How dramaturgy is finding its place in British theatre
Dramaturgy is a tough nut to crack. Despite occupying a vital role in countries such as Germany and across continental Europe, we in the UK have struggled to pin down a precise definition for the dramaturg. Because of the playwright’s pre-eminent position within our own theatre culture, the tendency has been to conflate the dramaturg with the literary manager. Meanwhile, the dramaturg of German theatre tradition has long fulfilled the role as a creative curator; collaborating closely with a director or specific theatre to conceptualise a season of work.
But with a new generation of theatremakers now inspired by practices from abroad, these artists are now shaking things up on British stages. Influenced by new models of working and reinvigorated by bold aesthetic choices, directors and playwrights in the UK are challenging traditional ways of working and adopting a fresh, internationalist approach to their work. As the landscape begins to shift, so too is our understanding of the dramaturg’s role within it.
One of the reasons the dramaturg has remained difficult to define is to do with the fluidity of the term itself. There are no hard and fast rules for mapping the precise function of dramaturgy. As a practice, its principles are based on adaptability and versatility.
Duska Radosavljevic, lecturer in European and British theatre studies at Kent University, and author of Theatre Making: Interplay Between Text and Performance in the 21st Century, considers the dramaturg’s role to be above all else a relational one; not anchored to any specific criteria, but responsive to the demands of the process. “The dramaturg’s job is often determined by the kind of relationship they have with any given collaborator,” she explains, “so in terms of methodology or models of working, they don’t always apply in the same way from one process to the next.” In other words, it is far from being an exact science. In the absence of an all-encompassing definition, it is easy to see how the dramaturg has remained such a puzzling concept for many.
When the Lyric Hammersmith’s artistic director Sean Holmes launched Secret Theatre, playwright Joel Horwood came on board as associate dramaturg. Born out of the Lyric’s earlier production of Simon Stephens/Sebastian Nubling’s Three Kingdoms, Secret Theatre was created with the intention of building on this production’s cross-cultural experiment and forming a permanent ensemble of actors committed to making work outside the hierarchic parameters of more traditional theatre. For Horwood, his role as associate dramaturg involved being “whatever the director needs me to be, while at the same time, maintaining my own creative voice. It wasn’t strict or formal and I think if it had been then we couldn’t have made the work we did. A traditional set-up might not have led to something so instinctual.”
The dramaturg thrives in the space between the creative and critical disciplines, scrutinising the decision-making process while generating his or her own creative ideas to stimulate the devising process itself. “I think I gave myself the task during the creation of Show 5 of being ‘logic police’,” explains Horwood. “I just wanted every moment to be clearly thought through, to really expose and clarify the themes and to be entirely and utterly rigorous.” When it came to Show 5 – A Series of Increasingly Impossible Acts – Horwood adopted a more active role and provided instrumental support for the overall devising practice – both in structuring much of the action in collaboration with Holmes and contributing ideas and stimulus for the actors to work with: “The really fun stuff in making this show was in the details of the process, rewriting and reimagining Shakespeare, for example. I would reimagine an ‘impossible’ scene from a Shakespeare play as a ‘task’ for the company and then give the company that ‘task’ to perform. So, Romeo and Juliet’s balcony scene became: tell us about your first kiss while someone else in the cast falls passionately in love with you.”
It is a model of working that draws consciously on European dramaturgical practice – combining conceptual inventiveness with critical rigour. It is this critical impulse that is essential to the dramaturg’s practice. While the principle elements that define British and European models of dramaturgy show significant cultural differences, it is this analytical function that underpins both disciplines. Whether it is scrutinising the decision-making process, acting as a spur to the director or playwright’s vision or helping to build a conceptual framework for a given production, the dramaturg is often something of a pathfinder. As dramaturg for Robert Icke’s Oresteia for the Almeida Theatre’s Greeks season, Radosavljevic describes her role as akin to that of an interrogator – whose task it was to test the conceptual rigour of Icke’s bold reimagining of Aeschylus text: “Sometimes the ideas became modified as a result of my questions. It was very important for me to have some ambiguities ironed out and I often questioned what the thinking was behind particular decisions.”
It is a function of the role that Rob Drummer believes is central to his own process as associate dramaturg of the Bush Theatre: “It’s about trying to ask as many questions as possible, as early as possible, about the story of that play, the gesture of the play and the central question of that play. It’s about giving the writer a sounding board. To give the writer a point of resistance – something to react against. It’s about guiding a text to an audience.”
Traditionally, the dramaturg’s role in our own theatre culture has been inextricably connected with the development of new writing. Unlike the Regietheatre tradition of modern German theatre, in which an emphasis on reconceptualising classic texts has resulted in a director-based dramaturgy, the British theatre dramaturg has focused ostensibly on artist – namely, playwright – development. It is a model that prioritises critical development above creative intervention.
For Drummer, whose day-to-day job involves managing the 18 new plays currently under commission, it is a process that relies on building a relationship with individual artists and establishing a dialogue with playwrights in particular: “We build a development process that has several dramaturgical stages. This could include a single day of working with the playwright, talking through notes on a script or it could include work with actors and directors. It could include several workshop weeks. All of that work is activated through my relationship with those writers.”
Nevertheless, even within a culture that locates the playwright at the centre of its activity, the influence of theatre practices from abroad have continued to influence artists and playwrights: “We’re finding that more and more playwrights in this country are increasingly exposed to theatre from around the world,” says Drummer. “They’re exposed to new and interesting ways of telling stories. We want to harness that and experiment with how we can push our theatre, our artists and our audiences.” This commitment to expanding the boundaries of what is theatrically possible has resulted in a programme as diverse as it is eclectic. Recent works such as Caroline Horton’s bouffon-inspired Islands and American playwright Marco Ramirez’s The Royale testify to the dramaturg’s role as an advocate – supporting the work of artists and curating a season of work.
Despite a range of approaches, the dramaturg remains something of an unsung hero. In Radosavljevic’s words, the dramaturg occupies an “invisible role”, operating beneath the radar of the creative process they are serving. And yet the dramaturg’s liminal status remains his or her greatest asset, whether as conceptual curator, creative pathfinder or critical provocateur.