Dramaturgy in Dialogue: Bill Aitchison

Bill Aitchison is a performance artist and artistic director of Bill Aitchison Company. He works in and between performance, writing, video and audio, and collaborates with theatre, sound and visual artists.

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

Bill: When I think of an ‘outside eye’ I imagine that as a person, or quite possibly several people, whose role in an artistic project is to give informed, fresh feedback during the creative process. I use the word fresh because what almost inevitably starts to happen to those working intensively upon a project is that they construct an idea of what the work is and what it means, as a result of being immersed in the process of making it. The sense of continuity this can bring is enabling, a kind of artistic shorthand can be shared amongst the team, but it can also prevent you from seeing things in other ways: imagining constructing the performance in an alternative configuration or interpreting it in a different way. An ‘outside eye’ can therefore give articulate feedback based upon what they actually see and their understanding of the work’s intentions rather than repeating the idea of the work that the core team have constructed between themselves. The ‘outside eye’ also differs significantly from a spectator, even an informed spectator, because the outside eye will very likely view more than just the public face of the work. It can be useful to bring this fresh gaze into the rehearsal process too.

I am somewhat reluctant to define this as a role any more precisely than that because the situations in which I might find myself providing an outside eye vary considerably and I tend to view roles as being intrinsic to actual lived situation rather than abstract entities that predate them. Whilst it is necessary to put some sort of name to ones contribution, fixing that too solidly to a job description can, for me, prevent the more free flow of artistic ideas that can be most productive. At the same time there is a difference between being in an ‘outside eye’ sort of position than being, for example, a director, writer, performer or lighting designer. That said, I have sometimes changed roles during processes and gone from being an outside eye to becoming directly involved in writing or performing a piece, some people’s processes being flexible enough to accommodate this. Usually however that is not the case and I concentrate my efforts upon constructing a dialogue around a work and making creative suggestions.

How does a process evolve with an artist?

Bill: The process is always slightly different for each project. I have some people I work with regularly and something of a pattern is there but even with them each project will have a different rhythm of engagement and set of work spaces. The way things begin is that I tend to be asked by the artist if I would like to be involved in a project very early, usually during the early planning stage. I might be sent an email with some ideas and then we get together face to face and talk about it for two or three days. During this series of conversations we explore the ideas and imagine different ways in which the project might take shape. This can help the project management so that ideas and practicalities remain connected to one another during the planning stage. Because the majority of the people I work with are based outside of the UK we tend to make this an intensive first working session rather than the more casual sort of development process that is possible when people are living in the same city. When working we will try to keep a common working document with pictures, texts and videos that can serve as resources. When this first meeting is over we remain in touch via skype and email and also meet when possible, for example, coffee in Brussels Midi while in transit or over the breakfast buffet in a hotel while on tour with another show. There is often some cross-over of people between different projects so these fortuitous meetings can be quite organic though less intense and certainly no substitute for the dedicated working time. After that emails might be bounced around and supporting texts read but the process generally quietens down until rehearsals begin. Here things can vary enormously; sometimes I’ll be dropping in for a few days here and there, sometimes I’ll be present throughout. Whatever the level of engagement is I will usually try to be present in the final days and see the premiere. I can usually make a useful contribution during this period and seeing the premiere is important both because the show is more complete with its technical frame in place and it always becomes clearer what the nature of a show is when there is a public in front of it. Beyond that, it also feels like an important return from the process for me, without which I might well feel like a hired gun. After the premiere I will try to give constructive feedback, as it is my experience that most shows continue to evolve beyond their premiere, though that is usually my last formal contribution to the process as the ongoing changes are usually then made by the director.

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

Bill: I tend not to describe myself as a dramaturg so I am uncertain how to answer… I usually avoid this title because I have the impression that it is a more recognised and formalised role within the theatrical culture of certain European countries. I may be mistaken, but I have the impression some people study specifically in order to become a dramaturg. They might even carry name cards on thick high quality card with the title dramaturg written below their name. I never came through such a process and I found myself in the position I am in through having an open mind to collaboration. Probably because of this route I have followed I lean to a subjective approach and engage with the project as an artist myself. However, I make an effort to follow the other artist’s process and aesthetic and think through the work from their position, which will not necessarily be my own. This act of following another person’s reasoning and imagination, asking questions along the way, looking forward, sideways and back, tends to position me as a sympathetic outsider. Sometimes the collaboration goes further and I am more directly inside the imaginative process to the point that I can no longer say I am outside, though this is the exception rather than the rule. Usually I see myself as helping to get the process moving and then looking at and evaluating what it is throwing out there so that this can then be organised and the work deepened.

Please could you describe any hierarchies implicit in your relationship?

Bill: I am not sure I understand the question properly, but I will try to write around it. The main hierarchy is that I do not instigate, produce or have any power to insist upon how the production takes shape. After the premiere I usually step away from the work and turn over what I have done, the artist then making any further changes or re-writes on their own initiative. When there are a number of people in the rehearsal space I try to reserve some of my more speculative or critical comments for more private conversations with the director but I do not close up completely and whisper in the ear. There is some value in developing a shared conversation within the larger team so I try to be sensitive about when and what to share. A further factor that colours this position is that I often have a history with some of the people I am working with. This means I have a slightly different status to someone who is working with the lead artist for the first time.

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

Bill: I tend not to document the dialogues in a public way as I consider those to be part of the private creative process. While I often do keep a blog for my own projects I consider it more appropriate to make my contribution in private, unless otherwise agreed upon. I feel this is better because anything that is in the public domain is in a sense a part of the work. It can be unseemly for things like disagreements or claims of ownership of ideas to be thrashed out in public. I much prefer that the spectator’s attention is directed to the performance itself and then only in professional contexts, such as this interview or post performance discussions, open up these questions of process. My document of choice is therefore the compact notebook I scribble into. The laptop onto which texts accumulate, the camera and from time to time video. This material is then used to help sharpen understanding and convey ideas.

How do you bring your experience as a dramaturg into your own practice and vice versa? Do you consider the role as a step on your professional trajectory?

Bill: I certainly gain something from these collaborations and the people who I end up working with tend to be the right people for me in the sense we both benefit. I somehow don’t find myself in random money making projects, it is the thoughtful  and disciplined performances that I usually find myself being involved in. I think one of the strongest impressions I have got from my collaborations as a ‘dramaturg’ is how it is possible if you make a good show for it to be seen in the right networks and have a significant further life. This is rather encouraging as I see the artistic field as being quite open and it has given fuel to my natural instinct to remain focused on the creative work. I say this because I observe many people around me tailoring their work to the demands of the funding structures and becoming busy with this more than with the prime material of making performances.

I also gain something from working with people who have different disciplinary training to myself. I have worked with choreographers, artists, theatre directors and actors who all have different processes to my own. Having to enter their various processes in order to understand how the work got to where it is and where it would make sense for it to go next, I have had to develop and adapt my powers of observation, conceptualisation and composition.  Finally, in terms of who I conceive of my work as being for, I have opened this up further. I have seen how there is a keen audience for the type of work I am engaged in many parts of the world and how I can adapt and present performances in order that they may function in very different countries. Working a lot with language, as I do, creative approaches to translation or the playing with the status of English are things which my collaborations have helped me become more attuned to.

As far as it being a step in my professional trajectory goes I am uncertain. I do not aspire towards becoming a full-time dramaturg working with the most celebrated performance makers of the day. I suspect that this collaborative role will remain a parallel part of my practice that informs it but does not come to eclipse it. That said, if I stop to consider a professional trajectory, I can see that it may have further developments still to play out. I can imagine, for example, that I may wish to engage in performance as a curator at a later stage in my career. Indeed I am starting to develop projects that have a curatorial element to them. While the creative blurring of curator and artist is well established within the visual arts it remains somewhat unusual within the performing arts. Given my instinct to work in the borderlands of the two disciplines it may well come to pass that this flexible, collaborative or dramaturgical role of mine within performance processes develops into a more clearly curatorial role.

In particular, with reference to your work with Ivana Müller, how did you go about creating the text? Would you describe this as a dramaturgical role?

Bill: I have worked upon a number of shows with Ivana Müller starting with How Heavy Are My Thoughts in 2003 and going right up to the present project we will begin rehearsing this Autumn of 2012. It is not quite possible to define a single method whereby we develop a text as each piece had its own particularities though I will try to describe what is the most typical way we work together even if no single project ever followed this pattern precisely. So, what ‘usually’ happens is that Müller comes with an idea and we talk about it. It will not be that fully developed and may well be more an area of interest rather than a specific vision of a performance. Sometimes another person may also join in this initial conversation too. We will talk around the idea, its context, connecting the stage and representations of the idea to daily life, politics and ideas. We will imagine different performance strategies debating their pros and cons and sometimes jot down some texts to serve as examples when imagining how the work may look. From this rather free-flowing stream of ideas some shape tends to emerge and this informs the practical processes of producing the work. Even though ideas often emerge collaboratively, Müller still makes all the significant decisions and imposes a definite shape and character to the work.

The text can be created in part during this initial phase but it usually develops more fully at a later stage in the process. When working with a significant number of performers some writing may take place before the full group rehearsals begin though the writing process will also continue once everyone in the space as the people she works with often bring good ideas and instincts to the performance too. After the premiere there is usually some re-writing and the subsequent performances are continually updated in minor ways. The text and writer is therefore not granted monolithic status as is often the case in text-based theatre, but significant attention to the text does still characterise Müller’s work.

The texts often develop from improvisations though they are usually shaped considerably more when written down. I often take the role of maintaining the text, formatting it and recording the changes. We also send it back and forth between us and do some of the writing alone as it advances more quickly and deeply that way. One of the roles I assume in this exchange is as language editor whereby I tend to concentrate more on the sentence to sentence style and Ivana upon producing lines, though this distinction is also frequently blurred. I do this as English is my first language and I can often construct ideas and sentence forms that support the concepts more elegantly and precisely. Ivana will however then put anything I propose through the language test of whether or not it is intelligible to non-native speakers, as that is the principal public for the work. Out of this forward and backward movement a text emerges. The other role I tend to simultaneously assume is that of creating a dialogue with her about the structure of the performance. This is made explicit in the re-arranging of the text, the grouping and development of ideas, but it is also a more general dramaturgical role as this discussion is not restricted to the text but rather is very much concerned with how the text and action intersect to create meanings.

How do you bring your own taste / baggage / cultural reference points to the work?

Bill: I think it is fair to say that I do bring some quite specific tastes and references to projects I collaborate upon. These most probably reflect my own tendency to combine formal elegance with irreverent humour. Also, being British and widely travelled, I have a specific set of cultural and artistic references that I bring to any collaboration. Working often in Europe I find that many of the references that most excite me are less well known there and so a process of explaining them and viewing them from an outsider’s point of view takes place. For example, if I mention the infamous Portsmouth Sinfonia it will draw a blank, but if I play a recording and we talk about them then the concept and feeling behind the self style ‘worst orchestra in the world’ becomes clearer and easier to share. This helps to elevate these examples beyond the mere anecdote and instead to understand them structurally and in doing so it is easier to relate them to their counterparts in other countries. My experience living and working in France, for example, was that there is a highly sophisticated set of cultural references that serve a similar purpose to those the British use, however the French references are, by and large, Francophone at base. It is a mistake to see these as essentially the same as the British ones for they map out a set of visions of culture and society in alternative ways, yet they do serve a similar purpose and they do there are many correspondences between the two cultures. So, when working in groups with mixed nationalities, as I usually do, this back and forth of culturally specific references is quite valuable as it tends to raise the level of the conversation.

As a performer of your own work, have you ever worked with a dramaturg / outside eye?

Bill: I have worked with an outside eye on one occasion though not more than that. I find that video can be very effective at giving me an ability to see what I am  doing and so use this most. This does lead the work in danger of becoming self-absorbed. I have found that the way I am most comfortable in avoiding this is to structure the development of a performance so that it is made over a long period of time with breaks, work in progress shows, the incorporation of members of my team gradually and the chance to hear different opinions on the work. To give a concrete example, last year I made a performance during a 3-month residency in China. I did an early work in progress show in collaboration with a Chinese artist in Xiamen, a more developed work in progress show with a Chinese actor in a literary festival in Beijing, had a Chinese premiere as an outdoor show in Xiamen and then performed it with an artist in Shanghai in a gallery setting. It then was presented as a solo piece in Berlin and after this I brought my regular collaborators Boris Kahnert and James Dunn in to add light and sound to the piece. They brought a new approach to it and we played it in theatres, in a working shop, in a public square and a park sometimes as a solo and sometimes as a duet. Recently it was revived for theatre and gallery shows and it has developed a lot more as a result of having distance and the chance to talk to people about it. By stepping outside the conventional format of a block of full-time rehearsals leading up to a premiere and run of so many weeks and/or a tour, I have been able to find a rhythm that gives me enough fresh perspectives on the work so that it can continue to be refined mixing internal and external points of view quite effectively.

How would you describe the value of the dramaturg in the current climate?

Bill: I think that the current climate has nothing to do with how we should value dramaturgs and that these are entirely separate issue. If we value something then we should make space for it. If, for example, we value lighting design we should engage a lighting designer on a production, and if we value dramaturgs we should create space for them. I am aware that there is a scepticism towards dramaturgs in the UK and the poor state of the economy can be used to describe them as a luxury that we can ill afford. I think however that one has to address the scepticism that precedes the so called ‘crisis’ and not allow events to justify prejudices.

I am presently in Berlin and from what I see dramaturgs have a considerably higher status in German theatre. I also observe that the performing arts have a far greater attention to formal experimentation and a deeper connection to philosophy, the social sciences and learning in general than they do in the UK. I cannot help but put the two of these observations together and conclude that they are related. I cannot say which causes which, maybe dramaturgs are a symptom of a more intellectual and artistically minded theatre culture and not the cause of it, it is hard to say. I can however say that I am, to perfectly honest, bored by the vast majority of British performing arts which try a little too hard to entertain, tell stories and educate and pay little attention to advancing their production in a formal artistic way. While I think there are many ways in which this situation could (but almost certainly won’t) be addressed, it is clear to me that a greater presence of dramaturgs would be one positive development.

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