BWS 11.09.19 report: “Notes on Beautiful Collaboration in Playwriting or “I Wrote This, Please Make It Alive and Ephemeral (But Also Do It Perfectly and Exactly How I Imagined It Every Single Time)” with Rosamund Small

Rosamund headshot by Liam Coo

Photo: Liam Coo

Rosamund Small is the playwright of Sisters (Soulpepper), TomorrowLove™ (Outside the March), and Vitals (Outside the March/Theatre Passe Muraille, Dora for Outstanding New Play/Outstanding Production). She has written in many forms, and loves to experiment with dramatic fiction, verbatim, immersive/site-specific, solo, and anything in between. She collaborates on dance/theatre work with choreographer Robert Binet (their work Orpheus Alive premieres November 2019 at the National Ballet of Canada). Rosamund is a Jr Story Editor of Workin’ Moms on CBC/Netflix.

Playwrights are simultaneously the most and least important element of the theatre. They may be the loudest voice in the rehearsal hall, or dead for five hundred years before auditions even begin. 

In anticipation of Orpheus Alive, premiering this November at the National Ballet of Canada, Rosamund opened up about the process behind her collaboration with choreographer Robert Binet.


I am spending my mornings lately trying to write like a dancer.

To explain this, I am going to tell you about my collaboration with a ballet choreographer named Robert Binet.

Rob’s friend of mine. We met about seven years ago. We chatted at a party, then met over coffee, and we talked about work. About all of it. My writing, my rehearsals, previews, openings. And he talked about the making of dance, the training, the talking to dancers. There were immediate and apparent differences in our lives:

I spent my days, and still spend my days, hunched over a computer, to the point that I’ve had to consult with extremely expensive physiotherapists. Rob spends his days at a ballet bar or the gym, then the studio, working with dancers.

In his work, Rob is always demonstrating, speaking, guiding, and running a rehearsal hall as his creation space. He is alive outward into the world, while I am almost aggressively hidden from all other people while I write.

So it wasn’t obvious on paper that we would have all that much in common.

But when we talked, we realized we had our relationship with our audience, our relationship with our performers, and finally our relationship with drama to talk about. And by drama, I mean, the tension between two people. The desire to demonstrate or illustrate that moment when Person A expresses I want you to stay and the Person B expresses I want you to let me go, for example. And then the further tension: the what now?

By the end of the conversation Rob was the one who blurted out I didn’t realize we have the same job. And we both actually felt a little alarmed, as though the other person had maybe seen through us, him seeing through my words to something he could do with bodies, and me seeing through the shapes he makes with bodies to articulate them in words. There’s almost a deflating effect, actually, even though it was exhilarating, to be so totally seen. But it was also, electrifying.

As I was writing this, I realized it sounds like this will end with me and Rob falling in love, but it doesn’t, and we both remain happily with our respective partners. But when I describe Rob I’ve had many people think we’re in a relationship. I think it says something nice: Creative partnerships have a sense of excitement, even combativeness, and they are always, in a way, romantic.

Anyway, after our first coffee, Rob invited me into his rehearsal hall for a workshop. And I went in to watch him with two dancers from the National Ballet interpret the myth of Icarus, in a fifteen-minute piece. And that was the start of our collaboration. I didn’t really know what he wanted me to do, but we began talking and talking and talking.

What is the story? What order should it be in? How long should it be? Who’s the main character?

The myth of Icarus goes as follows: A man and his son are trapped in prison. The father builds wings made of wax, to escape. It works, and they fly out of the prison, across the ocean. But Icarus flies to close to the sun, the wings melt, and Icarus falls and perishes.

So I ask Rob: Why do they decide to escape? Why today? What are the conditions of the prison? How long have they been there? What is their home like? Is there any particular reason they have to get home? Are they close as father and son? Whose fault is it that they are imprisoned?

We had a few bumps, a few differences in vocabulary, especially at the beginning. I will never forget Rob’s look of confusion as I kept asking him What are the stakes of successfully flying? What are the stakes that make them leave prison? And finally, he said “I don’t want to sound stupid but what are stakes? Like, steaks? Like a steak?”.*

That first project was performed for a choreographic workshop audience, and remains a beautiful memory. But truthfully, I don’t know whether I made the project better by being there. In fact, I may have made is not quite as good as it might have been without me. Because what I kept asking Rob was what is the information?

What is the information? What is the situation? Who what where when how?

The given circumstances are so important to writers. What I didn’t realize at the time was that I sometimes tipped the balance of the project away from dance -shape, tension, movement- and towards something more like mime.

Nothing against mime. I don’t know a lot about mime.

But the ability of dance, at least Rob’s dance, does not lie in the ability to silently enact the world. It is about enacting what we experience but we cannot see in the world. It’s just about the drama. And the drama in the most fundamental way.

So, basically, I had to stop worrying as much about the stuff offstage:

What came before? What might come after? What if, how, when, where.

Dance is about tension, movement, release, let go, trust, pull away, push… there is nothing between two dancers except the relationship between them, in that moment.

We talk a lot about history between characters in theatre, and in lots of writing. And we talk about internal dialogue. And maybe childhood things coming out in adults. And that is beautiful, and wonderful, but I have found in my collaboration with Rob I am thinking more and more about how thrilling and relatable and inherently story it is, to watch one dance balance on one foot, for a long, long time. And how that is what’s at stake, for a moment, it’s… Will you fall? Will you release? Will you clamp up?

The drama of dance is wholly and completely present, like the drama in the life of a toddler. Big emotion, big situation, very little interest in why how when where or who.

Now, I am deep into a larger project with Rob about the myth of Orpheus. We have about forty-five dancers in every performance, closer to sixty with all the casts. And we are still interrogating the story as I did with our first project. In fact, we first talked about this Orpheus project at our coffee seven years ago, when Rob first mentioned he wanted to adapt the myth as his first full story ballet.

The myth goes like this: Orpheus is the greatest artist in the world. Orpheus’ lover Eurydice dies. So Orpheus travels to the gates of the underworld, and creates art so incredible that the gates swing open and The Gods let him through, on one condition: Orpheus cannot not to look at Eurydice until they are back in the land of the living. Orpheus finds Eurydice, and begins to lead her out. But at the last moment, Orpheus can’t help but turn and look, and so Eurydice is gone forever.

I am still asking my annoying questions, and I’ve been asking them seven years:

What kind of relationship does Orpheus have with Eurydice? How long have they been together? How old are they? What kind of art does Orpheus do? How long does it take to travel to the gates of death? How long does it take to travel over the River Styx into the underworld? Do you pay a fare? Do you walk? Is it cold?

But I have learned, through my collaboration, to pull back the scope of those questions, and ask something that can be more connected to that body-spirit experience of dance, toddlers, animals, when the chatty mind is hushed and the body is more simply present. So the creative conversation can be more like this:

Why does Orpheus go get Eurydice?

Because Orpheus is in a state of suspension –high on pointe and without Eurydice, Orpheus will fall off pointe, there will be a splat on the floor.

That’s all, that’s it, it’s obvious.

The expression of this situation, and the reality of it, are actually the same.

The metaphor doesn’t need to stand for something, as it can stand on its own.

The above example is a little over simple, a little under appreciative of the complexity of dance. It’s the most obvious metaphor: the sense that a jump might end in a fall. It’s simply the easiest dance moment to describe.

Another example goes something like this:

The story question: Why does Orpheus go get Eurydice?

The story answer: Because Orpheus loves Eurydice.

The dance looks like: Orpheus is pulled towards Eurydice.

But the question is unnecessary. Because you can also think of it as:

The dance looks like: Orpheus is pulled towards Eurydice.

The question is: Why does he go?

The answer: Because he is pulled.

The dance looks like: Orpheus is pulled towards Eurydice.

The drama doesn’t need a question. The motivation is built in.

At least, that’s the working theory for now, when we’re stuck. When the questions can’t be answered, or the answers are not the most beautiful and exciting but somehow must be there, Rob and I lean on the inherent drama of throwing your body across the floor, as being the answer and the question.

If you are interested the show is this November at the Four Seasons Centre and you can come see how our process worked out.

The show also -to maybe break my point about bodies being so important- uses text, but not for the dancers to speak to each other, only for the dancers to speak to the audience, when they need to express something more concrete and less… danceable. Something more about the who what where when why of drama.

But our dancers -to each other- have relationships expressed in bodies only. The drama between them is only dance. And the dance overtakes the language in almost every moment. The bodies win.

I hear myself using words to explain the expression of bodies like child, or animal, as though the communication between bodies is less than the communication of language. But actually, how much of our most important adult communications are touch, hug, fight, fist on table, even sex...? All of this is in the body.

So now when I write dialogue for two characters, meant for two actors onstage, I often try to push myself back from my hunched over computer chair, and think to myself…

Why does my character want to marry this other character so much?

And instead of inventing an external explanation about why and giving my characters a strong rationale, or history, I have a conversation with my character:

CHARACTER: Why do I desire to marry this other character so much?

ME: Because of desire.

CHARACTER: Why do I desire him?

ME: Because you are pulled towards him, you are literally pulled.


ME: I don’t know. But aren’t you?


ME: Will you resist the pull?

CHARACTER: I can’t talk right now, I’m hurling my entire self towards the character I desire.

Fewer questions, more actions. Less rationale, more risk.

Write like a dancer.


Stay tuned for information about our next event and features on our upcoming writers! 





























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