Inside WASTWATER Part 4: Dramaturgy

Inside WASTWATER Part 4: Dramaturgy

Wastwater lake located in Wasdale, England 

In this 4-part feature, PerformInk continues its INSIDE series and takes you behind the scenes of Steep’s production of WASTWATER, directed by Robin Witt.

Part 4: Dramaturgy
By Jeremy Kazan

Different directors use dramaturgs in different manners and with different productions we serve different needs.  With a new play we are frequently used as midwife or therapist (for both the script and playwright).   With an established play the focus leans to being a sounding board for the director, an eye to see that the production is remaining true to the spirit of the script and the director’s vision, and as a general researcher for the world of the play and its previous productions as a resource for the cast, production team and audience.

I began my work as dramaturg for Steep’s production of Wastwater some six months ago in conversation with the director Robin Witt.  I even sat in on auditions (which is unusual for a dramaturg), not so much as to help with casting, but to be able to hear, repeatedly, portions of the script and to observe what ideas Robin had for the production.  I created extensive annotations of the script for the cast and team which included: definitions of obscure terms, photographs of places, explanations of events mentioned, elucidation of running themes and scriptural cross references and a timeline of the innumerable events that are mentioned in passing throughout the play.  I also created a packet (electronic – gone are the days of enormous binders) of various contextual research materials of various news articles, online politicking, scholarly research, government forms and policies, video clips, podcasts, etc..  During the production actors or designers would occasionally have questions for me regarding holes in their own research which I would do my best to help fill.  Sample questions included such matters as “how are bricks of banknotes bound together in the U.K.?,” “How long is the bus ride from Sipson to Heathrow?,” “Would a police officer go to jail for being in porn?,” and “Does the British Council really pay for Fulbright scholarships?” Not infrequently the off-stage “real-world” answers to such specific questions are not as important as looking at why such issues are being dramatically raised.  

As to Simon Stephens’ Wastwater itself, it is a challenging triptych of scenes set around London’s Heathrow Airport, and an homage to Robert Holman’s seminal Making Noise Quietly.  Since its premiere at the Royal Court in 2010 Wastwater, sadly, has been rarely performed – this is its first production in the Americas – and it has been professionally performed maybe two other times.  In a play named for the deepest lake in England, we find ourselves in rather banal locations around Heathrow: an abandoned greenhouse, a hotel room, and a warehouse. We are presented with characters whose links are largely casual and a barrage of names and places that make it clear that we are all linked in a manner not unlike its characters.

An abandonded greenhouse in SipsonCrowne Plaza Heathrow 2In each of the scenes in Wastwater it is 9 p.m., June 25th, 2010; sunset on one of the longest days of the year.  Some 200,000 people have passed through Heathrow traveling on 1,400 flights to and from some 185 cities in 84 different countries spanning the globe.

The small village of Sipson, bordering the airport to the north, has just been given a reprieve on its very existence.  On May 12, 2010 the U.K. government had announced the cancellation of its plans to build a third runway which would have obliterated the town.  A fierce debate had raged for years.  Business, industry, trade unions and the Labor Party had argued that the very economic future of the nation depended on the expansion, while environmentalists concerned as to the effects of expanding air travel on global warming had created a spirited opposition which went so far as to occupy and rehabilitate abandoned greenhouses for their own idea of how to “Grow Heathrow.”  

As two of the play’s characters sing, the sounds of the Habenera have been in the air.  On June 18, 2010, a production of George Bizet’s Carmen was simulcast on enormous screens in public places across all of Europe as part of the “Viva Europa 2010” festival.  

This late evening is our modern world.  A world that started just 12,000 years ago when the enormous ice sheets and glaciers that carved out Wastwater, shaped England, created our Great Lakes and allowed a brief moment in time when farming could begin and the foundations of our civilization to emerge.  Sooner or later this window of opportunity for our existence will close; “interglacial” periods like the one we live in now typically last a mere 20,000 years, and we have plenty of ways at our disposal to make that time considerably shorter.  The choices we make in our brief time here are vital and we will carry them with us, as each of the play’s characters make clear.  

Heathrow Terminal 5The village of Sipson has been slated for destruction since 1946 when the first plans that created Heathrow were laid down.  It has gone from temporary reprieve to temporary reprieve.  The third runway is still seen by many as essential to the U.K. economy and it is argued that if it is not built, the environment will still not be spared as aircraft and industry will simply move to more agreeable locations in France and the Netherlands.  All that connects us, damages us as well.  This is our world, these are our choices. As noted in Elizabeth Kolbert’s 2002 New Yorker article “Ice Memory,” there is an old Danish saying that seems particularly apt: “Pissing in your pants will keep you warm for only so long.”

And then there is this beautiful lake Wastwater.  Located deep in the mountainous screes and shadows of the Lake District, the lack of oxygen in its depths has created the unusual effect of being able to preserve bodies, sometimes of the murdered (such as the airline stewardess Margaret Hogg in 1978), or simply the drowned (such as the French student Veronique Mireille Marre in1983) and for them to emerge, as if in wax, years later.  This play holds bodies in its depths.

About author

Jeremy Kazan

Jeremy Kazan is a Chicago-based dramaturg, writer, and professional researcher. He has been a frequent collaborator with Steep Theatre. His dramaturgical work largely focuses on British Isle and Continental theatrical traditions.