Working the weave

Keith Gallasch, Virginia Baxter

Dramaturgy is a hot topic. It’s been on and off the boil since the late 70s with a lot of resistance to and misunderstanding of the role of the dramaturg, their function, their training, their artistic status and their power. A rather intimidating monodimensional view of the dramaturg as ally of the director and the theatrical status quo has prevailed for over 20 years. However, the large number of small to medium sized companies and individual artists turning to dramaturgs and choreoturgs is transforming this threatening vision into a flexible model for getting a perspective on your work, good craft advice and serious help in sustaining your vision. This quiet development has been aided by the rise of hybrid arts practices and the emergence of different kinds of dramaturgy not solely centred on the written text. Attitudes (but not necessarily funding resources) have also changed about how long it takes to develop a script or a collectively devised performance. Back in the 1980s Playworks began supporting women writers with a more measured dramaturgy than the Australian National Playwrights Conference’s hothouse approach where it also wasn’t always clear whether the people cast in dramaturgical roles were in fact dramaturgs. It’s interesting to see, under the leadership of chair Campion Decent and the 2004-5 conference director Chris Mead, a well-worn model given new life. Other models have emerged, particularly in the Australian film industry where sustained attention is paid to the importance of script development in the Spark (RT56) and Aurora (RT55) programs. These don’t have to be imitated but they suggest ways of nurturing creativity unmuddied by other purposes.

This is the second of our reports on developments in dramaturgy in Australian theatre, dance and contemporary performance. Earlier this year Peter Eckersall, Melanie Beddie and Paul Monaghan of the Dramaturgy and Cultural Intervention Project reported on the conference they organised as part of the 2002 Melbourne International Festival of the Arts (RT 55). The transcript of Dramaturgies I was reproduced on our website (see the Dramaturgy Now section). That forum took a global view of dramaturgy, focusing on the importance of seeing the developing work in a socio-political context and the dramaturgical role as an inclusive one involving all the artists in a project. In February 2003 a second conference, Dramaturgies II was held for 2 days at Melbourne University. This time the focus was on the dramaturgical process (when and where does it happen, with writers, devised by groups), the kinds of dramaturgy practised (eg by lighting designers and sound artists working on productions) and some analogous practices (eg art gallery curatorship). You’ll find the sizeable transcript, labelled Dramaturgies 2 on our website. What follows, given the scale of the event, is a brief, even cursory summing up of some of the key utterances and issues.

What dramaturg?

Peter Eckersall bravely attempted to delineate the big picture of dramaturgy, ranging through various models, across continents and performance traditions. The picture of the ideal dramaturg that emerged was of a sounding board, a collaborator and mediator who democratises the creative process making sure every actor understands every word and can answer questions (deep, difficult and as provocative as possible) about the work and not just the work as a script. The German model, inevitably debated over the next 2 days because of the dramaturg’s power in German theatre (adapting, translating, helping choose plays), positions them as those who “guard the integrity of the play.” Although mostly seen as a supportive role, Eckersall argued that it should challenge, with the dramaturg as agent provocateur, crossing borders, mediating complex interactions and connecting theatre with culture. He cited Eugenio Barba’s metaphor of the weave, “everything that has action or effect; not only text and actors but also sounds, lights, changes in the space.” The weave is not an object or a skill, he said, it’s an attitude, a process, a sensibility. For Barba artistic discipline, and therefore dramaturgy, is an “attitude that…presupposes…a continual exercise in revolt, above all against oneself, against one’s own ideas.” It’s a way of refusal, said Eckersall, against accepting conventional notions. Dramaturgy is therefore a disorientation because it evokes something different. It is a process of “being undecided”, of discovering the creative tensions in the evolution of a work.

However, ranging through the opinions of Brecht, Esslin, Pavis and others, Eckersall made clear the complex position of the dramaturg, involved in the creative process but also as critical observer, responsible for putting the play in a wider context; “our work touches so many areas of the production process, we do so in an atmosphere of not really knowing our function, thus leading to a kind of ambivalence that surrounds dramaturgical practice.” Viennese writer and satirist Karl Krauss declared the dramaturg, “a potential artist who is unable to provide convincing proof of his or her art. He or she is an artist without either the means of expression or the tools…The dramaturg does not risk his or her skin every night.” Others have written of dramaturgs and their ‘poverty’, as ‘artists without tools.’ Although Eckersall challenged these notions, they recurred over the 2 days of the conference with some surprising animosity towards dramaturgs coming from a few experienced hands. In the meantime, Eckersall celebrated the significance of “the new poetics of dramaturgy” concerned with fractures, disorientation and flows and in which making theatre is a collective dramaturgy.

Some of us were beginning to wonder if this dramaturgy can be practised without a dramaturg—so we quietly worried at that. The discussion that followed included a valuable reminder that the dramaturg keeps the memory of the writing, the workshop and rehearsal process alive, as well as bringing to bear the cultural history of theatre and its processes, thus “countering historical amnesia.” Eckersall noted, in an exchange about different attitudes to dramaturgy, that it is part of an intellectual tradition in Europe, a reflective one. “In Australia,” he quipped, “it’s a matter of getting the play on and not reflecting too much.” He later added a handy label for the brisk cut and paste school of script editing sometimes practised by our major companies—“industrial dramaturgy.” Whatever one’s slant, the session’s emphasis on sustaining vision, the significance of various kinds of memory and the importance of cultural intervention held promise for the dramaturgical process, though perhaps not so clearly for the dramaturg.

Who’s talking? Who’s listening?

In the session on dramaturgy and devised performance, where collectivity often rules, Maud Davey (Vitalstatistix) declared that because dramaturgs “are not responsible they can be quite radical in their suggestions.” A number of us quietly tucked away ‘responsibility’ for something else to worry at. She described having John Romeril as dramaturg on Crying in Public Places’ Skin (2000) as like having an extra brain. Clearly wary of dramaturgs (seeing them as potentially “improving” a work to the point of damaging it), Davey fantasised in a later session an ideal situation in which she’d have a clone of herself as dramaturg to her director self, “to do what I’m not good at.” Bruce Gladwin (Back to Back Theatre) described himself as a director-dramaturg working with a full time ensemble over a long timeframe and using a dramaturg only as a script consultant for a couple of weeks. For Gladwin the key to dramaturgy is collective continuity of collaboration. Paul Monaghan took up Barba’s weave and the way the weave of action involves everything, like a multi-track sound recording. But as strong and rich as the weave is, the structure might be weak and that has to be addressed dramaturgically. Elements of the weave, for example, can be deployed in various structural ways—sound as a trigger or for slowing time.

Rachael Swain (Stalker, Marrugeku Company) brought into play a stage prior to the usual notion of creative starting point: “For Stalker and Marrugeku, dramaturgy is about the process of negotiation with Indigenous people who do not readily give out their knowledge.” Therefore casting is “a major dramaturgical function” because of the cultural complexities of dealing “with multilayered intercultural meanings combining notions of dreaming with contemporary consciousness.” Raising the issue of ‘different culture, different dramaturgy’, Swain detailed the kinds of cultural negotiations and key personalities involved in creating a new work, of using reconciliation “as a process of learning to move”, of timing (“the importance of going slow: someone might get sick”), and using the South African Truth in Reconciliation Commission as a model of dramaturgical responsibility. The final work, a hybrid performance fusing storytelling, dance and personal histories, becomes a kind of translation for a white audience, encouraging a shift in perceptions.

It had been frequently proposed throughout the conference that in creating a work everyone involved plays a dramaturgical role. However, in the session on ‘Dramaturgy, Space, Visuality, Sound and Technology’ Paul Jackson opened up the very issue of how such a dialogue begins, a matter raised from the intercultural perspective by Rachael Swain. Jackson said the important thing, in his case, is to ask, “How can you have a conversation with a lighting designer?” [In another conference, performer and director Chris Ryan described dramaturgy as finding a way in which you can talk to an artist.] Rather than seeing lighting as a history of technology, Jackson argued for it as a history of design, of “creating narrative with light and shadow”, of “space reacting to bodies”, of “how we want space to move.”

Designer Kathryn Sproul whose projects include working with director Nigel Jamieson on the outdoor orchestral and performance spectacle Flamma Flamma for the 1998 Adelaide Festival, described the designer as visual dramaturg, “a scenographer who writes the stage space creating a text, articulating one beyond language.” Also keeping to the fore the challenge of communication, she claimed that designers are often not called on to sufficiently verbalise, that there isn’t an established language for them to deal with directors and little time to reflect. Sproul emphasised the role of the designer in testing the validity of the directors’ intuitive ideas, of playing provisional audience. Sound artist and designer Lawrence Harvey spoke about the power of sound, describing himself as a creative mediator in other people’s work but also in his own, which he graphically described and where he has to “step back from himself.” When working for NYID (Not Yet It’s Difficult), his aim is to create an acoustic set entailing the spatial and temporal dimensions of sound. What Harvey wants to hear from collaborators is “not the sound you want but the feeling you want to achieve…If you want to fetishise the text you don’t need a designer.”

In the discussion that followed it was agreed that if in fact the various designers play a dramaturgical role then, as these artists were insisting, we need to know how to listen to and talk to them; we all have to expand our vocabularies (to speak of design, sound, light); and the artists need to be employed much earlier in the creative process than they currently are. Perhaps, mused Paul Jackson, a work could be initiated from a lighting idea. Laurence Harvey reinforced the notion of the weave: “Inherent…are a whole lot of ways that images will move, ways that the environment will respond to a whole lot of input from the actions. As a sound designer, I have not only to respond to the visual information in front of me but also the data information that comes back to the environment that I’ve been working on to deliver the sound design.”

Structure & self-dramaturgy

On the second day of the conference, in a session titled ‘Dramaturgy, Text and Structure’, Yoni Prior spoke about the experience of being part of Gilgul Theatre where the multidisciplinary ensemble took on the dramaturgy and there was no initial script. Barrie Kosky, she said, was interested in ideas, not character. Everyone was involved in the process and wrote and edited the text, everyone negotiated structure and all took responsibility. Prior said there was a gradual move into areas of specific responsibility. Tom Wright looked after research, Prior teaching and, later, character issues. Michael Kantor shared in developing the choreography. Kosky at the piano controlled the pace. Self-dramaturgy, she said, involved stepping in and out of a work with Kosky as the predominant outside eye and aided by very long development period. Prior described the work as highly physical, highly cerebral, demanding and fractured. “You had to think, had to be inside and outside the work and you had to deal with different performance modes.”

Describing herself as semi-dance literate, Prior has subsequently been working as a dance dramaturg with choreographer Sandra Parker who wants to develop a more theatrical edge to her work. Prior said she was helping Parker break out of “choreostructures”, integrating different processes, coming up with new combinations of material and dealing with multi-tasking for modern performers who are often in extreme states. She sees herself as adapting choreographic techniques for use with text, looking for musicality, for patterns, listening for the sounds that come out of the body in extremis. She surmised that the rise of dramaturgy was one way of compensating for the increasingly short times available for creating work: “I think the fact that we had really long processes for Gilgul Theatre allowed spaces for reflection for all of us, so that we could actually step outside and into a third eye position, and have time to reflect on what it was that we did.”

Writer Maryanne Lynch described a variety of experiences of working as a dramaturg, with an Indigenous theatre company, with a youth group and as a script editor late in the development of a particular play. In all of these she saw herself as concerned with structure. “I privilege structure over text, because there’s no work if there’s no structure—there’s only text…Structure’s the thing which makes the texts become more than themselves.” Lynch placed structure next to the relationships between the artist-participants, context and how these 3 intersect. She also emphasised the dramaturg’s point of entry in the process. Introducing another metaphor, and one relating to the weave, she described the dramaturgy on one work as analogous to scoring, working to 2 time signatures.

Playwright John Romeril spoke of himself as involved in cultural dramaturgy between Australia and Japan, borrowing from the riches of myriad forms found in our region, extending what we can do in the theatre and, among other things, “heightening our visuality”, given the much higher integration between visual and verbal in Japanese culture. Dramaturgy, he said, is research, a constant preoccupation with structure, “a blow against anti-intellectualism” and our Eurocentricity, legitimising what theatre can talk about. Romeril’s turn (relish it in its entirety online) entailed many more observations, descriptions of the evolution of recent and forthcoming plays (some fine examples of a particular kind of self-dramaturgy) and the passing thought that perhaps it was time for him to buy himself some dramaturgy.

“…Maybe only after working for 20 years did I really begin to develop a skill of self-criticism; that thing of swinging from objective to subjective. You need that subjective belief in yourself…That level of commitment is not just an idea; it’s a whole visceral lifestyle…to be able to step back and go, ‘Oh, that’s a crock, Johnno’, calling yourself into the office, sitting yourself down, and giving yourself a big fucken rap, ‘Now get back out there and fucken do it properly this time!’ I wouldn’t have minded having someone to say that stuff to me…Can you buy [dramaturgs]? I’ll start saving.”

The curator as dramaturg

The session on curatorship as dramaturgy was richly informative, suggesting by analogy that dramaturgy is about creating a context for experiencing a work. Alison Carroll described how modernism had ‘disappeared’ the curator, hiding the significance of their role, their years of training, their personalities, presenting an illusion of non-mediation. Carroll suggested that curators need a sense of theatricality, quipping: “especially when faced with venues like the Australian pavilion in Venice.” Curators should have a public face, she argued, not least in Australia’s arts festivals where the performing arts hold sway. Kevin Murray concurred with Carroll, describing the prescriptive view that “the curator must not contaminate the data.” He argued that the curator’s role should be collaborative, playing witness to the work, providing the perspective with which to see it, where to stand, how to move, just as “a lot of painters use the stage frame in their work.”

Big picture

In a final session too substantial to be detailed here (again, read it online), Aubrey Mellor put the current dramaturgical situation in a fascinating 30 year Australian perspective. In an age when the ensemble has disappeared, when financial resources have to be prioritised and forward planning is more and more difficult, Mellor said that dramaturgy was increasingly important, but that it was still being defined and would be different for every company. The history of dramaturgy in this country has certainly been difficult, he said, and has been tied to the battle to get Australian plays onto the stage; it’s a tale that includes playwrights banned from the rehearsal room, the word ‘dramaturgy’ tabooed, the them-and-us schism between directors and dramaturgs and the ‘literary manager solution.’ Mellor declared, “For me, [dramaturgy] is now the most important tool for the creation of an original Australian theatre. We’ve all been doing it in many ways, and the missing ingredient I now find is the dramaturg, and that’s the one that we actually need most to be able to give you the sorts of things we imagined we’d all be doing by now, but we’re not…” Julian Meyrick, not taking sides, defined the variables of dramaturgy, while David Pledger took us back to the other side of the dramaturgical coin: “The theatre company is the dramaturgy. [The dramaturg is] another question all together…What is the dramaturgy? Essentially, the dramaturgy is the operating system of the work for the company, and over a period of time, that operating system accumulates so that you develop a repertoire, and a way of working with a group of people.”

At the close of these 2 days the value of dramaturgy had certainly been asserted as well as the dramaturgical role of all the artists working on a project. The role of the dramaturg was less resolved. For example, feelings about the dramaturg’s ‘ownership’ of the finished work were sharply divided. Certainly it was admitted that the balancing act the dramaturg negotiates in being, on the one hand, the ‘memory’ of the creative process and, on the other, an ‘outside eye’, is a difficult but important one. In general the view at the conference was that it should be flexible, the point of entry taken into account, a mode of communication between artists established and importantly that the choice of dramaturg was crucial for a particular job. And, as with the dramaturgical ideal espoused in Dramaturgies I and again here, the dramaturg should provoke as well as support. Apparent irritants such as whether or not the dramaturg should share the vision, the takings, the praise and the responsibility for failure, would be discussed another time. The conference organisers spoke of Dramaturgies III as an opportunity to go another welcome step further and explore dramaturgy on the floor in 2004.

Dramaturgies II was an intense and invaluable probing of dramaturgical practice in Australia.

Find the complete transcript of Dramaturgies II under Dramaturgy Now. Keith Gallasch and Virginia Baxter were guests of Dramaturgies II. [currently offline]

Dramaturgies II, The Open Stage, Melbourne University, Feb 21-22. Supported by the School of Creative Arts, University of Melbourne.

RealTime issue #58 Dec-Jan 2003 pg. 38,

© Keith Gallasch & Virginia Baxter; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 December 2003
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