Let a Hundred Drafts Bloom: Dramaturgy and Development Process
Monday, July 1, 2013
By Sonia Fernandez
Mao's Cultural Revolution lasted nearly a decade and reshaped the psyche of an entire nation. Christopher Chen imports the zeitgeist from that period into the modern world of his play The Hundred Flowers Project. Reality is upended, history repeated, memory becomes lost and becomes legend. It was quite a ride for audiences who saw the play in October 2012. As the dramaturg on the play, I can say that, looking back after The Hundred Flowers Project's successful run, there were many moments when we felt the metatheatrical zeitgeist leap from the pages of the script into our own reality as a group of artists working on the play about a group of artists working on a play about Mao. That too was quite a ride.
Will Dao, Anna Ishida and Ogie Zulueta in rehearsal for The Hundred Flowers Project. Photo: Pak Han
Dramaturgs are often perceived as the nerds of the theatre, focused primarily on research and theory. And while I will admit to reading a 700-page biography of Mao and comparing it against two other biographies and doing extensive research on the conflicting accounts of the Cultural Revolution, dramaturgy nerds like myself must also bring people skills to work with other artists. A good dramaturg has a mix of the following: resourcefulness, imagination, rigorous curiosity, sense of humor, common sense, gentle skepticism and an ability to listen with generosity. These traits are important in any dramaturgy project, but communication skills in particular are vital in developing new work. I recently worked on a dance theatre project in San Diego that was collaboratively devised and had no set text and no specific narrative. I found that, strangely, the key components of how I approached the project were much the same in as a play project: careful awareness of content and context, watching and listening with attention to personal dynamics as well as stage ones.
Being effective at communication is not an end unto itself, but really a path to developing and maintaining the right kind of relationship with the playwright (and others in the process, including directors and designers) in order to develop a new play. On longer developmental projects like The Hundred Flowers Project, you have the opportunity to build these relationships over time.
It was my relationships in the Bay Area theatre community that led me to working with Christopher Chen on The Hundred Flowers Project. I am a company member with Crowded Fire Theater, and artistic director Marissa Wolf asked me to join the project in the initial stages in 2009. I had also worked in several different capacities with Playwrights Foundation and its artistic director Amy Mueller, who were coproducers on the project. Perhaps most importantly, I knew Chen through his prior works initially presented by Playwrights Foundation. I loved and respected his ambitious, philosophical plays. I had seen readings of Into the Numbers (2007) and Anomienaulis (2009) at the Bay Area Playwrights Festival, and the Central Works production of The Window Age (2009). These plays share with The Hundred Flowers Project an interest in big ideas: the nature of reality, of memory, of indecision, of narrative. Chen's plays are not afraid of asking the audience to think. They grapple with questions that are not often found in work produced by many theatres that tend to favor more accessible realistic dramas.
The politics of new-play dramaturgy can be complex, but ultimately the only person in charge of revising a script is the playwright. Dramaturgs aren't script doctors but sounding boards, first audiences, brainstormers, late-night-email senders, movie and YouTube recommenders. I ask questions that get playwrights to talk about what they are trying to accomplish, so that I can help them hone their vision and focus their goals. I have found that this approach works best in fostering the trust that is necessary, for example, to discuss discarding an idea that seemed important at first but by the tenth or eleventh draft is less so.
The first of many, many drafts I got from Chen was in April 2010. It was apparent that this would be a large and ambitious play, but it wasn't until after the first few drafts that the dramaturgical importance of video, sound and light came into focus. The play would be ambitious both in the themes that it was tackling and in the theatrical apparatus that it would require.
Over the next two and a half years leading up to production in September 2012, I read 23 drafts (according to the number of draft attachments in my email inbox). After most of these readings, I would have a chat with Chen by email or over the phone or, when possible, in person at a coffee shop. We discussed the play's structure, its historical references, its style, its world, its rhythm and the effect of specific changes from draft to draft. The play gradually became clearer and tighter, and we were careful to preserve its mystery.
Developing The Hundred Flowers Project involved more than revising drafts in isolation. Crowded Fire and Playwrights Foundation crafted a developmental plan that included intermittent readings and workshops over the two-and-a-half-year period. Not only did this provide continuous support along the way, but there was always a deadline on the horizon. These periodic benchmarks allowed Chen to hear the play out loud at various key points in the play's development. While many readings were held in private, several were open to the public (Crowded Fire Matchbox Reading Series, November 2010; ACT First Look Series, May 2011; The Lark, September 2011; Magic Theatre's Asian Explosion Festival, February 2012; Bay Area Playwrights Festival, July 2012) and offered the ability to hear the play with an audience, which provided vital information about how the play actually works.
Each reading (public and private) was a helpful step in crafting what became the final version of The Hundred Flowers Project that was produced in October 2012 at Thick House. Playwrights sometimes complain about the endless cycles of readings and workshops (of plays being developed to death) with few, if any, production opportunities that arise from the process. Crowded Fire and Playwrights Foundation had committed to a production when commissioning this play. That meant that each development opportunity was always a step toward the eventual production, making the years-long development process especially worthwhile.
The process was not completely free of rough patches. Perhaps the biggest challenge for me was that I left San Francisco to begin graduate school at UCSD six months after reading the first draft of the play. Many of the meetings with Chen were done remotely over the phone or via Skype or Google Hangout (mostly from San Diego, but once from a conference I was attending in Finland!). I also "attended" a reading remotely through Skype.
The first public reading of The Hundred Flowers Project was part of Crowded Fire's Matchbox Reading Series in November 2010. In what was to become an unfortunate trend, the director who originally signed on to the project could not continue after this initial reading. The director who replaced him got a job offer in another state and also had to drop out. The director who replaced her also had to leave midstream. Desdemona Chiang joined the project in the final stages of development and was able to bring together a strong, singular vision. This points to a particular challenge for small theatres commissioning work for a long development process. It can be difficult to keep a director on board over a lengthy period, and yet it is very helpful for a playwright to be paired with one director over the entire development process. In terms of dramaturgy, creating a rapport with a new director every few months can be challenging.
After the myriad of workshops and readings to develop the script, The Hundred Flowers Project went into a design workshop in June 2012. The purpose for the workshop was to begin to experiment with ways to achieve the complicated technical elements called for in the script. Because the aesthetic goal of the play was to create a theatrically heightened reality with interactive video and sound, the design workshop offered the ability to play with different possibilities and discover which technical elements best serve the play. A number of interesting questions were explored: Does this particular setup of live feed and projection draw away from or support the text? Does the fact that viewers are drawn to an image on a screen more than the live body work for this particular moment? Moreover, how can a small, scrappy nonprofit theatre like Crowded Fire manifest a particular high-tech idea elegantly with the resources we have? In the end, the video design by Wesley Cabral beautifully illuminated the shifting layers of reality.
Before going into production, there was one final important step in the development plan. Chen's play was given two public readings at the Bay Area Playwrights Festival in July 2012, which was fortunately held in the same theatre space that would house the actual production two months later. It was possible to take a few of the technical elements that had been worked on in the design workshop and try them out before an audience. This final intensive workshop and readings resulted in very fruitful revisions over the three-week period of the festival.
Although Chen continued to revise and evolve The Hundred Flowers Project during rehearsals, much of the success of the play stems from the extended and well-planned development process. On the whole, Chen was given the freedom and the time to explore as well as the technical and structural support to harness his creative energies. This made my job as the dramaturg throughout the process more interesting and rewarding.
One of the great rewards of dramaturgy is the relationship that you build with playwrights and the process of exploration and discovery within a script. New-work dramaturgy has shifted my way of being in the world. I am a better listener and a more mindful communicator because of my years of experience talking to artists and working to help them realize their visions. Practicing dramaturgy has taught me to listen to learn and not in order to interject a dazzling response of my own. Dramaturging has also made me more attentive to being open to new ideas and practicing kindness and care when dealing with other artists. Kind of the opposite of Mao.
Sonia Fernandez is a dramaturg, translator and theatre scholar. Sonia has worked with various theatre companies in the Bay Area and San Diego and is currently pursuing a PhD in theatre at UC San Diego.