Features Guest Column Published 15 February 2013

The Structure of What Changes

Zoe Svendsen concludes our series on dramaturgy with a reflection on her role as a production dramaturg for the Young Vic's production of The Changeling.
Zoe Svendsen

Dark, then light. That’s dramaturgy.

So says the Dutch dramaturg Hildegaard de Vuyst, for whom dramaturgy is characterised by rhythm. To “time”, I would add “space”: the relationship between time and space being at the core of what makes a production work. But as de Vuyst so evocatively suggests, it is when something changes that we sit up and take notice.

Dramaturgy in production encompasses everything that might produce contrast: from scene length and how many characters there are on stage at any given time, to how much those characters affect one another and how they relate to the space. Dramaturgy describes the relationship of each element to the whole. Dramaturgy is structure; the structure of what changes. And once all the decisions that make up that production are in place, it becomes the scaffold that makes performance possible.

There isn’t always a need for a dramaturg, but there is always dramaturgy. Thinking about dramaturgy is often done collaboratively by some or all of the creative team (for example, I once adapted and directed a short story in which the rhythm of the production was structured by the musical composition). In other cases, there’s no need for a dramaturg because the conventions of structure are already clear. An active engagement with dramaturgy therefore implies for me an engagement with theatricality, a desire for the making of theatre to be creative as well as interpretative. It implies that the director, and by association the rest of the artistic team of designers – of space, image, sound, light – are collaborative artists, making a new piece of work. In working with director Joe Hill-Gibbins on The Changeling (read our interview here, for his thoughts on the process) at the Young Vic, therefore, my role was to pursue with Joe a process of thinking beyond the conventions of the roles bestowed by the traditions of the British subsidised theatre. To think fundamentally about the relationship between text, the production concept, and process – and how we could shift these relations to create the sort of work that most excites us.

The Changeling offered fantastic material for experimenting with this method of working and we were delighted to have two tries at it: firstly for a production in the Maria Studio that opened in February 2012, and then for a new version of the production in the Main House in Autumn 2012. The Young Vic is a theatre that is remarkably sympathetic to the notion that working conditions determine how possible it is for theatrical ideas to come to fruition. Such conditions include length of rehearsal process, time spent developing the elements that require technical support (lighting, sound, possibly video), the level of equipment in rehearsal, and so on. These conditions are remarkably similar between different theatres. With the support of the Young Vic, we were able to make minor alterations to the standard conditions, with a significant impact on our capacity to realise the ideas. We were able to develop ideas in workshop, prior to the pressure cooker of rehearsal – and then in rehearsal, to have an unusually long time to realise the ideas in situ, in the actual space of performance. We had access to a full mock-up of the set and costumes in rehearsal (standard on the continent, not necessarily standard in the UK), plus a plethora of stuff that we could try things out with.

At the heart of the production is a reading of The Changeling as a complex riff on a psychological war between sexual control and surrender. It begins with distinct worlds – the “castle” and the “madhouse” – and ends with the qualities of each becoming fused in a tragic vortex. My role as dramaturg predominantly consisted in an extensive long-term conversation with Joe about every aspect of the text and production. It began with pooling ideas, anecdotes, photos and information from contemporary sources, alongside research into sixteenth century notions of madness. It involved much mapping of the play’s shape, in particular the madhouse scenes, with diagrams of scenic structure and its potential spatial structure in performance. This was not what is known as “blocking”, deciding where the characters move to on stage, but rather a process of thinking about the relationship between action and location, about who is on stage when and who they are paying attention to.

The idea was to fashion the components of the rehearsal process from the form of the play itself. The characters are driven by desire and the dramaturgy of the play is structured by the way that they all act, often immediately, on those desires. What Beatrice says of her maidservant Diaphanta could be said of Beatrice herself – and the majority of the characters: “She cannot rule her blood to keep her promise”. Blood here meaning sexual desire. This is no Freudian worldview; the characters are perfectly cognisant of what they want and lose no time in going about getting it (De Flores: “Though I get nothing else, I’ll have my will”). Beatrice has the idea of getting servant De Flores to murder her fiancé Alonzo and less than thirty lines later approaches him about it. De Flores enacts the command immediately – no sooner has Beatrice left the stage than his victim appears, and the tragedy is set in motion.

Middleton, then, is clearly interested in “what next”, rather than “why”: and so we took this forward drive as the motor for the production. To design a rehearsal process, we focused on the elements of the Stanislavskian system that dealt with intention and change. We divided the text up between the “changes” in the action, using rehearsal exercises early on in production to ground moments of change physically in the use of space. Rather than using words like “intention” or “objective”, we called the active aims of the characters “wants”. This focused the actors on the immediate moment of the scene, creating an intensity in the playing, and directing the actors’ attention in a way that reflected the dramaturgy of the play. It enabled them to react as the characters in the moment, to the moment, rather than seek a through-line that would explain their actions in a single psychological trajectory. For the play is written in a modular structure, each part held in tension with the others, but it is not interested in an overarching logic that will explain every aspect of its world. The play is much more interested in (unforeseen) consequences than in causes. We don’t know why Beatrice falls for Alsemero instead of her fiancé Alonzo, and it doesn’t really matter – what matters is that she decides to take extreme action to get what she wants.

Another aspect of the process that allowed us to extract what the play is about, by means other than the analytical, was to create a playground for the actors and thereby to allow ideas to emerge physically, in the moment. We evolved a system of “jamming” – these were freeform improvisations that would use the text as far as possible, but kept every other element open. Simultaneous action, spurious invention, and an immersion in the world were all encouraged.

For example, much of the decision-making process for staging the section known as ‘Wedding Night’ took place as a result of repeated “jamming”. This section was a broad sweep of short scenes and our jams began only with the rule that the characters must do everything in them that they were doing at that point in the play (whether off stage or on). We set the context of the situation being the middle of the party after the day of the wedding. The initial aim was to explore how far we could produce a plethora of simultaneous action. However, trialling the section in this way took us in another direction, to discover just how extraordinarily extreme the characters’ actions were; the lengths they would go to, to save face or get what they wanted. Food (a buffet at the wedding) became the centrepiece of the process, allowing for an expression of the extremity. It created immediacy and, quite simply, a level of mess that made sexual, eating or violent actions visceral and inescapable in a way that no amount of enactment could.

Prior to rehearsals, we took the play apart scene-by-scene and put it together again in the form we thought would work best in performance. We reordered, amalgamated and renamed scenes – there was no longer act one, scene two, but instead ‘The Church’, ‘Madhouse 1’, ‘Wedding Plans’, and so on. A conventional enough rehearsal exercise, but we made it part of the fundamental structure of how we thought about the play’s movement. Once, in between the two productions, I compared our version once more with the original – and was amused at how far we had come full circle. We’d left the original order a long way behind, only for us, unwittingly, to work our way (almost) back to it. But by then the difference was that we really understood what every word was doing.

We set ourselves the challenge from the beginning that we would never cut anything just because we didn’t understand it or see how it fitted in. This stood us in good stead, as there was much in the madhouse scenes that initially perplexed us, as they stand as refracted mirrors to the other storyline, related thematically rather than by any significant causal relation. Joe and I are more used to plays in which there’s a reason for everything, but ultimately we sought to stage Middleton’s imagistic mirroring between plots. Neither world was more “real” or more important than the other. Equally, we would never simply allow text because it sounded nice. If we felt the actor would feel obliged to come up with some explanatory gesture to aid the sense of the line for an audience, then we tried to work out how we could adapt it textually, or allow the situation to do the work. The idea is that the words uttered by the characters are expressive of situation, and what Joe was directing was the situation, not the text.

The result was a production that critics variously described as “Lewdness and lunacy with fast-moving glee… leaves you feeling curiously invigorated” (The Telegraph) or “full of blood-curdling laughter, quick action, and ferocious energy” (Bloomberg). I was particularly delighted that it was clearly hugely enjoyed by the young local audience who were in the majority throughout previews and who were frequently vocal in their appreciation. Film director Quentin Tarantino was invoked a number of times by critics, including by Michael Billington in a Radio 2 round-up. Yet our process was the opposite of iconoclastic in the Tarantino sense; if anything it was about enabling Middleton’s own iconoclasm to emerge. A thorough investigation of dramaturgy allowed us to “serve” the play, expressing with full force the perception of humanity it conveys, but in doing so we moved a long way from the “British” idea of staging classics: because we took the performance form into territory unfamiliar to those used to the speaking of the text being primary.

In the UK, then, the role of dramaturg can signal the desire to move beyond convention; it signifies a conversation about how the very building blocks of the production are shaped, and then pieced together. It suggests that where there is a pre-existing text, it may be tinkered with, retouched as part of an overall expressive act of telling a story. It suggests that the creation of this particular performance won’t take the structure of that text for granted. Indeed, when working on a classic play, I feel that’s at the very heart of my role: not to take anything about the work for granted. Instead, with the director, we think everything through – ask ourselves why the text is shaped in that way, to try and make sure we’ve acquired the fullest understanding of it. And then we let our imaginations run riot, provoked by the rigour of really trying to “get” what’s going on.

Read the Exeunt review of the Young Vic studio production of The Changeling

Read the Exeunt review of the Young Vic main house production of The Changeling

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Zoe Svendsen is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine

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