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What the Dramaturg Is, and Is Not

Photo: M.J. Chung

Part of the Invisible Diaries series:

Week 9 / Day 3


There can be some ludicrous assumptions and notions of the dramaturg in Asia (something tells me there probably are similarities in other parts of the world too). This was something I observed in my own experiences working as a dramaturg.


We are not medical doctors. And thank goodness for that. The amount of time and space spent pontificating and interrogating the contexts and politics of a dramaturgical question put in front of us. The patient would have flat-lined rather quickly. On the contrary, it’s the expanse of time and space that allows the dramaturg to raise a set of arguments, which are also substantiated and then discussed/argued/debated and even tested out with the artist in question.

Yet, I have experienced ‘emergency’ requests and pleas in the past. I have had producers call me to ask if I could come into rehearsal to “have a look and give your honest feedback”. I then ask if they would like me to dramaturg the work. “We would love you to come in just for a week to give your critical opinion so that the choreographer has an alternative opinion,” came the reply. Ok, that sounds like I am being engaged to do something dramaturgical work. I am intrigued and ask for more details about the work. And then I ask what kind of time frame or schedule are we looking at – two to three months’ workshops and rehearsals? “Actually, we bump in two weeks from now.” By now, I want to just scream but instead check my anger and politely say, no, thank you.

“Oh dear, can you tell me why?” I politely point out that engaging a dramaturg just about two weeks before the performance defeats the purpose of having a dramaturg. I then try my best to succinctly explain that the relationship between dramaturg and artist has to be developed so that trust and honesty are the foundations in the critical work. Secondly, I would not have had the time to do the necessary research for the piece and have meaningful discussions with the choreographer. Plus, what is the choreographer to do with feedback – however constructive – that she cannot even test out, having so little time until the performance? So, I politely say no, thank you, again. Out of curiosity, I ask after the choreographer and how she is doing and why did the choreographer not call me herself. “Oh, actually she doesn’t know I am calling you,” the producer sheepishly answers. I swiftly and curtly say that this phone conversation cannot continue as the producer has shown no respect in going behind the choreographer to ask for help from a dramaturg. I never did go see that particular performance. Nor was I curious at all as to how it went.

From the onset, the professional relationship between producer and artist was already shaky at best, a sham in reality. How could the producer even think of not speaking to the artist regarding her artistic work, her blood, sweat and tears? Obviously, the producer felt she knew better and that executive judgements had to be made on artistic choices.

Dramaturgs are not doctors. We do not ‘fix,’ we do not ‘treat,’ we do not ‘prescribe,’ (having said that, I realise I sometimes do strongly ‘prescribe’ ideas and recommendations to artists whom I have had a long and strong working relationship), we do not speedily ‘repair’. We need time, we need space. Time to think, time to discourse, time to draw out what we observe, time to make critical observations. Space to imagine the artistic potential of the work, space to locate contexts, politics, ethics of the work, space to let the arguments precipitate.

Yet, the anecdote above has happened to me multiple times, in different contexts. One time a producer argued she didn’t see the problem of me going in to watch a rehearsal and offer my opinions during the dress rehearsal. I told the producer that meant I was going in as a well-meaning and perhaps informed ‘friend’ to offer my opinion, even though I had never met this poor young choreographer before. And yes, the producer in that instance also did not tell the choreographer that she was approaching me.


We do not assure or guarantee success. As the trend of having a dramaturg increased in the region, it was quite de rigueur to have a dramaturg attached to an artistic project. So much for invisibility. More perplexing was that certain individuals, individuals in arts institutions, arts councils and even arts ministries, got the idea that a newly commissioned work or performance stood a better chance success with its audiences if a dramaturg was attached to the project.

When the dramaturg ‘buzz’ made its rounds to some arts centres in Asia, there was a push for dramaturgs to be engaged in new commissions, especially with young or younger performance makers. The word was that a dramaturg could help to strengthen the work intellectually and deepen it emotionally, subsequently resulting in a more cohesive piece of work. After all, the dramaturg has been posited before as the first audience member or spectator to evaluate the work. So, many producers, arts officers and councillors have a skewed vision that ‘strength’, ‘intellect’, ‘deep’, ‘emotional’ equate to ‘audience pleaser,’ and that, in turn, equals ‘box office hit’. Even more disturbing is to engage a dramaturg to enhance the art work’s chances of being successful in touring abroad because ‘the dramaturg can gauge what audiences love in Europe / America / the West’. In one instance, applications for a certain theatre fund in an Asian country required applicants to state who was their dramaturg, and, in fact, that projects under this fund had to have a dramaturg to ensure certain success markers were met.

The two anecdotes are, indeed, real and I am sure that some of my colleagues and peers out there have shared many of such horrific experiences over dinner and wine. At the inaugural Asian Dramaturgs’ Network symposium in Singapore in 2016, there was an urgency to get across that the dramaturg must not be seen as a means to an end. The end here being success. The dramaturg is not an instrument that one can use to sharpen and strengthen the show’s success. Dramaturgy is also not to be seen as an instrumental means to successful performances and shows. Dramaturgy is vital to a performance project because of the criticality it brings to the project. It puts in place certain critical measures so that the work can be presented with rigour so that there is certain vitality and spirit in the performance that has been well thought through.


Malaysian-born LIM How Ngean has been actively involved in the performing arts for 30 years, practising in both Malaysia and Singapore. He has dramaturged dance for the Singapore Arts Festival and Singapore’s Esplanade Theatres on the Bay, with critically acclaimed Singaporean choreographers Daniel Kok, Joavien Ng, Kuik Swee Boon and Ming Poon, and Thailand’s Pichet Klunchun and Phnom Penh-based Amrita Performing Arts. In 2016 How Ngean founded the Asian Dramaturgs’ Network (ADN), a platform for critical exchange on dramaturgy among dramaturgs and performance-makers in the Asian region. It has had five successful symposiums and conferences since 2016. ADN organised its first dramaturgy laboratory in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, in September 2018 in collaboration with Cemeti Institute for Art and Society. In 2018, he worked on a transnational curatorial performance project called Jejak-Tabi with co-curators Akane Nakamura (Japan) and Helly Minarti (Indonesia), which presented Asian contemporary performers specifically in Asian cities. How Ngean was conferred his doctorate degree in 2015 from the National University of Singapore with his thesis entitled Choreographic Modernities: Movement and Mobility in Southeast Asian Contemporary Dance. He now resides in Victoria, Australia.


Headshot photography is courtesy of LIM How Ngean.


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