Key Text: Fiona Graham and Performing Dramaturgy

Kate Prior is excited about the publication of the first book on dramaturgy from New Zealand perspective. She chats with the author Fiona Graham.

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What is dramaturgy? In my head there's a situation room of global theatre practitioners in a bunker in Brussels dedicated, 24/7, to interrogating this question.

Butchers paper and coloured post-its line the walls. There's a clamour of voices, mainly the Americans arguing with the Germans, and for every answer that's arrived at there are ten thousand more questions.

Then from the unassuming New Zealand corner of the room, Londoner/Aucklander Fiona Graham stands up and adds a book to the global dramaturgy library. It's called Performing Dramaturgy, and its publication by Playmarket this month is a super exciting prospect for the New Zealand theatre sector and the global conversation in general. Despite the work of the dramaturg being 'introduced' to New Zealand in the early 80s, a book on this subject has never been published from a New Zealand perspective. Fiona's Performing Dramaturgy is set to be a key foundational text for anyone engaging with the development of theatre work in New Zealand.

Dramaturgy is a concept (a play has a dramaturgy) as well as a process (you can do dramaturgy). Dramaturgy is at once the shape of an event, and the process to get you there. A dramaturg is a facilitator of that process.

Fiona Graham is a dramaturg, writer and director who is currently the Convenor of the MA in Writing for Performance and Dramaturgy at Goldsmiths College, London. Fiona first came to New Zealand to work with Massive Company 20 years ago and after travelling back and forth between New Zealand and the UK for around eight years, she moved her family here in 2003. In that time she worked extensively as a dramaturg with various companies and in 2013 she completed a PhD at Auckland University which focussed on the role of the dramaturg in New Zealand.

Performing Dramaturgy started life as that PhD thesis. It was then picked up by Playmarket and has been rewritten for a wide audience. It’s accessibly pitched, and more importantly it’s accessibly priced, and did I say that I'm very excited? I had a Skype with Fiona in London to hear more about the book. 

A note on spelling: in the book, Fiona has chosen to use the spelling dramaturge, not dramaturg, which for her denotes an expanded practice of dramaturgy beyond purely literary dramaturgy. In conversation Fiona will sometimes pronounce it with the soft 'g' (not like purge but like you are French and your name is Serge), and sometimes she'll pronounce it dramaturg with a hard ‘g’ (as in iceberg), mostly when using the plural. I’ve tried to honour that throughout. Personally I prefer dramaturg (iceberg), because I think it's a more familar sound to the New Zealand tongue. But take your pick. Like everything about dramaturgy, it's up for interrogation. Phew. That's sorted.

Kate Prior: I’m so happy to talk to you. When I was doing my Masters in Dramaturgy in Melbourne a couple of years ago, I discovered your PhD and it was just a massive relief, because I was learning really fast about the Australian theatre landscape, then I found your thesis and it was this fascinating lens on all this familiar New Zealand theatre stuff. I’m just so excited that this book is being published.

So, to start, what is a dramaturg, and what is the difference between dramaturgy and the dramaturg?

Fiona Graham: To put it really tightly, dramaturgy is the shape and form of an event. So a performance has a dramaturgy, an exhibition has a dramaturgy, a ballet has a dramaturgy – it’s how the event is shaped and formed and it’s also about the composition process – the decisions that are made about how the information is going to be revealed within that event. And it’s that wide, you know. And a dramaturge, or a dramaturg, depending on how you choose to pronounce it (I prefer dramaturge because I think it reflects an expanded practice and it’s softer, as well, it’s easier to say) a dramaturge is a professional consultant who’s employed to work on the dramaturgy. So on the totality of the work – to contribute to the development of the work.

The dramaturge can be a mediator, can be a bridge builder, can be a navigator, can be a catalyst, can be a midwife.

KP: So in that sense, all work has a dramaturgy, even if there is no credited 'dramaturg' who works on it?

FG: Absolutely. And people are involved as unofficial dramaturgs all the time – if a designer steps out and gives feedback on the shape and form of the work, or an actor. Or obviously the director. And some directors prefer not to work with dramaturgs, they prefer to work on their own and to hold that responsibility. But to have somebody who can walk alongside you and support that development process can be very good. Obviously there has to be a trust and respect and reciprocal respect in order to make that possible and those relationships take time to build up.

KP: It's good you describe it as someone who walks alongside a creator because a question I've been asked when I describe that is ‘oh so that's like an editor?’ But how is it different from being an editor, considering it’s in theatre?

FG: Well an editor tends to focus on the word. You know, Playmarket uses ‘Script Advisor’ and that tends to be a one-to-one relationship with the writer, focussing on the rewriting process. A dramaturge can do that work, but they can also be involved in the collaborative process of making theatre. In my PhD I talk about how the dramaturge can be a mediator, can be a bridge builder, can be a navigator, can be a catalyst, can be a midwife, can have multiple positions within that. And it depends – each project is slightly different. Each time you have to renegotiate it with the practitioners involved, to check that everybody is on the same page and be clear about what the expectations are. And you need to set up that kind of transparency of practice and work out what kind of support a director wants. As I see it, the director has the last call. So you’re supporting them, and everybody on the project, to facilitate the collaborative performance vision.

I'm interested in the notion of an expanded practice. The work of the dramaturge is not just about working with writers to develop scripts – it’s so much more than that but includes that.

KP: What I love about the book is that it’s not at a crazy academic price point, and that it’s written in an accessible tone, and it's got really practical elements. There's a good wodge of books on dramaturgy out there which are fascinating but many are conceptual, or observe practices – they don't necessarily make practical offers. Who have you written the book for?

FG: I've written it for performance makers, academics, students and teachers that are involved in composition processes.

KP: And how much of the PhD has ended up in the book?

FG: There’s actually been quite a lot of rewriting to make it more of what you say – more accessible and more hands-on. There are two new chapters as well. So there’s a chapter that looks at the practice – at the interventions of the dramaturge and the ways in which they work with different artists and the kind of collaborative interventions that they make. And then there’s another chapter which has five case studies from my own practice that reflect that expanded practice. That’s what Playmarket wanted as well – to give examples of the practice and show possibilities for development for other dramaturgs and other practitioners through looking at the intervention of the dramaturg.

KP: So your practice is very much more at the centre of this than what would have originally existed in the PhD thesis?

FG: It’s just one chapter that has my practice in it. But we still have the journey from the introduction, of what the dramaturge is, what the dramaturge does – looking at how the role was developed in Germany in the 1700s and how it eventually came to New Zealand via America and Australia. The book looks at Māori dramaturgies, feminist practice, and from there it moves into the dramaturg’s intervention process and then into the case studies. So it’s a bit like a telescope – it starts out and then it goes in, and then it slightly pulls out to look at a range of practice. That’s very much because that’s what I’m interested in – the notion of an expanded practice. The work of the dramaturge is not just about working with writers to develop scripts, it’s so much more than that but includes that.

There are multiple roles and multiple functions of the dramaturg. It’s a moving doesn't stand stand still, it's very much a nomadic process. 

KP: You’ve created this Masters course at Goldsmiths that pairs dramaturgy and writing for performance. But of course there’s the dramaturgy Masters at Central School of Speech and Drama in London and other institutions in the US that pair dramaturgy and criticism. Which shows the range of the term and the different facets of it. 

FG: I guess that criticism aspect comes from [Gotthold Ephraim] Lessing in Germany – the dramaturg as critic – which is originally how the role was set up. It was that outside eye, and critical eye. And Brecht made it much more of a collaborator working on the floor. And if you look at American practice as well you can see how different schools operate in different ways depending on what their roots are.

KP: And I guess in fundamental sense, all those facets of dramaturgy still have at their core the construction and deconstruction of work.

FG: Yes, and my teaching at Goldsmiths is much more about the collaboration on the floor and the development of work with artists. But some dramaturgs are employed just to do the research for a project and to write the programme notes, which can be one way of operating. Another way is that you’re in from the conception of a devised project and you work alongside the company all the way. I’ve even been brought in when a production hasn’t gone well in the first run, and a company has wanted to rework it – to put the tent poles in different places if you see what I mean. So again they can bring in a dramaturg to try and facilitate that process.

So you can come in at any point to enable that development process. There are multiple roles and multiple functions. It’s a moving role. [Marianne] Van Kerkhoven [Flemish essayist and dramaturg] says it doesn’t stand still, it’s very much a nomadic process. But I’m not scared of that you know. A lot of people go “oh what is it, what do you do.” And I say, well you know, it’s a consultant that you bring in to support your development process and you can do it in lots of different ways. It’s just a job that’s a facilitator – a supporter in the practice.

You know, peripheries are so important – not the ideas that are straight in front of us, but the ideas that are at the very edge.

KP: Yeah I feel the same, and it’s about feeling comfortable in that ambiguity.

FG: Mark Bly [an American dramaturg] talks about learning to be comfortable with not knowing. And it’s not about being the expert and coming in with the answers and the formula. It’s really not about that. It’s about questioning.

In the section in the book on the collaborative intervention process, I talk about five strategies for intervention: I talk about the importance of listening – really listening to what the artist’s intentions are; I talk about reflection – about the importance of mirroring back what the artist wants to do, so they can see if what they’re saying is what you’re hearing; I talk about setting up collaborative dialogues and how ideas grow in dialogue, how often you reach new ideas because it escalates, and between us we suddenly reach a point which we would never have got to if we’d just been on our own. So the importance of that dialogue and how things are found at the threshold, and on the edge. You know, peripheries are so important – not the ideas that are straight in front of us, but the ideas that are at the very edge. Being brave enough to go to the very edge.

As a dramaturg, I don’t think it’s good to have a huge ego, because you have to let go and make other offers and keep listening and keep moving with your collaborators.

I also talk about suggestion and how offers are made. As a dramaturg, I don’t think it’s good to have a huge ego, because you have to let go and make other offers and keep listening and keep moving with your collaborators. And you might think something’s still not working and you may have to bring the offer back again later on. But it’s being able to hold that and it’s not about putting your mark or your formula on it. Although there are people who do work like that and I think that leads to some of those discussions about ‘why would you want to work with a dramaturg’, because people are scared of someone coming in and trying to take over. But that’s really not the kind of practice that I’m interested in at all.

KP: And that thing of trying to ‘fix’ something – but that suggests that it’s broken.

FG: Exactly.

And the big strategy is the questioning process – you question and question and question. And you also have to know when to shut up. Because you can really throw people – you have to judge that quite carefully. But it’s about that empathy and attunement to what’s happening in the room. Because it’s so easy to push somebody off their tightrope. And as artists, we’re trying to walk our tightrope all the time, trying to keep our confidence, so you want to keep the artist on their tightrope, and at the same time, unsettle them. It’s about letting in some air, and you know, being that kind of catalyst.

You have to be really aware of what you’re bringing to the table; what your history is, how you’re trained, how you think.

KP: And also that thing of, when we’re trying to search for something and we’re onto something, we get really happy that we’re onto something and then we want to fix it in place. And I think sometimes that’s when assumptions come into the process, and that’s when it’s useful to pierce... gently?

FG: And you have to do that. Dramaturgs have to do that. You have to be really aware of what you’re bringing to the table; what your history is, how you’re trained, how you think. And you have to keep questioning it: “Why am I making these offers? What is it in me that wants to make these offers?”

KP: In the time that you were in New Zealand (and I guess this is what the book charts as well) do you feel that there were shifts in the way that we approach the work of the dramaturg or the concept of dramaturgy?

FG: Yeah. It’s happening in lots of different places in lots of different ways. I mean I think Playmarket have really developed the work with playwrights and the function of the Script Advisor. And if you look at Māori dramaturgies and the dramaturge as kaitiaki and someone who travels alongside you and develops the work within a tikanga Māori paradigm – that’s really important. Some of my case studies in the book are about working with dance. So all of those things I look at in the book.

I think it can go much further in New Zealand though. I think artistic collaborations and discussions can really leap forward now and would really encourage artists to think about the ways in which they can use a dramaturge. Also I think dramaturgs in New Zealand can come together and begin to network and maybe discuss how they can support each other. That’s how the practice develops as well. I think sometimes people are a little bit isolated in New Zealand – they’re all in their little pockets. There are exciting things going on but it doesn’t always connect up.

KP: Yes.

FG: I think it would be great to try and think about how that could happen. I think this book can build and move that forward as well. Just to begin to ask people questions of what people want and how they want the work to develop.

I think artistic collaborations and discussions in New Zealand can really leap forward now and would really encourage artists to think about the ways in which they can use a dramaturge.

KP: Well I think that’s what’s so exciting about having this book in the landscape, because simply reflecting the history of the term and the work back to ourselves is so invaluable. Often it feels like we’re reinventing the wheel and reapproaching the same questions again and again, and you’ll sit in a forum where we’re still just nutting out the word dramaturg or dramaturgy, so it’s so amazing to have some foundations in writing like this, as provocation and a catalyst.

And I think also acknowledging that that work is happening, that it does happen, and there is a term that we can use if we want to, for it. I think sometimes there’s a tendency in New Zealand of being wary, of thinking ‘oh god is that some weird academic term’.

FG: The thing about the dramaturg is that you’re located on the cusp between theory and practice. You’re constantly reading, looking for all kinds of ideas, you take on whatever’s useful to the project. You’re looking all over the place for information and weaving it into the the composition process. So theory informs practice but practice also informs theory. So you’re constantly oscillating between the two. And I think a few people are a little bit wary of that sometimes. But you know, that’s how we make work, it’s through ideas, and you want to make ideas as rich and varied and visceral and deep as you can. So you have to do that research to do that.

KP: When you contrast your work in England and New Zealand do you see a difference there?

FG: No the same issues are here as well. In my department [at Goldsmiths] I still have to do the ‘what is a dramaturg’ conversation at least once a year with my colleagues as well as with the students. It’s not a New Zealand problem. Even in America colleagues talk about it as well. It’s a new role in a way so its still got to find its feet and it’s confidence, and people have to learn to trust it and that’s about, you know, those very personal relationships really.

The thing about the dramaturg is that you’re located on the cusp between theory and practice. 

KP: What’s your intention for publishing this book?

FG: It is to be a catalyst, it is to trigger conversations and hopefully new collaborations as well and to provide a history of how it’s developed and practical strategies and theoretical possibilities to run with. It’s all of those things really.

KP: Was writing from, in a sense, an outsider’s perspective an advantage?

FG: It was really hard. When I first began that PhD it was such a steep learning curve. Because it wasn’t in my bones. As a British practitioner you know so much about companies who were working across the years, all the time you’re picking up more information, and I just didn’t have that in New Zealand when I first came – I knew nothing. So it’s been a massive, massive journey over twenty years. And you know, being respectful and quite humble as well. I still feel like that about bringing this book out, because I am manuhiri, I am a guest – certainly in the Māori world. I’m a citizen of New Zealand now and I have a home there and my kids are New Zealanders but I still am very aware of that inside/outside position that I have in writing as a new New Zealander.

I hope it will now bring lots of inside perspectives – that lots of people will respond and run with different connections out of it.

KP: But it’s interesting, I think there’s also advantages to that outside perspective.

FG: Well I hope it will now bring lots of inside perspectives – that lots of people will respond and run with different connections out of it.

KP: It seems to me that it’s our equivalent of touchstone texts that were being published ten or so years ago in the UK – which were catalysts for so much more thinking, and so many more publications about it.

FG: Yeah and it happened in Canada and America – there have been these key books that put out the tentpoles, and then you can come in and build a tent, build a structure from it. Or move them! As long as you’re having the conversation and things are moving forward.

Performing Dramaturgy launches at the Playmarket Accolades on November 12th. You can order a copy here.