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A Play in Pictures

Some thoughts on my experience as a dramaturg working on George C. Wolfe's The Colored Museum, originally posted as a three-part series on the Huntington's blog.
The play that wouldn't fit in a packet...

When we start rehearsal for a play at the Huntington, the staff gathers to welcome the cast and production team over coffee. While others’ hands reach out to grab a muffin or offer a greeting, mine are stacked with packets. Packets -- have you forgotten that word since 10th grade history class, left it in your locker with half the Roman emperors? Maybe your field has swapped it for the sexier “brief” or “file,” but mine never had that nerdy-girl-takes-off-her-glasses-and-is-suddenly-gorgeous teen movie moment. Some dramaturgs are taking down their pony tails and shaking out the stereotype, but much of my practice admittedly still starts in dusty library stacks. Whether it’s a hefty glossary of Depression-era slang for this fall’s Awake and Sing! or 19th century Irish immigrants’ letters home for The Second Girl,  packets of historical and contextual research support most Huntington productions. And at their most basic, the packets of paper I carry are armfuls of words. So how do you dramaturg a play that speaks in images?         

The Colored Museum opens with “slides, rapidly flashing before us. Images we’ve all seen before... The images flash, flash, flash,” and this practice of confronting all-too-familiar images centers the play. For playwright George C. Wolfe, the play “had the form of archetypes or the form of reclaiming, what I like to call reclaiming silhouettes, or reexamining the silhouette. We have such a knee-jerk response to the silhouette, that if it's a fat black woman with a bandanna on her head, we way ‘Offensive? Road block! Don't think! Don't hear what the character's saying, don't deal with it.’ Because so much of the imagery of the archetype has been co-opted by white culture-and turned into a stereotype so that we end up throwing out certain symbols and imagery that have a tremendous amount of power.” When I offer the production team a packet, I hope to enhance our understanding of the play, but a dozen articles on the history of the ‘mammy’ mean far less than the way we feel when confronted with the image of ‘a fat black woman with a bandanna on her head.’ My words would further risk diluting or sanitizing the powerful imagery of this play, or just missing the point.  To understand this play, using the traditional packet would be like serving soup with a slotted spoon.

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How to make a chandelier out of plastic spoons & other things I learned on Pinterest

Enter Pinterest. Til now, I’d dismissed the image collection and sharing social media site. Wasn’t it just nail art and misattributed quotes atop stock images? But as soon as I looked past the ‘easy DIY face-masks,’ I caught up to what John Donne figured out in 1624: no man is an island on the internet. Every exhibit from The Colored Museumalready had image-hunters hot on its tails. Board after board catalogued African American military history (“Soldier with a Secret”) or were singularly devoted to everyEbony magazine cover ever printed (“The Photo Session”). The deeper I mined into Pinterest, the more it surprised and rewarded me. If I loved an image, I’d click through to its source, which was often another Pinterest user with another rich set of visual resources. It’s easy to make fun of social media for amounting to navel-gazing and pictures of food, but here I was awed by people digging into history, culture, and representation, taking the time – and the plunge into complex considerations, on Pinterest of all places.

But a week before rehearsal started, I returned to the real world. Actors could click through my boards, but having a smaller, more curated set of resources in the room is more useful than an overwhelming wealth outside of it. That’s why we print those packets rather than giving out directions to the nearest library. So the digital boards had to go old-school bulletin board. With Pinterest doesn’t heed practical printing concerns like resolution and image size, so reverse Google image search and I became fast friends. Am I the only one who didn’t know about this? You can upload an image or its link to search by image. Filtering results by size transformed the tiny icon I’d pinned into an attractive full-size print out. Songza-fueled hours at the paper cutter followed for me and Huntington dramaturg Charles Haugland. Our marathon day ended balanced standing atop a mostly stable stool, scotch -taping images to the rehearsal room wall.

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If a picture's worth a thousand words, are 1200 pictures worth 1,200,000?
For the real-world wall, the 1200 images I pinned were culled down to maybe 120. Posting ten or so images for each of the play’s eleven ‘exhibits,’ I realized there was a reason I could leave hundreds of excess images behind, but I couldn’t reduce all the way down to one. The images’ power often grew from their interrelationships. At the beginning of my image search, I’d treated them like glossary entries: the exhibit “Lala’s Opening” mentions Josephine Baker, so I found a picture of Josephine Baker. One to one. But her significance only came into focus as I scrolled past images of Beyonce, Rihanna, and Diana Ross each dressed as Josephine Baker. That’s when her image became an icon; only through a collection of images could I approach the “definitive black diva” Wolfe calls for, and the dense meaning of the “silhouette” he asks us to examine. The nimble lateral connections images allow aren’t one to one, and together, they make more than the sum of their parts. More even than a packet-full of words can say.
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