Dramaturgy in Dialogue: Amanda Whittington

Interview with Amanda Whittington, Nottingham-based playwright.

How would you define the role of the dramaturg in relation to your work?

Amanda: My experience is of an on-going relationship with a dramaturg, literary manager or literary associate. These roles may be historically different but in practice, it’s working with a colleague who is involved from the very beginning of a process or initial discussion of ideas, in the conception, commissioning and development of a new play. Sometimes it’s a director who will take a dramaturgical role but typically, there is one colleague who works with you throughout the process as a sounding board, a creative… associate (the word mentor takes away a sense of equality). They’re someone who will question and challenge you and work with you in shaping your vision. Where it works best is when they know when to step forward and when to step back. The way to help may actually be to take a ‘hands off’ approach. The brief is to work with writer to develop a play but in practice, how this is delivered should vary from person to person, from project to project, from draft to draft. So that is my experience. It’s a relatively new way of working in mainstream British theatre. Historically, theatre here has always been very writer-centred and hands-off when it comes to offering dramaturgical feedback. The ‘development culture; has grown up over the last decade and made the playwright’s job more collaborative from the very beginning.  It requires writers to be more open to having an outside eye on their creative process.  Sometimes that can be helpful and sometimes it can be intrusive.

It’s easier in a devised theatre context to open a process up to an outside eye…

Amanda: Certainly, when you look at the old model of how writers worked, if you read Peggy Ramsay’s autobiography, for example, you would see a culture where a writer wrote a text in their bedsit and then they would send it to an agent who would sell it to a theatre who’d programme it. That probably never happens now. Not to say dramaturgy wasn’t going on then.  Directors like Joan Littlewood would take a very hands-on approach to the script in rehearsal and if something wasn’t working, it would be changed by her or the cast.  Whether it was called dramaturgy or not, I don’t know.  She was probably just ‘sorting it out’.

How does it work now? How can a writer be more open to collaboration?

Amanda: I seek to be commissioned now rather than writing plays beforehand so as part of that deal I would anticipate having a conversation from day one with the company about how we will work, the parameters within which we will work and how my ideas for the play fit into that. This creative discussion would look at how the work they want to do might cross over with what I’m interested in. With some repertory theatres, the dramaturgy is more ‘hands off’. The best experiences are when the theatres begin an open-ended conversation rather than prescribing what they want.  Increasingly, it seems the writer’s job is to recognise what a company is looking for and find a way to deliver that in their own voice.  Whether that’s progress or not is a big debate in the industry.

How might dramaturgy help you to find your voice?

Amanda: Ideally, it will help, support, enable you to find and express your unique perspective on the world and in my view, that’s what a good dramaturg does. Basically it’s a relationship between two people and a good dramaturg will always relate to a writer on an individual basis. What worked with one writer last month might not work with another writer this month. They have to respond and adapt to the individual they are working with. A ‘one size fits all’ development policy won’t work at all because a play by nature, is a unique statement.

When I interviewed Hetain Patel, he talked about ‘the voice of the work’ which is different, I think, from the artist’s or writer’s voice because sometimes a piece of work might be trying to speak in a different way, in a different voice…

Amanda: Yes, and I’ve also experienced some resistance from dramaturgs who don’t want my voice to evolve too far beyond my previous work. Sometimes when you’ve found your voice and audiences like it, you can end up being steered in a particular direction that may not be where you want to go artistically. No-one wants to write the same play over and over again but it’s difficult sometimes to find companies who will really support you taking a leap in the dark. I suppose the dramaturgical process changes as your career develops. In the early days, I worked with colleagues who were incredibly important in enabling me to find my voice and figure out what I want to say in my plays.  That can take a long time to discover. When you have more experience, with a good dramaturg, it doesn’t take so long.  In a sense, you need to grow up as a writer, with intensive support in the early days and less as your ability matures. I think the dramaturg changes their position to support your evolving journey as an artist and actually defend your right to continue growing and developing. You don’t want to find your voice and stop. Your voice will continue to change. Your voice should be allowed to change.   That’s what being an artist is all about but it’s sometimes a battle.  Certain companies have a particular style and voice of their own, and may want yours to fit with that.

Is that when a dramaturg plays the role of ‘the audience in the room’, representing the audience’s expectations?

Amanda: That’s assuming that you know the audience’s expectations. I often talk about ‘High Street theatre’ as Primark, Starbucks, ‘This is the kind of coffee we make’ etc. My hope for an audience is that you win their trust and their curiosity as to what you will do next and you take them somewhere else. You won’t just serve them a Starbucks skinny vanilla latte again because they liked the last one. A lot of theatres underestimate their audience and play safe. They might have good reason for that given the pressures of funding and so on but it’s true that certain ones prefer you to ‘write the plays you write’, not the play you might want to write.

Is it sometimes the artistic director who plays the role of the dramaturg?

Amanda: Yes and when you’re working with someone who will actually direct your play, it can be fantastic to build that close relationship and nurture a piece of work from the seed of an idea to a full production. But I think we as writers have to acknowledge that colleagues who work for companies might be influenced by other agendas that are not purely dramaturgical.   Often the artistic team will talk to their marketing departments, for instance, to seek their opinion on a developing work.  Clearly, marketing are looking at the work from the perspective of whether or not it will sell but can tgus lead to the writer receiving feedback which favours the theatre rather than the play?  The notion of pure dramaturgy in theatre probably doesn’t exist any more, if it ever did.

In Germany, traditionally the dramaturg is involved in the marketing process…

Amanda: Of course, and I’m aware we can’t exist in a bubble where all that matters is the writer’s intentions.  And in Germany the writer is often excluded from the creative process altogether once a play gets into production, which isn’t the case here. Britain is the only country in the world where the playwright has a contractual right to be in the rehearsal room and we’re a much stronger presence in the production process.  It’s also worth saying that all copywright remains with the playwright throughout the process, which isn’t the case in other mediums and may not be in other countries. And here, artistic directors have more of a dramaturgical say, especially if they are going to be directing the play themselves. I don’t know how much a dramaturg or literary manager has the final say in commissioning process here but certainly in the work I am involved in, often the artistic director takes on a dramaturgical role in the creative process.

Have you done any work as an outside eye or dramaturg with other writers?

Amanda: I worked with Momentum as a mentor of young writers. I think, being a writer, you have an innate understanding of the process that a non-writer does not have. That’s why I think actors make the best directors, because they understand what actors need. There’s an element of ‘Poacher turned Gatekeeper’, that I was conscious of but ultimately it was a very interesting experience. We had weekly group meetings and one-to-one mentoring. It is enjoyable and rewarding. You aim to empower them, give young writers confidence, give them permission.

What are you giving them permission to do?

Amanda: You are hopefully giving them permission to write, to find their own voice. To explore what they want to say. To write the play they want to write, to write your play. Why not?  When you’re starting out you have nothing to lose. I’ve observed a lot of young writers write about themes and characters that seem entirely removed from their own experience because that’s what they think they have to write to get produced. As a mentor, you can be more of a maverick. I wanted them to write about what was in their heart. A lot of young people feel what they have to say isn’t valid, isn’t a play…

So is the role of the dramaturg to validate?

Amanda: I was working as a mentor not as an employee of a theatre so I was on the writer’s side. In another workshop I ran, I found myself mentoring four young women writers and all of them were writing about middle class male protagonists in their 50s. Was that what they wanted to say or was it what they thought that theatres wanted to hear about?  But I was telling them that what you have to say as a young woman is valid. I felt I was working with people who were writing the play they thought they had to write rather than the play in their heart and I saw my job as to question that.

Stephen Lowe speaks about how you have to believe in what you are writing, otherwise, how can you expect anyone else to.

Amanda: And how will you have the stamina? Unless you’re so strongly engaged in what you’re writing, you’ll get bored, tired and disillusioned because ultimately, it’s not going to work. As a mentor or a dramaturg, it’s impossible to separate the two roles. My brief was to support, encourage and befriend the writer but not in a cosy way. One of the biggest confidence boosts you can give a writer is to treat them professionally, to validate their work by taking it seriously which involves a certain amount of dramaturgical criticism. It doesn’t have to be complicated. At that stage in your career, there are simple points that are exciting to learn for the first time e.g. Show not tell. I think it marks a change in a writer’s growth and development when they learn those points and as a result, you remind yourself and grow with them.

How does your work as a mentor/dramaturg impact on your own writing?

Amanda: It makes you analyse your own craft, to express and explain your own process in a way you don’t usually do. I found that interesting. In terms of self-confidence, it helps too because most of the time, we’re insecure about our own writing no matter how long we’ve been doing it.  So when I work with writers, I hear myself talking and every now and then, I think “oh, you know a bit more than you thought about all this” or you discover something that relates back to your own practice.   Pretty much every time, I learn something new from the conversations about a young writers work. If you can inspire other people to write then it can inspire you.

So would you say the dramaturg’s role is to inspire?

Amanda: Yes, that’s a very good way to describe it. It’s good if they are able to reaffirm to writer why we write and make us feel we can write the play that’s in our heart, no matter how hard the process gets. It’s not the dramaturg’s job to solve problems with the play, if indeed they are defined as problems, because when you talk about “what’s wrong with the play”, that’s when you kill the creative process as well as the writer’s confidence. But sometimes when you constructively address ‘problems’ in the work, it unlocks things you didn’t know were there, that’s better than you had before and you might not have discovered on your own. That’s a dramaturg’s job. Not to hold your hand. To inspire you. Theatre is a collaborative medium. Writing is a journey. You can’t do it on your own.

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