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How To Make Our Myths

In late 2009 I wrote an essay for Lumina, called Make our Myths. This essay argued that the purpose of Australian feature film production is not to tell our own stories. The purpose of our feature film production is to make our myths.

by Karen Pearlman

The essay went off like a firecracker, with excerpts being reproduced in a range of print and online media, including this illustrious site. I still have people quoting back lines to me, such as: “most people would rather stay at home and fight with their own families than go and watch another Australian drama onscreen.”

Make Our Myths put forward three key elements needed to elevate our stories out of the domestic drama doldrums: scale, (ours need to be bigger both imaginatively and cinematically) dramatic questions (questions where an action is implied and something is at stake – without which, who cares?) and ownership (that the stories have to be owned by more than just the people making them.)

No one has returned to me with an argument against these ideas. The question that has come is: how do we implement them? That’s the question I’d like to address here, and even more broadly, it is the question we’re addressing by creating the AFTRS Graduate Certificate in Screen Culture.

The Screen Dramaturge

Here’s what I propose: a potential new role for the Australian feature film industry: the Screen Dramaturge. I know, I know, it is a terrible name, but bear with me while I explain where it comes from and how it functions, then please accept my invite to write to me with some alternatives!

A dramaturge is a familiar figure in theatre, particularly European theatre, and they have four or five functions in that context:

• concept/script editing and development,
• research,
• something I will call ‘vision holding’ for this purposes of this argument, and
• talking to audiences and marketing people, even creating marketing copy.

They also sometimes work directly with actors, coaching them in performance, but although that is how the word is most often used here, I would argue that a performance coaching function is the one we need least.

What we need is someone who is with the project from beginning to end, who recognizes that marketing is part of development, not just something tacked on the end, and who is not a key creative, but is someone who watches the key creatives at work and asks useful questions or makes observations that keep them on track.

What we need is someone who is
with the project from beginning to end

Here’s how it might work:

Script editing and development

The Screen Dramaturge is not the writer, nor have they invested money in the production.

They look at successive drafts of the script as ask useful questions such as: can you tell me more about the world of this film? Is there some way the world could be metaphorical as well as being realistic so that the scale of the ideas could be bigger? Or, what is at stake for this character?

These kinds of questions can guide script development
towards something bigger than ‘our own stories’

What action will he or she take to accomplish their goals? Or, who is this story for, specifically? And, can you tell me what that specific person (and the audience segment they represent) cares about? Worries about? Needs to understand? What do you (the key creative) care about? believe intrinsically; want to argue philosophically with this production?

These kinds of questions can guide script development towards something bigger than ‘our own stories’

Research

A Screen Dramaturge would use their research skills to enhance the production in many ways. They would do research to add specificity to the world or circumstances of the story; research about the audiences the story is for; research about other similar productions for references or talking points amongst the key creatives; or research about the technology and culture the production is being made within.

All of these can add to the substance, scope and effectiveness of our productions, making them richer in ideas, details and knowledge about their purpose.

Vision Holding

This is a personal favorite of mine. Where normally a researcher and developer would have disappeared from a screen project by the time production starts, a Screen Dramaturge’s work includes two important functions in preproduction and production.

The first and most vital one is listening for and drawing out a clear articulation of the vision for the project. Having worked on the script so that there is scale, something at stake and an audience firmly in mind, the dramaturge now helps the people who are working on the production, particularly the director, to articulate how all of this will be realised on screen.

The dramaturge asks useful questions, makes non-confrontational observations and uses a good understanding of screen culture and story to do this. But his or her job is not to tell the story, it is to support the storytellers by holding the vision it for them, where it can be easily and dispassionately accessed when things get fast paced and complex in production.

The dramaturge asks useful questions,
makes non-confrontational observations
and uses a good understanding of
screen culture and story to do this

When production starts the vision holder observes the action and, when asked, supports the process by responding to questions about any of the thousands of decisions that get made moment to moment with information about how those decisions relate (or not!) to the bigger picture of the vision.

Talking to Audiences and Marketing People

This is not the last thing screen dramaturges do but the first and the last thing they do. They have done it as part of script development, and research, and they have done it throughout the process, using the creative team’s articulation of the vision (which they helped to draw out and clarify) to bring people into understanding and interest in the production.

When it does go to market (whether for investment, grants, pre-sales, or audiences) the screen dramaturge gives the vision back, in language especially tuned to the listeners (the potential audiences) thus helping to reach them and to create and fulfill their expectations.

In this process the dramaturgical functions comes full circle: a story can’t be mythic unless it finds its place in our culture, and the dramaturge, through development, research, vision holding and talking to audiences helps it find its place in our culture, and be worthy of it.

a story can’t be mythic unless
it finds its place in our culture

The AFTRS Graduate Certificate in Screen Culture has, as its secret mission, the idea that we are developing Screen Dramaturges. These people may actually get jobs as creative producers, or other key creatives, or as festival directors, project officers, administrators even critics or commentators, but the ideas and capacities they develop will let them contribute ‘dramaturgically’ to our screen industry.

It is a role our industry could make good use of alongside its new focus on development but, if you have an idea for a better name than “Screen Dramaturge”, post it in the comments. I would love to know!

-Karen Pearlman

Dr Karen Pearlman, is Head of Screen Studies at the Australian Film, Radio and TV School. She is co-director of the multi-award winning Physical TV Company. She was a co-editor on Performing the Unnameable; An Anthology of Australian Performance Texts and has published essays and articles in Metro, RealTime, The Journal of Performance Studies and other anthologies, conferences proceedings and journals. This essay is published in full in the 2nd issue of Lumina, AFTRS new  Journal of Screen Arts and Business. Visit www.aftrs.edu.au to find out more about Lumina.

Creative Commons License photo credits
Myth images: h.koppdelaney
K.Pearlman: AFTRS

About the Author

Karen Pearlman

Comments 2

  1. It’s been almost a year since the ‘Make Our Myths’ essay? I remember being wowed by it at the time.

    Why shouldn’t the ‘Story Wrangler’ role be filled with the project’s original producer? After all, the roles of:

    • concept/script editing and development,
    • research,
    • vision holding
    • talking to marketing people

    .. can all be done by the original producer. So why split those tasks off into a new role?

    The obvious answer (I guess) is the same reason the Safety Officer is forbidden from sharing any other production role – because that would dilute their primary task which is all important.

    Tell you what – add ‘sample craft services’ to the list of tasks and I’ll volunteer for the job !

    Thanks for a fascinating article,

    Mac

    1. Thanks Mac,

      I like “story wrangler”! …but maybe needs to also refer to storytelling – they’ve got to watch the production unfold, and be able to tell stories themselves – to potential audiences and marketing teams. You’re right, of course, all of these jobs could be done by a creative producer if they had the time, training and focus to do them, and I know some producers do. But your safety officer analogy is apt, and if we have a screen dramaturge or story wrangler on board, they can watch the producer’s back, too, by making sure decisions serve the drama and the audience. Keep an eye out for Lumina 6 in December – a new manifesto coming forth from me then!

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