There is also an issue about the training of dramaturgs. The Dramaturgs’ Network publishes an interesting list of academic courses which involve some level of teaching dramaturgy – but it isn’t a long list and there are even some BA Drama courses included, which I think is a bit of a stretch to say they teach dramaturgy in any meaningful, professional sense.
But even with the MAs and MPhils that do offer dramaturgical training, it would seem to me a small minority of working dramaturgs that have gone through such courses. Most seem to pick it up on the job, either through directing plays, watching others direct plays, script reading for a literary department, or reading the various books about dramatic structure available in any bookshop (most of which are influenced by McKee and/or Aristotle). In a sense, dramaturgy – in the UK at least – is by and large a well-intentioned but predominantly amateur activity. Is it any wonder that reports of its efficacy vary wildly?
On the WYP panel debate I quoted one senior playwright who had made me laugh when he said that the first question you should ask of any dramaturg is “How many plays have you written?” It’s a deliberately provocative question, but one with an important point at its heart. Again, don’t get me wrong, some of my best friends are dramaturgs. I’ve had some fantastic support from them over the years. But some of the best dramaturgy I have ever had has actually come from other writers – indeed, in one recent case, from a performance-maker.
I think this is down to a licence which is granted those who actively practice the same craft. There’s a camaraderie with writer-dramaturgs, and a legitimacy to make creative suggestions of their own which might take the play into wildly different territory – without that seeming like a threat, or an instruction from an employee of the theatre who might produce it.
Dramaturg-dramaturgs can be wonderful too, but are too often worried about somehow ‘polluting’ the writer’s vision with creative suggestions of their own. This ‘soft’ type of dramaturgy usually takes the form of endless questions of the writer and the work: “What would you like it to be?”, “What do you think is the right answer?” – when in fact what writers often need, especially new writers, is their play being taken by the scruff of the neck and thrashed into shape. The best dramaturgy I’ve had has been utterly brutal. (On the WYP panel Kaite O’Reilly backed me up on this; her nickname as a dramaturg is apparently ‘Madame Scalpel’).
Too often I’ve seen theatres produce new plays which may have had some promise or moments of flair but overall barely contain a single new idea or technique. Why weren’t these writers pushed intellectually more vigorously? Or at the very least informed by the commissioning theatre about plays written 10, 20 or 30 years previously which had explored similar territory? Like it or not, plays are in conversation with one another down the ages, and audiences and critics have long memories. It’s important not to repeat ourselves.
But it is perhaps more important to locate our work within an ongoing narrative of ideas that theatre has with society, that transcends any one play, writer, career or even generation. This holistic development of writers is what is too often missing. It is the playwright as philosopher – as original thinker – and the dramaturgy as the dramaturgy of ideas. Playwrights were important once; theatre an acknowledged arena in which original thought took place, to which people flocked to take time out to consider who we are, who we were, and where we’re all headed. That’s rarely the case any more, and I often wonder why that is.
I think it’s down to a narrow idea of what dramaturgy is, or can be. It is most often thought of as a process akin to script editing, or story structuring. But at its best, dramaturgy can be more than this. It can be the process of working with a writer to refine all the elements of her dramatic composition – while also pushing that writer to use those tools to capture a collective truth: utilising the sublime to express the profound. There is no reason why this can’t or shouldn’t include elements of performance which are more usually found in the work of ‘devising’ companies: stylised movement, non-linear timelines, dream-like moments puncturing reality, bold stage metaphors, the externalising of interior or imagined worlds. In the WYP panel debate, playwright Mike Kenny summed this up from the floor when he described the playwright’s process as more akin to writing music or designing architecture, than working with ‘text’.