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How does a dramaturg help to usher a new work into being? Here’s how it happened, week by week, on our production of STC’s Salomé.
When we regathered the actors and designers in Washington, the first week was largely about getting back to where we ended up during last spring’s workshop. Actors – some of whom had been so inspired by the workshop that they traveled to Israel – plastered up pieces of inspiration on the walls. Seemingly overnight, photographs of Jerusalem, notebook pages filled with fragments of poems materialized. Just like that, the room had atmosphere.
I remember being nervous and a bit apprehensive. After meeting with the designers in New York, I had gathered a list of texts we wanted to have in Hebrew, Arabic, and Aramaic, mostly for Mark Bennett, our sound designer and composer, who had plans to use them in operatic ways with our two singers in the cast, Tamar and Lubana. I was unsure how this text would be integrated. (This plan ended up getting scrapped, but it was just the first of many text-finding adventures.)
Instead of starting with a read-through of her script, Yaël and Ami Shulman, the movement coach for the production, continued to generate material for the show’s “image bank” with physical exercises. We mapped out the world of the play. After starting the day with a physical warm-up, the company would suddenly coalesce. As I try to recollect them, the images are dreamlike, fluid, unfixed. The whole company a throbbing mass, an organism moving slowly and then violently and then tenderly through space, with each other, creating the ancient world of Judaea.
As Yaël continued to make edits to the text, clear character choices emerged, strikingly so: the regal, urbane colonialist Pilate; the Qaddafi-esque Herod; the baby-faced soldier Narraboth (later to be renamed Bar Giora); the Nameless Woman, a person of the desert; the Sanhedrin, two gaunt, erect high priests; Iokanaan, the holy man, his eyes boring holes, followed around by the Madman, who trails him like a dog in search of its master.
Later in the week, Yaël, pacing around the actors almost like a lion-tamer inside the cage, pruned these exercises into images, not yet scenes: Pilate riding into the city on a chariot, drawn by one of the other actors like an ox; Iokanaan lying on top of a wall-like structure with Salomé underneath, interred as if deep in the underground. We knew we have to add text as quickly as possible, but the ensemble was at a fever pitch of activity and excitement, after having been separated for the summer, and Yaël was trying to strike while the iron is hot.
At the end of the week, we started adding words. Yuval, one of the cast members, brought in “The Ordeal of Bitter Water,” a vivid description of punishment for adultery from the book of Numbers, and the cast works it in a ritualistic manner, over the body of Salomé. There was a palpable excitement to the work and the world that was being created, and also a knowledge of how much more had to get done.
Photo by Ruthie Rado.