Closing a Chapter: Writing about Justified Sinners

ls

Get it? Chapters, closing? Nobody will miss my humour.

Something finally happened today that I didn’t think was possible: right now, I am completely and utterly tired of talking about Justified Sinners. In hindsight, I should have anticipated this happening. Since I first started this project more than two years ago, I wrote and edited (and edited, and edited) the script, wrote twenty blog entries, applied for six staging opportunities, and then, fortunately, promoted and advertised the production that followed. I have written the words “Justified Sinners” so many times that I am starting to fear that it’s a terrible title (it’s too late, so please don’t tell me if I’m right). But although the play’s writing and staging processes certainly expended a lot of energy, writing about the play for a chapter in my dissertation has completely spent my last reserves.

When it came time to write the chapter about this play-in-performance, it was a little tough for me to get started. My own involvement in the project made it impossible to be objective and documenting how the creative team felt about my script or dramaturgical work made me feel vain and embarrassed. Additionally, because I knew the people involved in the production and wanted to preserve all their amazing work, it was hard not to expand on every single part of the production. The same went for the script; knowing this play as well as I do, I felt compelled to explain every reference, allusion, or word choice. The result: my first draft of this chapter is 142 pages long. Aces.

The long and gut-wrenching editorial process to come will need to substantially cut that page number, but I am currently sitting on an overly-long, over-wrought, and over-extended telling of Justified Sinners’ journey from page to stage. Uncut, uncensored, and unreadable. Consider it the unsolicited director’s cut that nobody ever requested. Accordingly, the writing process for this chapter/monster felt less like thoughtful, grounded critical writing and more like a particularly painful act of purgation. But, given the deeply personal nature of this project, I don’t know if it was ever going to feel comfortable to write about something I loved so much. Thus, as it currently stands, the chapter itself is a cringe-inducing ugly cry: too vulnerable and rambling for anyone to handle (see also: my answers to every question during our talkbacks). Again, I am placing a lot of hope in the future editing process to pull this one together into something readable, but I do feel optimistic that the end result will be a chapter that comes close to a coherent re-telling of this play’s story.

And so, at least for now, I am temporarily waving good bye to my beloved blog. For two years, I have poured my secret hopes and dreams, my insecurities, my progress, my setbacks, and my puns into this meagre Word Press site. When my husband suggested that I maintain a blog to document my playwrighting process, I was initially skeptical, doubting that I had anything valuable or interesting to write: who wants to hear what someone who doesn’t know how to write a play has to say about trying to write a play? But what I soon realized is that this blog was more for me than anyone else (although the fact that anyone in this world has read even one of these entries continues to melt my heart). It did not take long at all for this blog to become an essential component of my writing process: my own digital safe-space that I could crawl into and a repository that would preserve my discoveries and developments with judgment or censure. When the play finally moved into its staging process, this blog came with me into rehearsals and allowed me to keep track of those wonderful three weeks, which proved to be such an absolute whirlwind. Finally, when it came time to write my dissertation chapter about Justified Sinners in performance, this blog again proved to be an invaluable resource by allowing me to recall the writing and staging processes with greater detail and immediacy. As bizarre as it might sound, this blog has been a cherished friend to me during these last two years that helped me keep hope for my play alive as it accompanied me across the country, at conferences, and ultimately, during the play’s staging.

To be honest, I’m sure I won’t stay away from here for long and my energy to talk about the play, its gorgeous production, and where it might go from here will soon replenish. And I know this blog will be waiting, ready to listen to even more ramblings or crazed machinations about the Shelleys. But for now, I think I have typed the words “Justified Sinners” enough for a little while. I also think that any loved ones who might still be lovingly visiting this blog might likewise by tired of my rantings and have earned a well-deserved break. Having said that, if anyone should encounter this blog at any point and want to learn more about the Shelleys, Romantic Biodrama, or Justified Sinners in performance, my email inbox is always open and I am always so happy to help.

Until I do return to this blog, if you are reading this, then thank you. Thanks to everyone who made all this possible and who supported this project from its hair-brained beginnings to its incredible realization onstage as an honest-to-goodness real play. Thanks to the fabulous creative team and my unbelievably supportive supervisory committee. Thanks to Taylor and Anyssa, both of whom have been this blog’s readers since the beginning and encouraged me and my Microsoft Paint graphics since I was making “Schrodinger’s script” jokes. Thank you to the many loved ones, colleagues, professors, and friends who came to see the performance and said kind things.

And to anyone who reads this, please know that your help, support, and patience have helped make this little Shelleyan exceedingly happy and I am forever grateful to all of you. You have honestly made this little Romanticism-lover’s dream come true.

 

Talking Back

I realize the lyrics of this song are “don’t talk back,” but I assume they aren’t prescriptive.

I’ve always enjoyed a good talkback. When I was a very young girl in Brownies, my troupe attended a production of The Secret Garden and there was a talkback with the creative team after the performance. Shamefully, seven-year-old Brittany spent most of that time posing question after question to the patient group (“Is it hard for you to act mean onstage?” You know, real gotcha journalism). Since that first experience with a Q and A period, I have fortunately had several opportunities to participate in talkbacks from the other side of the stage and my joy for the experience has not diminished in anyway. I always love getting the opportunity to talk about the creative process behind a play that I have spent so much time working on and discussing what I have learned along the way. I think talkbacks are useful and interesting for both audiences and creative teams, especially in a university context where so much can and should be learned from both sides. And so, when my committee member and co-dramaturg for this production suggested we hold a talkback after each performance that he would generously facilitate, I must admit that I was absolutely tickled.

For a life-long lover of talkbacks, getting the chance to have one centered around Justified Sinners was a surreal treat and made the experience feel real in an entirely new way. It also revealed to me that I still hadn’t fully come to grips with the fact that my play had been staged and audiences had willingly come to view it. Accordingly, when people were actually asking questions about the play I wrote and my writing process, I was constantly asking myself, “But why? Who the heck am I? There are so many amazing playwrights in the world, why are you asking grubby little me about my small story?” This line of mental questioning continued for me as the actors and director were discussing their first impressions of the script and how I had developed the characters. Still, I couldn’t help but wonder, “why was something I wrote worthy of this kind of attention or interest from so many talented people?”

TB2

As Wordsworth would say, I was in full “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” mode.

TB1

In listening back to the recordings from the talkbacks (something I only reluctantly do, since I still get flushed hearing them) I can sense my obvious anxiousness regarding the unworthiness of my little script (a nagging problem for me). I also admit that I still torture myself over the sappy, soppy mess that I became thanking everyone for all their fantastic work. Regardless, these recordings are important touchstones in the staging process and reflect where I was in that key moment (namely, insecure, excited, and unspeakably thankful). Our fantastic facilitator posed excellent questions and he was right that these talkbacks were invaluable for me and will greatly inform the chapter that I am no writing about the play-in-performance.

Most importantly, these recordings help document my colleagues’ truly wonderful insights on the play and production process, responses that deserve to be preserved and showcased here. So listen for their answers, feel free to chuckle at my unnaturally loud voice and overflow of emotions, and please feel free to send any additional questions or comments that spring to mind. After all, the best talkbacks should inspire continuing conversation so they never really end.

*I apologize in advance for the quiet audio on the August 30th talkback. Go figure that it took me a night to realize that I should place the recorder under my chair and not across the theatre.

Justified Sinners in Performance

Poster Picture

A photo of me and the show poster that my awesome sister-in-law took during the run. Obviously, I was miserable.

If you would have told me a year ago that Justified Sinners would be staged at the University of Alberta, I would not have believed you. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I don’t trust you it’s just impossible to believe that so many people would produce my script and that so many others would willingly attend its staging. And yet here we are: two weeks after a successful run of the show. The play has been staged, the performances were all amazing, and I remain firmly in the afterglow of the entire magical experience. But before I get too ahead of myself, let’s step back to the last week of rehearsals and the days leading up to the performance so that I can offer my own humble take on everything.

Our last week of rehearsals was a fantastic whirlwind of excitement and new discoveries. Character development continued, production elements were integrated, and lines were (miraculously) memorized. Watching it all take shape, it felt like a beautiful symphony being conducted and there was an electricity in the room as all the pieces fell into place. The creative team’s flexibility and openness was reflected through their continued willingness to explore, unpack, and adapt, up until the show’s opening. For example, our director attuned that the Shelleys’ first meeting at the beginning of the show needed to be re-worked and he wisely advised Mary to resist Percy’s initial advances and to start out by being incredulous that her husband had really returned. Additionally, the script includes several returns to the Shelleys’ memories and, in our final rehearsals, two of these scenes were still presenting some issues for the actors. Specifically, Percy’s nightmares were proving to be challenging and we were still working out the best way for the actors to conceive of these dream sequences, how they could be portrayed most clearly to the audience, and how to depict Percy’s real-life vision of himself strangling Mary. In our last rehearsal before we entered tech, the actor playing Mary then proposed that we work through, re-visit, and clarify the blocking of these scenes and I was so happy that she expressed her desire to fix this section and that our director was open and willing to find a new solution to the staging of these dreams. In the end, a new approach was found that brought the scene closer to the initial stage directions in the script and I was again reminded of how a solid, trusting, and open team can work wonders together—even in the last rehearsal.

From there, we moved to tech and dress rehearsal and things continued coming together in an exciting way. Water and paper played a major role in this production and things really started to come to life once we were finally able to add those two design elements for the actors to play with. The addition of the aquariums, large stacks of pages, papers copied from Percy’s notebooks (our designer’s own elegant touch) and stacks on stacks of books that our director fortuitously discovered and adopted from the art department all transformed the play and added a visceral materiality to the production that made the mise-en-scène feel real and lived-in. Further getting things into place, the major set pieces were slowly brought in until we had our beautiful set in place and the rises and seats were installed, which made it feel like a performance space that was finally ready for an audience.

Set

A little taste of our phenomenal set design by Sarah Karpyshin.

Then suddenly, after a blur of intensive and condensed rehearsals over two weeks in Edmonton, it was time for the play to open. As you well know, patient reader, I have been on this journey of writing and staging Justified Sinners for two years, but I still didn’t feel ready for the play to open. Don’t get me wrong, I felt utterly and completely confident in the work the creative team had done, excited to share it, and looking forward to “letting it take flight,” as Percy says in the play. But I was filled with jitters and I calmed my nerves in the only way I know how: crafting and making little Frankenstein-themed gifts for the creative team.

Franken-cup

Again, I clearly hated all of this.

After my little pre-show craft therapy, I was as ready as I could be for opening night. It was time to share my little monster with the world, time for the creative team to open their amazing production to an audience. Moreover, I was heartened to know that I would have so many friends and loved ones there to support me, so I knew I had nothing to fear.

As I have repeatedly noted, this entire experience has been surreal and expectation shattering, but nothing could have properly prepared me for what it was like to see Justified Sinners in performance. I never aspired to be a playwright and my critical writing is so often a solitary, private act that is only shared with one (or maybe two) readers. Conferences have given me the opportunity to share my writing with a more public audience, but those experiences did not prepare me for the feeling of seeing this play staged for three audiences. I felt immensely proud, and surprised, and exposed, and elated. It was terrifying and exciting and so much more than I hoped the experience would be. As an audience member, I felt deeply connected to the performance, since I was both the playwright and a witness to the production process as a dramaturg. But in addition to this connection, I also experienced a sense of disinterested detachment, in the Kantian sense. I felt like, watching it alongside three audiences of individuals who were experiencing the play for the first time, that I too was seeing the characters, the performance, and the source material with new eyes as if for the very first time. I learned so much in watching the play each night and I was unspeakably proud of the production and honoured that I was associated with the amazing story that was created anew each night.

My next blog will delve further into the performances by discussing the talkbacks that were held after each performance. I will also include the audio recordings of each talkback Q&A so you can get a taste of what it was like to be there for those conversations. In time, additional resources will contain to trickle in and I will write new entries about the post-show journey, including writing the dissertation chapter. Keep staying tuned and thank you for your support!

Editor’s Note

Edits Collage

Pictured above: Some of my notes from a script revision phone call with my director. Word of advice: find generous collaborators and trust them.

Since I am writing this post in the middle of the rehearsal process, I thought now would be a good time to check in and discuss the script’s continuing development by picking up where we last left off with the state of the text itself. When I last addressed the script in the blog, it was to note that I had met with the production team and that the meeting had inspired me to return to editing:

Through my conversations with him and meeting the cast, I was given ideas and inspiration for how I could continue developing the script with an eye to its staging. As I result, I have since returned to the play to make some edits and revisions (which is so much easier when you know that it will actually be performed!) and I think it is now the strongest it has ever been (or, at the very least, I am feeling good about it).”

Or perhaps it is fairer to say that is the reaction I wish I would have immediately had. Because in truth, dear reader, but it took me a little while before I got to a place where I was “feeling good about” the script. It is certainly true that I left that meeting feeling very happy to have met the great team and terribly excited to get started on staging. But, in the spirit of candor and full disclosure, I must confess that I felt a little sad and disappointed in myself that my play wasn’t ready yet and that more work needed to be done before the process could begin. After spending nearly two years and countless hours researching and torturing myself over this play and willing it into existence (see: this blog), I felt like maybe, possibly my job was done. Of course, that was silly of me. Some playwrights* (*actual real playwrights, not me) spend the better part of their lives working on a play, including the many stages of writing, re-writing, holding staged readings, then full productions, remounts, revisions, etc. and they still don’t feel that they are really done. But my naivety and inexperience in this role allowed me to feel assured that this script was not only viable, but fixed in its current state. Ready to go and Broadway-bound—I was Pinter, Shakespeare, and Mamet rolled into one! Well, not quite. But I was feeling pretty confident about it.

And because of my delusions, when my director kindly initiated a healthy, supportive, and generous dialogue with me about the script, I initially read his interest in making the play the best it could be as a confirmation of my persistent fear that I was out of my element and this whole thing was a mistake. Does this sound like an overreaction to you? That’s good, it probably should. I can claim that I am brand new to creative writing, but I have spent eleven years in post-secondary school (dear Lord) and constantly contending with constructive criticism is certainly the norm here. And again, I must be clear that this initial conversation was not critical at all. Far from it. Instead it was collaborative, well-informed, and absolutely necessary. But alas, I am a highly spookable creature. I could try my best here to rationalize my choice to initially cower in fear (and believe me, I have), but the reality of the situation is that I am a sensitive writer who is precious with her words, protective of her efforts, and always quick to assume that any feedback means that both me and my work are “bad.” Should I have a thicker skin by the end of my fourth university degree? Without question! But I’m just being honest. The fact is that I am horribly unkind to myself as a writer and quick to interpret any input as a well-deserved and inevitable scolding. As the adage goes, “know thyself,” and this is perhaps especially true when the “self” in question is an ultra-sensitive, little flower.

But let’s leave my wallowing for now, I certainly have. Fortunately, it wasn’t long after this initial feeling of self-loathing that I set to work on listening to my director’s advice and returning to the script to set about making it “the strongest it has ever been” (as I now believe to be true). Most of my editing took place when I was back home in Calgary and staying with family meant that I had to steal away moments whenever I could to work with the script and I hid in many different locales to finish my writing (coffee shops, my car until it was broken into, etc.). In looking over the script again, the points my director made became exceedingly clear to me too. For example: what was Mary’s overall arc in Justified Sinners? My initial decision to bold the text adapted from the Shelleys’ journals really did impede the fluidity of the language. And because I had initially written the play without a concrete production, audience, or even actual actors in mind, I really had lost a sense of how certain moments could be performed, the beats of each scene, and which passages were repetitive. I could see for myself now that all that was true and that there were many other things I wanted to reimagine now that I knew it would be a performance text and not a closet drama.

And so, once I wrestled with my pride for a minute and pinned it, I started to implement the changes suggested by my director and worked to make the script much stronger in the process. More importantly, as I worked through these questions and flagged passages, I made even more qualitative changes that refined the story and I continued to explore the poetry of the Shelleys’ words. In time, I really did come to love the script more and I became prouder of it with each new draft.

That version of the play from early July was not the last iteration of the script. No, but it was the draft that the actors first received and I’m glad they got to meet it at that later stage in its development. After those revisions, which had really changed a lot about the play itself, the suggestions that came later from my director were primarily about individual lines, rather than the overall arc of the narrative. In a phone call that he and I had only a few weeks before rehearsals began (and from across several provinces), we spoke for over an hour and he continued to generously offer feedback on the latest draft of the text. I specifically remember our discussion of how there were too many questions in the play and how, for the height of the conflict, it should maybe be Mary who brings the action to a head, rather than Percy. Where initially I was reluctant, and even saddened, by any suggestions and misread them as critiques, I was now invigorated, eager, and ready to apply these changes, trusting in him as a co-collaborator on this project. For me, this marked the change from thinking of Justified Sinners as my play, my fledgling theatre baby that I needed to defend and protect, to realizing that, now that it was being staged, it would be our project. And thankfully, the initial sense of fear and hesitancy this realization brought out it me soon gave way to joy and excitement. Let’s chalk that realization up to one of the many benefits of experiencing Romantic Biodrama as a practitioner and not just a theorist.

Once rehearsals formally began, and we had a working version of the script to engage with, we commenced with a full reading of the text with the actors. As I listened, I felt a sense of real pride and accomplishment and I was so genuinely grateful for the feedback I initially received from a member of my supervisory committee and then from my director in our thorough follow-up conversations. After the reading, my director noted a section where the energy of the piece began to lag and things started to get a little repetitive. He asked me to look at it again and this time, I felt only a momentary twinge of embarrassment that the team had heard my “flawed” play. Once that moment of fear passed, I immediately set to work in that very same rehearsal and tried to clean that section up. Once again, I really think that part flows much better now. Its almost like feedback, other points of view, and experiential knowledge are all amazing things!

As the rehearsal process has continued, my presence in the room has meant that I can address any questions that come up about the script or clarify meaning wherever necessary. Usually, this means that one of the actors or the director will ask me what I mean (or, more often, what one of the Shelleys meant in the case of adapted text). Sometimes an explanation will clarify things for everyone, but wherever it does not, I will suggest a change to the script and implement it right there. No time to think, query, or reflect on what a bad “playwright” I am for having missed a mistake or waiting until now to make the change. No time to linger on the fact that my actors and director are all also playwrights and might think my words are terrible. No time to punish myself or imagine that everyone secretly hates that they are part of this play (well, no time in that moment anyway…progress, not perfection).

When I set out to write this play, I always imagined that the script would be an object in flux and that changes would need to be made in the rehearsal hall to better suit the sound of the language. I am relieved that I have finally reached that point in the process (or at least something close to it) and that I am being less hard on myself (I still am, of course, but just a little bit). With only a couple of rehearsals left before the play opens (!), my role will increasingly become smaller in the production as the cast and crew continue to take over and make this production completely their own. Very soon, the script will become the fixed text I prematurely assumed it was months ago. Except really, although I may have written the play, it feels silly to think of myself as some monolithic playwright who “composed” the play text. After all, this project first began as an experiment in adaptation and the Shelleys own words still form the basis of the script. From there, I received excellent guidance from a member of my supervisory committee (who is still working with me as the production’s co-dramaturg and all-around founder of the feast). After that, my director gave me invaluable advice and generously shared his experiential knowledge on several drafts. And now that the play is going to be staged, his direction, the actors’ own interpretations and unique depictions of the character, and the tireless efforts of the entire production team will make the play into something so much bigger, better, and more beautiful than anything I, or any one person, could write for the stage.

I suppose then, to conclude this rambling and unsolicited treatise/confessional, that is yet another realization I have had from being involved in this staging process. It seems that, because theatre is an inherently collaborative medium and the production process is at its best when it is kept flexible, responding to the needs, ideas, and interests of the individuals working together to bring the play to life. I have found, in my own small, single experience as a playwright, that this also extends to the script itself and that rigidity and sensitivity are death to creativity. I am sincerely glad to have learned that lesson (for the sake of the play and for myself). Now I just need a thicker skin and I will really be in business.

Justified Sinners Opens in ONE WEEK!

Monument

One day I will stop using Microsoft paint to desecrate the Shelleys. But today is not that day.

Friends! Albertans! Shelleyans! Lend me your ear!

I am so beyond thrilled to tell you that Justified Sinners is finally here and will be staged at the University of Alberta in Edmonton next week! If you have even accidentally bumped into me in the past year, you have probably been made privy to this fact already, but this serves as a formal announcement that this little monster is finally coming to life in a big way. Thanks to the best creative team anyone could ask for, the show will be opening on August 30th. Here are the details:

When: August 30th, 31st, and September 1st at 7:30pm

Where: Second Playing Space at the Timms Centre for the Arts

Cost: Absolutely free, just come on down! (Plus, it is only one act long, in case you have theatrical commitment issues)

As this blog and website have documented, this project has been such an absolute labour of love for me. I am extremely proud of this little-play-that-could, but even more proud of the fantastic work done by the actors, director, designer, stage manager, my supervisory committee, and everyone who has made this a wonderful theatrical production.

If you can make it out, I would be so grateful to see you there! If not, tune in to the blog for all my thoughts/gushing about this production process and the amazing people with whom I had the opportunity to work.

Rehearsing the Shelleys

keep-calm-its-rehearsal-time

Someone probably made this for a wedding rehearsal. The internet is a funny thing.

Greetings from inside the production process for Justified Sinners! If you have even briefly spent time with me or this blog, you know how long I have hoped and wished that I could take part in bringing my play to life. And now, I am finally and joyfully able to report that the journey from page to stage is well underway and we are nearly a week into rehearsals.

Right before rehearsals began, I had the pleasure of attending the annual NASSR (North American Society for the Study of Romanticism) conference in Ottawa. There, I was fortunate enough to listen to papers by many outstanding Romanticists, meet some wonderful people, and speak about contemporary Romantic Biodramas (you know, nothing fun or thrilling for me). After I presented my paper, someone came up to me and, during our conversation, I mentioned that I had written a play about the Shelleys and that it would be going in to production later that week. Something about saying it aloud to someone, realizing the impending start of rehearsals, or seeing a real-life Romanticist’s enthusiasm over the project made me giddy and grateful all over again that I would get to take part in this once-in-a-lifetime process.

Now, to stay true to my intention of making this blog into a process journal for the creation of a Romantic Biodrama, I felt it was necessary to briefly descend from “Cloud 9” (aka my permanent home during this staging process) to offer some insight and perspective on how the rehearsal process has been so far. Brace yourselves, I have built up a lot of thoughts and feelings.

As I write to you, we have completed nearly a week of rehearsals, discussions, blocking, and character exploration. Because of the sheer insanity of my creative team’s schedules (staging a play during Edmonton fringe is a suicide mission, but they are so unbelievably stoic and dedicated to all their many projects), a two-week-long staging process made the most sense for the group. And so, we began rehearsals on August 16th, just two weeks before our August 30th opening. To accomplish the necessary work during this limited time frame, we have primarily held full-day rehearsals, usually from 9-5.

In my former life, I had some experience as an actor and I have endless empathy and respect for my phenomenal actors, who (alongside their other projects and responsibilities) are charged with the task of learning blocking, lines, and building characters in such a limited amount of time. Again, having the world’s best creative team is imperative here, since any actor will tell you that this is a Herculean task, made even more challenging by the play’s poetry, monologues, sometimes-sticky dialogue, and the obvious pressures of any show with only two performers. They spend an hour onstage reciting so many lines and going through the ringer (emotionally and physically speaking). Needless to say, they are my absolute artist-heroes. In addition to the gift that is dedicated and skilled performers, this rehearsal process has been aided immeasurably by our organized and tireless stage manager and the steady hand and intuition of the wonderful director. These two guiding influences have literally made this all possible and, thanks to them, the two-week rehearsal period will allow for plenty of time to get the necessary work done and produce a play that I am already so proud of (and which I hope they are all equally as proud).

From this acknowledgement of my good fortune in having an excellent creative team and the time constraints and pressures they are daily working against, I want to talk about the format that our rehearsals have taken and outline the structure of our time together thus far. First, we have the could fortune of rehearsing in the theatre where the play will be staged, which is a real luxury, and because we are the only ones using the space, we are able to keep our set pieces out all the time (again, this is highly unusual).

Our first rehearsal (a behemoth eight-hour day for the team) began with a read-through of the script. This was the first time for me to hear the script read aloud by anyone (other than me and my long-suffering husband) and it was genuinely thrilling to hear the actors read it. Additionally, it allowed me to get a bit of distance from the text and really hear all of it for the first time: the good, the bad, and the wordy. After this initial read-through, my director and I discussed our perception of the script and I subsequently made some more edits (a process I will discuss in greater detail in my next entry).

Following our first read-through, we discussed the background of the play and I gave a brief overview of some of the materials I prepared for the group’s research pack. As I detailed in my previous entry, I wanted the team to have those materials available to them, but I didn’t want the documentary record to become prescriptive for them. To that end, our dramaturgical discussion at this point primarily focused on addressing any specific questions that emerged from their first encounters with the play and its supporting materials. I also glossed some key aspects of the Romantic period (especially the perception of the “artist” and “poet genius” at the time) and the Shelleys’ own context (chiefly, the notion of “Romantic sociability” and the important fact that the Shelleys’ lifestyle meant that they were only ever infrequently alone in their relationship).

Once we developed a collective understanding of the play and its historical subject matter, we discussed the production design and some specifics regarding how the play would be staged. While I will discuss design in more detail later (and trust me, it is a real treat) it was amazing to hear about the director and designer’s ideas for how the playing space would look and how they were working to emphasize key elements from the script through their concept (water and paper will be focal and dynamic forces in the design, so my heart is exploding). Design makes it feel real and it was great to hear about their concept early in the process so I could have that in mind.

After the initial groundwork of reading the play, engaging with the subject through my dramaturgical work, and discussing the production design, we immediately began the process of getting the play on its feet and started the blocking process on the first day (again, this rehearsal process has been at warp-speed from the first day). And if that weren’t enough, we managed to cruise through the first fifteen pages of the thirty-three-page script on day one. Yes. That’s right. I keep telling them they are a dream team for obvious reasons.

In addition to the professionalism and skill of our team, another thing that has aided the rehearsal process is that the director and actors have worked together before (earlier this spring, in fact, on yet another historical drama). This sense of trust and understanding between them has greatly expedited the process, allowing them to make connections quickly, respond to each other’s needs in the moment, and to establish a network of positive communication. It has been wonderful to see this in action and to watch them bring this piece to life together through collaborative discussion and an appreciation for one other’s point of view. Because of this positive and productive dynamic in the room, we have completed initial blocking of the play and we held our first full run yesterday. Again, dear reader, if you too have worked in the theatre in any capacity, you will appreciate that starting rehearsals on Wednesday and having a complete run of the play by Sunday is a preternaturally fast turn-around and I am in awe of everything that has happened in such a short amount of time.

Furthermore, while holding a complete run of the play after five days is already a heroic measure, the team’s incredible speed has importantly not come at the cost of depth, nuance, and character development. Accordingly, on Friday we took a break from blocking the play and charting the actors’ movements on stage to complete a fantastic exercise. Our director noted that, in the process of blocking the play and memorizing where you are supposed to be and what you are supposed to be doing in every moment onstage, characterization can often get lost. To help mediate this, we took a break in the formal blocking process after working through the play’s first twenty-four pages. We set up a room on the other side of the theatre, complete with walls, a door, a couch, and a window. The actors could get coffee, get comfortable, and explore the emotional arc of the play without the pressure of sticking to where they had to stand, sit, or walk in any given moment. Working in this new space, which was intentionally created to make them feel at ease and to forget about theatricality and the presence of an audience, the actors ran through the whole script and followed their characters’ emotional journeys and their own impulses. The director, stage manager, and I were there, although we were tucked to the sides and behind furniture to make them feel even more at ease.

Periodically, they or the director would pause what they were doing and take a break to reflect on what had occurred in the preceding section. The director would ask questions about their intentions or emotions and they could pose questions to him (or to me as the playwright and dramaturg, whenever necessary). I had never seen or participated in an exercise like this before and I thought it was an excellent addition to the rehearsal process, especially at this key moment when the actors were still becoming acquainted with their characters, their lines, and what they would be doing onstage throughout the play. It gave them a chance to temporarily forget about the performative element of the story and focus on the emotional beats and relationship that are key to any production, but especially important for this two-hander about two writers and the relationship between them. The director advised them to think about the journeys they had gone on during this exercise and to bring the character arcs they had discovered to their performance. In discussing the exercise with me afterwards, he noted that this method of combining the blocking of the play (which is inherently regimented and orderly) with a purely emotional and intuitive exploration of the material was akin to a process of thesis and antithesis combing together to produce a creative synthesis. In the rehearsals that have followed, this sense of creative synthesis has certainly pervaded the actors’ work and I think this exercise has rendered meaningful results in this highly-condensed rehearsal process.

At this stage, we now have just over a week until the production opens (how is that even possible?). The next step is for the actors to get off-book and the director has asked that they have the first half memorized for Tuesday and the second half for Wednesday. Again, I can’t help but feel intense empathy for them as they accomplish this task and I feel the urge to make every word go away so that I can make their jobs easier. But I have absolute confidence in them and I know that if anyone could memorize the script that quickly, it is certainly them. Once they have the play memorized, we can really delve deeply in the material, refine the blocking, and continue to develop the characters they have already started to create.

As for little old me, I just keep pinching myself, absolutely in awe of the fact that these talented people have all congregated to stage a play that I wrote. I’m trying not to let my nerves dull the pure joy of this process and my next entry will continue to unpack my role in the rehearsal process and my impressions as a first-time playwright (who has been out of theatre for a minute and is not yet used to this new role and all that it entails). My subsequent entries will continue to chart and unpack the staging process but, for now, I wanted to conclude this tome of a blog by again noting that this is a surreal and fantastic experience that I am far too lucky to be having. I am already so proud and excited about this production and I can’t wait for the next (and final!) week of rehearsals.

Bringing the Drama(turgy)

Bloody Poetry 3Cover page for the Justified Sinners Research Pack. As you can tell by now, I am really clinging to the image that I Frankenstein-ed together using scissors, glue, and a scanner

Hello Staging the Shelleys reader(s)!

Now that I have cleaned up all the confetti from my “THE PLAY IS HAPPENING” revelry, I am returning to you with some follow-up information and to let you know what has been happening so far in the early staging process.

As I mentioned in my last post, the fact that Justified Sinners is getting staged is extremely exciting, but that news is made even more thrilling by the fact that the creative team working on it is fantastic. Far from mere speculation or wishful hoping, I have the good fortune of knowing that the team is amazing because I have already met with most of them. While back in Alberta visiting family, I hopped up to Edmonton for a preliminary production meeting with the director, stage manager, and actors that will be working on the show. Now I must remind you that, up until this point, it has mostly been my script and I taking on the world together (and, again, losing fringe lotteries galore). And so, getting the chance to talk to the people who would be involved in staging the play was a real thrill for me. Better still, I also got the opportunity to discuss some design and production concept ideas with the director and I am beyond excited already for what he has in mind. Additionally, through my conversations with him and meeting the cast, I was given ideas and inspiration for how I could continue developing the script with an eye to its staging. As I result, I have since returned to the play to make some edits and revisions (which is so much easier when you know that it will actually be performed!) and I think it is now the strongest it has ever been (or, at the very least, I am feeling good about it).

And fortunately, even though I feel that the script is in a good place, I don’t have to say good bye to it and give it up to the creative team for staging. Because I am interested in both the composition and staging of Romantic Biodramas, my journey with this play isn’t over yet and I get to continue documenting its transition from page to stage. Accordingly, I am lucky to be part of Justified Sinners’ first production, for which I am serving as a production dramaturg (alongside a member from my supervisory committee, who also happens to be a professional dramaturg).

This will mark my second experience as a dramaturg for a Romantic Biodrama, the first being in 2014 for Howard Brenton’s Bloody Poetry (1984). The play was being staged at the University of Calgary, where I completed my first three degrees, and the experience allowed me to work with familiar faces from the drama department. It also allowed me to try on the “dramaturg” hat for the first time, which was both exciting and intimidating. Up until that point, I had primarily been involved in theatre as an actor and it was strange to take on a different role with its own unique challenges. Additionally, it required me to devise a dramaturgical strategy that would work best for Brenton’s play and help the student-actors and designers understand the historical subject matter.

Working with the wonderful director for the production, we decided that the best initial introduction to the material would be a “guided read-through” of the play with the whole creative team present. This involved the actors reading their lines and allowing anyone to stop at any point if there were questions, suggestions, or areas that needed clarification. For example, in order to understand the relationship between Byron and John Polidori, it was necessary to discuss Polidori’s background, as well as his tragic life after the events of 1816. Following that exercise, I created an annotated e-script for the creative team, which provided explanatory notes, elaborated on references, or clarified where Brenton had diverged from the established documentary record. The annotated e-script (hopefully) gave the creative team a version of the text that offered more information, clarification, and explanation than they would have otherwise had. Of course, after the first guided read-through, the choice was up to each of them as to whether or not they employed those resources. But it was my hope that they would have a guide to turn to (in addition to me or their director), if they wanted or needed more information during the development process:

Bloody Poetry 1

Bloody Poetry 2

A page from the annotated e-script created for the 2014 production of Bloody Poetry at the University of Calgary 

Transitioning then to the dramaturgical process for Justified Sinners, I don’t yet know what the rehearsal process will involve, but I do know that our tight turn-around time (rehearsals beginning in mid-August and the play opening at the end of August) necessitates that the creative team is given materials to work with sooner rather than later. To that end, once the director sent the script to the actors, designer, and stage manager, I also sent a research pack for them to have on-hand as they become acquainted with the play and its characters.

Although my dramaturgical work with Bloody Poetry resulted in the creation of an annotated e-script, I thought it best to go in a different direction for Justified Sinners for a number of reasons. First, because of the production timeline and the importance of the month between the actors receiving their scripts and beginning rehearsals, I thought it was best to provide them with an explanatory resource with which they could fully engage on their own time. Second, although Justified Sinners and Bloody Poetry are both Romantic Biodramas, they approach the Shelleys’ lives through different scopes and scales. Bloody Poetry included other members of the Shelley circle and loosely traced the timeline between the Haunted Summer of 1816 and Percy’s death in 1822. Along the way, Brenton dramatized many historically-established events and introduced important texts and figures that required further explanation and context throughout. Justified Sinners is a comparatively small story featuring only Mary and Percy. Furthermore, the action takes place after Percy’s death and the play dramatizes an imagined conversation between the couple, rather than treating any specific, known events in their lives. Consequently, although the history of the Shelleys’ lives, writing, and context is necessary to staging Justified Sinners, a broader approach and the cultivation of a general knowledge-base about the subject is perhaps more useful in this case. That is my approach to the dramaturgical work at this point, although that could certainly change and others may find a different strategy more useful once we get into rehearsals. The important thing to me at this point was equipping the creative team with some information and links to further reading and soon we will see where we want to go from there.

Accordingly, I have compiled an information and resource pack to accompany the play. Located on the website under the “Dramaturgy” section, it includes information regarding historical context, the setting of Justified Sinners, and a list of key figures that are referenced in, or important to, the play. It also includes explanatory suggestions for further reading, including primary sources written by the Shelleys themselves, and key secondary sources that they may want to consult. As I noted in the email to the creative team accompanying the research pack, the characters and world that they create will take on a life of their own far beyond the established documentary record, and the historical Mary and Percy Shelley will serve as a point of inspiration for their wholly lived-in dramatic portrayals, which will be unique to them. But I hoped that reading the play with that context and information, however much they choose to engage with it, could perhaps serve as a useful point of departure for their work.

And so, I leave things there for the time being. It is exciting to know that this blog will be filled with more reflections on the staging process as it proceeds, but for now I leave the script and research with the creative team until we meet again. I am confident that my work as playwright and dramaturg is not yet over, but I am very happy to know that I have a whole team of lovely and inspiring collaborators that will be bringing this play to life in just over a month.

 

 

Spoiler Alert: It. Is. Happening.

 

                                                        Mary and Percy

       Wow, you have to work really hard to make the Shelleys look celebratory

Maintaining a process journal is great for keeping you honest. Sometimes when you are working on a project, you can lie to yourself (your parents, your supervisor, etc.) about where you are at, what you have accomplished, and how you feel about your progress. But if you have thirteen pre-existing blog entries to tell you exactly what you felt at every stage, then you have a harder time lying to yourself. You can try, of course. But it is harder.

And so, if you have read any of the preceding blog entries, then first of all: thank you. Second, don’t you know that the internet is full of many wonderful and exciting things to read that are better than my ramblings about the Shelleys? And third, you will know that I am telling the truth when I say that I had crippling doubt about the possibility of my play ever getting staged.

As you also know then, patient reader, this play began as a simple experiment in Romantic Biodrama in which I was attempting to apply my research work to writing a play about the Shelleys. It therefore began as a modest proposal that didn’t have to amount to more than just a draft of an attempt. But as I came to love my little play, and my supervisory committee continued to kindly support my creative venture, I began to envision a brighter future for my little one-act. One where I could see it in action and participate in staging the little guy.

From there, what began as a potential appendix in my dissertation became the focus of a chapter (which I still need to write, do remind me). From there came various attempts to get it staged and my well-documented failures playing the Fringe lottery (blog posts never let you forget anything). But as my last post alluded to, a flicker of hope persisted thanks to the fact that I received more supervisory support than I could ever deserve.

Well, kind reader, I am happy to report that, thanks solely to history’s best supervisor committee, Justified Sinners is getting staged this summer. My little theatre baby actually gets to debut to the world and I could not be happier or more grateful. What’s even better is that one of my committee members (who not only organized everything but will also be on as one of the production dramaturgs) has assembled a phenomenal group of artists to bring this little monster to life. I’m sure a whole new crop of worries will spring up around the production process (namely, the idea of people hearing what I wrote, which is admittedly spooky) but I am excited to quash those fears, thanks to my absolute confidence in the amazing creative team.

So, mark your calendars, folks: University of Alberta, August 30, 31st, and September 1st. More details (and squealing with joy) to follow!

A New Hope

A New Hope

 Contact me for your future photoshop needs.

Long time, no post! Last we spoke, I was busy wringing my hands as I cursed the Fringe lottery system and questioning where my little play would go from here. Well, what a difference five months can make. Or, at the very least, what a difference that time has made for my state of mind regarding this whole project.

To begin, I have been busily working on my dissertation. While I would love to dedicate all my writing time to lovingly tinkering with Justified Sinners, there is also the small matter of composing the rest of my doctoral project. Although updates about students’ writing progress are rarely thrilling to hear (unless you are a worried family or committee member of said student) I am happy to note that things are going well and I am genuinely enjoying the process so far. But my reason for bringing up my larger research project here is because, during a meeting with my wonderful supervisory committee to discuss my progress, we had some very exciting discussions that directly relate to the potential fate of Justified Sinners.

The key takeaway from our conversation was that they felt it was important for my play to be staged in some form as part of my doctoral project and that they wanted to actively help make that happen. Believe me, I had to suppress my excited squeals as they discussed how they each wanted to contribute to the future staging process.

As you, patient reader, know well from my accounts of the playwriting and development process thus far, this play has been a labor of love for me. However, the process has not been without its trials and tribulations. Primarily, without any hope of possible staging or confirmation that I was producing anything of potential value or interest, I admittedly became resigned about the fate of my little play. However, after that very encouraging committee meeting, my heart is filled with renewed hope.

In a follow-up meeting with one of my committee members (who is also a dramaturg, because I am the luckiest person) we discussed the script further and talked about how I could think about adapting my current play draft into a working script that we could use for performance. True, it might seem like one shouldn’t need to be reminded to account for how their play could be staged, but, again, I must remind myself that I am still a newborn baby playwright. The practical realities of staging have always been the most exciting, yet most daunting aspect of this project, and I have felt challenged at times by the need to assert my authorial (and even directorial) voice as I write my script. Consequently, to try and remedy this problem, I have been revising the script and reframing it with a renewed focus on how it could possibly work onstage.

Presently then, I am re-working some components of the play to bring a greater sense of immediacy and to flesh out the relationship between the Shelleys. More specifically, this has entailed adapting some of the script’s descriptive passages into acted-out memory scenes, as well as paying attention to what the characters are doing at a given moment (Are they reading? Writing? Drinking tea?). Furthermore, my committee member also pointed out that it is important for me to consider the question of audience as I work through this draft of the play. Throughout the research component of my project, I have paid attention to how a play’s intended audience factors into both how Romantic Biodramas are written and ultimately staged. Accordingly, it is then necessary for me to consider for whom this play is intended. Is it meant for students? Shelleyan scholars? Members of the public? To be entirely honest, I have a difficult time answering this question, which tells me that I still have work to do. Perhaps I will gain greater clarity as I work through these edits but, for now, I am keeping the important question of audience in mind as I broaden my interest in Justified Sinners as a performance text.

After completing my edits on the current draft of my script, I am hoping that we can move towards the early stages of the production process (*fingers crossed*). However, it would be dishonest for me not to admit that I still have my reservations about it ultimately happening. It is certainly not for lack of faith in the miracle workers that are my committee members, but more a nagging feeling that my own meagre play simply isn’t worthy of culminating in anything. Certainly not anything that people would ever want to see, at least. While I acknowledge the continuing importance of doing my best to help ensure this it does come to fruition despite my reservations, I am just scared of getting my hopes up. True, losing out on four fringe lotteries is a still a relatively minor form of rejection, but I am so new to this world and I still can’t imagine my play actually getting staged.

I wonder if perhaps this is how playwrights themselves often feel while they are writing? If my intention in embarking on this playwriting process was to gain a new appreciation of the theatrical process and an intense empathy for writers of Romantic Biodrama, I feel like I have already been successful in that regard. But overall, despite my quiet fears and reservations, I am going to keep trusting that this can and will happen, thanks in large part to the help of people far more capable and talented than me. I am fortunate beyond words to have a supportive committee and I know that they will do everything they can to help my little monster come to life onstage.

The Lottery

250px-the_lottery

This October, while in Las Vegas for my brother’s wedding, I gambled for the first time in my life. I spent three American dollar bills in three separate slot machines and instantly lost them. Suffice to say, I learned my lesson that day that some people simply should not gamble (and I am most certainly one of those people).

Except unfortunately, I did not really learn my lesson that day.

Because first of all, only one month after I willingly converted my three dollar bills into forty-five seconds of bright lights and confusion, I entered my name into a fringe festival lottery.

Secondly, I entered my name into not just one, but two fringe festival lotteries.

And finally, if I’m being completely honest, I entered my name in those same two fringe lotteries last year too.

So I guess you could say that I really, really, really did not learn my lesson when it comes to gambling. But perhaps after throwing my hat into the ring on five different occasions and tallying my losses (three American singles, four rounds of application fees, and an embarrassing amount of misplaced hope) I have finally learned my lesson about gambling for good. In theory, a lottery seemed like a good means to try and get Justified Sinners staged. If I somehow managed to win a spot in a fringe festival, I would have a space and an audience for the play (two things I’m not entirely sure I can easily scrounge up on my own). Additionally, if you lose a lottery, it’s nothing personal and there’s nothing to be too upset about* (*The ending of Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” notwithstanding). And so, knowing that the objectivity of chance meant I that I could actually win a spot in a fringe festival, I have dutifully put my name into the hat four times and watched four accompanying livestream draws with equal parts hope and dread. Although I did not make the cut any of those times, I did accomplish the seemingly more difficult feat of being second-last on the Edmonton wait list last year, only to secure the last spot in both the Calgary and Edmonton wait lists this year. So although I may not have luck on my side, in a sense, I did manage to beat the odds.

However, having just heard the title of my play called out last again, I have to admit that the objectivity of the lottery brought me little comfort in that moment (although a hug and a cup of tea from my amazing fiancé certainly did help me). I promise that I will move on and rally my spirits tomorrow, but tonight, I would be lying if I didn’t admit here how embarrassed I was when I heard the title of my play said aloud. I couldn’t help but remember then that it is just a play that was written by someone who isn’t a playwright and really has no idea what she is doing. Who is insecure about her progress on her dissertation. Who isn’t sure if anyone would even want to see her play if it had gotten in. Who was slightly saddened to hear her little pun of a company name read out loud (Romantic Acts). Who, at this precise moment, isn’t sure how she will ever get Justified Sinners staged. I feel quite mortified even writing all this, but I know I will look back on my past self and my silly catastrophizing, knowing it will all work out okay (because of course it will).

When I began this project I promised that this would be a candid account of my experience as a non-playwright trying to write and stage a play for the first time. Unfortunately, this particular blog entry feels like a bit of a figurative “ugly cry” as I air my disappointment and my current fears about the play. As promised, I will not linger in this feeling past the writing of this blog and tomorrow I will continue being scrappy and trying something else to make things work. At the end of the day, despite my present disappointment, I believe in my project and, honestly, I love my little baby of a play. But if losing endless NHL lotteries to the Oilers, my Vegas gambling binge, and now four fringe lottery losses have taught me anything, I think I might hate leaving things to chance. And the Edmonton Oilers.