Features Essays Published 20 March 2018

Dramaturgy Under Capitalism

Frey Kwa Hawking explores the slippery territory of defining a dramaturg's role, and forging a practice in a world that requires both productions and people to be marketable.
Frey Kwa Hawking
Denise Gough (Harper) and Nathan Stewart-Jarrett (Mr Lies) in Millennium Approaches. Photo: Helen Maybanks

Denise Gough (Harper) and Nathan Stewart-Jarrett (Mr Lies) in Millennium Approaches. Photo: Helen Maybanks

At first encounter, it’s a terrifying word. The first time I came across the title I was still at school, and had just become angrily aware of the existence of Ben Power, a person who somehow had my ideal job. Now the first ever deputy artistic director at the National Theatre, at that point he was writing, adapting, working with Headlong and Complicite, and among other things delivering a ‘new version’ of Medea for the National. I couldn’t quite see how he’d done it, but he was undeniably there, in amongst the thick of it, some instrumental part of what was going on, and I even envied him for that maddeningly distinctive name. His Wikipedia page described him as a ‘dramaturg’. I had to look it up.

I’d found something that I wanted, though I didn’t say the word to anyone for several years. It was embarrassing. But years later, after taking up different roles in theatre as a young adult, I edged towards that word again, and I now try to describe myself with that (and ‘playwright’), when I’ve got the nerve. You can now study dramaturgy at numerous universities and drama schools, though having thrown away money on one degree, I can’t quite justify another.

So it’s still me and this word, trying to feel each other out.

In the sessions and workshops I’ve been lucky enough to take part in with others about dramaturgy, two issues tend to come up time and again: the definition of this imposing term, and how to carve a career out and survive financially having adopted it for yourself. Enough has been written and argued about what falls under the remit of the dramaturg – whether it’s working in a more German curatorial and commissioning capacity attached to a theatre, developing concepts with research, examining a script or being in the rehearsal room asking the awkward questions – so as I’d like to live and work as one, taking a look at the second issue presses on me more.

We tend to think of British theatre as still playwright-focused above all else. In a great essay for the Dramaturg’s Network, Ben Payne once put down the “ambivalent position of the dramaturg in British theatre” in part to a “mistrust of anything too foreign sounding and an inherent cultural conservatism.” Despite liking how snappy this is, I don’t think we’re any more fundamentally conservative than anyone else, nor does this mean the dramaturg has to force their way in anywhere. We’ll return to this later, but dramaturgy continuously takes place because it is the process of making theatre, no matter who’s involved. This is both a great thing, and something that can complicate the case to be paid specifically for it. Dramaturgs often find work as part of long creative partnerships or on recommendation from someone familiar with the dramaturg’s methods and strengths already, but it can take getting to know someone and even actually working with them before you can both tell what you might need from each other for a project.

But the current structure of the arts in this country leaves little room for this, determined as it is by the demands of capitalism, which strangles theatre. It squeezes ambiguity, strangeness and collaboration – at its most fertile and forgiving – from relationships and play between us. It requires both productions and people to be marketable, above all else. It prefers that choices are made on the basis of their cost-effectiveness over everything else, which feeds into safe programming choices, and a cautious attitude to ‘taking a chance’ on newcomers. It leads to keeping the longtime patrons and trustees of a theatre content as a priority. It makes us view each other as competitors, because everything seems to point towards the room at the top growing smaller. It makes us worry that unless we create work which satisfies the values of grant donors, our work will not be funded. It is only concerned with what from us is bankable, which manifests itself practically as a need for us to have an effective and eye-catching personal brand in order to work.

It should be stressed that the curation of ourselves-as-brands is required now in every industry, and is only reflective of our actual ability and potential to a limited degree. The simplest way to accomplish this billing of ourselves as creatives and workers is with a portfolio of some kind (usually digital: think LinkedIn and professional websites) of clear results for which we – and no-one else – are personally responsible.

The person-as-brand has to be uncomplicated to be read and understood easily. This can be easier to navigate as an actor, set designer or director for example: easier to point at the set of a show and say yes, that was me; to say I played this character, you can even see clippings from a review or two about my performance, or to say I directed this play, and be understood because we think we know what directing entails.

The dramaturg runs into problems here. When what your role constitutes can vary so greatly depending on production and team, to say that you acted as dramaturg means very different things each time. What’s more, there aren’t so often distinct parts of a finished work which can be put down to a dramaturg’s effect, requiring you to get more technical: perhaps you extensively overhauled a script, developed the structure of a devised piece with a company, or sifted through hours of recorded material.

It’s harder to indicate the personal contribution of the dramaturg as the nature of the work tends to be supportive and focused on the process itself, rather than the end result. But with theatres and companies required to function as profiting businesses in order to survive, the role of the dramaturg can fall by the wayside as there’s less and less room for anything which seems superfluous. Every expense has to be justified in the jostle for funding, and if most productions do without a specified dramaturg, how vital can the position be?

I’ve come to think of dramaturgy as a case for the grey areas of theatremaking, and the role of the dramaturg itself as not inherently more radical than anyone else’s, while a good and slippery symbol. Most of us – self-described dramaturgs and otherwise – find ourselves mastering several fields over the course of our careers out of necessity: editing and coding websites, marketing shows, or filling in as actor, sound designer, director and more when the occasion requires it. Dispensing with the dramaturg’s role simply means that ‘dramaturgical’ work will be taken up by the actors or the crew; it’s down to the needs of a production or team as to whether a specific person focusing on dramaturgy should be a member, and perhaps the academic, formidable-seeming title of ‘dramaturg’ is one people would like to avoid. Five years ago, for Exeunt, Sarah Sigal noted that with regards to her own various work on productions “the term dramaturg has rarely been used, as if to name the role I am to fulfil would be to limit it, to take away its mystery.”

But when this mystery is challenged and we see someone whose role is defined as dramaturg, or is credited with having done dramaturgical work in addition to that of another position, it’s one way of pushing back against rigid perceptions of what roles there are in a production. The adaptable nature of what the dramaturg does is a strength; it’s both a bad and good thing to have to question and justify what you bring to the table, even to yourself. At its best, it keeps things vital, while at its worst the exhaustion takes a toll.

Perhaps there should be room for us to accordingly expand how we see every role and all the responsibilities in a production. Appreciating the dramaturgical experience many of us unavoidably collect, we might be more disposed to think of our careers in theatre as entirely made up of these collaborative, anti-individualist processes undertaken with other people. Beyond that, we could often do with questioning our assumptions about who deserves credit as artist when it comes to a piece of art. Once again, capitalism requires the answer to be simple and flattened, preferably the work of one ego, but theatre is rarely this straightforward. Take, for one example, the long journey to reach the (somewhat) finished Angels in America, detailed in the forthcoming book The World Only Spins Forward. Angels will always be Tony Kushner’s, but the process of dragging the play into the world took many hands. It was the idea of actor Sigrid Wurschmidt, a member of the Eureka Theatre company and to whom Perestroika is dedicated, for Angels to be two plays. She, the other actors and creatives attached to the Eureka (and its next home, the Mark Taper Forum) all had influences over the substantial rewrites at these early points, the impact of which which we’ll never be able to unravel fully.

This recalls the often murky interaction of the dramaturg with the territories of literary advisors or in-house literary departments, which are far more common in this country. Perhaps a dramaturg attached to a theatre or company, rather than a creative partnership or project, might have the same concerns as a literary manager with regards to overseeing a cohesive programme while at the same time scrutinising and developing individual plays. However, it’d be inaccurate to characterise dramaturgy as tied to the ‘literary’ aspect of theatre: plenty of dramaturgs are skilled in movement, applying their discipline to dance and physical theatre.

I’m still figuring out how to survive as dramaturg and how to market myself, though the most common way seems to remain through references. This does the job of shifting the focus back to the relationships at the heart of making theatre and allows for proper detail and credit to be given, but as a system it’s still precarious, and easily abused by nepotism and gatekeeping.

An alternative would likely call for more trust, and for us to be better to each other than capitalism would like. It’d involve recognising when a real difference has been made in the work, no matter the person it comes from, and not shying away from breaking out the big word. More people discussing, taking part in and making a living from theatre is something we all aim for, and discarding inflexible ideas of the structure of theatremaking benefits both us and the art. Our opportunities offstage can and should reflect the variety and difference we put onstage because there isn’t just one correct way to do theatre, which each new production never fails to prove to us.

(All of which is in fact a roundabout way of saying “Ben Power, I’ve got you in my sights.”)

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Frey Kwa Hawking

Frey Kwa Hawking works as a dramaturg in London. He likes to go to the theatre and the cinema. Sometimes they let him in. He is trans and Malaysian-Chinese. He always orders xiao long bao. Follow him on Instagram and Twitter @absentobject

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