pro-sessional: a reader
Developing the Role of the English Dramaturg: Research & Consultation Findings
by Beccy Smith
[ excerpt ]
The research was undertaken to ‘take the temperature’ of contemporary dramaturgical practice in England.
The research had two phases:
Phase One: focussed on dramaturgical awareness and practice within non-text based processes (as a balance to the recent development of support for literary managers working dramaturgically with text).
Phase Two: consultation with key stakeholder organisations in relation to the Network and to assess dramaturgical practice within a select range of non-text based focussed institutions.
Phase One was undertaken alongside the Total Theatre Awards at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. The following questions were circulated to companies:
How would you describe the dramaturgy of your work?
Who do you currently use as the ‘first audience’ or outside eye for your work and why? (or why not?)
To what extent do you feel you are communicating with your audiences? And to what extent do you feel producers or programmers properly understand your work?
What sort of resources / workshops / events do you think might help you better articulate your own vision of your work to audiences, and to programmers?
Of 40 identified companies targeted for the survey, 14 responses were received, representing a 40% return and forming the basis for the findings of this research.
Phase Two was undertaken through detailed consultation interviews with selected organisations deemed to have a stake or a potential stake in the work of the network or whose work fed directly into the non text based new work sector. Interviewed companies were Total Theatre Network, BAC, Green Room, PANDA, London International Mime Festival, Hammersmith Lyric and the Literary Managers’ Forum.
The consultations were based around the following script:
How would you describe your level of awareness or understanding of dramaturgy as a concept/ practice?
Do you encounter many dramaturgical practices within the work of the companies you programme? Do you find that this approach brings (m)any differences with it?
To what extent do you feel you or your colleagues employ dramaturgical skills within any aspects of your/their roles?
Who, if anyone, do you currently work with to support programming decisions and view potential new work? [how do you assess the calibre of new work and/or commissioning artists]
Who, if anyone, do you work with in the development of work - including collecting and mediating feedback and advising artists?
How do you work to mediate relationships with your audiences?
Are there any other possible applications of dramaturgical skills or approaches that you recognise or foresee within your organisation?
Do you have any concerns about the practice or principles of dramaturgy? If so, what are they?
Would you welcome more information and debate about the practice of dramaturgy? If so, how might this be best delivered?
The aim of the research was to uncover fields of dramaturgical practice within companies and institutions making and supporting non text-based performance. Then research outcomes were to feed into business planning for the Dramaturgs’ Network to relate the services of the organisation more closely to the needs of practitioners and sector.
The first question was designed to draw out awareness of the principles of dramaturgy in relation to non-text based companies’ idea of their own work. Despite consistent demurring, more than 90% of companies were able to give a detailed dramaturgical characterisation of their work, and were clearly adept at analysing it in such terms. Over half of those questioned had an explicit understanding of the term, broadly this corresponding to those whose training had been completed more recently or whose work was particularly influenced by European practice.
The overwhelming response to Question Two admitted the use and need for an outside eye in the creation of new work. All of those questioned had established structures within which to receive feedback on the development of their work, the quality of objectivity being paramount. Resources included other practitioners, children and young people and, significantly other artists and academics whose prime characteristic was a degree of critical distance. The relationship of the majority of these practitioners to the work was essentially dramaturgical (‘She is not a director or performer, and so does not have an interest in imposing her stamp upon the work…making her an excellent outside eye’). Dramaturgical processes, such as peer review, scratch performances and structured feedback were identified by more than three quarters of those interviewed as crucial to the development of their work. The validity of more sophisticated demands from these processes, such as mediated feedback structures rather than wholesale acceptance of external review was continually reiterated.
Question three raised significant discrepancies between audience and industry reception of work. Whilst peer review was deemed vital to the development of work in question 2, producers and programmers were generally mistrusted in their analysis of new work: ‘ I find many producers and programmers actually have quite a limited appreciation of how a piece of work has been made and what it is aiming at’. More than 60% of correspondents felt that their work could not be accommodated within the classification of marketers and programmers and that to do so narrowed its scope. Audiences, on the other hand, were seen as able to engage directly with the material and their ‘untutored’ responses were of the most value although the most difficult to clearly identify, except loosely from live interaction within the frame of the piece. Confusion between different ‘audiences’ professional and amateur, in the reception of the work, was clear in the majority of responses and a desire for industry responses to the work which were agenda-free and a more work-centric was brought up by half of those questioned.
Answers to 3b) similarly reflected this desire for greater fluidity of reception and communication between company, audience and programmer although notions of how to achieve this were varied and often vague (networks of programmers were often suggested as means of giving work greater regional presence although the possibility that this might delimit the variety of artists and companies supported was often overlooked). Specific resources requested included networking opportunities; advice on making show-reels and both audience-focussed and process-based professional development opportunities looking at structuring or communication of ideas was also welcomed in more than half of the companies’ responses.
The aims of the second phase of research were to ascertain if dramaturgical activity was occurring within organisations in contexts different to the straightforward production of work; also to involve a number of strategic organisations in the potential development of the Network and in dramaturgical practice generally.
Questions 1 and 9
Several correspondents recognised that the survey itself enacted advocacy by creating a opportunity to define dramaturgical practice, allowing them to identify element of dramaturgical activity in their own work. All correspondents felt that they would benefit from further information about the practice, and that it might be relevant to their work, and the majority were interested in taking part in CPD activity. Three organisations, whose work was notably developmental, explicitly interpreted dramaturgy as integral to the work of their organisation. The roles of artist development and creative producing were deemed to have a major cross over with dramaturgical practice.
Questions 2, 3 and 7
Despite the textual associations of the term, the reality of artists performing a dramaturgical function within total theatre and new work sectors (although not necessarily operating under that name) was broadly accepted. Sectors such as new circus, live art, physical theatre and street art were particularly highlighted as ripe for dramaturgical input, as forms whose discourses are more demanding and work processes less concrete than other parts of the sector. The usefulness of outside eye work across the new work sector was emphatically agreed by those with an overview, outlining both its artistic and economic advantages for devisers often wary of directors’ imposition on collaborative work, and unable to afford the constant presence of a director. Dramaturgical activity was also identified within marketing and fundraising activity also raised, although two correspondents emphasised the danger of allowing the remit for the job description to grow too wide and ‘woolly’.
Questions 4, 5 and 6
Responses indicated that formal and informal peer networks were reasonably well established, particularly regionally, which support the work of producing agencies in many of the more dramaturgical aspects of their roles, such as programming or assessing work, although the minefield of assessing work was also emphasised by several correspondents. In effect peer-to-peer networks such as these can be seen as dramaturgical fora. Several organisations reported on evolved structures within which to modulate engagement with developing work and with their audiences which were also dramaturgical in approach. There was a clear generational discrepancy from self-definition as of arts managers as ‘artistic rather than artists’ to value in more creative individual responses in younger practitioners. This suggests a perceived market for dramaturgical training for a new generation of arts manger as well as artists, and that more sophisticated models increasingly in operation for the development of work and for audience development also offer a space for dramaturgical input.
Concerns were articulated by all correspondents about the definition of the term, and the importance of regulating or developing this. There was a perceived risk in the role becoming a catch-all or panacea for new work making with no specific artistic territory of its own and thus no real respect or recognition. Two correspondents expressed concerns about there being room in the process for a dramaturg without it impinging on the role of the director, and the difficulties of negotiating this space. Several correspondents also highlighted the vital importance of training for those taking on such a sensitive role in relation to others’ work, to protect both the work and the integrity of the role. Dramaturgy was seen as, in effect, a highly specialised skill, with a need to define and develop its own specialism.
Dramaturgical practice is as useful to the development of non text-based work and artists as it can be to literary development. In a sector working in diverse forms and processes and often on collaborative models, dramaturgical awareness is central to developing work, working with a dramaturg may present economic and practical advantages.
There is a requirement for enhanced profile and definition for the discipline.
There is an urgent requirement to develop and support the specific skills used by the dramaturg, to support the sensitive work many practitioners are undertaking and to enact advocacy for the role through promoting good practice.
Possible applications for dramaturgical skills can be seen to cross over with skills for programmers, arts managers and arts development organisations. Rather than seeing this as a dilution of the role, it may more usefully be seen as a market for activity developing skills and profile of the dramaturg.
The work of the dramaturg might in future encourage greater fluidity between the work of artists and arts managers
 Companies who responded were: Shams Theatre, Doo-Cot, Spymonkey, Chopped Logic, Apricot Theatre, Tanagram Theatre, Al Seed, Inspector Sands and Stamping Ground Theatre, Unpacked, Blue Scream, NIE, Gomito Productions, Puppet State, Theatre of Widdershins, Tangled Feet, Big Wow.
 An issue similarly raised at New Work Network’s Feedback Café, October 2006.
 Green Room, BAC and PANDA.
 Green Room, PANDA, LIMF