Episode Two -Dramaturgy

June 27, 2023

Dear listeners and readers,

Thank you for joining us for the third episode of The Impossible is Only the Untried : a Prologue Podcast with Mandy E. MacLean.

In this episode, we learn about dramaturgy and what it entails. We also pose the question, how can dramaturgy help us illuminate discoveries in this process?  We also get to meet Leah Holder, a fabulous new play dramaturg!

Listen to the episode on Buzzsprout or click the audio player below.


(student voices) WRMS. W. Ross Macdonald. W. Ross Macdonald School. WRMS. W. Ross Macdonald School. W Ross.

The Impossible. The Impossible.

The Impossible is Only the Untried.

(Mandy’s voice) What you just heard was students of the W Ross, MacDonald’s School of the Blind and their school motto, and that’s the name of our podcast “The Impossible is only the Untried”.

My name is Mandy E. MacLean and I am the Project Coordinator of the W Ross MacDonald and Prologue Performing Arts Collaboration. When meeting with the Artistic Team and the initial sessions with the students, we started to realize this project has multiple phases – just like the creation of a new work.

So this semester we’ve decided to work on Phase One, Phase One of a story that we’re then going to revisit next semester. Phase One of developing a new play and figuring out how all audience members can sit next to each other and engage in the same story. Phase Two, we’re going to test out those theories. We’re going to try and implement what we’re thinking might work. I wanted to take a moment to introduce you to members of our Artistic Team, theatre professionals that work in Toronto and across the country. We have Laird MacDonald that’s going to consult on lighting. We have Richard Feren who’s going to consult on sound and sound placement. Mike Burnelle, who’s going to work on audio and tech. We have Adam Polozza who’s going to come in and work on movement with the students and Alex Bulmer, who’s going to come in and touch on voice. And we also have Leah Holder.

Leah is a very close collaborator of mine and also a dear friend and a professional colleague. I’ve known her for many, many years, and when I knew that this project needed a dramaturg, there was nobody better that I wanted to call. So Leah, tell us a little bit about dramaturgy.

(Leah’s voice) Dramaturgy is one of these things that no one really seems to know what it means. Even dramaturgs work in a really vast variety amount of ways. So some dramaturgs are production dramaturgs, where they are creating materials to help the audience digest the script or the play they’re creating, like those program guides and ways in which we like to access the work. And there’s also new play dramaturgs, of which that’s kind of more my jam, I’m a new play dramaturg, which means that I’m kind of like a play midwife.

So I meet with the playwright, I talk about ideas. I ask them questions about the script. All in an effort to help that new piece of script, that new piece of writing, have a stronger story, have stronger text, be more accessible, and kind of come out the other side of the project with being closer to what we all hoped that project was going to be.

(Mandy’s voice) How do you see the audience being a part of that work in the ways that you just described it?

(Leah’s voice) I think part of the dramaturg’s job is to think about who that audience is going to be and what kinds of things that audience needs in order to understand the work or to kind of get the most out of what the script is – and that, especially for this project, the audience is a completely different audience than anything I’ve worked with before. The audience is made up of students at that school and teachers who have this lived experience of low vision, no vision, or blindness.

As such, like the story, the text, and the story beats, the way that that story is communicated needs something different than other theatres that I might have worked at. So I think that paying attention to the audience is integral in a piece like this, more so than maybe in other things that I’ve done.

I was certainly really nervous before I met the class because I’ve never worked with students who were coming from a low vision or no vision place of work – so that was like totally new to me. So I tried to approach it as I would with any other high school class. I’ve had lots of chances to work with other high school students in the GTA and beyond.

So you start by reading the play. You start by creating lists of questions for yourself about, the script, about the story. Questions you want to ask the playwright about what something means, or what their intention is so that you can help that playwright guide the text that’s on the page towards the thing that they mean.

Sometimes you’re the first reader or listener of the script before an audience. And so you’re encountering the script one moment at a time. The way that you will when you’re witnessing it in the theatre.

So I did all of those dramaturgy things that I would do approaching any other project – and then I kind of thought, oh yeah! They have a different lived experience than me, so how do I encounter that? So then, I started thinking about what are the other things that this script needs to have. And this was a conversation that we had had with the Prologue team and the teacher, that this script needs to embed descriptive language. So that this whole story; whether you are seeing it, witnessing it, listening to it, or however you are encountering or experiencing that story in the theatre, you are getting the fullness of the story.

(Mandy’s voice) Totally. That there are multiple ways to engage with the story that isn’t based in visuals. Yeah, that’s what I’m hearing.

(Leah’s voice) Yeah. And it, it made me… like you asked about my assumptions…but also that just like, so much of the way we encounter theatre is about the visual. And if that’s not the way that you’re accessing this material, then like, what are the other things you need to focus on?

(Mandy’s voice) Totally.

(Leah’s voice) So I think the theatre I had had access to so far in my life was very different than what our expectations and way of working needed to be for this project.

(Mandy’s voice) Yeah. What our need was for this project. Absolutely. I agree with you.

(Leah’s voice) I was so happy that I got to do the O&M training as part of my experience of working. You are, you’re given, like a covering for your eyes. So you’re blinded. You have a guide who will take you around the school and talk to you about how, people from the blind community, people with low vision, or no vision are guided or how they can ask for guidance or ask for facilitating movement. I definitely had more skills to work with the class, in knowing what their language is, what their systems and structures are of the way in which they move through the world.

(Mandy’s voice) One thing I noticed in my session was that, that there’s so much self-advocacy that comes from that person that I, I was just so blown away by. And you see that in the emotional maturity and self-advocacy that takes place in that classroom.

(Leah’s voice) Oh my gosh, yes! Yeah, when it comes to dramaturgy in so many other high school classes that I’ve worked in, you know, you ask them a question and the students are really nervous to answer or they’re not sure how to answer. They want to make sure that they say the right thing – and so they kind of just say nothing. The students at this school were so primed and ready with opinions, and thoughts…

(Mandy’s voice) Oh my god, yeah.

(Leah’s voice) …and like ways in which to help make the work better. In, a way that like, I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a high school class. And of course, it dawned on me that it’s like, right, they have to live with this level of self-advocacy in ways of like maybe other high school students don’t have to do in their day-to-day life. So the other side of it is, in terms of their artistry, they are so ready to tell you what they think.

(Mandy’s voice) Mm-hmm. And that is phenomenal. It’s awesome. And it’s wild. It’s fantastic. And like, I would say actually as like facilitators in the room makes our job easier in so many ways.

(Leah’s voice) Oh my gosh. Yeah. Yes, I am like, please tell me what you think. We’re making this project for you about you, like, I’m over here. Yeah. I’m on the outside of it, helping to facilitate and make it more yourselves! In order for those students to access the script, access the text. It needed to be, the text needed to be kind of changed into all these other methods of access, which takes a lot of time, whether that’s braille, or contracted braille, some students needed audio resources. So the ways in which I would have normally asked for change, maybe it’s not, wasn’t the best way forward for this group of students…

(Mandy’s voice) I think, and that’s what we mentioned, that, you know, timelines because I think a big discovery for you and I as colleagues that the process of, adjusting a script and then, uh, “setting the play” – “setting” (for lack of a better word) the play, to then have a final draft is very different for these students.

(Leah’s voice) I think the biggest finding that I had was that the timeline on which to work was going to be really different than I had kind of discovered before doing new work. The access needs of these students in terms of like how they were going to get the script, that all takes time – and so you can’t change the text as much once you’ve like given it to your students. So that was, that was a big challenge for me. When I get to work on this process again, what I’m most excited for, is figuring out how to still do new play dramaturgy where you want the actors and the students to affect change on the script – how to do that – where the students are still able to access, the script and material.

(Mandy’s voice) Totally.

(Leah’s voice) So I think it’s about kind of like stretching out the timeline! It’s about kind of wrapping our heads around a totally non-traditional timeline for a script like this. And I think separating the process where you’ve got like a process of workshopping, development, dramaturgy (in one time), and then once that’s done – then you move into a rehearsal process.

(Mandy’s voice) Yeah, absolutely.

(Leah’s voice) So that the actors aren’t trying to like learn the text, and get it up on its feet, at the same time that I’m asking questions about it, and I’m just like, “oh, hey, can we change that?”

(Mandy’s voice) Absolutely! Absolutely! So it’s like the process of… it’s as though the process (and for lack of a better word, only) the moment when the play becomes “set”, when the text needs to become repeatable, is a totally different process in this work, and in this room, and for this type of audience. And so therefore, it sounds like what you’re telling me, Leah, your findings, that you are able to take forward into the larger theatre community, something along these lines…

(Leah’s voice) So, and I think over the past few years, I know that lots of theatre practitioners are just questioning the timelines and economy of our work. And I think, to me, this is just one more example of another process for which this really particular economy of a two-and-a-half-week rehearsal just doesn’t work. And I am, I’m really excited to figure out, like what, an alternative process is. I’m really excited to hopefully come back to it.

(Mandy’s voice) Totally. I think the keyword in that is maybe, right? Yeah. Because it’s about going cool… does this work? And then if it doesn’t work…it’s about going… cool, what about this? So Leah, from what I’m hearing from you, there are two things that overall that you’re saying. For this audience, there’s this idea of descriptive language and how to embed and integrate and elevate that and make that really fascinating and awesome and super. And, that there’s also this idea for these students and the ways of creating this work to kind of re-examine the timelines, bringing both of those things back to the greater theatre community, can actually make the ecology better for all of us.

(Leah’s voice) Oh. God. Exactly!

(Mandy’s voice) Yeah, exactly. Then it’s going to create work that there are more modalities and methods in which we can encounter and engage in the work, and it’s going to be more accessible for all different types of audience members.

Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me. Leah Holder, I can’t wait to keep working with you on this project.

(Leah’s voice) Thank you so much for inviting me into this W. Ross process. It has been incredible. Like for me, what an amazing experience and project that is going on at that school day.

(Mandy’s voice) Thanks so much, Leah. We will talk to you soon.

(student voices) The impossible. The impossible. The impossible. The impossible. The impossible. The impossible. The impossible is Only the Untried.