restricted access 4. The Twelve-Step Program for Script Analysts

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Southern Illinois University Press colophon
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69 4 The Twelve-Step Program for Script Analysts Genius is only busied with events that are rooted in one another, that form a chain of cause and effect. To reduce the latter to the former, to weigh the latter against the former, everywhere to exclude chance, to cause everything that occurs to occur so that it could not have happened otherwise, this is the part of genius that works in the domains of history and converts the useless treasures of memory into nourishment for the soul. —Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, Hamburg Dramaturgy #30 Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s profound meditation above is a reminder that the work of genius is characterized not by those sudden flashes of insight that sometimes come but by a process of engaged, humble, and methodical discovery and refinement that eventually results in something good and useful. In dramatic writing, this is a process that has remained astonishingly uniform throughout the historical record. In 2004, the Greek playwright Elias Malandris assembled Aeschylus’s tragedy Achilles, hitherto believed lost, from some papyrus fragments that had been discovered serving as cavity fillers in recently excavated Egyptian mummies. That summer, the Cyprus National Theatre (THOC) mounted a production of Achilles, the first in over two thousand years. How is it possible to bridge the gap to a lost civilization so quickly and smoothly? How can Achilles have meaning for us, who live millennia after Aeschylus died? The answer is that a play is a machine, one that manufactures meaning. It’s a staggeringly complex machine, and many of its moving parts are invisible to the untrained eye, but it is a machine nonetheless, and it operates on certain principles that have gone essentially unchanged for thousands of years. These principles can (and must) be taught, because despite their antiquity they continue to produce significant and meaningful art. We still have a lot to learn from those ancients and their tools. I’m reasonably proud of the laptop I’m using to Chemers Pt2-Ch4.indd 69 2/9/10 7:39:21 AM ANALYSIS 70 write this book, for example, but bury it with a dead Pharaoh for a thousand years and see how useful it still is. When a dramaturg reads a play, he or she does so with the expectation that pretty soon someone, probably an artistic director, is going to come up and ask, “So, what’s that play about?” That’s a question about the meaning of the play; that is to say, about the thematic elements of the play. Deriving a theme from a script is an intense process of deep critical engagement and strict attention to detail. Before we can even begin to talk about themes, we must subject a play to a rigorous analysis. Here that process is broken down into twelve steps that should provide a road map for navigating most, but not all, of the plays you will encounter in your dramaturgical career. The Steps Step 1. Admit That You Don’t Know Everything In his famous 1758 “Paradox of Acting,” French Enlightenment philosopher Denis Diderot observes, “In order to move the audience, the actor himself must remain unmoved.”1 But this is as true for all theater professionals as it is for actors. In the years that I have been involved with academic theater programs, one thing that the faculty agree upon is this: that the art of theater cannot be taught, only experienced. The art of the theater does not occur in the script but rather in performance; that horribly brief moment when months of study, training, collaboration, rehearsal, budgeting, and planning meet a live audience head-on. No, we can’t teach that, but what we can teach is the technique of theater. As Diderot said, we must move the audience, and the only way we know to do that is to drill our technique so long and so hard that we are able to create the illusion that there is no technique at all. All the skills of the theater begin with reading; that is, with understanding the fundamental mechanics of dramatic literature. It is the bread-and-butter of dramaturgy, but it is equally fundamental for directing, acting, and design. It is the common point to which we all must return continually when we collaborate on a production. In many ways, the dramaturg’s main task is to be the custodian of the script and its meaning (which means, also, its context, its philosophy, its spirituality...


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