Dramaturgy – The Extra ‘Brains’ Behind The Operation

Have you ever found yourself lost in thought whilst staring into space, laying in a meadow wondering “what is a dramaturge?”

No? Well, neither have I.

Mainly because before I’d seen my first Indian Ink play, I’d never come across one before.

However, after reading the program and looking at all the people who helped make the play, under Justin and Jake’s names I saw: ‘Dramaturge – Murray Edmond’. My first thought was ‘wow if they’ve put him on this list he must be important’.

So I decided to sit down with Murray and quiz him as to what exactly he does for Indian Ink, and why they have him so close to the top of the list.

What is a dramaturge? And where did the term come from?

Well, it’s a funny term, and it was originally from European Theater. It meant ‘the literary director of the theater’. So basically, we have the stage director, who was the person who would direct the work on stage itself, but the person who chose the plays that were going to be done for the year, and who did all the reading around and created the program, that was the dramaturge. That role isn’t really what came to us in New Zealand, but that’s where the word was originally used. It’s not sort of an English word, it’s a kind of German word. And now dramaturgy is to do with the way in which drama is constructed and put together.

The dramaturge was defined then as an advocate for the playwright. Because often when a playwright came out with a new play, they would show it to really well known actors, well known directors, critics, their designers etc. And they would all tell the playwright what was wrong with the play, and the playwright would go away crying and never write another play. So the dramaturge would help with that.

But the role itself varies, depending on who’s doing it, where and why.

When did you first meet Justin and Jake? What was that like?

I first worked with Justin in 1996 on a play about two sets of Siamese twins down at a theater that used to be in one of the old buildings on the waterfront. This was before he’d met Jake and I had already seen a little show he did in an art gallery, and I loved it, and I had talked to him afterwards.

So he called me in to work on this show with two weeks to go and he said: “it’s a complete mess, can you fix it?” And we tried, but we couldn’t really. The actors did nobly, but you know, it had its problems, and we agreed then we were too late. You can’t fix something in the last two weeks when everyone’s in high panic mode. So we agreed next time, we would do it early. And the next one was a kids show, a pantomime with pirates. I don’t remember much about it, but we did it early, we got the script right, and it was a lot of fun. And we thought, ‘well, we’ve learned something now.’

So then Justin had the encounter with Jacob in Wellington, and saw Krishnan’s Dairy at a late night show at BATS, I think it was.

And at this time, Justin had been at John Bolton School in Melbourne, doing a lot of mask work. At the same time, Jacob had picked up the masks from John Bolton coming to Wellington to do a workshop and he’d incorporated them into his solo farewell performance everyone has to do as a student at Toi Whakaari.

So I think Justin went to look at the show and thought, ‘how the hell does this guy know about this stuff?’ And that’s where they connected. I’d also done all my training with the use of masks back and with theater action, in 1971, 72 and 73. I’d done all the clockwork. So we all had the same language, by completely different ways. It was very special.

So Krishnan’s Dairy was initially very successful. But it was only 20 minutes. It was unmarketable.

So they came to me in Auckland, and said ‘we have this little play, but it’s 20 minutes long and we’ve got to make it 70 minutes.’

At this time I was teaching in the university, so I had access to the drama studio. It was also the holidays and we had a week, so I said “you can go in there and no one knows you’re there.” And on Monday morning, they showed me Krishnan’s Dairy, 20 minutes long, the first vision.

So we got big rolls of newsprint and we got lots of colored pens and we rolled it out on the floor. Then we drew a diagram of the script as it was, and we made cuts to insert different things like songs and more parts with Shah Jahan and we looked to expand and extend the script. So I left them for Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and I came back on Friday and they did this cobbled thing they’d made which was much longer and which was really the basis of what would be written up as the new script. Then we spent Friday working on that, and that was really my first experience with both Justin and Jake.

When I asked Justin about why he finds working with you useful he told me “it’s because he’s brainier than us”. Do you agree with this?

(Laughs) No no no, not really. I think one of the really important things is we have a common language around masks and around improvisation. We might not agree exactly but we’ve had similar training and we understand some common things about theatre and about creativity. So I think there’s a shared thing at quite a deep level, which isn’t any particular play. We all have our tendencies and we’ve recognized those.

I think particularly that I may be useful because Justin’s a director, and therefore he’s always looking forward to how the theatrical elements will be brought into play in relation to the drama. And I feel I’m always just pulling back a bit. I often tell him:

“don’t worry about that yet.” and “see what the situation and the problem is first”.

And Jake, because he’s an actor, he’s always thinking, “but how can I get the scene to work?” And I’m always telling him “just wait a bit, don’t worry, even if it’s a bit too long, let’s write a scene which kind of makes sense, and then we can do that.” So yeah, I do think I have a function in the triangle because of their particular roles.

What is the most difficult part of your job?

I think it’s trying to respect the idea that the other person has, and not take it over or dismiss it. You can easily say, “well, this is rubbish.” Because usually in the beginning, you can dismiss an idea if you want to, because it’s not fully formed. And the same way you can say, “this is not really my thing, I don’t understand this.”

But you’ve actually got to make yourself understand it.

I think getting into that position of respect and then also finding a way that you can feed in because people have a certain protectiveness, understandably. And they’ve seen something in the beginning, which they want at all costs.

What was your favourite play to work on with Indian Ink?

I’ve enjoyed several, I love The Candlestick Maker, because it was a real struggle, that second one. We thought ‘we can’t do this.’ And at first, it was two hours and 20 minutes. And then I think two years later, it was 20 minutes shorter. And it got better and better over the years, which is a good sign.

I am also very fond of Guru of Chai because we’d got really stuck with our previous show, which was one of our ones that didn’t work. And so we came back with Guru to something so simple and basic. And it was such a good, refreshing thing to do.

I’m very fond of Welcome to the Murder House, which I think is actually a really good play. And I’m very interested in it because it’s a bit too tough for people to take. It’s really hard to sell, but I’m actually proud of the work on it.

What’s your favourite book? How about your favourite movie?

I’ve never fully read the Mahabharata, but I love the stories so much and I love those old poems, like the epic of Gilgamesh.

In terms of movies it’s hard to say, isn’t it? I think if you take La StradaLa Dolce Vita and Amarcord, directed by Fellini, you’d be hard pressed to go past that. But I love Panahi and Farhadi, the two Iranian directors. I’m just really interested in their recent work because there’s something there that these guys are doing, which is kind of magical.

So now that I’ve figured out what Murray does I can finally see why they always put him on the list with the director. Because he’s actually kind of important.

I wonder if I’ll ever make it that far up the list…