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It's All in the Game

Photo: Dr Kara McKechnie

Part of the Invisible Diaries series:

Week 4 / Day 5


Here’s my Twitter photo and tweet from yesterday:

Might be heresy, but I didn’t miss teaching in a classroom after a while. I rolled out of bed, taught, had a cuppa, muted peeps I didn’t like. It was #Sustainable less noisy. I saw my wife & kids. I learnt new skills. It was almost the Utopia the internet once promised. #heretic

It got a few likes. There is an upside to all this Self-Isolation. A lot more people attend the meetings. There’s less transit, fewer cars, less smog. The birds are coming back and singing louder.

If you’ve seen Denis Villeneuve’s film The Arrival, you might imagine a sequel where the aliens force us to stop killing the planet with CO2 emissions by releasing a pandemic. As it is, many have spoken about not wanting to return to the old “Normal”. Can we take a hint? Or will we be so desperate to reignite our precious economies that we’ll double-down?

For dramaturgs, it’s a similar challenge. Thespians are desperate to get back into the theatre and rehearsal rooms, but right now we have a chance to re-imagine the way we work. The LMDA has a call out for short essays to envision this drama-future. The deadline was yesterday, but they’ve extended it for anyone interested.

At our film school, there had already been much talk of Virtual Classrooms and that Virtual and Augmented reality was the way to go. People invested heavily in it upfront, but it hasn’t been the great boom that was expected. It’s more the new 3D: a gimmick that can enhance some experiences but doesn’t really change the game. Gaming probably has the best chance of using VR and AR to good effect with its immersive worlds. But the gaming world really needs ethical creators and dramaturgs. A leading light in Indigenous gaming is Dr Elizabeth La Pensee.

She did her PhD on Indigenous content in gaming and is a game designer, receiving notoriety when a US politician accused her game Thunderbird Strike of being “Angry Birds for Eco-Terrorists”. She was trolled during Gamergate when she spoke out against a revival of the despicable Atari game Custer’s Revenge.

In terms of advancements in Indigenous gaming, Assassins Creed 3 was hailed for its Mohawk speaking character, however, Never Alone was seen as the big breakthrough. It had strong consultation with First Peoples, however, it was still non-Indigenous creators who reaped the most benefit.

This leads us to what Jesse Wente Head of Canada’s ISO Indigenous Screen Office, deems to be ‘storytaking not storytelling’. He believes many media companies are part of an extractive industry that is constantly mining for new material, and Indigenous stories have always been a gold mine for them. Disney’s Pocahontas would be a prime example, although Moana and Frozen II are definitely major improvements.

As an Indigenous dramaturg, I’m always asking questions about cultural appropriation, whether Elders have been consulted in a meaningful way, and who has the right to tell certain stories. I worked as a dramaturg on the play Redpatch. It’s about an Indigenous soldier in World War I. The creators wanted to use some Indigenous language in the play but hadn’t been back to the territory of one of the writers to consult with Elders. I think they were worried the Elders might slow down, or even stop, the play’s development. Whatever happened, I felt it would make the play deeper. It turns out the Elders were overjoyed to have someone interested in helping preserve their language. The play was a big success, won awards, and gave the creators the confidence to do more meaningful consultation.

For the play I wrote, Mark Twain & Me in Maoriland, Taki Rua Theatre took the company on a research trip to the Whanganui where the play was set. We spent time with some Elders and learnt about a real battle that featured in the play. We didn’t ask for permission to tell the story. We just committed to learning and telling our version in the most truthful way that we could. Later, I learnt some other Elders hadn’t wanted to meet with us as they thought, “It’ll just be another bunch come to rip off our stories.”

I have written, co-written and collaborated on 30+ plays. My training as a dramaturg came from being dramaturged. I first learnt the term in 1988 when my play Kandy Cigarettes was selected for a Playmarket workshop in New Zealand. The dramaturg/director Stuart Devenie said, “We’re not just dramaturging a play; we’re dramaturging a playwright.” I wasn’t sure what exactly he meant, but it became clearer as I wrote more plays: a playwright learning to work with a dramaturg and use a workshop as a crucible to explore and advance a play’s development will take your work to a higher level you never imagined, and serve you throughout your career.

However, that dramaturg-playwright-company relationship is different every time. When I was creating a Guide to Indigenous Dramaturgy, Michael Greyeyes shared this:

For me, the guide is one sentence long.

Knowledge is conditional; therefore, each situation and the unique participants of that project create the protocols collectively, according to that situation.

Anything longer leads to narrowing by definition and making concrete through mandate, whereas I would hope to come to work situations with only my background knowledge, my ethics and my humour. Not too much else. Certainly, no plan.

This speaks to the value of improvisation. Improv as a form of theatre gets maligned and reduced to Whose Line Is It Anyway? I’ve found the skills I’ve learnt from improv and Theatresports have been core in any success I’ve had as a writer, teacher, or dramaturg. Being able to give and take offers, play the “Yes, and…”- game – these make us more present.

Today was a lot of improv. We moved houses. My wife, who is a genius at logistics, had a brilliant plan – but I could see when we got to the new house that we needed to ensure there was parking for the truck. I made some ‘Road Cones’ from shoe racks and stools. I was then locked in a room with my sons for several hours so we wouldn’t come into contact with the movers. I Zoomed into my Writers Group via phone to give notes on a script about a marriage breakup around them moving house: A marriage is always more interesting than a murder. We played Scrabble, Exploding Kittens, and I rode shotgun while my son played Fortnite. I asked dramaturgical questions: Will we land more safely on the beach, but the storms be worse there?

Moving has brought up a lot of other stuff: We’ll be renters for life; I have accumulated a lot of junk and despite moving many times, never learn to let anything go; books are like bricks and we’ll never read all the ones we are supposed to; and dust, dust, all is dust.

PS: The Japanese have a word for the pile of books we don’t read, Tsundoku.

Headshot by Tae Hoon Kim.

Zoom photography courtesy of David Geary.


David Geary is a playwright, dramaturg, director & screenwriter who writes haiku on twitter: @gearsgeary.

David is of Māori, English, Irish and Scottish blood. His iwi / tribe in New Zealand is the Taranaki. He grew up immersed in the Polynesian trickster tales of Maui and is now honoured to live, work and play in the lands of the Coyote and Raven tricksters of Turtle Island/Canada.

He is an award-winning playwright, dramaturg, director, screenwriter, fiction writer and poet. David works at Capilano University in North Vancouver, Canada. He teaches screenwriting in the Indigenous Digital Filmmaking program, documentary, and playwriting. David’s recent work includes short plays for Climate Change Theatre Action and Centre Point.

David also teaches playwriting for Playwrights Theatre Centre (PTC) in Vancouver. The Māori word ako means both to teach and to learn, and he finds as a teacher he learns as much from his students as they do from him. David’s most recent fiction work can be found in the Penguin Random House collection Purakau and Bawaajigan: Stories of Power (Exile).

He’s a member of the Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas (LMDA) and does script consultation for theatre, TV and Film, most recently with Women in Film and Television (WIFTV).

David lives by the yogic mantra: “Life is short, stretch it!”


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