Staging the N-word

I received some insightful and referenced comments from the dramaturgs on the LMDA listserv concerning the use of the N-word on stage and the struggle of our current production to present it. But interesting how even within the context of a discussion of the word itself, there seems to be a taboo against typing the full six-lettered word nigger onto the digital page, as if not only any utterance, but also any “publicationof the word would easily transcend the intent of the writer.

One dramaturg references a scholarly study, Randall Kennedy’s Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word, abstracting a quote that highlights the power of the word and points to why it’s an apt candidate for presentation and study through theatre or other modes of public discourse.

To be ignorant of its meanings and effects is to make oneself vulnerable to all manner of perils, including the loss of a job, a reputation, a friend, even one’s life.

I recently read a related short but insightful blog post referencing an e-mail exchange between cultural critic Greil Marcus and art journalist John Rockwell that provides additional insight to a zeitgeist that seems centered on the parsing of words.

Words, the Arts and the World

Months back Hillary Clinton (or was it Bill, or another primary candidate?) attacked Barack Obama as a mere purveyor of words. Obama (borrowing, it turned out, from his friend Deval Patrick, governor of Massachusetts) responded that words do count, words mean something important. Without too great a stretch, I want to extrapolate that idea to arts journalism, and the need for same.

Recently I had an e-mail exchange with Greil Marcus, who was editing an entry on “Porgy and Bess” that I had written for a Harvard anthology. The last issue to be considered between us was whether in one sentence “African-Americans” or “blacks” worked better.

I finally decided I didn’t much care, ending with “Let’s move on to curing cancer, solving world peace, electing Obama and like that.” Greil replied: “Don’t you realize that the right choice between “blacks” and “African-Americans, whatever it is, is the SAME THING as curing cancer, solving world peace, and electing Obama? Where’s your sense of proportion?”

Point taken. Words do matter. Even the words, the futile scribblings, of arts critics. Take away words, take away critical commentary on the arts, and the arts lose something crucial to their creation and, especially, their reception. So think of that the next time you set out to solve world peace, arrogantly indifferent to mere words, or the arts.



Avant Yarde Opening Thursday Night

NYC friends, please stop by to say hi and for a bubbly toast to Charles.

The Avant Yarde is located in a four-story private artists’ residence in the landmarked area of Brownstone Brooklyn. The site hosts artist salons, art potlatches, and commissions and installs temporary sculptures throughout the year. Avant Yarde proposes an alternative to the traditional performance and gallery space, attempting to position the exchange and experience of art outside the confines of the market while also examining conventional notions of public and private space within the community.

Curators: Russell Busch, Katie Merz, Paul Benney, Nick Fracaro, Gabriele Schafer

Avant Yarde accepts proposals for installations and sculptures on an ongoing basis. Write to

Current Installation

Big New Fountain by Charles Goldman

Opening reception: Thursday, June 12th from 6pm to 9pm at 214 Dean Street, Brooklyn.

Past Installations

Artist: Jason Gandy

What’s Up With That

Boat Mystery Solved!

Dramaturgy and PR

Plays are part and parcel of their productions. Zeitgeist, site-specific elements and the actor/producer’s explicit talents and ambitions all inform the reality.

Does the “event” of the production have any historical importance to theatre or the world? The “audience” of this event is not something that will be measured at the box office or necessarily in popular success.

Jarry’s Ubu Roi and Chekhov’s The Seagull both premiered in 1896 to disparaging audiences. In most ways contrary to one another, both plays went on to become important seminal works.

Imagine being the dramaturg in 1896 commissioned to champion these plays into historical importance. Your work with the playwright would have nothing to do with “the script” and everything to with the “signature” production and its aftermath. Perhaps that would mean engaging Jarry in his lifestyle of drunken anarchy and talking pataphysics late into the night. Or perhaps, more soberly, coaching Chekhov not to express his loathing for Stanislavski’s performance as Trigorin and encouraging him to consent to the newly founded Moscow Art Theatre as producer of his plays.

Although none of us will likely be involved in such historically significant productions as these two, we need to approach each script and production with an expectation that the event will capture the Zeitgeist of its locality. Same as the local hero is more vital to the community and our lives than any American Idol could ever be, theatre is most potent when striving to be specific and relative to the ambitions of its particular family, kinship, and tribe.

In my practice, being a dramaturg means also being a producer, so I am often collaborating as diligently on PR as I am on analyzing or collaborating with the artists on the script and other production design elements. Finding an audience is not synonymous with achieving a box office. Stardom seeks and produces fan-dom, but theatre seeks a more engaged and critical participation from its audience. So PR should be as centered on the dramaturgy of a new script as the production is. Similarly to how a production might put out a casting call seeking specific actors for specific roles; the audience sought should also possess a particular and detailed character.

SlowLearner and DevilVet have suggested a public production process both as it fits within this realm of promotion and as civil discussion point in the theatrosphere on aesthetics. I am not convinced that we are actually interested enough in each other’s artistic processes that we will closely read one another’s posts and comment in depth, but I have been publishing part of my dramaturg’s protocol and other collaborative aspects of our ensemble’s process at our theatre’s blog in hope of such an interaction from fellow theatre peers.
Design Proposal/Collaboration
The Big Suit
Gestus for characters

In his series of posts DevilVet aptly asks: Is It Worth the Risk – Documenting Creative Process.

The primary risk of course is that any public representation will negatively affect either the process itself or the future relationship between working peers. The secondary risk is that because any documentation necessarily highlights only certain aspects of a production, the reception of the work by critics and audience will be prejudiced by this prior representation.

The new play we commissioned from an Austrian playwright was written for a specific ensemble of four actors. The play has already been performed before an audience in Germany and America, in both languages, but in our October mixed-language production in New York, we have begun exploring the script at a more complex level than previously, deliberately employing certain facets of Brechtian performance and production techniques.

I am especially interested in the dilemma posed by one particular word in the script and production. The N-word from an actor/character on stage reads differently in Germany than America. By “publishing” our ensemble’s deliberation in this, I am perhaps unduly highlighting an element in the script that may have relatively minor significance to the overall production, but could easily generate a controversial debate.

The N-word is probably the most politically potent word in America today. Of course that potency is mostly diffused if its utterance arrives on stage only from within the crippled psychology of a particular character. But it speaks to the power of words in our social relationships, that even within the safe haven of “it’s the character saying it, not me”, Roger as actor has been struggling to spit it out in some “natural” way. If the N-word were taken out the safety box of naturalism and employed as gestus, the whole of the production would need to struggle with its presence.

I put this question of the N-word in front of the private/public list-serv of dramaturgs of LMDA. I have received private email on the dilemma from the listserv but no one has yet answered in front of others. This speaks to the volatility present in any discussion of the subject. (Update: Meanwhile a few ‘turgs have braved comment but the aura of taboo surrounding even the mere discussion of this subject in public remains strong.)

The potential for the theatrosphere is that it not just supplements the criticism, review, documentation, and other theatre-talk of print publication, but supplants and leads toward a new representation of our art that has a more in depth and interactive relationship with our peers and audience. I appreciate the various Chicago bloggers (Paul, Tony, Don, Bob) taking the lead and exploring the most difficult and complex new relationship posed by artists reviewing/commenting on other artist’s work or process. There will be no easy answers or codified rules in this new relationship to our work and our peers.

Design Proposal/Collaboration

(Seated left to right) Melanie, Nick, Gabriele, Andreas, Kirby (March, 2008 Brooklyn)

Concept proposals and other table work for the New York production at 59E59 of Outside Inn began in March with a four-day meeting of the principle collaborators in Brooklyn. Although we had already mounted two prior full productions of Andreas’ script, director Melanie wanted to reopen the process to discover additional layers of performance and production.  With the consent of the ensemble, as dramaturg I have opened up part of our collaborative process for public examination and comment at
our theatre blog.

The above photo was taken by our resident designer, Stephanie (her empty chair at the head of table). Below is her design proposal that is leading us into the reopened process. By looking at her original concept design and production photos of the Pittsburgh and Stuttgart productions, the fields being opened for new exploration become clear. Below is Stephanie’s initial design proposal after this March meeting.


Design Ideas

My instinct is to create a more poetic environment: A place that becomes a visual collection of our four characters’ thoughts and struggles. I like the image of a WALL. A wall that is both: border and gate at the same time.

grafftti wall

I asked myself, “Which walls tell stories (or carry evidence of stories). Well; there are billboards – which would be a perfect place for all the projections we have in mind.

The Berlin Wall….

A wall in a detective’s office with photographs and maps and networks….


Climbing Walls….

Gaby’s Wall of ever-changing art:


Impossible Walls

Early on, Melanie and I talked about leaving footprints on the floor. That’s when the whole talk about water started. We would like to get back to this but also leave these “footprint” imprints, the evidence of our detective story inside/on/at the wall. Marina could write her telephone number with lipstick onto the wall. The telephone cord could come out of the wall. What else…. ?

A web-like graph inside of the wall connects our characters. Maybe some artifacts of the characters’ histories are embedded into it, so deep underneath many layers (of tape or plastic or resin) you can not get down to them any more.

We could write with (erasable) markers onto the wall. Some areas of the wall are so sticky you can stick your coat (or yourself) on it without a hook. I would love it if the wall could cry. A water wall.A wall that helps us to remember and keeps us from remembering.

The figure frames that you guys where talking about could be part of the wall. In the model I played with a shadow-like 2D figure (Kalowski) embedded under the first layer. Then I created the same shape out of a wire frame and put it in front of it. Would one wire frame be enough?

Design Models

This is the first model sketch that I had showed Melanie. The audience is arranged in an L-shaped configuration. The entrance is to the right. The audience would walk partially over the cardboard floor. I like the bold statement of the letters “WALL” cut out of the wall.

This is a top view of the space. Since we need to have 2 emergency exits, there will be a staircase in the lower right hand corner that gets people to the door up right.

This is the same L-shaped set up.

Here the wall is constructed out of a metal grid (like a billboard) that is covered with plexi and plastic. There are 4 chairs so that the characters can always remain on stage. Two chairs SR and two SL. There is one chaise in the middle. I eliminated the “W” and one “L” cut-out and started to play with the “W” flat on the floor and the 2nd “L” up high. Later I also added two more small letters: “N” and “D”. So it could also read “WAND”. Actors will be able to come through the “A” and sit in the “A.” They can also come through the “L.” There are things embedded in-between the two layers of plastic in the wall. A map of the characters’ relationship, photographs….

You can see the great lighting possibilities the semi translucent wall could give.

In this picture you can see the wire figure next to the “A” and the permanent shadow of the same figure in-between the “A” and the “L.”

It would be great if this wall could “cry.” We would then need it to stand in a trough to collect the water. It would be great if the stage would be built up 6″ so the trough would be inside the floor……

I had another idea for the water. What if the chaise would sit inside a shallow pool? Every time you get on or off the couch you step in the water. It becomes an island that way.Now to the proscenium style set-up.

I used the same set-pieces. As you can see, we could make the wall a little bit wider (and then also higher). We have about 2-3′ on either side of the stage. As of now, I put the chairs on the black area. I kind of like how everything sits in this void.

In this picture, I played around with a “W”-chair type of thing. I think it is too much. Next are some experiments with a picture frame and plastic material.

I glued 2 layers of plastic around a frame. Put some things inside of it and others on top. In the end I spray dusted it with white paint.

I do like how versatile the plastic is and how it reacts to light.

You see that the same surface photographed with different angles of light looks totally different. It’s full of possibilities but also challenges.

Ground Plans