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Tuesday, April 18, 2017

The heart of THE GAMBLER with Dramaturg Kasey Phillips

Second year graduate student Kasey Phillips, who you may recognize from this seasons LAGAN and ELECTRA, is stepping behind the scenes as Dramaturg for our workshop production of THE GAMBLER. She took some time out of her busy schedule to give us an inside glimpse into the "quick and dirty" world of Owen McCafferty's play:
Dramaturg Kasey Phillips

As a dramaturg and writer, it would be an understatement to say that I am lucky to be working alongside internationally recognized playwright and Villanova’s Heimbold Chair, Owen McCafferty. It is the first year that the Villanova Theatre Department has added a workshop production to its main stage season, and to have the opportunity to help lead The Gambler to the stage for the first time is an experience I’ll never forget.

When dramaturging a show, it’s not often you have primary source material so readily available in the process of sifting through a play. With Owen in the room, the actors, assistant director Sarah Kelly, director David Bradley and I never have to wait for the answers to our burning questions about the play. It’s a really incredible energy swarming the theater. David can turn to me to uncover the logistics of status of the 19th century Russian aristocracy (one of the many layers of Dostoevsky’s novella The Gambler, from which McCafferty’s play is based), or he can turn directly to Owen and ask where the heat of each scene is hidden. It’s such a wonderful chemistry to have the romance of the history and the immediacy of the story at hand at our every beck and call.

David Bradley and I throw around the phrase, “quick and dirty” dramaturgy, which I think is such a fun, practical and brilliant summation of what this process from my end has been like, and what I imagine will continue to be.

Unlike the other four main stage productions this season, The Gambler has a shortened rehearsal time, which quickens the momentum of production—both externally and internally. Where it could be very tempting to get lost in the rabbit holes of research areas in this play—for example, the psychosis surrounding gambling, addiction and into the extended history of Russian, German, and French aristocracy—David challenges me to look for the tangible data. In theatre terms, I look for the “playable” research—bits of information that could fall into these categories, but instead of the actors spending precious time reading in depth research – I try to give them research they can put immediately into their bodies and onto the stage.

The stakes are high, both for the characters in the play, and for us as a team building the world around them. In a way the quick process makes sense. After all, we are in Roulettenburg, an imagined casino town where people play for keeps, bet it all to win, and lose it all for a chance. A “quick and dirty” process is logical. The rehearsals themselves give resonance to the spinning wheel McCafferty has created, and the true nature of these characters as each begs the question—what would you gamble for a chance at love? 

Owen McCafferty's copy of
Before our first read through, Owen handed me the copy of Dostoevsky’s novella he used to write his adaptation. I carry it to each and every rehearsal, and even if I don’t pull it out, it’s a helpful behind the scenes companion to the piece. In the margins, Owen has scribbled notes of his own as to what he thinks are the most important moments of the novel to bring to life onstage. In our many conversations, Owen reiterates that no matter how this story is placed in history, at the end of the day, at its heart, The Gambler is a modern story of how human beings interact with one another. In his copy of the novella, Owen underlines a piece of speech spoken by one of the lead characters, Alexei Ivanovich: “…as for gains and winnings—people everywhere, not only at the roulette table, do nothing but gain or win something from each other.”

It is here we find the heart and soul of not only 19th century Russian national character, but of this new play, and most importantly, ourselves. It is my hope that Owen’s blend of brilliant story telling and our team’s artistic vision keeps the audiences' minds spinning—wanting to take a chance and invest in these characters just like I have done.

THE GAMBLER runs at Villanova Theatre from April 26-30 at Vasey Hall. Tickets are FREE, but pre-reservation is suggested. For more information or to book your free ticket visit or call the Box Office at 610-519-7474.

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