Dramaturgically out of place
Part of the Invisible Diaries series:
Week 11 / Day 3
It’s been a challenging day. While I’m trying to engage with campaigns to save our theatres, I find it incredibly upsetting to be continually reminded of the very real and very dire statistics about the imminent collapse of the British theatre industry. My last two entries have been orderly essays, with central ideas. This entry is not those entries. Today is a day of scattered thoughts.
I’m listening to Patti Smith’s ‘Horses’, for comfort. What I would really, really like is to listen to the original vinyl record, but that’s in my flat in London, along with everything else I own. For some reason, I find 1970s alternative culture comforting, perhaps because it reminds me that great art can come out of difficult times. After all, if Patti could make ‘Horses’ while she was living in a New York City that was broke, dirty, lawless and often on fire, while in a complex semi-romantic, semi-platonic relationship with the very complex Robert Mapplethorpe, while America recovered from Nixon and the Vietnam War, I can make some work now.
Sometime at the beginning of this year, I thought to myself, I have so many writing projects I’d like to finish but I have too much other work to do, too many things to apply for and too many distractions. Wouldn’t it be nice if the whole world just stopped? If there was nothing to do and nowhere to go. Then I could write all the time!
Yeah. You bet I’m regretting making that wish.
I’m trying to finish a novel. I started it because I was at a wedding a couple of years ago and ran into friends who had started a literary agency. I was a bit drunk and told them I was writing a novel. I wasn’t, but I thought it was a good idea to tell them I was. Why? I don’t know. Because I’d had too many glasses of wine. Kind as they are, they asked me to send them some pages. So, I had to start writing a novel. It’s hard and very different from writing a play. It’s so long! There are so many words! I have to write descriptions!
My big non-creative/non-work project since I temporarily moved into my mom’s house has been to aggressively sort through, get rid of and organise a never-ending pile of paperwork, a combined result of a combination of my mom’s aversion to engaging with anything digital and to throwing anything away. For weeks now, I’ve been triaging, ordering and discarding something like 40 years of bills, tax filings, notes, receipts, wills and god knows what else. I have a dream that entails an enormous bonfire and me dancing around it.
It’s mostly mind-numbingly boring, but sometimes I find strange things; today, for instance, I found a whole file on a tree branch that fell on our fence from a neighbour’s tree in 1980, and the weird, spiky litigation that followed, complete with pictures, letters to lawyers and newspaper articles. A bizarre, random kind of tiny mystery. I kept it, just in case.
As a dramaturg, you have a tendency to look at a grouping of things in a particular context (words or objects or images or gestures) and try to make sense of them. You try to figure out which of these things fits in the world of the play or performance and which of them doesn’t. And if it doesn’t, why not? Is there a statement inherent in its out-of-placeness?
The first time I lived in England in 2003 and went to my first rugby match, the crowd sang ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’, which most Americans know as a slave spiritual. A song whose message is that life on earth is so unbearable that death is a release, used as a rugby cheer? I was confused. I thought maybe it was a mistake or a misunderstanding. Some kind of cultural mistranslation. The other day, watching something about the rise of the far-right in Britain in response to the Black Lives Matter protests, I thought, maybe that song wasn’t dramaturgically out of place. And then I felt a bit sick.
Someone once told me that Putin has a dramaturg. Like a political dramaturg. A dramaturg of evil, if you will. Is Dominic Cummings Boris Johnson’s version of Putin’s dramaturg?
My mother and I haven’t always seen eye to eye on politics. But there’s something that seems to come up every day in our house: the police. For someone who used to watch a lot of Fox News and fight with me about Hillary Clinton, she surprised me by turning out to be more vociferous about defunding and radically reforming the police than most people I know. Mom was a social worker in the late-1960s on the South Side of Chicago. She was teargassed at the 1968 Democratic Convention. And she was harassed by the Chicago Police Department on a regular basis.
I knew all this. But what I didn’t know until last night was that when she was in graduate school and living with three other 20-something women, the CPD saw that their lights were on at 3am (because they were up studying) and knocked on their door. The cops barged in, insisting they had to be there, insisting they needed to look around their bedrooms. Just to ‘check’ on them, just to see what they were up to. Just to see if they could intimidate them into sex. Why didn’t you ask if they had a warrant? I asked my mom. Because I didn’t want to give them any ideas, she replied. How did you get rid of them? I asked. Eventually they realised they were barking up the wrong tree, she said, but it was scary as hell.
Defund the police.
My mother, circa 1968.
Sarah Sigal is a freelance writer, dramaturg, director and researcher working in physical theatre, devised work, site-specific and interactive theatre and new writing. As well as working in performance spaces, she also creates, facilitates and curates work for unusual spaces and events and is interested in the possibilities for theatre-making. Originally from Chicago and based in London, she has a BA from Gettysburg College and an MA and PhD from Goldsmiths, University of London. She has taught at a number of British universities as a freelance lecturer and her book Writing in Collaborative Theatre-making was published in 2016 by Palgrave Macmillan. She was the Live Performance Programmer at JW3 from 2016-2019 and has just completed a LABA Fellowship at the 14th St Y (NYC). She is a member of the Dramaturgs’ Network Advisory Board. She is currently working on adapting her play Agent of Influence into a novel and writing the libretto for a new opera called The Agency with composer Matthew Olyver, which will premiere as a scratch at the Têt à Têt Festival in September. Website: sarahsigal.com Twitter: @SigalSarah
Photography is courtesy of the author.