The d'n Co-founders' 20th Anniversary Speech


HANNA SLÄTTNE:

Today we are celebrating the Dramaturgs’ Network’s 20th birthday!


The fact that we are still here, is a miracle and a testimony to the never-ending enthusiasm and optimism of dramaturgs. There is always a way through any impasse. That is the approach we take in our professional roles and that is how a range of fabulous colleagues in the network over the years has helped us reach this milestone.


KATALIN TRENCSÉNYI:

The dramaturg’s role is a lonely one. There is no other dramaturg in the rehearsal room to turn to for encouragement after a difficult day. We have no understudies, no deputies or assistants, there is no team waiting in our workshop to help realise our share of the work.


HANNA:

We work closely in collaboration with artists, yet as dramaturgs, we work in isolation. We spend our lives with the creative ideas, artistic instincts and ambitions of others, listening and responding to the needs of the project at hand.


KATALIN:

We are witnessing the work in the making, questioning the decisions or helping ground them, and contributing to the creative process in many ways. If we do our job well, there is so much to take care of, so many demands to meet, that sometimes it feels like we are a one-person orchestra.


Working in isolation is not healthy for any profession. We need conversations to reflect on our work, learn about other practices and theories, to continuously develop as a professional. We need allies when we want to improve our working conditions. And we need colleagues with whom we can work together to become (as Ben Payne noted) “a force for change”.

As early-career professionals, twenty years ago, we were already the third generation of dramaturgs in the UK. Yet we did not see dramaturgs’ labour recognised or credited in programmes.


HANNA:

We knew there were others out there, doing important yet invisible work. Dramaturgs that were spread out across the country, working for regional theatres, festivals, with independent artists and in companies. We wanted to reach out, connect and create an ecology in which we could thrive together. Speaking to Lloyd Trott, academy dramaturg at RADA about the idea of creating a network, he directed me towards Katalin and a few other freelance dramaturgs. When Katalin and I finally met and started to talk about the idea of a network, in my kitchen in Tooting Bec in London in 2001, we were aligned and fired up. We both wanted a network of peers, we wanted in-depth conversations about our practice, we wanted to learn from others, expand our horizons and above all, advocate for the role: the practice of the production dramaturg. Before we knew it, we were organising our inaugural symposium at the then Albery (today, Noël Coward) Theatre for the following year.

KATALIN:

Yes, this West End Theatre opened their doors and welcomed us for a symposium in their building, free of charge. This way, we learnt early on that as a small organisation we needed to find friendly partners to work with. We discovered that being a small and independent organisation had advantages. It meant that we could move and respond fast, there was no hierarchy or bureaucracy to slow us down. And if we dreamt something up, as long as there were dedicated people who wanted to realise it, we could do it. Not many people knew that the events that contributed to shaping the profession in the UK, were cooked up in a Tooting Bec kitchen.


HANNA:

The early years also felt like an endless and tiresome need to respond to suspicions that dramaturgy is a foreign concept or that dramaturgs would meddle with the work unnecessarily or bring a uniform, formulaic approach to playwriting and performance making. The best way to respond to these fearful suspicions has been to share our practice and ways of working, to demystify our work, educate and explain what we can and cannot do. And above all to show what difference dramaturgy can make, and how good dramaturgy is the opposite of a reliance on external frameworks, models or structures. Good dramaturgical practice is dynamic and relational, it happens in the room with the artists, in sync with their way of working, their pre-occupations and the company’s discoveries.


Between the members of the network and beyond, dramaturgs have nurtured strong creative and collaborative relationships and had a fundamental impact on countless successful productions over the past twenty years. This work has proven the old fears groundless and we thank all the artists who have engaged whole-heartedly with dramaturgs and their many different approaches to working dramaturgically.

KATALIN:

To work with a dramaturg is a brave act: it is inviting somebody to be part of the delicate creative process, exposing one’s methods to their witnessing.

To work with a dramaturg is a political act: it is giving space to another view, a different opinion, and respectfully negotiating with it.

To work with a dramaturg is a forward-thinking act: it is acknowledging that pieces of theatre, performance and dance are not the result of a single artist-genius but they are a result of collaboration.

To work with a dramaturg is a democratic act: it is working in dialogue, in collaboration, including in the creative process an independent agent who can check and challenge hierarchies during the working process.

To work with a dramaturg is a transformational act: it is allowing dramaturgy to catalyse and transform the process through questioning.

HANNA:

As more people took on the role of dramaturg, and the network grew, it became necessary to address best practices in dramaturgical work through discussions and workshops, and to support continuous professional development in the field.


This work has been strengthened by collaborating closely with partners in the UK and internationally. During our two decades we found many allies: ArtsAdmin, Arcola Theatre, the Battersea Arts Centre, Company of Angels, the Directors’ Guild, Edinburgh Fringe Festival, Goldsmiths, HighTide, the National Student Drama Festival, the National Theatre, Playwrights Studio Scotland, RADA, the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, Soho Theatre, Southwark Playhouse, The Theatre and Performance Research Association (TaPRA), and the Young Vic Directors Program - just to mention a few organisations we have worked with.

KATALIN:

We have also forged friendships with similar international organisations: the Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas (LMDA) who over a decade of collaboration became our sister organisation; and our newer but precious friends: the Asian Dramaturgs’ Network, Association of Danish Dramaturgs, The Fence International Network, and STOD Finland.

participants of the International Dramaturgy Lab

HANNA:

Some landmark events over the years have been: The Pro-Sessional symposium in 2007 at the SOHO theatre, –


KATALIN:

- a week-long international dance dramaturgy intensive in 2012, the first in this country, led by dramaturg Hildegard De Vuyst from les ballets C de la B. Or our Covid Blog project: the Invisible Diaries in 2020, –

the authors of 2020's Invisible Diaries series

HANNA:

– and the year-long International Dramaturgy Lab, connecting 90 odd dramaturgs from around the world exploring dramaturgy across borders.

KATALIN:

As part of our advocacy work, we created a Toolbox for Directors on how to work with a dramaturg; and a comprehensive contract package for dramaturgs (the first in the UK) that can be used by managers when engaging freelance dramaturgs.


HANNA:

And we organised a string of small-scale regular monthly events over the years such as the Dramaturg’s Cafés, the d’n Labs, d’n picnics, and later the Regulars’ Table, aka Stammtisch.

a d'n Stammtisch


KATALIN:

Today, there are over a thousand people in the UK who work regularly in the role of dramaturg, with more than a dozen higher educational institutions where dramaturgy is taught. We are happy to have played our part in this transformation. There is now a fourth generation of dramaturgs working in the UK, who are professionally trained in the latest performance theory, are comfortably at home in the practice of dramaturgy, and have relevant experience in other areas of theatre as performers, writers or directors. They are no longer apologetic about being a dramaturg but confidently claim the space that their talent and knowledge deserves.


HANNA:

In the twenty years since we started, the industry has changed and we have changed with it. We continue to challenge our own practices, to learn, to explore together as a network. To make space for new ideas, people, practices, understandings and the ever-evolving needs of our artforms and our society.


KATALIN:

What hasn’t changed, though, is that it is still a small board of passionate, dedicated dramaturgs who make all this happen - still on a voluntary basis.

Today the Dramaturgs’ Network remains an unfunded volunteer arts organisation, supporting practitioners, developing and sharing the practice and theory of dramaturgy. We work without any substantial financial support, even though, we are the only organisation in the UK fulfilling this role.

HANNA:

For twenty years, extraordinary colleagues have showed up to make all of this happen by dedicating their time, work, and expertise to the d’n, whilst also tending to their own careers.


KATALIN:

A community formed around the d’n: dramaturgs supporting each other and taking care of the environment in which they work. This way, our initial dream came true through the collaboration of fellow-dramaturgs and support of our allies within the industry.


HANNA:

We have many plans for the future: mentorship projects, workshops, retreats, and exploring new areas of dramaturgy. They will keep us busy for the next twenty years! There are many ways to support the network; join as a member, get active in one of our working groups or give us a small donation through our website. If you want to partner in a project to explore ways of working, specific themes or dramaturgical processes in different artforms we would love to hear from you.


KATALIN:

But let’s put the work down for a celebratory moment, and join us instead in wishing the network and all who sail in her, a happy 20th birthday! Here’s to many more anniversaries to come!


HANNA:

Happy birthday, d’n and all the colleagues who make the network the buzzing, inspiring, collegiate and boundary-breaking organisation that it is.





This speech was given at the Kenneth Tynan Award ceremony on 20th November 2021, which was part of the Dramaturgs’ Network’s 20th anniversary day-long online event: d’n20: Celebrating Dramaturgy.