Audio clip of an interview with Chloé Déchery about the role of the dramaturg in her work. Originally from Paris, Chloé is a live artist based in London and invited Michael to work as a dramaturg on her new project A Duet Without You.
A Duet Without You
A Duet Without You by Chloé Déchery started as an attempt to reenact a pas de deux without a partner. In ballet, a pas de deux (literally, steps of two) is a type of duet. It usually consists of an entrée, an adagio, two variations (one for each dancer), and a coda. Here I attempt to describe my experience of the process as a dramaturg, using the structure of a pas de deux as a scaffolding.
I sit in a studio watching Chloé describe the space and everything in it. A square of white masking tape frames the floor. A ladder stands upstage. She says it was there when she came into the room and instead of moving it she taped around it, so it became part of the set. There are marks on the wall where she traced yesterday’s shadow as it moved. Stones from outside. A pile of ash. A potato. On the floor pieces of paper say ‘Here’ and ‘Not Here’, ‘There and ‘Not There.’ She reads a text about ancient civilizations leaving handprints on the walls of caves, they spat paint around their fingers to create negatives of their presence. As she reads I look out of the window at the walls of the building next door. Cracks have been plastered over and they look like handprints. Chloé says that when she came into the theatre she didn’t know how to tame the space. I write in my notebook: ‘How do you tame space?’
I am writing about space and how we use it. I write about how we often work with what is already there when we arrive. We weave the reality of the room into our work. Ladders become our proscenium arches. LX tape marks out our stages. I think about time passing and how we might try to tame time. How we as performers and audiences are marked by the time it takes to tell a story, by the hour or so we spend together in a theatre. And how, as Italo Calvino said in Quickness: ‘cuntu nun mette tempu’ – time takes no time in a story.
Karen Christopher, working with Chloé as a mentor on A Duet Without You, once said of her work with Goat Island: ‘We are standing here with time and the time it takes to stand here.’ Now Chloé is standing here with the time she spent with others. Ten days working with three artists will become whatever she does now. The rehearsal space will be re-traced onto this taped out stage. Two weeks will be distilled into an hour and four people will become one. In that time, all she will have left is the space and what is already in it.
Chloé Déchery will dance a pas de deux tonight with the stories, bodies and voices of her absent collaborators; Pedro Ines, Simone Kenyon and Deborah Pearson. Like the handprints on the walls of caves, they have left negatives of their presence in the creative process. They haunt this space in the way an object moves or a song is sung, in the way water is poured or a light is switched on. Now, somewhere between a duet and a duel, a summoning and a conducting, Chloé stands here with time and the time it takes to stand here.
Tim Mrosek is a dramaturg and director based in Cologne (Germany). He works at studiobühneköln. Image: “12” (director: Tim Mrosek / Foto: Ingo Solms).
What is your understanding of the word dramaturg?
TM: I think when I started to become interested in theatre I soon realized that almost every job in theatre, almost every position that is filled by someone is kind of easy to understand from an outside position. So you understand what the actor is or what the director does and what an assistant is but the dramaturg stayed as an enigma because I ran across different types of the dramaturg. I was in a production where I did assistant work to the dramaturg’s assistant. We only did text work. That was a production by Richard Maxwell and what he did was he rewrote the text after every rehearsal and what we had to do was sit with him and listen to the changes and put them in the text version, making copies, that was basically just text work. I worked on another production were the dramaturg came every second week, watched a rehearsal, after the rehearsal he would sit down with the director and me and the assistant and talked about what he had seen and talked about what he had seen two weeks before and always referring back to the general basic idea of what the whole production was. Asking questions like which way are you going? I think you took this or that turn. It might be interesting to go back to the intersection and try the other turn as well. Always asking questions about the way. The way that the production is going. The aim that the production once had. The aim that might be there now. That was one thing, then this production had two dramaturgs, the other one was responsible only for public relations e.g. flyers, posters, programmes etc. When I started here as a dramaturg I thought it would be a strange position. If someone asks me I say I’m a dramaturg and then they ask me what I do and I could always tell them different things and sometimes I do public relations stuff or I talk to the groups here always in relation to what kind of picture we want to be seen by the public. That’s dramaturgical work that sounds more like PR and when I tell people that I don’t do a lot of production dramaturg’s work so I don’t go to rehearsals that often and I don’t talk to artists about their artistic stuff, that’s when I realize that me being a dramaturg here means doing a lot of that part of the dramaturg’s work but when I go to conferences and festivals or talk to other groups then I do the other part of the dramaturg’s work. Then when I work for myself, because I am a director as well, and I am rehearsing then it becomes really strange because often I am my own dramaturg, I am the outside eye watching what I am doing.
How do you achieve that?
TM: By being schizophrenic. It’s about control mechanisms. You can’t undo what you have seen or what you have experienced. When the director says let’s do this and the dramaturg thinks about what that means for the process. The interesting question is how can one not get in one’s own way then. But I think that probably every dramaturg you ask in Germany will tell you different things about what a dramaturg can be and very different things about what he or she as a dramaturg does. Probably the one thing that is really interesting about being a dramaturg is you can define for yourself what it is.
That’s absolutely true. A lot of people say they write their own job description. Part of their role is to define the role. Often when you work with artists you define the role to that artist’s need. What interested me there was when you said you are your own dramaturg and I wondered if you ever invite any other dramaturgs or outside eyes into the process to give you more objective feedback. Usually in Germany you have a director and a dramaturg working together. Do you make a deliberate choice to be both?
TM: No not really. I think I did one production where I had no outside eye of any kind. That was easy because it was a German play that was the most well written play I’ve ever read so there was nothing for a dramaturg to do and that went quite well. Normally the group I work with has two dramaturgs, in inverted commas. One is doing more public relations, the other is available to come to rehearsals, I don’t necessarily hear what he says. I hear what he says but often I know what he is going to say. That’s my personal problem. I invite people but I haven’t found the right person who I trust to give that sort of feedback that helps me. Everyone’s peculiar and I haven’t found the person who could be my dramaturg. That could be someone who comes to rehearsal and says that’s absolute rubbish what you’ve been doing for the last week but I can tell you why and I can tell you that you don’t want to do this – you want to go back to the intersection and go the other way and please do so. That would be the best thing that could happen to me as someone who tries to do theatre. But I think that it is always necessary to have someone who can give feedback. There is also a moment of reassuring the rest of the people you work with. One comes and says OK you’re on the way and the way is interesting, it’s not the way I would have gone but it is working. When you work with a small ensemble as a director sometimes you cannot lie, or you can’t say we’re fine and some actors need that all the time. Someone from outside who can tell them what they want to hear.
A dramaturg I know in England said they have the capacity to be frank. Someone who can say I’m not sure this is working, can we try it this way? You have to have a certain relationship with the artist or company in order to do that. Otherwise there’s a danger that you slip into sycophantic behaviour where you’re just saying this is great all the time.
TM: It depends on whom you talk to. Right after rehearsal when the actor comes and asks what you think, I think as a dramaturg you can’t say that its wrong, you have to give positive feedback. Even if it’s I like it I can’t tell you why. Afterwards when the director comes everything is possible, you should be able to be frank. Maybe that’s my problem because for me that happens when I go home, when I know what I want to say. With other people’s work it’s rather that I want to know where I am. We have a group who works here and I go to rehearsal and afterwards everyone comes to you and asks ‘What are you thinking?’ and you have one version but when you sit down with the director you should give them the truth, what you think is the truth, you should be frank. But when I work on my own this is when my inner dramaturg and my inner director start to communicate.
So the dramaturg needs some distance with the work?
TM: He needs to be alone with the director.
Transcript of a conversation that took place with Alice Gale-Feeny and Katherine Fishman about their exhibition ‘Beyond the Suspension of Disbelief’. This transcript was used as a ‘script’ at the exhibition launch at Surface Gallery, Nottingham in March 2012.
* No intro (A, K and M walk to mics and sit on floor before audience realise performance is starting.)
M: I think when I walked in, I saw the various…. sets – you put in place.
M: yeah the plains. It’s a bit like in the theatre, where you drop things from the wings, everything’s on a – sorry from the fly tower; it comes down from a fly tower, and everything’s on a slightly different plain. Scenery comes in a narrative order.
M: We see it from this corner.
K: yeah. Kind of like, through the other pieces?
M: In a way you’re at a vantage point to be able to see it all – kind of demystifying it all for us.
M: It feels more honest than the rest of the other work.
K: But then I like the fact that maybe it has some kind of fake honesty to cover up for the fact that maybe it’s not a real kind of honesty?
M: A fake honesty?
K: Or maybe it’s showing something that looks like a kind of honesty even though it’s quite abstract so it doesn’t feel like a real honesty. So that people don’t question its honesty?
M: It’s an abstract honesty. I think that’s a nice way of saying it. I don’t consider it a fake honesty. I mean it could be.
A: No I don’t.
M: There’s something about your manner that seems more genuine than any of this. Like here, we see a rehearsal of a performance and then we see the performance. And even the lady in the corner, who’s supposed to be more of a- I guess- non-performative presence, becomes performative. So you do your hand gesture, or the volume changes -
- And you become a performer then. It feels more like a competition between the action and the description.
M: I just wonder how we frame this. And actually it’s more interesting potentially if we sit like this on the floor and talk -
A: That’s what I -
M: Than if we sit on chairs and have microphones. Because if we do that, we perform it.
A: Whereas this is actually just chatting about what we’re…
M: But then this, with people standing around us might feel a bit weird. But it’s actually a slightly more… honest re-enactment. I guess it’s – what are you looking for? Honesty, or whether you’re more interested in mediations of the original text
M: And in a way this is the section we should probably be reading.
A: Because part of me is wary of using mics. I really want us to be heard. But if it’s- if it’s a clear “this is a performance starting”, everyone will stop talking, won’t they?
K: I don’t know if they would, if we were all sat around like this.
M: I actually think if we sat around like this and talked, and we weren’t worried about people listening to us or not, we have perhaps more of a chance of being sincere to the original. Whereas – cos’ actually, if I start to speak like I want to be heard I’m automatically not using the right kind of voice for this sort of conversation.
M: And I would annunciate clearly, and use all of my theatrical training to make sure everyone could hear me
M: But that isn’t how we’re talking
M: So it needs to be more organic and reflective
K: But then I’m also interested in our different styles of performing.
A: I think it might be a mistake to – to force… the way I perform on the text, or the way Michael performs. Because in a way, you don’t perform – we don’t perform in any particular way, but it depends on the context, doesn’t it?
M: But we do read it -
K: Or it will happen anyway -
A: It will
K: Without us trying
A: If I re-read something now I will talk it differently to this. It won’t be performed.
M: But I – what I would tend to do if I have something written in front of me, is read it without any real… colour. As in emotional adding-on of an effect. It would just be: I will read these words and let them speak for themselves.
M: And actually I’ll probably make it flatter than I have in saying it now.
K: Yeah A: Mm
M: So actually I’d be conscious of reducing it into something else, rather than expanding it -
M: If that makes sense.
M: And in that sense, that’s closer to a deadpan reading than what you might have, if that’s what you think you might do.
M: So I think that we might find that we all shared a similar kind of voice in this context, rather than finding differences between our voices.
M: I would be a bit more restrained
A: I think we all would as well. Cos I think the way I talk in this- I don’t think I would naturally talk like that. If I was saying those words.
M: Until you do the gesture; the louder bit. Your real… slightly more… restrained voice is in the foreground. And the background is a much more… actor-
M: Persona… voice, isn’t it?
M: But I don’t necessarily know if the focus of this performance would be the registers of our voices… But then in might be. But it would be more of a footnote than the focus.
A: Or it would- just be a thing that just happens
M: Or just a thing that happens
K: Yeah. I’m sure it will occur naturally
A: I think it will. I think we’ll notice it.
M: I suppose you have to ask why we speak it, rather than playing the recording of it. But I like- it’s the same device you used in the video you showed me last time, isn’t it? It makes sense, in a way. Having… a proximity to an original, which can never be the same as the original.
A: Or how does it change from the original?
A: Because we’ve actually talked a lot about – our strategies… behind it. So we might have to be careful about not unpicking everything
K: Yeah. I mean, I’m sure we’ve got plenty of material to work with
M: The other question is just how ambient noise might affect it. Whether the people you have will be quiet.
K: That’s why I kind of like the idea of being amplified because -
K: Because we wouldn’t have to change the way we spoke too much to make us louder. Like if we were speaking to be heard then we’d have to be projecting a lot more
A: “Well, I think this”
M: Well you could- if you had- if you had the setup in the video with the microphone on the stand surrounded by chairs, and we each step up to the mic and do our bit then that’s one vision of that. If there were three of us on chairs then that’s more of a panel.
But I think that anything with mics- mics and chairs seems to make it more formal. Whereas as we’re having it now- and if we replicate how we’re having it now, there’s something more of a found movement vocabulary- a found informality to that… seems… kind of… There are different registers within the work.
There’s something informal about you leaning against the wall, and something formal about the form of Alice’s presentation. And the thing with this piece is how it sits within that sort of range of registers.
A: I think that’s important because in a way, if we’re sitting on the floor, it feels quite a different scenario to any of these videos
K: Yeah. M: Mm
A: I wouldn’t watch any of these videos sitting on the floor.
M: I’m speaking from the experience of reading out at things like at talks, and never really being announced, not that I want to be announced, but… If you perform on stage, and the audience sit down and the lights go out, and the spotlight goes up, and everyone knows it’s begun
M: And everyone knows you’re performing something. When you do something in a gallery and you start reading something, no one knows a) who you are, or b) what you’re doing and c) what they’re supposed to do and there’s lots of questions. And I think whatever you do for this just perhaps needs to address some of those.
* How do we end it? Walk off?
Interview with Jochem Naafs, a dramaturg, theatre scholar and writer based in Utrecht (Netherlands). He merges theory and practice, working in dance, performance and theatre.
What does the idea of an ‘outside eye’ mean to you?
JN: I guess the role of an outside eye would mean someone that comes by, looks and gives feedback at one or more moments during the creative process. Someone that is not intimately involved in the process all the time and therefore has a certain distance to it.
That brings me on to my second question…
JN: (That does not necessarily define a dramaturg for me, by the way)
I am looking more at the role of the outside eye than the dramaturg. But think there might be some overlap. How does the relationship you have work with writers / directors? Is it regular meetings, face-to-face, in rehearsal or remote?
JN: It depends on whom I am working with. I prefer to be involved in a certain on-going dialogue with the writer, director or choreographer. To not only be someone that can be flown in at will, but rather someone that is involved in a process. That would also mean face-to-face contact in the studio and at the table. Discussing issues, themes, and progress. In a more collective process it would also mean that I would be in contact directly with designers and actors etc. Sometimes I am more the outside-eye, observing, interpreting and giving feedback; sometimes I am rather a co-creator, working with the director and being actively involved in the process. If I need to be more specific, let me know.
I wonder what you mean by ‘interpreting’ in this context? I have been looking at the idea of the outside eye as a translator, from one language or artform to another. For example, I wrote this in a recent paper on dramaturgy: The practice of an outside eye sometimes approaches the practice of a translator. As Walter Benjamin said; ‘It is the task of the translator to release in his own language that pure language that is under the spell of another, to liberate the language imprisoned in a work in his re-creation of that work’. I wonder how much you release or liberate language in your role?
JN: The idea of being a translator appeals to me. I notice this most when I work in dance. I try and translate what I see into words. Movements, stills, objects, relations between these things. I try and find words for what I see (not only what I literally observe, but also what that communicates in the context of theatre and the context of the piece).
JN: I use the term translation a lot when describing how people can look at things. For example: when we both look at a cup we tend to think that we see the same cup, but actually we create meaning by translating the presence of the cup in our head.
So we both see a different cup depending on what we think of as a cup. Like we both see different dances or respond differently to the same performance.
Which is a result of our subjective reading of the work, whereas sometimes, the outside eye is there to be objective. To say ‘This is what you are doing, this is what I am seeing’. An indexical reading rather than an iconic or semiotic reading?
JN: What I define as blue might be totally different in my eyes, then what you define as blue although we might both call the Facebook buttons as blue.
I thought they were grey.
JN: Some of them are.
This relates to my next question about how objective you are able to be as an outside eye. Do you find the role sits inside or outside of the process? Are you more subjective or objective?
JN: I think of myself as rather subjective. What I try to do is to make the director aware of this subjectivity. Of the possibility of various interpretations. But also of the possibility of overlap in these interpretations. Some general background, relations etc. Together with the director I am searching for this intersubjectivity in the work.
Could you define intersubjectivity for me please. In a nutshell?
JN: For me intersubjectivity in this context means the meaning that exists in-between various subjective meanings. A meaning that might be agreeable to all these subjects.
This is a lovely definition of the role of the dramaturg: to make aware of the possibility of overlap. From one reading to another, from one answer of a question to another, like this conversation. Question and answer overlapping each other like a tide.
JN: Creating confusion and trying to make things clear at the same time.
In response to your last post: how do you open without closing, make visible something that is not tangible, tell a story without making it too easy to read or too difficult to understand?
JN: These are hard questions. Let me think.
So is the dramaturg seeking a common denominator of meaning? In which case, he or she is possibly representing the audience in the room? Imagining what they might think of the work when they see it. Considering different potential readings.
JN: I guess that is part of it. At various moments in the creative process the dramaturg will represent the audience and imagines how it will think about what is shown. There is a sentence from Michel Callon that I regularly use in this context: It is: ‘To speak for others is to first silence those in whose name we speak’. It is maybe not always the best way to deal with it, but representation (as a dramaturg, in politics or anywhere else) is an attempt in speaking for others.
To represent, to replace, to substitute, to speak on behalf of the work
JN: On behalf of the work to the audience in that case, and on behalf of the audience when working with the director in others. Translating the work from the director’s point of view to the point of view of the audience and vice versa.
So there is a circular transaction taking place. From artist to audience to artist via the dramaturg. It is a wheel. I asked a French dramaturg to describe the role and he said it was ‘lubrifiant’ – which in some ways makes the wheel turn more easily.
JN: There is this part of the dramaturg that is seriously in-between, in a kind of liminality. You are part of the project and you are not, you are part of the outside world and you are not. Maybe you can try and make these parts run more smoothly together.
The outside eye is a contradiction as the eye as an organ is inside our bodies but it projects an image inside from out.
JN: I guess it is rather about an eye that enables the maker to look at itself. At the maker, I mean, not at the eye.
The eye that is able to see where it is looking from. Confusing.
JN: It is rather confusing indeed. I have to think of a sentence I wrote that I use in lecture performance in this context. Let me look it up.
‘I would like to think of myself as a dramaturge. The problem is that I find it hard to describe what that is. Here is what I know: I find myself at the sideline. Sometimes I join, most of the time I am just watching. But quite often I find myself in the middle. Stuck in the middle. In a liminality, between the line. Between creating and observing, between acting and passing. Between active and passive.’
How do you document the dialogue you have with the artist? E.g. a blog, publications, papers. Do you consider the dialogue to be public / private? What is the legacy of the work you do?
JN: I have thought about documentation a lot, but I have not really made an attempt in documenting for someone else then myself. I write in notebooks. I have talked about my work (together with a choreographer) at a conference.
So it is an internal dialogue more than an external dialogue. Or a dialogue that informs the process more than exists outside of it.
JN: Yes, and I still think that is a pity. I think much can be learned by discussing the position of the outside eye or the dramaturg.
We might consider the sideline you mention to be the margins, or the wings. With The Beginning, The Middle and The End, I am in the wings. Exploring how the role of the outside eye is configured in relation to the work. The liminal notion is an interesting one as we move from the pre-liminal discussion of a project to a post-liminal state. My research is framing the study from the point of view of the beginning, the middle and the end of a creative process using the shows with those titles as practice as research. I had not thought of them as pre-liminal, liminal and post-liminal before.
JN: Yes, that is about the same feeling I guess. It is standing in between the audience and the performers, but not daring to actually be there, so you flee to the wings.
Well then we are in the wings writing about being in the wings now. I will take our words and put them onto the stage. Will let you know when it’s up. Thanks again for your time today.
Bill Aitchison is a performance artist and artistic director of Bill Aitchison Company. He works in and between performance, writing, video and audio, and collaborates with theatre, sound and visual artists.
What does the idea of an ‘outside eye’ mean to you?
Bill: When I think of an ‘outside eye’ I imagine that as a person, or quite possibly several people, whose role in an artistic project is to give informed, fresh feedback during the creative process. I use the word fresh because what almost inevitably starts to happen to those working intensively upon a project is that they construct an idea of what the work is and what it means, as a result of being immersed in the process of making it. The sense of continuity this can bring is enabling, a kind of artistic shorthand can be shared amongst the team, but it can also prevent you from seeing things in other ways: imagining constructing the performance in an alternative configuration or interpreting it in a different way. An ‘outside eye’ can therefore give articulate feedback based upon what they actually see and their understanding of the work’s intentions rather than repeating the idea of the work that the core team have constructed between themselves. The ‘outside eye’ also differs significantly from a spectator, even an informed spectator, because the outside eye will very likely view more than just the public face of the work. It can be useful to bring this fresh gaze into the rehearsal process too.
I am somewhat reluctant to define this as a role any more precisely than that because the situations in which I might find myself providing an outside eye vary considerably and I tend to view roles as being intrinsic to actual lived situation rather than abstract entities that predate them. Whilst it is necessary to put some sort of name to ones contribution, fixing that too solidly to a job description can, for me, prevent the more free flow of artistic ideas that can be most productive. At the same time there is a difference between being in an ‘outside eye’ sort of position than being, for example, a director, writer, performer or lighting designer. That said, I have sometimes changed roles during processes and gone from being an outside eye to becoming directly involved in writing or performing a piece, some people’s processes being flexible enough to accommodate this. Usually however that is not the case and I concentrate my efforts upon constructing a dialogue around a work and making creative suggestions.
How does a process evolve with an artist?
Bill: The process is always slightly different for each project. I have some people I work with regularly and something of a pattern is there but even with them each project will have a different rhythm of engagement and set of work spaces. The way things begin is that I tend to be asked by the artist if I would like to be involved in a project very early, usually during the early planning stage. I might be sent an email with some ideas and then we get together face to face and talk about it for two or three days. During this series of conversations we explore the ideas and imagine different ways in which the project might take shape. This can help the project management so that ideas and practicalities remain connected to one another during the planning stage. Because the majority of the people I work with are based outside of the UK we tend to make this an intensive first working session rather than the more casual sort of development process that is possible when people are living in the same city. When working we will try to keep a common working document with pictures, texts and videos that can serve as resources. When this first meeting is over we remain in touch via skype and email and also meet when possible, for example, coffee in Brussels Midi while in transit or over the breakfast buffet in a hotel while on tour with another show. There is often some cross-over of people between different projects so these fortuitous meetings can be quite organic though less intense and certainly no substitute for the dedicated working time. After that emails might be bounced around and supporting texts read but the process generally quietens down until rehearsals begin. Here things can vary enormously; sometimes I’ll be dropping in for a few days here and there, sometimes I’ll be present throughout. Whatever the level of engagement is I will usually try to be present in the final days and see the premiere. I can usually make a useful contribution during this period and seeing the premiere is important both because the show is more complete with its technical frame in place and it always becomes clearer what the nature of a show is when there is a public in front of it. Beyond that, it also feels like an important return from the process for me, without which I might well feel like a hired gun. After the premiere I will try to give constructive feedback, as it is my experience that most shows continue to evolve beyond their premiere, though that is usually my last formal contribution to the process as the ongoing changes are usually then made by the director.
Do you find the role of the dramaturg sits inside or outside of the process?
Bill: I tend not to describe myself as a dramaturg so I am uncertain how to answer… I usually avoid this title because I have the impression that it is a more recognised and formalised role within the theatrical culture of certain European countries. I may be mistaken, but I have the impression some people study specifically in order to become a dramaturg. They might even carry name cards on thick high quality card with the title dramaturg written below their name. I never came through such a process and I found myself in the position I am in through having an open mind to collaboration. Probably because of this route I have followed I lean to a subjective approach and engage with the project as an artist myself. However, I make an effort to follow the other artist’s process and aesthetic and think through the work from their position, which will not necessarily be my own. This act of following another person’s reasoning and imagination, asking questions along the way, looking forward, sideways and back, tends to position me as a sympathetic outsider. Sometimes the collaboration goes further and I am more directly inside the imaginative process to the point that I can no longer say I am outside, though this is the exception rather than the rule. Usually I see myself as helping to get the process moving and then looking at and evaluating what it is throwing out there so that this can then be organised and the work deepened.
Please could you describe any hierarchies implicit in your relationship?
Bill: I am not sure I understand the question properly, but I will try to write around it. The main hierarchy is that I do not instigate, produce or have any power to insist upon how the production takes shape. After the premiere I usually step away from the work and turn over what I have done, the artist then making any further changes or re-writes on their own initiative. When there are a number of people in the rehearsal space I try to reserve some of my more speculative or critical comments for more private conversations with the director but I do not close up completely and whisper in the ear. There is some value in developing a shared conversation within the larger team so I try to be sensitive about when and what to share. A further factor that colours this position is that I often have a history with some of the people I am working with. This means I have a slightly different status to someone who is working with the lead artist for the first time.
How do you document the dialogue you have with the artist?
Bill: I tend not to document the dialogues in a public way as I consider those to be part of the private creative process. While I often do keep a blog for my own projects I consider it more appropriate to make my contribution in private, unless otherwise agreed upon. I feel this is better because anything that is in the public domain is in a sense a part of the work. It can be unseemly for things like disagreements or claims of ownership of ideas to be thrashed out in public. I much prefer that the spectator’s attention is directed to the performance itself and then only in professional contexts, such as this interview or post performance discussions, open up these questions of process. My document of choice is therefore the compact notebook I scribble into. The laptop onto which texts accumulate, the camera and from time to time video. This material is then used to help sharpen understanding and convey ideas.
How do you bring your experience as a dramaturg into your own practice and vice versa? Do you consider the role as a step on your professional trajectory?
Bill: I certainly gain something from these collaborations and the people who I end up working with tend to be the right people for me in the sense we both benefit. I somehow don’t find myself in random money making projects, it is the thoughtful and disciplined performances that I usually find myself being involved in. I think one of the strongest impressions I have got from my collaborations as a ‘dramaturg’ is how it is possible if you make a good show for it to be seen in the right networks and have a significant further life. This is rather encouraging as I see the artistic field as being quite open and it has given fuel to my natural instinct to remain focused on the creative work. I say this because I observe many people around me tailoring their work to the demands of the funding structures and becoming busy with this more than with the prime material of making performances.
I also gain something from working with people who have different disciplinary training to myself. I have worked with choreographers, artists, theatre directors and actors who all have different processes to my own. Having to enter their various processes in order to understand how the work got to where it is and where it would make sense for it to go next, I have had to develop and adapt my powers of observation, conceptualisation and composition. Finally, in terms of who I conceive of my work as being for, I have opened this up further. I have seen how there is a keen audience for the type of work I am engaged in many parts of the world and how I can adapt and present performances in order that they may function in very different countries. Working a lot with language, as I do, creative approaches to translation or the playing with the status of English are things which my collaborations have helped me become more attuned to.
As far as it being a step in my professional trajectory goes I am uncertain. I do not aspire towards becoming a full-time dramaturg working with the most celebrated performance makers of the day. I suspect that this collaborative role will remain a parallel part of my practice that informs it but does not come to eclipse it. That said, if I stop to consider a professional trajectory, I can see that it may have further developments still to play out. I can imagine, for example, that I may wish to engage in performance as a curator at a later stage in my career. Indeed I am starting to develop projects that have a curatorial element to them. While the creative blurring of curator and artist is well established within the visual arts it remains somewhat unusual within the performing arts. Given my instinct to work in the borderlands of the two disciplines it may well come to pass that this flexible, collaborative or dramaturgical role of mine within performance processes develops into a more clearly curatorial role.
In particular, with reference to your work with Ivana Müller, how did you go about creating the text? Would you describe this as a dramaturgical role?
Bill: I have worked upon a number of shows with Ivana Müller starting with How Heavy Are My Thoughts in 2003 and going right up to the present project we will begin rehearsing this Autumn of 2012. It is not quite possible to define a single method whereby we develop a text as each piece had its own particularities though I will try to describe what is the most typical way we work together even if no single project ever followed this pattern precisely. So, what ‘usually’ happens is that Müller comes with an idea and we talk about it. It will not be that fully developed and may well be more an area of interest rather than a specific vision of a performance. Sometimes another person may also join in this initial conversation too. We will talk around the idea, its context, connecting the stage and representations of the idea to daily life, politics and ideas. We will imagine different performance strategies debating their pros and cons and sometimes jot down some texts to serve as examples when imagining how the work may look. From this rather free-flowing stream of ideas some shape tends to emerge and this informs the practical processes of producing the work. Even though ideas often emerge collaboratively, Müller still makes all the significant decisions and imposes a definite shape and character to the work.
The text can be created in part during this initial phase but it usually develops more fully at a later stage in the process. When working with a significant number of performers some writing may take place before the full group rehearsals begin though the writing process will also continue once everyone in the space as the people she works with often bring good ideas and instincts to the performance too. After the premiere there is usually some re-writing and the subsequent performances are continually updated in minor ways. The text and writer is therefore not granted monolithic status as is often the case in text-based theatre, but significant attention to the text does still characterise Müller’s work.
The texts often develop from improvisations though they are usually shaped considerably more when written down. I often take the role of maintaining the text, formatting it and recording the changes. We also send it back and forth between us and do some of the writing alone as it advances more quickly and deeply that way. One of the roles I assume in this exchange is as language editor whereby I tend to concentrate more on the sentence to sentence style and Ivana upon producing lines, though this distinction is also frequently blurred. I do this as English is my first language and I can often construct ideas and sentence forms that support the concepts more elegantly and precisely. Ivana will however then put anything I propose through the language test of whether or not it is intelligible to non-native speakers, as that is the principal public for the work. Out of this forward and backward movement a text emerges. The other role I tend to simultaneously assume is that of creating a dialogue with her about the structure of the performance. This is made explicit in the re-arranging of the text, the grouping and development of ideas, but it is also a more general dramaturgical role as this discussion is not restricted to the text but rather is very much concerned with how the text and action intersect to create meanings.
How do you bring your own taste / baggage / cultural reference points to the work?
Bill: I think it is fair to say that I do bring some quite specific tastes and references to projects I collaborate upon. These most probably reflect my own tendency to combine formal elegance with irreverent humour. Also, being British and widely travelled, I have a specific set of cultural and artistic references that I bring to any collaboration. Working often in Europe I find that many of the references that most excite me are less well known there and so a process of explaining them and viewing them from an outsider’s point of view takes place. For example, if I mention the infamous Portsmouth Sinfonia it will draw a blank, but if I play a recording and we talk about them then the concept and feeling behind the self style ‘worst orchestra in the world’ becomes clearer and easier to share. This helps to elevate these examples beyond the mere anecdote and instead to understand them structurally and in doing so it is easier to relate them to their counterparts in other countries. My experience living and working in France, for example, was that there is a highly sophisticated set of cultural references that serve a similar purpose to those the British use, however the French references are, by and large, Francophone at base. It is a mistake to see these as essentially the same as the British ones for they map out a set of visions of culture and society in alternative ways, yet they do serve a similar purpose and they do there are many correspondences between the two cultures. So, when working in groups with mixed nationalities, as I usually do, this back and forth of culturally specific references is quite valuable as it tends to raise the level of the conversation.
As a performer of your own work, have you ever worked with a dramaturg / outside eye?
Bill: I have worked with an outside eye on one occasion though not more than that. I find that video can be very effective at giving me an ability to see what I am doing and so use this most. This does lead the work in danger of becoming self-absorbed. I have found that the way I am most comfortable in avoiding this is to structure the development of a performance so that it is made over a long period of time with breaks, work in progress shows, the incorporation of members of my team gradually and the chance to hear different opinions on the work. To give a concrete example, last year I made a performance during a 3-month residency in China. I did an early work in progress show in collaboration with a Chinese artist in Xiamen, a more developed work in progress show with a Chinese actor in a literary festival in Beijing, had a Chinese premiere as an outdoor show in Xiamen and then performed it with an artist in Shanghai in a gallery setting. It then was presented as a solo piece in Berlin and after this I brought my regular collaborators Boris Kahnert and James Dunn in to add light and sound to the piece. They brought a new approach to it and we played it in theatres, in a working shop, in a public square and a park sometimes as a solo and sometimes as a duet. Recently it was revived for theatre and gallery shows and it has developed a lot more as a result of having distance and the chance to talk to people about it. By stepping outside the conventional format of a block of full-time rehearsals leading up to a premiere and run of so many weeks and/or a tour, I have been able to find a rhythm that gives me enough fresh perspectives on the work so that it can continue to be refined mixing internal and external points of view quite effectively.
How would you describe the value of the dramaturg in the current climate?
Bill: I think that the current climate has nothing to do with how we should value dramaturgs and that these are entirely separate issue. If we value something then we should make space for it. If, for example, we value lighting design we should engage a lighting designer on a production, and if we value dramaturgs we should create space for them. I am aware that there is a scepticism towards dramaturgs in the UK and the poor state of the economy can be used to describe them as a luxury that we can ill afford. I think however that one has to address the scepticism that precedes the so called ‘crisis’ and not allow events to justify prejudices.
I am presently in Berlin and from what I see dramaturgs have a considerably higher status in German theatre. I also observe that the performing arts have a far greater attention to formal experimentation and a deeper connection to philosophy, the social sciences and learning in general than they do in the UK. I cannot help but put the two of these observations together and conclude that they are related. I cannot say which causes which, maybe dramaturgs are a symptom of a more intellectual and artistically minded theatre culture and not the cause of it, it is hard to say. I can however say that I am, to perfectly honest, bored by the vast majority of British performing arts which try a little too hard to entertain, tell stories and educate and pay little attention to advancing their production in a formal artistic way. While I think there are many ways in which this situation could (but almost certainly won’t) be addressed, it is clear to me that a greater presence of dramaturgs would be one positive development.
Interview with Tom Marshman, Bristol-based live artist. I worked with Tom as an outside eye on his new performance, Legs 11.
What does the idea of an ‘outside eye’ mean to you?
Tom: For me, when I’m making work, the question is ‘What is this communicating to you?’. If I show you this, is this what it is communicating? Often something will happen when I miss a story. The narrative in this gay and lesbian show I did recently was that someone had been diagnosed with HIV and then had a motorbike accident. He talks about this accident being a good thing because it helps him come to terms with his HIV status. HIV has helped him. It’s an enabler. It’s helped him form more friendships, more romantic interest. I was showing someone else this and they were debating whether it could be misconstrued. When I work with other people’s stories, it feels connected to working on my own. When I work on these gay and lesbian shows, I use my own stories too, I’m connected to this somehow, I try to be part of the somehow. The same could be said of a very personal show likes Legs 11, there are moments where I am in the sleeping bag telling a story, and someone has said to me ‘You’ve become a Geisha girl’, or like you talked about how I am coming out of the chrysalis. The outside eye helps you to tease that out or maybe makes you think about whether you want it to do that.
So would you say the dramaturg or the ‘outside eye’ shows you what you are doing that you did not know you were doing?
Tom: Maybe this idea of a dramaturg isn’t such an appealing notion to because of where it comes from, somewhere more traditional and text-based. I say ‘outside eye’ because it sits more comfortably with me and my work. On Legs 11, I wanted to work with different artists. I worked with Bryony Kimmings to see how the audience is involved in the work. I worked with you to look at the structure, my structure is always quite loose and I wanted help to shape an argument. Mamoru Iriguchi came in to look at the technology and visuals and Neil Bartlett is my professional mentor at the moment.
It seems a different model, inviting lots of people into the process
Tom: It’s helpful because I want my work to communicate lots of things, my work sits in different areas, I can place my work in a cabaret context or in a much more serious live art context and it will be fine, although some people have disputed that. Neil Bartlett has been mentoring me for a year, he has shaped how that project has gone conceptually, the process, so it felt like it was quite important for him to see the actual work. He has given me lots of ideas about how to shape the show. How to segue different moments into each other. With that Legs 11 show, what I enjoyed about it was that I made different bits for different times, different events, different contexts. I made a song and dance number that works on a Queer level. Some text for a lo-fi spoken word event. Consequence is that you end up with a jumble sale of performance. Other people were really helping with that. I think that I need encouragement to make my work be personal, because I’m always worried that it’s too personal, part of that role is encouragement, you could say my work is self-indulgent and it is, but is there anything wrong with that? I really like personal work but you have to step over a comfort threshold. You’re in a rehearsal room, you’re going to be surrounded by people in a rehearsal room, and sometimes it helps for them to reassure you about what you are making.
You asked me to ‘be sensitive’ to the fact that there were some things you couldn’t change at that stage. How do you define the relationship?
Tom: In Luton, there is no one I can ask, so here I have been asking the participants. I have invited them into the room and they end up talking about themselves for ages. I just feel that it helps to have someone in the room. Smooth over some of the awkward bits. It still maintains the sense of the autobiographical, not adding any of the content because it all comes from you.
Have you ever played the role of ‘outside eye’?
Tom: I responded to work quite emotionally, how it made me feel etc. I have also sat in people’s work much earlier on and given them suggestions about what they perhaps should be rehearsing and what films it would help to watch.
Is the role of an outside eye a luxury or essential?
Tom: I am thinking about this a lot at the moment. I procrastinate so having an outside eye makes me work and it makes me work quicker. I know I can do it without one, I just don’t think it would be as tidy. I know how I make work, but it would be like vomiting on the stage. All the bits are there. But not necessarily in the right place or in the right order. I think there’s something about being dyspraxic, I’m clumsy, I do things wrong. An outside eye, a dramaturg, will never be able to change that. That’s who I am. That’s always a way of communicating something, I can’t help that. But maybe they can help me put the work together.
Some people describe the dramaturg as midwife, mechanic, weaver
Tom: It is like sewing. I like working with sound and video artists because when I watch them work it is like sewing film and sound together. I love being able to steer something in a different direction, a surprising direction. What I do is a little bit like that. I sew material together and the ‘outside eye’ can help with that.