top of page

Pandemic Dramaturgies

Photo: Dr Kara McKechnie

Part of the Invisible Diaries series:

Week 3 / Day 6


Adaptation became one of my ‘things’ academically sometime in the early 2000s. I was and still am delighted with the versatility of this academic field, and it’s become one of my go-to tools, together with dramaturgy (an umbrella for the ethnographic-semiotic-phenomenological-contextual ‘method’ I use to think things through – I could also call it my ‘unleashing the scatterbrain’ approach). Adaptation gets rid of restrictions, categories and disciplinary thresholds by connecting media and texts through examining their relationship with each other.

A change to suit the environment

When teaching adaptation, I often ask students to think of an occasion where they adapted to something – the transition from school to university, the behavioural adaptation made in response to family or fellow students. How did they adapt their body, voice or face in order to be seen how they wanted to be seen?

But ‘how’ is not the most important question when considering adaptation. If we put all our focus simply on how the source has been changed, we stop short of being able to place the adaptation in a specific and interesting context; instead, we need to use comparative findings to work out what particular changes were for – how the medium, market, audience, period, language (I could go on!) influenced the adaptation process. This takes you out of dull thinking around ‘the essence of the original’ and the dreaded ‘faithful’ (known as ‘the F word’ in adaptation studies) and towards the more interesting ‘what’s it for?’

Comparing biological and cultural processes of adaptation is also fascinating: in order to keep optimising an organism, biological adaptation takes us further and further away from the ‘original’, if there ever was one; cultural adaptation, however, always relates back to the perceived original.

For example, the recently broadcast Jane Eyre from the National Theatre has a close relationship with Charlotte Brontë’s novel, as well as some kind of relationship with previous adaptations for stage, prose, television and film. If we ask ‘what was it adapted for?’ and see the beautiful ‘voicing’ of Bertha (Brontë’s ‘madwoman in the attic’) through music, we realise that Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), a retrospective prequel to Jane Eyre, must have played a part in the adaptation process. Sally Cookson and her ensemble’s devised production therefore exists in a creative tension between the ‘original’ and Wide Sargasso Sea – which, while also an ‘original’ in its own right, is nonetheless an adaptation of Brontë’s novel. Cookson’s production gives a voice to a dramatically convenient, monstrous stereotype, and humanises a character in the process, just as Rhys had done for Antoinette Cosway.

Biological adaptation works chronologically; cultural adaptation works laterally. So where does that leave behavioural adaptation? It lacks the clarity of ‘source’ and ‘adaptation’, as well as the finite result (of having an improved beak if you are a finch, or a Jane Eyre for our times if you are an adaptor and/or director).

I suppose we can think about it by pondering on the dramaturgy of the Covid-19 crisis, and – more specifically – on the dramaturgy of lockdown. I was inspired to do this by a German child psychotherapist, Dr med. Oliver Dierssen, who was doing some interesting thinking via Twitter, using myth theory and narratology. (The thread is in German, so I am summarising it here).

Dierssen argues that, when facing a crisis, we construct an ‘inner script’ in order to navigate our way through. There is a complex relationship between instinct and information at work – and information is adapted to instinctive behavioural responses, such as bulk-buying, dramatising, dismissing and satirising the crisis, as well as overcompensation (the ‘productivity porn’ which has caused some eye-rolling). To navigate our way through a new, unprecedented reality, we seek structure from familiar narratives, such as fairy tales and myths – i.e. most dramatised narratives we encounter.

The primal myth, the heroine’s quest, is still the foundation of most adaptations, consciously or subconsciously (Dierssen uses the generic masculine, so I am using the generic feminine here). Once the heroine has realised that she must leave her ‘old world’, often through the intervention of a mentor, she descends to the underworld (or an unprecedented pandemic-stricken world), with challenges coming at her from all sides. Quests build up to a life-or-death situation, a battle, a narrative climax. In parallel, a personal transformation takes place, with the heroine overcoming her own restrictions and shortcomings. When this narrative climax occurs, we know that we’re in Act 4, so to speak, and that redemption and resolution are within reach. The heroine makes a victorious return to the old world, which is freed or improved thanks to her intervention. Dierssen warns against applying this happy ending of our internalised myths to the loosening of lockdown: our subconscious expectation that ‘the battle has been won’ is a treacherous one. We need hope, but we also need the stamina for getting through the next episodes in our heroine’s quest.

Which dramaturgical model provides a script more suitable to navigating us through the Covid-19 crisis, then? I am reminded that we use dramaturgy as a tool to give us structure and to maintain hope, and it is my hope for times to come that, while we’re not in a finite five-act structure, we also won’t be stuck in the dramaturgy of episodes that seem to run forever. Either way, there’s a lot of adaptation required of us as we continue on our quest.

Illustration: A diagram of 'The Hero's Journey'

A diagram of ‘The Hero’s Journey’, based on the work of Joseph Campbell in the 1940s.

It is from The Heroine’s Journey, a website I came across while investigating Campbell’s work and its adaptations, which is “dedicated to gathering, discussing, and analysing literature, film, and life experiences that follow a different path than the conventional story arc referred to as the ‘Hero’s Journey.’”


NB 1: Sarah Cardwell explains the biological and cultural processes of adaptation so much better than I can in the introduction to her book Adaptation Revisited (Manchester University Press, 2002).

NB 2: Dierssen’s Twitter thread applies to the situation in Germany, and brilliantly casts leading virologist Prof. Christian Drosten in the role of advisor and wise mentor! Drosten’s podcast for broadcaster NDR has been a compass of knowledge and education for many, and I recommend it to you.


Dr Kara McKechnie is a German-Scottish hybrid. Born in London and educated in Germany, she worked for Opera Stuttgart, Opera Karlsruhe, Heidelberg Theatre et al. Her academic career started at Heidelberg University and continued at De Montfort University (PhD thesis on Alan Bennett; monograph 2007).

She has worked as a Lecturer in Dramaturgy at Bretton Hall, then University of Leeds since 2000, and teaches and supervises for the School of Performance & Cultural Industries and the School of Music. She has worked with Opera North and Leeds Playhouse on many projects, has published a monograph on Opera North (2014) and regularly collaborates with opera director Alessandro Talevi in the UK and Italy.

Kara is resident dramaturg for Slung Low (Leeds), funded by the Gulbenkian Foundation. Slung Low have ‘repurposed’ as a hub for food bank referrals. Their short film, The Good Book, is released online on 1 May.

bottom of page