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  • Reading the Dramatic Text For Production
  • Julian M. Olf (bio)

Early in my career as an artist-educator I began wrestling with a phenomenon that more seasoned professionals had long known—namely, that a student’s ability to verbalize intellectual issues does not signal an ability to make artistic choices. It was a phenomenon by no means limited to undergraduate students. The same students who could offer articulate, critical exegeses on the most subtle aspects of the dramatic text were often those who suffered from an antiseptic, nonvisceral orientation to the work; their approaches to production—whether as actors, directors, dramaturgs, or designers—were often lackluster if not outright boring. Clearly, the dramatic text and its meanings must be understood if not honored. If only these students could, without losing sight of the text, gain access to the part of the mind that generates personal, nonrational, intuitive imagery: the part more concerned with feelings, with the ineffable, than with language and rational analysis. It would not guarantee artistic success, but it would give them a fighting chance at it.

Given students from all program areas, possessing diverse levels of prior experience and aptitude, my objective has been to develop an entry-level graduate course that uses the text both as material to be comprehended intellectually and as a pretext for an act of original creation. Over the decade that I have been teaching it, the course in text analysis has undergone much change, both in response to evolving student needs and interests, and to changes in my own creative process as a director, dramaturg, and teacher. Alongside a course examining the dramatic text in its cultural context and emphasizing research (Theatre and Society) and one acquainting students with the vocabulary and concerns of all program areas through student-generated production experience (Group Studio), Text Analysis now stands as one of three entry-level courses required by students in our graduate program. What follows is a brief overview of its premises and methods as presently taught. 1

Seminar Premises and Procedures

The seminar in Text Analysis involves six to ten students from all sectors of the program: Directing, Dramaturgy, Scenic Design, Costume Design, and [End Page 153] Lighting Design. At the outset of the semester, each participant selects a play from a prepared list of plays representing different periods and styles. 2 I suggest that, if possible, students not select a play on which they have worked or formed strongly held opinions. A schedule is then drafted, specifying due dates for all in-class presentations. Every participant receives two 75-minute sessions in which to present on the subject of his or her play. The first two weeks of the class are devoted to discussing the approach. Buying some time for the earliest presenters, I devote several weeks to presenting analyses of two or three plays on which I have worked, usually as a director, occasionally as a dramaturg. To show students how the tools at hand may be applied to a wide variety of plays, I always include at least one play whose structure and style pose unique challenges—for example, Tristan Tzara’s The Gas Heart, Heiner Müller’s Medeamaterial, or Peter Handke’s The Ride Across Lake Constance.

Each student presentation begins with a summary of personal, sensory-based associations to the text (to be discussed below), followed by the presenter’s text-based response to each operation detailed in the outline below. In the course of each presentation, nonpresenting participants, who have read the play several times, probe the analysis to insure it is supported by the text and consistent with the personal interpretive criteria outlined by the presenter. In addition to raising questions to help the presenter clarify points, I occasionally cast lines back to early sensory-based associations, suggesting possible connections between the presenter’s intellectual responses to the text and his or her more distinctly personal responses.

Several days after each oral presentation has been completed, the presenter receives short written responses from other seminar participants. In addition to providing a general reaction, these brief critiques are intended to raise questions of particular interest to the writer’s program area. At the end...

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