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Kaddish for theatre

Part of the Invisible Diaries series:

Week 13 / Epilogue


One of the things I find most satisfying as a dramaturg is stepping back from the material generated by other artists and teasing out patterns, forging links. So writing an Epilogue to the Invisible Diaries series, some sort of summary tying together the strands of discourse of the past twelve weeks, seemed like the perfect dramaturgical challenge.

A week later, and forty pages of notes in, I still don’t quite know how to make sense of it all.

It’s an extraordinary body of work, charting an extraordinary time. Simultaneously micro and macro in outlook and form; moving through fear and mourning to hope and revolution; rediscovering, reconfiguring, reimagining.

A little while ago, dramaturg Ruth Little put me on to thinking about form in terms of natural patterns that occur and re-occur throughout the universe. Waves, fractals, branches, explosions… the Invisible Diaries is all of these at once. An entire ecosystem, as Ruth would say, full of energy exchange.

Images, names, ideas, phrases and questions all echo and refract through the posts – sometimes explicitly, as writers draw on those who have come before, and sometimes just as a fleeting shadow of similarity.

But drawing together twelve weeks’ worth of daily blogs (eighty-four in total!), written by dramaturgs working across multiple artforms in multiple countries, has turned out to be Quite A Challenge. How should I even reference the works through this post?

I opt for the author’s abbreviated first name, then week and day (e.g. the first post, from Duška, is Duš. 1:1) – which, as I write it, looks a bit like a biblical reference: book, chapter and verse.

This whole experience has been pretty biblical, to be honest. I think back to the beginning of lockdown, to the marking of Pesach: reciting the plagues had an unusually literal resonance this year, and we replaced the refrain of “Next year in Jerusalem” with “Next year in person”.

I start thinking that, actually, maybe there’s a glimmer of similarity between the Invisible Diaries and the Bible: a series of writings bearing witness to events that will fundamentally change the lives of all those who come after us. Written by twelve authors (a not insignificant number!), some of the texts seek to give a fact-based documentation, the ‘what happened’, while others are more discursive, drawing out meaning. We have narrative, history, wisdom, lament, exile, epistle, chronicle, apocalypse (in a modern sense as ‘end times’, but also in its original etymology as ‘revelation’)… I wonder if any posts will prove to be prophetic?

Yet what the Invisible Diaries certainly do not contain in any great measure, it has to be said, is ‘good news’.

It takes a while for a sense of catastrophe to be named. The project began after lockdowns around the world had already been in place for some time, so there’s a discernible lack of shock in the early posts: confusion, yes, but resilience as well. Everyone’s making the best of it: there are longer lie-ins, new forays into baked goods, more time spent with children, and a whole lot of gardening.

But there’s also a need to recalibrate. The specifics of lockdown, of course, mean a new relationship with space. Spaces that were once sharply delineated now begin to blur, as living rooms and bedrooms become offices, and – in one case – the kitchen becomes a dance studio for tap class (Mir. 5:2). The home becomes a site of exploration – sometimes through the transformative power of children’s games, and sometimes just by noticing the totality of each room as if for the first time.

Of course, the authors’ new reality is primarily digital – they “learn to be together without feeling each other” (Kat. 2:6), and find themselves stripped of the dramaturg’s privilege of invisibility in rehearsal, now that “Bells, beeps, and whistles signal my entrance” to the interminable Zoom calls (Ber. 7:3). All are consumed with the impossibility of practising a communal artform in isolation; there’s a painful metaphor, I think, in Katalin’s singing rehearsal, which sees the participants eventually able to join in the main tune and rhythm but find it impossible to harmonise (2:6).

There’s a tangible desire to still practice dramaturgy in whatever way possible, imprinting the work onto new and unexpected canvases. “Dramaturgical thinking is… cross-referential” (Ber. 7:7), and thus the authors manage to read their craft into pretty much anything, “teasing out the mundane into epic tragedy” (Dav. 4:6).

“The “tangled mess” of trees that nevertheless “all seem to work in harmony” offer a calming lesson (Mar. 6:2); Miranda’s daughter is to her teetering tower of building blocks what Covid is to theatre (Mir. 5:6); Yasmin, searching for something concrete, turns to dramaturging their own feelings (10:3).

The supermarket gains in significance for several contributors – at once terrifying and magical, it’s full of drama. Conversations with staff become fraught with danger; no-one really knows how to interact anymore (Duš. 1:5). The arrows on the floor bring an “unintended immersive choreography” to proceedings, with everyone following cues, but the enforced 2m distance means that relative proximity no longer has the power to communicate meaning. (Mir. 5:3).

Moments that might once have passed without note become plays in miniature – or, in Kara’s words, “dramoletts” (Kar. 3:2). These are the “overheard fragments” and snapshots of action – performances of communal identity that in poorer areas are fully embedded among residents, but in the richer ones are more ostentatious, proudly clapping the NHS every Thursday evening (Kar. 3:4).

Language, too, takes on greater meaning. ‘How are you?’ and ‘Take care’ suddenly gain their appropriate significance in a very literal, immediate sense that transcends their more mundane usage as “empty placeholders” (Duš. 1:1). ‘I hope this finds you well’ doesn’t describe a feeling anymore but attempts to bring a truth into being. This new way of feeling language reaches its zenith in the chants of BLACK LIVES MATTER – the movement exists precisely because this statement does not seem to describe a felt state of reality, and so we shout it as an iterative speech act, staging the beginnings of revolution in the body politic.

Even the grammar of early posts is striking: the conditional perfect reigns here, the writing suffused with things that ‘would have been’. There is a palpable destabilising – indeed collapsing – of time. The authors are highly attuned to it, as you might expect: dramaturgy is “doing time” (Kat. 2:1, quoting Tim Etchells), and “our sense-making process is temporal as much as anything else” (Mir. 5:7).

Time is reconfigured, moving numbly in slow motion, like jetlag, or impossibly quickly, with a couple of emails taking a whole day (Kat. 2:1). There’s an illusion at play: though it seems that there is “more time on our hands”, in fact, “what has actually increased is the number of hands on my time” (Yas. 10:6). Martine’s Wednesday disappears entirely (6:3) – her “brain is fried”, as is David’s (4:1) – whilst many of her blog titles are dedicated to time: “One Day at a Time”, “Ode to Timestamps”, “Not Working 9 to 5”.

Yasmin finds they can only focus on the ‘now’ (10:2); time is so disjointed and compressed that no narrative through-line can be found (10:5). M.J. “[loses] the sense of time and day” (8:7), holding meetings from bed on a Sunday afternoon, whilst Bernadette tries to “create boundaries to give myself time” (7:4).

Units of time are, Prufrock-like, “measured out with… spoons of coffee” (Mir. 5:7), and “we have shifted into some sort of circular time” of repeated action (Kat. 2:1). Beckett’s refrain of “I hesitate, I hesitate” (Endgame) echoes through Bernadette’s writing as she starts and stops and “loops” endlessly back on herself (7, passim). Beginnings and ends circle each other for David, too, meeting in the single suit his father was married and buried in, confetti remaining in the pockets (4:6).

Fathers haunt these posts. Aged six, Guy wasn’t allowed to attend his father’s funeral, and “got stuck” in his grief for years (12:3); Kara gazes on the photo of her father as a child and watches a video of him onstage (3:5). Memories of childhood are everywhere – grandparents, aunts, special places, and cakes – as are yearnings for home. It's as if everyone is searching for something definite in memory, something that can anchor them in this uncertain present.

Stripped of normality, the authors feel free-floating. Bernadette’s posts all contain “liminality” in the title, as she considers “self-fashioning” (7, passim) a self who can fit into this new context – both on a personal and institutional level. The idea of being ‘in-between’ is pervasive. Dramaturgs are, of course, inherently “in-between theory and practice, critical reflection and embodiment” (Ber. 7:1, quoting Blažević).

But this is a complex way to exist. Kara is forever in-between, “a lifelong shapeshifter between language, countries…, between being an insider and an outsider” (3:5), leaving her feeling variously powerful and unstable – yet another ‘in-between’. How Ngean finds it useful for work: “being born of Chinese descent in the Malaysian pluralistic society sets you up for certain kinds of socio-cultural, political and even aesthetic negotiations” – he’s perfectly prepared for work and life as an “intercultural dramaturg” (9:4) and “cultural mediator” (9:5). Yasmin takes power from rejecting binaries all together, “mov[ing] loudly and proudly as a queer, fat, enby, femme” (10:1).

Meanwhile, Sarah balks at the idea of her liminal existence: she’s taken aback by my description of her as “Chicago-based” in a tweet – that may be where she is right now, but she’s based in London (Sar. 11:1). Or will be again. Soon. I misplace Yasmin, too, who actually is usually based in Chicago – I situate them in Austin, where they only are for now.

These different locations – Austin, Brisbane, Chicago, Leeds, London, Melbourne, New York, Reading, Seoul, Vienna, and Vancouver – create different contexts for experiencing the virus. Whilst London is still in lockdown, Melbourne and Vienna are opening up. Different parts of the US are responding in different ways at different times. As M.J. starts writing, South Korea is already back to work – but then, a second outbreak, and Seoul is shut down again (8:4,5).

No-one really knows what’s going on. I’m delighted to notice that Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle is cited twice (Mir. 5:3; Sar. 11:1), but with totally different definitions.

But all the authors are, in various ways, concerned with what comes next – what our ‘new normal’ will be, and what we must demand of the theatre that will exist in this new paradigm. For Katalin, it is “a public forum” with a “duty to amplify those people’s stories we did not hear about whilst being locked up in our home” (2:7). Kara agrees that things have to change – “the normal we had was precisely the problem” – and wonders “How do we cherish the bits that work; how do we smash away the bits that don’t?” (3:3).

David avows the need to keep speaking truth to power, lest we become complicit as “part of the mask that hides the horrors” (4:6) – and that comes from education: “If you aren’t a little ashamed of your country’s history, then you don’t know the history of your country” (4:2). As Yasmin recognises, “There’s healing to be done, trust to be re-instilled, transparency and accountability to center” (10:6).

Ultimately, we have to “imagine better, then execute it” (Yas. 10:6) – something that Sarah also picks up on in her call to “dream up ideas for a better, more exciting future” of avowedly anti-racist practice and theatre as “a vital force in our democracy” (11:6).

The questions, dreams and provocations of the Invisible Diaries are only the beginning; we all have a role to play in the forging of this new landscape, and will be continuing the work for years to come.

But we must also reflect on what has already been lost. Mourning is a powerful thread running through –

– a buzz from my phone distracts.

A simple message in an ever-expanding WhatsApp group of freelance directors: “The Royal Exchange 💔”.

I feel like the wind has been kicked from me.

The Royal Exchange (Manchester, UK) is perhaps my favourite theatre: a powerhouse of searching, political and accessible work, and a genuine hub of community for Greater Manchester – not to mention home to the internationally recognised Bruntwood Prize for Playwriting. But now, owing to a continued silence from the UK government about how it plans to help the sector survive, it is our latest theatre to be decimated by the effects of Covid-19. Now, 65% of its staff are almost certain to be made redundant.

A shockwave goes through the community. We love this theatre, and are terrified about what this signals. If it’s happening to them...

A pause.

A deep breath.

As I started to say, mourning is a powerful thread running through the Invisible Diaries. Guy speaks about it most completely, returning in successive posts to an exhibition simply titled Trauern (‘Mourning’), and attending to the rituals of grief that give shape and meaning to life and the leaving of it (12, passim). But it’s there too in Miranda’s reflection on the “fundamental inability to practise” (5:1) and the one-minute silence in the supermarket (5:3), and in Martine’s response to an old neighbour’s death (6:7). Yasmin harnesses grief as rebellion, mourning the continued devaluing and ending of Black and brown lives by calling for revolution against the systems that precipitate such acts of atrocity (10:7).

M.J. refers several times to the death of theatre. In the coming world, “What we should look for must not be CPR steps to save the dying conventional theatre” – we will have to refashion it anew (8:5). How Ngean has “experienced ‘emergency’ requests and pleas in the past”, with artists needing a dramaturg to revivify an ailing project, but such things never work (9:3).

Reading these blogs has flooded me with such love and hope, knowing how many truly brilliant, thoughtful, soulful, revolutionary artists there are across the world who are determined to seize an impossible moment and forge something of power and beauty from the ashes.

I had planned to end with something rousing, about the power of community without borders and what we might achieve together – but I just can’t quite bring myself to do it. It would feel dishonest. Just reading all the posts bears an emotional cost. We’ve been through so much in these past months, and the Invisible Diaries are saturated with that trauma.

We loop back to that in-between state, one of confusion and contradiction: catastrophe and opportunity, apart and together, end and beginning.

But in this warp and pinch of paradox, impossible to reconcile, there is tension. Drama.

Theatre is dead. Long live theatre.


Tommo Fowler is a freelance dramaturg for text and production, and a director.

He is a Visiting Tutor on the MA Creative Writing (Playwriting) at City University, co-founder of script-reading and dramaturgy company RoughHewn, and a member of the Dramaturgs’ Network Advisory Board.

Image: courtesy of the author.


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