The NATO summit dinner at the Castle, the first meeting of the NTW Dramaturgy Project - it’s a big day out in Cardiff. What really went on in the Castle will never be known, but here’s a taste of what the dramaturgs did.
There are six of us (variously also writers, directors, a librettist and lighting designer) – Janys Chambers, Mathilde Lopez, Richard Hurford, Ace McCurran, Louise Osborne, Gary Owen - together with NTW’s John McGrath, Simon Coates and Mawgaine Tarrant-Cornish. Some know each other well and have worked together, others only by reputation. So here we are – now what’s the deal with dramaturgy? There’s probably a few hundred years of accumulated theatre-making covering a wide range of work around this table, so can we sort it all out by 5pm? Not a chance – it’s too big, too many twists and turns, too many possibilities and unexpected discoveries along the way. Which is what makes the Dramaturgy Project so necessary and full of crackling potential.
Inevitably this first meeting is very much about personal experience and thoughts fuelled by our own work as or with dramaturgs. We can’t kick off with any simple definition of the dramaturg within the UK theatre system, because no such definition exists. We can look to European models and traditions or academia but none of this is particularly relevant to the subject of how we actually make theatre here. Generally speaking the UK attitude seems to be that we like the idea – some more than others - and when it works we think it’s splendid but we don’t quite know why or how it works. Sometimes we forget about it entirely, because it’s easier and cheaper. Sometimes we’re not sure how to pronounce or spell it.
So we pitch right in and ask ourselves what does a dramaturg do that isn’t already done by a director or a writer? There’s no sense in duplicating functions and besides we’re looking to pinpoint what is unique about the dramaturg. This is a thorny subject not least because in the UK system directors and writers (actually all other jobs too) are expected to do and excel at every aspect of creating work that somehow links into your particular role and if you don’t…well, is that a sign of weakness, incompetency, lack of ambition, loss of control? The discussion revolves around the agendas of the director and the writer. In theory it’s meant to be all about the work, what is best for the work, collaboratively focused with shared objectives. But for a director and a writer actually developing a piece and then moving into rehearsal and production, the reality is that there are many other calls on time and focus .
Within the UK model there is usually limited time for development during rehearsals and at a certain point the demands of the opening night loom large and take over. Who looks after the work then, as opposed to getting it done? The two aren’t the same thing. And if it’s not all about the rehearsal period then who keeps all the balls in the air over an extended R&D process and gauges what exactly each project needs at each stage? Is it realistic or sensible to expect the director and writer to have a clear perspective on this? Or the time? It’s not a responsibility that sits easily within the roles of Literary Manager or Assistant Director either. It occurs to us that we’re already looking at the dramaturg’s function as something much wider than the purely text-focused work that is often assumed to be the remit.
You can’t discover what a dramaturg should or could be within the UK theatre model without examining the model itself and since it revolves so much around the figure of the director, it’s this role that demands particular investigation. The idea of the dramaturg can be seen as a threat to artistic vision and control. It’s true that when we look at the European experience the exasperated whisper is sometimes heard in the rehearsal room “Here comes that bloody dramaturg again.” Or other language-appropriate words to that effect.
However, it could be argued that the European dramaturg model is sometimes problematic in practice because it’s so embedded into the process and, as with all traditions, questions are no longer asked. This is where we in the UK are at an advantage – we can look at the dramaturg with a relatively open mind.
Around the table, we acknowledge the potential for perceived professional/artistic threat by the introduction of another role into the core artistic team. However in practice all of us are clear that the dramaturg is no such thing, because their agenda should be very different to the director and the writer. On a very basic level, they don’t have to write or direct the damn thing so their focus can be much more fluid and objective. Another perceived problem is that the dramaturg is seen somehow as the ally of the writer, but this is a misconception, admittedly often followed in practice within the UK system. The notion of the dramaturg as a “writer whisperer” is far too limited. We prefer to encourage the idea of the dramaturg as a support and a resource for both director and writer and ultimately for the work. The dramaturg brings no specific personal artistic agenda to the work – though in practice of course a dramaturg with a particular area of expertise or interest will be better suited to work on particular projects and with particular directors and writers. The dramaturg is there to help the director and writer achieve their vision. As such it can be seen as a liberating function.
So what is our ideal concept of the dramaturg? What do we perceive the dramaturg to be in relation to the work? A guardian? A champion? A resource? An outside eye inside? A keeper of all the disparate elements that make up the vision of a piece? A central point of contact? A broker? A saint? Understandably we can’t find exactly the right words. Yet. And then we remind ourselves to keep asking another question. Are we expecting too much of the dramaturg?
Should there be a job description for the dramaturg? Probably yes, but only in broad terms because the responsibilities of the dramaturg depend very much on the particular needs of each project and that may well change as the project develops.
Which rather takes us back to our starting point - the dramaturg is not something that can be simply defined. But then in reality neither can a director, writer or any other artistic role. It depends on the individual and the nature of the work. Why should the dramaturg need to be able to say this is what I am, this is what I do, this is dramaturgy? We’d all have a problem doing that.
We discuss whether a basic “dramaturg test” should be applied at the start of every project. Is there a dramaturg? If not, why not? What particular need does this project and artistic team have for a dramaturg? This leads us on to the understanding – specifically through discussing Wales Lab projects - that a dramaturg can be important on projects where a writer is not the lead artist – in development or indeed ever. Suddenly the notion of the dramaturg as primarily a writerly resource becomes redundant when it’s accepted that a writer does not need to be part of the team for a dramaturg to have purpose. Uncoupling the dramaturg from the writer makes investigating the unique nature of the role feel more possible and the terrain more open.
Ultimately the dramaturg is not a theoretical issue but a practical one and so it’s fitting that we end our meeting by discussing current NTW processes and raising expressions of interest to work as dramaturgs on specific existing scripts and projects. Importantly, we agree to make a point of sharing our experiences and practice as we work with NTW writers and to keep the process open with the agreement of the writers and with apppropriate confidentiality. It’s clear that we all share a belief in dramaturgy and a desire to see it develop and become a central part of how we make theatre. However talk is just talk and before we meet again we will have had the opportunity to experience each other as dramaturgs in practice. This should give us more to get our teeth into when we next come together.
It raises a final question. What can be achieved through a network of dramaturgs and are we missing a trick here as an untapped channel for disseminating new work both during and after the production? Dramaturgs have an investment in and intimate understanding of the pieces they’ve worked on, but it’s a very different perspective to that of the director and the writer. If they believe in the work and want to share this belief, is it less bound up with and less likely to be perceived as purely personal interest? Can dramaturgs have the useful conversations about the work in the wider world that directors and writers find difficult?
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