What shapes how we shape performance?

Dramaturg is a funny word. I had been working in theatre for a long time before I understood what it meant and I'd been doing this thing called dramaturgy for a while before I felt able to call myself one. It is the part of my job that I most often have to explain when talking to people outside of theatre, but I am not going to spend a lot of time defining it here. What I will say, briefly, is that we fulfil many functions and take on many roles. We are mirrors, provocateurs, facilitators, critical friends, midwives, compasses and anchors. As previous winners of the Kenneth Tynan Award have said, we are curious people who listen deeply, who ask questions and create skeletons for others to flesh out. We care for artists and the art. At our best, we sensitively guide and shape, holding the artists we work with and all the elements of the work – the text, the movement, the music, the emotional and energetic score – in mind.


None of this work is neutral. Our curiosity is driven by our knowledge and interests, our questions are loaded with our life experience and what we hear when we listen has been filtered through our unique position in the world. Dramaturgy is political and there is a danger in speaking in hushed tones about that fact. In allowing others to think of dramaturgs as neutral facilitators or dispassionate outside eyes instead of the active collaborators we are and can be. I call for dramaturgs to be more explicit about our perspectives, to be clearer about where we stand and to further interrogate where our questions come from. Let’s be transparent and bravely state the politics that shape how we shape performance.


In that spirit, my practice is rooted in Blackness and the vast majority of the work I make, collaborate on or am asked to advise on centres Black British experiences. The theatre-making processes I am involved in often start at the archives – and I use that word in its widest sense. It could be that we are working from traditional, historical archives and museum collections or everyday archives – family photo albums, diaries, the boxes of records at someone’s parent’s house or the experiences that are inscribed on our bodies. At the moment, I have one central question that shapes all the little questions I ask, the notes I give and the ways I experiment when I’m in the room:


How do we reach into the archives – into these rich and varied containers of Black culture, knowledge, joy and pain – in ways that respect what we find there, protect us as artists and invite an audience into generative conversation with us?


I will expand on that question over the next 5 minutes or so to see what’s inside it. I offer no concrete answers. There is no blueprint. I am just sharing what I am currently thinking.


The question begins with, how do we reach into the archive with respect and care for the lives contained within it?


A key follow-up question for me is why. Why are we drawing on a particular life, historical event or aspect of Black culture? Is it simply to stage unheard stories? If so, that is not enough for me. Partly because the idea of unheard stories often invisibilises generations of Black British theatre-makers and their work, but also because what I am interested in, as a dramaturg-maker, is working with other artists to tell stories from the archives differently – in ways they have not been heard before. In ways that help us understand something of our past, reveal something in the present and/or that provide us space to imagine new futures.


When pulling from the archive, I hold on to what Christina Sharpe calls 'aspiration' in her book In The Wake: On Blackness and Being. I ask myself, are we ‘keeping and putting breath in the Black body’? As we draw from the archives, are we giving these lives the breathing space to be rendered fully human on stage? Or are we flattening them out – reproducing what is already known and assumed about Blackness? If we are flattening them, then maybe the structure isn't quite right or the form. Maybe that history is meant for a completely different piece of work or another team. We should not be afraid to leave things in the archive for someone else or for a future self to pick up later.


The second part of the question is how do we create from Black pain in a way that does not hurt us as artists?


I have just finished working on a piece called The Body Remembers, which is about embodied trauma and recovery in Black British women. What I discovered in that process, with some brilliant co-creators, Heather Agyepong and Imogen Knight, is what I think we already know: that care is key.


As dramaturgs, we often carefully hold creative processes, at least up to the point when we hand them over to a director. While we’re doing that, why not advocate for what we need to thrive? If care, kindness and compassion are essential to our processes, they should show up in our budgets. How about asking our producers to add a line in, to fundraise for a therapist or coach, to create flexible schedules that allow for careful, gentle, collaboration? Let’s build in time to check in with each other, to reflect on our own, to go for a walk or to cut the day short when it turns out that we are full.


Finally, how do we invite our audiences to join us in generative conversation?


If we are going to take care of our artists, we should probably take care of our audiences too. Can we expand the caring and careful approach of our rehearsal room to include our performance space? What is the dramaturgy of the audience experience from the moment they walk in to the moment they leave? Using The Body Remembers as an example again, it was a relaxed performance. People could sit where they wanted, stand, move or stretch during the piece. Most people didn’t because they were being well-behaved audience members, but they could have and some did. We provided paper and pencils so the audience could write or draw during the piece and once it ended, there were another 45 minutes where they could stay in the space, reflecting on their own, talking to friends, walking the stage knowing they would not be hurried out or asked to leave. They could sit with the piece, the material, their thoughts until they were ready to step back into the world outside.


In terms of sparking conversation that generates new understandings or action, I am encouraging myself and those I collaborate with to consider what happens when we imagine that we are making work for the audience member that knows our source material the best. For the audience member that has the same box of records in their parent’s house, who has already researched that historical event or attended 17 conferences about that particular issue. If we want to move conversations forward then we can’t always position them at the starting line. Sometimes we have to start a little way down the path and trust that the rest of the audience will have an entertaining, enriching experience, whether or not they understand every nuanced line or gesture. That way, Black artists and audiences can express themselves fully without compromise, explanation or apology and that is the sort of theatre I am currently interested in enabling.