Where’s the dramaturgy?

Patrons of TimeLine Theatre know that they can read TimeLine’s Backstory or download a study guide online to delve into the issues of a play, but most often they expect and rely on lobby panels, beautifully designed by Associate Artist Jim Keister to give additional information about the historical context or contemporary relevance of a play. These materials add to the discussion between TimeLine artists and the audience, which is central to the mission of the company.

So those who may be entering TimeLine’s lobby for the first time may be surprised to see not only the beautiful floors and new seating system, but that there are no panels. For these patrons I would love to give a glimpse behind the scenes into some of the dramaturgical work an audience generally doesn’t see and into the dramaturgy that is contained in the set itself.

Early in the process Director Nick Bowling, Assistant Director Bridget Dehl and I discussed how we were going to help the actors understand the vast number of literary and historical references in the play. Well before the first rehearsal the actors were sent a daunting 94-page packet in which I gave them references, biographies, translations and links to further information. Then the rehearsal room was filled with books of the poets, reference books, books on Oxford and Cambridge. I must say all the actors responded very positively to having so much material to read and understand in addition to the work they were already putting in at rehearsals and at home. Don Brearly and Andrew Carter often brought in even more materials.

In addition to this homework, the eight actors playing students were given real homework. Each actor was assigned one of the major poets of the play and expected to present on the poet’s biography and poetry to the group at large. During the first week of rehearsal while we were going over the references in the play, the boys also had to stand up and do a school-style presentation on their poets.

It was fascinating to see already a difference from actor to actor and character to character in the style of presentation. One seemed outwardly calm but his hands were shaking, another lost his place, some spoke casually. It was an illuminating exercise not only because the boys had to learn about the poetry and poets quoted in the play, but also because they were given a taste of the kind of work the characters in the play have done to apply for Oxford and Cambridge.

It wasn’t all just learning poetry. One of my favorite rehearsals to watch was the day the boys brought their other homework assignments. They were asked to find a piece of music significant to their characters and then they were asked, as a group, to move in response to each piece of music. It was an acting class and a lesson in group dynamics and a mythic dance that harkened back to the early rituals that must have inspired the very first theater. The rehearsal came to be referred to by Managing Director Elizabeth Auman as the “stomping rehearsal,” as her office is unfortunately beneath the rehearsal space and eight boys dancing, leaping and jumping around are not terribly quiet.

This particular exercise was revealing because of the way the boys would move as a group and then suddenly as individuals, or how at certain moments one boy would be left out. It seemed very much like the dynamics of young adulthood with shifting friendships and values, and it also seemed to cement the friendships of a cast that I think are reflected in their performances on stage.

Finally, as you enter the theater or wander around at intermission, it is worth taking a close look at the boys’ rooms. In the rooms you will find references to the poets, the authors, the movies and the music featured in the play as well as things chosen by the actors themselves. Feel free to pick up a book and look at a title or read a poem taped to the wall. These are books we used in rehearsal and poems the boys read and found significant. Although they may not be as glossy as the traditional lobby panels and you may have to step over laundry to look at them, this is dramaturgy, too.

Maren Robinson is the dramaturg for The History Boys.

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  1. Bernie Holicky


    Kudos. TimeLine’s dramaturgical research is outstanding. From the perspective of a lifetime theater nut and TimeLine subscriber (and I guess the librarian in me), I read the play, the Study Guide, the Backstory, and sometime a biography of the subject, as I will do for Isadora Duncan and “When She Danced.” It gives me a deeper appreciation and understanding of the play.

    On the other hand, I saw “Hanna and Martin” with no preparation, was overwhelmed, and so began my love affair with TimeLine. And, some of my all time favorite plays that still resonate with me were seen with no foreknowledge…O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey” (made me lifetime lover of O’Neill) and T.S. Eliot’s “The Cocktail Party” (I’ll take a martini over crucifixion on an anthill any day).

  2. John Sirek

    It sounds like TimeLine takes its dramaturgy more seriously (or to a higher level?) than other theatre companies. Do you think that’s true? Is that just because TimeLine does more to share the information with the audience? It would seem that, depending on one’s perspective, that TimeLine’s approach could be viewed as a strength or weakness. I’m also guessing that TimeLine believes this additional information adds to the artistic experience and understanding of the plays and the issues they explore. Others may argue that the art should stand on its own and this additional background, etc. is superfulious. What do you think?

  3. Maren Robinson

    Well John, I think Bernie expressed it well. The dramaturgical information can certainly enhance a theatrical experience but one can certainly see a play without any foreknowledge and have an equally moving experience.

    I think TimeLine is unique in that the mission of the company relies upon additional dramaturgical information to give food for discussion particularly over how a historical play or history itself may be relevant to our current events.

    Many companies do use dramaturgs, but they may not always feature materials in a lobby or program. They may allow all the work to remain behind the scenes. Even if they don’t employ a dramaturg a director or actors may bring in research while rehearsing a play.

    I think The History Boys stands on its own and is intelligible even if an audience member has not read Auden or Sigfried Sassoon. However, it was important for the actors playing characters that can quote all this poetry and know the biographies of the poets to have thorough knowledge of those subjects so that the characters are believable. Another role this sort of knowledge for an actor might not be necessary.

    I suppose what TimeLine has done is crack that door open a bit so that an audience (if they want) can participate in the sorts of discussions that occur in rehearsal. But an audience that doesn’t want to break the 4th wall is not required to do so.

    There will always be those who prefer a work to stand on its own and there will be others who like additional information I don’t think that question is likely to be resolved but TimeLine certainly provides the information for those who want it.

  4. Jim Henderson

    As a regular playgoer and Timeline subscriber I find the background information you provide is excellent and particularly relevant given your mission. The wealth of dramaturgical information truly enhances the overall experience of the plays you present. The current production is a great example and I look forward to the damaturgy for future productions with confidence Timeline will maintain its high standards.

  5. Ken Novak

    I enjoyed reading the walls of the “boys’ rooms”, from the poetry to the posters, and only regret that I didn’t climb the ladder to Scripps’ room.
    I think the high quality of the production reflects the care you’ve taken to inform your cast.
    Apropos of that, in an interview with Alan Bennett about “The History Boys”, he spoke of the difference in actor preparation between his first school play,”Forty Years On”, in 1968, and “The History Boys”. Bennett said,

    ” [Forty Years On] was as stiff with literary references as this play is but in 1968 we made no attempt whatsoever to educate the boys about what was in the play. It was partly that in The History Boys the boys have to initiate the questions, so they have to know what they are talking about, whereas the boys in 1968 didn’t. But it is also that the attitude to actors has changed since that time, and that they’re accorded more respect now and are treated more humanely. So a play is much more of a co-operative enterprise.”