Listening, balance and why its everything : talking dramaturgy with Rosie Kellagher
Yeah. So I suppose I’d really like to start by asking about your practice as a dramaturg, or as working in a dramaturgical capacity, as a literary associate at the Traverse?
Yeah absolutely. The primary thrust of my job here at the Trav is dramaturgical in nature. I spend a huge chunk of my time reading, and another chunk of my time writing reports on what I’ve read, and sometimes those are reports for Orla – our artistic director – or they are notes for a writer directly, or to be fed into a director’s dramaturgical conversations with a writer. So certainly, dramaturgy and its assorted processes, whether that’s hands-on dramaturgy – reading, writing and giving notes – or managing the processes we have here at the Trav for getting plays in.
You’ve worked as a dramaturg on, I’ve done a bit of research but forgotten the name, No Land’s Glass? – it was about glass?
Yes, uh-huh. [The production was Lands of Glass by Unfolding Theatre and it was an adaptation of Alessandro Baricco’s novel of the same name. – RK]
You worked as a dramaturg on that production and I was curious to know if there was a significant difference between your work as a dramaturg there and your work as a literary associate? People talk, perhaps unhelpfully, about a divide between literary work and dramaturgy.
I mean to be honest, if you’re working for a New Writing theatre, as a Literary Associate or a Literary Manager as it’s called more often perhaps, in theatres that perhaps aren’t exclusively New Writing, it’s sort of, in a way, when it comes down to brass tacks, just a name for the in-house dramaturg. So really, there isn’t a vast amount of difference, except that as well as doing dramaturgy of essentially a very similar kind to the kind I did on a freelance project like Lands of Glass a couple of years ago, or on any of the work I’ve directed myself and also dramaturged, the only difference is that here I will also feed into programming decisions about the work we stage during the festival, and there will be more of an artist development role here, and there will be questions about literary and artistic policy here which obviously when working as a freelance dramaturg on a single project aren’t relevant.
But to be honest, the work of dramaturgy isn’t vastly different. I’m using exactly the same skills as I did as a freelancer. It is just that now, in addition to those, I have an eye to an organisation as a whole and its artistic needs, and ambitions.
So is it about a shift in accountability? So in freelance works, that might to be that particular work or that artist, whereas here it is more about an accountability to a venue, to its artistic direction?
Yeah, to an extent. In that, as well as serving the writer and the play or piece of work, you are ensuring that that play or piece of work speaks to the needs of an organisation and its audience. Really, saying “the organisation” is only a proxy for saying “the audience”.
But ultimately, it is the same thing. If I read a script and have thoughts about its structure those thoughts aren’t vastly different whether I’m a freelance dramaturg or based in a building. The difference is that the company I’m working I’m for as a freelancer might have a different agenda to the Traverse, but it will still have an agenda I will need to meet.
So for instance, I’m thinking about some projects I worked on in the North East of England a few years ago, which were not for building-based companies, but for really brilliant emerging companies. They had their own larger needs beyond the specific needs of that project, so they needed that project to speak to their agenda about targeting under-represented audiences. So just because I was a freelancer working for an independent theatre company rather than one allied to a building, it didn’t mean that I didn’t have to consider what the bigger picture for that company was. I think, very often, to a greater or lesser extent, you are factoring in not just the words on the page or the work being done in the room, but its place within a bigger context.
I think that can happen regardless of the company you are with. It might happen to a greater extent.
Or perhaps it is just more noticeable because it has a bigger profile?
Yeah. But I think. I don’t know. Maybe we then get into a debate about what’s pure dramaturgy and what’s pragmatic dramaturgy. Again, that comes down to the role of the audience. We might craft something that is about telling the story that the writer wants to tell, to the best of their ability, and that hones it in a way that is purely about the ambitions or desires or tastes or preferences of the people in the room. As opposed to a dramaturgy that is inclusive of audience, and remembers that ultimately you are doing this for people outwith that room.
And that’s a dramaturgy that is negotiated as well. It has to be open to the audience because they are going to complete that dramaturgy each time, to fill it.
I think that’s it. That’s kind of the only dramaturgy I’m really interested in. I’m not interested in work that doesn’t consider its audience. Which isn’t about pandering to an audience, and it isn’t about populism, but it is about understanding that theatre is a fundamentally collaborative art-form and that your audience are your biggest collaborator.
And it is social. It is a social event
It’s an occasion yeah. Each iteration of that play is an occasion in itself, and has a dramaturgy that is informed by whether you have a loud audience or a quiet audience, an attentive audience or a slightly rustle-y uncomfortable audience. Even down to the minutiae of that.
Is that what excites you about working with New Writing specifically then? In that maybe that relationship with the audience is more up for grabs?
I think so. I think that might be it. I think that’s a very good point. That with New Writing, when you put that new play or new piece of work in front of an audience you are at the start of a conversation. If you put a new version of The Cherry Orchard on in front of an audience, you are coming into a conversation that has happened many times before – of course there will be some people who won’t have seen The Cherry Orchard before and will be coming into it cold, or they won’t know much about Chekhov, or the context. Or they might be surprised by the way that company has put a take on it. Ultimately, though, it is part of a conversation that has been ongoing for some time.
There’s of course nothing wrong with continuing those conversations. But there’s something about starting a conversation about an idea, or a series of ideas, within a new play that I find exciting. It’s about going “here’s some stuff: let’s think about this”, rather than “here’s some stuff we all know about: let’s re-hash it.”
Is that then about carrying a conversation on? How much does a playwright have an ongoing dialogue with an audience? People there might have seen Bullet Catch or Quiz Show, and then Grain In The Blood.
And Grain In The Blood is very different from those. So to me, that seems like a fresh conversation, even for those who have a familiarity with Rob. Although many people won’t. Even if they do, they won’t have seen Rob do something like that before. And while Grain in the Blood was a thriller, in a recognisable form to people who are arts- and theatre-literate, who watch film, television, read novels and go to the theatre, they’ve not seen a Rob Drummond take on a thriller, and what he wants to do with that. And actually, Rob hasn’t seen that before. That was about him wanting to push his practice, to grow and develop as a writer, as much as it was about wanting to tell a particular story. So for Rob, exploring a form with which an audience is familiar, is something new –
– something that we wanted to get to grips with and understand. So I guess that’s a new conversation as well.
Another new starting point
Hmm. Sorry. Just rolling thoughts around my head…
It sounds like, that a lot of what you’re talking about dramaturgy, is talking about structure? Without wanting to put words in your mouth. But in terms of when working with a play-script, do you consider dramaturgy to be about internal mechanics, or logics, or the structure of the narrative?
It is certainly concerned with that, but not as the exclusion of everything else. It is certainly about how you tell the story, that’s all that structure is: what order you tell it in; the placing of events and the revelation of information in a story. But no, dramaturgy is the language, the theatrical texture of it, the development of the characterisation, the context, the world of the play, the themes of the play. I mean it is everything, it’s everything.
And it cannot ever be (of course it can, but it should not ever be, to my mind) boiled down into a set of academic exercises in understanding the three of five act structure. Not that I have any problem with those structures, and they are extremely useful things from which I draw, but it is about a much bigger conversation that that.
They are just models I suppose. That you can apply and use?
They are models. Again, they are one part of the picture. But also. Discussing them in academic terms isn’t helpful to a writer, 95% of the time – “this doesn’t adhere to a three act structure” “where’s your inciting incident? You should move it to here on page four” But actually the terms might be – but what am I trying to say…? Actually, I think what I’m trying to say is that academic terms like ‘three-act-structure’ are not helpful, but that the principles are.
Yes. It is about finding the right language. Translating things into terms that are actually useful. In the same way you might translate a work for an audience, so that is useful to those watching.
Yeah, I think that’s it.
Do you find…Obviously you’ve worked as director as well with Play, Pie, Pint and on other shows as well. Do you find that when working as a director there is a quite an overlap in terms of using a dramaturgical skill-set?
Because my work has a director has been almost exclusively with new writing – I think I could be wrong here, but there are two exceptions that where I directed extant plays – I did The Shoemaker’s Wonderful Wife, in a new version by Roxana Silbert, and The Taming of the Shrew [adapted by Sandy Nelson]. Everything else has been a brand new play, or in a near handful of instances, an adaptation of a novel or piece of prose. Everything else I’ve done has been a brand new play, and very often by a brand new or emerging writer.
In that, I have effectively been a dramaturg as well as a director.
In that sense I see no difference at all. When I go through my CV and look at the plays I have directed, I have also dramaturged all of those plays. There has been a process of dramaturgy with that writer, and sometimes – particularly on a Play, Pie, Pint project where the brilliance of it is the fast turnaround, sometimes that dramaturgy has perforce happened in rehearsal. You don’t necessarily have the luxury of a long lead-in and drafting process.
And again, the process is the same. It is just vastly concertinaed, and sometimes curtailed by the point at which the actors just need to learn their lines so the development needs to, that kind of dramaturgy has to stop. But otherwise there’s no real difference.
Sometimes I feel that thinking about roles in silos of that kind isn’t necessarily helpful. In that, most directors I know who have worked at all in new writing – whether they would consider themselves to have been dramaturges or not – have dramaturgical skills that they apply, without fail, to their processes. Sometimes you have the brilliant luxury of being a director and having a dramaturg attached, for you, and for the writer above all, to help that process. But very often you don’t.
And crucially also, because of the collaborative nature of theatre, to an extent all of the people in the room act as dramaturgs.
It’s shared, I mean an actor with a script can
Absolutely. But actually also a designer. A designer will be asking some of the fundamental questions, “What is this actually about? What is it saying?” in order to understand what their design needs to serve, or perhaps to clash with, or be in sync with. So having a dramaturg on a production is a rarity, but that doesn’t mean that productions don’t involve dramaturgy.
Yeah I think that’s really interesting. Because well as part of this research I’ve chatted people who work in dance, for example, and I think there are strong relations between the work that you do, and that Luke Pell, a dramaturg working in dance does. They might not use the word story, but it is about thinking about how you convey what you’re saying to an audience, and thinking closely about that relationship. So I guess these placeholders, even across disciplines can be really…I’m particularly interested in dramaturgy in a UK context because there aren’t very many people who are dramaturgs, and I think that’s possibly a really good thing.
…There are definitely negatives to that…especially if you’ve done a masters in dramaturgy…
But, this skill is shared in some way here. Perhaps the upside is that it might not be as tied to academia as it might be in Germany, or as hierarchical too.
…Sorry, that wasn’t a question really
I suppose also dramaturgs in a European model, a bit like Literary Managers here, can be about selecting the appropriate play for a theatre, and that theatre’s audience, at that particular time,. So that, again, here we might call that a Literary Manager but on the continent they call that a dramaturg. But again, that’s being a programmer to some extent. That’s about being able to know which plays would useful to a given audience at that given time. Knowing that you might have an audience that are really hungry for a radical reimagining of Shakespeare’s Henry VIII right now, and asking “what would it be like to bring this director to work on that, and this designer?” This kind of programming and match-making.
I suppose it might sound counter-intuitive, but do you suppose that these roles so associated with reading are actually as much about listening as well? You have to be in-tune with your audience.
Yeah, massively. So, in the play we’ve been working on in the last few days. There have been conversations about whether we are loading too much onto one character, and “is that tricky?”, and “maybe this bit is too overwritten.” But actually also, the big question underlying all of that, has been “how will the audience take this?” It is touching on some tricky and potentially controversial themes. How will the audience meet what the playwright is intending to say, or hopes that they are saying, or believes what they are saying? Might they go “That’s not what you’re saying at all”? So at that point it becomes really crucial to think about what the audience are going to take about that, and to ensure that you have a degree of control over that.
I think sometimes people can talk about an audience taking what they want from a work, “they can take this”, or “they can take that”, and sometimes it’s wonderful that that can happen, but other times it is really fucking unhelpful. I sometimes think that that can be quite a lazy way of thinking, saying that “then you can have a debate at the bar, and go is it about this, or is it about this.” How much more interesting is it to debate in the bar an issue, rather than about what it might be? To debate the thing it is about, rather than the myriad of things it might be about: a conversation about a big idea.
I guess one thing is a conversation about the work, and one is about what the work trying to do, or the issue it tried to raise. You don’t really want to come up to the bar, or at least I don’t want to come up to the bar, and talk so much about what the work was, more about what the work did.
Yeah, what it spoke to.
I mean, I do enjoy dissecting work – I mean I have to, otherwise I would really struggle to do this job! I remember a friend of mine was talking to me about my having done English Literature at Uni. He loved reading novels, but he said he didn’t want to talk about them because that just killed it for him. But for me that’s the real pleasure, and that’s what enabled me to spend four years studying it and to have a career where that is essentially the meat of what I do each day. I read a thing and then I talk about what it is like.
So of course I do enjoy talking about work, but as a pure punter going to the theatre, my interest in that is limited. What I want to do is come away and think about the ideas that the play presents, and invites me to wrestle with. You know, when I came out of Vanishing Point’s Tomorrow, I had a very immediate and visceral response to that, and then I had a longer term response about ageing, about social attitudes to care, and both of those things were really important. I did also enjoy talking about how the show worked, and what Matt Lenton was doing in constructing it, the design choices and how the ensemble worked together, but fundamentally what was really appealing to me, and has made it a show I still think about now a year and a half from when I first saw it, is the ideas contained within it, and Matt and the company’s realisation and examination of those ideas.
I would far rather have that than sitting about over a beer and going ‘Oh I think it was about this’, ‘No, I think it was about this’. I don’t give a shit about that. I’m interested in big ideas.
And I guess, it is the responsibility of artists to make bold decisions and be brave in what work is about.
I think so, unless your intention is to allow for there to be a space where we can say “maybe it is this or maybe it is that”, and you want to allow us to think about that. But on a personal level, I only have so much room in my theatrical taste for work like that.
Yeah. I guess it is just about having clarity?
Yeah, I think so. Not shying away from it. I think sometimes people can confuse being opaque or ambiguous, with being clever. I think that’s quite dangerous. Just because something is hard to understand doesn’t necessarily mean there’s something there to be understood! I don’t mind things being hard to understand if there is a reward for me in making that effort. But I want to know what you’re doing – are you deliberately applying post-modern thinking and making the point that there can’t be meaning in the universe?
If so, that’s great. I don’t object to it.
I was in a workshop recently talking about Thomas Pynchon’s novel, The Crying of Lot 49, which is essentially a story about a quest for meaning, about someone trying to make sense of something, and at the end of it Pynchon sort of cuts off short at the point at which the protagonist might be about to uncover meaning. And of course Pynchon’s point is that you can’t find any meaning, you can search and search but you won’t find it. That’s fine, because that’s actively what he is wanting to interrogate. That’s fine. But an endless ambiguity I find frustrating and, if I’m honest, slightly lazy.
I guess I use Beckett as my litmus test for stuff like that. That does have an ambiguity, but watching it I definitely know what that work is about, I definitely know it is about that lack of that thing.
And I think, again I don’t know why I’ve been thinking about this so much recently, but I find myself talking about Pynchon’s novel and about Beckett as well in relation to this. Because, particularly with something like Beckett, because it is so fucking iconic, so many writers start out wanting to write like Beckett. I certainly fucking wanted to be Beckett when I was 18/19 [the earth swallows me whole mid-interview as I realise that I still really fucking want to be Beckett – AE] and was really properly getting into reading the Beckett canon! I was like “Oh my god!!! This is amazing!!!” And of course it was decades old by that point, but it seemed so radical and fresh to me then that I couldn’t help wanting to emulate it. But again, he was writing in a mid-20th-century period of trying to make a sense of half a century of bloodshed and rapid sociological and technological change. If you look at him in that context, then that can you give you a clue about what that struggle for meaning – that ambiguity, that emptiness, that nothingness – is about.
And also, as you say, there is also this meaning within it. When you watch Beckett, certainly if you’re watching a good production of it, there is meaning. There is something about friendship and humanity…
And it’s funny as well
And it’s fucking funny as well – exactly!
Even if you’re not bothered about the philosophy, you can engage with it
Exactly, you can engage with it on a character level; and on a personal, emotional level, it makes me laugh. Vladimir and Estragon make me laugh. They are clinging to each other amidst all their frustrations and anger and boredom, and all these other things. It touches me. There’s a meaning in that.
You don’t need to take the whole thing. That’s what I find with good plays. Is that you don’t need the whole thing. I’m interested in how you can keep dramaturgies open – I talk about dramaturgy in quite a metaphorical way – but how do you keep a work open enough so that people can access it and get a thing? Whilst there is a need to have a clarity of vision and purpose, how do you keep it open so that you’re not being too didactic? Work that isn’t soap-boxy.
I suppose. At its most fundamental level it is about not over-writing, about not spoon-feeding. If you underwrite theme you are open to the charge of “it is about everything and therefore nothing.” And if you overwrite it then you’re open to the charge of “it is only about this one specific thing, and nothing else.”
So is you role, to some extent, about trying to find
That balance, about trying to always keep the audience in mind?
Yeah. Yeah. I mean it is a cliché, but looking for universality amidst specificity. That was kind of the mantra for Max Roberts, who was artistic director of Live Theatre in Newcastle where I worked for four years. That’s certainly his take on it. What is there about this that is bigger than its immediate location, and also is its immediate location tangible enough in order to feel real?
Sort of like giving you a door to open, then when you open it, there’s something amazing through it. Is there a big difference between New Writing culture here and in Newcastle? I’m just curious I guess.
I think there can be different tastes. There’s a really vibrant new writing culture in Newcastle. I think, in some companies I’ve worked for it felt like there was a particular type of play or subject matter that they were more likely to receive through their open script submissions than others. In Newcastle, for example, a significant proportion of the unsolicited scripts we were sent were about mining, miners, pit-closures, miners’ strikes, pit disasters, mining villages and mining communities. It’s a significant part of the North East of England’s industrial and cultural heritage and so many writers have a desire to speak to that, but also because Live Theatre has in its history staged a couple of great pieces of work on that very subject: Lee Hall’s The Pitmen Painters, which toured extensively and was on at the National Theatre, and Close the Coalhouse Door by Alan Plater based on stories by Sid Chaplin.
What’s interesting though is that I’ve been at The Traverse for over a year and I don’t know if I can identify a type of play we get, or a prevailing subject, and that’s quite exciting that we get such a range of plays and styles. That’s lovely – to receive a really diverse range of stories and ideas.
Do you think that is because The Traverse is a New Writing figurehead for Scotland?
Maybe the Traverse has a broad constituency because we are in the very fortunate position of being known nationally and internationally. Part of that is about our long history, this is what we’ve been doing since 1963. Also because of Edinburgh’s place in the theatre ecology, that this is ‘the festival city’. It gives us a quite particular platform. So that people don’t associate us with just one thing. Maybe that’s it.
In terms of thinking about terms. The term dramaturg, how useful do you find it? A lot of people, at least from my experience, seem to avoid it. It feels very loaded with academia and a privileged position of knowledge.
I think you’re right. People can be suspicious of it, and uncomfortable with it, and even unsure what it means. Even if you’re working with an actor who is great at workshopping plays, they might sometimes be suspicious about the term dramaturg/dramaturgy. Even though that’s what they do, and they do it brilliantly.
There’s something about it that to some people feels too intellectual, too academic for people, too removed from the nuts and bolts of just getting a play on and putting it in front of an audience. Sometimes people can be a bit anxious or suspicious of that.
And sometimes people can think “hold on, I don’t want someone coming in telling me how to write my play.”
Which is fair enough. Most people I know have had a very bad experience of working with a dramaturg. I’m interested in why that is. How do you find that, negotiating those relationships with writers? Do you sit in on rehearsals as well?
I do – sit in on rehearsals, talk to the director about how the play is progressing. With a new play there will always be cuts, amendments, scenes getting moved around, and so on. Being that pair of eyes, the person who’s not there to look at the performances so much as to ask “what is the story we are trying to tell?” And sometimes that can be about being a voice for the writer, saying “why have we cut this, is that the right way to go, maybe we need that, maybe we aren’t spending enough time on that.”
Like an advocate almost
Yeah. Sometimes it can be that. Very often it can also be an advocate for the audience. Thinking, “what are they going to take from this? What does this part mean in this context? Why are we spending so much time on this when the meat of this is here?”
I’m curious with the research I’m doing whether. Because I think talking about dramaturgy isn’t a massive thing in Scotland, there is not a great degree of dialogue around it. Is that something you’d agree with?
I think de-mystifying it is all to the good. To come back a bit, to your question about managing relationships with writers, and why it is that writers have had bad experiences with dramaturgs. I think that a lot of writers would also say they’ve had bad experiences with directors, or with actors too.
Because theatre is collaborative there are partnerships that really work and that really connect in what you’re trying to say, but sometimes they don’t. To an extent, that’s the nature of the beast. And. also, dramaturgy is criticism, and criticism can be hard to take, and learning to take it is difficult. That is something that a director or an actor will experience as much as a writer will. Here is somebody telling you about what they think about your piece of work, and how they think you should do it differently, or better.
It takes a long time, and a lot of work, to be able to hear those things. I mean to really hear them. And not to feel pained by them. And be able to see them as comments on something external to you. It’s really hard.
There are some actors who struggle to take a note because it is a piece of criticism about their work and there are directors who don’t look at their reviews, and who don’t like letting people into the rehearsal room, because it can be a criticism about their work.
So much of it is about learning how to listen and absorb criticism. Some of that is being able to say, “I disagree with that bit, but this bit is really useful to me.” Or “I don’t know what to do with that piece of criticism, I’m going to have to let that sit, and percolate, and allow myself the time to reflect on it, and maybe come back to it.”
And that, being able to hear what somebody else thinks about your work, is utterly fundamental to what we do in theatre. It is a hard thing to learn, for all of us.
And conversely, it is also a hard skill to learn to give that critique, in a way that’s helpful. It can be very painful to some degree, because these relationships are so very personal. It is a very personal thing. And for a writer who may have spent months on their own, working really fucking hard – researching, putting their own thoughts, personal experiences, into it, living in the world of the play – it’s something that can feel quite internal to them. Exposing that is an enormously brave act. And so it does behove anyone working with that writer to remember the difficulty, the level of emotional and intellectual engagement a writer has had with that piece of work. You have to be respectful of that.
But that hard thing is as well, is that if you are too scared of hurting the writer’s feelings, you cannot give good feedback. I remember, the hardest note I ever had to give a writer, was the note I absolutely had to give before I could give anything else. It took me six months to give this note but when I did it changed everything. The writer found it really difficult at first – and it was a writer I was good friends with, really fond of. I found it difficult to give that note, and when I did it was really difficult, it was awkward – we had to not hang out for a little while! Not in a sort of ‘oh I’m not speaking to you’, but a ‘okay I’ve taken that note, fine. We’re probably not going to text each other for a little bit, and let that hang.’
But that writer has also since told me, while we were putting that same show on ‘Yeah, that was just what I needed to do.’
And it is hard. It is really hard. But we need to find ways as dramaturgs of giving the hard notes, in a way that is said with kindness and supportiveness such that it can be heard, but also with enough clarity and certainty, avoiding ambiguity, so that it can either be understood and implemented, or discussed and argued with – there can be a conversation about it. If one dances around the point too much, then there is no dramaturgy. There’s just the vagueness of ‘and maybe you could shape it a bit more so the audience feel it.’ And that means nothing. Tell us what’s wrong with the play.
It is a fine balancing act that you are performing. But it is really important to get it right.
I think part of the issue with it is that people perhaps first encounter critique in quite a public way. In the form of reviews. And I think, without wanting to go too much into the state of the short, 400 word, star-rating review,
Yes and the problems inherent in that
But that is the way people encounter critique first. I think in Scotland at least, there does seem to be a real lack of more long-form critique. Or critique that isn’t necessarily written down and published. What is it to be a critic that after the show just talks to people? Most people don’t write reviews for payment any more anyway, so. Yeah.
Yeah. There’s probably a whole other interview we could do on criticism.
Thank you very much for your time
You’re very welcome, I really enjoyed that