Left Brain, Right Brain; Thesis Brain, Theater Brain: Dramaturgy and the Creative/Analytic Divide

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by Jake Krakovsky 14C

Interdisciplinarians rejoice! Scientific consensus holds that, sans a hemispherectomy[1], no one is entirely “right-brained” or “left-brained.” Neuroscientists continue to explore ways in which certain cognitive functions are dominated by one region of the brain or other—certain areas of the brain have clear specialization, while others tasks seem to overlap across regions.

Lately I’ve been hoping the scientists amongst us would just hurry up and figure it out, because my brain has been splitting. And though Great Mother Wikipedia[2] tells me that the popular generalizations which link different modes of thought to cognitive function have been all but debunked, it’s still giving me a headache. That said, perhaps being cognitively split isn’t such a bad thing after all.

As an undergraduate fellow at the Fox Center, I’m devoting my days[3] to writing my honors thesis in the Theater Studies department. I’m researching the use of absurdity, anti-realism, and comedy in engaging with narratives about the Holocaust. In order to test my theories, I’m also writing and developing a one-man-play that I will perform later this month. The piece is a tragic-comic experiment that conflates the historical realities of the Holocaust with the comedic Jewish folklore of the “Fools of Chelm.”

These two tasks, writing a lengthy research paper and creating an original theater piece, demand that I use my brain in very different ways. Research is analytical: poring over theory, criticism, and scholarship, stringing together a cohesive argument that draws from a variety of sources to make an original conclusion.[4] There is necessary structure to all of this. As unique and original as I hope my work to be, I still must obey certain guidelines set out by my advisors, my department and the all-knowing Turabian Manual of Style.[5] On the other side of things is artistic creation. Art! The realm of inspiration, where Turabian gives way to the Muses, where conventions of structure, style, and content exist for me to engage or dismiss, to uphold or to challenge entirely.

But are these two modes of creation really that different? I found my answer to this question in the theatrical discipline of dramaturgy. The site of dramaturgy is context, that is, the exploration of the historical, cultural, political, physical, thematic, philosophical, and even academic context of a dramatic work. For many theater artists, dramaturgy is a crucial part of the creative process—the work of a dramaturge[6] can inform choices in every single element of a production, be it costumes, props, setting, lighting, sound, physical staging, acting style, thematic focus, or the inflection and pronunciation of a single word. In dramaturgy I understand the dialogue that can occur between creative and analytical thinking, and the ways in which the two can inform and strengthen one another.

I’ve been fortunate enough to find, at Emory, in the Theater Studies department, and now at the Fox Center, a supportive environment in which I can let my left- and right-brain play together safely.[7] They don’t always agree, and sometimes the creative vs. analytical tête-à-tête gives me a headache. But how fruitful is that tension! When an acting discovery, live on my feet in the rehearsal hall, triggers a realization about my research….or when a note, scrawled fervently in the margins of a critical essay, lights the spark of inspiration for a new scene or character.

As humanists we often talk about the value of interdisciplinarity amongst the various academic fields and departments. Let us also, then, strive for an interdisciplinary relationship with our own minds. Straddling the gap between Turabian and the Muses, between critical thinking and artistic abandon, I endeavor to be my own dramaturge, and open myself to the lush and fertile fields that lie between left-brain and right.

[1] Generally considered undesirable.

[2] Praised be She.

[3] And nights, and weekends, and dreams, and nightmares…

[4] I’ve recently decided that if even 5% of my work is truly original I will be a successful scholar and a total hero.

[5] 7th Edition, of course. Excuse you.

[6] One who engages in dramaturgy.

[7] I know this metaphor isn’t quite accurate, but stay with me. I’m a theater artist, not a neuroscientist, and I’ve gone too far to turn back now.

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