Dramaturgy in Dialogue: Matthew Spangler

Kite Runner Nottingham

Interview with Matthew Spangler, Professor of Performance Studies at San Jose State University and playwright of work including Tortilla Curtain and The Kite Runner.

I wondered if you could talk about your experience working with dramaturgs or your work in script development and how that might be seen as dramaturgical?

Matthew: I’ll talk about the first one — working as a playwright with dramaturgs I think in the model here, in the United States, dramaturgs really come in one of two types and sometimes they cross over, one person might do both of those types but I am just distinguishing these types so we can talk about them. One type would be a dramaturg who focuses on the script and gives the playwright and, to a certain extent, the director feedback on the script and what could be improved. Like maybe this line is extraneous and maybe this other line here on page 76 contradicts something that we learnt about the character on page 16. Even the playwright sometimes doesn’t catch those things. Plays can be very complicated things and even the creator, perhaps especially the creator, is vulnerable to some of these oversights and it takes the outside eye of the dramaturg to be able to come in and say here’s a line that I think we can do away with, the scene will move a lot faster if we remove this line over here, and we essentially know this information on page 84 because you told it to us on page 36 so let’s cut this line on page 84. So I think one purpose of the dramaturg is to provide something of an outside eye at the level of the script. That outside eye is particularly useful for new scripts, a script that hasn’t had a full production before, and that has maybe only had some readings. It’s very useful then to have the dramaturg in rehearsal weighing in on these things as the rehearsal is progressing and the script is being put on its feet.

The other type of dramaturg is somebody who would focus largely on the information behind the play, the historical or cultural context. This type of dramaturg might do a lot of research before the rehearsal process even begins, and show up on the first day of rehearsal with pictures, oral history interviews of people who lived at the time of the play or in the environment of the play, that sort of thing, and the dramaturg might event give a presentation to the cast of this information. Of course, as a practical matter, the playwright and the director are also familiar with this information, but again, even for the playwright it’s very useful to have someone as an outside eye who is engaged in researching this topic for the first time and is coming up with new things that might even be new for the playwright. And having the dramaturg come in with their research can be very useful to the process. As I mentioned, some dramaturgs blend these styles – being focused on the text and being focused on extra-textual material – I don’t want to say that they have choose one or the other. Finally, as a playwright, I find the dramaturg very valuable, something of a luxury in North American theatre. Not every production has a dramaturg. But those that can afford it do. Particularly for new plays.

Can you give me any specific examples of a dramaturg enabling you as a writer to find something out about your play?

Matthew: I’ll give two examples of the types I described here. When we did The Kite Runner at the Actors’ Theatre in Louisville, this was the play’s second production. So even thought the play had had a full production already, the play was still slightly overwritten. I think most first plays are over written anyway and the playwright usually ends up in the rehearsal process cutting or refining the script, so I was in that process. Then the dramaturg came on board in Louisville – Carrie Hughes, she’s the literary director at the McCarter Theatre in New Jersey. And she was fantastic, she was based at Yale, and she was there for the whole rehearsal time, so this was a company with a big budget. The Actors’ Theatre of Louisville focuses on new plays. That’s their whole MO, so they’re used to hiring dramaturgs for their shows, so they brought her up from Yale for five weeks. She sat in on the rehearsals and for me she was an outside eye. She could say the sort of things I’m referring to now: I think this speech is a little long. Could we make it shorter? And I would say ‘yeah I totally agree it’s a little long’ and we would noodle it together. I would say what do you think? Shall we cut? And she would make suggestions. There were a couple of times when we didn’t agree. She would say ‘can we cut this?’ and I would say ‘I think we need to keep that’ and the playwright in those cases wins, but those were the odd moment. I would say 90% of the time everything she said was spot on and it really helped the play to become a lot tighter and leaner and I appreciated that.

Another example is when we did Tortilla Curtain at the San Diego Rep. That’s a play that’s so situated in its cultural and historical context. If the actors and designers don’t understand California’s Prop 187 in 1994, and the way in which the Republican Party largely supported it, and what that referendum would have done – it would have taken away public services for undocumented people – if we don’t understand all that, then we don’t understand a fundamental aspect about the play. So this particular dramaturg – Dawn Moore, she’s the resident dramaturg at the San Diego Rep – she did a lot of research on that issue, the politics around the proposition, she brought in videos – there was a political campaign that supported Prop 187, so there were a lot of videos, like TV ads – she was able to show these videos, which, in effect, got our minds of the actors and designers into the historical space. So even though I had written the play, I learnt a lot from her because she was doing this research herself and she was bringing facts I didn’t know. So, I guess you could say in the time I have worked with dramaturges, I have found them really terrific.

You said you were working as a script consultant, is that in some way a dramaturgical role?

Matthew: I suppose it is. In this case, I’m doing the first type – the type of dramaturg focused on the script. The plan is for the show to go to Edinburgh next year. I’m working purely as a script developer which means tightening lines, adding lines, saying things like: ‘I think this sentence is confusing because of the pronouns, and you’ve got these other nouns floating around, we should clarify that’. So I’m doing that kind of work in terms of clarifying the language of the script. In some cases adding language, in other cases, taking language away, just making the play clearer. I’m not doing the historical research because the person who wrote the play is a musician and this play is about Vivaldi, so it’s already steeped in historical research and they don’t really need the historical work from me, but what the script does need is someone to be able to look at this play written by a musician, who understands theatre because she is in the arts but is not used to writing plays, and I’m trying to take this play and tighten it up and make it what it wants to be.

It sounds to me like an editorial role? Looking at the play on the page rather than a curatorial outside eye on the play as it takes to the stage?

Matthew: Yes, it’s kind of like an editorial role. But in saying that I don’t mean to imply a dramaturg is a “mere” editor. Think of all the great writers whose worked benefited tremendously from someone editing and shaping their work – TS Eliot, Thomas Wolfe and the like. A dramaturg provides something of a similar function.

It seems to be that there are these different levels at which a dramaturg might operate. Different lenses that they might use at different stages of the process. I talked to one of your colleagues the other day who described the in-house dramaturg in America as a kind of aesthetician. Someone overseeing the aesthetic of the theatre, who quality controls what a theatre puts out and says that it’s in line with how the theatre wants to be seen so everything coheres within a programme. I wonder what your thoughts are on this more institutional role dramaturgs play?

Matthew: I haven’t experienced that kind of dramaturg who has the ability to control the aesthetic of a theatre. Maybe, formerly, dramaturgs operated that way. In my practice dramaturgs are part of the team. In the power hierarchy of the rehearsal room they would be situated just under the director. And I think that’s a tricky role to play. To be effective, the dramaturg needs to have the right kind of personality because you’re not in most cases the most powerful person in the room, the playwright and director are, but you are giving them feedback. On many occasions telling them things that aren’t working in the show, telling a playwright that this particular line is unclear and we should work to clarify it. Or telling a director that what you’ve just done here contradicts what you’ve done in Act One and the director might be like ‘oh, yes, I hadn’t thought of it in that way, maybe I should rethink the idea’. So I guess what I’m saying here is that it takes the right kind of person to inhabit the dramaturg’s role and make it work. It’s a very nuanced and precise position.

It’s a delicate role because you have to negotiate lots of different sensibilities…

Matthew: Exactly, but you can’t stand down too easily because you might have the right idea for something, but if they’re too self-effacing, or too tactful, then it never sees the light of day and that’s a problem, too. So, yes, it’s a very particular role that we’re talking about. Just the right person.

I interviewed an associate director in the UK who is sometimes described as a dramaturg and he works a lot with Tim Crouch, he often describes his responsibility as a dramaturg as ‘representing the audience in the rehearsal room’. So he is sitting there watching rehearsal imagining what the audience might be thinking. So I wonder whether theatremaking or playwriting or the rehearsal of new plays in America thinks about its eventual audience, how much that dramaturg might be the audiences’ surrogate presence in the room?

Matthew: I haven’t thought about that, but, yes, generally, new plays don’t consider their audience enough and the dramaturg is really useful, those that approach it this way, as the mind’s eye of the audience. That eye is extremely useful for a new play. As I mentioned, I think a lot of new plays tend to be over-written, especially in the first draft. The playwright might be experimenting with something that they’re not sure about and that’s why it’s over-written because they’re not too sure if its working. And there are so many things on your mind in the rehearsal process that trimming your play and making it more specific to your audience can fall by the wayside. A good dramaturg can help fix that.

In work in progresses or post-show discussions, the audience themselves become a dramaturg in some way, their feedback enhances the play that they are seeing…

Matthew: They do. A good post-show discussion can give the artist incredible material to work with. One difference that’s worth noting, though, is that a good dramaturg is even more capable and able to give that feedback to the playwright or director, whereas the audience, you have to have a smart, articulate and sensitive audience and you know you don’t always get that! Sometimes the audience feedback actually isn’t useful to you. Whereas if you have the right dramaturg on board then almost everything the dramaturg says is spot on. So I wouldn’t suggest that dramaturgs could be replaced by audience talkbacks. I still think that role of the dramaturg is more important if you get a good person in that role, than a bunch of workshops and some audience feedback. Dramaturgs train, they know how to speak to the playwright, they know how to speak to the director, and they have experience doing it. Dramaturgs work to put themselves in place to not only be the eye of the audience but also to try to understand what the playwright is doing. And what the production is doing. And the audience isn’t always concerned with what the playwright is trying to do. The audience just wants a good show. And if the show is boring the show is boring and the audience will tell you that, but they won’t necessarily be able to tell you what the show needs.

I want to finish with one last question about your role as an academic, what kind of overlap there might be between the role of the dramaturg and the work you do with students, whether there are times in the classroom when you are dramaturging? Responding to their ideas do you ever feel that there is a dramaturgical practice within a pedagogical context?

Matthew: Absolutely. Again I’d never thought about it in those terms until you described it just now, but the answer is, yes. For example, if a student of mine puts together a 30 minute one-person show, and the student is going to go up in front of an audience in one month and I am giving feedback then I will do what that dramaturg would do in that 1) I’m going to imagine that hypothetical audience that is going to come in here in a month and what are they going to need and where does the show flatline, where is the show unclear and how can I suggest fixes to it? What can I say to get the show moving where it’s slowing down? Or make it clear when it’s unclear? But at the same time, I’m not just going to colonise the student show and make it a piece of entertainment as I see it. I’m going to try to see the show through the students’ eyes. What is the student trying to achieve? What is the story that she is trying to tell and how can I help her to tell it? How can I help her to achieve the work or art that she is trying to achieve, but at the same time, make it a work of art that is going to succeed in front of an audience? And I suppose that’s exactly what a dramaturg does, except the situation I’m describing, I don’t have a director or a playwright sitting in the room with me. I’m the professor and this is my student. I do have a lot of latitude in speaking back, you know, to say things like: “change the opening, it’s totally not the opening you want, its contradicting everything you’re trying to go for in this piece, you need to rethink how it opens” etc. I can say those things with more freedom.

There is a different hierarchy at play in the classroom.

Right. That’s what I was talking about earlier, the dramaturg needs to both be able to say “change the opening,” but say it in a way that will get the director and the playwright listening and do what needs to be done.

You said a dramaturg was a luxury. Is that a financial thing?

Matthew: Yes, it’s financial. It’s a luxury not because companies don’t think its necessary, I think all the companies I’ve worked with would want to work with dramaturgs. And if they could afford one they would have one. But in the hierarchies of the hires, you need your director, you need the actors, and after that, if you’re on a tight budget, well, maybe the sound designer can also design lights. Can the scenic designer also design costumes? And sometimes, on budgets, the dramaturg falls off the list. That’s unfortunate.

I’m thinking about the way theatre over here in the USA is funded.

Matthew: Like I said, if you can afford it, you should always have a dramaturg in the room. A good dramaturg is amazing because they’re able to be an outside eye and really clarify things and make things better. Understand me, I don’t think it’s a good thing that the dramaturg often falls off the totem pole of the budget. I think it’s a bad thing and its definitely related to the funding models we use in this country, which are largely market-based. Theatre companies compared to yours get far less public funding and the attitude is one of the market. If you can’t sell a product, if people aren’t buying tickets to come through the door, well, then the product must not be worth it – that’s the market attitude toward theatre. If your theatre needs to close because you haven’t been able to sell a product, well, then the market tells us it needs to close. End of story. We let the market rule so much in America, and the market is largely antithetical to producing art.

Like it did in San Jose.

Matthew: Like it did in San Jose. I think the market impulse, generally, is really bad for the arts, but, whatever, we have a market system in this country and that’s what it is. Markets might be good for designing cell phones, but markets are not good for plays . . .

Image: The Kite Runner, Nottingham Playhouse 2013.

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Dramaturgy in Dialogue: Julia Locascio


Interview with Julia Locascio, a New York-based director and deviser of original work. She is currently studying on the MFA theatre directing course at Birkbeck in London. She is also a costume designer.

How would you describe the role of the dramaturg?

Julia: The role of the dramaturg interests me because I see a great deal of overlap in dramaturging, directing, and devising. I spend a lot of time thinking about different creative processes and how directors and dramaturgs and playwrights serve them. They all cover the same things in different contexts and dramatic languages. In a new writing process I think of the director as a kind of dramaturg, pushing the playwright forward and helping to shape the logic of the piece taking form. Whereas on the parallel devising journey the director takes on the playwright’s role and the dramaturg takes on the director’s role, so there’s a sense of that same logic forming but in a very different way.

Could you describe what you mean by a devising director as opposed to a director?

Julia: I think of myself as devising director above all. Which doesn’t mean that I don’t work with text or that I wont direct a traditional play, but I think the deviser’s toolkit is a really powerful one to bring to any approach to live performance because it takes nothing for granted. Every decision that’s made is interrogated and what is ultimately valued most highly is the audience’s experience. The devising director is a creator of a final piece but also the creator of a process. He or she is a kind of navigator for collective creation.

That’s interesting because a lot of the writing on the dramaturg talks about the dramaturg as a navigator using nautical terminology. So in this country Kenneth Tynan was the first established dramaturg and they describe how he was charting a course at the National Theatre, sitting in the crow’s nest, trying to steer it into harbor. When you were working as an assistant director on The Rubinstein Kiss, how might that role have been dramaturgical, how might that role position itself?

Julia: The role of assistant director is intricately connected to all of these as well. As someone who has played these roles—assistant director, dramaturg, director, devising director—I have been constantly defining my role while performing it. Though my title was assistant director for The Rubinstein Kiss, many of my most valuable contributions were dramaturgical. This is a play set in the United States and I was the only American in the room, which, while also being the youngest person in the room, gave me a kind of expertise and authority. One of the things that I did was create a timeline of historic events that connected to the play. The show is a fictional retelling of the story of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, two New York Jews who were accused of and executed for conspiring to commit atomic espionage. They may or may not have been guilty, and they may or may not have deserved the punishment they received. Because the play took liberties with the real life events, we had to look at what really happened next to what happens in the play and make decisions about what was useful, what to draw from history and what to dream up on our own. One of my tasks was to make a massive timeline that covered a wall in the rehearsal room. We would consult it as the actors tried to orient themselves to the play’s jumps in time. I also helped to unpack some of the ideology that was specific to the USA for the cast. The American Communist Party of the 1930s and 1940s was very different from what Communism looked like in the UK. I both did a lot of research on that and had an inborn cultural sense that I could share. And then there is there the other part of assistant directing / dramaturging that is something that Giles Croft, Artistic Director of Nottingham Playhouse, and I have spoken about at length, which is that in either of those roles it’s important to be a friend to the director, above all. Really that’s often what is most helpful to the process, because just as it’s about a play, it’s also about the well being of the people involved. A lot of it was about filling the gaps, seeing what was needed in the room and trying to be the person who served those needs.

How was it different to being a dramaturg or assistant director working with a script that is perhaps complete to working in a devising context without a script? How might there be a different set of processes or skills required in those contexts?

Julia: My sense is that when there’s a text there is so much material to help the ensemble unpack. It could be anything from a great deal of historical research, to script analysis that breaks down the inner structure of the play, to a more rehearsal room-based approach, being an outside eye, reflecting back on the staging work, to any number of more intricate and imaginative ways of uncovering layers of the written word and the playwright’s intentions. My sense of a dramturg in an unscripted devising process is much more expansive and, to be honest, more interesting to me. I think about it spatially. There are three tasks set to a devising dramaturg. The first is to be the kind of scribe or historian of the process itself. You are very present and aware of the way the process has developed over time while also keeping the original goal in mind. You help the team return to previous ideas and focus them on the mission that you all set out to accomplish. That, to me, is the looking behind part of the job. Then there’s the looking ahead or visionary aspect of dramaturging, being a collaborator who brings new source material and makes new connections between things. This dramaturg stands alongside the director in seeing shapes take form and pointing to those shapes and describing them. And the final space dramaturgs occupy is the right now space. Feet planted, here. This one is connected to what I said before, about being a friend, being that person who can be more present than anyone else in the room because everyone else is in the trenches, wrestling with ideas. In that storm, the dramaturg has the unique ability to put his or her foot down and say, “actually this is what we are doing right now and this is how it is serving everything else.”

Two things that I think are interesting: what do you do as a friend when you think there are better ways of doing it? A. Smith says you have to have the capacity to be frank, to say the difficult things that need saying, to avoid any mission creep. Also, when you said earlier about audience experience, he mentions representing the audience in the room. How might what you have done demonstrated this capacity to be frank or represented the audience in the room? How does one person represent many?

Julia: The theatre practitioners that I most respect are very frank people. There is something hugely empowering about giving someone your honest opinion and prioritizing the work above all. I am still honing my ability to be frank, which has been a challenge for me, because I am from the American Midwest, where niceness is a priority.

 I think it’s the same in England.

Julia: Probably. There’s something horrifying about anything that could be taken as hurt or insult—but at the same time, I think sugar coating is the ultimate insult. Anne Bogart is a directing hero and teacher of mine. One way she describes the director’s role is as a sort of litmus paper. She would say, “the actor is going into the centre of the room and stripping naked and peeing and you’re the person who then takes the litmus paper to test that pee and tell them whether it was successful or not.” I think this is analogous to what the dramaturg does for the devising director. You must be the litmus tester. You must be clear about whether what’s being presented is successful or unsuccessful. But you’re doing it in a very vulnerable context. So, yes, you are the first judgmental audience member, but you are also very compassionate in shaping your response.

 If I feel like there is a potential issue with the piece I will perhaps phrase my response as a question or a reflection rather than as a suggestion. So my strategy might be to question in order to address any issue I might foresee as a dramaturg or as a future audience member. There’s a quote from Mark Bly who wrote the Production Notebooks: ‘When asked to describe what I do as a dramaturg: I question.’ That’s his modus operandi, that’s a really useful strategy for teasing out, finessing whatever wrinkles there might be in the process or in the performance. It’s not your job to give an opinion. It’s your job to enable the practitioner…

Julia: To help the piece become more itself. There is no personal agenda in that.

It can’t be about your own personal taste because it’s not your work. It’s difficult when you are a maker as well.

Julia: I feel very lucky to have trained at New York University’s Playwrights Horizons Theatre School because I was made to study theatre with a heightened focus on collaboration. We were asked to do it all: act, design, dramaturg, write. One of the most valuable tools I took away from that training was how to approach feedback. The faculty was explicit about how we should feedback to our peers. The framing-through-questioning you describe is one of the approaches. But also there is a creative quality to certain types of questions. Questions like:

How did it make you feel?

How do you want us to feel?

How do you want us to feel at the beginning, middle, and the end?

What do you want the audience to crave, do you give it to them or not?

When do you give it to them? How do you give it to them?

An important question that came from that training that I return to all the time, is why do YOU need to make THIS piece of work TODAY, in this hour, in this minute? I think it’s really important that a creator continues to return to this question throughout the process.

I would add to the no-agenda and a-dramaturg-always-questions approach that it’s impossible to escape your own agenda or your own artistic sensibility. And that’s not a bad thing. There is a reason a director chooses a certain dramaturg to work with and I don’t think there’s something wrong with the fact that a lot of these relationships are based on a personal connection. You develop a shared language and belief system about what a performance might be because you are searching the wilderness together. You are together trying to find the path you are walking. To go back to the nautical metaphor, the dramaturg is drawing the map and the director is steering the ship.

What is specific about the way you see the dramaturg that comes from your American-ness? I remember Anne Bogart describing devising as scavenging, building a nest, is that a particularly North American tradition do you think?

Julia: I feel passionately about American myth-making. A lot of American artists are in the act of defining American identity because we don’t really have much of a history. Well, that’s not quite right—we have a history of genocide and slavery and mass immigration and extreme oppression of minority groups, but it is often said that we are an adolescent country. I think a lot of the extremes of America point to America’s wild desire to define itself. It’s like a caged wild animal, flailing around, trying to understand how it got stuck where it is. Dangerous, beautiful, stupid, vulnerable, powerful. Anne Bogart writes that one thing she is interested in is ‘raiding the graveyard.’ In Americans’ desire to be constantly entrepreneurial and innovative and industrious they often forget what has come before. I think it is the task of American artists to help Americans remember the accomplishments and revelations of the past and embrace the flawed and lush identity that lives in our subconscious. I think there’s something incredibly thrilling in the potential of this process of culture-making and reflecting. We are making something from nothing. We are not tethered to a tradition of performance in the same way as other cultures. Of course there are American traditions—there is a powerful commercial, entertainment impulse connected to film and the vaudeville/Broadway lineage, which of course we have to grapple with. But there is also such an inspiring, forward-thinking, spirited energy to American culture that then touches on the role of the dramaturg. The sense that I get, thinking about the dramaturg in Europe, the UK and the USA, is that the American dramaturg is very much a partner to the director and is very much engaged in the act of creation, not just critique.

I wonder how much your practice of dramaturgy is informed by your cultural history and the practitioners you have been exposed to in the USA and how that perhaps gives you a different set of lenses, critical lenses, with which to view work?

Julia: It does and I didn’t really realize that until leaving America. It takes different forms. I often think about how Americans wear their feelings on their sleeve in such a powerful way that it can be read by other cultures as false and loud and overly expressive. What that means for my dramaturgy is that I do return to those questions of how does this make us feel?, or what are we craving?, or phenomenological questions around how the audience is experiencing the performance. I feel less interested and less emotionally engaged—See! I naturally link interest with emotional engagement—by questions around the history of ideas or serving a text tradition. Also, I think my approach as a dramaturg or assistant director or deviser is absolutely informed by the theatre companies that I watched and studied in New York, the downtown experimental theatre scene. So there are companies working now like Elevator Repair Service, Witness Relocation, the TEAM, Young Jean Lee. And they are working in response to previous generations, artists and companies like Martha Graham, The Judson Dance Theater, The Living Theatre, SITI Company, Richard Foreman, The Builders Association, The Wooster Group, and on. And everything that’s happened at La MaMa and New York Theatre Workshop and The Public in the last 20 years. I think all of these practitioners have something in common: the focus on the primacy of the experience, the kind of sensory impact of the work that’s being delivered. Sensation. I’m obsessed with sensation.

What is your position on working with a dramaturg on your own work and in your own practice as a theatre maker? When you are the director of it or performer of it, would you have a dramaturg on it as well or do you feel that you provide that role?

Julia: I will always have a dramaturg if I have the option. What the dramaturg in my devising process often does is become a true and soulful partner in the creation of new worlds and new logics. While I’m in the process of facilitating performers and designers, my dramaturg partner is codifying the dramatic logic that is emerging. One really tangible example: I adapted the novel The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake about a little girl who is a food psychic—she can taste people’s feelings in food they make. We collaboratively wrote the piece, taking chunks of the novel and staging them, trying to make them dramatically compelling. In that process, every day we would stick post-it notes on the wall of the rehearsal room with ideas scribbled on them. A note could be story idea or an aesthetic idea or just a moment. One of them was: ‘everyone screams and falls to the ground.’ We had a visual map of emerging ideas. Our dramaturg would bring me over to the post-it wall and point to things, draw connections, and remind us of things. Sometimes he would reinterpret ideas that he wasn’t there for the first time around. A lot of those reinterpretations were completely brilliant and way more interesting than the original idea.

As a costume designer have you ever played a dramaturgical role?

Julia: Absolutely. Not to repeat myself endlessly, but I see all of those roles as interconnected. Of all the design disciplines I am drawn to costume because it is the most connected to the actors. Character and status and identity. So in the designer’s process there are all the classic dramaturgical tasks of historical research, character analysis and even narrative development—how do you show change in a character through their costume? Equally there is a kind of process dramaturgy that is part of the costume designer’s role. You end up being really close to the actors. You know their bodies intimately and you need to make them feel safe. So you are also a process therapist, like a dramaturg: a sounding board for the creatives involved.

Fundamentally all of these roles—directing, devising, dramaturging, designing—are getting at the same thing from different angles. There’s another passion of mine, something that also feels connected to American-ness: the aesthetic development of the piece happening alongside the story development. Form follows function and function follows form, all at once and in all directions. We Americans are swept up by passions and ideas and movements while thinking we are independent. It’s not always most well-considered path, and there are horrific casualties, but the results certainly make for some dramatic, juicy collisions.





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Dramaturgy in Dialogue: Chloé Déchery

IMG_9101-EditImage: Marco Berardi

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.

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Dramaturgy in Practice: Chloé Déchery

IMG_9422Image: Marco Berardi

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?’

Variation One

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.

Variation Two

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.

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Dramaturgy in Dialogue: Tim Mrosek

12 Credit Ingo Solms

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.

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Dramaturgy in Dialogue: Alice Gale-Feeny and Katherine Fishman

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.

A: Plains.

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.

K: Hmm

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.

K: mm

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.

K: Yeah

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

A: Re-reading

M: Re-reading.

M: And in a way this is the section we should probably be reading.

K&A:            Yeah

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.

A: Yeah.

M: And I would annunciate clearly, and use all of my theatrical training to make sure everyone could hear me

A: Yeah

M: But that isn’t how we’re talking

A: No.

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.

K: Mm.

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 –

K: Mm

M: If that makes sense.

K: Ok

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.

K: Mm

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.

K: Ok

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-

A: Yeah

M: Persona… voice, isn’t it?

A: Yeah

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.

K: Yeah

A: Or how does it change from the original?

K: Mm

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 –

M: Yeah

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

K&A: Mm

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?

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Dramaturgy in Dialogue: Jochem Naafs


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.

JN: Exactly

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.

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