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  • The Archaeology of Performance
  • Mary Zimmerman (bio)

Most of my time in the theatre is spent creating adaptations of nondramatic texts through the process of pre-production and rehearsal. Only once have I ever written a script before beginning rehearsals, and I've never typed a word of a play that didn't already have a scheduled, not too distant opening night. I've never done a workshop of anything or a draft of anything; and I use only the standard four weeks of rehearsal before tech.

I used to think of this process in architectural terms. In my mind my collaborators and I started with a flat line, and through our labor we built something. We tugged that flat line up into an elaborate silhouette of a city. We had "made something out of nothing," and I was very proud of that. But as I have continued to work, my image of our process has undergone a change and it no longer appears to me in architectural, but rather archaeological terms. For me, from the moment a date for first preview has been assigned, I feel that the piece is lying in wait for us, buried underground. I tell my colleagues that we must work carefully in excavating this piece: if we are impatient and nervous and try to dig too fast, we will damage the shape of the piece; but if we are lazy and inattentive to what is emerging, we will arrive on opening night with dust and dirt obscuring its true shape.

The paradox is, the piece is made and shaped by the digging itself: it is both unpredictable and utterly preordained. It is made by who we are, who we are together, the circumstances of production, and the conditions of the world as they exist and change throughout our rehearsal process. We can't know what the piece will become, but it is inescapable.

The process goes like this: I fall in love, or have always been in love, with a particular text, or an episode that I happen to know from a particular text, or the back jacket cover description of a text in the hands of a friend I run into outside of Coliseum Books in New York, or, in one case, the title of a text. Next, I start telling someone at Northwestern, or at the Lookingglass or Goodman Theatre in Chicago, that I want to adapt that text and I trick them into saying they'll produce it. Pretty soon after this, my producers would like some questions answered: how many people in the play? I'm not sure. How long will it be, one act or two? I have no idea. Will it be any good? Can't say.

Yet I'm not completely flinging myself into the void when I start on a play because I'm basing my work on a pre-existing text, or collection of texts, and that is my constant map and guide. When I am devising a performance, the primary factor that determines what goes into the final show is undoubtedly the unconscious and conscious impulses of my own personality in dialogue with the original text: how I read its story, how I can best give that story a body, what I am drawn to, what I feel is beautiful, what formal considerations I value, [End Page 25] what I am obsessed with. In other words, my own taste. All of this comes to bear on anyone adapting anything, but in this particular way of devising, in which the script does not precede production, but rather "grows up" simultaneously with it, at least three other factors exert unusual pressure on the final form the script will take: the designs for the play devised by my colleagues and me, the cast of the play, and the events and circumstances of the world during the rehearsal period of the play. The interweaving of these elements creates the "dig."

The Design

I begin by gathering my usual designers around me. If the original text is manageable, they read it; but I have a tendency to make plays from source material that could be as many as five...


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pp. 25-35
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