Wherever dramaturgy is conceived as a practice of thought in advance of the event, it will be collapsed into a form of authorship and covert power; the dramaturg will become another name for ‘author,’ ‘director,’ or ‘choreographer.’ Dramaturgy does not belong to a subject or to a resolved temporality. Dramaturgy, if it is anything, is a practice that enables us to shake off intentional fallacies and disrupt economies founded on notions of individualism. After all, a dramaturg is not an originary source or a final repository of meaning for a work, but rather an agent in a process of communal meaning-making. Dramaturgy takes place in the event of performance – even if the main activities of a dramaturg happen in something known as rehearsal. Every event of performance is a rehearsal of another event, every rehearsal an event. Though it requires research, as a practice dramaturgy is constituted through its attendance to this echoing event. One might say it is a form of responsiveness, of speaking of and with the event that leaves its traces there and elsewhere.
In the wake of the decay of the powers of various staples of dramatic representation – orders of linear narrative, sectioned space, progressive time and instrumental action – dramaturgy is frequently charged with the tasks of the guardianship and restoration of event-structure. Dramaturgy is often seen as vital to processes of shaping, ordering and cohering, of making sense now that older orders of sense making have been marked by a certain redundancy. This is at once the dramaturg’s burden and source of liberation: the necessity and opportunity of contributing to creative formations that redefine the potentials of narrative force, altered spatial and temporal phenomena, and affective embodied relations. The contemporary dramaturg is engaged then in a conversation on the (cultural) necessities of forms, and in particular the quest for or disinterest in cohesions of sense in a work. The contemporary dramaturg questions the sedimentation of meaning in a work; asks if structure always discloses integrities; interrogates the relations of force resident in altered constellations and aggregations of given feelings, visions and ideas.
The identity and role of the dramaturg, as first noted by Marianne Van Kerkhoven, is marked by itinerancy and invisibility. This condition is in part derived from the dramaturg’s subordinate status in relation to other more privileged and visible identities in stratified collaborative processes, and in part, it is derived from the vagueness or marginality of the dramaturg’s responsibilities. The dramaturg has a share in the work, but there is little belonging between the two. The dramaturg, Van Kerkhoven says, “is not …quite or not yet an artist.” At once crucial and inconsequential, it seems that a dramaturg is responsible for all and nothing, and consequently is the first to be blamed and the last to be praised. One could see (and experience) this invisibility as a restraint and a disempowerment, or something to be tolerated, but what if it is the necessary condition of a kind of restless, non-identitarian creative agency?
Precisely because of this potential agency, the dramaturg is often placed in a situation or role where various powers attempt to capitalize on their capacities within a creative process. As Miriam Van Imschoot has acutely argued, the emergence of the dramaturg as an institutionally sanctioned and funded role, has often lead to its deployment as a means of control: to frame, appropriate, sanitize and make legible, practices whose content and energetics would otherwise rest uneasily within the established institutions and economies of cultural production. Van Imschoot cites numerous instances where producing houses, gripped by a mixture of desire and fear when faced with the alterities of an artist or artwork, have deployed the dramaturg as an instrument of translation, ‘improvement,’ refinement and adaptation towards established co-ordinates of taste. Wherever the dramaturg is employed, outside of organic relations initiated by autonomous artistic correspondence in a cultural scene, the suspicion of this function will and should exist. As soon as dramaturgy enters an institutional framework, the dramaturg is ethically obliged to ask: what movements of assimilation may my work be legitimazing? To what extent is my role instrumental to technocratic and organisational forces outside of my control? How might the practice of dramaturgy resist such operations? If it may not resist, should it not be discarded?
Is it the dramaturg’s role to help make sense? And if so, for whom: for the other makers or for the audience? In either case, I suspect not. Dramaturgy might be better conceived as a form of responsibility towards (and response to) that which is immanent in a given performance, its phenomena and forms of representation. Perhaps this will require contributions towards the resolution of certain paradoxes, but it may just as easily require their extension or amplification. The dramaturg would be the one whose interest lies in the bringing forward of the implicit force of any given articulation. Here the dramaturg comes closer to the function of the analysand in psychoanalysis or the witness in history, or the midwife at the birth. The dramaturg knows that there is no ownership of a work of art, just as there is no possession of ideas; the dramaturg is then content to act as the invigilator and attendant of the showing, the steward on the journey of a thought.
The dramaturg is often asked to write on the work that they have played a role in making. But how should the dramaturg write of something from which they cannot be apart, something that is in any case not a consolidated or finalized object in the world, but a living articulation itself?
Here the tactics of ‘performative writing’ may provide some possibilities for a further generative relation to the event of performance. Performative writing does not see cultural events or artworks as objects, but rather as situations, manifestations, and articulations of ideas. As such they are rarely static and final, but highly dynamic and provisional. They are seen not just as representations but also as sayings. What they say is said in relation to, and partly determined by, their context: historical and present, material and spatial (in terms of the institutions or social settings in which they are presented), and embodied (in terms of the physical and sensual relation between the spectator and the object, and the spectator and the work’s other recipients). To address such sayings in writing is then to say back, to respond, to engage again in a process relation that is corporeal, animate and transformative. In other words, it is to stage a crossing: a conversation. The dramaturg is first and foremost a conversationalist. Conversation manifests a form of discourse that is within and partly about the present context of an encounter; an intensely social and provisional affair that is not subject to closure. Here language is gripped by differentiation: as Blanchot says, “To converse is to turn language away from itself, maintaining it outside of all unity, outside even the unity of that which is. To converse is to divert language from itself by letting it differ and defer, answering with an always already to a never yet.” The intangible gift that is given in this exchange evades name and number, it is not a quantifiable phenomenon, nor is it an object of knowledge. It cannot be assured. It is the gift of time spent entwined with the ideas of others, heart in hand, ear in mouth, eyes at the horizons of thought, words slipping over lips and dissolving into air. Given time the gift returns.
The dramaturg, writing of the event they helped to bring into the world, is making another foray into a conversation for and of the event, extending and re-iterating its life forces. The ‘imaginative communion’: the art of conversation / the conversation of art. To write of the work the dramaturg must enter once again the space of conversation, where the work’s excessive forces are brought back to animate, disassemble and haunt its writing.
The notion of an ‘outside eye,’ as André Lepecki has remarked, is a misnomer for a dramaturgical role, based on a model of disinvested relation and scopic power. In the UK it is often used as an apparently apologetic term, compensating for the absence of the role ‘director,’ in its phrasing surreptitiously instating the worst of that figures’ powers. The dramaturg is no more outside of the event than any of its participants – performers, actors, dancers, directors, choreographers, designers, technicians, and audience. There is no disentwined place from which the outside of the event may be experienced. There are simply a set of varying relations to the event with differing forms of agency and locations of perception or witnessing. Events of performance are singular, intense, and saturated with multiplicity. They require the dramaturg to be corporeally present with them, as a practice of watching and thinking; they demand extensive emotional and sensory attention. It is unlikely to be helpful if the dramaturg keeps only one eye on things, as this would suggest that they have divided their anatomy and their other eye is looking elsewhere.
The transformations of the contemporary performance scene in the last thirty to forty years through the aesthetic agendas of dance-theatre in the late 1970s and 1980s, and the conceptual dance-performance of the 1990s and 2000s, have led first to the opening of a space of dramaturgical practice within dance and to a questioning of the foundations and disciplinary boundaries of dance and theatre. More recently this has led to artists’ systematic investigations of movement itself, its necessity in choreography, its status as an elemental constituent of being and of thought, its force within an aesthetic and across the relations that constitute the event of performance. How might dramaturgy be being reconceived in this context? Attention to the trans-active and mobile nature of agents in performance may also be extended to the figure of the dramaturg. The performance artist and scholar Eleonora Fabiao notes in her remarks on her experiences as a dramaturg, that the collective in which she is working is a mobile organism and her work must then take up a mutual agility: “I am in permanent transit. My space moves, or still, my space is movement.” This invocation of dramaturgy as a space of movement extends then to a recognition that the work of dramaturgy is in fact distributed across the various performing agents in the room, and is not necessarily always located in the figure of the one who witnesses without doing. Moreover, attention to movement as a condition of being and relation, a condition of thought and discourse in a performance space, may enable the attunement of aesthetics towards the temporal nature of the event, the dynamics of change and the transformations of affect through which the event flows, and indeed to the work itself as gesture.
Dramaturgy, no longer belongs to the theatre, nor to dance-theatre, it is a practice spanning diverse disciplines and cultural sites. Wherever there is a performance taking shape there are a set of dramaturgical questions being asked and dramaturgical principles being tested. As the contemporary Western art practices of the last ten years have undergone a pronounced shift towards the itinerant, the ad hoc, the informal and the participatory – always the aesthetic grounds of performance – dramaturgical practice has become a dispersed field of activities whose relation to theatrical structures of representation is ever more inherent and yet ever more ghostly. The concomitant rise of experiential cultural economies, in which individuals acquire, ‘amass’ and trade in experiences rather than material objects, has created a cultural scene where attention to the structures and phenomena of a given event, its qualities of self-expansion and self-transformation have become vital to the reception and economic and cultural status of that event. Now, the consumer aspires to be the dramaturg of her own life. Moreover, the opening of art to the social and the relational, its problematic democratisation, throws down challenges to dramaturgy far beyond those questions posed by the traversing of disciplines or forms. In this context, one can no longer say – if one ever could – that dramaturgy belongs to the dramaturg alone. Rather, dramaturgy questions where it resides and rests: it is a renegotiation of the social contract of the event. Dramaturgy, then, without a dramaturg, becomes the movement of relations through a constellation of questions, approaches, and responses to the matter at hand.
Blanchot, Maurice, The Writing of the Disaster, trans. Ann Smock, New Bison Book Edition, University of Nebraska Press, 1995.
Kerkhoven, Marianne Van, “Looking without pencil in the hand,” On Dramaturgy, Theaterschrift 5-6, Kaaitheater, 1994.
Imschoot, Miriam Van, “Anxious Dramaturgy,” Women and Performance: A Journal of Feminist Theory, Issue 26, 13:2, Routledge, 2003.
Lingis, Alphonso, The Imperative, Indiana University Press, 1998.
Fabiao, Eleonora, “Dramaturging with Mabou Mines: Six Proposals for Ecco Porco,” Women and Performance: A Journal of Feminist Theory, Issue 26, 13:2, Routledge, 2003.
“Dramaturgy without a Dramaturge” was published in Rethinking Dramaturgy: Errancy and Transformation, Centro Parraga & CENDEAC, Murcia (in English & Spanish), 2010. Adapted here with permission of the author.
This post was written by the author in their personal capacity.The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of The Theatre Times, their staff or collaborators.