'Magnifying Glass and Ear' by Liliana Bardijewska (Poland)
The playwright is a special creative type.
He reacts to the world with hearing and perceives it as a great parlatorium, in which everything is in a state of a permanent dialogue, even with itself, and where all sounds are a communiqué of sorts even if only produced bya squeaky door or dripping water; silence too screams because it is yet another form of dialogue – the dialogue of emotions.
It is insufficient to merely hear such a dialogue. One has to be able to record it and endow it with a theatrical form. What sort? Naturally, a form that is not connected with direction, stage design or music, but with dramaturgy.
Regardless whether this will be a verbal dialogue or one devoid of words (a ballet libretto or a visual arts spectacle), or whether it will consist of a conversation held by the protagonist with himself (a monodrama), a single partner or a multitude of partners, dialogue must possess a proverbial iron construction. It must have strictly defined crescendos and diminuendos, adagios and prestos in the manner of the most precise music score. A theatrical play or scenario is actually a sui generis score of the course of the plot, intellectual and emotional tension. The lesser the number of words the greater the precision. Otherwise, a spectacle will disintegrate into individual scenes, roles and mutually contesting etudes, and will lose that which is most important – the continuum of thought, the gradation of tension, the originality of the message, all of significance in productions addressed to a young audience and adults.
First and foremost, there is the structure whose principle is the conflict. This conflict, involving the prime protagonists, comprises the motor force of the plot, acts as the carrier of chief problems, and draws the attention of the spectators, making them forget their potato crisps and other mundane matters. Theoreticians of dramaturgy create more or less complicated methods of the dramaturgic structure, distinguishing from five to 23 obligatory elements, such as turning points, perspective, peripheries, culmination and solution. All must be subjected to the conflict. This holds true both for original plays and adaptations of tales or books. It is exactly the conflict that I was compelled tackle while transferring Zielony
Wędrowiec (Green Wanderer) stage. Wędrowiec is a road story divided into segments. The green Creature sets off from the Grey World in search of a green river. His wanderings lead him across monochromatic lands, where he encounters friends and foes alike. This mosaic composed of mini-tales passed the test in the book by accentuating the prime problem, i.e. the attitude towards alien qualities. A mechanical transference onto the stage, however, would have caused the tale to become monotonous and to disintegrate into a series of independent etudes. The young spectators would experience difficulties with combining them into a single problem-event entity. Why? Due to the absence of the conflict, a dramaturgic element, that would merge scattered motifs and allow the audience to carefully follow the plot. Another missing component, just as essential, would have been an intriguing beginning, which from the very first moment should attract the children's attention. Theoreticians of dramaturgy describe it sometimes as a hook, applied even by master Shakespeare. After all, what else is the Ghost of King Hamlet in the first scene of Hamlet?
The book version of Wędrowiec starts with an awakening. One morning, the green Creature, rather grey by nature, wakes up to discover that he is totally green and decides to set off for the banks of a green river to see his new reflection, which a grey river simply cannot show. This, however, would be an excessively limpid, outright anaemic onset of a tale. After all, Alfred Hitchcock, that genuine master of suspense, recommended starting with an earthquake and then increasing the tension. This is why I decided to begin the staged version of Zielony Wędrowiec with the scene of exile – patriots of greyness, who do not believe in any other colour, banish the green misfit from their grey world; in order to render impossible his return they send a grey porcupine entrusted a secret mission – his task is to embroil the Creature in ever new troubles, thus condemning him to eternal wanderings. In this fashion, the porcupine becomes the chief carrier of the conflict.
Since the playwright is obligated to surprise the audience by means of a sudden turnabout it is precisely the porcupine that becomes an unintentional ally of the wanderer and in a final confrontation with the grey fundamentalists will testify that there are also other colours in the world. Paradoxically, thanks to this character the travels of the Creature have a happy end.
As can be seen from the above, an adaptation of a literary work for the stage is by no means easier than writing an original play. Playwrights aware of the threats and traps awaiting them know this. On the other hand, directors who sometimes light-heartedly embark upon writing seem to be oblivious. One such trap is the non-stage structure of the story. There are many more such pitfalls! Take the example of a temptation to reach for “ready” book dialogues. Transferred literally onto the stage they sound artificial in an overwhelming majority of cases, since the functions of the dialogue in a book differ from the ones in a book. A mistake universally committed by inexperienced authors of adaptations is the habit of quoting the story narration so that it would fulfil the function of dialogue or a monologue. Such traditional tirades uttered by the dramatis personae undermine their psychological credibility, shatter the cohesion of the plot and destroy all emotional tension. They simply originate from a different story – and by no means a theatrical one!
All heretofore reflections pertain not only to plays (or adaptations) with a classical plot known as bien fait. They also relate to scenarios with a loose construction, based on the principle of a mosaic – segments, separate episodes, staged impressions, which do not constitute a uniform plot nor are arranged around a single conflict. They may be merged by the problem, the ambiance or the protagonists. Even then, it is impossible to manage without a gradation of tension, a culmination, and a finale that sums up the whole. It is simply difficult to evade the classical model.
This holds true equally for wordless spectacles, visual arts or ballet productions where the dramaturgic function is assumed by music, the sets or stage motion and choreography. In those cases too the proverbial iron construction and alert ear of the playwright are indispensable for arranging particular elements of the spectacle into a cohesive whole suffused with tension. Apart from a ladder, a hook and a dialogue, the playwright possesses yet another secret weapon assisting him in winning over the heart and intellect of the spectator. I have in mind silence enhanced by gesture, facial expression or even motionlessness, at times more evocative than the strongest possible word! If one were to add imagery or even stage design detail accentuated by, e.g. light, then we might jolt the audience. The magic of the theatre emerges somewhere on the borderline of the word, sound, image and silence. The delineation of this boundary is the basic task and responsibility of the playwright.
Happily, the Polish theatre – including the puppet stage – is becoming increasingly aware of the fact that dramaturgy is a distinctive profession, whose workshop is built in the course of many years. It is just as fortunate that authors of stagings more and more readily invite authors to cooperate. The same holds true for the fact that with each year the foundation of plays intended for children and young people grows thanks to the endurance and consistency of the Poznań-based Children's Art Centre, which for almost thirty years has been organising a dramaturgy competition. Finally, it is highly fortunate that the offices of the artistic and literary directors of puppet theatres assign an important place to almost forty issues of “Nowe Sztuki dla Dzieci i Młodzieży"
What else does a playwright require to be contented? He needs trust and equal rights. Trust that whenever he defends a certain scene or replica, he does so not for his own sake but because he is concerned with a joint goal, i.e. the spectacle. Equal rights should be displayed in undertakings pursued together with the director, the stage designer and the composer at each stage of work on a given spectacle – from moulding its conception to the last general rehearsal. Unfortunately, theatrical praxis demonstrates that his role is still much too often restricted to supplying the text. The doors of the theatre remain firmly shut to the day of the premiere. A playwright does not enjoy any sort of impact on the ultimate shape of the play, which, naturally, evolves in the course of rehearsals. The director alters it according to his vision, the actors add replicas so as to expand their parts, the stage designer introduces additional props and even characters for the sake of the spectacle, and the composer adds words of refrains. The author, who signs the play with his name, is refused the right to participate in the joy/torment of joint creation. Meanwhile, it is his alert ear (dialogues) and precise magnifying glass (iron construction) that could warn the authors of quite a few spectacles against the errors and menaces of collective creation. Let us, therefore, allow him to perform his part of a playwright to the very end.
Reprinted, with permission, from Teatr Lalek magazine, nr 4/110/2012