Dialogue at BAC

- Maddy Costa

I have issues with the word dramaturgy. And dramaturg. For one thing, I'm never entirely sure how to pronounce either. The Gs mess around. And I'm even less sure what they mean. This wasn't a problem until Jake and I set up Dialogue and the words kept coming up, particularly in reference to spending time in rehearsal rooms. What is the role of a critic or theatre-writer in the rehearsal room if not to act, in some way, as dramaturg? It's hard to answer that question without some endeavour to understand the term.

While Dialogue was based at BAC, our spiritual allies at Culturebot published an essay with the title Re-Framing The Critic for the 21st Century: Dramaturgy, Advocacy and Engagement. “The dramaturge,” it argued, with a discombobulatingly weird spelling, “is an intellectual and aesthetic companion engaging in constructive inquiry and investigation alongside the director, choreographer, designers and performers. At the same time the critic/dramaturge is a scribe and documentarian.” Which sounded reasonable enough. But two days later, Andrew Haydon wrote on Postcards from the Gods: “When the British say 'dramaturg' they basically mean 'script-therapist'.” And that strikes me as both true and no good at all.

Andrew is an adherent to the German method of dramaturgy, which – I'm slowly learning – is closer to what Culturebot propose, but with the dramaturg holding a central place within theatre buildings themselves. They work as an equivalent to Britain's literary managers in terms of reading new texts, nominating plays for revival and contributing to the shaping of a theatre's programme; they also play a direct role in the rehearsal room, collaborating with the director on creating the concept for a show and then watching rehearsals to ensure that every movement, every vocal inflection, every prop and detail of the staging, contributes to the articulation of that concept. That, my friends, is hardcore dramaturgy. It exists here, but it's by no means a widely performed, acknowledged or discussed practice.

For the past few months I've been following Michael Pinchbeck's blog Outside Eye, in which Pinchbeck documents elements of his research towards a PhD investigating the role of the dramaturg. Mostly on that site he posts interviews with makers in which he asks them what a dramaturg or an outside eye means to them, and how the difference between each role manifests itself, whether either is a luxury or an essential; questions about subjectivity, and representation of an audience, and documentation, and so on. One of his interviewees, Jochem Naafs, a dramaturg, theatre scholar and writer from the Netherlands, talks brilliantly about “intersubjectivity”: during the making process, the outside eye anticipates a multiplicity of audience responses and seeks out “the meaning that exists between various subjective meanings”.

What Pinchbeck is forging on that blog is a definition of dramaturgy that exists between various subjective practices and experiences of the role. What might the theatre-writer's experience of it be? Stupid question: that's subjective, too. I know when I go into a rehearsal room I take in with me a fair bit of anxiety about not being a maker, and a fear that my individual response to anything I'm shown will carry too much weight. I know I don't want to affect the work being made directly, or rather, any more than my physical presence in the room might. I know I don't trust my own judgment, my own eyes. I go into rooms wanting to learn how work is made, but not wanting to be there for my own benefit only: something positive has to result for the maker, and for anyone interested in that maker, otherwise why should I be invited in?

At the start of Dialogue's BAC residency, Jake and I hoped that we might spend time in several different rehearsal rooms, especially with people creating material for Scratch performance. In the event, I focused on just one, Peter McMaster's, as he began work on a new piece, Yeti. Neither of us knew what I might be doing there, or what our relationship might be. And there was an oddity about me going into the room at all, identified by Peter in an email he sent me a few days before we met:

i am actually exploring solitude in this process, and to what extent does a human need solitude in their life, especially within moments of noticeable transition. However, perhaps it would be really nice to have someone there to just be there while working. to maybe help retain a silence at times, nurture a space where the ideas can be tentatively approached and shared, or maybe to puncture the earnestness of it all.

Our first conversation was a little tentative and a little shy. There was self-consciousness on both sides: all the perplexity I feel about “being a critic”, Peter shares about “being an artist”, with its conservative connotations of indulgence and intellectual privilege and unbridled ego. He came into Yeti concerned that he shouldn't take the opportunity to create theatre for granted, wanting to use “being an artist” as a means to connect with other lives. The paradox being that he was making a solo show, alone, and thinking about solitude as part of it. And this was where it became useful to have someone in the rehearsal room, however briefly, with whom to begin creating a sense of community.

We did that just by talking. An hour a day, for four days, scattered across Peter's two-week residency. Peter would offer to show me material he had been working on in readiness for his Scratch performances, and I would steadfastly refuse. As already mentioned, I did this because I didn't want to affect directly what he presented to other audiences. Looking back at my diary notes, I wonder about the degree to which I was kidding myself. In our first session together, just a few hours before his first Scratch, Peter told me he planned only to talk the audience through his list of ideas for the piece and ask what we'd like to see. But when I returned in the evening, he announced that he had changed his mind: the ideas list formed a brief introduction, and the rest of the scratch was spent performing a collage of early ideas for movement and images: using his clothes to create a Yeti figure over a chair, his foil survival blanket to construct a silvery mountain range; walking in a circle around the room on the very tips of his toes, an eloquent suggestion of a struggle to maintain equilibrium, not just physical but mental, and also of reaching upwards and forwards in life; and a conversation with an amusingly French-accented Yeti that ended with a passage contemplating music and death read from Sartre's Nausea. Had he changed his mind about what to do because he'd already begun talking through the ideas list with me? I don't know – but that it's possible suggests the beginnings of a dramaturgical effect.

The ideas list – a long scroll of brown packing paper pouring down the wall, beside two others, listing materials and, under the title Where Do I Start?, a brief account of each day's activities – fascinated me, not only as source material but because it revealed so much about Peter. The thoughts and questions written there were personal, honest and uncynical, full of vulnerability, self-doubt, hope, respect for others and a love of nature. Early in the list came two foxing questions:

How do life's experiences affect your soul?
Do we have souls?

We discussed this in our second conversation: Peter talked about wanting to make work bigger than what could be made by the conscious mind, work that comes from elsewhere in some way, that reaches to an understanding beyond the self. What I felt looking at his ideas list was exactly that: instant connection, somewhere in that mysterious place that might be called the heart or the soul; a sense that I was encountering someone who doesn't balk at the word spiritual, engaged in a spiritual inquiry, searching and unsure.

That feeling of connection coloured our time together. Now and then I felt self-conscious still, worried that what I was saying about community, or loneliness, or art, or notions of masculinity, was platitudinous. I also worried about seeming to “review” what I'd seen in the scratch shows. In our third conversation, I mentioned wondering whether the second scratch was perhaps opaque to the audience members not privileged with rehearsal-room knowledge: I understood when, this time unsignalled, he began a conversation with the Yeti and constructed a mountain range in the fireplace, but did others? It was a useful confession in that it prompted a discussion about what makes a work transparent, and what that means. But it left me alarmed: how reliable a judge could I be of other audiences' ways of seeing? How reliable were my assumptions?

Those fretfulnesses aside, talking to Peter was joyful: philosophy through a theatre lens. This is some of what we talked about:

Living in uncertainty, in liminal space. How performance can reflect that, communicate with that. An idea raised in Yeti: for something to progress, its form has to die to move on. The passage from Nausea:

It seems inevitable, the necessity of this music is so strong: nothing can interrupt it, nothing which comes from this time in which the world is slumped; it will stop of its own accord. If I love these notes it is above all because of that; it is neither for its fullness or its sadness, but because it is the event which so many notes have prepared for so far in advance, dying so that it might be born.

Which became, slowly, across the scratch showings, a story about being murdered by the Yeti to be born again, new, and ready.

Linked to that, what became the central question: “How does 'I' become 'we'?” This was a question about art: how does the I that is the performer, especially the solitary performer, connect with his/her audience? Peter reflecting on Lone Twin, the natural inclusivity of their work, and Marina Abramovic, who embraces the idea of “artist” and accepts the way it sets her apart. Me reflecting on this in relation to theatre criticism: how does the critic's subjective response to a work connect with readers? Reflecting, too, on the responsibility of audiences, to come to work open, ready to engage, not just intellectually, but with their hearts, with feeling.

But it was also a question about life: how does a human being make the transition from adolescence to adulthood? How does the self-absorbed child open up to become a more socially aware and involved adult? The rituals involved in that. The journeys.

Which became, in the performance, almost by accident, ritual movement within the circle formed by the audience, making fleeting contact with each person, knee brushing knee, skin touching skin.

Linked to that: what humans need to feel whole. With 27 on the horizon, Peter has been thinking about “the 27 club”: all those people, musicians especially, who died at the age of 27. Why that age? What is life missing at that age? The search for serenity. For a feeling of calm and self-acceptance.

Linked to both those things: the relationship between humans and nature. The need for the outdoors. Peter itching, yearning, to be outside. Perhaps spending time on a bridge. Perhaps leading the people outside BAC on a hunt for the Yeti. The separation of western city living from nature. The lack of use for old-fashioned “masculine skills”. What it is to greet the morning sun on a mountaintop in India.

And a moment of beautiful serendipity in the first Scratch showing, when the small room was bathed in the golden light of sunset.

And moments of hilarity, adventure and wonder in the later scratches, when Peter led his audience downstairs, outside, and said goodbye to us on the pavement as he went in search of his Yeti in the night.

Linked to that: myriad anxieties about privilege. Peter wanting to be outside partly to rupture the privilege of spending time alone in a room making art, to deny the image of the solitary playwright of art-history cliche. Peter wanting to be aware of his privilege as a white middle-class male, and through that awareness recognise the assumptions he makes about others.

An interrogation and rejection of entitlement which, in the later scratches, became embodied in the hilarious, grotesque figure of alpha-male mountaineer Reinhold Messner masturbating on a mountaintop.

That's some of it. We talked an awful lot about other work, other theatre, too: theatre addresses (and sometimes answers) so many questions about life for me, that when those questions are raised elsewhere it's to theatre memories I return. I can't emphasise enough how filtered my record of our meetings is: not only subjective but a particularly slanted impression of the Yeti process. If Peter were documenting it, I wonder what he would focus on, how his record would read.

Underlying all our conversations was an awareness of how precious it feels to be able to talk unreservedly with someone you're just getting to know. To be earnest, and enjoy being earnest, not in a po-faced way, but in a light and joyous way. To dig deep in difficult questions and not be afraid of getting muddy or a face full of worms. Doing so was affecting the performances, Peter told me in our third meeting: there was a clarifying quality to them, that helped him, however fractionally, to sift out what actually needed to be presented to an audience. The day after his residency ended, Peter emailed again, describing our time together as: “a real dialogue with a lot of heart, which soothed anxieties and sparked inspirations”. And as he moves further from that BAC residency, he told me more recently, this record of his time there becomes “part of the process”: difficult to read, because it seems to sum up ideas, or attempt to tell a story about the way he works; but also useful, as it illuminates his work and way of working in unexpected ways.

We talked, we bonded, we shared ideas, we had fun, we carried on communicating long after we left the room. Was this dramaturgy? Not by any of the definitions I've encountered so far. But perhaps I'm working towards another definition. I talked to Tassos Stevens about his peripheral involvement in the Autumn Cook-Up programme, with a Coney-hosted project from Australia called A Moment in Yarn. Made by artist/crafter/theatre-gamer/all-round brilliant person Sayraphim Lothian, A Moment in Yarn is a one-to-one loveliness project (she also creates guerilla kindnesses), performed with crochet needles. You sit with Sayraphim (or one of her army of “momenteers”) and describe to her a memory. She then transcribes it into a crotchet granny square. It's a small but beautiful piece, and Tassos was the first person to experience it, on a trip to Melbourne.

As far as I can tell, Tassos' role in the development of the piece was as generous as the thing itself. He acted, he said, as an “outside ear”, a listener and questioner, encouraging new thoughts about how audiences might interact with the piece. That “intersubjectivity” idea, I suppose. As a variant of dramaturgy, this really appeals to me. I like talking with people, listening to their ideas, probing those ideas, confessing what I don't understand in them, and perhaps through all that talking and listening and confessing illuminating something for the maker that enables something in the work to be developed or sharpened or itself become more luminous. And if calling myself an “outside ear” means never embarrassing myself by mispronouncing “dramaturg” again, that's all the better.

A POSTSCRIPT. I sent the above to Peter in advance of publishing it, just to make sure he was OK with me opening up his rehearsal room to the world, and also to ask a couple of the Michael Pinchbeck questions about dramaturgy. And because I don't want this documentation to be all about me, here is some of what he sent in reply:

How would you define a dramaturg or an outside eye?

Now, I would describe a dramaturg/outside eye like this: “intersubjectivity”: during the making process, the outside eye anticipates a multiplicity of audience responses and seeks out “the meaning that exists between various subjective meanings” – what a beautiful role and description of a job!

But also, I would say that the dramaturg needs to be an ally alongside the intentions of the work. I would really find it hard to be in a situation where the person who was acting as outside ear was not on board with what the work was trying to do. This therefore, perhaps problematises the idea that a dramaturg is someone you could just hire in – a freelance dramaturg. They are a collaborator also, and they sit completely within a creative capacity (look at Pina Bausch/Raimund Hoghe). I had a dramaturg for Wuthering Heights, who ended up just being in it.

Is it a luxury or an essential?

I think it is both. But not like a box-of-chocolates luxury, a treat that you could do without. It is a luxury because it is expensive, both time-wise and financially. However, it is incredibly essential, which means it is a shame that it doesn't happen enough. The description of 'intersubjectivity' is so beautiful, who wouldn't want that?

I think the heart of Yeti is about learning how to live independently as a man of negative ways that have come before, and of course the practice of solitude will help to discover what that might mean. However it would be foolish to believe that one could live independently from all of the rest of life. We are all connected, and beautifully metaphorically speaking, the roles that we established together only reminded me of that in the process of scratching Yeti. In this case, your role was essential as the relationship helped exacerbate the meaning of the work, but only through a particular way of viewing our roles.

I did not think you were a box of chocolates I could pick up and discard when I wanted, I needed you to save me from flying up my own arse, and to learn more about what it means to be working in a public service job: serving others, serving the public, serving oneself. Perhaps there is something essential about the idea of service in there – that we must keep practising it in order to learn more about our work and our lives; you serving the public as a theatre writer, me serving the public as a theatre maker, us serving ourselves as needy human beings and what better way than in the relationship between artist and outside ear?

In conclusion, it is essential for me to have a dramaturg as I see it is as a way of humbly serving someone else in the rehearsal room. To lower my ego's power, to practise what I am meant to be doing in the actual performances, and of course, connected to that, to make sure on a practical level that I know what the work is about and is doing.

<--- Back