Have you ever wondered what a Dramaturg does for the theatre?

"These Shining Lives" Photo by Paul R. Kennedy

IRVINE, CA (November 20, 2015) - Have you ever wondered what a Dramaturg does for the theatre?  UCI Drama utilizes a Dramaturg for main stage productions offering the audience insight and depth into the playwright’s context, language, and backstory.  The director will guide and mold the actors and creative team to bring the play to life, but the job of the Dramaturg is to know as much about the play and its conception as the original playwright; enhancing every part of the director’s vision.

Take a deeper look at These Shining Lives, and go into the mind of Dramaturg Wind Dell Woods with his latest notes for the upcoming play by Melanie Marnich opening Saturday, November 21, 2015. 

These Shining Lives Dramaturgical Notes
by Wind Dell Woods, Dramaturg

“This isn’t a fairy tale, though it starts like one. It’s not a tragedy, though it ends like one” These Shining Lives

Once upon a time—1922, to be exact—in the not so far off land of Ottawa, Illinois, a most curious thing took place. A factory opened, providing employment opportunities for young women with dexterous hands. This factory was not like any ordinary factory. By using the wonders of radium to paint the small numbers and dials on the faces of watches, this factory made time glow. Because the factory painted radium on dials, it was called The Radium Dial Factory. And because the young women, with their crafty little hands, painted the glowing substance on the dials, they were called dial painters.

Now the dial painters loved their jobs. The factory provided them a space to commune with other women, the work was fairly easy, and the wages were almost too good to be true. But it all was true, and the dial painters considered themselves very lucky. They were part of something novel, something exciting, and something that made them feel as if they were shining like new money. Needless to say, the dial painters were very content, and their futures, like the digits on the timepieces, seemed radiant.

Time was magical.

Until one day, one of the dial painters became very ill, and no one understood what it was that ailed her, but there was something curiously wrong. Then another fell ill. No one would tell them what it was, but there was something surely wrong. Then more dial painters got sick, and they got sicker and sicker. Until one day…until…well—you see the radium substance did glow like magic, but like any good magic trick, one must fall victim to the illusion. The truth was that this newly discovered substance, with its ability to make even the darkest of times “undark”, had a dark side of its own. In the end, many dial painters became very ill, many died. All of them realized, “making good money doesn’t come cheap,” and “work that pays well costs you something.”

The factory finally closed its doors and left the small town, but the stories about this curious time remain. Even some of the radiation remains, and resting in the cemetery on the hill are many of the remains of the dial painters, their bones still glowing, their stories still radioactive.

The end

and the beginning

These Shining Lives isn’t a fairy tale, nor is it a tragedy; it is something else, something different. What is this something other than, this undefined or perhaps indefinable alternative that haunts from deep in Marnich’s dramaturgy? What can we learn from the space in between fairy tale and tragedy, past and present, life and death, that which is spoken and that which is unspeakable?

If one woman were to tell the truth about her life, The world would split open.” –Muriel Rukyser

The quote above by poet Muriel Rukyser serves as the epigraph to These Shining Lives. The quote comes from a poem titled “Käthe Kollwitz”; its last two lines a question: “what would happen if one woman told the truth about her life?” and an answer: “the world would split open.” Kollwitz was a German painter whose artwork depicted the bleak conditions of German workers toward the end of the 19th century. Her work is unapologetic in its portrayal of the poverty stricken circumstances that the workers faced. Much of Kollwitz’s art focused on the affect these conditions had on women. There is something haunting about the level of truth she achieved in her paintings. Pain and suffering jump off the canvas. There is also an element of beauty in her portrayal, perhaps a sense of hope, most certainly a sense of something else. Rukyser gestures towards this in a descriptive line of the poem that reads, “the faces of the sufferers / in the street, in dailiness, / their lives showing / through their bodies / a look of music / the revolutionary look / that says I am in the world / to change the world.” What is the connection between a look that changes the world, indicated in these lines, and a truth that would split it open, as suggested in the epigraph?

I believe that the epigraph functions as both a lens and navigational compass, guiding our direction, even when the traditional markers of dramatic realism, which we often use as points of orientation, fail us. The quote calls us to listen closely to the words of these women, but also to pay close attention to their silences. It demands that we must, in the words of Cornel West, “let suffering speak, if [we] want to hear the truth.” But how does one hear a truth that would split the world open? More importantly, how does one tell such a truth? The epigraph forces these questions, and the weight of these questions troubles the play text, as well as our production.

Director Sarah Butts and the artistic team have found creative ways to keep the gravity of these questions in fruitful tension with the play’s many aesthetic layers. Marnich describes the play as being “at times choral, at times docudrama, at times just a play.” Elsewhere she mentions that, the play “moves between fact and fiction, between reality and imagination, to create a theatrical world.” Rather than attempt to situate the play neatly in time and space, this production finds strength in the in between spaces. It locates its forceful presence in the elusiveness of poetry. It works to grasp hold of what Rukyser terms, “the music of truth,” and bear witness to it, even when it is whispered, even when, as Emily Dickinson understood, it is told slant.

The sky twinkles with a few stars of luminous numbers, fugitive hours that have ran away from the clocks.” –These Shining Lives

As a dramaturge I am interested in the notions of time and history. With each production I ask two initial questions: Why a particular play here? And why now? These Shining Lives is a play about time and history, perhaps time as history. Suzan-Lori Parks suggests that, “history is time that won’t quit.” The exploitation represented in the play as a historical event, I argue exists in a continuum of “time that won’t quit”1 . Today we still live in a world where the desire for profit eclipses the compassion for people. What to do with this relentless time? Especially when Dr. King reminds us that “time is not neutral…it can be used for good or for evil.” The untimely, question is what to do now? Who will be courageous enough to tell a truth that would make time turn its face?

I encourage you, as you view this play, to keep Rukyser’s words “If one woman were to tell the truth about her life, the world would split open” in mind. Let it guide you as you watch this production unearth these radioactive stories, not fairytales, nor tragedies, but something else—something perhaps akin to what Catherine explains in the final moments of the play as, “Faith at the edge [end] of the world.”

1 See Elements of Style by Suzan-Lori Parks, 1995.

Performance Information for These Shining Lives at the Humanities Hall Little Theatre November 21 through December 6, 2015.

Evenings: Nov, 21 & Dec. 3, 4, 5 at 8:00 pm
Evening: Dec. 2 at 7:30 pm
Matinees: Nov. 22* & Dec. 5, 6 at 2:00 pm

*Ticketholders: Please join us for a post-performance TalkBack with the creative team and cast.

Tickets available (949) 824-2787 or www.arts.uci.edu/tickets