Dramaturgy in an age of ambient anxiety

Peter Eckersall, Melanie Beddie & Paul Monaghan

Every decade or so, since the 1960s in Australia, the craft of dramaturgy seems to come into focus as a part of theatre practice, and calls for our attention. One set of investigations currently underway has arisen from conversations among Melbourne dramaturgs over the last couple of years. The Dramaturgy and Cultural Intervention Project devised by Melanie Beddie, Paul Monaghan and Peter Eckersall is a continuing investigation designed to generate a diverse range of discussions and workshop activities that focus on issues in professional dramaturgy.

There might be good reasons why dramaturgy is due for special attention. For one, the field has expanded to include applications moving beyond literary models into performance, dance, technical and production dramaturgy. This trend has been on the rise since the 1980s and the evolution of hybrid spaces for theatre has extended and expanded the importance of dramaturgical activities in the production process. Technical innovations and increasingly diverse means of production and dissemination have likewise made the theatre environment even more structurally complex, polycultural and information-rich. This has created the need for creative specialists who keep track of the complicated flow of ideas, technologies, and forms. The rise of performance studies and the interest in investigating aspects of cultural theory in and through performance has further created a need for a new kind of dramaturgy which responds to the postmodern influences currently engaging theatre artists. As a practice that is often called upon to act as a contextual presence in the rehearsal and development process and keep alive the memory of alternatives in the pressure cooker environment of production, dramaturgy lies at the cutting edge of creative praxis.

Secondly, as Australian artists continue to participate in debates about theatre culture and seek to make productive interventions into dominant social and cultural spheres, the need to develop our political understanding of dramaturgical practice also grows. Like other forms of cultural production, theatre is now produced in a globalised cultural landscape and faces ongoing aesthetic, representational, and ideological challenges both in the facilitation of theatrical production and in its various modes of reception. Thus we might ask what can theatre do, be, and become when we live an age of “ambient anxiety”, a worldview proposed by sociologist Zygmunt Bauman and experienced through the dramatic manipulation of events. When the hegemony has become theatrical and power has become a mediascape of representations, violent performative acts, and staged lessons in discipline and fear, where is the alternative space, what can the artistic response offer?

In the first of the dramaturgy forums during the 2002 Melbourne Festival, John Romeril said, “I live today in an age in which words represent an incredibly corrupt medium. The feeling I have is that we’re living in an age of liars, where what is spoken is almost inherently untrustworthy. In those circumstances, I suggest that the theatrical response [is] to go into dream state, to go into physicality, to go into visuality, is to maybe ask an audience to make sense in areas of their own sensibility that have not been invaded by the general corruption to which language in our time is being subject.”

The Dramaturgy Project has thus far produced 2 contrasting symposia, the first public and the second more in the line of professional development. Dramaturgies: the artist as agent provocateur and cultural interventionist was a half day public event held in partnership with the Melbourne Festival. It featured a panel of artists whose work was presented in the Festival: Federico Leon (writer and director, Argentina), David Pledger (writer and director, NYID), Scott Rankin (writer, director Big hArt), Renato Cuocolo and Roberta Bossetti, (IRAA) and, on video, writer, director, Romeo Castellucci (Societas Raffaello Sanzio).

Co-convenor Melanie Beddie set the tone of this forum in her introduction, “Dramaturgy could be considered to be the midwife between theory and practice. It provides a process of bringing performance ideas into a concrete form, and it can also allow for the essential luxury of contemplation and evaluation of both process and product.”

The symposium gave rise to a profound sense of discourse rather than the more commonplace artists’-talk-as-marketing-formula common at festivals these days. Participants all remarked that speaking with other artists was a rare and rewarding the opportunity.

Among the many provocations raised by participants was the idea of the artist as somebody who is acted upon, with the everydayness of the artist as an essential way of imagining one’s work. Castellucci termed this an “accidental community” that aimed to generate a sense of vitality and danger in our lives. Cuocolo and Bossetti also stressed how dangerous theatre should be—not in any abstract sense but in the confrontation of staging theatre in their home. “Theatre shouldn’t repeat politics but make politics,” was how Cuocolo expressed his aim, as a “ripple effect” and an artistic expression that might become a wave of critique and change.

Pledger and Rankin likewise spoke of theatre’s “ripple effects” and “concentric circles of consequence” as a cultural agency that extends from a singular activity and enlivens and creates opportunities for social-cultural interactions. Rankin’s nKnot @ HOME, presented in the festival, was described as a framework for political acts—art as way of accessing power. Pledger spoke of the politics of process as praxis that underlies his creative approach. The elements of making theatre—his collaborators, his understanding of the world, and his use of literature and popular culture—come to shape the production as a whole. Leon expressed the importance of crossing borders and how theatre is made as a contract of negotiated effect between the stage and audience. Eckersall said that in a world of borders and constraints interventions through the community of theatre might cross the boundaries imposed on the world: an idea of interaction as intervention.

In February 2003 the project moved into a second stage with a 2-day symposium designed to focus on dramaturgy and professional practice. Eckersall’s keynote paper: “What is dramaturgy? What is a dramaturg?” reviewed the history of dramaturgical praxis and outlined models for its politically interventionist character. Panels chaired by co-convenors focused on particular aspects of dramaturgy and were organised around the themes of performance, dramaturgy, text, design, dramaturgy and curatorship. Each panel featured 3 speakers who discussed their personal case studies, which were presented with discussions of future directions for theatre and performance praxis in general.

For the final panel, artistic directors and senior staff from major organisations and independent companies were invited to respond to the project themes as a whole. The panel largely accepted the need for dramaturgy to be valued in the wider creative process; the question was: how to pay for it. An audience largely drawn from the theatre community reinforced the convenors’ intentions that the forum act as professional development. Keith Gallasch and Virginia Baxter gave a rousing performative wrap-up to the proceedings.

We are now considering ways to extend the project, specifically into workshop based activities and possible studio-performance based outcomes.

An edited transcript of Dramaturgies: the artist as agent provocateur and cultural interventionist from the Melbourne Festival forum is published on the RealTime website. [currently offline] A report on the second Dramaturgies conference will appear in RT56.

The dramaturgy and cultural intervention project was devised by Melanie Beddie, Paul Monaghan and Peter Eckersall. We gratefully note the support of Arts Victoria and thank the Melbourne Festival, The School of Creative Arts, University of Melbourne and all the artists who generously participated in the project.

RealTime issue #55 June-July 2003 pg. 43

© Peter Eckersall & Paul Monaghan & Melanie Beddie; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 June 2003
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