I have been making work for my company Wayne Parsons Dance for the last four years and have worked with Dramaturg Pooja Ghai and Writer Ankur Bahl throughout the development of each of the companies works. This blog is going to focus on my recent work Vestige and will discuss the specific way in which I collaborated with Pooja and Ankur during Vestige’s development.
With Vestige I set out to make a dance-theatre work that put equal emphasis on movement and text so a very clear and structured narrative was essential. I wanted to tell a story. Pooja has 20 years of experience working as an actor and is now a theatre director and is Associate Director at Theatre Royal Stratford East, London. Her experience made Pooja the ideal dramaturg for Vestige’s development and very much influenced the nature of our collaboration and the development of the work.
Vestige came about through three stages of development; first the conception of the idea and the subsequent research, secondly a period of drafting three ten minute monologues that would underpin Vestige, third a creation period in the studio with the performers to find the characters, learn the script and generate the movement material for the work.
I must confess, before beginning the development of Vestige my assumption was that the bulk of the work a Dramaturg would be doing within a dance work was in the final stage of development- the work in the studio with the dancers. I anticipated Pooja’s work would include the following: analysis of whether the movement was serving the narrative, discussions on whether we were building interesting contradictory relationships between the movement and the text that layered the narrative, and conversations about structure and whether what I was intending to say with the work was, in fact, being communicated. This all happened but the most important work with Pooja happened long before stepping into the studio with the performers.
The first part of the conception stage happened alone. I spent time (unpaid of course) musing about the theme of posthumous fame (the initial starting point) and about what the story was that I wanted to tell. Ankur and I then sketched the narrative arc of each monologue. Ankur knew there were to be four characters in Vestige- one who did not speak named Livia and three who did: a portrait artist, a biographer and a archivist. The idea was that the three speaking characters were all sharing with the audience their memories of Livia and we would hear how they had tried to capture the essence of Livia through their different media. I wanted it to become apparent that they all understood Livia very differently. It was then up to the audience to build an image of who Livia was through the recollections of these three characters who survived her and memorialised her. With this structure established, Ankur then went into a period of research. He interviewed a curator at the Victoria and Albert Museum and a freelance portrait artist to get an insight into what the nature of their work was and the challenges they face when they are making decisions in their work. He also read a lot about the specific challenges of the biographical genre, focusing on its dual purposes: documenting a history and relaying a compelling narrative brought into our conversations. At this point, Pooja was brought into our conversations, so all three of us were fully aware of the objective of the work.
Then began the script writing, and this is where the bulk of the work I did with Pooja and Ankur happened. In my experience, in a dance work that is driven predominantly by movement, the narrative is often crafted in the studio with the performers. With Vestige this crafting happened in the script development meetings with Pooja and Ankur. Together, we all cemented the narrative arc of each monologue, the relationships between characters and the individual life stories of the characters we were going to present. We would dramaturg drafts of the monologues, which included lots of questions about content. Through a process of editing and discussion we streamlined the scripts to create three monologues that, with each word, moved the narrative forward, giving the audience the information they needed to keep the story interesting and engaging. I was well aware of the objectives of the work, but this was the first time I had been involved in the dramaturgical process that happens between Writer and Dramaturg during the development of a script. Lots of learning happened for me here and what a thrill to be part of it! During this dramaturgical process I was always trying to identify what could potentially be ‘said’ through movement, music or design. It was never my intention for the script to tell the whole story, with Pooja and Ankur we made sure that we only heard what we needed to hear. What couldn’t be ‘said’ through movement.
Finally we toke the scripts to the performers. The first session I had with the performers was led by Pooja and myself and was purely focused on character and script work. Pooja and I would unit the scripts with each performer, with the aim of fuelling them with context, back story, intention, subtext, motivation and really helped to give the performers the skills and information with which to tackle the challenge of a ten-minute monologue. Breaking down the text in this way was fascinating, and again, one I learnt so much from. This process gave me so much insight into how I could create movement that potentially physicalised the subtext- the unsaid, all the good stuff behind the text.
This meant by the time I walked in the studio I was well aware of what needed to be crafted to achieve the objectives of the work. After drafting lots of rough movement sketches for each scene, I then cut the monologues up, crafting a new narrative arc for the entire piece that played the monologues off of one another. Once in the studio, Ankur was around to help the performers with context, helping them understand why certain parts of the text were there- a very useful insight indeed. This proved invaluable to the performers and their understanding of what they were saying. Once the movement content was established Pooja would then come and observe rehearsals. Here, her contribution was mainly to continue guiding the performers with their approach to character, text, accents and delivery.
All in all, I think this is might be a slightly unconventional dramaturgical process for dance, which heavily featured the dramaturg and writer. The result was a rich work we are all proud of and you can bet your bottom dollar we will all be doing it again. Keep an eye out for further performance dates in 2018 to catch this exciting work on the road!