16th April 2021
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Dramaturge Trevor Rueger Interview: Creating Diamonds

By James Hutchison

Every writer needs honest feedback that helps them craft their story and reach the next draft, but not all feedback is equal. Your mom probably loved your play, because she’s mom and she loves everything you write. Your ex-fiance who you broke up with two days before the wedding probably wants to burn every copy of that horrid little play and you along with it. But it’s not just the emotional connection that you have to consider when someone gives you feedback on your work it also depends on their knowledge of theatre and story and character.

Supporting the Playwright

One of the people I rely on for relevant feedback on my work is Trevor Rueger. Trevor has been an actor, director, writer, and dramaturge for more than thirty years and for the past twelve years he’s been the executive director of the Alberta Playwrights Network. I sat down with Trevor to talk with him about how he went from being an actor to working as a dramaturge with playwrights.

“It’s not that I dislike the performance aspect of being an actor. I love putting on the costume. I love walking out in front of an audience. I love hearing them react and knowing that you’ve had an effect on them in some way. But when you get into the run of a show, it’s the law of diminishing returns. So, what I discovered when I started directing, which has led me into dramaturgy, is that I love making big discoveries. And that’s the rehearsal hall. What is this world that we’re going to create? Who are the people who inhabit this world? How do they connect to each other? What are we telling an audience? What are we showing? What are they seeing? All tied back to, we’re supporting the work of the playwright. For me, it’s those really big discoveries that I love.”

Getting Feedback

I know that when I’m getting feedback on one of my plays one of the things that I constantly have to remind myself about is to listen to the feedback and not to defend the work. I know from my own experience that if I don’t judge the feedback and simply listen to it that sometimes after thinking about it for a day or a week or even a few months it can lead me to a new insight or a change that improves the story. For example, I remember working on my play What the Dickens! where Trevor as part of his feedback on an early draft suggested that I might have one character too many. At the time I didn’t think I did, but after pondering that note for a few weeks I combined two characters into one and the play was much improved. RIP handyman Hank Tucker. For Trevor dramaturgy is a philosophy focused on helping the playwright find the small and big ideas in the world that they’re trying to create. Those can be big overarching issues like what the play is about to smaller structural things such as the number of characters you have in your story.

“I tend to start every dramaturgical session by asking the playwright, “Tell me about you and tell me about your work. And tell me about the creative process that you’ve been engaged in thus far and tell me what you want to say.” A lot of the questions and feedback that I tend to formulate, as I’m reading a work generally always come back to, “What are you trying to say? What do you want the play to say? What do you want the audience to think, feel, and be saying when they’re walking out of the theatre? What’s the experience you want to take them through?” So that’s always where I start a conversation. And that becomes a touchstone from which we can negotiate.”

Character, Structure, Time

Trevor told me that when he breaks down a script he looks at three things. The first is character, the second is structure, and the third is time. As far, as character goes he looks at the script and asks based on what the playwright has written would I be able to give a performance as an actor or as a director get a performance from an actor that is akin to what the playwright has intended. Then he looks at both the structure of the world where the story takes place as well as the narrative structure of the story. And then finally he looks at time which Trevor feels is an element a lot of emerging playwrights overlook. I asked Trevor to elaborate on what he meant by time.

“What I mean by time is how much time expires in the world of your play. Because time has a powerful effect within a narrative in terms of an emotional state. When I teach my introduction to playwriting, I use the epilogue at the end of Death of a Salesman as an example of time. Linda is standing at Willy’s grave and in the reality of the play he passed two or three days ago. She’s got this beautiful speech about, “I can’t cry Willy. I can’t cry. Every time I hear the screen door open, I expect it’s you. I can’t cry.” And I always ask playwrights in the course, “Okay, so that’s three days ago, but let’s imagine she’s standing at the grave a year later and says those exact same words.” It totally changes everything. The audience is now getting a completely different story. And all you’ve done is change the element of time. The actor is going to play it differently. The director is going to approach it differently. So, that’s what I mean by the notion of time, and how time is important and sometimes we give a story too much time. It becomes too epic and the hero’s journey loses all of its stakes.

Creating Diamonds

I like the fact that Trevor looks at character, structure, and time because regardless of whether or not you’re writing a comedy or a mystery or a drama those elements are the fundamental building blocks of any story. And characters are the vehicle through which the story emerges. As Trevor put it, “When you sit down as a playwright and you start to think about a character that’s going to inhabit your world, that’s a piece of coal. Until you put that piece of coal under pressure, you’re not going to reveal all of its facets. So, characters have to be put under pressure. And that’s where you as a writer, and your audience is going to discover all of the facets of that character. And you’re going to turn that piece of coal into a diamond with facets that shine and shape and inform. It’s pressure. But the pressure can be lost if the writer gives it too much time.”

Alberta Playwrights’ Network is a not-for-profit provincial organization of emerging and established playwrights, dramaturgs, and supporters of playwriting. APN exists to nurture Alberta playwrights and provide support for the development of their work while building and fostering a network of playwrights through education, advocacy, and outreach.

Also by James Hutchison:

Marketing for the Arts: Lauren Thompson & Lunchbox Theatre

How to be a Writer: Do the Work and Get Writing

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