Honors dramaturgy thesis presents relatable, lifelike struggle

“Dramaturgy” is a strange word of German origin that refers to the composition of the principal components of staged performance. As I have come to understand via the hasty analysis of a few Wikipedia pages, this entails presenting a story in a manner that can be performed – creating characters, action and dialogue that can move scenes. Along with playwriting and directing, it is one of three necessary steps for the production of any drama.

Nathan Siegel ’15 focuses on the dramaturgic aspect of dramatic production in his honors theater thesis, “The Imperial House.” The story of “The Imperial House” is adapted from a series of interviews with the residents of the Pittsburgh condominium complex where Siegel’s grandmother resides. Interestingly, the complex does not cater specifically to older residents. There are no mechanisms of assistance for the elderly in place. The Imperial House is just a place where a lot of people over 60 have decided to live. Finding inspiration in this unique community, Siegel conducted interviews and prepared the collected material for the stage.

Working alongside advisor Becky Wright, Siegel molded the dynamic of the condo development to the medium of theatrical drama. In the performance program, he describes the scenes that would develop as his inspiration, referring to “the board [of the House] trying to discover who stole the remote control from the exercise room, only to discover that it had actually just fallen behind the water cooler.”

Siegel’s role, then, as the dramaturg for “The Imperial House,” is taking stories like that of the remote control and turning them into captivating theater. This left the direction to his advisor. Wright is a theater professional based in Philadelphia, where she serves as the artistic director of the theater company Applied Mechanics. The cast of The Imperial House was aged appropriately, the only student representative being Nate Cheek ’15 assuming the role of one character’s grandson.

A dramatic reading of “The Imperial House” was performed the weekend of November 8-9 in the LPAC Frear Theater to a full audience. The actors were seated in a horizontal row of chairs, water bottles resting below them. Abigail Frank ’15 sat behind the lineup, speaking up to describe settings, characters and stage directions. The cast did not move, really, though their faces were expressive, to match the lines delivered, and there was the occasional gesticulation (for instance, one actress moving her hand as if she were holding a paintbrush). They followed the script and rarely stuttered.

The work follows the story of several fictionalized House residents in parallel. Most of the denizens are elderly and Jewish, occupying their retired time with swimming and painting, attending Shabbos and Shivas. There is a gentile couple, half of which is a close-minded minister who facilitates a variety of cultural tensions. There is Lidia, displaced from Poland some long time ago, constantly missing her grandchildren and struggling to find friendship among her contemporaries. And there is Diane, a relatively young new resident who, unlike the others, voices her dissatisfaction with the absurd reasoning and frequent misplaced complacence of the condominium board.

The incompetent bureaucracy making decisions for the condominium complex is a primary source of tensions among the residents of The Imperial House. Lidia’s attempt to put a pot of flowers in the lobby is met with a tiresome explanation of nonsensical board policies and the flowers eventually being thrown away. There is perpetual debate over whether or not a road with a single crack will ever be repaired, and why, and how. At one point, Diane’s roof is lifted inexplicably from the other walls of the building – for the sake of the actual House residents let this be entirely fictional – and it is never fixed.

The struggle presented by the red tape of life is relatable, once the veneer of the characters’ age is removed and the drama can be viewed as essentially human. It is as if they are not so old, or (since the moribund reality of being old is not ignored in “The Imperial House”) rather as if it is not so different, being old. Making friends is hard even when you have a lot of experience. Some people will always be stubborn. You may never remember what seem like the most basic details of your circumstances.

Each character seems faithfully adapted from real life, exhibiting only the appropriate naturally occurring levels of cliché. Fortunately, the quality of the work does not hinge on the fact that old white people are out of touch. There are moments when a fine line is walked between character and caricature, but each member of the cast generally manages to be more interesting than the sum of its stereotypes.

Some theatergoers — myself included, which is why I mention it — will not be able to help but see the very real characters of their overwhelmingly Jewish young lives, the Sharons and the Rachels and the Jims, all well-educated and well out of middle age, full of “useful advice” and not really sure how to use a computer. They will see their mothers or perhaps the friends of their mothers sitting in in a row and reading off of their scripts, wondering why nobody ever told them about dramaturgy and thinking, “Maybe it’s time to call mom.”

Correction on 11/19:

A previous version of this article misidentified the nature of the thesis project. It was a dramaturgy thesis. The Phoenix apologizes for this mistake.

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