Tuesday, February 12, 2019

The Acting Dramaturg Goes Profesh!

YOU GUYS...there are so many exciting things happening in the world of "let's make Meredith a professional dramaturg!" I'm sorry I haven't posted in awhile but I have certainly been busy following leads and creating opportunities for myself. I recently asked the artistic director of PBD to make space for me to learn professional dramaturgy within the company. After discussing my ambitions and reading THIS BLOG (I know!) he agreed to have me on as the festival dramaturg for the New Year/New Play Festival. I put together comprehensive research packets for three of the five plays involved and worked extensively for the new play development of one of them.

A lot of the work I did is privy to the playwrights and other artists involved, I think. But I wanted to be able to share some of my work with you. Below you will find short articles written for the three plays I worked on. I have also included a brief synopsis of each play to give you context. My friends, I'm so proud of this work! I'm so curious to learn this craft by practicing it. And I'm so grateful to the people making space for me to learn. The Acting Dramaturg is making it happen.

It's interesting that when you put these three articles together like this you can see the through-line of how I perceive new American stories. Or perhaps you can see the message that many modern story-tellers are most compelled to illustrate.


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Confronting Our Moral Relativism: Or why we need Red, White, Black & Blue

Red, White, Black and Blue by Michael McKeever
Dramaturgy by Meredith Bartmon

The President has been shot. The Secretary of State and the Vice President spar in the Oval Office over what happens now, the right way to be a politician and the VP's family history. Will a shocking reveal shape the future of American Democracy or simply silence a powerful voice of change? 

       As long as there is Government, there will be great political theatre. In fact, these days you can barely tell the difference between a political media pundit, a comedian and a dramatist. However, politics, as acted out for our entertainment on the 24/7 news cycle, is the cheapest kind of theatre. "Travesty,” according to NY Times theatre columnist, Paul Krugman. Michael McKeever’s Red, White, Black and Blue must then be the elegant response to a political world gone mad. It’s the kind of political drama that holds the audience captivated with nothing more than five people, one room and an argument. 

      Political drama has a history of forcing audiences to see the social realities of their zeitgeist and to accept their own responsibility for this world in which we’re living. Red, White, Black and Blue beautifully mixes a private tragedy with a modern political “what if.” The exploration of presidential assassination is incredibly timely but not necessarily for the reason you might think. Great theatre and good politics are both excellent at making people ask questions. This story about assassination, espionage, and ambition forces the audience to ask questions about their own moral relativism. When Vice President Lenora Waters whispers that deadly order are you unfazed? Do you forgive her because of her liberal agenda? Are you appalled regardless of what side of the aisle she is on? Or, do you disbelieve a progressive individual would ever do what she does? Perhaps, you struggle to believe the American Government would ever do such a thing. In today’s world, there has been a significant blurring of moral lines – we say; “Well, it’s ok if someone on my side did it.” This play explores that relativism to the extreme. Is it time to stop putting blind faith in our government institutions and demand change? Do we have any ground to stand on if we don’t fight for our integrity? 

      The great political playwrights of our time understand that in order to expose moral relativism in politics you have to shine a thoughtful and captivating light on it. You have to open the door for audience members to probe their own reactions. Michael McKeever’s Red, White, Black and Blue reminds us that the road to Hell can be paved with good intentions. The beauty of the argument between Lenora and Secretary of State Warren is that they’re both right. And in the end neither of them wins. Their partisan high grounds leave them both robbed of their moral voices. Mr. McKeever has opened the door and turned on the light in the dark room that we call the Oval Office – what will you allow yourself to see? 

“You don’t go to the theatre, you’re missing out there, everyone in politics should.”
 – An Absence of War by David Hare

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Bid it Quiet: Or Why With will Resonate with Our Audience

With by Carter W. Lewis
Dramaturgy by Meredith Bartmon

An elderly couple hilariously argue over the simple frustrations of old age and the mundane annoyances of a long relationship. But it doesn't take long to recognize the spiraling repetition of these last days of their lives. 

          Playwright Carter W. Lewis has been compared by critics to the great character writers of the theatre; such as, Chekhov and August Wilson. He explores the humanity in his characters by saturating their actions with fallibility, believability and gentle compassion. His plays take seemingly mundane situations or relationships and then painstakingly peel back the layers to reveal the extraordinary intertwined with the ordinary. Whether the situation is dinner between old friends as in Women Who Steal, a student/teacher friendship in The Storytelling Ability of a Boy, or getting older as in With, you can never quite predict where Lewis’ characters are headed. 

        In the first part of With, the audience laughs their way through familiar territory. We meet Minnie and Clifford Habberdeen, an older couple who have been together for sixty years. The two Midwestern retirees are bickering over the amusingly mundane problems of old age – oncoming hearing problems, forgetfulness, and a certain difficulty with getting up an infernal flight of stairs. We can relate to the two octogenarians coming to terms with the fear they might no longer have a purpose in this world – we can giggle at the futility. However, as the play proceeds we start to notice the horror of the repetition. Minnie changing sheets is normal, Clifford missing the doorbell is endearing; but she changes the sheets every day and he forgets that he’s missed that important doorbell numerous times. It becomes terrifying to watch their decline - hoping desperately that they will find peace and dreading that you have already seen how this story ends. 

        Minnie and Clifford are becoming increasingly disconnected from the physical world as their failing minds become disconnected from reality. They have already withdrawn from the cycles of their lives as parents and professionals. Clifford’s mechanics business is probably sold and the teaching profession is completely different now from what Minnie remembers in her youth. At what point do we actually die – when our hearts stop or when we stop engaging with our humanity? The world they know is already gone and they are vestiges of it. There is nothing holding them to this life now; it’s just the letting go. 

         Minnie and Clifford are desperately trying to control death – to outsmart it. Life expectancy has jumped thirty years in the last two centuries and we have become less accustomed to the present specter of death. We’ve been trained by technology to out-run nature. However, while death can be held at bay for some time, eventually it will come for everyone. Why does the snow begin to fall inside at the end? The winter of our lives will come, we will return to dust, to nature – the cold will win out. Why does the play end in the middle of Minnie’s story? Because when death comes it’s not meant to be expected or planned – it can stop you in the middle of a thought. 

        With is a poetic fight against the inevitable surprise of death. "I will choose", they say. "I will go with dignity", they insist. Their diseases will kill them so they aren’t choosing between life and death; they are attempting to choose the manner in which the final moment enters the stage. But in the end, your story will go silent whether or not you bid it quiet. Perhaps we should take comfort in that uncertainty rather than try to strangle it into submission. 

“If we’re so afraid of death and dying, I have to wonder if we’re also afraid of life and living.”


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The Beauty and Horror of the Every Day American: or Why Drift is Important for Today’s Audience


Drift by William Francis Hoffman
Dramaturgy by Meredith Bartmon

         In Drift, we meet the three brothers of the Dolan Family. Angelo has just returned home after ten years in jail. All he wants is to provide a brighter future for his little brother, Vinny. Will a jealous older brother derail Angelo's hopes? Will he manage to escape the demons of his family's past? Is Vinny the lucky one who could actually make something of himself? Mr. Hoffman’s writing style has been compared with the likes of Harold Pinter, Arthur Miller and Sam Shepard. Shepard was well known for portraying the decay of the American ideal and Mr. Hoffman’s plays look at the underbelly of the American Dream. In Cal in Camo, a previous William Francis Hoffman work, Cal is a new mother, expected to be in love with her baby and her family, but she cannot manage that expectation. In Drift, the Dolan brothers live in the age of the white picket fence and “father knows best” but that isn’t their reality. Mr. Hoffman’s plays are about pulling back the fa├žade on expectations of joy, prosperity and comfort. Is there anything more strangling than feeling as though you are supposed to be happy with what you’ve got and knowing that you cannot reach that mild mountaintop? 

         The scene is 1957 Chicago. The ideals of the American Dream are at their Zenith. Men go to the office in their three-piece wool suits; women tend to a house with 2.5 kids, a white picket fence, and a new state of the art cold pantry in the kitchen. America is the shining city on a hill for the entire world to admire and emulate. Through their sparkly new personal televisions, the American public is sold the idea that if a man follows the rules and works hard, he can achieve that great beacon of existence - the American middle class. However, for the working-class sons of Italian and Irish immigrants in inner city Chicago, the American dream is built on a crumbling foundation and steel beams that are too small to support its weight. The underbelly of the American dream is a place where men disappear in a crowd and young people tear at their own flesh in order to feel substantial. 

       The story of the Dolan boys resonates with today’s audience because we are once again opening our eyes to the underbelly of the “great” American ideal. Men like Angelo Dolan have always tried to build their American success story and found that the builders of the social ladder cut corners. The whole thing will come crashing down at their feet but the men with the money will walk away. It’s important for all generations to look at the masses of men and women on top of whom we built our good fortune. If we see them then we can accept our responsibility for them. 

       Drift is also a story about family ties and how they anchor men to a purpose. When Joe Sr. died, his sons were set adrift. Angelo has returned from incarceration after the death of their mother to try to reclaim a direction for himself and his brother, Vinny. Unfortunately, old family demons haunt his most earnest efforts. There is a lot of beautiful symbolism in this piece. In the annex of his mother’s church, the stair case has been removed for profit. Something beautiful that Angelo could use to climb to higher places has been sold for pennies. Angelo cleans the windows to allow some light in but he still literally doesn’t have a pot to piss in. 

     Drift is a wonderful example of a genre of plays where the point is the observation of human struggle in recognizable circumstances. The beauty of Mr. Hoffman’s characters and storytelling lies in humans existing in the everyday. The director of Cal in Camo, compared Mr. Hoffman’s writing to the photography of Gregory Crewsdon. Crewsdon describes his own aesthetic as “ordinary tinged with beauty and terror.” Likewise, Mr. Hoffman’s plays portray familiar domestic scenes that have gone rotten and been swept under the gilded rug of American exceptionalism. The characters that populate Drift are the disinherited reality of the American dream.


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