Dramaturgy in Dialogue: James Yarker

Notes on a conversation with the artistic director of Stan’s Cafe.

What do you see as the value of the role of the dramaturg?

If by dramaturg you mean ‘outside eye’ then I think it’s essential. I don’t know how it is possible to be in something that you’re also supposed to be having some directorial responsibility for. I can’t work out how this works; maybe some people have a more acute sense of the stage picture they want to create, of how it is unfolding, what the audience will understand or what meaning they will read into it, than I do and this allows them to be in something they are directing but personally, I need to be sat outside the stage action – which is no great hardship for the company as I’m a terrible actor.

How does your company work?

For Stan’s Cafe each show emerges from my founding vision and I then direct the devising process. Some pieces develop exactly as I imagined whilst others are very different. I see my role as steering or navigating strong voices. Everyone’s voice is given is a lot of credence in the devising process. I’m not aware of ever pushing through something that hasn’t been approved by all. I might say ‘Go with me for a bit on this’ but I don’t think that anyone has found themselves on stage not knowing or liking what they are doing. There is a freedom within the company say what you want and have your voice heard and opinion respected; there is always the space to say controversial or radical things.

So do you ever work with or as an outside eye?

As I’ve said I sit out front as director, but beyond that, not really. Core company members, if not in a show, may put in a shift or two alongside me, and I always love that, but essentially we’re pretty self-contained. I have worked as a visiting lecturer, with small groups devising small pieces. In those situations I act as a dramaturg, addressing what they want from a piece, offering enough craftsmanship for them to finesse what they are doing. I ask them: ‘What would make a clearer route?’ and aim to be a technician for their work rather than another artist. I can say ‘you have explained to me what your vision is and at the moment what you are staging is not delivering that vision.’ That’s my approach to working as an outside eye I suppose. Similarly, when making Stan’s Cafe work, we may go back and look at what I wrote for the initial commission and ask ‘is it that?’, I think I am suggesting that a description is a contract and you have to be able to deliver on this vision.

It sounds like the idea of ‘mission creep’

I agree. It’s no good selling 1000 tickets to something that has become something else and pissing 1000 people off! We inherited an outside eye once from Mousonturm in Frankfurt. They’d commissioned a show and the promoter came to a work-in-progress. I don’t hold with works in progress / scratch nights, but for funding reasons we had to do this, show something we knew was far from finished. He came along and asked to have lunch with me afterwards without the other devisors. He proceeded to tell me all the things that were wrong with the piece. It took me a while to cotton on to the fact that he was doing this mysterious dramaturgical thing. I asked how the relationship is supposed to work and he told me a story

“There is a dramaturg and a director. After a rehearsal they get together and the dramaturg says; ‘It’s not working at all, it should be half as long’ and the director replies: ‘I agree it’s not working, that’s because it needs to be twice as long.’ ”

The things that he thought should be cut were all the things we knew were at the heart of the show but were not working at full power yet. The stuff he liked was fun but not essential and we expected to drop it. I took his story as permission to consider and then ignore his advice.

What is the value of work-in-progress showings?

The audience has got its job and we have ours. I see the use of the work-in-progress in some contexts, maybe it gives you a subsidiary deadline for example. We were forced to do a work-in-progress showing of Good and True, we were so terrified of the audience we expected to pull that we made the sketch version very funny as a defence mechanism, unexpectedly we enjoyed that mode and adopted it for the rest of the devising process. Often however I believe a work-in-progress focuses on the least interesting part of a show and that the interesting ideas need to develop fully without an audience.

I wondered how much the advice you got from scientists for the rice piece (Of All The People In All The World) could be considered as a dramaturgy?

Barry Churnoff, a professor in environmental science from Wesleyan University came to us and said ‘We’ve got expertise in an area in which you don’t have expertise, we can help you with raw material for your show’. It worked out perfectly. They were thorough, rigorous, imaginative and understood absolutely that it was our choice how and where to use their material. What is key to that show is that it is formally very strong, then the content can be very flexible. The scientists generating content for us but only shapes the show to a limited degree. It’s almost like we’re the DJs and someone passes us a stack of 7 inch singles and says ‘You might want to play these’.

When we did the first World Version of Of All The People In All The World in Stuttgart, a brilliant guy called Wouter van Ransbeek evolved into a position which, in retrospect, I recognise as our dramaturg. We had performed the show very little at that point. We were used to working with 1 tonne of rice not 104 tonnes. We were used to performing to a national not an international audience. A lot of things were new and it was going to be a very high profile gig, so it was quite stressful. Wouter really helped by asking questions and suggesting answers: ‘What about this? Will that work? Wouldn’t it be funny if…? The thing you need to know about Stuttgart is….’ He felt like another collaborator, but crucially someone more ‘on my side’ than that of the performers. Usually we’re a unit but occasionally you get that sense that performers are a gang. They need each other in a different way than they need you. They have to rely on each other in a different way and occasionally that means they need to be able to slag you off, bitch about you or the process. Some times they need you to pump them with confidence and if you have concerns yourself at that stage you can’t let on. It was good to have Wouter as a confidant and advisor. What made it fantastic was that he was a brilliant laugh as well.

Is video your dramaturg?

Video documentation of rehearsal is something we once used a lot, but everything looks so rubbish on video we never looked back at the footage for a value judgement, you know that in the moment. Instead we would use video as a reference to track back and to find the moment or two that felt brilliant and ask ‘Why was it brilliant, what did we do, can we do it again?’ I suppose it’s like an action replay. It enables you to see the detail of what was happening. A stenographer more than a dramaturg.

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One response to “Dramaturgy in Dialogue: James Yarker

  1. Pingback: Steps Keep Going « Stan’s Cafe Theatre Company

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