Interview with Gareth Vile, Theatre Editor for the List, former Theatre Editor for the Skinny and author of the vilearts blog. Centre for Contemporary Arts, Glasgow.
Can you tell us about your “dramaturgy database”?
I started this off by accident during the Edinburgh Fringe, in 2015. It is a large number, about 400 at the moment, of interviews that were sent out via email, so people returned them. I did it, because like you I had come off the MLitt Playwriting & Dramaturgy at Glasgow and I wanted to get a little bit of an idea about how dramaturgy was practiced and what it meant to people. I think there’s a tension about it, people resist it, you’ve probably read Kenneth Tynan’s speech about being the literary manager, and it begins with the guy from the society of art (or something) saying;
“Oh I’m glad he’s not a dramaturg, that sounds terribly German” (Kenneth Tynan was appointed the National Theatre Company’s first literary manager in 1963)
Dramaturg/dramaturgy these things are a bit regarded with suspicion, so much so that I don’t ask people straight out about dramaturgy, I’m trying to find other ways of asking them. So my project is kind of part of my blog, my research at University, and I’m looking at dramaturgy in an expanded field.
Can you expand on what that means, dramaturgy in an expanded field?
I’m really interested in how dramaturgy is used within sociology, the idea of performance. There’s two ways I think about dramaturgy, there’s the word/concept and to me that’s quite straightforward, it just means
which gets quite complicated when you start to think what is a performance and what is a making process but anyway. Erving Goffman wrote a book, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, where the idea is that we always perform. There are schools of sociology that look at everyday behaviour in terms of performance – which is quite good if you don’t believe in an essential self. We constantly develop who we are within the context of our circumstances, we always perform. So dramaturgy in an expanded field is not just theatre, it’s not just dance, it’s not just traditional performance, it’s all of it, it’s architecture, this building has a dramaturgy, it’s a way in to looking at different things.
The other side of dramaturgy is what I regard as dramaturgies, and I’d like to say at this point that all my ideas are tentative and speculative, but individual people have a dramaturgy, and that is often explained in ways that are metaphorical or alluding to something. So everyone has their own approach to doing things, and maybe that’s influenced by other people and maybe that’s off the top of their head.
So the expanded field is looking beyond traditional modes of performance, I’m very interested and enthusiastic about lap-dancing as a place for dramaturgy – I shouldn’t say it like that! – The idea is that there are areas we don’t study at the moment that can feed into our understanding about what dramaturgy is, but can also feed into our understanding of life and stuff.
It is interesting when you talk about a sociology model; dramaturgy as a mode of doing, a doing action. Does that nest above the way dramaturgy is applied in theatre in the role of a dramaturg?
Okay, so I’m like really uptight about the dramaturg and dramaturgy and seeing them in distinctive ways because I think dramaturgy is performed by everyone making a performance, it’s not a specialist role, the dramaturg is a specialist role. I like to divide the two strictly and talk about them in different ways because a dramaturg is a person, it’s a job, brought in for different reasons depending on the dramaturgy of a piece.
I should ask you – How do you feel about dramaturgs? – Because I’m very enthusiastic about them and there’s lots of theatre that could do with them. I think the word itself challenges people, they think it is a specialist thing and actually it is more general than that, and it kind of challenges ideas about the genius who makes their work. That’s why I think there’s not enough dramaturgs, because dear god, have I seen performances that need a dramaturg.
I guess my take on it is that the distinction between dramaturg/dramaturgy is very real. There’s a dance practitioner who mentions the idea of a silent dramaturg, someone who simply draws attention to the process of dramaturgy. It feels intuitive to me, not that it is the only way of working. It is important to have that divide, so that dramaturgy doesn’t become this niche subject whilst the role of the dramaturg is respected as having a rigour, method and training.
The training is the big thing to some extent, because you tend to get a lot of people slipping into it and saying “look I’m a dramaturg”, and they or may not be – I’m not going to judge anyone’s individual claim to be that, but we don’t have that many specialist dramaturgs in Scotland, which I think is a problem. There are some artists who don’t need them, because of the way they’ve been working for a period of time or the way they integrate their team. David Leddy, I don’t think he works with a dramaturg, he’s very interested in the way he builds his team up, he gets people in he hasn’t worked with before, he changes his own role, but he doesn’t use a dramaturg because of the way he uses his team and his breadth of experience. Then someone like Stewart Laing, who is sadly no longer in Scotland, has worked very often with Pamela Carter, as his playwright and dramaturg. So there’s a kind of combination of roles there, and certainly the quality of these two artists in terms of their work…You can’t go “Oh you should have a proper dramaturg, what’s all that getting your playwright to do it?”
If you go further down I suppose, to earlier work, I don’t want to make a hierarchy.
But to unpack that a little, it is an element of grounding maybe, or an awareness. Relate the work to a wider audience.
I think that’s right. I’ve heard the dramaturg being described as on the side of the artist, or perhaps on the side of the audience. There’s the killing-the-babies phrase, have you come across that one?
they’re not so sentimental about the work, they don’t have that attachment. And also when there’s things, say someone is making a piece of work and taking bits out, sometimes what’s left behind doesn’t make any sense, the dream dramaturg would identify all this stuff and I think in all cases make the work 10 minutes shorter at least.
It’s an idea of/I mean I work as a critic and there is a connection between the dramaturg and critic in that they are bringing a critical eye in, but I think the difference is that a critic can or could or tends towards stating what is there. Whereas a dramaturg will be in dialogue with a creator, suggesting changes. Whereas I don’t think that’s a good role for a critic, especially since we don’t see it until it is finished. There’s no responsibility for a critic. The difference is being within and without the process. They are liminal figures aren’t they, dramaturgs?
In your own practice as a critic, which you say is dramaturgical or quasi-dramaturgical, do you identify as a dramaturg? You’ve worked as a critic-in-residence and I guess there’s that Lessing model if you want to go really far back?
I sometimes say I am but I think they are different roles to me. Although I think a dramaturg could work as a critic, there is an overlap, there is something fundamentally different to the relationship to the work.
And as a critic-in-residence?
I think, there’s a question about whether critics are in a meaningful dialogue with audiences or artists. For me there’s no question whether a dramaturg is in an immediate conversation with an artist, a critic not necessarily. So a critic-in-residence is partially about facilitating young critics being able to write about work, so I think we’re always on the outside as critics. Not in a romantic, standing outside smoking in the rain way – although I do all of those things – it’s more a case of “who are we speaking to?”, not necessarily artists, and “how do we approach it?” A dramaturg is far more open to being able to say change this, change that. That’s not the critics job, we suggest where there are problems but we don’t offer solutions. Whereas a dramaturg hopefully will negotiate a solution.
Is there any way you might consider the critic having a very long relationship with an artist such that it becomes dramaturgical in that sense? Are there artists where you have developed that kind of relationship?
Gary McNair, I’ve seen his work since he’s started out, whether or not he reads my criticism I don’t know but we’ve certainly talked about work together. I have, there were some people I knew, none of whom seem to be making work anymore – which might tell you all you need to know about the critic as dramaturg – who definitely I was involved in their making process and that was actively involved, it wasn’t an accident. No. I think the answer is no. Be nice if they did, but in some way I think artists saying “I don’t read the critics” is fair enough.
Artists need to be a bit immune to criticism and I wouldn’t advertise the cohort of critics within the UK as necessarily being effective dramaturgs. I think you’d get a bit stuffed if you made work for the critics.
If the dramaturg is on the side of the artist, or the side of the audience, by comparison does the critic have a very different relation with an audience, or is the critic – I’m just curious, it is related as well.
There’s an argument or not about whether critics are on-stage, the theatre, whether we are part of the creating community or the audience community, whether we are just members of the audience who for whatever reason express their opinions. I think critics speak to audiences, or potential audiences, they make audiences in the sense that people will read something they wouldn’t see. When I write for the List, definitely people will read things who will not go and see the work, so they are a different kind of audience. I think they speak to history as well, not in any grand way, but they become the documentation. I say we, not me – the big boy critics and Joyce Macmillan – they speak to history as well, so not necessarily to the artist. We do have a different relationship and in some ways it is important to recognise that outside-ness, that honesty, we have to be critical but because of where we work and who we know and who we hang out with we are in the same circles as the artist. Whereas I’d say for the dramaturg there isn’t that difficulty.
From the research you did, into dramaturgy, what were your results I guess?
There is still a suspicion of dramaturgy as an idea, I started to see it in terms of a “reflective practice.”
I will admit that I can look at the answers and tell whether a work is worth going to see – that sounds terrible, but it is that sort of reflectiveness in practice, there are certain strands of dramaturgical thought that are inevitably going to cause bad work and they are not reflective, those that emphasise an intuitive connection to text and don’t consider the audience at all. It doesn’t matter whether someone calls it dramaturgy or not, it’s that they think about the work.
There’s a suspicion about the word, and the blurring of the line between dramaturgy and dramaturg, and that could be because of the content of my questions. There’s a suspicion about it.
Is it just because it is a fancy word, it is quite a cryptic word?
No I thought it was a cryptic word but then I went to the bank and the guy there asked “what are you studying?” and I was like here we go then, but he said it’s obvious what that is, and he told me. That’s where my definition comes from, the guy from the Santander on Byres Road told me.
I don’t know, people are weird about long words aren’t they? I know there are these awful works like Foucault, there’s long words and its complicated and you get a headache, and there is that problem in academia of using language that only speaks to other academics. But it does seem odd that this one word, dramaturgy, it’s not more complicated than ‘theatrical,’ or ‘scenography’.
I think it is because everyone has their own dramaturgies, it is such an open-ended word.
Is it because traditionally we’ve had a strong divide between practice and academic training, those worlds aren’t connected very much?
Which perhaps harks back to those notions of intuition you were talking about?
I think that might be it. A suspicion of/Look I’m not settling scores, but there are artists who make really successful work at the beginning of their careers, and they are still touring it some years later. I ask them the questions about dramaturgy, and whether it is cynicism because they haven’t had another big hit, so they’re still knocking this one out – and fair enough because people love it! – but there’s no sense of reflection on their process, which might explain why they’ve never made another work that has had the same level of success.
To me, as soon as you get into dramaturgy you’re talking about a reflective process. If you’re not thinking about what you’re doing you’re going to make bad work.
Do you think your criticism operates in the same way? That you have a reflective approach to your own critical practice?
Yeah I think so. I take on board the abuse that I get. I have a lot of guilt about some of the reviews I’ve done, which is a form of reflection. I definitely see it as a form of performance, because I use multiple voices, not when I’m writing for the List – where I try to be quite sensible. I’ve also looked at criticism as literally a performance, in real time on the stage. There’s definitely a dramaturgy to it/
I better be really bloody reflective now I’ve slagged off other people not being reflective!
So I’m really interested in parody, influenced by satirical writing. I take a lot from the style of Plato’s Dialogue – yep pretentious as well as unreflective – and I’m trying to merge some kind of academic writing and approach with something that’s more accessible, a balance between popular and academic criticism – which means I end up satisfying no one!
Is that where the work with comic and that form comes from?
I like comics and that’s about trying to find a way of avoiding a traditional critical review: 250 words, with a star rating and a single faux-objective opinion. I don’t like that, because I hope it is not just me, but there’s always a conversation going on as I’m watching and thinking about it. Going back to it, that’s why I like Plato’s Dialogues, the critic as someone who guides conversation rather than makes a definitive point. I like to think I’m balanced, a sense of what’s right and what’s wrong, but of course there’s another side of me that just churns shit out.
Both of those can exist at the same time. They are not necessarily contradictory.
No of course. The more you do something the better you get at it. So for me there’s a sense that both are important to do. I tend to process ideas/Oh yeah, right!
My dramaturgy is the dramaturgy of uncertainty!
That’s what it is. Confusion and not knowing because I work ideas out by writing about them, and a lot of the time I never know where it is going to, and I’m quite happy to let that be in the public realm, because I want to undermine the idea of the critic as an objective authority.
That the critic’s opinions come out fully formed and finished?
Yeah – I’m sure my opinions are amazing and super-dooper and I get it right every time – but I only get it right from my perspective, I want people to recognise my subjectivity. I’d like people to call me up more often for my use of offensive language, like my comment about lap-dancing, I’m always doing things like that
Is it an attempt to be provocative then, or is it perhaps facilitative?
Well isn’t it? What do you think? We are talking about the Bouffon tradition and Diderot. Have you read any Diderot?
Not at all actually, no.
Well I’m going to make my big statement: The problem with academia and theatre in Britain is that it is too orientated to the German position and it ignores Diderot.
In a way I’d like that to be more provocative but then again it isn’t, because nobody seems to rise to it.
But I do have a sincere set of opinions about the relationship between lap-dancing and theatre, and I think it is important to be aware that it is a performance form, you can argue that it is art or not but/
But it is certainly performative
Tell me what you mean by performative.
Well I suppose there’s an act of performance in it, it is also performing a lot of traditions, and lots of structural relations, depending on who is dancing and who is sitting.
Performative is one of those words I’m never quite sure what it means – I shouldn’t admit to that damnit!
It is a buzzword I suppose. To go back a bit, is lap-dancing is an act of performance?
It is the only performance I can think of that deals with censorship on a daily basis. There’s a definitive list of what you can do and what you can’t do which theatre doesn’t have. I also think in the context of intimate one-to-one theatre there’s definitely a lot we could learn. The Diderot point is that Diderot’s description of the perfect actor is completely borne out by a lap-dancer, they perform an emotion without feeling it, but transfer it to an audience.
That emotion being a state of arousal?
Sexual desire, yeah.
And that being what is transferred?
It is certainly a state that is performed and not felt by the performer, and it is most likely to be experienced by the audience member. So I think that’s interesting, and a quite ironic look at Diderot and the role of the actor. I also think as well that they are very marginalized, people don’t respect or understand the culture around it. It presents a challenge to me and my liberal Cixous-feminist world, and I think I’d like to open that up. And also it is provocative and people can get into a conversation. It exists somewhere between art and daily life, somewhere between that balance, for whatever reason we’ve decided to exclude that particular expression.
I got back into this last year. There was a was bit of legislation that last year that comments on scrap metal, selling guns to children and lap-dancing, a bad things-legislation, things we need to control. I really believe there should be a conversation about the place of lap-dancing in society, do we want it there, what does it impact, both in gender relations and in specific areas where the clubs are. There are lots and lots of questions, but there needs to be a proper conversation about it, not tagged on the end of some legislation about what happens if someone leaves scrap metal outside.
As part of this conversation local areas can decide how many lap dancing licenses they allow to happen, and this follows patterns across the country. The idea comes from the view that lap dancing socially negative, it has an impact on women in the media, and so on. Then the Federation of Scottish Theatre (FST) goes to the government and says
“What about are art? We have nudity!”
They gave the example of Sisters by Rosanna Cade, and asked whether it would be banned, and Holyrood said “Of course not, that’s art!” and the theatre community did rejoice, and they felt protected. I felt disgusted by them. I felt very upset because what they seem to be saying is that they (theatre-makers) are happy to take people’s lives – Rosanna Cade’s was based on testimony but there are lots of plays set in lap-dancing clubs […]‘feeding on it’ – people with no connection who’ve ‘done the research.’ I think I saw five shows like this last year – I go to all the plays about lap-dancing! – and it seems to be saying that it’s fine to parasitically feed off a culture but if it needs defending or support or discussion it won’t do anything. To me that’s theatre failing, if theatre doesn’t have a social dimension to it, an idea where it is coming on, if it is only concerned with defending itself and its own rights then it can piss off as a far as I am concerned. I’m disgusted by it. I think that’s insular.
Again, I’m not saying there should be millions of lap-dancing clubs, or that the legislature is wrong, but that theatre shouldn’t have abandoned these people after years of work feeding off of it. Using this culture to draw an audience – “Ooo it’s about sex I’ll go” – getting that energy from somewhere and then abandoning it. That disgusted me. I was appalled by it, and appalled by the celebrations – “Yay, we’re not going to get banned.”
That’s where I started to get interested. I connected with a group called the East-End Stripper’s Collective who are dealing with similar problems in London. Suddenly it got explained to me, the politics here are interesting, and the legislation will cause more pressure on marginalised women who work in lap-dancing because all the power gets invested in the person with the license, so the actual women who are working in the venues can be exploited more effectively. That’s not good legislation.
Theatre communities – if we’re going to have such a thing – have got to be interested in talking to other communities.
To tie things back together. Do you see a large responsibility of both the critic and the dramaturg to be to related theatre outwards?
Absolutely. To recognise the boundaries. Where theatre feeds from. What is its relationship to the wider community? What is its relationship to politics? How does it kid itself about doing stuff? I love theatre, but I think there are some big issues it needs to address. Looking at dramaturgy is one of them, thinking about what it is.
So it isn’t necessarily that theatre has to have a social impact, but that it should have social ties? That it is grounded, art can be ‘for art’s sake’, but even that has a social impact. What I mean is that it doesn’t have to be an “issue-play”, so to speak.
One of the things is; if we don’t start look at the dramaturgy of works, at their context, it gets out of control, the artist no longer has any control.
I was talking about Diderot earlier. Diderot defines what a genius is, and we still talk about genius. He was looking at the way theatre can have an impact on society, a moral impact on people. He defined a lot of these ideas. Diderot was part of the Enlightenment, he was one of the big boys, and our idea of theatre gets defined by it.
Now to ignore that context, to ignore that social history, is basically to become part of an unthinking mass. I think most people in theatre pride themselves on being intelligent, and perhaps left-of-centre politically, now you can’t help that – even your beautiful art-for-art’s sake work – exists in a context. It has a social impact. The Glasgow Effect being a good example of this, you cannot escape from the fact you exist in the world, in a context. I think there are hidden structures within theatre so that certain meanings are expressed in a certain way, regardless of your intentions.
So for me ‘issue-plays’ are the biggest disaster of the lot. Until it is dealt with there is no point, there is no point in telling me thing I already know in a format that reinforces bourgeois theatre.
So dramaturgy is an anchor to the real word – not to the real world, because that’s unhealthy, but as an anchor to context?
I think so. See I’ve read Diderot and no one else has so I can pop up and say E”VERYONE SHOULD READ DIDEROT, DIDEROT IS IMPORTANT.”
And it’s only here. In France they love Diderot. They think he’s great. But the process of engaging with dramaturgy, as a study of theatre history and theatre structures, is about unearthing the assumed. What is the basic assumption here, that we’re not even thinking about anymore? What is it that connects things as theatre? It’s important to look at the basic things, what does theatre have a script?
I kind of think that we look to Brecht, and Brecht deconstructed things for us, showing you that it is theatre. And it is not enough. You have to keep pushing that. Brecht is fifty years dead. Has theatre just stayed still for fifty years? And as critics we keep saying “oh it’s very Brechtian, he broke the fourth wall, there’s a bit of music in it, oh brilliant.”
It is a constant process. There’s no end goal. The point is that you have to constantly keep doing that.
Absolutely. There have been attempts made to break-down the bourgeois theatre model, and that may or may not be a good thing – I’m not going to particularly shout about anti-capitalism right now, but socialist theatre is compromised by the format it is in. As soon as your put in a theatre, as soon as you have a script, as soon as you have the idea of a scriptwriter. Already you’re buying into it.
Then there’s the problem that you seem to be coming back to the same subjects so often, which is playing to an audience who are all possibly sympathetic to it, and then allowed to let off steam. Iphigenia in Splott
I haven’t seen it
See it! This is exactly what I’m talking about. What it does is allow you to let off steam and pretend you’ve made a political action by going to the theatre, and that to me is awful, it is the worst thing you can imagine because nobody does anything. What radical left-wing theatre becomes is a steam-valve. You get all angry and you do nothing about it. I think that’s a real danger. That theatre is supporting an invisible conservative agenda.
(Last night I had the pleasure of seeing Vanishing Point’s ‘the destroyed room’, at the Tron Theatre in Glasgow. This work directly engaged with this notion, making me aware of my complicity in this cycle of release/inertia Gareth describes. Really interesting work [andy 26.02.16]
Theatre, you could argue perhaps, perpetuates whatever dominant structures are in Changing that is a very gradual process, maybe dramaturgy, an awareness, is a way to unpick assumptions – even about the way things are cast, roles are written, the characters we see on stage and what they represent.
There is a conscious effort within theatre to address these problems. If you look at something like Connect Festival, making work for younger people, they will tend to write a play with five female characters to reflect the women involved in youth theatre, but also it means they get in great writers of female characters, Stef Smith, for example, she’s wonderful. This effort challenges a previously unchallenged misogyny.
But then. I think as well.
We talk about the establishment and hegemonies, but then the thing about hegemonies is that they are invisible. That is its nature. We don’t know what it is. We don’t know what the ideas that are dominating us are.
It’s a fascinating exploration to get to that.
You’re right basically, I agree. If you want to be a revolutionary writer, a political writer, how do you deal with dominant culture? Maybe embracing these forms and hoping something breaks away from it? There’s a rich history of political theatre that has challenged that, but then it is interesting how effective theatre is at integrating radical and the avant-garde into something that then becomes contained/
And then that impetus, loses its effectiveness as a political tool?
I’m thinking about Manipulate Festival, which I love, and reading Marvin Carlson’s book on performance (Performance: A critical Introduction (1996)) and he’s talking about 1970s/80s performance art in a way that completely describes Manipulate. I don’t know whether this breaks down definitions, or tells you that there’s a continuity between the 1960’s performance art and Manipulate. Which is really cool, but Manipulate is really contained/
It is parcelled, it happens at that specific time of year/
Everything gets contained. I don’t know if that’s necessarily a bad thing. Otherwise I wouldn’t get to see a lot of cool stuff. I suppose my anger about all that stuff comes more at political theatre, all theatre is political, but specific issue-based theatre has a problem and I don’t think that’s the same issue for AKHE.
Because the intention isn’t the same at the outset?
Also the form is slightly alien, so that’s a challenge as well. I think we need to be careful about intentions. I’m not saying that these political plays aren’t good plays, but that there’s a compromise in their intention.
I was thinking. One of the things I found quite frustrating when I was on the MLitt Playwriting and Dramaturgy was the amount of time spent trying to define dramaturgy. And I wonder – because the person I interview last, Nelly (Suzie Kelly), and the discussion came around at one point to the idea that the act of doing dramaturgy is one of constant self-definition. Which seems to appeal to that idea you mentioned of constantly reaching out to context, constantly grounding, interrogating. I was wondering if you had a response, from your own experience, how you saw the time spent defining dramaturgy?
I think everything is a process of self-definition so that’s a really good idea. We are constantly, whatever we do – I don’t like ‘are’, we are constantly becoming! Dramaturgy is really simple; it is not a big deal. We have to keep going back to this simplicity. Dramaturgy is the making of a performance, and a performance is just an event in time and space.
That’s so open!
It becomes more complicated when you look at specific dramaturgies but as long as we see it as a broad school of possibility, there’s no definitive dramaturgy. It is that aim to find a definitive dramaturgical process, or a definitive job that the dramaturg does, that causes problems. I’m quite comfortable with confusion/
No, I hate it!
But I live in it.
I’ve got no choice!
That is the way it is?
It is certainly the way my life is.
I will say. There have been disappointments for me in my investigation of dramaturgy. One of them is resistant to the word itself. It is a bit late when you’ve called something The Dramaturgy Database, you can’t get around that.
How did you try to get around it?
I failed miserably basically. Of these millions and millions of interviews I did, often people would come back and say “I just studied dramaturgy for four years and I don’t know what it is” and they would start talking about working with a dramaturg. I got around it by taking it out of all the questions but the last one, which is deliberately phrased “can you tell us anything more about dramaturgy?” Originally it was “Can you tell us about dramaturgy in your practice?” which was a little blunt. Yeah. I don’t know. Say in dance, choreography is the preferred word and it has an expanded sense just like dramaturgy. When you get into the social realms there are a million words for what we do/way we dress and we don’t think of it as being a consistent building of identity, which is a performance.
I guess I’m an existentialist who believes in no essential self.
So I got around it by taking out the word, talking about making processes, strategies. That still has resistance.
But did you get more uptake? Because the word isn’t really that important.
No, it’s not. The problem is it got a massive uptake. Phase One was the practice phase, during the Fringe, so I got a massive uptake because people wanted a little article
A bit of free publicity?
Yeah. And so it is difficult to make a comparison. The Second Phase, now, I’m trying to do one a day. Whereas I was doing about five or six. Also, I’m trying to ensure there’s a focus on a particular work that someone is doing in the immediate moment, so it is halfway between cod-academic database and something that’s a little more popular. When I say popular I don’t mean that people read it, but that it is written in a more accessible way hopefully.
And that it has got a more demonstrable benefit for the artist as well?
Absolutely. It is for them to put on social media and flick around and say things.
So no, I haven’t really found a way to get around the word dramaturgy.
People are talking about their work though. One of the problems is that I use the model of email questions – which is brilliant because it is fast, I like to keep things in the format they were made in. That’s a methodological principle for me. Mainly because you are going to have a nightmare looking at this bloody nonsense. But it also gives people a little bit of time to think. There’s a guy who does, he’s in Hairspray, and he just really went for it and gave a delightful set of answers. It was really lovely, that was great.
I’m trying to write in a way that is performative of the context in which the interview took place. I see it as a creative process I think. But I’ll send it to you, to see if there’s anything you might want to take out, or to refine.
I can say you’re quoting me out of context – this is my chance!
But I think that’s a really good way of approaching this. To see it as a creative process because even at the most basic level, in my dramaturgy stuff, there is a creativity. Setting up a format. It is all creative. I think it is very easy to draw a category and go that’s the art/
That isn’t a boundary I’m particularly interested in. Or if I am it is sitting directly on that boundary.
I think there’s something about challenging the artist space. I did something recently called “Five Rules for Criticism” and one of the rules was;
The artist’s opinion is not critical.
Which was then swiftly followed by;
All critics are artists.
Which is a total contradiction, and it really wound some people up. They read the first and went “why are you saying that?!” then got to the second and thought “you bastard.”
So it is deliberate. These contradictions?
Well I don’t mean to do it, but it is there, it emerges out of the fact that I have conflicting ideas.
The way you are writing criticism, it seems quite an active thing, you’re fleshing out, not trying to present a finished opinion. So contradictions emerge because that’s how we might form opinions, through trying to resolve these contradictions. You write out, that act, almost like an internal monologue.
It pretty much is an internal monologue, you have to go back to check that the grammar is right, but otherwise. I’m really interested in the idea of criticism as being an artistic form, how does that change your approach?
Because you’re a playwright as well, and obviously what you’re looking at or studying informs your writing – or I presume it does?
Definitely. I see a strong relation. There seems to be a strong relation between playwriting and dramaturgy, which is almost quite UK-specific, or at least in my own experience. But they seem to bear relation to each other. I do a bit of freelance dramaturgy, in exchange for a beer or a coffee, and I feel that I generate plays in part through talking with other people about theirs.
It is interesting that you say the U.K., because we do have a very strong text-
I’m going to say script-based, and be explicit. It is a script-based tradition. What’s interesting about manipulate is that it has supported people who work in what they call visual theatre – let’s leave that label for a minute – but it isn’t based on a ‘script’ in the traditional sense. I think that’s because we got Shakespeare, and it’s a big deal to have that, that’s led to the idea of the writer as being important. It also privileges the great actor, the actor-directors of the 19th century, big personas. The script was a really nice format for them to roll up, get the company out and be ready to go. In the UK we now respect playwriting a lot, and there’s a lot more opportunities for emerging playwrights than anybody else.
There’s a distinction between script-based and devised theatre, which can use text in a very different way. Dramaturgy has naturally gone towards the script and the literary manager. It goes back to Kenneth Tynan, when they said: “You’ve got to be called a Literary Manager, we don’t like you being called a dramaturg because it sounds like you’re German.” So it seems to make sense that dramaturgy has been more script-based too.
It is something I try to react against. Certainly, as a writer, I find the idea of writing scripts as problematic. I prefer, in a pretentious way perhaps, to view myself writing texts. They feel very distinct, and they have a different end goal.
But then if you’re in the mentoring program with Playwright’s Studio Scotland – lovely people, I think they’re really great – that’s encouraging the idea of a script being written in isolation, that traditional model of the genius playwright who makes a work that is then handed on to makers. I think that’s a problem, it is problematic to use the “academic terminology,” because it does encourage you to see theatre as the work of a genius. I’m talking about Diderot’s definition of genius, which is a very strictly defined character, but it still fits into that bourgeois model of the individual entrepreneur who makes, rather than theatre as a collective model.
And I know a lot of writers don’t work like that – Rob Drummond is a good example, although he performs his own work as well.
Well I’m writing something I might perform as well, so is that going entirely in that direction, an idea of a total genius, who writes, performs.
An auteur yeah. Or is maybe doing something opposite. As a performer I’m not very good, there’s an amateurish quality to it perhaps.
I think it interesting, because when Rob did Bullet Catch he had to learn how to catch a bullet and all that. I asked him if he thought anyone could do it and he hadn’t really thought about it, but they could I suppose, there’s no reason why someone couldn’t perform ‘being Rob Drummond performing Bullet Catch’.
Gary McNair seems to work in a similar way. At the front of A Gambler’s Guide to Dying it says it was performed by Gary McNair but that isn’t necessarily the case.
Does it. Does that model of the auteur/I don’t really believe Shakespeare exists in the model we understand it.
Speculatively – I’m not getting into some theory about how some other bloke did it – but actually, the folios and all that stuff. I think it was more collaborative. He wrote stuff but he had all these great actors on stage, who probably wound in their own iambic pentameters, their own speeches. The idea of ‘Shakespeare’
I like the idea of problematizing the idea of Shakespeare. It was his company, obviously, he was the leader, but it was a company. That’s why there’s so much variation in the folios, there’s an early version of King Lear that had a happy ending for example, not the censored one, but written by the company.
See I’d go it is all bourgeoise/Shakespeare/Diderot/the individual great artist/the individual great man model of history, and the idea of the artist itself. Because I have this big thing about.
Bach, Johann Sebastian Bach, was just a bloke who had the job. He worked quite hard, he’s prolific, kept busy kept busy. He died. But then Diderot comes along, with the Enlightenment, claiming that art is this beautiful elevated thing, it is a replacement for religion. They were challenging the French ideas of monarchy/stability/god/Greek tragedy – these things together! They wanted to weaponise art, to show how individuals – was it Shelly who talked about the hidden aristocracy, the recognized legislators of mankind, the artists are the real cool people. So this developed, and in 18- something -2, somebody wrote a biography of Bach recasting him as this mythical hero of art. This really caught on – and at the same time you had the romantic movement, and Beethoven – he’s deaf but he can still write a tune! So this idea of the great man is a construct of bourgeois philosophy trying to establish itself as the dominant culture, changing some bloke who worked in a church who was quite good at the organ into a musical genius.
But Shakespeare pre-exists all of that. It was actually Shakespeare influencing the French theatre that kind of led to naturalism, psychological realism, and the values – Diderot is explicit, he wants to show bourgeois values on stage so that people are able to engage with their own lives.
So it is all. To me. BourgeoisShakespeare is a model for that, a proto-entrepreneur.
I really do believe Diderot was really good at writing about stuff, his definitions are really tight.
…I don’t know what my point was.
But you, in your auteur role, you’re just making it worse. That’s the problem!
I do wonder.
But does that matter? That presupposes bourgeois society is a bad thing, that capitalism is inherently a bad thing. It might not be, it might just be a bit crap just now because it is collapsing.
There are different ways to make work. So I do a long-term collaborative research – that’s very much an opposite form of creation to the way I might write a play. So I wonder how plural I can operate, and maybe that plurality is a way of challenging any single dominant structure. There is no correct way to make a work.
I’m quite worried I’m starting to become a dick about that. That I think I know what the ideal performance is. I think once I’ve worked that out I have to stop being a critic because I’d be sat there going this isn’t as good as what’s in my noggin. So your piece which is a solo performance, I’d go that’s bad because it reinforces these values and what I’d really like to see is an ensemble piece with/hmmm. It’s like with serialism in music, where all the notes have the same value, it is awful. It is just unlistenable. It is crap – Obviously, some people disagree with that!
And that was the most egalitarian music ever, which gave no privilege to scales or stuff. But it was awful.
So it is really fair to impose a political agenda onto art in that way? I’m interested just to break stuff, see what happens when you take it apart.
Perhaps it can’t be reduced down to that simple a layer. The constant changing and questioning is the ongoing process that dramaturgy aspires to, as soon as you reduce it to one model – well it is like reducing a definition to a simple tight thing – it loses the ongoing nature of the process.
Well that was what they tried to do in France. They took Aristotle and said look he’s made some rules up. The unities of time and all that, and Aristotle wasn’t doing that, he was observing what he saw. Perhaps wrongly as well. As soon as you start saying it is a rule you stamp on creativity. There were some good plays in that period, but there was a lot of junk as well that people said was okay because it conformed to these rules. But then history has a different opinion.
There’s a certain model of dramaturgy in which dramaturgy is a process of saying it as you see it. I call it as I see it. To me that’s quite an intuitive way of working, to go in and say what you see, and that being enough, a start of a form of critique.
See that’s interesting. On the course, right, was the word mimesis ever used?
That’s a biggie. Saying what you see is a form of mimesis. Which has been a big idea philosophically, kind of a pivot. But then Diderot says that to imitate nature is not to copy it, but to do something else with it. So he doesn’t see it as being a simple process where you say what you see, you do something else. Julian Cope, the musician and acid-head of the 1980s talked about in his own song-writing he mythologies events a lot because that gives you more of a flavour of it and its context.
It is interesting that’s where the conversation leads to, you talk long enough and that’s where you end up.
I think that’s how it works because you just don’t know, well I don’t know, I’m not saying you don’t know, that’d be a judgment about you and I can’t make that. But I don’t know what makes a good work of art. I’m going on about the single-person auteur model and one of my favorite things, Donald Robertson Is Not A Stand-Up Comedian by Gary McNair, is a really great piece of work. He wrote it, he did the theme tune, he performed it. It is very much a Gary McNair project.
So there you go, I love that piece and I should hate it. It is just really well written, very witty and clever. So there you go, I don’t know what I’m talking about.
Everything should be like Pina Bausch! It’s ensemble!
…But then Pina’s a bit of an
…Even though her work is an ensemble.
All you can do is observe.
I think making any rules up is a really bad idea, you then become set in your ways and whatever way that is you then start to define work in terms other than its own terms.
So to link it back, partially because I’m conscious of time, is that the dramaturgy of confusion? That’s the point you’re rounding off with.
That’s my dramaturgy.
Self-loathing is very important as well.
What I’d really say is that it is a reflective process for the individual artist, and that’s why it is important to have thoughts about dramaturgy and also dramaturgs, because they enable that.
Let’s finish on that.
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