Keep Asking Questions
by Suzanne Bell
There is a quote I have on my wall. I tend to use a lot of quotes, drawing on other people’s genius and reflections, I have quoted from the fantastic Dramaturg Papers associated with the Kenneth Tynan Award. I will continue to. But there is one quote I always come back to. That I suppose has become the driving principle of my work as a dramaturg.
“THE QUALITY OF LIFE DEPENDS ON THE QUESTIONS YOU ASK.”
This August Wilson quote beautifully encapsulates everything I do as a Dramaturg and sits at the very heart of what I believe theatre is and can be.
So my core principle is to keep asking questions, to be compassionately curious, to be rigorous. And also to listen – to deeply listen in an open way, to not turn away but to lean into the difficulty, to sit with something you might not understand or agree with, be curious about it, seek it out, seek to understand it and not be threatened by it. Because that is what theatre can do with audiences – to encourage them to lean into the difficulty of something they are watching and to be actively engaged by it. Theatre has the ability to take us out of our immediate experience, illuminating the truth of our, and other people’s, existence in new ways. It celebrates the limitless possibilities of an audience’s imagination. Audiences demand to be challenged, provoked, taken on a journey, reflect and fundamentally change. Not only in the immediate space but in the moments, hours, days and weeks afterwards.
Kenneth Tynan said “curiosity about people is merely the beginning – that curiosity must be sustained even when the end has been reached.” Being curious and open to constantly asking questions means you can be flexible, responsible, fleet of foot – learning from every moment of every experience – never becoming completely fixed in a single process or way of doing something.
Theatre is a gesture of enquiry reaching out to not one but a million active imaginations simultaneously. Theatre is one of the few remaining places where a multiplicity of people sit, for a prolonged time and engage in an act of imagination. They don’t change channel, delete the thread, click on a different site, unfriend someone they don’t agree with. They don’t turn away.
This is further reflected in a series of scientific studies undertaken by UCL into heartbeats and neural pathways in theatre audiences compared to film and television. In theatre (unlike film and TV), audience’s heartrates actually synch – people collectively come together to experience something – and in theatre (unlike film and TV), more neural pathways are lit by the experience because their imaginations are more actively engaged by the suspense of disbelief, the collective act of imagination. Their brains work harder. So it’s important that the work we present is as rigorous, imaginatively ambitious and emotionally truthful as the work their brains and hearts are putting into receiving that experience.
Kenneth Tynan wrote astutely about audiences, saying; “I believe in neither a director’s nor a writer’s theatre, but a theatre of intelligent audiences. No theatre can flourish until there is an umbilical connection between what is happening on the stage and what is happening in the world.”
Furthermore, theatre is a true collaboration of different artists – all of whom bring their own artistry, craft, imagination, process – and questions – to the creation of the work. It’s a true privilege that the dramaturg has the opportunity to uniquely sit both within and outside that. To pull all those questions together and reflect back on patterns, shapes, rhythms and images. And to remain true to the core DNA of the work as it takes shape.
Because the artist or collection of artists might have a goal or aim that sparks the piece but the road that leads to the creation of that work changes every time one creates something. Creating theatre is a brave act, a truly political and revolutionary act that demands the artist (s) stare into the abyss and keep going. One might accumulate experience which informs the journey but that piece of work (even on each individual particular performance) has never existed before so each journey, each process, is unique. And what a joy and true privilege for the dramaturg to be the voice on the shoulder of that artist that urges them on, that asks difficult questions, that shines torches into corners of the path that might not normally get illuminated. I believe in striving to embrace a constructive, challenging, supportive, compassionate collaboration of all artists in the creation of theatre.
So question everything – what are we making, why are we making it, who for, why now, why here, why in this space, why in this way, what are the unanswerable questions and gesture of enquiry driving us to make this work, what modes of behaviour are we challenging, how do we remain aware and awake to unconscious modes of thought and behaviour and bias, what new ground are we forging, how are we not settling for how things have always been done, how are we not allowing ourselves to be comfortable or complacent, who is in this space and who is outside and how might we invite them in, how can we change the space so they feel welcome, what imagery do we explore and what are the multitudinous interpretations of that imagery, what language and rhythm and cadence do we bring to the experience of the work? The list is endless and it is vital that we remain alive to each possible avenue of enquiry. Asking questions and not driving towards a solution allows us to sit in uncertainty, discomfort and ambiguity and to be truly alive in the moment.
As Hanna Slattne says, the more we can question, the more robust the process and work can be to an artistic process.
I think it’s important that we strive for all relationships and processes to remain in a place of openness, curiosity, vulnerability, contradiction, communication, compassion, kindness, loyalty, honesty, collaboration and trust. Dramaturgy is about being brave enough to be vulnerable. Vulnerability is being open and not shutting down to the unknown but feeling the fear of that and remaining open to the truth of it. And I think that’s quite a radical thing in our solution driven society.
Perhaps the process behind the creation of any work – and the role of the dramaturg – is to reflect the complexities and contradictions of life – to ask questions, to ask the right questions, the difficult questions, to ask the questions that don’t have answers and to listen deeply with openness and curiosity. To keep going. To lean into how difficult it might be. To never turn away. And then to ask more questions. And with that in mind, theatre as an art form of the now and a gesture of questioning the world around us feels more vital than ever.
So be curious, be rigorous and keep asking difficult questions.
17 November 2019