Thoughts On Understanding the History of a Script

I recently had the opportunity to see SIA, a play by Edmontonian Matthew Mackenzie, playing at the ATB Arts Barns November 8 – 17. In discussing the play with someone before I saw the show, I began thinking about how important it is for us, as audience members, to know the history of the script and reason why it was created. I asked myself, “does the way a play was written – from conception, to research, to editing – affect the audience’s reaction to and enjoyment of a production?”

In SIA‘s playbill and Liz Nicholls’ preview, playwright Matthew Mackenzie says that the basis of SIA comes from interviewing 75 young people in the Buduburam Liberian Refugee Camp in Ghana several years after he first began exploring human rights issues through theatre, while still in high school. However, I thought that the motivation behind visiting Ghana and interviewing people in the refugee camp was missing from the information about the playwright. While we can try to infer the playwright’s intent from the production, there are a lot of things that might enhance or confuse the playwright’s intent for the audience. For example, the actor’s interpretation of the playwright’s intent, the set designer’s interpretation of the playwright’s intent, the way the actors and production team work together or, perhaps most importantly, the vision the director has for the play, based on their relationship with the playwright, with the play, and their philosophy on the types of works they want to create.

As someone who writes about theatre, I’m fortunate to be able to talk to people who are involved in creating most of the shows I see. There’s certainly a huge amount of research that the cast and crew of any production do prior to beginning work on the show, but the fact is it’s a rare privilege to be able to work directly with the playwright to create a show. So, in previewing and reviewing shows, one of my challenges is determining how much to ask about the history of the production in the limited time available for an interview. The voice in my head tells me I’ll seem stupid, or ignorant, or as if I’m wasting their time, or that the person I’m talking to won’t have an answer to the question and we’ll face that moment that comes after the words “I’m not sure” where we’re both questioning each other’s intentions.

The other side to this question, though, is how much does the script’s history matter? If the production moved me, does how or why the script was created matter? Up until this point, I’ve been more and more focused on the how of the production – how did the lighting create that emotional effect? What effect did a character’s accent have on my perception of them, and where did that accent come from? What was the inspiration for the set design? How did that particular actor prepare for such a challenging role, and has this play changed their life or their perspective in any way? If we walk away from a production blown away by the how of it, does why the script was created matter? Is it enough that the experience we had in the theatre, created by the cast and crew, was amazing even though the frame of it was created by someone who wasn’t directly involved in the production? In my reviews over the last 18 months or so, I’ve tried to separate the technical aspects of the production (the actor’s skill, the technical components, etc.) from the story, but seeing and thinking about SIA made me realize that the history of the script is that critical piece that ties these two components together. The history of the script ties the words on the page to the experience the audience has in the theatre days or years after the script was created.

So, perhaps it goes without saying, but yes, the history of a script should influence the way the audience reacts to a production. But, based on my own experience going to theatre, writing about theatre, and reading about theatre, I don’t think the history of the script does influence the audience in most cases. We – audiences, casts, crews, writers, and playwrights – need to start insisting we have the conversation about why and how the play was created. As someone who writes about theatre, it means I need to ask those questions and not be afraid of what’s going on in the mind of the person across the table from me.

There are 2 comments

  1. John Richardson

    First off, as a sort of irrelevant technical point: I love the way you handle long complex sentences! It’s so refreshing in our soundbite world!


    As a (depressingly infrequent) theatre-goer, I pour over the playbill for information about the actors, the director, the playwright, the stage manager, etc. As a (much more frequent) reader of plays from classical to modern, I read and reread every word of the introductions, forwards, afterwords, prefaces, translator’s notes, editor’s notes . . . All of these words, words, words are individual responses to the play and the material of the play. Imagine if we could watch a play and have five or ten thoughtful, articulate audience members present us with a brief essay about their experience of the play after the curtain. Would that not be a stunningly rich experience?

    At the other end, wouldn’t it be wonderful to have the words of the playwright, the actors . . . you see where I’m going . . . to tell us their experience of *creating* the play? This experience is something we experience dimly in a good edition of a Shakespeare play: we read Shakespeare’s sources, learn the play’s production history, get as close to the King’s Men as we possible can after five hundred years. And, in a more modern sense, this experience is what is so often held up to us as the reason to buy a DVD or Blue-Ray of a film: the “added features” of endless storyboards, actor interviews, director commentaries, behind the scenes, deleted scenes, blooper reels . . .

    Jenna, literary scholars give us – and big movie studios think we want to buy – the history of a script. I don’t think you should hesitate to try to dig it out when considering ANY play you see.


  2. jennamarynowski

    Hi John – thanks for reading & commenting! I totally agree with you about how great it is (or would be) to hear the first hand experience of those involved in creating a production. Thus far, this is what I’ve tried to focus on in interviewing people and previewing the production.What SIA made me realize though, is that I need to also ask about the playwright in those interviews, especially with plays by new and emerging playwrights that don’t necessarily have the wealth of information that is available for more famous playwrights.

    That’s also an awesome parallel between movies and theatre. As someone who watches about 5 movies a year, I certainly am not the target for those “behind the scenes” features and so I didn’t even consider them when I was exploring the issue of the relationship between the script’s history and the audience.

    Thanks, John!


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