Everyone knows the classic image:
A queen arrives in a carriage at a royal ball, it’s been raining outside, the carriage driver (obviously with great contempt for the aristocracy has exercised what little power he has and parked the carriage right next to a massive muddy puddle). The queen looks at the puddle and waits for a gallant knight with a strong jaw and shining Pantene locks to step forward and throw his cloak down into the mud for her to walk across, safe in the knowledge that her expensive footwear will remain mud free.
All appalling gender stereotypes aside, let’s have a look at it from the perspective of show creation…
The Queen is the story, all must bow before her, all must be given in service of her, for she is all powerful. The gallant knight is the writer, often on a fools errand, with less money than sense and ever seeking the way to his queen’s often changeable heart. Leaving the carriage driver aside (as the peasantry often are whilst they wait for the revolution) what is left?
In my mind there is one final key element in this moment. The cloak. The one thrown down in the muddy puddle, covered in stains, that allows the queen to pass over the grime and filth untouched and elegant, whilst the knight takes all the glory.
So who is the cloak in story terms?
Ever heard of a Dramaturg?
Unless you work in the industry not many people will have. But they should. It’s one of the most vital roles in story creation. The dramaturg is often the unsung (and underpaid) artist that can mean the difference between a gorgeous elegant story filled with meaning, humour and purpose and a pile of shit-stained first-class arsery.
So I write today in praise of the Dramaturg. And though I refer to myself as a composer & lyricist make no mistake, I am not being selfless, my role as a demanding and relentless dramaturg feeds deeply into every project that I become involved with. Just ask my collaborators.
What does the dramaturg do? It’s easily summed up in one sentence.
They interrogate the story.
They poke it, they squeeze it, they scratch it and identify the cracks when they appear. It is not necessarily the job of a dramaturg to supply the answer to a problem, indeed, if they do (and they are not also one of the writers) their solution will not necessarily be the final correct one. Their job is to identify the problems, the flaws in your writing, the moments where something doesn’t feel quite right. The role requires courage and sensitivity. You have to be able to speak your mind, but you have to do it in a way that recognises the pain and irritation that your words are likely to cause to the one whose work you are critiquing.
A good dramaturg will notice fundamental flaws in structure and moments of tiny detail that should be corrected, they will recognise inconsistency in character and laziness on the part of the writer. They will identify dead wood. They must be ruthless and demanding and the writer should be able to trust them.
In the world of musical theatre it is not enough to be a composer or a lyricist, or a book writer, or a director. You must also become an expert in the art of storyography. You must learn the essence of drama and comedy, of character and story structure. And you must learn how to articulate yourself in a way that it is possible for others to understand. You must try not be defensive (except I always am) and you must have the courage of your convictions (which sometimes I do). You must also have the belief that your critique is simply the beginning of a conversation, it is never the answer itself.
When a composer sets a song, it is the job of the lyricist and book writer to interrogate the setting. When a lyricist writes a lyric, the composer and book writer must do the same. It is often thought that a composer is purely the music guru.
For work to be dramatically strong I think that this is not the case.
A composer must be no less an expert in story than all of the words people. They are, after all, still a storyteller, they simply use a different canvas to paint on. And lyricists and book writers should not be afraid to critique music, if you feel like you don’t have the skill linguistically to talk about what you mean when it comes to music, educate yourself, talk to musicians. Make the time. It’s important. Make it your business to know and your work will be the better for it.
It’s one thing to read all the books in the world on how to write musicals. It’s an entirely different matter when working on an actual show. Musicals are unwieldy beasts, if you think you’ve figured them out I can tell you now… you’re wrong.
Every musical is different. It places different demands upon it’s writers. The biggest mistake you can make as a creator of musicals is to think that just because you’ve written forty musicals you know exactly how to write your forty first. Yes, of course you learn things, you figure stuff out and of course a person who has written 100 musicals is more likely to know what they’re doing than someone who is writing their first. But don’t be fooled. A show will attempt to trip you up at every turn and it is the assumption that you know exactly what you’re doing that will be the reason you fall.
Dramaturgy and story making is a matter of practice and time but it’s also a matter of humility. Think back to the cloak in my first little analogy. A cloak has no agenda, a cloak does not care if it is spattered in mud or soaking wet, there is no glory for the cloak. A cloak is simply a cloak. It is made for a simple purpose (in this case to prevent a queen from getting her feet wet). A dramaturg is simply a dramaturg. You will not be given credit for all of your brilliant feedback, thoughts and ideas. This is difficult to reconcile because we are human, but reconcile ourselves we must.
It is not that a dramaturg shouldn’t care about the work, that’s part of what makes them useful. It’s that they should not care too much for receiving credit for their part in the works success.
So, I write in praise of the dramaturg, I write in praise of all those writers, directors, actors and producers who are also skilled dramaturgs. Your work matters, more than any audience will ever know.
Avoid the narrative icey-berg
Become a decent dramaturg
Without this skill I surely think
Your story ship will surely sink