‘Dramaturgy as a practice of generative criticism: Some observations on teaching undergraduate students’.

Keynote paper given by Synne Behrndt and Cathy Turner, at ‘Pedagogies of Dramaturgy’, Palatine, Queens University, Belfast, Jan 14th 2011.

An extract from Cathy’s section is below:

Dramaturgy and the scene of recognition (extract),

Dr. Cathy Turner, Queen’s University, Belfast, 14/1/11

What are we teaching when we teach dramaturgy?

While a theoretical response to the question ‘What is dramaturgy?’ can sometimes prove frustratingly elusive and only of moderate use, here I found myself searching for the centre of the module in a more pragmatic sense, trying to find the particular mode of expression that would unlock the idea of dramaturgical work across the eleven weeks.

US theatre professor, director and dramaturg Mark Lord suggests that it is possible we are mistaken in defining dramaturgy in relation to dramaturgs, rather than as ‘the intellectual mise-en-scène, the superstructure or the subconscious (depending on your intellectual heroes) of the idea-world of the theatre event as expressed in its shapes and its rhythms, and in its affinities with our world’ (Lord 1997:99).

That’s one way of putting it, and I have no essential disagreement with it. However, I once skimmed a recent themed journal issue for definitions of dramaturgy and found a dazzling, but confusing diversity of articulations. The problem is that defining what ‘dramaturgy’ is conceptually doesn’t necessarily lead us to identify what dramaturgy is as an activity, as practical work. This was a practical module, so what was its central practical activity?


To get to the practical work of dramaturgy, I need to conceptualise dramaturgy as a moment of action. It is, I think, implicit in the description of dramaturgy as ‘connective tissue’, an image used by MacDonald, Williams and others. It’s true that dramaturgy, in the broad sense of dramaturgical work, seems occupied with the connections, inter-connections and the space between script (or other starting points) and performance. This biological metaphor seems to imply that dramaturgy is what brings the former alive, what puts flesh on the bones. Liz Engelman’s use of similar images reinforces the sense of something being brought to life, ‘we help ideas become three-dimensional, we allow words to become flesh’, but here it remains interestingly unclear quite how the dramaturg does this. In the same passage, Engelman is talking about the dramaturg as one who sees ‘the potential in an idea, in two people, in the match between interests and resources…we make this potential energy kinetic’. So, something is being brought to life, but how? And was it alive to begin with, or potential, or dormant?

Again proposing a moment of birth or generation, some have described the dramaturg as a midwife, which is not an entirely inappropriate image, but perhaps this time underplays the dramaturg’s creative role, by emphasising the provision of practical help, the enabling of others. Tamsin Wolff expresses unease about this, particularly in relation to gender stereotyping: such metaphors, she says, paint a picture ‘a once rarified and servile. The consistent assumption of subservient support joined with a hint of moral high ground suggests the dramaturg as that victorial female archetype allegedly so integral to domestic harmony, the “angel in the (play)house”‘.

Can I find another image? In his fascinating book, Towards a Dramaturgical Sensibility,Geoff  Proehl often talks about the dramaturgical activity of Shakespeare’s questioning characters. In a famous scene from A Winter’s Tale, Paulina shows Leontes and Perdita what they believe to be a statue of Hermione, Leontes’ wife and Perdita’s mother. Gradually, they recognise her as a real, living, breathing woman. Paulina’s role is more precisely that of director, rather than dramaturg, but her whole concern in this scene is dramaturgical, as she controls the curtain, makes suggestions (even teasing ones), prompts responses, restrains too hasty contact, asks for music, leads the characters towards rapprochement and finally, dialogue. Leontes and Perdita, in their turn, are more precisely audience members, rather than dramaturgs, but Leontes’ questioning is dramaturgical, as might be Perdita’s silent watching.

It is an intensely meta-theatrical scene, a show within a show that ends up being the show itself, as theatre becomes reality, or this theatre’s reality. We focus on the act of recognition in which the supposedly hard, cold art-work, is seen and felt to have warmth, breath, movement and finally, speech. Paulina stages the event, prompting Leontes to ask the questions and get close enough to recognise the reality, the vitality, of this artifice. It’s the more significant because the tragic circumstances of the first half of the play are brought about by his failure to recognise his wife’s true nature. As he finally accepts Hermione into his arms, he cries, ‘If this be magic, let it be as lawful as eating’.

It’s a curious image… ‘as lawful as eating’. It suggests an art that is as necessary, as fundamental, as obviously right as nourishment itself. It’s not certain at what point Leontes ceases to think of his wife as artifice, and recognises her as real. It doesn’t matter any more. This art is real; this reality is magic.         

As I have mentioned earlier, it is straining the metaphor a little to identify Paulina as dramaturg, although in her understanding of theatre, and her quiet prompting of others, she might come closest to it. Similarly, while the others use dramaturgical skills, they are not possessed of the same level of awareness of the event’s structure, timing and movement. However, I would suggest that the action of dramaturgy is in producing recognition of what is alive in the work (whether scripted or a moment of devising) and in producing the hunger for its nourishment.  Paulina’s prompting is connected to an intense alertness to structure, timing, movement, sound and silence, space and context… but she never loses sight of its central goal, which is the moment of recognition itself. Leontes’s questioning is also bent on recognition,as is Perdita’s watching.

I would not suggest that any moment of recognition is complete or final. Works and performances are alive in different ways at different times. Similarly, the definition of what dramaturgical activity is, will probably always be contextual, dependent on what is needed or desired. Having said this, Shakespeare’s image leads me to conjecture that the activities central to a practical course in dramaturgy are critical questioning, silent watching/listening and prompting (through an alert appreciation of theatre), towards recognition of the life in the performance text or event. In any case, all of these were central to the module I have just finished teaching.

20/20: Playwriting/Pedagogy, Birmingham University

Cathy gave a paper at the 20/20 conference, Birmingham University, which celebrated 20 years of the MA/MPhil (B) in Playwriting Studies, March 13/14, 2010.


In noting the ‘spatial turn’, increasingly evident in 20th century theatre and dominant in what Lehmann terms the ‘postdramatic’ theatre (Lehmann 2006), Fuchs and Chaudhuri suggest that, ‘What is more difficult to discern, and therefore more important to theorize, is the landscape in the text…it is the spatial turn, not simply in the literal or naive space of the visible theater, but within and surrounding text itself, that needs to be brought to light’ (Fuchs and Chaudhuri 2002:6). I will suggest that while it is possible to introduce students to diverse writing styles and techniques, a central problem often remains where (English and Drama) students may have difficulty in considering the theatre text in terms of its potential spatial dynamics. A linear, narrative perspective often seems to be the familiar mode of analysis, reception and hence, creative approach. Through site-based and other approaches derived from the visual arts, students may be assisted in making the leap towards mapping text onto a space, without necessarily abandoning all narrative logic.

Living Landscapes, Aberystwyth

Cathy gave a joint paper with Dr. Deirdre Heddon to a conference on ‘Living Landscapes’, University of Aberystwyth, June 18-22. This paper is a result of our joint research into women walking artists and is entitled: ‘Walking Women: An Imaginary Walk to Talk About Women Walking’.

Cathy also contributed to a pre-conference walk led by Stephen Hodge and Simon Persighetti, entitled ‘Longshore Drift’. Hodge and Persighetti asked Cathy and Phil Smith to build a castle out of found materials on the end of the Sarn between Borth and Aberystwyth. This sarn, although a geological feature, is supposed to be the remains of a wall to a lost kingdom, evidenced in the nearby submerged forest.


Performing Presence, Exeter

Cathy offered a paper, with Marianne Sharp, to the Performing Presence Conference at Exeter University, March 26-29, 2009. The paper was on the subject of Marianne’s recent performance, Nora and I and was entitled, ‘Ghosting Myself: Character, Memory and Presence in Nora and I.’

Cathy was dramaturgical consultant on Marianne’s project. A work in progress performance was funded by the Arts Council and supported by Winchester Theatre Royal in 2008.

DRAMAForum, Warsaw

Cathy and Synne both presented papers at DRAMAForum, a conference on Dramaturgy held in Warsaw, 24-25 January, 2009, hosted by the Theatre Institute, Warsaw and Jagiellonian University, Kracow.

Cathy’s paper was entitled ‘Devising/New Writing: Strategies for Points of Contact across an Expanded Field’.

Synne’s paper was entitled ‘Devising and the Non-Dramatic Text: Processes of Dramaturgy’.

Synne also conducted a workshop, together with director Douglas Rintoul, for DRAMAForum’s series, on March 28-29.

The Witness as Dramaturg

Cathy Turner and Synne Behrndt were guest speakers at a seminar held by Dance4 at ArtsAdmin, Toynbee Studios on the subject of ‘Witness as Dramaturg’. Artists Martin del Amo, Richard Hancock and Traci Kelly have engaged in an International exchange programme made possible by a partnership between Dance4 (UK) and Critical Path (AUS) from October 2006 to October 2008. The aim of this project was to facilitate a critical space for artists to investigate a personal research question collectively. Key to their exchange has been the creative and critical potential of the figure of ‘the witness’. Acting as neither an audience nor a critic, they have each occupied different roles in one another’s creative processes. Witholding judgements, feedback and questions, their roles have hinged on accounts, testament and a verifiable presence.www.hancockandkellylive.com