The role of research in theater

Until last December, I had no idea what a playwright was and what it entailed.

Research. Lots of research, I learned very quickly.

For three and a half months, I’ve been reading everything I can find on Stephen Sondheim, James Rabbitand In the woods. As I mentioned very briefly in my last post, I worked as both assistant stage manager and playwright on my department’s springtime musical, In the woods, and ASMing took up a lot of my time. Juggling my class work and my dramaturgy work when I could was a challenge, but I can finally say that I finished my dramaturgy file for the casting! And what an experience it was.

Three Books (Meryle Secret’s sondheim, Hat finish and his companion Look, I made a hatboth written by Sondheim himself), a documentary (Six of Sondheim), a musical (the 2015 version of In the woods), two or three academic essays, several online articles, six (and counting) bloody fairy tales, twenty-seven rehearsals, and countless “can I speak from a dramaturgical point of view” later, the information compiled on In the woods is ready for the cast to peruse, thirty-four pages of headings, footnotes and quotes, but at least there’s a hyperlinked table of contents so they can easily navigate through it all what I threw at them.

I didn’t leave them dry while I was working on them. I hope. Uploading Lapine’s biographical information was relatively painless, and filing all of Sondheim’s condensed information was less painless but still fairly easy. When I got to the fairy tale section of the package, however, I started to pause. The Brothers Grimm’s original fairy tales are pretty gory, but I was also digging through all the works they looked at. Many original details were even darker. Keeping in mind that we are all people with our own triggers, I went through every fairy tale I found very carefully and wrote content disclaimers.

A content warning here for body horror, cannibalism, mutilation, rape, and implied necrophilia. Please skip to the next paragraph if you find any of these things to be upsetting or triggering. In my research, I rediscovered the story of Cinderella, in which the stepsisters cut off their heels and toes to fit into the slipper. I wrongly assumed this would be the most disturbing thing I’ve found. On the contrary. A story of Little Red Riding Hood put an ogre, not a wolf, in grandma’s bed. Before eating the grandmother, he hid parts of her body in the house. When Little Red (in this version, nicknamed Little Red Hat) arrived, he tricked her into eating them. But what I personally found most disturbing was Giambattista Basile’s version of Sleeping Beautyentitled Sun, Moon and Talia. Instead of kissing the sleeping princess to wake her up, her savior, the king, has sex with her while she’s unconscious, then she carries her twins while she’s still in her magical sleep. His savior’s wife, the queen, becomes suspicious. After discovering that he had an “affair”, she orders that the children (Sun and Moon), along with their mother Talia, be killed, cooked and fed to the king. The story has a happy ending but… wow.

I had to navigate very carefully through some of the research I was doing in order to make it presentable for the cast to accept. Although we are all students living in a tumultuous world, I feel it is my duty to ensure that everything is presented in a way that is easily digestible for everyone. This included formatting too! Since I knew there would be a lot of information in the final document, I broke it all down in this hyperlinked table of contents. There are six subtitles in the “Fairytales” part, and there are about twice as many in the “Into the Woods” category..

I can give the cast a quick rundown of what I’ve written, musical pattern analyzes and all, or I can give them a pathetic look and say “Please watch it” right before they don’t leave for tomorrow night. Similar to my ASMing, I had no idea what I was getting into by becoming a playwright. But I’m enjoying the ride and looking forward to answering any other questions the cast might have.

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