Dramaturgy in Dialogue: Jochem Naafs

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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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