Towards a New Dramaturgy
Lead Author(s): Alison Jane Bowie, Gene Gibbons
Student Price: Contact us to learn more
This book includes chapters on: the history of dramaturgy, modes of creation and dramaturgical practices, the ways in which dramaturgy exists in everyday life.
Towards a New Dramaturgy
What is Dramaturgy?
“I am a dramaturg.”
(What does that mean?)
Before going any further, what does dramaturgy mean to you right now?
In their book Dramaturgy and Performance Cathy Turner and Synne K. Behrndt explain that, “the more precise and concise one tries to be [in defining dramaturgy], the more one invites the response ‘Yes, but…’. Although dictionaries and encyclopedias offer apparently clear explanations, these are insufficient to address the multiple and complex uses of the word, which has, in contemporary theory and practice, become an altogether flexible, fluid, encompassing and expanded term.” (Turner and Behrndt 2008, 17) The dramaturg’s ability to flex and adapt to the work that is required on each production (as it is different) makes it feel that there is a certain amount of wizardry going on, some magically transformation taking place where we are one moment a dialect coach, the next a translator, the next a historian, and the next a technician. In Chapter 2 – History of Dramaturgy, we will look at the history of dramaturgy in storytelling, and how we have arrived at what we know of today as the field of dramaturgy.
Dramaturg Eleonora Fabião explains that when working as a dramaturg she “had the opportunity to emphasize a connection between artistic practice and theoretical thinking; through the dramaturge’s viewpoint, practice and theory are emphatically experienced as complementary references, as different appearances of a unique matter. However, it is important to stress that the dramaturge is alchemically combining these references to make the scene richer in terms of dynamics and meaning…” (Turner and Behrndt 2008, 149) This alchemy combining practice and theory, the idea that the dramaturg makes meaning through the assemblage of contextual, historical, physical, linguistic, and mechanical articulations that arise from the rehearsal space, is not all that far removed from the work of the scientist, as described by Bruno Latour in his book Laboratory Life.
Pull out three adjectives from the descriptions and definitions above that describe dramaturgy and the work of the dramaturg.
Theatre has the same problem as the sciences: everyone thinks they know what they are all about. The sciences are objective, fact-based, academic, intellectual, and logical. Theatre is subjective, entertaining, imaginary, and emotional. But there’s a lot more to both of these fields than these simple definitions. Latour articulates the relationship between object and context in terms of fact-creation in the sciences. He explains that fact-creation is not devoid of cultural signs, ethnographic subjectivities, and historical implications. We will discuss the relationship between culture and cultural codes and dramaturgy and the ways in which meaning are embedded (or encoded) into text and performance in Chapter 3 – Encoded Performance and Cross-Cultural Communication. And in Chapter 4 – Decoding Signs and Symbols in Text and Performance, we will look at how dramaturgs and audiences decode and assign value to these symbols and meanings. Theatre is a product of culture and, therefore, contains signs and cultural codes, but that does not mean it is completely devoid of fact or truth. Science and theatre seem to be on opposite ends of the spectrum, but suffer from the same problem of being seen as only one thing, and having only one possible interpretation.
In each mode of creation, including the traditional model, adaptation, mixed media performance-creation, devised theatre, new play development, and research-creation, there is a defined set of parameters or limitations (eg. number of people, grant money, space, rehearsal/creation time), a goal (eg. communication a particular idea, creating a story), and an outcome (a performance). We will look at a comparison of the different types of creation in Chapter 5 – Modes of Creation. Within each individual production process, there are different components and configurations that produce a final product. The dramaturg helps to look at those materials and relationships, as well as the contexts in which they were created or entered into the process, and helps the director or the creative team better understand the ways in which each of those components can affect the final outcome.
The traditional model of theatre creation, which we will discuss in Chapter 6 – Production Dramaturgy for Script Based Creation, is a “top down” model. The playwright creates a script on their own (or with one other person if they are co-writing). The director reads the script and develops a vision. The designers create the world of the play in accordance with the director’s vision and the actors develop their characters in the same fashion. We call this the blueprint model of theatre creation. All elements of the production are based on the text (the blueprint) and are overseen by the director (the foreman, perhaps).
In performance-creation, most often known today as devised theatre, we don’t start with a script; instead we start with an idea, theme, concept, or argument. It was the main idea behind the work, like the broth in a soup. Then each person involved in the show, the directors, designers and actors each brought something to the rehearsal room – like ingredients – and the production came together through the process. In the beginning, the play is like a cauldron of unlimited possibilities. And as things get added to the pot and taste tested, the possibilities become fewer and fewer until you end up with a completed production. We will be talking about this mode of creation more in Chapter 7 – Dramaturgy in Process-Based Modes of Creation.
Dr. David Williams explains that dramaturgy is “about the rhythmed assemblage of settings, people, texts and things. It is concerned with the composing and orchestration of events for and in particular contexts, tracking the implications of and connective relations between materials, and shaping them to find effective forms.” (Williams 2010, 197-198) While this is true about all types of storytelling and theatre production, this notion of assemblage is most relevant to dramaturgy within performance-creation. In this process, the dramaturg is placed inside the process and is an active creative member of the team, and yet they simultaneously remain on the outskirts as they are required to put the pieces (or articulations) together. Turner and Behrndt explain that in devised theatre “the performance text is, to put it simply, ‘written’ not before but as a consequence of the process.” (Turner and Behrndt 2008, 170) The dramaturg is responsible for shaping the narrative, responding to the process as it happens.
Dramaturg as Scientist
So what if we were to think of the dramaturg as a scientist? What if we were to look at theatre creation, for this example specifically performance-creation, as an experiment? The dramaturg is the scientist overseeing the experiment with their colleague, the director. The actors are agents, along with the technical machinery of the laboratory, which in this case is the rehearsal hall. The results are the performances.
So let’s start by looking at the culture created in the rehearsal hall. At the beginning of every rehearsal, the director discusses a plan of action for the day with the dramaturg. It is usually done over coffee (or tea in my case since I don’t drink coffee). They decide what content building activities they are going to perform with the actors that day, such as free writing exercises, image searches, and improvisation games. They decide what their goals or objectives are for that session, for example defining character relations, determining the beginning and end of a specific scene, or clarifying the trajectory of the story. The technicians arrive and turn on the equipment. The actors warm up their bodies as the lights brighten. They usually do this as a group, changing up who leads the warm up each day. Each individual has their personal favourite of the exercises, so this gives them all a chance to do their favourite one. The director sometimes participates in the warm up, but the dramaturg usually does not. They sit in the audience observing the activity in the room. They create a rubric or a notation system for the activities to come. They decide if they want to take photographs throughout, record the session, or take notes by hand. The rehearsal begins with questions. The director and dramaturg ask questions of the actors: how they are feeling, what they are thinking about, what they want to accomplish. And then the experiment begins.
It is important to note that the culture changes depending on the players in the room, not just the live people, but also the technical components (the lights, sound equipment, etc.). Not only that, these elements change the possibilities that a devised theatre production can take, in the same way that scientists from different backgrounds and schools of thought and different laboratory equipment will affect the directions that experiments will go. Latour explains that in order to look at an object, we must look at its meaning and significance in relation to its context. He says, “Even a well-established fact loses its meaning when divorced from its context”. (Latour 1986, 110) The ‘facticity’ of an object is relative to its network, or assemblage. If that is the case, and the laboratory culture is part of that network, then facts are necessarily linked to their cultural context. Similarly, actors with different training, technical equipment with different capabilities, and directors with different aesthetics will develop very different assemblages even with the same object, or objective. For example, a troupe from England, a troupe from Indian, and a troupe from Canada are all devising performances on the subject of colonialism. The British actor training system is very regimented, requiring them to learn Suzuki and Meyerhold techniques. Indian actor training is based on the Natyasastra and Katakhali theatre. Canadian theatre actors learn a variety of techniques, but there is no one training method nationwide. Canada was colonized by the British through settlement. This is not to say there was not the forceful ‘dehoming’ and killing of aboriginal peoples, simply that it was not a military expedition. The colonization of Indian, on the other hand, was a military invasion. And the British, well, it was their empire that was colonizing. Even within these countries there are different narratives relating to the experience of colonization. So these three troupes would end up with very different performances based on the same series of historical events.
These different ethnographic and artistic positions create different experiences in the laboratory, or as Latour would put it, different micro-processes. Latour explains that in the lab he was observing was a “thoroughly social construction”. (Latour 1986, 152) The lab was composed through the series of negotiations between the agents in the room. The lab, and, therefore, also the experiments and results that come from the lab, are inscribed with the cultural circumstances that created them; they cannot escape their contexts. Back in the rehearsal room, the dramaturg records the negotiations between the actors and the director, the different backgrounds, the different media and technical components, to develop an object called the play. The dramaturg inscribes the play not only with their own subjectivity, but with the positionality of the laboratory and all of its articulations.
If both objects, the experiment (and result) and the play, are the result of complex negotiations and are seen as assemblages of various agents and cultural contexts, then can we not conclude that plays are also facts? Or at the very least, can they not contain some element of facticity? Latour argues that the scientific process can be creative, saying, “Our use of creative does not refer to the special abilities of certain individuals to obtain greater access to a body of previously unrevealed truths; rather it reflects our premise that scientific activity is just one social arena in which knowledge is constructed.” (Latour 1986, 31) So if the scientific process can be creative, then why can’t the artistic process be scientific?
Above, we posed the question: So if the scientific process can be creative, then why can’t the artistic process be scientific? Respond to this question.
Moving Towards a New Dramaturgy
So why is this important? In much the same why that Latour explains that scientists are looking for credibility, dramaturgs are looking for it as well. It’s not credit we want. It’s credibility for our work. We no longer want to be seen as the know-it-all in the back of the room (a common view of dramaturgs even with the theatre, and popularized by the TV show Smash). We want to be seen as integral members of the creative team. Beyond that, and even more importantly, the field of dramaturgy is fighting for the objects, the plays that we create, to be viewed as more valuable than simply entertainment. The need for credibility, as we will discuss in Chapter 8 – Dramaturgy Beyond the Theatre, relates to our funding, our ability to get jobs, and our ability to continue to produce meaningful work that audiences want to see.
In that chapter, we will also discuss the fact that dramaturgy exists in and affects our every day lives. Dramaturgy is the tool and the foundation through which we create images of ourselves, in person and online. It allows us to tell stories, to communicate with one another, and to develop narratives. Theatre scholar Alan Filewod explains that “nations are performances; the nation exists insofar as it is enacted and embodied in the processes of representation”. (Filewod 1997, 53) Theatre is a space for rehearsing nationhood; it is a space for demonstrating possibility. The dramaturg can be the scientist that helps to piece together the assemblage that results in another possibility, in the same way as a scientist in the lab can write a report that shows the importance of a drug or an experiment result. Both of these articulations are equally a part of the assemblage of knowledge. The question remains: how do we get those outside of the Academy, those who are not part of the technical culture of theatre, to understand that? Do we need a Latour book of our own? And will this seeming levelling of the playing field help us in the long run? This textbook is a start. It offers a perspective on how dramaturgy creates, as well as how it interpretes and understands the world we live in. It looks at the different ways that theatre artists create, and how meaning and cultural codes are embedded into texts and performances. In essence, this textbook is the Latour book for dramaturgy. But it will take the next generation of dramaturgs to push beyond the limitations of the field as it stands today, to challenge the preconceived notions of what theatre is capable of doing, and to develop new modes of creating and disseminating truth and artistry through performance in order to reach a new dramaturgy.
Do you believe that it is important for people to take theatre and dramaturgy more seriously and see the work of artists as a mechanism for knowledge production? Is this important to you personally? Why or why not?
Filewod, Alan, “Actors Acting Not-Acting”, in La Création Biographique, ed. Marta Dvorak (Rennes: Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 1997), 51-58.
Latour, Bruno and Steve Woolgar, Laboratory Life: The Construction of Scientific Facts (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1986).
Turner, Cathy and Synne K. Behrndt, Dramaturgy and Performance (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008).
Williams, David, “Geographies of Requiredness: Notes on the Dramaturg in Collaborative Devising”, in Contemporary Theatre Review Vol 20(2) , 197-202.