Getting Comfy with Dramaturgy
This year, I tutored my first university dramaturgy course. It’s always daunting stepping into a new job, but with these students I was doing something I have always wanted to do- explaining not only what dramaturgy is, but also how to do it, to a group of budding young theatre makers.
For the casual audience member, dramaturgy might as well be alchemy. Even for those who make theatre, the concepts and tools a dramaturg uses can seem confusing. Dramaturgs weave their magic deep in the background, treading the boards of rehearsal rooms and tucked away reading scripts in back offices. It’s an ambiguous role, and a multifaceted one at that. When I work on a project, I often find myself becoming someone else for a few hours here and there- an assistant director, an assistant stage manager, a sound operator, a transcriber, a prompter. Maybe even an actor if things are really going sideways.
It is not a requirement for theatre makers to be their own dramaturgs. But in the same way that good theatre makers might perform or write scripts at times in their careers, even if only in a limited capacity, a good theatre maker can and should add some of the dramaturg’s tools to their belt.
But first, for those still unclear, I will answer the eternal question- what is a dramaturg?
For me, there are two metaphors I come back to every time someone asks me to explain my practice. Sometimes I go to work as a midwife, and some days I am a mechanic.
A dramaturg might be summoned during the writing/devising stage of a work to lend a hand to a new production or version of a script. For those projects in their infancy, I am a midwife. A midwife does none of the labour of, well, labour. It is someone else's job to create the beautiful new thing. But sometimes, beautiful new things need a little help coming into the world. Maybe a creative team has shed some members, so they need to start afresh. Maybe a script received mixed feedback and needs an edit before it hits the stage for another season. Maybe something is too long, or too short, or too complicated, or doesn’t match a brief well. Whatever ails a play, a dramaturg can diagnose and treat it.
A dramaturg might also appear in a rehearsal room as a show prepares to debut. New script or existing, the players are assembled and it is time to bring the production together. In these projects, I am a mechanic. Mechanics, again, do not build cars from scratch. They are the experts in how each piece of the machine fits and works together. The mechanic can see problems and solutions. They tinker with the contraption until it runs as intended. They step back and watch the machine drive away, behaving as it was designed too.
Delicate work, in its infancy, requires a delicate dramaturgical approach. Bigger, sturdier machines require a more mechanical, pragmatic approach. But both start with the same questions-
What isn’t working here?
How can we fix it?
Those questions are daunting. I know this because my university students have shown me just how easy it is to be overwhelmed by complex texts and their complex problems. Early in the semester we examined Thomas Ostermeier’s 2004 adaptation of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House entitled Nora, wherein the eponymous character at one point appears to perform oral sex on the branch of a Christmas tree. It’s one moment out of many strange ones that Ostermeier’s oeuvre is filled with. One of my students was quite insistent that I explain what that moment meant.
I do not know exactly what Ostermeier was trying to achieve in that moment, but I could have told that student any number of guesses. Is Nora, the repressed Ibsenian housewife, expressing herself sexually in an unhinged, perverted manner? Is she trying desperately, in her own small way, to rehearse for some kind of reconciliation with her unsympathetic husband Torvald? Is she going mad? All of these possibilities could be true, but I arrived at them all by using the same tools.
I asked my student how the scene made her feel. She told me she found it, to quote her, “f-cking weird.” It made her feel confused, but confusion is not detailed enough. She felt more of an angry befuddlement, the fury that only the inexplicable can conjure. And of course, the sexual connotations made her feel uncomfortable.
So often as theatre makers, we are concerned with what we mean. We have ideas and messages, and we will them to carry over easily through our work and into the audience, unimpeded and perfect. But it rarely happens so easily. There is an unknowable context and feeling in that mass of people. I don’t know if Ostermeier intended my student to feel so confounded and creeped out, but she was, and so the experience is made.
Dramaturgy teaches us to trust our gut reactions and reverse-engineer the decisions that led to them.
Training ourselves to untangle the feelings that theatre makers present to us, with emotion in mind but not biassed by it, is the key to using dramaturgy practically. Of course, this can be an uncomfortable learning process. In our week studying postdramatic theatre, my students watch clips from several different productions of Heiner Muller’s seminal 1977 work Hamletmachine. It is a bizarre script, and so every production must contend with and embrace that challenge. After much discussion about the strangeness of an adaptation of Hamlet with no characters or plot, one student asked me this question-
“So, if this play has no meaning, it basically has no purpose.”
More of a statement than a question, which tends to happen when someone is running into a critical brick wall.
Of course, the thinking behind this question that my student had failed to unpack was that meaning can only be made in characters and plots. It’s a very conservative assumption to make, but it’s an unaddressed bias that lurks when we are not thinking critically about the reasoning behind our theatrical preferences. I am not a diehard Hamletmachine fan, but it is hard to argue that a text that contains lines like this has no meaning-
I want to live in my veins, in the marrow of my bones, in the labyrinth of my skull. I withdraw into my intestines. I take refuge in my sh-t, my blood. Somewhere bodies are being broken, so that I can live in my sh-t. Somewhere bodies are being carved open, so that I can be alone with my blood.
So, I will end this with the answer I gave to that student. Meaning, in the theatre, is so much more than plots and characters. Meaning comes from the words said by performers, whether we understand them or not. Meaning lurks in metaphors, and in their absence. Meaning is brought into the theatre in the minds of each audience member. Costumes, lighting, gestures, facial expressions, the building in which the show takes place, the country in which it takes place- all of this and more becomes meaningful in the theatre.
If you want to get comfy with dramaturgy, you simply need to start looking for where the meaning is coming from- usually, it comes from the inside out.
Hamletmachine still © Lucie Jansch
Nora still © Emile Zeizig
Barnett, DJ 2016, Heiner Müller's 'The Hamletmachine', Routledge, Abingdon.