One of the main things I wanted to talk to you about was How to Act. I remember chatting to you when I was studying the MLitt Playwriting and Dramaturgy course at Glasgow University, and talking to you about the process of adapting the tragic form into a contemporary context. I was interested in what was your motivation behind undertaking that process and ultimately what choices you had to make in doing so – what bits of the tragic form did you have to keep and what did you have to throw away?
The motivation behind it came from a few different bits of work and thinking that I was doing. Mainly my practice-as-research PhD at Lancaster University, which actually started out exploring the relation between theatre and visual art, looking at some of the shows I’ve done across those two disciplines. Very quickly that research started looking at different ideas of truth, and particularly the way certain visual art practice and thinking has conceptualised truth, and the way that theatre has a perceived problematic relationship to truth.
I was interested in an anti-theatrical strand of visual art thinking, people like Michael Freed in the 60’s, who talked about theatre as this sort of corrupt art form, and how it was infecting visual art – theatricality in visual art being seen as some sort of crisis in modernism. Then also people like Marina Abramović, who described theatre as the enemy of her artistic practice – because it is “fake” and what she does is “true.”
So it was about different ways of looking at truth and different philosophies of truth. Then very quickly – I think – if you start researching these different philosophies of truth and theatricality, you come up against tragedy, and Greek tragedy as a very particular moment in the development of our ideas about truth.
Is that about the sort of self-discovery of truth? To my understanding Tragedy is a lot about a figure who learns that they are the cause of their own downfall, before it is too late.
I think I would describe it as the idea that conceptualising truth is problematic, and an idea that tragedy – for people like Hegel – is the staging of two irreconcilable claims to truth. So Antigone and Creon for example, they both feel like they are acting from – speaking from – a place of truth. Yet their versions of truth, so the play shows us, are tragically irreconcilable, and that this problematic idea of truth is the engine behind people’s self-discovery, and usually the crises that ensue. So in a way you could say that what tragedy is staging is the necessary crisis of a kind of homogeneous, singular, self-identified kind of truth. Oedipus thinks he knows who he is, has a very solid sense of that truth, but what the play does is show us how those very solid and fundamental foundations of truth can be in fact unstable and contingent.
That’s why Plato had such a problem with tragedy. At the same time as Greek tragedy was being performed Plato was trying to develop the discipline that we now know as philosophy – this very singular pursuit of a transcendent idea of truth. And understandably he saw tragedy and the theatre more generally as a challenge to that more stable, pure idea of truth.
An ideological purity of some kind, that always holds
Exactly. It is the sun in Plato’s cave analogy. The thing that is outside of the theatrical darkness of the cave, that we’re trying to grope our way towards, that is the sun. The sun of truth. Which you know, then becomes – to generalise massively – God, and maybe now is science or a kind of rational idea of science. These external, verifiable transcendent truths that give meaning to everything else.
And what theatre offers – and tragedy as a very quintessential form of theatre (one might argue) – is the idea of truth as contingent. As something that’s to do with the relationship of the self to the world around it at any given point and how this relationship shifts and is constantly called into question and undermined.
So, I suppose, I was interested in all of that!
And I suppose with that context, the allusions to Peter Brook are quite clear
Was your attraction to site-ing that tragedy within that, sort of, “post-colonial” context?
Like a lot of things it was sort of happy coincidence. As I was researching these ideas around tragedy I also read Conference of the Birds, which is this amazing book about Peter Brook’s trip with his company of actors to Africa during the 1960s. I kind of love it, and I hugely admire Peter Brook. I mean I’ve got problems with some of the work, like you have with everyone’s, but he is obviously someone… a key figure – a figure I have a lot of respect for. Even Conference of the Birds, which is this farcical journey through Africa where you have these leading actors – Helen Mirren went, Bruce Myers – famous people, blundering into the forest and getting lost. And also sort of presuming they have some sort of universal truth to communicate to the people that live there.
It’s very problematic, but also kind of beautiful. It is a really lovely thing to read because it is utopian, you know? As well being politically problematic they are engaged in a really pure hearted utopian pursuit. So, it was never for me about a straightforward critique of that.
I guess that’s where the tragedy comes in. Because I’d guess they genuinely believe they were doing something useful.
Completely. You wouldn’t do that otherwise. So there’s this really interesting idea in tragedy that the way you can define a protagonist is as “the guilty guiltless one”. They are both these things at the same time – and actually not just in terms of self-deception but you could also argue that they are guilty and guiltless in very fundamental ways.
So I was interested in that contradiction and how that might relate to what have become some of the foundational ideas of theatre practice. Although we might not be so arrogant as to launch a tour around African villages – well we might actually because there are contemporary equivalents of that…and indeed I’ve probably been engaged in some of those contemporary equivalents – but we might have a slightly more complicated view now I guess. Despite that I still think that some of those ideas that allow for that approach, they are still very prominent in a western theatre practice. I think they speak to the heart of what we think theatre can achieve and what is it able to communicate.
So, I think what is beneath Peter Brook’s trip to Africa and similar pursuits is this idea that there is a common universal truth, and if only we could overcome the boundaries of language and cultural difference, if we could scrape all that superficial stuff away, we’d able to uncover and share this truth with everyone through our theatrical practice.
That’s the sun then?
The sun would come out and bathe us all…
…in its theatrical light
And you know, I definitely recognise that. I mean you wouldn’t talk about it in those terms but I know a lot of theatre-makers who still talk about “the village campfire” and how really, underneath it all, we are these kind of primal storytellers and that there’s this essential moment of communion that theatre realises. That this is about something universal.
So it was about recognising all of that and wanting to, then, oppose it with, and complicate that with, an idea of specificity: the idea that these barriers aren’t superficial barriers but are the historical, cultural and economic circumstances in which we exist and they are “it”. They define difference and really we need to acknowledge that difference in order to overcome it rather than pretend it doesn’t exist. That’s the point of view that the character of ‘Promise’ is trying to put across.
To change tack a little bit. I was wondering whether there are people you would identify as working with you in a dramaturgical capacity, people you’d look at and go “yes, they are fulfilling that dramaturgical role”, even if they aren’t called by that name. And I was chatting to a previous interviewee (publication forthcoming) and he offered the opinion that he wouldn’t work with a dramaturg who wasn’t already an experienced writer or director. I was wondering what you take on that would be. I suppose, I’m part of the output of a course that is producing people who might first describe themselves as a dramaturg, and I’m wondering what your opinion is about how much experience someone would have to have so as to be attractive for you to work with?
It’s a really interesting question. The more I’ve thought about it over recent years, the more I see dramaturgy as the key thing that I do. I would say that, and you know everyone has a different way to describe their practice and how they make work, my work is quite diverse. I’ve always had a slightly “jack of all trades” approach to working in different disciplines, with different types of people, in different contexts. I would say that the one thing that’s constant in my involvement in all of those different contexts is dramaturgy as a completely central activity. I would sort of put it even before directing. So, even though I might be employed as a director on a piece, I would say the thing, the activity, that pre-exists that role and then continues through that directorial role, is a dramaturgical one.
So, how would you separate those two?
Well you see I’m not sure I would, I think that’s what I’m saying in answer to your question. I think you are a writer and you are a dramaturg, or you are a director and a dramaturg, and they fuse into each other. But I don’t think that means you can’t have a dramaturg who isn’t a writer or a director.
It was my work in visual art that made me really question what my role is when working in collaboration with artists like Simon Starling or Graham Fagen. You know, artists who normally work outside of a collaborative context, who author work but have developed an interest in theatre and theatricality and want to bring in someone to help explore that. That’s usually how I end up working with these people.
And I think the key thing I bring to them – and they perhaps would never articulate it like this – the key thing that I really do in those collaborative, interdisciplinary situations is dramaturgy. So I might end up directing, but in the show I did with Simon Starling at Holmwood House for example, At Twilight, I directed those actors but I also co-wrote the script and was involved with the whole way that part of the project was composed.
I’m drawn to that definition of dramaturgy as “composition in process”. I think it is Cathy Turner who mentions that. “Composition in process.”
(Note: see Cathy Turner’s book, Dramaturgy and Performance, for more)
And it’s that compositional activity that I see in all of my work, from those visual art collaborations through to the shows like Lanark. The way David Greig and I have collaborated over the years, and not just us – the whole team that was involved in those projects – was through a kind of a collaborative dramaturgy. Which again, is not to under-estimate the writer’s responsibility for that role as the person who can shape all of that, and who is ultimately writing the text. But I would say that what drew all of those people that were involved in Suspect Culture to that process is this idea that the dramaturgy of a piece is something that the composer can feed into, the designer can feed into, and certainly the director can feed into as well.
Almost like the script is just trying to capture a moment of that process?
I think, yeah. I mean I think it is different for different shows. But yeah, it often felt like that with Suspect Culture, that the script is this attempt to capture something broader but is also something completely fundamental. It’s both of those things at the same time.
Yeah, it’s good to think
I was wondering. If dramaturgy is the undercurrent process that you’re always doing, it sounds like that’s what you’re describing, then dramaturgy is the first point of access into a work. So I suppose, even with your own writing, there is a sense of dramaturgical engagement with a thing then the production of a script?
Yeah but I wonder if you really can separate them, chronologically. I think about directing, when you’re trying to stage a scene, and the criteria governing those decisions you make are all about dramaturgy. They are all about how you, through this current set of tools and co-ordinates, are able to further construct the meaning of this whole piece. So I think it is a constant, ongoing process, dramaturgy.
Do you think that this engagement with dramaturgy is what allows you to cut between disciplines? Because it seems to me that dramaturgy is, in architecture for example, experiencing a take-up.
Yeah, that’s a very current debate about the different ways in which dramaturgy is currently being used in different disciplines isn’t it?. That is something I’m really interested in, interdisciplinary dramaturgy in things like visual art but yes, also in ideas like those in Cathy Turner’s book, Dramaturgy and Architecture. She also mentions the dramaturgy of town planning and how it is being used as a sort of analytical frame for thinking about civic space, its use and functions.
Yeah. I think dramaturgy is a very adaptable concept. That’s really why I came to that conclusion around dramaturgy and my own practice, because it is so diverse what I do, and in trying to find commonalities, that seemed to be the best description. And it probably is what allows me to work across different spaces and different disciplines.
The figure of the dramaturg is often described by people as being in some way supportive of someone else’s ideas. So the dramaturg facilitates. Do you think that applies within your own work, in the collaborations you’ve done, for example? So maybe you’re facilitating someone like Graham Fagen’s idea? Or whether maybe with dramaturgy, for you, you are able to take a bit more ownership and go ‘no this is the central thing’? Does that make sense?
Yeah it does make sense. So I see dramaturgy less as a role and more as a process. It’s something that needs to happen and needs to be thought about and worked on, worked through. Now, how that labour is divided up and what titles you assign to that work, will depend upon the people involved, their previous experience, the level to which the word is even acceptable – and of course it isn’t to some, it is still a very contested word and an idea that people are very suspicious of, which doesn’t mean to say they are not doing it but just that they don’t call it that.
So I see it more as a process that I certainly would be very conscious of in any project, whether I was writing the script or employed as a director on that project. It is something that can be shared too, and very rarely would I say I was wholly responsible for it. How to Act is possibly an exception to that.
Were there outside eyes that were brought into that project? Figures, like Paul Brotherston as Associate Director, for example?
Paul was really valuable all the way through it – and it is really valuable to have those outside eyes. The performers as well, not just those that were in the final piece – Robert (Bobby) Goodale and Jade Ogugua – but the people who helped inform the creation of that work. Adura Onashile was really key; I was working with her at the beginning of the process on her work HeLa, as a dramaturg then director. Conversations with her were instrumental in the beginning of How To Act. She was involved in the piece’s early workshops and then people like Gerry Mulgrew, and lots of other actors actually, fed really helpfully into that process.
In terms of other artists, because I wrote and directed it, it’s felt more like a solo authored piece really. That was a conscious choice as, being involved in so many collaborative situations, I think I just wanted to try this and see what that felt like – challenge myself in that way. Which isn’t to say that everybody who was involved wasn’t informing the dramaturgy of it – because as we know, no matter how authored it might appear, theatre is a fundamentally collaborative endeavour. So Paul as associate director and Jade and Bobby as performers were all involved in that process.
Do you think it matters if people are suspicious of the language around dramaturgy? Or even if they describe themselves as doing that at all? A lot of people I’ve spoken to wouldn’t identify in that way but are still doing the work. I wonder how much that language matters. It matters for me, in an employment sense, as in I don’t know how else to advertise what I do.
I think it completely matters in an employment sense as you describe, but possibly beyond that it…well it sort of only matters if it allows us to be better at it. Do you know what I mean? If, identifying it as a discreet part of the process of making work, if that allows you to make better work then that’s a very valuable thing, on a basic level.
I think it is helpful because I think the division of labour in theatre has typically been very rigid and I’m not sure that’s always been so beneficial. So anything really, to me, that breaks up some of those rigid roles and processes is useful I think.
You know, when I started out working in Scotland, the creation of “New Work” was pretty synonymous with “New Writing”, in terms of more mainstream theatre production anyway. And “New Writing” had a capital N and a capital W and was a fairly monolithic approach to a writer being commissioned to create a text in isolation. It could be quite a rigid process.
So if there are new ways of thinking about that process and the roles involved then, to me, that’s very helpful. Of course if you’re from Germany you might see dramaturgy itself as a very monolithic and rigid system – but then we’re not from Germany.
That’s part of the value of using the word in this context – it can account for labour that people haven’t really known how to talk about before. To demystify the process of it for people who also want to have a crack at it. I think it can be quite a useful way to, as you say, break down the idea of the lone genius who does something magical and comes back.
Yeah. John Tiffany used to say that for him, if you’re a New Writing director and you’re involved in staging something for the first time, then a massive part of what you do is dramaturgy.
But then I still think…
I’m working with a dramaturg – Clare Duffy – on a project called The Reason I Jump and she’s a hugely experienced dramaturg, writer and director. Her role in the project will probably cross over all three of those areas of expertise too.
It’s about acknowledging that the dramaturgy of that show will be primary and then giving space to it, allocating the right personnel for that primary process to develop and be focused on, and to be supported. So although I don’t really see my dramaturgical input on The Reason I Jump as being different from any other show I’ve done, I also felt like it would be very valuable to have someone else collaborating on that role. So I think, that, just because you do it as part of your writing or directing process, obviously that doesn’t negate the possibility of someone else doing it as well.
Yeah I think that strand of thinking is quite pervasive. Well there’s the argument that because dramaturgical work can be shared, there isn’t any necessity for one person to do it.
Yeah, you could turn that on its head.
But also if you think about lighting design, you know, anyone can have a crack at turning on some lights, but sometimes you do get in people who have specialist knowledge to do a particular role.
And you can’t have too much specialist knowledge…or maybe you can?
I don’t know. I mean, if it is the same knowledge being repeated, then possibly
I think what I’m conscious of as well is that if it is a large scale work then directing, leading the project, is such a massive job. The idea of having someone who is tasked with keeping an overview of how the project is developing dramaturgically, I think that is – on something like The Reason I Jump – really sensible, because the idea of me being responsible for all of that as well would be slightly overwhelming.
How did that work with Lanark? That was such a huge project for yourself and David Greig
Yeah. It was all hands to the pump!
How did it work?
It came about through the work I was doing in visual arts actually. I was working with Sorcha Dallas, Alasdair Gray’s gallerist. It was coming up to his 80th birthday and she was interested in presenting a range of events that represented the diversity of his output. We got talking about possible projects and I said the Holy Grail would be to have a crack at Lanark. She talked to him about that, I talked to him about that, and he was up for it. So I approached David with it.
It was David who introduced the book to me, at the Edinburgh Festival in 1990, I think. He gave me Lanark and it acted as a sort of strange guidebook to Glasgow for a while when I first arrived. David was the obvious choice because I knew he loved the book, and also because I knew we wanted to have a go at putting a ‘Suspect Culture’-like project together after a bit of a break.
Was it largely the same team?
Yeah, so Nick – Nick Powell, the composer – was the other founding member of Suspect Culture. Laura Hopkins as well, and a few of the actors.
The process was an interesting one. I talked to David about this idea of a three act structure. The book is in four sections, four books, two of which felt like they could be part of the same theatrical act. Then very quickly we started talking about how you might negotiate the stylistic diversity of Lanark, and particularly the dystopian sci-fi quality of “Unthank” and “Proven” alongside this central realist section, this life story. How might a theatre show approach these ways of describing the world? That was a brilliant challenge – and a key piece of shared dramaturgy actually.
We came up with this idea of inverting the formal approach of the original book. The idea that because theatre struggles to tell life stories – the most conventional, realistic, form of writing in the form of the novel – the life story is actually quite a weird thing to make work on stage. So we came up with the idea that the central ‘realistic’ section was the one that needed the least naturalistic approach, and that we would take this story-telling, theatrical approach, with a shared narrator and a chorus of Duncans (the central character). It’d be necessarily fragmentary because we’d be skipping over a huge timeline. So it would be more formally playful, I suppose.
Then, ironically, the outer two thirds of the show, Acts One and Three, which were in the dystopian sci-fi world, were best represented through a more conventional language of “scenes” and “distinct characterisations”
That being what theatre is good at, creating imaginary worlds
Yeah I guess so, exactly. That was fascinating. That what might be the more realistic bit of the novel becomes the more stylised bit of the play. So yeah we talked about that and then David just went away and wrote an amazing script…
As he does
As he does
I suppose that’s an interesting thing. You can have those really great and interesting ideas and conversations but that doesn’t write the play, and it doesn’t direct the play. Those jobs are still primary.
It’s an interesting idea to think whether there could have been another person in that process who could’ve thought through those issues without also having the responsibility of writing and directing – and I think theoretically there could; a dramaturg who would be thinking about that and offering opinions at least about that.
I guess the thing it offers you is that when you have to move into those roles of writing or directing…
You’ve still got someone you can go to, or who can stick up their oar and go “Do you remember when you said about that?”
That’s true. Yeah that’s true. I suppose the flipside is that if you are responsible for both, for the dramaturgical conception of it and the writing or directing of it, then there is already a continuity of thought. It is an interesting question.
I guess in other contexts we would have had a dramaturg. If we had been making it for the Schaubühne, for example.
There’s an interesting question in all of this about authorship, ownership, what’s at stake, whose neck is on the block? I guess myself and David – and everyone involved in Lanark – very much felt that our necks’ were on the block with this one…and I don’t know, is that important? Can there be a person who only has ownership of that process of dramaturgy? Is it possible to have that consultative input? Whose neck isn’t on the block? Or maybe it would be on the block…
I think it is possible. It’s not a role I’d ever want. I get quite infuriated by the description of the dramaturg as an outside eye, or as someone who doesn’t have any stake in the work. So I work with Carrie Skinner a lot, as a dramaturg, and I find I’m very invested in her work – possibly because it is not just my work. I feel more invested in it than in my own work, sometimes, because it exists outside of me in a different way.
That’s interesting. Yeah I would agree.
This idea of consultant seems a bit odd. It feels a bit middle-management
Yeah, it’s a very neo-liberal idea.
Well, I suppose in a funny way it relates to the idea that the dramaturg is some sort of script-doctor
The fixer, yeah. Which, I don’t know – maybe that’s right? I guess in film that’s very common.
But then I guess I’m not very sure if they are aiming to fix the script, or to fix it for the specific needs of a production company. Yeah. I guess the overlap between dramaturg and producer is more blurred there.
Well dramaturgy in film is fascinating, because it is not a term that is used there but the editing is a massive part of dramaturgy, just as those first story ideas are. So it is interesting that dramaturgy in film carries all the way through the process, across such a wide variety of roles.
The stitching together of material as well, which is such a fundamental part of film-making, is a dramaturgical process as well
And if you use that definition “composition in process”, you could say that’s what editing is. Although you probably associate dramaturgy more with the creation of the story, the writing of it, it’s also the editing. It is kind of both isn’t it? It’s interesting.
That could be your next zine – dramaturgy in film…