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Thoughts on the dramaturg in British theatre*

by Ben Payne

First of all, an apology. I should have been with you in person today. Clare Pamment from the Dramaturgs' Network has asked me to say a few things about the network and, I think, about how the dramaturg can be a force for change. I hope these thoughts are of interest to you and helpful to how you think about the network. The first thing I want to say about the network is that it is much needed and long overdue. So three cheers for you for setting it up. Long may it prosper.

 

You may have discovered that if you tell Europeans that you are a dramaturg they usually know what you are talking about. Edifyingly, they sometimes even have the good grace to look impressed. Tell someone from this country that this is what you are and you are more likely to be greeted with puzzled looks, mild derision or the question “fine, but what’s your real job?” Of course, it beats immediately being dragged outside and strung up from the nearest lamp-post but as, any patriot with a shaky grasp of British history will tell you, "we don’t do things like that in this country anyway ...”

 

However, I suspect that the ambivalent position of the dramaturg in British theatre is based partly on this mistrust of anything too foreign sounding and an inherent cultural conservatism. It is a conservatism that knows what it likes and likes what it knows, not least in the theatre, and it definitely knows a proper play when it sees one. Proper plays are the ones that have, as Neil Bartlett has put it “plenty of ironing in them and absolutely no musical numbers.” And we have got on pretty well for anything over 40 or 400 years (depending on where you date the birth of “proper plays” from) without having much use for foreign imports thank you very much, so why should we start needing dramaturgs now? We don’t do things like that in this country anyway ...”

 

So I also suspect that these questions “What is a dramaturg? What is dramaturgy?” are ones that this British network will find itself coming back to a lot. Again I think that this all to the good. They need kicking around a bit. But I think it is worth remembering that the reason that these questions seem current has as much to do with this current lack of recognition as anything else. It is a chicken and egg situation. Nobody asks “What is a director? What is directing?” after all, do they? So the network can and should ask those questions about dramaturgy and the dramaturg (and yes, why not, those ones about directors and directing too) whilst remembering that it’s not rocket science. For a start, rocket science is frightening and potentially dangerous and dramaturgy isn’t - though some would have you think it might be.

 

I also think that it’s worth remembering that your Greek derivation of the word dramaturg pinpoints an inherent problem, or shall we say, challenge, in the job. The meaning of the word suggests “maker of the action” which of course is precisely what the word “playwright” implies and, goodness me, isn’t that what the modern director is supposed to be doing too? It is pretty evident that in various ways Euripedes, Shakespeare and Molière were not just playwrights in the modern, “literary” sense of the word but makers of their plays - directors - too. So whilst the link between modern director and modern playwright can be - and sometimes even is - “umbilical”, the division between their creative roles might be seen, in some ways, as entirely of our time and entirely arbitrary. And then there are these dramaturgs too. So, if you can imagine the writer and director as a pair of Siamese twins for a moment, the dramaturg must appear like some errant sibling suddenly turning up and claiming “actually, some of those essential organs belong to me ...”

 

It is hardly surprising then that there could be a lot to fret about your “role” as a dramaturg. But really there are usually more than enough people fretting about their role and wrestling with their’s and each other’s egos in a theatrical company without adding another one to the mix. So it’s good that you have put the emphasis on what a dramaturg can do, rather than what a dramaturg is. The clue is in the title, as helpful game show hosts are wont to say. What I would question is that in your list of what a dramaturg can do to help writers and directors, many of these things, in my opinion, would be seen as mainly helpful to just the theatre or the director. In Europe where the dramaturg’s role is accepted I would certainly think that these tasks would be what you would be expected to do. But not so here. Here we mostly have “literary managers” not dramaturgs and their jobs are defined more by their relationships with writers, not directors. They are more likely to be found in theatres and companies that specialise in new writing than regional reps or companies whose policy is more mixed. The role of the literary manager is possibly even more ambiguous than that of the dramaturg. Dave Hare did it for a little while at the Royal Court but couldn’t really see the point of it, as did Lord Byron for someone else. Apparently he used to just throw scripts out of the window. Nowadays, the usually more developed nature of their relationships with playwrights entails facing in two directions at once: part of the team that guides the artistic programme of the theatre or company, but also advocating for the interests of a range of different individual playwrights within that programme. The playwright Paul Godfrey has characterised the relationship between theatre and playwright as sometimes resembling a “degraded” version of the parent/child relationship. The child craves the recognition of the parent but resents its authority. The adult delights in what the child brings to that relationship but resents the responsibility of it. And so, the literary manager sometimes finds him or herself in the role of family psychiatrist. Nevertheless, in this country, writers remain the theatre’s greatest cultural resource. So the network could consider ways in which it can help playwrights too. Maybe also what the limits of that “help” might be.

 

In what ways can a literary manager or dramaturg contribute to change? First of all, I think it’s very easy for them to contribute to the exact opposite. For the purposes of argument, I have suggested that Europeans tend to understand and appreciate dramaturgs more. This is true, but only partly so. In the aftermath of the revolutions in Eastern Europe that overthrew Communism many dramaturgs were turfed out of theatres. This was because these jobs had been perfect sinecures for Communist Party placements, where their “advisory” capacity was exploited to the full to ensure that only “safe” work made it to the stage. Similarly, you can give yourself an easy life in such a job by insisting on received ideas about the repertoire and/ or “proper plays”, and by ignoring changes in the work or your audience. You could approach the job rather like the Artistic Director who is prone to making remarks like “it is apparent that the Welsh are not yet ready for Anton Chekhov”, notwithstanding the fact that his company is based in Wales. I doubt you would get much joy out of it though. I think that you would not be even beginning to ask the question that might lead to the solution. So perhaps then you would have already become part of the problem.

 

Also, the lack of influence can be as corrupting as an excess of it. I’m told that so non-existent was one of the RSC’s literary manager’s relationships with the directors he was supposed to be working with, that he used to entitle memos from his department “News from Nowhere”. Again, it can be quite easy to simply act as a handy set of creative buffers between the Artistic Director and anyone he or she is too busy to talk to, or simply as vaguely human form of script rejection system. Perhaps it goes without saying that to change things you have to be open to change yourself and to maintain and develop the influence to make change happen. But perhaps it goes deeper. Perhaps dramaturgs and literary managers have to be actually expressly about change for their role to have any real meaning at all. When I became one, I asked a friend of mine, who had been one, for his top tip for doing the job. He said simply “Don’t become cynical”. There is already plenty of cynicism in English theatre, it’s clearly alive and well in Wales too, and let’s not even start talking about television ... There is plenty of drama that is written, programmed and produced cynically. Hopelessly romantic though it may sound, it’s crucial to keep your mind on ART and off the often equally hopelessly messy and cynical business of the PRODUCT and of “getting it on”. Are we lovely angels then? No of course not. We’re argumentative, opinionated, manipulative, and downright conniving - of course we are - but never cynical, no.

 

Last month at Birmingham REP, we staged a series of projects under the title of BEYOND THE BOUNDARIES. The aim of this was to give a platform to work that took risks in either form or subject matter, or both, to introduce our audiences to the different processes and ways that new work can be developed, and to enable writers to collaborate across disciplines. The project itself was an experiment too. We have been reasonably successful in building up audiences for new writing at the REP mostly through an emphasis on comedy and non-scary naturalism. This was starting to mix it up a bit. The results, of course, were fantastically unpredictable. Projects that we thought would happily attract an audience did not. Others that might have been perceived as “difficult” or “challenging” drew full houses.

 

One project in BEYOND THE BOUNDARIES was called A Lion of Allah. It had emerged from a discussion that the writer, Amber Lone, and I had started about what it was that was motivating young British Muslim men to fight for their faith. The period from researching this idea within her local community in Birmingham to putting a work-in-progress version of the opening section of the piece in front of an audience was about eight weeks in all. In that time, life began to imitate art when it emerged that two young Asian men from the West Midlands had turned up in Guantanamo Bay apparently having fought for the Taleban. Then the media got wind that the REP was intending to stage something “controversial” ... And, well yes, there were times, I will admit, during this project and others, when the thought struck me that reviving Charley’s Aunt would have been a lot simpler and a lot less stressful.

 

However, watching the audience watching A Lion of Allah over two nights I was also struck by the impact that this piece of work was having in its performance. Of course, a certain amount of that impact rested on the piece’s topicality but, in a way, that only underlines my point. It is, for instance, received wisdom, that nobody is interested in writing or indeed seeing “issue based theatre” anymore. Maybe this is no longer true. The response to A Lion of Allah suggested to me that there was actually a real hunger for work which said difficult and unpalatable things and which provided an alternative to the kind of media coverage that has become so managed, homogenised and sanitised that it is seen as being almost meaningless. So, there - don’t accept received wisdom; don’t second guess your audience; don’t be cynical.

 

I guess this is why I am strangely drawn to the name “dramaturg” over “literary manager” and not simply because it sounds a bit more posey. Literary suggests something reflective, introverted, aloof, something done on one’s own, in the comfort of one’s own head rather than in public, with others. Theatre is perhaps only accidentally a “literary” activity. Meanwhile, “dramaturg” with its romantic hint of “maker of the action” seems closer to what it should be. But a word is of no use in dramatic terms at least unless it is doing something. We know the play is never what’s on the page, but what happens between the stage and the audience, what it does. We know that when the play stops moving it is dead. By implication the theatre that stops moving is also dead. As dramaturgs perhaps it is less a question of what we are, more a question of what we do. These may seem fatuous or simplistic parallels to make between dramatic action and cultural action.

 

But my only specific experience as a dramaturg is through work at one theatre in Birmingham. On the other hand, I do think that dramaturgs - perhaps more than any other person working in the theatre - have to be defined by, and responsive to, these specific cultural contexts in which they work. You will work in different contexts to this and so your work will be - should be - defined differently.

 

The Birmingham REP is a building based, regional repertory theatre company based in the centre of a city moving away as fast as it can from its industrial, artisan past; one that is also on course to be the first in Britain with a majority non-white population. It also exists in a world which, according to the literary critic Robert McCrum, entered an entirely unprecedented phase in the early 1980s, when the Tuareg tribe in North Africa delayed its thousands years old annual migration across the Sahara desert to find out who shot JR in Dallas... What this suggests to me is that there are actually few hard and fast rules anymore - except perhaps “never underestimate the power of a dramatic climax”. Moreover, it suggests that the work that we deal with is likely to emerge from a greater and more complex range of influences and inspirations than ever before. For a practice like dramaturgy, that can sometimes seem rather hung up on rules and roles, this might seem disconcerting. And so the key perhaps is to ride it, carefully, yes, but joyfully as possible, like a rollercoaster. (Actually, I never used to like rollercoasters but have begun to learn to). And in a theatre, no less a world, shot through with contingency and change, where we “fit in”, what our contribution might be, might still seem ambiguous or confusing. Maybe I have just added to the confusion here!

 

I’ll conclude with the words of someone else, an American Literary Manager, which I hope might offer some kind of comfort: “When you consider that many people still don’t know what a theatre is for, their ignorance of dramaturgy is hardly surprising. But this is no cosmic state that we must endure, it’s a situation which we can help to change. If part of the problem is semiotic, perhaps part of the solution is as well."

 

As Michael Bigelow Dixon, Literary Manager of the Actor’s Theatre of Louisville in Kentucky says:

“The word “dramaturg” is like the word “fuck”.

They’ll get used to it

They’ll get used to us too.”

 

 

Ben Payne

Associate Director (Literary)

Birmingham Repertory Theatre

(2002)

 

* This message was written for the Dramaturg's Network's inaugural symposium, held at the Albery Theatre (today it is known as: Noël Coward Theatre) on 18 March 2002.