The Implied Author Part VI:
Editing and Dramaturgy: How Many Cooks?
This time of year, university teachers are all abuzz about nurturing “academic integrity.” By this, most of them seem to mean wiping out plagiarism. The notion of “intellectual property” gets harder and harder to convey as technology makes virtually everything virtually available. I used to get up in arms about all this too; and I still hate the idea that somebody thinks they’re putting something over on me. But as for “ownership” of a piece of writing, it’s become less cut and dried for me.
Once upon a time, I had a view of the writer’s life as solitary, self-sufficient. I put a lot of stock in the intimate etymological connexion between “author” and “authority.” I would write my work all by myself, and readers would read what I had made. Work with editors, dramaturges, and actors, has shown me (thankfully) it’s not that simple.
I don’t imagine anyone comes away from a session with an editor without feeling a little righteous indignation. You slave away for months on something, and in an hour somebody who might even be a stranger deftly shows you where all the holes are. The level of indignation is probably directly proportional to how right they are. You know it, but it’s hard to admit. The byzantine structure you erected for your novel is diagnosed too complicated for a reader to follow, too dry an academic exercise to interest anyone but a dead French critic. It smarts, but from the wreckage you save what really matters and you weave a story that might actually attract readers — as distinct from literary critics. You learn quickly to trust the editor’s instincts. She or he becomes your ideal reader. After all, you are writing to be read. As long as the relationship does not become a folie à deux, there will be more readers like her out there, and the book will find favour, and sell. Statisticians wouldn’t bet on it, but it seems to work. Of course, it’s not entirely your book any more: the editor is a partner, though usually a silent one. They must expect their reward on some other plane.
Writing for the theatre, which is from beginning to end a collaborative art, further erodes any delusions about sole authorship. My earliest plays, it’s true, I wrote, directed, and even performed in. The cast was presented with a script and we rehearsed it and put it in front of the public. Mostly, people came, and liked what they saw. The cast and designers and crew were co-authors of the production, but I was still the lone playwright, the master of the script. This was before I discovered “dramaturgy,” which sounds like some kind of nineteen-thirties spiritual movement, but isn’t. Well, kind of.
A full-bore dramaturgical process involves a dramaturge (variously-spelled; my sons used to say it “dramaturd,” without malice) and a group of actors. Because of the actors, the first reading is like going into that first editorial meeting, times infinity. It’s one thing to put your novel into the hands of an editor who is no doubt literary and highly experienced. It’s quite another to give your work over to a disparate group of people whose specialty is not (usually) writing. Sayings about camels being horses designed by committees, and about cooks and broths, play insistently through your head. Every now and again, the actors try to tell you how you should have written the play (ie. how they would have written it), but the dramaturge always nips that in the bud. The things that puzzled them, the things they wondered about, of course, are tremendously useful guides for redrafting. It becomes like a little writer’s circle, and is helpful as those groups can be.
Actors being actors, though, they tend to ask questions about their characters, to become advocates for the roles they have been temporarily given. With We Happy Few, a play set in a World War One convalescent hospital, dramaturged (there must be a better verb) by Sarah Stanley, one actor’s interpretation of and questions about a nurse who I had conceived as a dried-up old authoritarian bitch resulted in a complete rethinking of the character, and what turned out to be a very moving end to the first act. The two groups of actors (one in Sackville and one in Cow Head, Newfoundland) who have worked with me and dramaturge Jenny Munday on King have also shown me things about individual characters by tirelessly and reliably fighting for their assigned role’s interests. Everything from conveying an Acadian accent to too-abrupt-alliances to how many scenes they are in has all been on the table; and every bit of it has led to revisions. The process gives you the rare opportunity to hear back from your characters. Once you get over the shock that they are claiming an existence at arm’s length from you, you begin to realize the value of the gift.
While the dramaturge is the key player in story-editing, paralleling quite closely the fiction editor, the actors often have contributions to make there too. They will notice that the stakes are not there in the first scene, or that the ending is too obvious, or that there’s a scene missing in the development of an idea. All of those areas were fed by the actors working on King this past summer. They couldn’t help me find a better title (yet). Their reactions to the play’s resonances with King Lear varied. The consensus, though, was to fly freer of Shakespeare, which the play now does. I suppose that’s an assertion of the play as my own, untroubled by Big Bill’s shadow. But it also means that the finished script (if it’s ever entirely finished…) will be as much theirs as mine.
It may not be a full-blown religion, but dramaturgy has actually helped me to some kind of minor epiphany: that being an author may actually have less to do with “authority” and more with “authorizing.”
Next: “Live White Male: Meeting the Fiction Class”