Book Review: ‘New Dramaturgy’

edited by Katalin Trencsenyi and Bernadette Cochrane

As a maker of and writer about theatre, I often find myself wanting different, often contradictory, things from literature on the subject. With my critic’s hat on, I’m interested in the way in which a particular subject can plug into the wider landscape, to give a better understanding of the form for the reader and open up discourse. As someone who makes the stuff, however, I find myself looking for technical insight and ideas which can help my own practice. Granted, these two things aren’t mutually exclusive, but it can be hard to find texts which satiate both appetites. Reading Richard Eyre’s National Service, for example, you get the feeling that anyone would find this fascinating, whilst Stephen Unwin’s The Complete Brecht Toolkit is clearly written for a far more niche audience.

Reading New Dramaturgy: International Perspectives on Theory and Practice, I get the sense that its editors Katalin Trencsenyi and Bernadette Cochrane were attempting to satisfy both these hungers when compiling the contributions. There’s something inordinately fascinating in the differing approaches of the practitioners, critics and academics in this book to the subject of ‘New Dramaturgy’, but rather than trying to iron out those creases, they are laid bare by association. One moment, for example, you’re reading about the dramaturgy of music composition, before then reading an in-depth report on an academic conference on the subject.

This approach is crucial to the amorphous and ungraspable topic of dramaturgy which – as has been extensively discussed elsewhere – we have particular difficulty defining here in the UK. By sourcing contributions from several continents, backgrounds and experiences, Trencsenyi and Cochrane allow us to see many takes on the idea of ‘New Dramaturgy’ (a term coined by Marianna Van Kerkhoven) and some, even, who reject it.

This book is not, crucially, about the role of the dramaturg. Instead, it is about the process of dramaturgy, visible and invisible, that happens within every rehearsal room, no matter how mainstream or how radical. The sections – ‘Towards a New Theory’, ‘Text’, ‘Devising’, ‘Dance’, and ‘Spectatorship’ – allow us to follow a process of dramaturgy through from inception to completion and beyond, interrogating the idea that “new dramaturgy can be characterized as being multi-perspectival, provisional, non-hierarchical and enquiring”.

Having said all this, however, the most fascinating insights the book gives come from a direct discussion of dramaturgy in relationship with practical processes. Aside from interviews with John Collins, Koen Augustijnen and Rachael Swain – all of which engage in useful and accessible discussions about dramaturgy – there are also a couple of invaluable essays from practitioners relating their experiences in rehearsal rooms. Guy Cools’ recollections of zero degrees, for example, created in collaboration with Akram Khan and Anthony Gormley, discusses the idea of dramaturgy as editing and suggests that “as a dramaturg you do your work best when you are least needed”.

This is less controversial that it sounds; indeed, you could extend that notion to point out that ‘dramaturgy works best when it is least needed’, which allows us to see how all-encompassing and integral to any working process the idea of ‘dramaturgy’ is and how, arguably, it improves a show most when its work and effects cannot clearly be pinpointed.

Then we have Duska Radosavljevic’s account of working with Richard Schechner on Imagining O, which took almost the exact opposite approach to dramaturgy by creating a ‘Dramaturgy Room’ within the performance space itself in order to play with ideas about ‘Reception’ or ‘Performed’ dramaturgy. Radosavljevic’s candid and fascinating account looks at the differences between Theatre Studies and Performance Studies and the blurred lines between dramaturg, actor and director whilst also giving a full and detailed response to the work she and Schechner did on the performance and the way in which it engaged with audiences by asking questions of them which aren’t normally asked within the context of a performance. Quite aside from being an insightful read, this essay throws open all sorts of ideas for theatre-makers to use in the future.

This all also reminded me of Catherine Love’s recent interview with Ben Power, in which the National Theatre’s dramaturg suggested his role is “about trying to understand what the authorial intention is, and to really investigate that and make that as clear as possible for an audience”. It’s a simple idea, but its one which rings true – not least in mainstream British theatre where some of the most successful productions capture the ‘spirit’ of the original text rather than trying to recreate the original performance. The problem arises, however, when we start extrapolating to those who make theatre which doesn’t have an “author” in the conventional sense and which is not as concerned with ideas of ‘text’. What, then, is the role of dramaturgy in this context? To ensure clarity of expression? But what if that’s not what is being sought? And is it possible for dramaturgy to do its ‘job’ if there’s no original material to bounce off?

Talking about the work of Elevator Repair Service, John Collins suggests that the members of the company “like things that collide, that don’t belong together”, and describes the group as all possessing the skills and considerations of dramaturgy. Though much of their work adapts material from other forms, there is no doubt that this feels like a healthy way of looking at the role and usefulness of a ‘new dramaturgy’. This, ultimately, is the project which New Dramaturgy sets out to achieve, and looks at the way in which dramaturgy (in its many forms) can impact on the different areas of theatre-making and theatregoing (in its many forms). It demonstrates to us how, as is mentioned in the chapter ‘Going ‘Au-dela’: A Journey Into the Unknown’, dramaturgy can “exist in the spaces between”, how it can permeate even the simplest and most traditional of theatrical processes, forcing us to engage with the work we make and watch in entirely new and surprising ways. Indeed, in taking such a diverse range of opinions and ideas from such an eclectic mix of writers, Trencsenyi and Cochrane set out this agenda in the very makeup of this collection, and in fact perform a kind of dramaturgy themselves, making the sum a whole lot richer and more complex than its respective parts.

Photo: Elevator Repair Service’s Gatz


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