Features Published 9 April 2020

A European Theatre Dialogue: Directors, Text and Dramaturgy

The conversation continues, as a group of directors, dramaturgs and critics discuss how European theatre practitioners approach text.

Natasha Tripney

‘Misty’ – a rare example of a piece of UK new writing with a strong directorial vision. Photo: Tristram Kenton

This piece is the second instalment of a three-part series discussing European theatre, and what the UK can learn from its models, strategies and ways of working. Read the first instalment here

Tommo Fowler: Shall we get the D-word out of the way…? Surely one of the biggest artistic differences in the way we approach theatre is whether we work with dramaturgs as intrinsic to the full creative process – programming, concept, realisation – or as someone to give a few script notes / deliver a research pack on day one. The importance of dramaturgs, on the whole, in Europe just feels wildly different. 

Alex Istudor: I think dramaturgs are a very ‘German thing’. Essentially, that role is inexistent in most theatres from Eastern Europe (and where you still encounter shows with a very powerful staging component)

I’d like to discuss how directors understand their role in continental Europe. One of the main differences for me is related to who is considered the ‘author’ of a performance. In continental Europe, especially in the rep system, directors are considered the author of a performance because they are the ones responsible for the staging of the show, whereas in the UK I get the feeling that directors understand their role to be more about fulfilling the writer’s intentions as literally as possible.

I cannot remember ever seeing a piece of new writing in the UK for example where the director tried to stage it dramatically differently than what it was suggested in the text. Except Simon Stephen’s Three Kingdoms, but, unsurprisingly, the director was German. For most European directors, text is just a starting point (Ostermeier says it represents only 20% of a production). You’re expected to build a world around it, one that requires a lot of interpretation, a lot of liberties taken and a lot of investment in the visual realisation of scenes and a bold staging concept.

Rafaella Marcus: It feels like it happens that way with first productions because it would be ‘unfair’ to the writer not to. I was once on a panel about new writing and I was advocating for a bit more of an interpretive spirit – without wishing to throw my fellow panellists under the bus, the feeling was broadly ‘but the first production is the writer’s moment, the director can have their turn later’. I’m going to bring in critics here: I think it’s notable here that by and large we don’t have a critical apparatus in this country capable of distinguishing between the writing and direction of a new play. They tend to get lumped in together.

Alexandru Istudor: I second this. In reviews they rarely make the difference between the two but, at the same time, I see a lot of shows in the UK that are so literal I wonder why a director was needed; all they did was to block the show and follow the stage directions written in the text. This is probably where critics play an important role; they should question a bit more the lack of direction in some productions.

Rafaella Marcus: I feel like there’s a link between that and the occasional ire our more…conservative critics greet ambitious directorial interpretations of canonical texts with.

Tommo Fowler: There’s definitely a feeling of needing to ‘do a classic’ to show your soul a bit more as a director, and letting new plays just be ‘the play’ as written. I’ve been told off before by a critic for getting in the way of a new play by not staging it naturalistically.

Mark Leipacher: The distinction that I’m becoming more aware of, and feeling subtly shift across the UK / European divide, is the distinction between “putting on a play” and “making a piece of theatre.”

Tommo Fowler: Does that relate in any way to the training? I don’t know much about this, but the training for directors at Ernst Busch, for instance, is so intense and forensic – it’s just a vastly different way of approaching theatre directing as a craft. Everything from actor training to semiotics to critical theory…

Alexandru Istudor: Yes, it does actually. A lot. I can talk about my journey as a director in order to illustrate this point. I trained as a theatre director in the UK and when I finished my MA I did not have a clear idea of what directing meant, or a clear set of tools to use. Then I went back to Romania where I worked with a permanent ensemble of actors in a state theatre, and essentially that’s when I understood what my role was. I was lucky to work with actors and notice their expectations from me as a director, especially as most of them had the chance to work in theatre for 20-30 years with much more experienced directors who probably had a much clearer understanding of their craft and role.

There’s clearly a much more powerful tradition of training directors in continental Europe, especially the Eastern part (Russia, Poland, Romania, Germany). If in school you are being pushed to come with a concept every time you stage a text (no matter if it’s new writing or classic texts), you will feel forced to apply that for the rest of your career.

Teunkie van der Sluijs: It’s a somewhat unhelpful generalization, but Britain is very good at training in the craft of theatremaking. It produces some of the best actors in the world. But Europe tends to prioritize art and auteur-ship. Although I’ve also seen some terrible examples in Europe where conceptual philosophising around a play made it disappear down a wormhole of experimentalism – and where I longed for the theatremakers to embrace at least some fundamentals of stagecraft.

Most of all, I don’t know how helpful it is to speak in terms of European and British theatre. Because there are directors in Britain who embrace an outspoken theatrical aesthetic and have a clear auteur voice, and there are directors in Europe who just want to ‘do’ the play and little else.

The real demarcation exists between those who treat theatre as divertissement – an entertaining pastime, like a sugary snack – and those who treat theatre as directed, or rather directing: directing us to look at our world and our behaviours and ask critically: is that so? Followed by: why is that so?

Natasha Tripney: I’m interested in exploring Raf’s point about new writing and the resistance to imposing a directorial vision onto plays that are not ‘classic’ texts. The idea that directorial experimentation will inevitably overwhelm the text. Is there truth in this?

Nastazja Somers: I think this is again about practice and training, right? I feel like perhaps it is even more difficult to be ‘experimental’ (and I say that in quotation marks for a reason) when there’s no real sense of collaboration between the writer and the director and the ensemble. Of course we all try to move away from it but in the end it’s all about hierarchy, right?

Even the term ‘director’s theatre’ is used to suggest something lesser and of a different value. I’ve recently noted that whenever I watch something radical, the radicalism comes from the writer, and I don’t think that’s the way to unlock all these endless possibilities. Writing can’t inform everything, it’s such a limiting approach. And it’s really difficult to break away from that! To give an example, for me Misty was an outstanding piece of theatre because the collaboration between Omar Elerian and Arinzé Kene was so visible throughout the production. I found it really interesting though how many people were still fixated on the writing? I barely heard anyone praising its different languages (Omar loves his clowning), even though Misty is a sensory and visual feast. So I think there’s a lot to be said about the conditioning!

Alexandru Istudor: Nastazja makes a good point, I noticed that when writers in this country talk about theatrical form what they actually have in mind is the structure of the play. In most European countries the theatrical form doesn’t mean the structure of the text. Any discussion about theatrical form is much more connected to the staging dimension of a production and acting style. I don’t think we talk enough about acting styles and how important that is when staging a text.

Alice Kornitzer: I think it would be wonderful if theatres in the UK created room for writers to develop their work with the director more. This way, it would still be the writer’s moment and the director could add layers in without overwhelming the writer’s ownership of the text. There’s room for that, and it is done from time to time, although the predominant strategy is to give space to writers and text development and then a director comes on board and everyone goes: ‘Here’s the script, now cast it and stage it.’

Tommo Fowler: I massively agree. And you can tell one of Omar Elerian’s shows from a mile off because of his performances, I think. But this is something we don’t talk about so much when we talk about ‘European’ work – the style of acting often is really quite different. There’s way more of bouffon (e.g.) going on than we have. There’s no-one like Herbert Fritsch working in the mainstream here, for instance – maybe companies like Kneehigh or Told By An Idiot?

Mark Leipacher: Misty is a really interesting example because of the amount of time that they had to develop the piece also, very different to the typical UK model.

Tommo Fowler: Finn, you wrote [in the dialogue’s previous instalment] about “the idea that nothing but the text can make meaning” – That’s really interesting. Does our literalism seem almost so aware of the capacity of things other than the text to carry meaning that it’s like we purposefully run away from it? It’s almost like we have to try to strip things of any extra meaning to focus on text – it’s neutralising, so we don’t have to worry? Perhaps there’s a lack of trust?

Rafaella Marcus: I’ve always assumed, in a slightly pop-historical/sociological way, that the UK reverence of text comes from a very self-consciously literary culture. The tourist board notion of the UK as the home of ‘Great Literature’ (which is in reality probably more of a product of the dominance of the English language, and that in turn leads us back to – oh look – imperialism). It feels like a lot of the time, the end goal of UK theatre is to put as little as possible ‘between’ the text and the audience, especially when it comes to new writing. I think there’s the ghost of an anxiety about accessibility in there, that if we get too interpretive, we’ll seem needlessly cerebral or arrogant. The impulses I’m describing are contradictory, I know; simultaneously self-aggrandising and self-effacing.

Alex Istudor: I have a theory about this, not sure how accurate it is, but it is connected to the fact that the tradition of directing in the UK was established by people who went to Oxford and Cambridge and studied English literature before starting their directing career. Their approach to directing is very indebted to their literary background and, as a result, most productions are very literal stagings of the original text.

Rafaella Marcus: While this is very true at the moment, the first UK theatres directors were (I believe) actor-managers. I wonder if that’s the cultural hangover? That the role of a director is to manage the running of things and therefore the job is about getting out of the way to let other people do theirs.

Alex Istudor: Yes, I had that in mind as well, but I think actor-managers were more present in the process before the emergence of the role of the director – which happened relatively recent in historical terms, at the end of the 19th century.

Teunkie Van Der Sluijs: Historically, Britain has had relatively more and longer periods of political stability without foreign interference, and thus fewer challenges to English as the dominant language. Without this challenge, language came to be seen as a constant, and the primacy of the word has not been adequately challenged. Consequently, literature – but also ratio and a desire to explain and analyse – became dominant in the cultural discourse.

This was very different on the mainland, where wars and invasions led to fluid language borders – and where the horrors of the 20th century led to a distrust of the word because the word had seen abuse and proven to be untrustworthy. So instead, the visual and the aural came to dominate. Or rather, the interplay between the verbal and the visual – with one offering an interpretation and commentary of the other, rather than a literal depiction. Metaphor and bigger thematic ideas become much more important than fetishising lines of verse. So the biggest differences between the European and British ways of thinking about theatre are about the primacy of the word, versus the primacy of the total theatrical experience where all elements contribute to meaning, but where these elements might be placed deliberately in contradiction to or commentary on each other.

Alice Kornitzer: It might be worth noting that the concept of directing as we know it now in Europe, at least in Germany, stems from the mid-18th century (I’m talking the era of Lessing, for example), when the rising bourgeoisie was gaining financial power but had no voting rights. In order to compensate, they started to fund their local theatres and used the stages as their platform for political debate. In that sense, the play, the word, the performance are still today a vehicle for the thought processes of director and dramaturge. Something that in the UK we’re more exposed to through Brecht…

Tommo Fowler: Raf, what you said about the text being the play feels really vital. That’s the succinct version of where we fall down, I think. In German (I think) the playtext is a Stück – a ‘piece’ – which feels far truer to the experience of a theatrical event. But I don’t think we’ve fully grasped what the text as just a piece of the whole can really mean.

Rafaella Marcus: I wonder how much it obliquely affects programming? How many literary departments have the unconscious bias that if you can’t ‘get’ the play from what’s on the page, it doesn’t get programmed?

Mark Leipacher: This must be true. And whether the programming is led by literary departments developing plays or artistic directors / programming departments inviting artists to work in venues (sometimes regardless of piece). You can almost see the palpable difference in a programme announcement and in the eventual event on stage.

Alex Istudor: I think that explains why in this country some pieces of new writing spend a lot of time in development, with many people involved in giving notes and constantly trying to ‘improve’ the text. There’s this unchallenged and completely mistaken assumption that the text is the play/show and if you have a good text then that will automatically translate into a good production/show. Which is hardly the case, you can have great texts which become mediocre productions because of the way they are being staged and you can have imperfect texts which are elevated through staging to become the basis for very good shows.

Teunkie van der Sluijs: I think for me, development never means improving the play. It is close to what I was taught to do when I studied dramaturgy in Amsterdam: be an outspoken first audience member who feeds back to the creator of a piece of work what there is on stage or on the page, how it reads, and how that compares to the artist’s aims and ambitions with a project.

Tommo Fowler: I definitely do my ‘experimentation’ as a director more by picking texts that have a theatrical challenge implicit in them than I do by seeking to unlock them for audiences through my own artistry. But that’s in the gesture of the work as well, I think – because so many of us work to develop new plays with the writers, invariably there’s a sense in which what we want to ‘say’ is in the text already, so there’s less need to bring that afresh?

Rafaella Marcus: I’m experiencing what Tommo describes at the moment from the other side, having just written my first play (which is broadly non-naturalistic). We presented a work-in-progress version that was very stripped back, two actors and a chair, knowing that there’s a world in which that’s the final version. But then the director and I set ourselves the challenge of going ‘imagine this has already had its first outing. What would you do with it next? What’s the revival? The adaptation? The European version?’

Alex Istudor: Have you thought about offering this text to a director who maybe is a complete stranger to it and who wasn’t involved in its development and maybe just say ‘do whatever you want with it/surprise me/stage it the way you want but don’t be ‘British’ about your approach’? The equal collaboration between the writer and the director is something I always think of as being something extremely specific to British new writing.

Rafaella Marcus: That’s interesting; you view equal collaboration as very British, whereas I would say the hierarchy is to place the writer above the director.

A thought though: what are we trying to achieve? Are we not ultimately trying to achieve a more diverse, non-literal, artistically stimulating British theatre? I do wonder if importing European processes wholesale is the answer to that?

Tommo Fowler: Does anyone think there’s something different even just in the ways we write plays here that invites a different style of staging?

Alex Istudor: What’s different is probably that when it comes to new writing Britain and the USA are probably the only places where writers are in the room when a show is rehearsed (as far as I know that rarely happens in most European countries). As for writing new plays, yes, the writing in the Anglo-American world is clearly much more prescriptive and concerned with telling a clear story. It’s almost anti-creative for a director when there aren’t ambiguities in the text or when you are unable to interpret a line in more than one direction.

Nastazja Somers: Yes….Polish theatre is less absorbed with self. I think it’s fair to say that there’s a lot of emphasis in British writing on ‘self’ and ‘heroes’, where for example in Poland (and it would be fair to make that observation for the majority of former Iron Curtain countries) the appeal of the individual never took off because of the collectivism within our history and traditions. It’s interesting how much of British farce and light-hearted British comedies is imported to Poland, because we don’t really create work of that type. Also it feels like the right time to mention the fact that for us folks from Eastern Europe theatre, is a very different medium in the context of society than to our British colleagues.. Did I open a Pandora’s box?

Rafaella Marcus: In terms of writing (but inevitably also performance) style, I’d love a world in which we acknowledged that naturalism is as much a political choice and artistic tool as non-naturalism. I don’t think my solution to this whole thing involves ripping naturalism wholesale by the roots of out UK theatre (literalism maybe); I think about things like The Flick, and the way the fourth wall was the cinema screen, so the characters were always looking out at us without ever really seeing us. That’s when naturalism feels like such a dynamite and valid choice. Nothing is neutral; everything is political.

Nastazja Somers: Raf, I would still like to abolish naturalism, please HAHAHHA! (evil laugh) No , but I get your point completely.

Rafaella Marcus: Look, it’s never my first choice but I do feel like decentring it from being the default can be done through repositioning it as A way, not THE way.

Tommo Fowler: I mean can you imagine if we started embracing everything as choices, rather than assuming things as norms and/or necessities? It’d be so good!!!

And, not to be horribly one-note, but I do think that’d be a real benefit of a more embedded culture of dramaturgs – not just to be iconoclastic, but to stoke creativity through constant questioning of each element in relation to narrative and sociopolitical context.

This piece is the second in a three-part series. Read the first instalment here

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Natasha Tripney

Natasha co-founded Exeunt in 2011 and was editor until 2016. She's now lead critic and reviews editor for The Stage, and has written about theatre and the arts for the Guardian, Time Out, the Independent, Lonely Planet and Tortoise.

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