Interview: Columbia School of the Arts Professor Christian Parker Brings Dramaturgy Techniques to Nonverbal Theatre

MFA Candidate Anastasia Ellis talks about dramaturgy, specifically how it moves in traditional text-based theatre and in the nonverbal dance world, with Professor of Professional Practice and Dramaturgy Concentration Head, Christian Parker.

By: Dec. 22, 2022

Interview: Columbia School of the Arts Professor Christian Parker Brings Dramaturgy Techniques to Nonverbal Theatre

Christian Parker is a dramaturg, director, and Dramaturgy Concentration Head at Columbia University School of the Arts MFA Theatre program. His recent directing projects include David Hare's Skylight at Gulfshore Playhouse, workshops of Kirk Lynn's The First Line of Dante's Inferno (Rattlesick) and My Heart is a Library, Yours is a Museum (New Harmony Project), and Lynn Rosen's The Imperialists for Theatre Works/Silicon Valley. He served as dramaturg on The Tempest for Oregon Shakespeare Festival's Play On! program, and for the world premiere of the musical Found by Hunter Bell, Lee Overtree and Eli Bolin at the Atlantic Theater Company. Parker's recent publications include critical articles for Contemporary Theatre Review (UK) on Sam Shepard and Simon Stephens. He is currently working on two books, one based on his foundational dramaturgy course and the other on leadership and ethics in theatre. He holds a BA from Middlebury College and an MFA in Dramaturgy from Columbia.

In conversation with MFA Candidate Anastasia Ellis, Parker discusses how dramaturgy moves in traditional text-based theatre and in the nonverbal dance world.

Can you provide a little background about your personal practice in dramaturgy and what influences shaped your practice?

Most of my background professionally is in new plays and new play development, and working with living playwrights who write in English. So, that has a lot to do with my dramaturgical practice. But I actually imagine my practice, if I go all the way back to my training here at Columbia, as rooted in the classics and the notion that my job as a dramaturg is, fundamentally, to serve the play, not the playwright. Of course, I want to have a good relationship with the playwright, but our relationship is meant to serve the play-it's a conversation about shared goals for the play itself, what the playwright's generative impulse for the play was initially, what their hopes for it are, and what their points of struggle are.

Then that conversation gives me several windows of opportunity to help move the play along through a rigorous process of questioning the playwright, offering suggestions, and then folding the director into those conversations. I try to facilitate a larger conversation about what the shared goals of the creative team are for the play and how the various theatrical elements at our disposal are contributing to that goal.

You worked with GALLIM Dance on Sit. Kneel. Stand, which is not text-based theatre. How did your process change when working, in a sense, in a different "language," and did that work contribute to how you approach or understand text-based theatre now?

I was nervous about working with GALLIM and Andrea Miller, the choreographer, because I have been a fan of contemporary and modern dance for a long time. I've certainly gone to see it often, but I don't have any training in it. So my vocabulary to describe what I see is really derived from my theatrical experience, more than it is a vocabulary that the dancers or performers in the choreography community might share. It turns out there was a lot more overlap than I thought. The way in which I was able to find my way into that work that isn't text-based and that isn't about the play-because there isn't a play, and there wasn't even a piece when I started working, because it was built with the dancers in the room-was through what I've learned and what I know about the manipulation of space. It came from my knowledge of how the semiotics of bodies in relationship to one another creates a story without any text or narrative, and how a soundscape or music creates an immediate emotional pull on an audience.

For instance, I know that the orientation of bodies relative to the audience, whether their backs are to the audience, they're facing the audience, or they're engaged with each other, creates a story-making response in the minds of the audience. And it's not that the audience will necessarily discover a narrative out of it, but viewers will start to make associations between the various things that are happening on the stage, particularly the things that have emotional impact. Things like rhythmic disruption, acceleration, and accumulation of gestures all have an emotional and intellectual impact. I'm essentially just describing how people perceive dance, but I think I was aware of that when I approached this work as a dance dramaturg. My own work as a director and my knowledge of staging plays made my vocabulary to describe what I was seeing in Sit. Kneel. Stand. more specific than it might have been.

I have to say I also give a lot of credit to having spent so much time both as a student and then as a colleague of Professor Anne Bogart, learning her composition technique, Viewpoints, which offers artists a clear vocabulary to employ when constructing or discussing movement on stages. While Andrea wasn't intentionally using Viewpoints in her rehearsal process, the vocabulary and concepts of it offered me a sort of rubric. It's like a rubric for "reading" a dance performance, or any performance on a stage, in terms of the physical relationships there, the way in which it fits into a specific space, how it relates to the audience, and how its rhythm affects an audience. So, ultimately, I think working with GALLIM caused me to draw upon a set of skills and knowledge that I have at my disposal-skills that have accumulated from my training and my intuition that I don't necessarily draw upon when I'm intensely focused on the page in text-based work. Working with GALLIM was really a kind of a refresh of skills and it reminded me of some things that I'd forgotten that I knew.

Did you find that the dancers and choreographer were receptive to you and your insight in the room? Typically the dance rehearsal environment is quite isolated to just the dancers and the sole choreographer.

You know, they were really freaked out at first. They didn't know who or what I was; they'd never heard of a dramaturg. It made them nervous that suddenly we were gonna try to make this into a play, and they were very quick to say, "we're not actors." And I just said that I knew they weren't actors, and it was preferable that they didn't try to be.

In this particular piece, Andrea was interested in starting to incorporate bits of text and dancer-generated sound. The sounds were not necessarily words; they were a little bit more primal than that. But she was playing with that for the first time as a tool to liberate the dancers in a way. And though some of the dancers had a little bit of theatrical performance experience, they were nervous about it and they were certainly nervous about it in front of a theater person who they thought might judge what they were doing. I was really quick to express that this dance world that we were working in was theirs, not mine. I needed them to know that I was just there to reflect what I saw and experienced to Andrea and, eventually, to them. I wasn't there to prescribe anything or to tell them how to do something better, because I don't have that expertise. What I did have, and what I did offer the dancers and Andrea, was a way to describe what I perceived in front of me. It turned out that what I perceived resonated with Andrea and the dancers, and, in that situation, I think it had a lot to do with just choosing my words very carefully, honestly. I offered Andrea and the dancers a sort of piecemeal response because the work was being constructed in front of me literally in pieces, unlike the narrative construction that we expect from text-based theatre.

It was so satisfying as the pieces got stitched together, and each time I went to rehearsal, the dancers got more and more comfortable both with me and with the movement they were doing. I was able to talk with them a bit about some of the elements of delivering text performance and what it means to have speech or vocalization of some kind in performance. My goal was to help the dancers get more comfortable with that idea and see it as part of their larger practice. And that was great. I remember that there was a moment toward the end of the process where Andrea assembled the whole group, and she asked that I not speak to her at all. She wanted me to give all my responses to the dancers. It was a testament to the relationship and understanding that had formed between the group and me: we had moved from me talking only to Andrea and her translating my ideas to the dancers, to me occasionally saying something to the dancers while still prioritizing Andrea, to then this permission for me to give everything directly to the the dancers. It was definitely an expansive experience for me.

You've spoken a lot about how bringing an outsider's perspective can contribute to work. What about when you are purely on the outside: What moves you as an audience member and what keeps you going back to the theatre?

That's a really good question. It's hard to describe in concrete terms, but I feel really moved when I perceive an intense rigor in the making of something. I feel moved when I can perceive both the technical and the emotional difficulty of the work that is going into the performance itself by the performers, and also that which went into the crafting of the entire production. I respond to precision and physical challenges in theatre in the same way that I respond emotionally to some sports when I watch them. I think that part of what grabs people about theatre is equivalent to the empathy or connection that we feel to the struggle and to the physical prowess of an athlete. It's as if we connect to the athlete or performer's commitment to the goal and to their pursuit of it. I love it when I feel transported by theatre in the same way that I do when I watch Roger Federer play tennis or I watch an excellent dance performance. It's that feeling we have when we watch people execute athletic feats that seem impossible, that we don't know how to do, or that we feel are out of our reach, but which are executed with a sense of real groundedness, commitment, and technical skill. It's just amazing to watch. So, rigor is definitely something that moves me. I also respond to emotional truth-when something feels complicated and emotionally true to me. But I think that, too, comes from a kind of rigor. I'm often really moved by watching fierce performers, fierce actors, fierce dancers, fierce singers when they seem to be tapped into the "source," if that makes sense. Sometimes it's just a matter of technical prowess mixed with an emotional relationship to the material, but sometimes that fierceness seems to come from some other, deeper place. And I love the mystery of that.

I'm interested in mysteries of how acting becomes effective and persuasive to other people and what the individual brings to performance. I think that's an overview of what moves me; it's all, in the end, somehow tethered to a good story, in the case of most theatre. But it doesn't have to be a linear narrative for me. I like all kinds of different plays, some of which are extremely abstract. I think as an audience member, I can tell when there's something true at the center of a piece of theatre. It's hard to describe in concrete terms.

It's definitely challenging, what we're doing here. We're trying to describe something that is a living, moving, breathing thing and put it into concrete terms when in reality it's a language that words can't always touch.

Absolutely. The thing is that for all of the technical stuff that we talk about, like structure and how theatre is built, and the theory that somebody has created to describe what theatre does, what we're actually trying to get at is something much more elemental. What you're trying to build in theatre is an active thing that pulls people toward a goal without their personal will getting involved. I mean that theatre essentially supersedes our will to pull us into an experience and make us think and feel in a way that we're not actually in control of. That's what's kind of wonderful, but it's certainly hard to really get into how and why that happens.

You can't control it, in a way. The quality of the collaboration, the meeting of the minds, the particular inspiration of the performers-whatever it is-either comes together or doesn't. And I've certainly worked on a ton of different productions, some of which were very good, that didn't have that special sauce, even though they had great people involved at every level. And I've worked on other shows that just kind of came together even in difficult circumstances and blew people's minds. And in some ways there's no explaining it. It's why theatre and its creation, its movement even, are still an endless fascination for me because you can't distill the process or the success down to mechanics and science. You cannot make it into a process that is easily replicable or unfailing. And that's awesome.

Interviewed by Anastasia Ellis, Theatre MFA Candidate at Columbia University School of the Arts, as a part of the Theatre in Motion series. Published October 12, 2022.

About Columbia University School of the Arts Theatre MFA

The Theatre MFA programs in Acting, Directing, Playwriting, Dramaturgy, Stage Management, and Theatre Management & Producing seek students who have the talent, vision, and commitment to become exceptional artists. At Columbia University, students interact with the leading creators, practitioners, producers, and analysts of today's theatre, acquiring rigorous training rooted deeply in the classics, while exploring new forms and the cutting edge of theatrical art. Applications for Fall 2023 are open through January 5th, 2023. More details.

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