A Day in the Life of a Dramaturg

posted by Dan Rubin, Publications & Literary Associate

During the last week of October, A.C.T. hosted a closed workshop of Daniel Kramer’s yet-to-be-titled movement piece inspired by Modest Musorgsky’s famous Pictures at an Exhibition and based on the composer’s tumultuous life. Mugorgsky composed Pictures at an Exhibition in 1874 as a tribute to his friend Victor Hartmann, an artist who had died the year before. Daniel’s concept is to attach often-abstract movement to these songs in such a way that, together, they create a picture of Musorgsky’s life. “I don’t want the audience to get it right away,” he told me during one discussion. “I want them to get it three months later.” Next spring, Daniel will be producing this creation at the Young Vic in London after a ten-week rehearsal process. You should all go. Oh, bollocks, it’s not that far!

While here, Daniel got the opportunity to experiment and solidify ideas, and A.C.T.’s fearless third-year M.F.A. students, divided into teams to tackle specific songs, were given the opportunity to explore (some for the first time) movement-based theories of acting and flex their devised-theater muscles. And I, based primarily in the publications department, got the opportunity to put on my production dramaturgy hat. Realizing that many people don’t know what production dramaturgy actually entails (and we dramaturgs are constantly discussing and revising our own thoughts on our role in the rehearsal room), I thought it may be interesting for you to see a day in the life of this production dramaturg on this project.

Cue music!

Day 5 of research / Day 2 of rehearsal.

7:30 a.m. Finish reading “Childhood and Youth, 1839–1856” in The Life of Musorgsky.

9:00 a.m. Arrive at work. Make new packets for the “Limoges” team (Cat Walleck and Allison Brennan) that include all the letters between the Purgold sisters and Musorgsky. Give packets to team.

9:30–11:30 a.m. Return to the research. Figure out what information is necessary to understanding Musorgsky’s relationship with his father, what information is necessary to understanding Musorgsky’s relationship with his mother, what information is necessary to understanding Musorgsky’s relationship with his nurse and his life at military school, and try to uncover the mystery of Musorgsky’s sexuality (again).

11:30 a.m. Make new packets including all the information assembled 9:30–11:30.

12:00 p.m. Go downstairs to rehearsal. Distribute new packets. Check in with Daniel: Assure him that not only can I assemble a packet with all the information gathered over the week, but I can make him an electronic copy of said packet on our amazing copier. He is pleased. New requests from students: Are there any letters between Hartmann and Musorgsky (for the “Promenade” team [Rondrell McCormick and Christopher Tocco])? What were Musorgsky’s views on religion and Judaism (for the “Two Jews” team [Lloyd Roberson and James Bigelow])? Talk to Daniel: Learn that, for him, “Two Jews” isn’t about religion but about economics and Musorgsky’s fall from wealth. I decide not to spend time researching Judaism; decide to focus instead on creating a timeline of Musorgsky’s economic deterioration.

12:30 p.m. Bring “Promenade” team all the letters that mention Hartmann, having found no evidence that Musorgsky and Hartmann corresponded by mail.

1:00 p.m. Quick lunch break with Assistant Artistic Director Pink Pasdar to check in about project.

1:30 p.m. Begin to assemble timeline. Get sidetracked following research thread that will help me determine if bringing elements of Musorgsky’s Nursery Cycle (an earlier composition) to Daniel’s attention is worthwhile. Pictures at an Exhibition is not enough music to fill 90 minutes by itself. Find the complete score of Nursery Cycle on Wikipedia. Find that the Mechanic’s Library has the CD.

2:30 p.m. Finish timeline and run it down to rehearsal. Check in with “Two Jews” team: no new requests. Check in with “Gnomus” team: requests for Russian folktales about gnomes, images of German nutcrackers, and images of BDSM.

3:00 p.m. Run to Mechanics Library for the CD Mussorgsky: The Nursery, Sunless, Songs and Dances of Death and the book Russian Fairy Tales (translated by Norbert Guterman from the collections of Alexander Alexeieff).

3:30 p.m. Return to office. Begin listening to CD while reading the lyrics in the accompanying booklet. Decide it is worth bringing to Daniel’s attention. Find image online of gnome nutcracker from Switzerland and decide it is worth bringing to the “Gnomus” team.

4:00 p.m. Copy lyrics and score of Nursery Cycle and images of gnome nutcracker.

4:10 p.m. Deliver images of gnome nutcracker. Meet with Daniel. Give him material on Nursery Cycle; learn that he has long been considering somehow bringing it in to flesh out “Tuileries.” We discuss progress and discoveries made thus far in rehearsal and research. Discuss overall scope and shape of piece, figuring out what each song represents in Musorgsky’s life. We have reservations about “Limoges” being just about the Purgold sisters: where is Musorgsky in this picture?

4:30 p.m. Check in with “Two Jews” team with Daniel. Take notes on his comments to refer back to later: stage combat needs to be about what is behind the fight; the idea that an older Musorgsky is fighting with a younger Musorgsky is getting lost in the movement.

4:45 p.m. Check in with “Limoges” team with Daniel. They have incorporated text from the research I gave them at 9:00 (silent validation!).Take notes on Daniel’s comments to refer back to later: the piece needs to be more affectless, dead, simple, sterile, cold, trapped, German, mechanical, but he is pleased they have discovered that these pictures can be humorous.

5:15 p.m. Full cast check-in. Daniel tells them to embrace the witty, the ironic, and the absurd. He asks them to push the abstraction as far as it can be followed. He explains that sentimentality is considered disgusting in English theater. He advises that the best actors pay attention to the notes given to all the actors in a company, not just the notes specifically directed towards themselves. End of rehearsal.

5:30 p.m. Return to office. Begin wading through Russian Fairy Tales. Realize that there are no fairy tales about gnomes. Damn.

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