Dramaturgy in Action

Dramaturgy in Action

Beccy Smith is a dramaturg - so what exactly does she do? All is revealed below...

The word dramaturg sounds intimidating, erudite and a long way from the practical processes of theatre making. One of the most consistent challenges of being a practising dramaturg is convincing other artists of the usefulness of my being in the room. But, to roll out the oft-quoted definition of dramaturgy without which any comment on the subject wouldn't be complete: 'turgy' (the scary bit) means 'making', from the Greek 'ourgos' from which is formed 'dramatourgía', a dramatic composition. Dramaturgy is simply an awareness of the mechanisms by which drama is made and forms by which it expresses itself and is always already present in any process of theatre-making or analysis.

Extending from this definition, my own concept of the role is generally as the embodiment of the process. By this I mean that the dramaturg's most vital action is to undertake a holistic awareness of all aspects of the production, particularly the ideas and voices which present themselves during the course of making the work, and to safeguard this rather fragile awareness against the vagaries of production demands.

To be more precise, my role is to capture the ideas and insights thrown up during the making of work, the ways that these are expressed and the relationship of all of these to the original intention of the devising artists. Sometimes it's to assist those devising to identify this intention in the first place. Later it often involves pushing the constituents of the performance - content, tone, style, context - to their consequential boundaries, i.e. 'if you make this decision it may change the meaning of this', helping the ideas in play become more robust.

Also, mediating the ways by which information and ideas are reintroduced to the room, considering the ways in which 'meaning' is exchanged as dramatic currency within a process. These sustained practices of interrogating intention and meaning are why I believe focussed dramaturgical practice is particularly useful in a devised context. The nature of devising can make it more difficult for the participants involved to maintain scrutiny on what it is that they're making whilst their energies are directed to the creative process of actually generating the work.

There's a common preconception that the academic overtones of the job title suggests that the dramaturg is privileged to an authoritative view of the work, that involving a dramaturg in the process will invoke a negative, prescriptive presence validating (or not) every creative decision as it is made. However, in practice the dramaturg can be no more and no less than the sum of the process and the practical presence of her knowledge within the process is only ever as much as is shared with the devising group. This is particularly true within the educational context of British dramaturgy.

Unlike many other parts of Europe and the US, the formal training currently available is limited (Although this is changing with a full-time BA course instituted at Bretton Hall supplementing the postgraduate training available at RADA/UCL and Central School of Speech and Drama). There is instead an emergent tradition in the UK which emphasises the dramaturg's holistic and creative rather than academic relationship to the work. The only advantage she holds is the ability to focus entirely on the dramaturgical questions in hand, to consider exclusively the question of meaning in relation to the emergent performance and obviously the insights gained from a recurrent practical application of this approach.

So the practice of dramaturgy in the UK is a varied and evolving one. In an attempt to demonstrate what these diverse definitions may mean in practice, I'm going to outline two case studies of recent productions I've worked on, themselves very different in form and methodology: Sleeping Dogs - Him and Hat (Theatre 503, London, August 2004) and Petra's Pulse - Drinking the Dawn (Camden People's Theatre, London, November 2004).

Both of these productions are slightly atypical as in each case the direction was coming from one or both of the performers, rather than from a designated artist, which meant that my interaction within the other artists involved was a particularly open one. In general, when working on director-led productions, a methodology filtering my work through the director is necessary, creating a two-tiered flow of information. (This obviously may vary according to the vital negotiation of methodology set up with the director at the dramaturg's point of entry to a process).

As an aside here, I should mention that the role of the dramaturg is often characterised as the 'female' (reactive, receptive) in relation to 'male' director or writer (creative, dominant). Leaving aside the obviously dated terms of those gender definitions, the usefulness of this division lies in its emphasis upon the necessity for the dramaturg to be fundamentally flexible in his/her relationship to the ideas and creative currency of a production. The role demands an ability to inhabit the ideas of others, to question, supplement, amend and discard. It is not a matter of the dramaturg disowning their own creative voice, but rather an ability to situate that creativity within the terms of others. In the context of this study, it may be useful to identify this as a feminine approach to ideas, and it's certainly true that there a greater number of women functioning in the role in Britain at the moment than men, but this is arguably more to do with the continuing predominance of the male director rather than connected to any innate gendered qualities.

Him and Hat was an experiment in sustained improvised performance, inspired by Beckett's Waiting for Godot and with the additional aim to create an arena where performers and objects carried the same weight of presence on the stage. The process outlined by the creative team demanded three main areas of dramaturgical focus.

First, working with the company to identify in more detail their field of inquiry for the project, questioning their aims and expectations in initial discussions in order to create a clear manifesto for the terms of the project to which we could refer as the process evolved.

Secondly, working as an intermediary with the source text; using research to supplement their ideas about Beckett and rendering these useful for improvisation, I collected ideas from and about Beckett that suggested openings for performance: concepts of being which offered possibilities for presence on the stage; images from his work which might suggest physical or psychological starting points; separating Vladimir and Estragon quotes between performers to suggest character bases for relationships in play; and a few core principles of Beckett's own 'philosophy' (a problematic term) which could inform the tone of the whole.

I presented these as miniature books using what felt like an appropriate aesthetic of recycled found objects, each with different information for each performer to provoke discussion and a friction of ideas from which to work. These artefacts became touchstone points of reference after each rehearsal for the team together to situate the improvised images and relationships. It formed the basis of a framework for impro that could remain both relatively free and relatively focussed to the ideas in play.

There were certain problems unique to the methodology of this production in terms of ideas management which also needed to be addressed at an early stage. Vital to the success of the final improvised performances was a confidence in the creative relationship on stage between the two performers and so they needed space within the process to play alone. At the same time, a key dramaturgical function was identified as recording and guiding discussion about the discoveries made during the rehearsal impros to identify recurrent themes and relationships to revisit in later sessions. To address this I generally attended one in three of the rehearsals, recording everything during these impros to feedback, and encouraged the company to foster a more conscious awareness of some of their discoveries in 'play'. When absent I encouraged them to 'debrief' one another after each extended impro and keep a personal record of moments or images which worked for them, building up a palette of successful possibilities and impro 'memories' which they shared.

The relationship between the performers' self-conscious awareness of the meaning and 'success' of discoveries made during impro and their ability to improvise freely was obviously a fragile one and the company were keen to leave commitment to any specific relationships, images of scenes to the latest possible stage in rehearsal. Further to this, in order to accommodate the ideas which so fascinated them in the Beckett and the discoveries they had made with the projects in play, they required some form of structure within which to improvise without eliminating the possibility of live 'play'. To facilitate this they delegated to me, using all of their continuous feedback throughout the process to create in the final stage of rehearsal a framework which they could use as a thematic reference during the aimed-for one hour of performance. In an attempt to address this I created a structure based solely on phases of relationship (discovery, conflict, resolution etc), energy level and imaginative modes. This notion of mode had emerged through rehearsal sessions when the devisers had discovered through varying their patterns of blocking and supporting their partner's play that they could variegate their modes of presence on the stage between the very outwardly collaborative and the intensively inward and private.

As a dramaturg, I felt ultimately that offering this structure represented a compromise to the original terms of the production, placing certain parameters on the free improvisation the performance had aspired towards, although it is a good demonstration of a practical rather than solely theoretical dramaturgical response. Him and Hat presents an ongoing project of exploration for myself and the company to further consider the possibilities of creating an arena for directed improvisation in performance on a complex theme.

In contrast, Drinking the Dawn, a project entering its final phase of development, specifically solicited dramaturgical support in order to organise, develop and consolidate the range of ideas created by the company. A previous production had created a rich hour's work but hadn't necessarily expressed the company's ideas with the clarity they had desired. And the ideas were complex ones, considering the many facets of a relationship through the dualism of presence and absence (based on Barthes' A Lover's Discourse) and investigating the different possibilities of creating meaning through different modes of physical, image-based performance. The work devised encompassed several timelines and different means of expression, from narrative to tone poem, surreal music hall to performance art.

The main dramaturgical priority fell to fully inhabiting the company's vision. Petra's Pulse is a small company who have been working together for several years. They were understandably wary of bringing someone else into the thick of their process. We invested a lot of time in the early part of the process discussing the ideas informing the work, watching videos of the last show and sharing the company's new ideas for development. It took time to be able to inhabit the language of the company.

Through a process of questioning the central ideas I had understood from initial discussions we were able to find ways of identifying and analysing the impulses underpinning and developing several of the central scenes. However, Petra's Pulse are a company who work very instinctively and it became clear that beyond a point it was counterproductive for us to be analysing what was happening during the multilayered moments being devised. The difficulty for this process lay in the fact that the ideas they wished to communicate were subtle and complex but the way in which they generated work made it very difficult for them to dissect their creation in such detail and at the same time actually succeed in devising and performing intuitively and creatively. Without a director to mediate this methodological gap it became necessary for me to work strategically to carefully moderate the communication of meaning between my 'outside eye' and the creative process.

In an attempt to address this, I devised a process of structuring the piece which looked at patterns and affinities of moment without necessarily unpicking the full significance of each act or dissecting it to the nth degree. Using a wall split into temporal phases, literally dividing the hour-long play into five parts, the company placed moments and images at the point in the piece where they felt they were most appropriate. We started simply, looking at those actions which were sequential or recurrent, with repetition being a key idea for the piece - and also several actions having a consequential ordering built in (a meal was cooked live on stage, for example). These formed a framework in which it became less daunting to place and consider more complex moments.

Further, the structure we created across one wall of the rehearsal room was mobile. All its constituent parts could be moved around and so as the company worked later to physically and psychologically block through what they had created, they could switch elements that didn't work on the floor. In this way we were able to maintain a sense of intuition and flexibility of response to the work whilst also settling on a shared understanding of the ideas aimed to explore. The key element in this process was one of trust: in the shared understanding of the company's ideas and our ultimately unspoken sense of how these expressed themselves through performance. It was a very intuitive dramaturgy, far from the dry, logical commitment to meaning often imputed to the discipline.

I have heard of dramaturgs who have a much more clearly defined sense of role and creative identity than I do. In the UK, there are those who work exclusively with the writer in development and advocacy work in (or out) of the rehearsal room; others identify themselves as guardians of the text's or of the director's vision; some work with performers, others situate themselves alongside the production team; still others try to maintain a distance and critical perspective from them all. This proliferation of identity is at least in part a product of the diverse traditions which coexist internationally. In Germany, for example, the dramaturg's institutional perspective may often overshadow their work on he floor - they are heavily involved in the municipal cultural policy effected by theatre programming and audience development; in the US the discipline is closely entwined with literary management and writer's development (reflecting the American cultural commitment to humanistic literature).

To make another sweeping generalisation, Eastern European traditions often reflect a more holistic approach to the region's non text-based forms. In the UK, the schizophrenic identity of the role may reflect a diverse and evolving sense of our own tradition and its contemporary forms: a proliferation of theatres necessitating a proliferation of dramaturgical approaches.

What I have hoped to demonstrate through this article is some sense of the enormous variety of the role, which I believe to be its strength. A wise and effective dramaturg needs to have a sense of the form and history of theatre, to have experienced or trained in the range of possibilities of performance and to be passionately involved in the world. S/he needs knowledge of structure, pattern and information in order to effectively manage, maintain and subvert the way theatre communicates and what it can express. The fascination to me of the discipline is the dramaturg's necessary ability to fully inhabit the process of a company making work; to sensitively embody this without damaging it in the act of possession; and so to be able to nurture the process through questioning, research, analysis, encouragement and feedback. If the dramaturg is one who is attuned to the modes of making meaning generated by a process, then the role becomes as varied and multiform as theatre itself.

Beccy Smith works as a freelance dramaturg and is a member of The Dramaturgs' Network, an organisation for UK theatre practitioners committed to developing dramaturgy and supporting practitioners' development in the field. She is available for work and can be contacted via the Network, which holds a database of UK-based dramaturgs, an archive of articles on dramaturgy, and information on dramaturgy training and professional development. See www.dramaturgy.co.uk
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