‘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.