Theatre has coursed through Laura Moch’s blood since she caught the bug in her first high school drama class, but even she didn’t know what dramaturgy was until she took Dan Bacalzo’s script analysis class at FGCU. Now, thanks to a combination of coursework, a summer research fellowship and hands-on learning through the production of a world-premiere play, she can not only define dramaturgy, but she can explore it as another potential career path.
“I’ve learned so much,” Moch says. “There’s another area of theatre that I didn’t know about and absolutely love. Just having the life lessons of working with a playwright on a new play and being able to then produce it is something I’ve absolutely adored. It’s another experience I can add to my resume.”
So … what is dramaturgy? (Rhymes with “clergy,” by the way.)
“Dramaturgy is a process of script analysis and in-depth research in preparation to put a show into production,” says Moch, who put the process into practice with Bacalzo for the world premiere of the locally inspired comedy “Your Florida Fantasy,” which runs through April 22 in TheatreLab. “It could be a show that is brand new like what we’re doing or something like Shakespeare that’s been seen many times.”
Dramaturgy varies from one project to another but could include assessing the script’s strengths and weaknesses and working with the playwright to make dialogue, shorten scenes or clarify tone; conducting research and character analysis that helps directors and actors make choices in a production; and practical tasks like generating an inventory of props and set requirements.
The theatre department has debuted new plays before, but it’s believed this is the first time FGCU has collaborated this extensively with an emerging playwright outside the university.
Moch, who’s graduating in May with a theatre degree and business minor, did her homework on “Your Florida Fantasy” last summer and fall with Bacalzo, an assistant professor and freelance dramaturg who has helped shape dozens of plays in New York and elsewhere. They worked long distance but in close collaboration with Illinois-based playwright Zachary Michael Jack, thanks in large part to a Seidler Undergraduate Scholarly Research Fellowship, and also consulted with Professor Barry Cavin, who first connected with the writer when the play was just an idea about two years ago and who directed the premiere production.
A former Floridian and snowbird, Jack found inspiration for what became the sex farce in the barrier islands and their flora and fauna, coastal pirate lore and tropical weather. The plot involves college students working together on an Internet startup in Kalamazoo who wind up at a Captiva Island resort run by a colorful old salt named Rusty Hinge. Romantic entanglements, mistaken identities, wild goose chases and a surprise out-of-season tropical weather system ensue (expect adult situations and language).
During their research, Moch and Bacalzo visited barrier islands and delved into their history, interviewed boat captains, shot pictures of the rustic cabins on Cayo Costa that inspired the playwright and verified the veracity of some of the tropical tour de farce’s nuttier-sounding references. Yes, a tropical storm can happen in February — one made landfall in Cape Sable in Monroe County in 1952. Yes, crocodiles do show up in Florida, even though alligators are much more prevalent — at least two have been documented around Sanibel Island.
“All of this is part of dramaturgy,” says Bacalzo, who previously taught theatre at New York University and Hunter College and worked 15-plus years as a theatre editor and critic in New York City. “Sometimes it’s doing research for the playwright. This was more production-centric. We were looking at things in the script that we wanted to flesh out. For example, we created a glossary of terms mentioned that we didn’t think people involved in the production would necessarily know. We did research on Jose Gaspar (the apocryphal Spanish pirate who, according to local lore, kept women captive on the island that came to be known as Captiva) and the three different kinds of mangroves (red, white and black) that grow here — they play a rather large part in the play.”
A rather large part of dramaturgy is the delicate art of communicating constructive suggestions to writers (we don’t always take kindly to changing our carefully chosen words). Everyone agreed the script was too long, for instance, so there was back and forth via video chat about options for shortening the run time. For the most part, Bacalzo says he finds writers receptive but trust has to be established gradually.
“The cardinal rule of dramaturgy, which Laura and I talked about early on, is you don’t tell the playwright how to write,” he says. “The goal is not to rewrite the playwright — it’s to help the playwright find the best play that he has written. You don’t ask the hard questions first. That comes later in the process.”
Throughout the process, they wrestled with challenges of transferring the comedy from the page to the stage. A big one: How to conjure the island setting with limited space, budget and time? No sand or water was imported to the black-box TheatreLab for the show, but there is a lone palm tree decorated with strings of light.
“We had to get very creative with some aspects,” says Moch, who also serves as stage manager for the production. “It presented challenges not only for our professors who are designers and have done this for many years but also for our students. It showed our actors and techies we can do a lot more than we think even though we’re still learning.”
“Your Florida Fantasy”
- Performances are April 13, 14, 20 & 21 at 7:30 p.m.; April 15, 21* & 22 at 2 p.m. in TheatreLab, FGCU Arts Complex. *There will be a discussion with the cast and crew following this performance.
- Tickets are $10 for the public and $7 for students; purchase online.