Improvising, listening and keeping yourself attentive: talking dramaturgy with Carolina Ravaioli

Carolina Ravaioli is a an Italian Scottish based dance artist trained at London’s Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance. Her practice is focused on the exploration of the body in space and architecture, trans-disciplinary connections and movement improvisation. I met with Carolina on the 5th of December 2017 at a cafe in central Edinburgh to talk some dramaturgy.

To start off, I know your background is in dance performance, so I wanted to ask about what your experience was of dramaturgy coming to it as a dancer or somebody making dance? Where have you encountered it previously?

So even though I was working as a performer, I was working a lot with Mark Bleakley, who is a visual artist (also Break dancer), and I’ve been working with for quite a bit now, about three years in and off. We did a performance together and we just got to talking about performances we’d like, kind of chatting about our perspectives on works we’ve seen. Both of us are very positively critical – and we found ourselves having the same kind of issues with what we were seeing in performance nowadays. We weren’t really convinced with how the work was being presented – and how dance was being presented, because dance has so many faces.

You were both having the same critical positions?

Yeah, kind of. And because we both sort of appreciated that, when it came to his own work I started, kinda, going along, and he was like, “why don’t you come in”, you know? And I just realised, I had this natural intuition, I guess a blend of knowledge built up till now that I didn’t know I could use that way – also the performance skills that he didn’t have because of his visual arts background, so you know he really needed a hand with regards to what he wanted to express, in terms of the space, moving a body in space, the relationship between movement and audience and so on. He used visual arts and movement altogether, which is very tricky sometimes, it’s hard to balance.

MarkBleakley. A Boy Stands in for a Rock or Vice Versa. 2016. Erika Stevenson

1. Philip McDonald performing in Mark Bleakley’s A Boy Stands in for a Rock or Vice Versa. Performed with Katie Miller and Carolina Ravaioli, 2016. Photo Credit: Erika Stevenson.

What do you think are the difficulties of blending those two forms together?

I mean I wouldn’t say difficulties, I’d say challenges – and it’s exciting as well. Exciting for me because I would just express an idea and then see straight away if it worked or if it didn’t. That’s how I got to know dramaturgy, I didn’t even know what I was actually doing really at that point a part from trying to help a friend ahah But going back to the question, I think dramaturgy is complex because you have two or more people in the room who are collaborating, and each of you have a background, each of you have a taste. So how do you leave your taste to serve what the choreographer or the artist is asking you to achieve? I guess no one can train you for that but practice within the process of being there for someone else.

Do you view it in that way? Such that, when you’re working with this visual artist, on a project, that your taste has to – in some way – be put aside? So the main way I work as a dramaturg right, beside doing this, is with a performance and visual artist called Carrie Skinner. I find, when I work with her, a lot of the time what’s useful to Carrie if I just express my genuine taste, my response to what she’s doing. So I wonder with what you’re describing, how much of it is about setting things down, finding this neutral supportive role; and how much of it is you having your own taste?

I think. It’s tricky. I’ve found myself having to stop myself from responding straight away, and more asking the artist “what do you want?”, “what are you trying to express?” Because if you tell me you’re wanting to express something that I think it shouldn’t be that, I would still work with what you want. As a dramaturg, which I also call The outside eye really agreeing with Janice Parker, you are also always sort of part of the audience, so in a way you can soften your way of perceiving things, put yourself in their shoes. If you know what I mean?

Definitely. That softening. Trying to, I think, be putting yourself in some else’s shoes is a good way to put it.

But still, I think, surely if an artist chooses a certain person, a certain dramaturg, to assist, to be an outside eye, to give feedback or suggestions, surely there must be something that connects the two people.

Something personal – that’s about the two people.


Not personal in, like a – romantic way! But an artistic way

Definitely. I do, with Mark, I wouldn’t have had this opportunity if we didn’t have performances together, chats together, concerns for art – you know, all those really rich chats. I don’t think that if he didn’t like what I was saying he would have asked me to [work as a dramaturg with him].

Do you think “trust” – it’s a word that seems to come up a lot in the conversations, and is perhaps a reason why it is hard to find a formal route into dramaturgy, one that’s got payment for your work from the off. I was wondering if that was your experience as well, that working with an artist closely requires trust from the artist about being able to take criticism and for the person giving that criticism to be okay to have that criticism sometimes not listened to as well.

Absolutely. I think there is. Yeah. It’s tricky because obviously you’re only the expert from your background. I don’t think you can transcend that, at the end of the day you’re still yourself. You can just try to separate these two things.

And on the other side it is the artists work – and I think that’s something the dramaturg should respect. I think its really hard to make that decision, to work with a dramaturg, because sometimes it is hard to critique yourself and admit that maybe you should go deeper, or maybe you should just change directions and go somewhere else. So it’s like looking at what you avoid about yourself. And the moment you have someone in who might lead you somewhere else, somewhere different, I think you need to be ready for that – to take the challenge.

It’s quite a disruptive presence potentially. So I’ve been on both sides, working with a dramaturg and as a dramaturg. As a dramaturg you can have a real impact and an artist has to be quite open to being…impacted on, I guess.

And I think, it’s tricky, because there’s pressure on both sides – I guess. We [dramaturgs] also have that pressure of not responding in a particular way to what the artist wants, not being able to give the right suggestions, help, feedback or just not being able to see what could be next.

It’s like, there are two pressure points.

And how do you manage that pressure, as a dramaturg in a relationship with an artist? How do you negotiate that tension? What are constructive ways to work with as an artist as a dramaturg that make that process alright, and not always…painful?

I mean. I think. I come from the point of view that a dramaturg has to be a very good observer and a very good listener. It’s fundamental. I think it comes from the real basics of relationships, you know. Just being able to see their reasons. I think if you approach the difficulties that an artist is encountering, if you approach them in a good way, observing them, try to go around them, find a way to not disrupt but try and pull it towards you, not in a bad way but helpful instead.

Something quite gently, teasing it out – like massaging it…rather than punching

Yeah I don’t think punching it out, yeah, it doesn’t work in a relationship. I don’t think it works because its two negative energies together, how is that even possible? Even though that’s our instinct, you know, like “you’ve disrupted my way so I’ll have to disrupt yours”

Then it’s just a fight – and no one wants that.


Do you think dramaturgy is quite a slow process?

I think it should be.

I mean it gets even longer if you don’t know the person. Well, I think so. I always think you should have at least three sessions, like, a meeting, something in the studio where you can kind of understand – from a dramaturg’s point of view – what the artist is asking you and if you’re actually capable of offering that. Sometimes I’m like “I’ll take it” but then it’s difficult for me because I realise I don’t actually believe in or like the work that you are doing – and that’s a personal taste. So I’d be very harsh on my suggestions if it was a first draft just like this.

But if you come to me and you tell me “Look, I don’t know what to do with this, can you help me to challenge it, open it up?” – then I might consider doing it, because you are asking for my help to go somewhere else.

Yes – rather than just having a finished thing for you to comment on. Is it more about having a process where you don’t quite know what the end result is? Is that a fair summation?

Yeah. It’s tricky because I know that the reason I’m so passionate [about dramaturgy] is that it comes from my experiences as an artist first. I know what it means to have to work with your mind and your body, and have someone telling you if it is okay or its not, you know? And it’s your mind and your body! Which shouldn’t be right or wrong! But its about whether someone else can recognise what it is you are doing.

Absolutely. Yeah. So I’m working on a performance piece right now and I find it phenomenally useful

– and it’s theatre right?

It’s improvised poetry and movement. So it’s useful because having a dramaturg in some way takes the pressure off me having to constantly criticise myself, because there’s someone else in the room who has the responsibility for that – and sometimes they can do that much more effectively than I can do that because they also happen to not be me. I don’t realise the mistakes I’m making.

But do you think that’s possible because you’ve been on both sides [of that relationship]?

I think that definitely helps. I think it helps because sometimes I can understand why he – Paul Hughes – is saying the things he is saying, even if they make me go “oof” and I feel a bit of pain and feel sad. I can recognise he’s probably not saying those to hurt my feelings. But I think that’s a really hard thing to learn.

So have you worked with a dramaturg on your own performances?

Yes. You see it’s tricky because for instance I performed for Luke Pell, in his last work In The Ink Dark, where he was maker and curator but he’s also a dramaturg (sometimes I do get confused on all those labels so I do apologies!) – and to work with him is wonderful if you like to have a critical mind, or an actively thinking one in the process of being a performer because there is so much sharing of thoughts. So much sharing of individual process within the process, your mind is 100% all the time.

In The Ink Dark. Luke Pell. Leith Theatre, June 2017

2. In The Ink Dark, 2017. Made by Luke Pell. Performed by Kitty Fedorec, Robert Hesp, Alex McCabe,
Katie Miller, Janice Parker, Carolina Ravaioli,
Jak Soroka and Richard White. Photo Credit: Brian Hartley.

And he’s a great, I don’t want to call him choreographer…he’s a great maker, dramaturg, curator, artist and person because he’s very open to receiving whatever thoughts you have. He doesn’t mean he will necessarily make something out of it but he’s always ready for an exchange and he will write your thoughts down anyway because he gives them a certain value.

He listens really effectively

So he was my mentor for my first year here. I was part of a mentorship programme at Dance Base called DEBS. He was mentoring me, which was amazing, because we had this exchange for a whole year and still have it. A very honest, genuine, levelled exchange, if you know what I mean. The exchange of two artists where our roles actually faded for a bit almost.

And yeah, that listening quality is key. Because if I know you’re listening then I’m going to become more open, you know. And so, going back to In The Ink Dark, working with him and a whole team who were like-minded, intensely in a room together for a month, it was a fantastic thing. Everyone could critique himself or herself and listen to each others thoughts. It was just endless exchange of ideas.

So in a way you had a dramaturg out of everything that everyone brought together.

Yeah! I think a good dramaturg is as much about facilitating the people in the process to think dramaturgically, rather than necessarily – because you have that problem with dramaturgy, where a lot of people are sceptical or even fearful of that role because there’s that idea of the knowledgable person who sits in the corner of the room, stroking their beard, who then says something mean. You know?

I think, from my conversation with Luke as part of this research, his approach was as much about facilitating people to think dramaturgically as him doing all that thinking himself.

And I wonder if it is also something you have naturally. It’s about intuition about the way you tend to approach work.

So, I remember, I was working on this work-in-progress called Shoelaces with Mark and we were creating something together. It was in a really early stage but we had a residency at Dance Base and shared this work at the end of the week. We still had so many questions, which was ok for the way in which we presented it, that we felt excited but uncertain in a way – we kind of knew what we wanted out of it but couldn’t verbalize it really – and I just remember Luke came up to me and I asked “What did you feel about it, what did you think?”

And he just went from section to section, describing it. And I was like, oh my god, that was actually what we wanted to achieve, what we thought if it (and most of it was our abstract thought if that makes sense)!

Yeah. It’s like, how do you that that in fifteen minutes, to actually have all those thoughts?! Very clear thoughts, very clear images, yeah.

Do you think that act of describing – was he essentially describing the work back to you, telling you what you’d already done?

He was just like “I saw this, I saw this”

Again, it’s not “I think”, it’s “I saw” and I am conscious how subtle those things we wanted to transmit were!

I’m basically telling you what you were trying to tell me, without telling you what I was thinking about. It’s a way to tell you what the work was.

Yeah, because I think, what sometimes you really want when you are showing work, is to find someone who can just tell you what it is they just saw, quite literally, then that’s quite a good way to ask if the thing you think you are doing is the thing that is actually happening for the audience.

Another good reason to have a dramaturg is that there is this culture of sharing, of inviting audience feedback, q + a kind of moments – and who, in the space of ten minutes, is going to helpfully question a work that you’ve been developing for a bit of time, I don’t know even just a week, it is not ten minutes. It’s tricky, I think. People in general, not just dramaturgs, I think should invest time in feeding back. To go “Hi, I was interested in your work…” – and that interest can be negative or positive “…do you mind if we talk about your work? To create a conversation that is actually useful.

Yeah I think – often I work as a playwright you get a lot of q + as after you’ve shown a piece of work in development and they are always really complicated experiences because it’s just not a good environment to develop the work because I think you need to have – as you’re saying – those longer conversations.

Yeah, that meeting point with an audience isn’t intended necessarily as a means to develop the work – that’s the work happening. They feel like two different occurrences in the process of a piece of work.

Sorry – that was a bit of a rant. I think I’m very sceptical about the benefit of these sharings, and if you can have a dramaturg over a long period of time, that process is much more beneficial.

Yeah. And also. You know. Dramaturgs get paid. It’s their job. Not that I would do it in any way differently but if you don’t get paid you feel you have the right to be just like “whatever”.

You don’t have the same responsibilities, don’t feel accountable in the same way

You don’t get paid.

And it is a job as well. It is a skill, being able to critique a piece of work helpfully is something you have to practise at and train for.

Yeah. But as dramaturgs we should never feel that we have this right to speak these words of wisdom, because it is really relative as to whether your words are wisdom at any given moment. It goes back to listening. If you’re not listening, I find it difficult to believe you’re going to say anything useful.

And I think, being the right dramaturg for a project is really crucial as well. Sometimes I might be watching something, thinking critically about it, and at the same time it is obvious to me that I’m not useful to this work. Maybe it is a matter of taste or maybe I just don’t know anything about the work or the discipline. If I go to watch a piece of puppetry, for example, I know nothing about that, so there’s little use in me critiquing on that. I just become an idiot with a trumped up sense of my own self-importance then.

And it’s good to have that honesty!

Otherwise you get yourself into a problem. I’ve definitely got into projects where I’ve realised I’m not a good fit for it. When you start out there’s that pressure to just take anything that comes your way.

But I guess that’s a good way to understand what you like and what you don’t.

I think it happened more than once that I went to see work that was really easy to watch, and it as just what I needed. I just wanted not to have to overthink. Just to watch and enjoy. That’s really valid. No one is pretending that it is something else.

I think there’s something to be said for the idea that while dramaturgy can be quite intellectual, you can work on projects that don’t engage with their audience in that way. Dramaturgy isn’t always about intellect, it can be about image or emotion.


Well I’ve been asked to choreograph a piece for a theatre production by Carlo Pirozzi in Edinburgh. So the work I need to produce is about ‘Migration’ which is like …


…it’s a big topic that I need to narrow down to a 10-15 minute piece of work as part of a larger work.

And I was actually asking the producer, “This is a really heavy topic, so, you have to choose what you want to get out of it. What do you want the movement to express? Do you want to talk about how sad and difficult it is for immigrants to travel? Keep it dark. Or do you want to give a message of hope?”

It’s a huge topic. I guess my approach in a situation like that, if the thing is something really weighty or dark, is to against the grain and find the other thing within it.

So that’s what I said, but I’ve got the feeling that as an Italian theatre producer, and again I don’t know much about theatre so I’m only assuming, he wants to really show the drama, you know? Us Italians, we are very passionate ahah So I need to see the bigger picture because I will have to make a piece of work that marries the bigger work you know, and I can’t make individual choices because it’s a commission. Of course I will inform him on how my own process of the making of the work is developing in the meanwhile so that we can take action together.

With that project, how do you think you’ll go about trying to separate those two roles, maker and dramaturg?

I don’t know if it is about separation but the way I would approach it in general, whether it is about moving, creating or thinking, is to find the thread. As a dramaturg if I want the work to be about hope rather than darkness, that will inform my dancers and the way they will go researching their own movement vocabulary in that particular context.

It makes it sound a bit like Dominoes. As long as you’ve got that one thing then the rest follows.

I was curious to ask about improvisation. I was looking at your website and saw Art Suite – a collaboration you did with Blair Coron and Salvino Volpe.


3. Art Suite, 2015. Carolina Ravaioli performing with Blair Coron and Salvino Volpe. Photo Credit: Wee Theatres Glasgow

That was difficult

As a process? It was like a mini-happening almost, I guess

Yeah that was difficult. Like, just compromise, not compromising, but listening and trying to

Active listening, between disciplines

Yeah. You could say it was just like ‘you paint something, you play something and you move something’. It seems quite simplistic but its not.

I’m very precise when it comes to my work, like extremely precise. And if I don’t feel like the work met its potential, aaaah, I get very frustrated. But it was interesting, it was fabulous, Blair is an amazing musician, so is Salvino [an amazing painter]. But the three of us had really different backgrounds, really different ways of working with people

And maybe that’s okay? Maybe that’s something that’s interesting for an audience watching it? Seeing these three people try

and struggle

Yeah, the struggle is the interesting bit. Watching three people try to collaborate across disciplines. I remember seeing and being fascinated by it.

Sorry was that the question – did I answer it?!

I think the thing I wanted to ask about was…So I work a lot with improvisation a lot at the moment, and I chatted to an improviser as part of the first year of this project, and I’m thinking sort of about improvisational dramaturgy and what that is. There’s a false impression with improv that you just turn up and make it all up. When actually, or at least what I find, is that there’s quite a lot of structuring that goes on, that then produces the work.

So I was thinking about the dramaturgy of improvisation – and how you, in your own work, approach that. How do you, I suppose, when you improvise…because I find I generate the dramaturgy as I’m doing, so I create the arc through the performance.

I was wondering whether
A) That was your experience of doing it?
B) What were the things, the ways, that you set up improvisation. What were the dramaturgical foundations for the work to then be improvised through?

That’s quite a complicated question, that’s not particularly well-worded yet….

Yeah I mean I think it is complicated for me because I really need to concentrate on separating the two, dramaturgy and performing…I mean, it is tricky because I think you set the base of knowing what the score of the improvisation is, in terms of like, whether it is a theatre performance or dance performance and so on, so you can already start to narrow your options in terms of what you’re looking for.

Without it is like –


Yeah. And I’m going to be honest, I don’t know much in terms of theatre performance. But in dance performance I know that it can be very structured, but the audience still don’t get it. And, most of the time that’s the case. It doesn’t mean they don’t understand the performance itself but that they don’t get how it has been produced, how it has been made, what the structure is. They don’t get the clarity of going from one thing to another one because it is like, you’ve just got a body moving in space, basically, and a lot of the changes, passages are subtle.

So I guess, in a dramaturgical way, you need to observe how those subtle changes make the whole thing.

And it is not necessarily about offering out to the audience the precise things it is that you are doing. It is a bit like a magic trick, you don’t want to reveal the mechanisms, because they are relevant to their enjoyment of the work.

It’s a way of making material

Rather than being the material itself?

Yeah. The reason why it is exciting – I mean it can be exciting, both ways – …sorry I got distracted by this song…

So the reason improvisation is exciting is because it keeps your mind and body attentive, active all the time – because it is not something that is set, as a shape or a movement. You know, also, I think what a dramaturg should do – the boundary that he should set within the performance – that it is really difficult for the artist or maker to set – is “how is all of this going to be perceived?” Because I think, when you’re a maker of improvisational performance, whether it is durational or not, it takes a lot of you.

Because you’re doing so much

It’s like you’re trying to understand how to keep this thing alive. You know, without dropping it. It is so easy to slip into that mode of “oh I’m improvising, I’ll do whatever I want!”

Or habits. I find – when I’m improvising a lot – I find myself realising that I’ve done this piece of work like twenty times before.

Yeah, because you get mentally tired to look for something constantly. So I think, yeah, I think the dramaturg is a really important role when it comes to improvisational work because you can set any boundaries you want as a maker but still they are boundaries inside the work, you know? Also most improvisational work is quite interactive, with the audience, so the setting is not theatrical.

Something more immediate?

Yeah. With Luke [on In the Ink Dark] we had people everywhere.


4. In The Ink Dark, 2017. Made by Luke Pell. Performed by Kitty Fedorec, Robert Hesp, Alex McCabe,
Katie Miller, Janice Parker, Carolina Ravaioli,
Jak Soroka and Richard White. Photo Credit: Brian Hartley.

You performed
among the audience?

It was amazing. And you see we talk about all of this, because we think, and we try, and blah blah blah – and I feel like then you get into the moment of the performance where everything is positively constructive. Because we’re humans and what you get from other humans is going to change everything else

A totally unknown quality

Yeah that affects the choices you make. Because in improvised work the choices you are going to make are going to be really different.

Which I think is interesting for a dramaturg because you work, you work, you work and try and set something on top of something that is never going to be set. You try to predict

And as soon as it meets the audience it sort of like, changes

Which I think everyone expects – and everyone is very excited about it.

I also think you can, kind of, predict a result. Not predict a result. But you can kind of know if it is going to be a positive response or a positive stimuli for and from the audience, because if the score and the structure is strong, then

It encourages that positive response? That’s part of the skill of making it

Yeah. If I come to you and am like “look” – and am confident with what I’m doing. Then no matter what I’m doing then that’s what you get, that’s what you perceive.

And I, as an audience member, invest in it

There is this exchange. And I’ve seen it in my work as well as in other works as well – and in improvisation you have to go for it. There is no holding back. If you’re not in the process then that means you don’t trust yourself, and that won’t work.

I find there’s two things going on when I improvise. Part of me is really “in it” and the other part is this dramaturgical awareness that kicks in. So I do a lot of stuff where I never look at the audience – so I describe an image to the audience that they can’t see, focusing my vision entirely on that image. But there’s definitely a part of my vision, an awareness or periphery, that’s just watching the audience and listening for what things are working.

A quality of being both totally in the performance and totally detached from it as well.

It’s the reason I like it, that total investment and then something about improvisation that demands a significant degree of dramaturgical awareness. Possibly because it is being generated in the moment.


I recently saw a performance, like a month ago or something. And it was like … I left and I was so angry, just so angry, because it seemed to me…that it didn’t have a dramaturg

And what made you so angry about it?

First of all, because of my background I know what I’m seeing. So what I saw was basically a bunch of amazing dancers, amazing bodies, amazing improvisational skills…which doesn’t mean you have a lot of process behind going on in your mind…it means you are good at moving within the space, with your body, with awareness – and it was amazing, you have to train a lot for that. And I know that because I’ve done it, you know, for three years when I was at Laban in London.

And then, I was like, it was the most cliché contemporary dance piece. You know…. Nudity, for example. I’m not saying you don’t have to use nudity but there has to be some sort of, you know. I feel like nowadays there is not much respect for the human body any more because it [nudity] is used because it will create certain kind of scandal anyway. A certain kind of ‘woah’ – and it’s like…no

It’s a cliché. Definitely. You’ve got to be skilled with how you use it, otherwise as an audience member I just switch off. It’s got to be framed in a useful way.

So. It was that. it was like seeing an improv class, with everyone just moving around the space together with some spatial settings and some rules.

And then, this nudity.

And the thing is, I was walking to the station and I met a couple of dancers from the performance. And obviously I said what I thought – that they were amazing dancers…I was asking them, it wasn’t mean at all I would never, I was asking them a question. I was like “How did you create this movement, what was it about?” and they couldn’t answer to me. They didn’t know. Absolutely nothing. Like ‘Eeeeemmmm, I guess, just kind of…”

Lacking that engagement, I guess?

All of this is to say. It makes me angry because. They have so many resources, not just money but in terms of who you work with. But it makes me wonder why they don’t use them. The piece doesn’t have to be about anything or have a plot or deep meaning, but at least just knowing what the movement research was about or the thread of all. I reached a point where I wasn’t angry because I thought maybe that’s just all he knows, he’s doing what he knows. And if no one cares about putting someone in there, beside him, like a good dramaturg, to help him towards the best work he can do – then it is not his fault. It’s just the whole dance scene that’s allowing this to happen.

A good process – or this tends to be my experience – is one where you don’t know what you’re doing for quite a long period of it. Being a dramaturg, is perhaps, in some ways, about being the person in the room who sticks up for the idea of not knowing what you’re doing, for as long as possible. Of course once you get to the production, for everyone’s comfort you need to know what you’re doing.


I quite like the idea of being the dramaturgical idiot

Because you detach?

From any idea of what the work already is. Because I think as an artist you want to desperately know what you are doing all of the time.

I think it gets too much to be honest. It’s so hard. Especially at the beginning. You could do with an extra pair of eyes for sure!

Image sources



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