Dramaturgy in Dialogue: Kevin Egan

Interview with Kevin Egan, lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan University and associate artist with Plane Performance, The Strange Names Collective and Reckless Sleepers.

What does the idea of an outside eye’ mean to you?

Kevin: For me, the idea of the ‘outside eye’ is about the reflection, intervention, and playful renegotiation of a set of ideas/concerns that the ‘inside eye’ initiates; thus acknowledging, developing and pushing connections that may not be fully exploited, or accessible, from inside the process. The role, as I see it, looks at and reads the work from an alternative angle, turns it upside down, on its side, puts it through the shredder so to speak… The responses given correlate with, and understand, the needs of the project but support it by allowing other potential contexts and connections to be discovered by the company/artist making the work.  It is an exchange; a dialogue; a meeting of alternative ways of reading and processing the material in front of them. The outside eye is not about taking directorial control, but more an insistence on opening up the area of enquiry; providing problems; noticing, responding, and questioning the function of the work itself.

How does a process evolve?

Kevin: I think the function of an outside eye will always be dependent on the requirements of the project.  For Plane Performance’s Traviata I was working quite closely with the company, attending all the rehearsals, offering up interpretations of the operatic score for performers to work with, alternative structures for Neil Mackenzie, the director, to explore. Traviata worked with me being in the space throughout the process because what I was giving was particularly alien to the company – and it would have been rather difficult for them to respond to the musicality of material without having that immediate dialogue; of me being able to validate the appropriation there and then.  These ‘new’ scores were quite complex, or rather impenetrable, at times.  And for the company to know what performative or conceptual function they had, for them to understand the context for these strange markings, was vital for me.  And for me to respond directly to what was happening, changing scores, offering different versions, meant that being in the rehearsal space together, having that direct and immediate exchange was important to the project.

When I supervise student projects the need to distance myself, and give them the space to reflect on and process my feedback, is crucial.  I never want to impose my own taste or experience onto their creative process (although this is inevitable in some ways), so having less contact means they can deal with my observations without having me looking over their shoulders and steering the work in a direction they are not comfortable with.  The outside eye in this instance allows the group to discuss and share their ideas with someone who is invested in the project, but has little authoritative power in the final decisions they make – so they are able to assess and synthesise the exchange without having to forfeit their own artistic agenda.

Do you find the role of the dramaturg sits inside or outside the process?

Kevin: Again, the role itself needs to be fluid and reflect the particular dynamic and sensibility of the ensemble/artist making the work.  Sometimes I see myself as a consultant, other times as a kind of masonry Pointer who fills in/repairs some of the cracks (but doesn’t build the wall himself), or even a Physio who assesses and listens to the needs of the group/individual and provides strategies and exercises that will help them to continue to make the work, reducing the amount of creative ‘injuries’ that are inevitably incurred in the process.  All of these ‘types’ are enabling the artist(s) to achieve their goal by responding to the concerns that the work puts forward; so I suppose I would say that the role is objective in its advice, yet subjective in its involvement… or maybe that should be the other way round?

Could you describe any hierarchies implicit in the relationship?

Kevin: You have to be conscious of imposing your own preferences on any piece of work, so you really have to avoid such a hierarchical structure in my view (or at least have the outside eye a couple of steps down on the ladder).  In some ways I’m just another collaborator on the project, and the rest of the team can choose to use, abuse, or ignore my input as they see fit.  And I have to be happy with that level of response, and not take it to heart if my input becomes just a residual trace of the process.  As what I do as an outside eye is ask them to think about the project from another angle, and if they attend to this, process it, and decide it is not worth pursuing, then at least they have taken the time to reflect on what the piece is not!  The dramaturg does not have the final say, though they can, and should, say what they are experiencing (no matter how tangential or obstructive) so that the final say is informed and validated through the way in which the outside eye is viewing it.

How do you document the dialogue you have with the artist?

Kevin: I really don’t think the documentation of my input as an outside eye is particularly useful, but the dialogue itself should be worked out in the rehearsal space with the maker of the work.  It is how they respond and play with my interjections that becomes interesting for me, which can be documented through the performance, the artist’s blog/notes, their responses to my emails.  But if I attempt to map or document the exchange it feels like I’m placing myself more firmly in the centre of the work – like they must respond to my suggestions – and I’m not sure that’s the purpose of my role as an outside eye.

How do you bring your experience as a dramaturg into your own practice?

Kevin: You become quite adept at re-looking and re-positioning material when you spend time doing it for other people, and I think this is hugely beneficial to my own work as a performer and maker.  You tend to see the work you are involved in as an outsider would, by resisting the ‘insider knowledge’ of the process and viewing the work as presented – so being an outside eye on other projects means you are more able to forget what you know and experience the work for the first time (or at least that’s how it works for me…).

With Traviata by Plane Performance, how did you go about approaching the deconstruction of the score? Would you describe this as a dramaturgical role?

Kevin: I was given the titles of ‘Orchestrator’ and ‘Music Director’ for this project.  We could never really get to grips with what my title should be.  Although I do think it has similar qualities to that of a dramaturg.  I would spend hours just mining the musical notation for information; abstracting the form of the opera to create a range of bizarre scores that Neil could try and work with.  There was a certain pleasure in handing over these odd looking sheets of paper – and seeing how Neil would react to them.  Quite often they would get in the way of his own particular strand of creativity – and I liked the idea that I was disrupting his position slightly and asking him to consider the work from a different perspective.  I was attempting to find a way of supplanting the complex, subtle, and detailed musical notation into the theatrical frame, and for me that was about knowing the ‘text’; its formation, trajectory, patterns and motifs etc. that was different to the way the Director would be accessing the same source material.  I was less concerned with the libretto, or the ‘words’ of the opera, considering the main textual component to be that written by the composer; but this again has something to do with exploring what is underneath the words – the ‘music’ of the text, that one might consider to be a dramaturgical function.

How do you bring your own taste/baggage/cultural reference points to the work? Or do you try and see the work from a more neutral perspective?

Kevin: When supervising undergraduate projects I wouldn’t say that I consciously impose my own way of working or aesthetic.  So I think that I am able to remove my own tastes and expectations from their process and achieve something of a neutral stance.  Of course, what I ‘see’ and the way in which I articulate this is grounded in my own experience, but the idea is that I allow my own interpretations and interventions to be cloaked in a range of suggestions and possibilities – rather than a concrete, definitive idea that they should work with. This is often different to the way I work with professional artists, as they are aware of my own interests and are allowing me to have a bigger impact on the work itself.  There is often something that they want me to bring to the process, and the outside eye in this instance offers a specialist viewpoint that the work would benefit from, as opposed to the more objective stance that I offer undergraduates.

How is the role you are playing as a re-devisor/performer of Schrodinger by Reckless Sleepers a dramaturgical role? How much are you aware of the dramaturgy as you perform?

Kevin: This is an interesting question.  The piece, as a resurrection, or re-imagining, of an older show was reliant on a range of ‘texts’ for us to process and unpack.  There were a few obscured, VHS quality DVDs of the original show where some elements were not captured, or the performers approached differently in each version; there were the fragments of text that had been transcribed from the original performance; there was the contextual information about the process outlined in the Reckless Sleepers’ book Trial; there were the memories, anecdotes, and stories that Mole would recall throughout the re-devising process; and there was my own faded recollection of seeing the original version back in 1998.  None of these texts were complete – and we were all working from a mass of contradictory fragments to piece it back together.  The dramaturgy exists in the way this information was collated and re-constructed; in being able to understand the work from outside in order to develop my own performative function inside.  So each source is used in conjunction with the other to gain a better understanding of the work; its structure, context, feel, look, journey etc. and this allows you to see the performance as a whole rather than as a discontinuous series of events.  To understand the mechanics of the piece  – and to be able to fine tune, replace, and repair it once you are familiar with how the engine works.  The documentation functions as an arbiter of the process in some form too; shaping and feeding our experience of the work by allowing us to read these snapshots from an objective position – and ultimately this enables us to stand outside of the work and view it from an audience’s perspective.

When performing Schrodinger I am conscious of the traces that the original has left behind.  That I’m somehow chasing the shadows of Jake (the original performer in my role), or that Jake is chasing my shadow – and that we are both caught up in this game of cat and mouse.  Schrodinger is a complex structural piece, and each little action or detail that is altered can have a massive impact on the trajectory of the performance/performers.  So it is really important (for me at least) to understand the complexities of the box in as much detail as possible, so that you are able to respond to the situation appropriately because you can calculate the effects of each decision based on your internal mapping of the work.  Being able to switch between Jake or Kevin, outside and inside, as I perform means I can return to this objective position – seeing the work as a whole, and adjust my actions accordingly.  Having all of these fragmented versions and recollections of the original show also means you are aware of the waves of potentiality that exist in what you are doing; and I like to think that this extra knowledge – that the dramaturgical process has enabled – provides a more playful and more complex version than the original possessed.

Have you ever worked with a dramaturg or outside eye on your own work?

Kevin: Not really.  I suppose the informal chats and showings you have with other artists/colleagues does the same sort of thing – ask you to contextualize and listen to other perspectives – so I never thought an outside eye was missing from my process, as I always seek to develop work through external dialogue; with those people whose opinions and ideas I value, and who are able to bring their expertise, their view of the world, into my process.  There are always times in the process when you want someone to come in and see/respond to what you are doing – and this is certainly invaluable.  But I’ve never labelled this as dramaturgy…

How would you describe the value of the dramaturg in the current climate? e.g. Essential or luxury?

Kevin: Maybe it is an essential luxury…?

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