Features Guest Column Published 18 January 2013

We Need Someone Who Can…

In the first of a series of columns interrogating the role of the dramaturg, Sarah Sigal discusses collaborative dramaturgical practices.
Sarah Sigal

When I first moved to London from the US in 2005, I had heard vaguely of dramaturgs. I was taught the classic (read: German) definition of a dramaturg. Dramaturgs did things like make dramaturgical research files for productions. They consulted the director and quietly hung around in the back of the rehearsal room. As a young, wide-eyed intern spending a summer in a pokey, off-off-Broadway hole-in-the-wall in New York, I was none the wiser as to what a dramaturg was, except perhaps someone who read endless stacks of unsolicited scripts. Like Victorian children (and interns), they were seen but not heard.

When I moved to London, I started hearing the word dramaturg more, and in different contexts. The more I asked around about dramaturgs and what they did in Britain, the more varied answers I received. It ranged from the more Germanic variety of those who did research, to new writing, to adaptation, to devising. I asked, so is this what a dramaturg does in England? The response went something like, well, yes, sort of. Sometimes. Amongst other things. (And still, some people looked at me blankly when I asked them what they thought a dramaturg did.) Dramaturgy seemed to be a catch-all for term for one who deals with the script but is not the writer. Especially within collaborative contexts.

Although some might argue that all dramaturgs work collaboratively, I often feel that the dramaturg drafted into a collaborative process is required to inhabit a more flexible role than within a more structured, traditional context. Synne K. Behrndt’s work as a dramaturg on Fevered Sleep’s An Infinite Line dealt not only with the text, but also the design and the semiotic reading of images used in this site-specific performance. When Ben Power worked on Complicite’s A Disappearing Number, he acted as a co-scripting writer alongside Simon McBurney, a kind of silent partner, as it were. Although Kate McGrath was the producer on Filter’s Faster, she also performed the role of a dramaturg-diplomat, negotiating changes in the script between the writer, director and deviser-performers.

My experience as a London-based dramaturg can be summed up in the following sentence: “we need someone who can … *insert creative function here*”. I’m not what you would call a career dramaturg. I consider myself primarily a writer and collaborator, but occasionally someone will ask me to work on a project in a fashion that is unspecific but text-related. In my experience of working on disorderly but exciting collaborative projects, I have never been asked officially to act as a dramaturg, but I have been assigned projects that fall within the dramaturgical realm. People usually assume that because I’m a writer and I like to collaborate, that I can make the script better, find a way to clarify the concept. But 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.

Example one. Some years ago, two friends of mine who were working on a production of Albert Camus’s Caligula asked me if I could help them. What did they need help with? I asked. Possibly everything, they answered. When I first read the lengthy play with its extended philosophical monologues, I could see why. We were young, we had a fringe budget and the director was going to have to cast something like fifteen actors. Things were looking daunting. They said they needed someone to work out the “sticky bits” of our translated version of the original French script. “My French is paltry”, I said. “At least you read it”, they replied. They also needed someone to research the background of the play and cut the text down significantly.

I read some Roman history and Suetonius’s biography of Caligula (informative but dull) and watched the film Caligula, a bloody, soft-core romp from the dark days of the 70s (titillating but tacky). I was lucky enough at the time to be living with two fluent French speakers who helped me navigate Camus’ original version and compare it to our dated English translation, reworking the mistranslations and awkward phrasings. So I tinkered with the script and then worked with our Caligula to hack away at his long, philosophical manifestos. We pulled the difficult script along like draft horses pulling a barge, laboriously but determinedly. And when I thought I had expressed so many opinions on the interpretation of the production, the costumes and the design that I assumed they would eventually kick me off the project, I was promoted to dramaturg-assistant director. Where I feared I was being intrusive, others were relieved that I was happy to be involved. And things happened organically, as they so often do on the fringe.

Example two. I am a live art dilettante, at best. I have had occasional exposure to the field, an exhibition here and there, read a scholarly article or two and attended a friend’s showing of work in an East London warehouse. My understanding of live art was that it was primarily a visual medium and rarely – if ever – narrative or character driven. Things like plot and characters were the province of people who made plays. So I was surprised when a live artist friend approached me several years ago, asking me for help on a script.

“A script?” I asked, confused. “You have a script?”

“Well, it’s a text that accompanies the performance,” she explained. “I’m visual. I can create an atmosphere. I can create a theme, an experience, a series of images, a concept. But I’m not comfortable with this whole text thing.”

“So why do you want to have a text?” I asked.

“Because I have a story,” she says. “I’m frustrated because I have a story to tell, I have these thoughts, but I can’t find a way to get them across coherently.”

I suggested that I work as a dramaturg, rather than a writer or co-writer, giving her support and advice, while I helped her edit, arrange and shape the work. I felt as a writer I would end up inadvertently taking control of the text, but as a dramaturg I could advise while learning more about the mysterious discipline of live art, and my friend could maintain control of the narrative-in-development. She had done a scratch of the piece, so I had an original text and some photos to go on, as well as the concept she wanted to convey. So I assigned her the task of thinking more narratively, more linearly in her writing and gave myself the task of thinking more visually, more conceptually in my dramaturgy, checking occasionally along the way to make sure the two met in the middle. We shaped and reshaped the text to compliment the visual and physical gestures of this one-woman show, being careful not to let the text overwhelm the visuals or vice-versa. It was an exciting challenge to work from a concept and images, a reminder to myself that dramaturgy was not only the province of theatre but also an underpinning of all performance.

Example three. My most recent dramaturgical endeavour was similar to the previous two in that I was approached to “help with the script”, but I was the one to suggest that this was an act of dramaturgy. Friends of mine were in a theatre company that had produced one cabaret and was about to make another and they wanted my assistance in putting together a script. While the last cabaret drew from extant sources, this project was to be based on the ancestry of the members of the group, and thus largely original writing. Each group member had written short scenes, monologues, poems and songs. They wanted dramaturgical guidance because they were unsure as to how each piece would sit within the context of the whole and were struggling to find a structure, but were also worried about their ability to write, as no one in the group had a writing background. Since I was not able to meet with the group very often, I encouraged them to send me the pieces they were writing individually in order to give them feedback piece by piece. During the meetings we discussed what they wanted the show to convey and debated whether there were several narratives within the show, or if the aim was one big narrative.

It was a challenge for myself as well as the company, as my experience with cabaret was as limited as my experience with live art. I sought the help of the Dramaturg’s Café. I explained the challenges the production posed and asked at a meeting what people thought about how to approach it dramaturgically: ways of structuring cabaret material, the kinds of questions I could pose to help them find a structure and how to balance different kinds of material within this particular format. We discussed the concept of “narrative” and what could take the place of narrative within cabaret. One dramaturg said, “the secrets of the structure lie in the motivation of the artist to make the work”, that the intention would inform the show’s structure. Someone else explained another approach to structure that she uses when dramaturging devised work, namely a “scenographic approach” or through-line based on a landscape, aesthetic, mood or atmosphere. I was encouraged to ask the company how they saw the show in terms of colours, textures and images, grouping these different elements together and seeing what fitted and what didn’t. As a result, together the company and I were able to find a framework for the piece, thinking of the cabaret as an event with an atmosphere, as opposed to a play with a linear narrative structure.

To add a little theoretical weight to this conversation, I turn to Cathy Turner and Synne K. Behrndt’s definition of dramaturgy from Dramaturgy and Performance, as that which “describe[s] the composition of the work, whether read as a script or viewed in performance […] the structuring of the artwork in all its elements”. They use dramaturgy synonymously with the term composition, linking it to the practice of musical arrangement or the visual composition of a painter; linking performance with other artistic disciplines. A dramaturg is someone who researches, oversees and edits material, both the written and the devised. A shaper. A sculptor. A diplomatic attaché to the text. In my years working as a dramaturg in London, I have come to the conclusion that all acts of dramaturgy are collaborative. Without the act of collaboration, the dramaturgy could not take place.

Image: Rubies in the Attic (2012)

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Sarah Sigal is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine

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