This article is part of the Dramaturgs’ Network’s Invisible Diaries series, and has been reposted with permission.
Today’s post is dedicated to dramaturgs past present and future – everywhere in the world.
Yesterday was a long day at the (home) office, concluding with an emergency meeting of the Dramaturgs’ Network Advisory Board late into the night. (Three of us are mothers, of which two have small children, so the meeting had to be scheduled after the kids’ bedtime.) These dramaturgs in the past months have lost most or all of their income, have seen their projects, research, grant applications, and plans for the year melt into thin air, and have had their own careers become uncertain. Yet, despite this, they come together to think about their colleagues, and how to support their fellow artists, reaching out to various networks and organizations, to help secure and stabilize the future of the industry.
This alone demonstrates what faithful and dedicated team-players dramaturgs are! How much they care about nurturing the work and the theatre community they feel they belong to – even if they (or their labor) are so often overlooked or deemed invisible.
The picture for the whole theatre industry is uncertain at best.
Yet, the scene is already changing, theatre professionals are trying to adapt creatively to the new environment and adjusting their practices to the current reality. Theatre-makers everywhere in the world are trying to find an answer to the most pressing question: how do we now connect with an audience? How can we have a shared experience? How can we make work today? And what kind of theatre are we going to make after the lockdown?
For a volunteer organization, we at the d’n are very much conditioned and used to working resourcefully on a very low budget. Being a small organization, it is not too difficult for us to respond quickly to a new situation, adjust, and make new plans. It seems that since the pandemic, there is a yearning for solidarity and working our way together out of this crisis. So, although, our chances as a small ‘guild’ of dramaturgs for solid funding for our next year’s 20th-anniversary celebrations have diminished, this may not be our organization’s major problem.
Our major problem is that the work of dramaturgs and the future of the profession within the industry has received a major blow. I recall a phone call with a talented and dedicated colleague immediately after the lockdown, her admitting tearfully and not without reason: “I think this is the end of my professional career.” My informed estimate is that there are 250–300 dramaturgs in the UK, who up till now have been working as self-employed professionals, playing an important part in creative processes – they are now badly affected.
Dramaturgs, like, say, lighting designers, are so-called secondary creatives. That is to say, our work is a relational practice in response to somebody’s creative activity. Whether it is curating for a theatre, reading plays for a festival, researching and developing new work, or working with directors or choreographers in a rehearsal room, dramaturgy is not a solitary activity that can survive in a lockdown or be practiced alone when theatres are dark. Yet, it would be a hasty statement to deem dramaturgs, therefore, a superfluous, unnecessary luxury, culturally irrelevant etc., and let this profession be completely forgotten, side-lined, or made redundant in the theatre industry’s haste to manage itself out of this crisis.
Many dramaturgs are highly skilled and experienced professionals who are driven by their passion and loyalty towards the industry. They are the ones whom playwrights trust to show their first drafts to; directors and choreographers invite into their process in the rehearsal room so they can nurture the emerging work. They ask generating questions that galvanize the work. They help shape and facilitate the creative process. They support the work or dare to challenge the creative process in order to make the piece grow. They help weave together the various threads of the piece. They are the ones whose silent presence in the rehearsal room, witnessing ‘only’ the work, can lead the artists to see their creative process from a different perspective and help them recognize how to achieve what they wanted.
And they are also the professionals who give much thought to the ‘macro dramaturgy’, the environment surrounding the actual work. Dramaturgs’ expertise can prove so useful when thinking about the larger picture, the new landscape, and new ways of working and being.
“All of a sudden, what we have been thinking for the last fifty years has to be rethought from scratch.” – noted Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi in his recent essay, ‘Beyond the Breakdown: Three Meditations on a Possible Aftermath’, prompted by the pandemic. Let me suggest a natural collaborator for this creative collective thinking: dramaturgs.
Dramaturgs, since this is their modus vivendi, are good partners for creative dialogues about the unknown. Their approach of asking questions can help us discover possible ways forward or recognize the consequences of our decisions. Their experience, their knowledge to look in a critical way (to nurture and challenge) could prove essential in these crucial days when a “new culture of tenderness, solidarity, and frugality” needs to be created, as Berardi suggests.
The title of today’s entry is borrowed from the ‘founding mother’ of new dramaturgy, Marianne Van Kerkhoven. In her essay (I recall in the title) she wrote: “Dramaturgy is for me learning to handle complexity. It is feeding the ongoing conversation on the work, it is taking care of the reflexive potential as well as of the poetic force of the creation. Dramaturgy is building bridges, it is being responsible for the whole, dramaturgy is above all a constant movement.”
It would be crucial to use this knowledge when working out collaboratively how to move on.
 As a playful gesture coming from my desire to reconnect with the discourse offered by these eminent thinkers, I decided to choose for each title of my journal entries the title of an essay on dramaturgy I found inspiring. I hope their authors won’t mind me recalling their work this way. Today’s title is borrowed from Marianne van Kerkhoven’s essay.
This blog entry appeared on the Blog of the Dramaturgs’ Network on April 16th, 2020, as part of the Invisible Diaries series, and has been reposted with permission.
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.