DYNAMIC STRUCTURE and LIVING SYSTEMS:
An unreliable pocket manual
for the dramaturgical human
1. User guide
Theatre is a local language for investigating the universe. We’re enmeshed in our environments and in our inner life we search for meaning. Can this search, and the means of undertaking it, be brought closer to the actual mechanisms of life?
I’m interested in dramaturgical dialogue that goes beyond beyond linear determinism – the orderly predictable world of classical physics and Aristotelian dramaturgical models - to an understanding of non-linear dynamics and living systems. In fact, the majority of natural phenomena are non-linear, and energy is replacing matter as a fundamental feature of reality. We need to shift the register of our thinking to gain new perspectives on our own experience.
There are concepts and processes in physics and the science of complexity that help describe and define archetypal forms of movement. These in turn teach us about dynamic structure, which is the stuff of dramaturgy. Life is always in motion, always responding to rhythms. Art, like science, observes the generating forces of life.
Live performance is a living, evolving system: an assemblage of objects united by regular interaction or interdependence. And living systems all work in essentially the same way, no matter how big or small they are. Dramaturgy is, literally, the work of the actions, and the actions of living systems are patterned.
And so, as a consequence, the world-embedded mind attends closely to pattern, metaphor and analogy. The majority of our neural activity is associated with pattern recognition, giving rise to such things as music, memory and metaphor. Out of the white noise of sensory experience we create meaning – moments take shape.
Finding patterns relieves us of the effort of seeking them. Patterns are seductive and mesmerising but they can anaesthetise us to the truth. In fact, all growth or evolution is only possible when something changes or is disturbed - when a pattern is created out of a seemingly random association of elements, or a pattern is destroyed, sensitising us to the conditions which disturbed it. So meaning is, in effect, found not in the pattern itself, but in its disturbance, and the creation of new patterns. Knowledge lies at thresholds and edges of experience, and this is the place where dramaturgy happens.
4. System requirements
Dramatic structure records change, and chaos and complexity (the study of non-linear complex adaptive systems) are the science of change. They argue that the same fundamental processes occur in all living and changing adaptive systems and at every level of complexity: behind all the variety there is structural necessity, and those structures are created out of movement. Living systems are fluent and adaptive; they incorporate feedback and change and are constantly moving, flowing. They slip free of rigid principles. They need dynamic thinking: musical thinking.
The movement in physics known as chaos argues that simple, non-linear systems can behave in complicated ways. The first non-linear systems to be studied were weather systems. Weather is another word for context. In a weather system, as in a living performance system, a small change in input can result in a huge change in output. The system is extremely sensitive to its initial conditions, and extraordinary events can happen without extraordinary causes. Weather - and drama - upend logic, create new and unpredictable logics. What are the initial conditions of the system?
6. AC adapters
Out of simplicity, in other words, comes complexity, and complexity too can resolve itself again into unexpectedly simple structures. The simple eddy becomes a chaotic storm, becomes a highly structured hurricane, becomes a storm, becomes an eddy. The process is incessant: order to disorder to chaos to complexity to order again. The practice of dramaturgy, like meteorology, is a study of process and pattern, which explores the changing behaviour of systems. It looks at the whole, not the part, finding patterns across scale. It’s drawn to unpredictability and complexity. It finds in life, and in life concentrated as art, an unpredictable but finely structured kind of order.
7. Power button
Life is turbulent. All kinds of turbulence share the same pattern or logic. Turbulence in boiling water shares a logic or pattern with turbulence in markets, or in the respiratory system. Or a storm.
The imagery, structures, processes and consequences of storms, real and metaphorical, run through our lives and our art. A play models life under storm conditions. We’re in the weather, and it’s in us, literally and metaphorically. Woyzeck speaks of a time ‘When nature’s out. When the world gets so dark you have to feel your way round it with your hands, till you think it’s coming apart like a spider’s web’; Tennessee Williams of human beings ‘caught in the thundercloud of a common human crisis.’ Tumult in the air forms a continuum from swirling litter on a city street to vast cyclonic systems seen from space. Small storms act in the same way as large ones. ‘At the same time that you are having lunch’, claims Chekhov, ‘your happiness may be being formed or your life broken up’. Storms occur in teacups too.
8. System controls
All living systems exist in a non-equilibrium state, at the edge of chaos. Living systems do not move, like classical systems, towards equilibrium, but maintain themselves far from equilibrium by constantly replenishing energy and matter from their environment, moving constantly between order and disorder. To be in equilibrium, where the exchange of energy and matter between the organism and its environment is equal and unchanging, is to be dead. To be not-dead requires energy and effort, and this is reflected in the language and action of systems (including individuals) under stress. Form is hard to maintain: it needs an input of energy from somewhere. And energy leads to instability, to the potential for chaos and unpredictability. The system has more latent power within it than any of its control mechanisms. Dramaturgy can strengthen tendencies; it cannot prescribe them.
Living systems respond to environmental disturbances by rearranging their pattern. (The predator hits the flock of sparrows: the sparrows scatter, then regroup differently, or divide, or die.) Any system driven away from equilibrium arrives at a self-organised critical state on the edge of chaos, where even a small trigger can produce a very large change in the system. This is the principle of emergence. It’s a creative response to stress, and a place of both danger and opportunity. What is the emergent moment of the piece? The most important of life’s creative processes is the spontaneous emergence of new order. Ask Shakespeare.
10. Safety and Comfort
The most interesting art is about what threatens safety. You can’t create or disturb old patterns from a place of equilibrium or safety. You can’t maintain a living system without effort, and you can’t entirely control it in any case. A system cannot be directed; it can only be disturbed. Ideas are released into a system: the dramaturg’s responsibility is to follow their tendency, and enlarge the space of possibility within which they move.
There are none. We make the journey for the journey’s sake. Dramaturgy isn’t a career: it’s a way of knowing common to all of us, rooted in embodied experience, dialogue and interaction, and developed in sensitivity at every level of scale to the fundamental relationship between movement and meaning.
Now let’s put away the manual, and walk into the storm.