short-cuts are visual, sometimes they're textual, but it's generally the dramaturgical process that defines how they work together. It plays a really important role in defining what our work looks like and sounds like.

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?
Probably loads, but we try and wear our influences quite lightly. I think if we're part of any tradition it's our commitment to creating properly dramatic plays - plays that tell a captivating stories about people dealing with extreme situations - in a way that is interesting and arresting, but that doesn't require a working knowledge of contemporary theatre practice to be able to follow it. We try to make theatre for real people (whatever that means), not just theatre people.

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?
Collaboration has been a central part of developing The Wonderful Discovery of Witches. We settled on the subject back in November last year, then Gareth and I developed a rough narrative outline and Gareth wrote a few test pages, which we work-shopped for three days in January with the rest of the company. 

Then Gareth went away and wrote a first draft which we work-shopped again for a couple of weeks in April before sticking a forty minute version in front of an audience for a two scratch showings. A lot of changes came out of those first performances, which Gareth worked into a second draft. We've just finished rehearsing ready for London previews, which will take place throughout July, then we’ll do one more week of rehearsals at the end just to bed in any last fiddles that crop up. By the time we hit Edinburgh it’ll have gone through a nine month development process.

What do you feel the role of the audience is, in terms of making the meaning of your work?
Dawn State's work seeks to connect the most important questions of today with captivating stories from our past, so we work really hard to try and create work that's rich in meaning, and I'd hope that if an audience member wants to go looking for that stuff in our shows it's there waiting to be found. 

But our golden rule is that whether you're looking for that kind of thing or not, you'll always come away from one of our shows having seen something exciting, captivating and moving. So while I don't think the audience are necessarily central to defining what the meaning of the show is, I do think they play an important role in deciding which of the layers of meaning they want to focus on.

Are there any questions that you feel I have missed out that would help me to understand how dramaturgy works for you?
I'd be interested to know where/how people think they developed their understanding of dramaturgy, as it ain't exactly taught (or maybe it is and I just missed those lessons).

The Wonderful Discovery of Witches in the County of Lancaster is the follow-up to the company’s hugely successful debut The Man Who Would Be King, which took the Fringe by storm last year with its “superb central performances and wonderfully fluid direction” (The Scotsman), earning rave reviews and a transfer to the Oxford Playhouse and Vault Festival, London.

The press on The Man Who Would Be King:

“A great start from this new company.” ****
"A frankly outstanding production.” ***** British Theatre Guide
"Could be deemed a classic in itself." ***** Broadway Baby
“Clever directing and flawless acting.” **** The Stage
“Striking... Dawn State rehabilitate Kipling.” **** The List

Dawn State makes thrilling, contemporary theatre inspired by classic texts and forgotten stories, connecting the most important questions of today with captivating tales from the past. The Wonderful Discovery of Witches in the County of Lancaster uses the true story of the Pendle Witches to explore today’s politics of fear, and the men who exploit those fears in the pursuit of power.

*The Wonderful Discovery of Witches in the County of Lancaster is written by Gareth Jandrell and directed by Dan Coleman. Music is composed by Dan Nicholson. The cast are Christopher Birks (Potts), Amy Blair (Jennet) and Dan Nicholson (Nowell).

*Dawn State was formed in 2013 by director and producer Dan Coleman, whose previous work at the Fringe includes Richard Marsh’s 2011 debut Skittles (**** Scotsman, Guardian, Telegraph). For more information please visit

*The trial of the Pendle Witches took place in Lancashire in 1612, and was the largest of its kind in this county. On the testimony of the nine year old Jennet Device, sixteen men and women were hung for witchcraft; including the girl’s own mother, sister and brother.

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