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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Dramaturgy in Dialogue: Tom Marshman

Interview with Tom Marshman, Bristol-based live artist. I worked with Tom as an outside eye on his new performance, Legs 11.

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

Tom: For me, when I’m making work, the question is ‘What is this communicating to you?’. If I show you this, is this what it is communicating? Often something will happen when I miss a story. The narrative in this gay and lesbian show I did recently was that someone had been diagnosed with HIV and then had a motorbike accident. He talks about this accident being a  good thing because it helps him come to terms with his HIV status. HIV has helped him. It’s an enabler. It’s helped him form more friendships, more romantic interest. I was showing someone else this and they were debating whether it could be misconstrued. When I work with other people’s stories, it feels connected to working on my own. When I work on these gay and lesbian shows, I use my own stories too, I’m connected to this somehow, I try to be part of the somehow. The same could be said of a very personal show likes Legs 11, there are moments where I am in the sleeping bag telling a story, and someone has said to me ‘You’ve become a Geisha girl’, or like you talked about how I am coming out of the chrysalis. The outside eye helps you to tease that out or maybe makes you think about whether you want it to do that.

So would you say the dramaturg or the ‘outside eye’ shows you what you are doing that you did not know you were doing?

Tom: Maybe this idea of a dramaturg isn’t such an appealing notion to because of where it comes from, somewhere more traditional and text-based. I say ‘outside eye’ because it sits more comfortably with me and my work. On Legs 11, I wanted to work with different artists. I worked with Bryony Kimmings to see how the audience is involved in the work. I worked with you to look at the structure, my structure is always quite loose and I wanted help to shape an argument. Mamoru Iriguchi came in to look at the technology and visuals and Neil Bartlett is my professional mentor at the moment.

It seems a different model, inviting lots of people into the process

Tom: It’s helpful because I want my work to communicate lots of things, my work sits in different areas, I can place my work in a cabaret context or in a much more serious live art context and it will be fine, although some people have disputed that. Neil Bartlett has been mentoring me for a year, he has shaped how that project has gone conceptually, the process, so it felt like it was quite important for him to see the actual work. He has given me lots of ideas about how to shape the show. How to segue different moments into each other. With that Legs 11 show, what I enjoyed about it was that I made different bits for different times, different events, different contexts. I made a song and dance number that works on a Queer level. Some text for a lo-fi spoken word event. Consequence is that you end up with a jumble sale of performance. Other people were really helping with that. I think that I need encouragement to make my work be personal, because I’m always worried that it’s too personal, part of that role is encouragement, you could say my work is self-indulgent and it is, but is there anything wrong with that? I really like personal work but you have to step over a comfort threshold. You’re in a rehearsal room, you’re going to be surrounded by people in a rehearsal room, and sometimes it helps for them to reassure you about what you are making.

You asked me to ‘be sensitive’ to the fact that there were some things you couldn’t change at that stage. How do you define the relationship?

Tom: In Luton, there is no one I can ask, so here I have been asking the participants. I have invited them into the room and they end up talking about themselves for ages. I just feel that it helps to have someone in the room. Smooth over some of the awkward bits. It still maintains the sense of the autobiographical, not adding any of the content because it all comes from you.

Have you ever played the role of ‘outside eye’?

Tom: I responded to work quite emotionally, how it made me feel etc. I have also sat in people’s work much earlier on and given them suggestions about what they perhaps should be rehearsing and what films it would help to watch.

Is the role of an outside eye a luxury or essential?

Tom: I am thinking about this a lot at the moment. I procrastinate so having an outside eye makes me work and it makes me work quicker. I know I can do it without one, I just don’t think it would be as tidy. I know how I make work, but it would be like vomiting on the stage. All the bits are there. But not necessarily in the right place or in the right order. I think there’s something about being dyspraxic, I’m clumsy, I do things wrong. An outside eye, a dramaturg, will never be able to change that. That’s who I am. That’s always a way of communicating something, I can’t help that. But maybe they can help me put the work together.

Some people describe the dramaturg as midwife, mechanic, weaver

Tom: It is like sewing. I like working with sound and video artists because when I watch them work it is like sewing film and sound together. I love being able to steer something in a different direction, a surprising direction. What I do is a little bit like that. I sew material together and the ‘outside eye’ can help with that.

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Dramaturgy in Dialogue: Chris. Dugrenier

Chris. Dugrenier is a live artist and theatre maker who collaborates with companies such as Stan’s Cafe and 30 Bird. I am working with Chris as an outside eye on her performance, Wealth’s Last Caprice.

What is the role of a dramaturg?

Chris: One question I’m going to ask as an answer is what is your distinction between dramaturgy and outside eye? I was thinking about this regarding Wealth’s Last Caprice and Elan Vital. I was thinking about your role in that and how that role will be different. Because in Wealth’s Last Caprice it’s clear now that your input has been as an outside eye and I think that your input for Elan Vital might be more of a dramaturg because from reading your blog and my limited theoretical understanding of the notion of the dramaturg, I have been thinking about the dramaturg as the person who might collect material and tie those things together in a way. In Wealth’s Last Caprice you came in clearly as an outside eye and in that sense you were able to be the audience’s eye but a bit more critical. You were able to offer readings that the audience might get from what is presented to them, so I was thinking about what it is that you did during the two days you worked with me.

You looked at the whole piece and then we worked on sections which I felt needed more of an outside eye. Sections that maybe I thought looked clumsy or unblocked or problematic but I didn’t know why they were problematic. So I was thinking about precisely the work you did on the dance and the text at the same time, when I sit on the table and refer to meeting my lover, where you suggested speaking in both English and French and the deconstruction (not the right word because it is imbued with a theoretical context) more like the unbuilding and taking apart, you took the elements that were in that scene, physicality, text and the transition to another section. You took this one apart and we looked at each element on its own and what you suggested was putting the elements as a layer so we put the elements that were layered on top of each other next to each other. Now that section is totally in the context, related to notions of love, two histories of love. Because you unbuilt the section to its core elements, one of the texts leads naturally to the dance and it links to me, the present linking to the past.

So that’s the key element for me of your input, how you helped to unbuild the scene and work on its bare elements and reorder them or remove them. I was surprised when you asked me how I see the work you will be doing with me? I thought ‘I don’t know. You’re the dramaturg’. But it was a very useful question to make me think clearly about what we would work on. I only had a very basic theoretical understanding of the rules. It’s a very wide rule. It depends on the person you are working with, the project you are working on, where your input is at, if you are asked to look at the script, or the performance at a point there and now. Or other artists might mean more of a reorganising role, or a directorial role rather than a dramaturgical role. Suggesting things like the stapling of the will, when I had a difficulty with the sentence, making a full stop out of the text with the sound of the staple. It is very revelatory how you made conscious what in some way was there when it was unconscious to me, when I was not very conscious of the direct links. So for example you connected the cardboard box full of treasures with the cardboard coffin full of the things I wanted with me when I die. These are the connections an outside eye makes.

How does it help to know this now?

Chris: I quite like this circular notion. The ending mirrors the beginning. It’s never quite an ending because if it mirrors the beginning it means it can start again. This circularity helps with the connections. Mentioning the Forget-me-nots near the beginning, which I also mention at the end. Making those connections which close the circle. It doesn’t matter for the audience, I think, it’s not something I want to emphasise to an audience, but all the threads are tied up, and tying up the knots. They are good terminologies.

French dramaturgs refer to their job as ‘untying knots in the narrative’.

Chris: We work less linearly, more with making connections, We splice up a story and the audience now are able to make the link between one section and three sections ahead and they are able to make the connection to the invisble thread, to make reference to a section half an hour later and say ‘yes I get that now’. It is a magical moment for the audience, Because we work non-linearly that’s why we need to tie the knots instead of untie them I think.

What is this invisible thread?

Chris: Like tapestry, if you look at the image from the front, it’s all there on the front, beautifully rendered and put together. Turn the tapestry round to the back and that’s what I’m describing. It’s threads, intricacy, process and structure. Maybe you have changed the colour, or tied off. It’s messy. When you turn it around it’s messy. And when you turn it forward it’s clear, and there are no knots or not holes. Hopefully. Watching the documentation and remembering the sensation when I finished the run through with you, I thought it just flew, it has become the whole, it has become the front of a tapestry. Everything flowed. Everything made sense. The transition worked, but not as a transition, but as an element of the work. It was no more: this is the beginning, this is the middle, the end. It became a performance. It is so important to have an outside eye. Even moreso when you work on your own. I have spent three years trying to make this piece on my own and now I would tell anybody you need an outside eye. There is no way you could make a solo performance without the input of an uninvolved but critical person that can ask questions about the knots that are in the piece and can offer methods, ways or just ask questions and let you work out the way to unpick it all. There is more work to be done in terms of delivery and rhythm and responding to the audience and that will come with performing it but in terms of the content there is nothing that is missing.

Is a dramaturg a luxury or an essential part of the creative process?

Chris: When you are in a company it is an essential luxury, as an individual it is an essential. For a company maybe it is an intruder, to an aesthetic, to a range of concerns or methods, shining lights on the dark corners, the dusty sections, the messy bits. My experience is that it is essential, it is a necessity.

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Dramaturgy in Practice: Wealth’s Last Caprice

……………………………… The show has started. Chris is completing a dotted line on the screen as the audience enter. She is typing. I am typing. She scrolls up to the top of the document projected behind her. It is a will. Her will. She clicks print and walks over to another table where she waits for the print out to be produced. There is no printer today so she says ‘Print print print’, the sound of a printer is playing on a soundtrack as the pages of an old ledger of wills are being turned on the video projection. The fountain penned last wills and testaments a contrast to the printed document in her hand. She staples the will. These are my last words. Clunk. The stapler punctuates the text. Her last words. Typed, printed and stapled. She says she is not wishing to tempt fate and touches the wooden table. She asks me to time one minute for her and tells us what writing her will might be like and all the things she might lose and miss along the way. Lose the plot. Lose the lot. Lose her marbles. She will miss him. Miss her. Miss you. She will miss us. The audience. At the moment there is no audience. Only me. And I am keeping an eye on the time. The minute’s up. I say ‘Time’ and she says ‘I will run out of time’. There is a sense of self-fulfilling prophecy as she predicts the end of the text. Like her will as long as she is alive, the piece is never fully realised. The will is never fully written. It’s a work-in-progress of her life’s work.

Chris shows us everything she owns piled up in her house, everything itemised and catalogued on a spreadsheet that she adds to as part of the performance. Maybe a dress she bought today. Maybe some stationery she purchased on the way to the venue. We see her open up Microsoft Excel and watch her complete the latest entry in this 21st Century version of the ledger book. 2143 items on the list constitute her estate. Her list makes us think about what our list might look like. How many items we might have on it and what the combined cost would be. Her average cost is £7.65. She repeats the cost three times and then says ‘That doesn’t tell us very much.’ Their value is not real but sentimental, what they represent; our memories, the moments that become attached to the object on the list, the comments in the margins, emotional footnotes. She shows us the first object, a French dictionary that was her only belonging when she arrived in the UK. She feels like she is inviting us into her house for the first time. I have been to Chris’ house. I have sat where the objects on the screen sit now. Chris talks about presents she has received. She holds her hands against the screen to pick out the presents she has been given on her skin. ‘This present’ means both ‘this present’ I received and ‘this present’ moment when I received it.

All is lost. All is lost. All is lost. How does it feel to have nothing. Nothing to remind you of the past. 

Chris’ work could be asking questions about the role of the outside eye. We have nothing to remind us of what we have seen, what was where, unless we write it down like this. But at the moment, as I am writing this, Chris is still performing. She has moved onto the next scene. So in writing this, I am betraying her. I have a responsibility here. To be faithful to her somehow. To be useful to her somehow. She talked today about how some companies might consider the dramaturg to be be an intruder but she thought it was a necessity. When I asked her what she might call the dramaturg if not an intruder she said she would get back to me but she thought it might be something like a detective. It made me think of what Tim Etchells said about how Forced Entertainment make their work. He described it as ‘eliminating things from their enquiries.’ The dramaturg pursues different lines of enquiry through the work and as they ask the artist questions, as they suggest what the artist might be saying even though they might not know they are saying it, they eliminate things from their enquiries.

It is a postscript. It is a performance. It is written, it is read, it is spoken.

What I write now is weaving its way in and out of what Chris is saying now. We are alone in a rehearsal space and she is saying one thing and I am saying another. Occasionally what I write comes into focus, aligns with what she says. At other times we are on different planes, different lines of enquiry, different time zones. We reach a point when she cries. She is reading from her will. Leaving objects she loves to the people she loves. Taking off her clothes, her ring, her shoes. I realise how personal this work is and how precious it is to be sharing it. I realise that by writing this here and now, however much I try to watch the work more than the computer screen, I am not fully present in the moment. The moment in which she is giving me this. This present moment. This present. So I think it is time to stop typing.

So to make this document valid it needs to be signed and witnessed.

She asks if she can borrow a pen. I give her my pen. She asks me to sign her will. While the will is passed around the audience for someone to sign it, she tells us what books we might get, what our heirlooms might be. But perhaps the most important memento mori will be our memory of this performance. Of someone we don’t know, telling us about what it might mean to be left behind.

But what is left? What is left? What is left is so much more..

We are left with a slideshow of family photos, weddings, valentines, hen nights and balloons heading into the sky. She switches off the projector. She closes the laptop. She says thank you. And she leaves the stage. Afterwards she tells me that the job of a dramaturg is like catching butterflies, without a net.

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Dramaturgy in Dialogue: Gemma Paintin

Interview with Gemma Paintin, co-artistic director of Bristol-based company, Action Hero, about the role of the ‘outside eye’.

What does the term ‘outside eye’ mean to you?

Gemma: It makes me think of someone who would give you feedback on what the piece looked like and what the piece is communicating to an audience so whether the piece is saying or talking about the things that you want it to talk about. I wouldn’t really say an outside eye was providing any direction necessarily. Perhaps they are more in a dramaturgical role than a directorial one. But I guess they provide a perspective from an audience’s perspective.

a smith describes the role as representing ‘the audience in the room’

Gemma: When we do use an outside eye it’s for that purpose when we need someone to take a look at it. To be a pre-audience audience. I think we’ve only had one experience really ever of working with somebody in the room whilst we were doing just general rehearsal and that was quite a different experience because they weren’t there as an outside eye and there was someone there being present in the room. Sometimes in a good way. The awareness of somebody being there makes our work harder. Makes you more aware of being there in the room. There’s something about when someone else is watching you, you feel like you have to be a bit better for them in some way. It’s not something we do very often. When we do it always feels like: there’s someone here now so we better be good, we better behave ourselves.

So do you ever feel like there is an absence in the room?

Gemma: Not really. I think because mine and James’ collaborative process is always very alive. We’ve always got something to talk about. It never feels like I wish someone else was here, adding into this. It’s more like in a way being in a rehearsal room feels more like a private, more personal space, like inviting someone into your bedroom, it feels personal. I feel the same about the rehearsal room, I don’t know whether it’s because we’re a couple. I don’t know how to separate our work relationship from our relationship relationship. There is a completeness about me and James working together that an outside eye might not be able to be a part of. Sometimes when someone comes into the room James and I have to put our ‘well behaved’ faces on.

The Beatles invited a keyboard player, Billy Preston, into Let It Be when they were arguing and it completely changed the dynamic.

Gemma: When we did this darkroom residency in January with a writer called Nick Walker, that was the first time as Action Hero that James and I had had another collaborator in the room and because we’d had a difficult time making Frontman having Nick in the room reminded us that this is really fun. What we’ve done in that two weeks was the best work we’ve done for a long time, maybe ever. Having someone else in the space renewed our working relationship.

What was his role?

Gemma: He came in as a third collaborator as a writer. He wasn’t writing for us. That was a thing as well. It wasn’t like a theatre making residency it was a writing residency. Because it was slightly to the side of our usual practice it felt really valuable. He wasn’t there as an outside eye it was a completely process driven thing. The experience of having someone else there was a reflective process. It made us think about each other as collaborators again.

Did that presence change the authorship or voice of the work

Gemma: In some ways you felt freer to say things because you were one of three voices not half. So less weight on any idea you might put forward but also so things might go through more of a mix.  I might write something, someone else might edit it and someone else might do something else to it. It was a different alchemy. More brains in the room.

Are you ever your own outside eye?

Gemma: Often because we don’t feel the need for an outside eye, we are doing it for ourselves all the time. I’ll be James for a bit. He’ll be me. I’ll be both of us and he’ll sit out. We kind of demonstrate things to each other. We’re continually in and out, in and out of all the rehearsal room roles. Division of labour is condensed and replicated by both of us. We definitely have different strengths when we’re making a show. You know when you say things like can you look at the way you pick this up, the fine detail, often I’ll do that thing. Directorial nit picky things. James is always on the meta-level for everything. I’m always on the micro-level. I think we’re outside eyeing when we do that.

Rachael Walton from Third Angel talked about having different paintbrushes: a big paintbrush for the concept, a little paintbrush for the detail.

Gemma: Often if you are maker of a thing rather than a director of a text, there is a sense that you have a feeling of what the thing is like before you make it. I can’t necessarily tell you what it looks like or what happens in it. For example, we’re working on some new ideas at the moment. Although I don’t necessarily know what will happen or the detail of it we both have a strong sense of what it will be like. I think it’s quite hard to describe to someone outside of our collaboration, we both have a sense of what the feel of this thing is, sometimes we articulate this with an aesthetic or a text or whatever so in that sense it is hard to have an outside eye in the early stages because we’re often in the thing we are making and it comes from us and we are it. It’s hard to think about how someone externally will be able to feed into it. It is easier later on in the process because you‘ve got something to show, because you can articulate it into something more tangible. You can say is it talking about this this and this and they’ll say no it’s talking about this this and this. It’s quite an instinctive process and you have to trust what feels right.

Do you ever use video as an ‘outside eye’ or would you could consider a blog as a dramaturgical space?

Gemma: We never use video, even when we’ve had a video recorded of a performance I won’t watch it. We’ve got documentation that I will never watch. It always makes me feel a bit depressed. It’s not the real thing. It’s something else. It doesn’t really serve some kind of function as a dramaturgical tool. It just makes me feel a bit shit about it. In terms of writing blogs, we use those things quite a lot and I’ve never thought about it in that way but I guess it is. You know when you’re really in the thing it’s an obsessive process you are in it and you can’t switch off and you’re talking about it and everything in your life is connected to that thing. Because we’re a couple as well your daily life always seems to be reflecting back on that performance so your entire life becomes some sort of weird dramaturgical reflection space. We’ll often write things or have conversations that serve some kind of dramaturgical function for the piece we are making. Not as a conscious dramaturgical process just because that’s what we do.

You take a long time to make a show. Does a long-term process allow a different kind of dramaturgy to happen?

Gemma: Frontman took a long time to make and maybe that was a mistake. It took 16 weeks to make but when we look back maybe the work was all done in the last three weeks. We’ll always take longer just because that’s the way we work. The new piece will be quite fast. I feel like we will have made two new shows before Christmas and that is fast for us. Also there’s something about taking a long period of time and it being spread out sometimes practically it has to be like that so we can’t take two weeks out or whatever.

Sometimes the work happens when you’re not working.

Gemma: Always

How does the work change when you’re on tour?

Gemma: Often I want to show the new thing and you have to show the old thing. The old thing is always fun to show but it’s a different kind of process. You’re doing the get in for one show and you have an idea for something else.

How does the work change in response to audience feedback?

Gemma: We try to show stuff as much as possible when we’re developing it. I suppose it’s like when you get a whole room full of outside eyes. Sometimes it’s way too much feedback. You show something and you can feel whether it works like that. You do that thing and you think oh no that is completely wrong. That moment is some kind of feedback loop that you get just from performing in front of an audience and that’s incredible and I don’t know what that is.

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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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Dramaturgy in Dialogue: Philip Stanier

Transcription of online chat with Philip Stanier, artistic director of The Strange Names Collective, about the role of the dramaturg.

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