Interview with Julia Locascio, a New York-based director and deviser of original work. She is currently studying on the MFA theatre directing course at Birkbeck in London. She is also a costume designer.
How would you describe the role of the dramaturg?
Julia: The role of the dramaturg interests me because I see a great deal of overlap in dramaturging, directing, and devising. I spend a lot of time thinking about different creative processes and how directors and dramaturgs and playwrights serve them. They all cover the same things in different contexts and dramatic languages. In a new writing process I think of the director as a kind of dramaturg, pushing the playwright forward and helping to shape the logic of the piece taking form. Whereas on the parallel devising journey the director takes on the playwright’s role and the dramaturg takes on the director’s role, so there’s a sense of that same logic forming but in a very different way.
Could you describe what you mean by a devising director as opposed to a director?
Julia: I think of myself as devising director above all. Which doesn’t mean that I don’t work with text or that I wont direct a traditional play, but I think the deviser’s toolkit is a really powerful one to bring to any approach to live performance because it takes nothing for granted. Every decision that’s made is interrogated and what is ultimately valued most highly is the audience’s experience. The devising director is a creator of a final piece but also the creator of a process. He or she is a kind of navigator for collective creation.
That’s interesting because a lot of the writing on the dramaturg talks about the dramaturg as a navigator using nautical terminology. So in this country Kenneth Tynan was the first established dramaturg and they describe how he was charting a course at the National Theatre, sitting in the crow’s nest, trying to steer it into harbor. When you were working as an assistant director on The Rubinstein Kiss, how might that role have been dramaturgical, how might that role position itself?
Julia: The role of assistant director is intricately connected to all of these as well. As someone who has played these roles—assistant director, dramaturg, director, devising director—I have been constantly defining my role while performing it. Though my title was assistant director for The Rubinstein Kiss, many of my most valuable contributions were dramaturgical. This is a play set in the United States and I was the only American in the room, which, while also being the youngest person in the room, gave me a kind of expertise and authority. One of the things that I did was create a timeline of historic events that connected to the play. The show is a fictional retelling of the story of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, two New York Jews who were accused of and executed for conspiring to commit atomic espionage. They may or may not have been guilty, and they may or may not have deserved the punishment they received. Because the play took liberties with the real life events, we had to look at what really happened next to what happens in the play and make decisions about what was useful, what to draw from history and what to dream up on our own. One of my tasks was to make a massive timeline that covered a wall in the rehearsal room. We would consult it as the actors tried to orient themselves to the play’s jumps in time. I also helped to unpack some of the ideology that was specific to the USA for the cast. The American Communist Party of the 1930s and 1940s was very different from what Communism looked like in the UK. I both did a lot of research on that and had an inborn cultural sense that I could share. And then there is there the other part of assistant directing / dramaturging that is something that Giles Croft, Artistic Director of Nottingham Playhouse, and I have spoken about at length, which is that in either of those roles it’s important to be a friend to the director, above all. Really that’s often what is most helpful to the process, because just as it’s about a play, it’s also about the well being of the people involved. A lot of it was about filling the gaps, seeing what was needed in the room and trying to be the person who served those needs.
How was it different to being a dramaturg or assistant director working with a script that is perhaps complete to working in a devising context without a script? How might there be a different set of processes or skills required in those contexts?
Julia: My sense is that when there’s a text there is so much material to help the ensemble unpack. It could be anything from a great deal of historical research, to script analysis that breaks down the inner structure of the play, to a more rehearsal room-based approach, being an outside eye, reflecting back on the staging work, to any number of more intricate and imaginative ways of uncovering layers of the written word and the playwright’s intentions. My sense of a dramturg in an unscripted devising process is much more expansive and, to be honest, more interesting to me. I think about it spatially. There are three tasks set to a devising dramaturg. The first is to be the kind of scribe or historian of the process itself. You are very present and aware of the way the process has developed over time while also keeping the original goal in mind. You help the team return to previous ideas and focus them on the mission that you all set out to accomplish. That, to me, is the looking behind part of the job. Then there’s the looking ahead or visionary aspect of dramaturging, being a collaborator who brings new source material and makes new connections between things. This dramaturg stands alongside the director in seeing shapes take form and pointing to those shapes and describing them. And the final space dramaturgs occupy is the right now space. Feet planted, here. This one is connected to what I said before, about being a friend, being that person who can be more present than anyone else in the room because everyone else is in the trenches, wrestling with ideas. In that storm, the dramaturg has the unique ability to put his or her foot down and say, “actually this is what we are doing right now and this is how it is serving everything else.”
Two things that I think are interesting: what do you do as a friend when you think there are better ways of doing it? A. Smith says you have to have the capacity to be frank, to say the difficult things that need saying, to avoid any mission creep. Also, when you said earlier about audience experience, he mentions representing the audience in the room. How might what you have done demonstrated this capacity to be frank or represented the audience in the room? How does one person represent many?
Julia: The theatre practitioners that I most respect are very frank people. There is something hugely empowering about giving someone your honest opinion and prioritizing the work above all. I am still honing my ability to be frank, which has been a challenge for me, because I am from the American Midwest, where niceness is a priority.
I think it’s the same in England.
Julia: Probably. There’s something horrifying about anything that could be taken as hurt or insult—but at the same time, I think sugar coating is the ultimate insult. Anne Bogart is a directing hero and teacher of mine. One way she describes the director’s role is as a sort of litmus paper. She would say, “the actor is going into the centre of the room and stripping naked and peeing and you’re the person who then takes the litmus paper to test that pee and tell them whether it was successful or not.” I think this is analogous to what the dramaturg does for the devising director. You must be the litmus tester. You must be clear about whether what’s being presented is successful or unsuccessful. But you’re doing it in a very vulnerable context. So, yes, you are the first judgmental audience member, but you are also very compassionate in shaping your response.
If I feel like there is a potential issue with the piece I will perhaps phrase my response as a question or a reflection rather than as a suggestion. So my strategy might be to question in order to address any issue I might foresee as a dramaturg or as a future audience member. There’s a quote from Mark Bly who wrote the Production Notebooks: ‘When asked to describe what I do as a dramaturg: I question.’ That’s his modus operandi, that’s a really useful strategy for teasing out, finessing whatever wrinkles there might be in the process or in the performance. It’s not your job to give an opinion. It’s your job to enable the practitioner…
Julia: To help the piece become more itself. There is no personal agenda in that.
It can’t be about your own personal taste because it’s not your work. It’s difficult when you are a maker as well.
Julia: I feel very lucky to have trained at New York University’s Playwrights Horizons Theatre School because I was made to study theatre with a heightened focus on collaboration. We were asked to do it all: act, design, dramaturg, write. One of the most valuable tools I took away from that training was how to approach feedback. The faculty was explicit about how we should feedback to our peers. The framing-through-questioning you describe is one of the approaches. But also there is a creative quality to certain types of questions. Questions like:
How did it make you feel?
How do you want us to feel?
How do you want us to feel at the beginning, middle, and the end?
What do you want the audience to crave, do you give it to them or not?
When do you give it to them? How do you give it to them?
An important question that came from that training that I return to all the time, is why do YOU need to make THIS piece of work TODAY, in this hour, in this minute? I think it’s really important that a creator continues to return to this question throughout the process.
I would add to the no-agenda and a-dramaturg-always-questions approach that it’s impossible to escape your own agenda or your own artistic sensibility. And that’s not a bad thing. There is a reason a director chooses a certain dramaturg to work with and I don’t think there’s something wrong with the fact that a lot of these relationships are based on a personal connection. You develop a shared language and belief system about what a performance might be because you are searching the wilderness together. You are together trying to find the path you are walking. To go back to the nautical metaphor, the dramaturg is drawing the map and the director is steering the ship.
What is specific about the way you see the dramaturg that comes from your American-ness? I remember Anne Bogart describing devising as scavenging, building a nest, is that a particularly North American tradition do you think?
Julia: I feel passionately about American myth-making. A lot of American artists are in the act of defining American identity because we don’t really have much of a history. Well, that’s not quite right—we have a history of genocide and slavery and mass immigration and extreme oppression of minority groups, but it is often said that we are an adolescent country. I think a lot of the extremes of America point to America’s wild desire to define itself. It’s like a caged wild animal, flailing around, trying to understand how it got stuck where it is. Dangerous, beautiful, stupid, vulnerable, powerful. Anne Bogart writes that one thing she is interested in is ‘raiding the graveyard.’ In Americans’ desire to be constantly entrepreneurial and innovative and industrious they often forget what has come before. I think it is the task of American artists to help Americans remember the accomplishments and revelations of the past and embrace the flawed and lush identity that lives in our subconscious. I think there’s something incredibly thrilling in the potential of this process of culture-making and reflecting. We are making something from nothing. We are not tethered to a tradition of performance in the same way as other cultures. Of course there are American traditions—there is a powerful commercial, entertainment impulse connected to film and the vaudeville/Broadway lineage, which of course we have to grapple with. But there is also such an inspiring, forward-thinking, spirited energy to American culture that then touches on the role of the dramaturg. The sense that I get, thinking about the dramaturg in Europe, the UK and the USA, is that the American dramaturg is very much a partner to the director and is very much engaged in the act of creation, not just critique.
I wonder how much your practice of dramaturgy is informed by your cultural history and the practitioners you have been exposed to in the USA and how that perhaps gives you a different set of lenses, critical lenses, with which to view work?
Julia: It does and I didn’t really realize that until leaving America. It takes different forms. I often think about how Americans wear their feelings on their sleeve in such a powerful way that it can be read by other cultures as false and loud and overly expressive. What that means for my dramaturgy is that I do return to those questions of how does this make us feel?, or what are we craving?, or phenomenological questions around how the audience is experiencing the performance. I feel less interested and less emotionally engaged—See! I naturally link interest with emotional engagement—by questions around the history of ideas or serving a text tradition. Also, I think my approach as a dramaturg or assistant director or deviser is absolutely informed by the theatre companies that I watched and studied in New York, the downtown experimental theatre scene. So there are companies working now like Elevator Repair Service, Witness Relocation, the TEAM, Young Jean Lee. And they are working in response to previous generations, artists and companies like Martha Graham, The Judson Dance Theater, The Living Theatre, SITI Company, Richard Foreman, The Builders Association, The Wooster Group, and on. And everything that’s happened at La MaMa and New York Theatre Workshop and The Public in the last 20 years. I think all of these practitioners have something in common: the focus on the primacy of the experience, the kind of sensory impact of the work that’s being delivered. Sensation. I’m obsessed with sensation.
What is your position on working with a dramaturg on your own work and in your own practice as a theatre maker? When you are the director of it or performer of it, would you have a dramaturg on it as well or do you feel that you provide that role?
Julia: I will always have a dramaturg if I have the option. What the dramaturg in my devising process often does is become a true and soulful partner in the creation of new worlds and new logics. While I’m in the process of facilitating performers and designers, my dramaturg partner is codifying the dramatic logic that is emerging. One really tangible example: I adapted the novel The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake about a little girl who is a food psychic—she can taste people’s feelings in food they make. We collaboratively wrote the piece, taking chunks of the novel and staging them, trying to make them dramatically compelling. In that process, every day we would stick post-it notes on the wall of the rehearsal room with ideas scribbled on them. A note could be story idea or an aesthetic idea or just a moment. One of them was: ‘everyone screams and falls to the ground.’ We had a visual map of emerging ideas. Our dramaturg would bring me over to the post-it wall and point to things, draw connections, and remind us of things. Sometimes he would reinterpret ideas that he wasn’t there for the first time around. A lot of those reinterpretations were completely brilliant and way more interesting than the original idea.
As a costume designer have you ever played a dramaturgical role?
Julia: Absolutely. Not to repeat myself endlessly, but I see all of those roles as interconnected. Of all the design disciplines I am drawn to costume because it is the most connected to the actors. Character and status and identity. So in the designer’s process there are all the classic dramaturgical tasks of historical research, character analysis and even narrative development—how do you show change in a character through their costume? Equally there is a kind of process dramaturgy that is part of the costume designer’s role. You end up being really close to the actors. You know their bodies intimately and you need to make them feel safe. So you are also a process therapist, like a dramaturg: a sounding board for the creatives involved.
Fundamentally all of these roles—directing, devising, dramaturging, designing—are getting at the same thing from different angles. There’s another passion of mine, something that also feels connected to American-ness: the aesthetic development of the piece happening alongside the story development. Form follows function and function follows form, all at once and in all directions. We Americans are swept up by passions and ideas and movements while thinking we are independent. It’s not always most well-considered path, and there are horrific casualties, but the results certainly make for some dramatic, juicy collisions.