Posted on 2015/11/03 by

Theatre Life: Dramaturg as Scientist?

I am a dramaturg.

(what does that mean?)


In their book Dramaturgy and Performance Cathy Turner and Synne K. Behrndt explain that, “the more precise and concise one tries to be [in defining dramaturgy], the more one invites the response ‘Yes, but…’. Although dictionaries and encyclopedias offer apparently clear explanations, these are insufficient to address the multiple and complex uses of the word, which has, in contemporary theory and practice, become an altogether flexible, fluid, encompassing and expanded term.”[1] Our ability to flex and adapt to the work that is required on each production (as it is different) makes it feel that there is a certain amount of wizardry going on, some magically transformation taking place where we are one moment a dialect coach, the next a translator, the next a historian, and the next a technician.

Dramaturg Eleonora Fabião explains that when working as a dramaturg she “had the opportunity to emphasize a connection between artistic practice and theoretical thinking; through the dramaturge’s viewpoint, practice and theory are emphatically experienced as complementary references, as different appearances of a unique matter. However, it is important to stress that the dramaturge is alchemically combining these references to make the scene richer in terms of dynamics and meaning…”[2] This alchemy combining practice and theory, the idea that the dramaturg makes meaning through the assemblage of contextual, historical, physical, linguistic, and mechanical articulations that arise from the rehearsal space, is not all that far removed from the work of the scientist as described by Bruno Latour in his book Laboratory Life.

This is particularly true in the devised theatre process.

(what does that mean?)

Blueprint Model

The traditional model of theatre creation is a “top down” model. The playwright creates a script on their own (or with one other person if they are co-writing). The director reads the script and develops a vision. The designers create the world of the play in accordance with the director’s vision and the actors develop their characters in the same fashion. We call this the blueprint model of theatre creation. All elements of the production are based on the text (the blueprint) and are overseen by the director (the foreman, perhaps).

cauldron model

In devised theatre, we don’t start with a script; instead we start with an idea, theme, concept, or argument. Let me use an example to illustrate how this works. Famed theatre director and creator Mary Zimmerman developed Metamorphoses in 1996 (as Six Myths) at the Theatre and Interpretation Center of Northwestern University. The play opened on Broadway at Circle in the Square in 2002, and this production earned Zimmerman a Tony for Best Direction (a little ironic considering what I am about to tell you). The play script, in this case the adaptation of the Ovid’s Metamorphoses, provided the basis for the production. It was the main idea behind the work, like the broth in a soup. Then each person involved in the show, the directors, designers and actors each brought something to the rehearsal room – like ingredients – and the production came together through the process. In the beginning, the play is like a cauldron of unlimited possibilities. And as things get added to the pot and taste tested, the possibilities become fewer and fewer until you end up with a completed production. This process is what we call devised theatre.

The devised theatre practice began in the 19th century with formidable artist-inventors, such as Artaud and Grotowski. Dr. David Williams explains that dramaturgy is “about the rhythmed assemblage of settings, people, texts and things. It is concerned with the composing and orchestration of events for and in particular contexts, tracking the implications of and connective relations between materials, and shaping them to find effective forms.”[3] The dramaturg is placed inside the process and is an active creative member of the team, and yet they simultaneously remain on the outskirts as they are required to put the pieces (or articulations) together. Turner and Behrndt explain that in devised theatre “the performance text is, to put it simply, ‘written’ not before but as a consequence of the process.”[4] The dramaturg is responsible for shaping the narrative, responding to the process as it happens.

Does this sound familiar?

Theatre has the same problem as the sciences: everyone thinks they know what they are all about. The sciences are objective, fact-based, academic, intellectual, and logical. Theatre is subjective, entertaining, imaginary, and emotional. But there’s more to both of these fields. Latour articulates the relationship between object and context in terms of fact creation in the sciences. He explains that fact-creation is not devoid of cultural signs, ethnographic subjectivities, and historical implications.

So what if we were to think of the dramaturg as a scientist? What if we were to look at the devised theatre process as an experiment? The dramaturg is the scientist overseeing the experiment with their colleague the director. The actors are agents, along with the technical machinery of the laboratory, which in this case is the rehearsal hall. The results are the performances.

So let’s start by looking at the culture created in the rehearsal hall. At the beginning of every rehearsal, the director discusses a plan of action for the day with the dramaturg. It is usually done over coffee (or tea in my case since I don’t drink coffee). They decide what content building activities they are going to perform with the actors that day, such as free writing exercises, image searches, and improvisation games. They decide what their goals or objectives are for that session, for example defining character relations, determining the beginning and end of a specific scene, or clarifying the trajectory of the story. The technicians arrive and turn on the equipment. The actors warm up their bodies as the lights brighten. They usually do this as a group, changing up who leads the warm up each day. Each individual has their personal favourite of the exercises, so this gives them all a chance to do their favourite one. The director sometimes participates in the warm up, but the dramaturg usually does not. They sit in the audience observing the activity in the room. They create a rubric or a notation system for the activities to come. They decide if they want to take photographs throughout, record the session, or take notes by hand. The rehearsal begins with questions. The director and dramaturg ask questions of the actors: how they are feeling, what they are thinking about, what they want to accomplish. And then the experiment begins.

It is important to note that the culture changes depending on the players in the room, not just the live people, but also the technical components (the lights, sound equipment, etc.). Not only that, these elements change the possibilities that a devised theatre production can take, in the same way that scientists from different backgrounds and schools of thought and different laboratory equipment will affect the directions that experiments will go. Latour explains that in order to look at an object, we must look at it’s meaning and significance in relation to its context. He says, “Even a well-established fact loses its meaning when divorced from its context”.[5] The facticity of an object is relative to its network, or assemblage. If that is the case, and the laboratory culture is part of that network, then facts are necessarily linked to their cultural context. Similarly, actors with different training, technical equipment with different capabilities, and directors with different aesthetics will develop very different assemblages even with the same object, or objective. For example, a troupe from England, a troupe from Indian, and a troupe from Canada are all devising performances on the subject of colonialism. The British actor training system is very regimented, requiring them to learn Stanislavsky and Meyerhold techniques. Indian actor training is based on the Natyasastra and Katakhali theatre. Canadian theatre actors learn a variety of techniques, but there is no one training method nationwide. Canada was colonized by the British through settlement. This is not to say there was not the forceful ‘dehoming’ and killing of aboriginal peoples, simply that it was not a military expedition. The colonization of Indian, on the other hand, was a military invasion. And the British, well, it was their empire that was colonizing. Even within these countries there are different narratives relating to the experience of colonization. So these three troupes would end up with very different performances based on the same series of historical events.

These different ethnographic and artistic positions create different experiences in the laboratory, or as Latour would put it, different microprocesses. Latour explains that in the lab he was observing TRF was a “thoroughly social construction”.[6] The object that was composed through the series of negotiations between the agents in the room. This object-fact is inscribed with the cultural circumstances that created it; it cannot escape them. Back in the rehearsal room, the dramaturg records the negotiations between the actors and the director, the different backgrounds, the different media and technical components, to develop an object called the play. The dramaturg inscribes the play not only with their own subjectivity, but with the positionality of the laboratory and all of its articulations.

If both objects are the result of complex negotiations and are seen as assemblages of various agents and cultural contexts, then can we not conclude that plays are also facts? Or at the very least, can they not contain some element of facticity?  Latour argues that the scientific process can be creative, saying, “Our use of creative does not refer to the special abilities of certain individuals to obtain greater access to a body of previously unrevealed truths; rather it reflects our premise that scientific activity is just one social arena in which knowledge is constructed.”[7] So if the scientific process can be creative, then why can’t the artistic process be scientific.

Why is this important? In much the same why that Latour explains that scientists are looking for credibility, dramaturgs are looking for it as well. It’s not credit we want. It’s credibility for our work. We no longer want to be seen as the know-it-all in the back of the room (a common view of dramaturgs even with the theatre, and popularized by the TV show Smash). We want to be seen as integral members of the creative team, and more so, we want the objects, the plays, that are created to be viewed as more valuable than simply entertainment. The need for credibility relates to our funding, our ability to get jobs, and our ability to continue to produce meaningful work that audiences want to see. Theatre scholar Alan Filewod explains that “nations are performances; the nation exists insofar as it is enacted and embodied in the processes of representation”.[8] Theatre is a space for rehearsing nationhood; it is a space for demonstrating possibility. The dramaturg can be the scientist that helps to piece together the assemblage that results in another possibility, in the same way as a scientist in the lab can write a report that shows the importance of a drug or an experiment result. Both of these articulations are equally a part of the assemblage of knowledge. The question remains: how do we get those outside of the Academy, those who are not part of the technical culture of theatre, to understand that? Do we need a Latour book of our own? And will this seeming levelling of the playing field help us in the long run?



[1] Cathy Turner and Synne K. Behrndt, Dramaturgy and Performance, (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), 17.

[2] Turner, 149.

[3] David Williams, “Geographies of Requiredness: Notes on the Dramaturg in Collaborative Devising”, Contemporary Theatre Review Vol 20(2) [2010], 197-198.

[4] Turner, 170.

[5] Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar, Laboratory Life: The Construction of Scientific Facts, (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1986), 110.

[6] Latour, 152.

[7] Latour, 31.

[8] Alan Filewod, “Actors Acting Not-Acting”, La Création Biographique, ed. Marta Dvorak, (Rennes: Presses Universitaires de Rennes), 53.

Works Cited

Filewod, Alan, “Actors Acting Not-Acting”, La Création Biographique, ed. Marta Dvorak, (Rennes: Presses Universitaires de Rennes), 51-58.

Latour, Bruno and Steve Woolgar, Laboratory Life: The Construction of Scientific Facts, (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1986).

Turner, Cathy and Synne K. Behrndt, Dramaturgy and Performance, (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008).

Williams, David, “Geographies of Requiredness: Notes on the Dramaturg in Collaborative Devising”, Contemporary Theatre Review Vol 20(2) [2010], 197-202.

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