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Dramaturgy as a way of thinking

Photo: M.J. Chung

Part of the Invisible Diaries series:

Week 11 / Day 5


In a parallel universe far, far away, I would have been in Mexico City this week, for the 2020 Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas (LMDA) conference.

A year ago, I was, once again, in Chicago, visiting my family and going to the 2019 LMDA conference, on behalf of the Dramaturgs’ Network. I heard some papers, saw some performances and met a whole host of lovely North American dramaturgs. I came with a mission of finding a way to better involve both the Dramaturgs’ Network and another organisation I belong to, The Fence, with the 2020 LMDA conference. Coincidentally, this dovetailed with the LMDA’s goal of making the organisation more international, specifically, more oriented around Mexican, Latinx and Spanish language work. The upshot of this is that the d’n and the Fence will be collaborating on a panel on Saturday, 20 June, as well as an international dramaturgy initiative, to be officially announced in August.

Today and tomorrow I’m covering this year’s conference: Crossing Borders, Pt 3: On the (Digital) Threshold / Atravesando Fronteras, parte 3: En el umbral (digital).

At the LMDA, they open conferences and meetings with a tradition that is quickly becoming a regular practice across the Americas: land acknowledgment. If you’re in the Americas, Australia, New Zealand, Greenland or the northern part of the Scandinavian peninsula, you can find out whose land you’re sitting on by visiting this website. Looking at this map is sobering: a patchwork of peoples, languages, treaties (mostly broken) and territories (mostly stolen). It is a reminder that I’m occupying this land, that my family, neighbours and friends are not the stewards of it, but rather the settlers. So, I duly acknowledge the land I am currently sitting on in the state of Illinois as I write this as belonging to the Kiikaapoi (Kickapoo), Peoria, Bodéwadmiakiwen (Potawatomi), Miami and Očeti Šakówin (Sioux) peoples.

Here are the sessions I watched today:


Dramaturging the Phoenix

Shortly after Covid-19 hit, the LMDA initiated a call for short essays reflecting on that moment in time, what their members were dealing with and thinking about, as practitioners and scholars of dramaturgy. They range from how we can adapt theatre to the new normal to what happened dramaturgically when the Beatles took a break. In this session, panellists discussed their favourite essays and their implications for the larger discussion we’re having about the future of theatre throughout this conference.

A central theme running through these essays is reckoning; with theatre’s white-culture-centred past and present, society’s structural racism, economic inequalities, poor leadership, and how this will all play out in our uncertain future. And also, how important it is for dramaturgs to be activists, to be the ones to grapple with this, hold ourselves and others accountable. Another striking thread of discussion was the question of how we maintain visibility as dramaturgs; as practitioners who are often invisible in the best of times, how can we move forward with no theatre tasks? And an answer was provided: we must use ‘dramaturgy as a way of thinking, rather than a set of tasks’, especially when it comes to antiracist action and the positive progression of the industry.


The Lark US – Mexico Exchange 2019

This Spanish-language panel explored an initiative between US-based The Lark and the Mexico-based National Fund for Culture and the Arts / Fondo Nacional para la Cultura y las Artes (FONCA), which picked four Mexican playwrights to send to NYC to work with dramaturgs to translate their plays into English, culminating in rehearsed readings. The writers discussed how they navigated the age-old dramaturgical conundrums – how do we translate idioms, humour, references and slang particular to the original language and cultural context so they are understood but not lost in translation? They emphasised the importance of the close collaboration they experienced with their dramaturg-translators, directors and performers, how their presence ensured that the truth, musicality and essence of their plays were preserved. One writer discussed what was a particularly interesting challenge of new play translation, navigating a subculture within a foreign culture (queer Mexico).


The Green Rooms:

Building an inviting space for urgent conversations online

This panel explored the English Theatre of the National Arts Centre’s final Cycle: Reimagining the Footprint of Canadian Theatre. Starting in 2014, the NAC English Theatre in Canada set out to engage in a 3-part initiative to investigate how Canadian theatre can make work that addresses social justice, climate change and more robust representation for disabled and indigenous artists in an intersectional way. Once again, dramaturgy as activism. They found that these issues are more effectively addressed when they are in conversation with one another. In the panel, they discussed the ways in which they’re looking to the future to continue to make theatre sustainably, even once Covid-19 has (hopefully) passed, and how their work on this cycle can encourage, enhance and be the impetus for building communities through theatre.


Playwrights Under the Radar

Each year, LMDA hosts a session where dramaturgs, literary managers and professors of playwriting promote a favourite writer who they think deserves more attention and hopefully, a commission. As a playwright myself, I find it heartening to see other playwrights being seen – especially at a time when it feels like so many of us are fighting invisibility, not to say wholesale extinction.


Digital Civic Dramaturgy:

Dramaturging the Digital City

In this final session, a panel of speakers discussed digital dramaturgy across a wide variety of platforms and in a number of different contexts. This included: how the Next Door app engages in a neoliberal model in order to encourage people to police their neighbourhoods in a socially and racially problematic fashion; how certain Facebook groups allow users to perform particular identities through that platform, as both consumers and producers. Finally, a dramaturg working with the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center discussed how it will pivot its live festival to a digital one this summer, continuing to collaborate with a team of creatives in order to support writers and develop new scripts, working in zoom rehearsal rooms.

But the best part was the virtual bar at the end. (The best part is always the bar at the end.) We came to the conclusion that we need a Federal Theater Project to save American theatre – and perhaps also British theatre. An enormous, government-funded project that would promote progressive values, political debate and large-scale employment across the country for theatre practitioners.

It feels nice, comforting, to be connected to dramaturgs when the rehearsal rooms and theatres and theatre bars are closed. It’s good to see people gathering, dramaturgs gathering to offer support to each other, suggest solutions to what’s happening and just share a primal scream.

Here’s a beautiful picture of Mexico City.

I can’t be there, but at least I can look at it longingly.


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: Twitter: @SigalSarah


Headshot photography is courtesy of the author.

Photography by Ralf Roletschek, used under the Creative Commons Licence.


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