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Check Yourself: What 'The Queen’s Gambit' can teach us about dramaturgy

If you’ve ever given notes to a writer on their work, or plan to from the comfort of your sofa/home-office/bed or beyond, whether professional or informal, for real or for practice - this one’s for you.


In The Queen’s Gambit, the protagonist – in a nutshell: an orphaned girl, who, maybe for lack of love, becomes addicted to tranquilisers – turns to Chess for its control and containment.


Maybe 64-squares will be more manageable than say, her life.


The series was like one giant incomplete metaphor (coupled with a lot of painful exposition, weird structural choices and a gaping, conflict-shaped hole) so then why did it connect with audiences so deeply? Why have Chess board sales gone up exponentially since? Why, oh why, did I keep on watching?


On reflection, I suspect it’s to do with the irreverent simplicity of the show. Where it can take us next is very, very limited. The stakes feel surprisingly low, despite its exploration of huge themes. We’re unlikely to be surprised by it. We’re safe with our protagonist’s perfectly styled hair and her books and failing relationships.


If I were to dig a little deeper though, I think the show’s most powerful gesture (and perhaps the reason why it got made, despite 90% of its content being people’s faces as they play Chess) was in the wonderful irony at its heart:


Although it absolutely appears to be, it turns out that - surprise! - Chess is really not the best place to look for clarity, order and above all – control.


Now, I don’t know much about Chess, but I do know that there are more combinations of possible Chess moves in a game than there are atoms in the universe.


So then, the beautiful thing about the game - which is probably why we can watch this character play it again and again and again - is that it simultaneously represents both absolute constraint and absolute possibility.


If we look beyond the backdrop of the funky-Moscow-skyline-greenscreen-Netflix-magic, we might understand that we’re watching Chess play out as an incomplete and faulty metaphor for…life?


Let’s play with that for a second - if life’s a Chess game, it suggests there’s a designated order to things (we’re born, we make our moves and then we die), and within the confines of that order we are permitted to make choices, each one directly impacting the one that comes after. We try as hard as we possibly can to anticipate what’s going to happen next, but we are of course still surprised, shocked and disappointed when things don’t go as planned.


We’re reminded again and again and again, that control is ultimately, just an illusion.


I know I’m not the first person to think about Chess in this way, and I’m not suggesting these thoughts are in any way novel. I think the writers of the series, Scott Frank and Alan Scott, were trying to say something profound about all this too, but perhaps the scope of the metaphor is just too vast and nebulous for anyone to fit their hands around.


I’m finding it really useful, though, because in response to a few recent writer meetings I’ve had, I’ve been thinking a lot about limitation.


Limitations we know can be invaluable in a creative process, and a process without them can end up at best, raw, and at worst, a hot mess. Every creative knows that a blank page is both terrifying and liberating, and a deadline is both hellish and motivating.


Over lockdown the first, RoughHewn had a mighty wave of brave and brilliant writers reach out to us. Their experience levels varied, but their commonality was a desire to find the most truthful ways to tell their stories; to speak more clearly and to mine deeper and further amidst a new day-to-day reality that felt - and still feels - static and unknown.


Together, we found pockets of fleeting connection over the airwaves of Zoom.


I met with actors turned writers, journalists making the shift from print to playwriting, playwrights who finally had the time to work on that idea, and seasoned writers sharing new light with old plays.


If we understand a dramaturg’s job to be an investigation of ‘the shape or the form of an event’ (the event most often being ‘the play’) then it’s no surprise that for a lack of it (a shape) in life (yep, also very much ‘an event’), writers were turning to some rigorous dramaturgical analysis for a bit of structure and guidance.


When I’m working with writers, my mission is a constant juggling of the space between contracting and expanding – that is to say, the work I think dramaturgs do is in negotiating the space between being the force that contains and clarifies, and being the force that offers absolute possibility.


With so many theatres still dark, some indefinitely, the Theatre industry is all over Twitter and beyond, publishing hopes that the reflective time this year has permitted means that we can finally start to do things differently. Maybe we can find better structures for the ways we communicate, the way we programme work, the way we rehearse, cast and collaborate.


Inspired by the imperfect metaphor of the series I hate to love, I’d like to add to this list of hopes.


This particular hope isn’t for writers. God knows we need your boundless imaginations right now. Please, go wild.


This one’s for the dramaturgs (and, yes, that means anyone who is giving a writer notes on a play):


Consider ‘limitation’ as one of your most useful tools.


Take and hold responsibility for what you say, or don’t say, knowing that the difference in a play’s reaching or not reaching its audience is as much to do with the way you, the dramaturg, communicate with the writer, as it is to do with the way the writer communicates their story.


The language you choose to use (especially you, person in position of power), or not to use, could either hit that limitation sweet spot (offering structure, clarity) or absolutely knock a writer totally off course (setting off a closing-down, a minimising).


I’m writing this after another one of many emerging writers has come to me totally disheartened by yet another Artistic Director offering thoughts on a draft that were half-hearted, confused, offensive and disrespectful.


Written notes are very, very different from spoken notes. Telephone notes are very different from Zoom notes. Face-to-Face notes are very different from text notes. Each offer their own limitations and possibilities. David Lane talks really beautifully about this, and so many other things, here.


When writers we’ve never worked with before ask us for written script-reports at RoughHewn, we’ve now learnt to say no. For us, that’s the wrong kind of limitation. It closes things down when they need to be opened up first, and ironically, in doing so it also leaves too much air between us and our, at that time, embryonic relationship with the writer, leaving space for things to be misinterpreted on both sides.


Who’d have thought it - filtering and clarifying and really thinking about the way you give your notes is beneficial to YOU. I honestly do not believe it takes more time, effort or energy, and the results it could yield are so much richer.


Taking time to filter what you say will teach you to understand the work better, be clearer, more useful, more efficient, more compassionate and creatively, it may take you somewhere extraordinary.


Let me also take this opportunity to say, if you genuinely don’t have time to read the work properly and discover your own process of dramaturgical expression, then YOU SHOULDN’T BE THE ONE GIVING THE NOTES.


Remember, like Chess, every choice you make sets off a series of other choices, and as long as we’re all playing the game, we have a responsibility to take the time to think about the impact of our choices, because one slip-up could mean the end of it all.


Okay, now we really, really know that Chess an incomplete and faulty metaphor. I’m not suggesting the dramaturg and the writer (or writer and audience?) are at opposite ends of the board, or that the act of writing plays is somehow some kind of competition and that someone is going to win, or that you cannot fuck with the form. Let’s please always re-write the rules and test the boundaries of the game.


Maybe this is why The Queen’s Gambit was a bit of a mess. Every time I find a way that the metaphor works, I find a way that it doesn’t.


But, isn’t that great? The best metaphors are always the ones that open us up, rather than close us down.


But wait, wasn’t embracing limitation supposed to be where I was reaching for…?


Maybe, after all, limitation and possibility are much closer than we think.


Away from the live existence of theatre, we’ve all become dramaturgs. Together, we’re getting our ideas their fullest iteration so that when the world’s ready again, it can meet them. It feels more important than ever to remember that what we choose to say to one another should be rigorously thought out, compassionate, and it should be filtered.


Try it: limit yourself just a little, and in doing so, you’ll create the space for the infinite to exist.


When we start making theatre again and the physical restrictions (ha) begin to lift for real, let’s of course approach it with manic joy and reckless abandon, wild, flowing creativity, but let’s also be organised. So many artists talk about the desire for artistic freedom, and that’s great and all but frankly, what I feel we really need is a bit of delicious and carefully constructed limitation to get us through the imaginary portal to 2021 – as well as, maybe, a calming game of Chess.



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