Dramaturg Anna Woodruff in Conversation with Playwright Melis Aker.
As a team member of the first-time partnership between Golden Thread Productions and LMDA, ReOrient Dramaturg Anna Woodruff speaks with her longtime collaborator and Playwright Melis Aker about their working relationship, the evolution of Manar, and their experience with Golden Thread. (Visit http://www.goldenthread.org/2017-season/reorient2017/ for images and more!)
(PHOTO: Melis Aker and Anna Woodruff, photo by Ralph Prete.)
ABOUT ANNA WOODRUFF: Anna Woodruff is a dramaturg based in New York City who focuses on new play development. She is an M.F.A. candidate in Dramaturgy at Columbia University, and a member of LMDA. She has worked at the Lark Play Development Center, American Conservatory Theater, Soho Rep., and Roundabout Theatre Company. She also teaches at the Professional Performing Arts School in Manhattan.
Melis Aker and Anna Woodruff are both third year students at Columbia’s School of the Arts. Melis is getting her M.F.A. in Playwriting and Anna, her M.F.A. in Dramaturgy. Melis is a playwright as well as an actor and musician from Turkey. She attended Royal Academy of Dramatic Art for acting, and Tufts University for her B.A. in Drama and Philosophy. Anna is a dramaturg, specifically interested in new play development. Originally from New Haven, Connecticut, Anna attended the University of Connecticut where she got her B.A. in Theatre Studies focusing on Dramaturgy. Melis and Anna attended Golden Thread’s ReOrient 2017 Camp, the workshop weekend held at USF, in preparation for the production of Manar in this year’s ReOrient Festival of Short Plays.
Melis: This is our third collaboration as playwright and dramaturg on my play Manar. How did we first come together on this project?
Anna: Manar was first staged in a class with Anne Bogart called Collaboration. Some of the disciplines in the M.F.A. program – Directors, Actors, Playwrights, Dramaturgs, and Stage Managers – got split into individualized teams to produce plays over the course of the semester. You and I got paired together, and we worked on the original short version of Manar. We presented it in May 2016. When did you first start writing that piece? Was it specifically written for the Collaboration class?
Melis: I had started writing Manar earlier in the year for Lynn Nottage’s American Spectacle class, under the assignment “violence as spectacle.” The piece grew out of my exploration of authentic vs. fabricated memory. At the time, I was also grappling with ideas around paranoia, grief, and cultural segregation in the digital age.
Anna: The second time we worked on Manar was a full-length production of the play at LaGuardia Performing Arts Center in March 2017 in their Rough Draft Festival. What made you want to expand the play, and how did you go about it?
Melis: When I wrote the piece for the American Spectacle class I also wrote a monologue for a deli owner named Gunner Hassan. I felt these two pieces belonged with each other and I decided to merge them, which became the full-length version of Manar. Gunner serves as a point person for almost all the characters in the play as they deal with the grief that befalls their community. It was an interesting process going back to the abridged version after producing the full length.
Anna: It almost felt like we were working backwards when we revisited the play for ReOrient. Once we had locked down the structure of the full-length play, we were able to look back at the abridged version and really think about the way memory is woven into the scenes in this specific order. The abridged version of Manar that we’re producing in ReOrient follows A Mother, A Father, and friend Najla as they deal with the disappearance of A Son. A Mother is convinced she recognizes her son’s eyes through an ISIS execution video, while A Father denies that possibility. We observe the crux of their dysfunctional marriage, structurally and emotionally interlaced with memory scenes. It’s sort of prime dramaturgical material. Not only are we working with loaded text, beautiful dialogue that you’re writing, we have a physical language we’re creating on the stage. It forces me to constantly be asking questions to all the members of the team, including myself. When are we in a memory? When are we in present time? How do we clarify that to the audience, both physically and verbally?
Melis: While we were at ReOrient Camp, our director Erin Gilley had you, Anna, lead us and the cast through a fantastic exercise of reordering the play so it follows a linear timeline. This way we were able to see the cause and effect of each event and also clarify the structure that I use of fractured time and memory. It is something we as playwright and dramaturg had never thought of doing, but allowed us to understand the play at a much deeper level.
Anna: There were so many aspects of this play that have to be tracked throughout. Meanwhile, it is essential to keep physical actions present and fresh each time. Would you say that’s true?
Melis: Absolutely. For me personally, at least as a playwright, I am unable to put a stamp of emotional completion, or at least of structural fulfillment on a piece unless my process of writing is shared with and very much influenced by a dramaturg. In this case specifically, it would have been impossible to find the right questions to ask, let alone find appropriate answers that would help me dig deeper into the rabbit hole that is a “character,” or “narrative world” without your tracking of time and events. It goes without saying here that I strongly believe that the presence of a dramaturg is necessary – you’re my objective set of eyes, and objectivity is purely impossible to achieve with your own work as a playwright.
Anna: For me, one of the most exciting aspects of our collaboration is the beginning phase working on the research and creation of the world of the play. I love that part of the process with a playwright. I think it’s such a bonding experience. Right now, I have been sharing some research for my thesis at Columbia on how the brain processes memory and how different theatrical structures are created when staging memory. This has been instrumental in the work you, Melis, are doing on your own thesis which will culminate in the production of a currently untitled new play in the spring that we will be working on together. You are in the midst of the first draft but we know that this play is a homecoming tale; a meditation on the brutal nature of memory, nostalgia, sexual identity, redemption, and paranoia in the face of political turmoil, surveillance, and a fleeting landscape of familiarity.
Melis: We also have the time to read scenes aloud as I write, which is really helpful during the initial writing phase, which we are in the midst of doing with this new play. It gives us the time just as playwright and dramaturg to ask questions and dig into why I’m choosing to write this play now. This is our third time with Manar and we are still coming up with new questions about the play.
Anna: It was such a great experience to engage in these conversations at such an early point in the process at ReOrient Camp this summer. There was no fear of failing because we didn’t have the pressure of making decisions about the artistic choices in a time crunch. This really informed our choices that were made later on in the process during rehearsals, when the creative teams do end up having more time constraints.
Melis: I am really eager to know how the audience connects to Manar and what they walk away with after the play is finished. The ending is quite ambiguous and it’s up to the audience to interpret the events that take place. With Erin’s staging and the actors’ world building, the play will be entirely different from what we have ever seen, so it will be so exciting to know where the audience connects the most.
Anna: We’re lucky to have worked on two productions of Manar in New York, and overjoyed to share the play in San Francisco at ReOrient 2017. Getting to have such a wide range of artists’ perspectives on this play is so wonderful because it keeps us questioning our own interpretations. When we produce the play with a different creative team or experience it with a different audience, it may be the same words on the page, but the way we think about these words changes drastically.
Melis: I think that’s the beauty of what we do in the theatre. Every time this is performed it is a different experience for everyone involved. Getting to do that across the country has been such a great opportunity for us as a team.
Anna: It’s great working with a playwright like you, Melis, because my role in this relationship is more than generating research and contextualizing your written world for our fellow collaborators. We have an exchange. An exchange that’s open enough for us to experience both mistakes and realizations, both of which are essential in the creation of art.