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Lay Your Burdens Down Day

Photo: Dr Kara McKechnie

Part of the Invisible Diaries series:

Week 4 / Day 7

Illustration: Dramaturg as lightning rod

I’ve hit the wall. The big move is over but moving the ‘small stuff’ all day reminded me how important it is to take breaks and lay your burdens down. We’re so ‘on and available’ these days, so keen to prove even in isolation we can still be connected and productive. It wears us out. We’ve got to take that deep breath, let our shoulders drop two inches and turn off everything.

Yoga helps me. I did four 30-day challenges with Yoga With Adriene last year. Yogi Adriene Mishler and her dog Benji are online superstars. She has a Southern sense of humour, designs classes of varied lengths and concentrations: Yoga for Servers, Yoga for Grief, Yoga for Dramaturgs?... No, not yet, but perhaps we are the ones to calibrate when the playwrights and company need to take a break, push on, stretch themselves, stay alive. Playwrights can go into ‘The Zone’ and need help. I once had to step in when a playwright came out of a workshop in a daze, overwhelmed by all the possibilities, and, totally oblivious, walked out into the middle of a busy road.

Dramaturgs are often described as the ‘Midwives of Plays’, but sometimes we’re the Road Wardens, and even the ‘Death Doulas’ if some scene/character/ project needs to die in a respectful way.

Endings are hard. This is my final blog and I feel the pressure to reach a rousing climax then denouement. I was going to re-read my last six blogs and do a summary in Blackout Poem form: you take the original text then blackout words and lines to create a new text. Unfortunately, I’m just too knackered. I remember I wrote something about lampreys, audits, masks, games, TV – dramaturg as lamprey, as auditor, as editor, historian, as cheer leader, as masked Spirit Guide, as Server/Protector/Provocateur, as Road Warden – who knows when to STOP… and lay his burdens down.

My advice about endings is: forget about writing Scene 1, 2, 3, etc., in chronological order. Just hit the Hot Spots, where you feel the heat and have the visions, then write the ending early. For the workshop of my play Lovelock’s Dream Run, I had an okay Act 1, but Act 2 was a dog’s breakfast. My great dramaturg Murray Edmond advised me to rewrite the final scene first, then I’d have something to aim for. I did, it worked, then I just wrote Act 2 to get there.

The End should also answer the Central Question(s) raised at the beginning. This is easy in crime and romance: Will the Detective catch the Criminal? Will the lovers get together? But in more complex work, like King Lear? Will the chaos Lear created by dictating what his daughters must do lead to death and disaster, or a new order, or both?

One question posed to me this week was: What is Indigenous Dramaturgy? Here’s what we covered and some added extras:

1. Land Acknowledgements – Let the land and its peoples guide you and your work. This includes consulting with Elders before and during the work.

2. Cultural appropriation / theft – Storytaking not Storytelling is an ongoing problem. We have a duty to ensure sacred stories and objects are honoured.

3. Revitalising First People’s Languages – This is a core mission of Indigenous work as the languages hold the culture. It’s also a good provocation to ask how traditional forms can be adapted into modern performance, like how can weaving be honoured in the narrative threads, the movement and set design?

4. Ceremony – Create a sacred space to work. Smudging can do this. I hate workshops that start where everyone schlumps down at the table, gives a brief intro, and then we read. I create circles away from the table to check-in as humans first. We do admin: parking, payment, personal pronouns. We talk about who we are and where our bones come from. We end with a waiata/song or karakia/prayer. We do the same at the end of the day. Last year, I worked on a project involving Windigo – the cannibal monster. Some believe that saying the W-word makes this monster real, and stronger. In the circle at the end of the day, we shared our fears and resolved to leave the Windigo in the room with the work. This enabled us to go on about our day. We laid our burdens down. The same applies to work that deals with trauma. You need ceremony to ensure everyone is safe.

5. The Right of Reply – I believe Indigenous theatre should always invite the audience to give their responses to a show in some form, and wherever possible there should be post-show conversations. The dramaturg can help curate this. It seems unnatural to keep us in the dark for hours, talk at us, but at the end have no chance to talk back. On a Māori marae, whaikorero/speechmaking, dialogue and debate are encouraged. In fact, it’s an art form. It is a regular occurrence for Maori audience members to stand up after the curtain call to address the cast, and sometimes sing a waiata back to the production to honour their work. That said, if the writer doesn’t want to be involved in a feedback session after a workshop, or show, the dramaturg or director can act as the lightning rod… just in case someone wants to throw lightning bolts.

6. Allies – Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists can recognize their privilege and be an ally for those whose voices aren’t being heard. Step Up – Support Others to Speak / Amplify Their Voices – Step Aside. And don’t expect local Indigenous Peoples to educate you. Educate yourself. Work out what you think Decolonization and Indigenisation mean. Start with the Maori documentary Merata: How Mum Decolonized the Screen.

7. Be an All-rounder – My advice for everyone: Don’t just be a dramaturg. Be a writer, actor, designer, director, dancer, technician, publicist, producer. They all feed each other. Create a manifesto of what you believe. Write up case studies of your dramatic and dramaturgical work, then use these as your calling card. Don’t be a snob. Consume all forms of culture – high and low. Be curious. Be careful and caring. Be a lightning rod, but take care to take the time to lay your burdens down, so you might pick them up again with renewed energy and perhaps not see them as just burdens after all.

As I was writing this, it turned 7 pm. People in Vancouver came out of their houses to bang pots, ring bells, clap and cheer for all the frontline workers whose shifts are changing. It’s become a community ceremony. Three weeks ago, I was in the nearby Lionsgate hospital for a Cardioversion – a Frankenstein Zap to rectify an irregular heartbeat. I asked the nurse what she thought of this 7 pm ritual. She loved it. I revealed that my sons played their trumpets badly for this sometimes. She thought she might have heard them, and that she loved the badly played trumpets the most.

I like to think for a brief time this simple ceremony lifted her up and allowed her to lay her burdens down. May you find and make similar ceremonies in your lives.

Arohanui/Big Love - DG


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!”


Headshot by Tae Hoon Kim. Illustration by David Geary.


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