The Stories Begun

{February 18, 2010}   The Importance of Being Unambiguous

Forgive me, Mr. Wilde.  You were an easy target.

This semester has already been a learning experience like no other, partially because the day after I arrived at school Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors began.  You see, I am the English major most heavily involved with the theatre department (I even know to spell it theatre–hah hah!), and so was asked to be the dramaturge for CoE.

What is a dramaturge, you might ask?  Well, s/he is the language expert attached to the production and depending on the director, has a decent amount of say on how the characters are played because the dramaturge not only is the standard of pronunciation, but also the interpreter of the oblique references.  Also, in the case of Shakespeare, the dramaturge is the editor of the script.  You see, even the shortest of Shakespeare’s plays (which just so happens to be CoE) runs at a whopping two and a half hours (the longest at five), and no audience is going to sit for that long.  As Einstein wisely said, “The mind can absorb what the seat can endure.”  This applies to Shakespeare done right, and you get 100-120 minutes if you’re lucky.  Shakespeare done wrong, and the mind absorbs about thirty minutes if you’re super lucky.

So every Shakespeare play has to be edited for performance, which is where the dramaturge comes in.  The dramaturge is told what the director wants, they make the cuts, and then the director approves or disapproves of them.  It’s a simple and very effective system.  This way the cast spends the first awkward week getting to know the whole story so that these layers that are taken out at the end of the first week/beginning of the second week are still present in their minds.  Also, the director does not have to labor over the casting, script, directing, and language.  Those duties get split in half with a dramaturge present.  It’s fantastic.  The job is important and is a wonderful opportunity for me.  What a learning experience it has been already.

One of the requests my director made was to streamline the show.  I was to cut down all monologues and soliloquies longer than ten lines, and even then, I was to look closely at the longer ones of those less than ten lines.  The show needed to be reduced from two and a half hours to one hour and five minutes.  Yike!  I did not feel ballsy enough to edit Shakespeare, much less so heavily.  I brought back my edits one act at a time to my director, but as we approached the last scene another bomb was dropped: Oh!  We’re returning to the Roman ending, where the men go off on adventures together, leaving the women.  Shakespeare’s ending is too happy, not funny enough.  Rewrite the beginning so we can cut out three characters, and rewrite the entire last act as one final scene.

Oh. Crap.  I did NOT have the stones to do that!  But somehow I did it, and the version we now are practicing is my edit and rewrite save one or two tweaks that my director made.   It was a whirlwind adventure, but the end result was highly gratifying.

The lesson I most importantly learned in this process was this: be clear.  Shakespeare is artistic, yes, beautiful and a master of language.  But he’s confusing as all hell.  He’s one of those “hard to see the forest through the trees” guys, because readers, students and hobbyists alike, work so hard to understand the language and the story gets lost.  More often than not, the cuts that I made were not cuts for plot points we were taking out, but cuts of repetitive and obscure metaphors.

To Shakespeare’s credit, these metaphors were not as obscure in his day.  But they were repetitive.  Where one would do, three would follow.  And so, I cut.  I snipped.  And I learned what I need to do in my own writing.  Writing long is fine–especially in novels.  These days, I’m hard pressed to find publishers that want shorter novels.  However, the worst thing a writer can do is try to be smarter than the audience or too clever, and muddy up their writing with unnecessary references.  It just makes for a bad and uninteresting show.

Break a leg!



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