Performing Dramaturgy by Fiona Graham (Playmarket Press, 2018), 189 pp., $40
If you have picked up a programme for a new play, devised or dance-theatre work, you may have seen the job title ‘dramaturge’ listed in the production credits. But what is a dramaturge? Even for those within the theatre industry, the concept is shrouded in a degree of mystery. It’s a seemingly shape-shifting position that changes according to any given group of people and process. Fiona Graham’s Performing Dramaturgy examines the role of the dramaturge in depth, its origins and many variations within the contemporary context, and analyses it precisely as a dynamic and ‘nomadic’ process. Drawing on her extensive professional experience, Graham weaves together an elegant text that moves between theatre history, theorisation, personal reflection and practical advice in order to answer the question of what a dramaturge does – or might do. As she notes, her aim is to ‘offer insights that will open up all sorts of new creative opportunities for practitioners by unsettling conventional ways of seeing and doing’.
Performing Dramaturgy is part of a ‘wave’ of critical interest that has examined how the role of the dramaturge has evolved in step with developments in contemporary performance practice. Historically, dramaturges worked as script advisors and researchers within theatre companies, but are now commonly integral to the development of new performances. Such works include plays but also – as Graham’s case studies illustrate – dance, documentary theatre, community arts and inter-arts works. Performing Dramaturgy provides an excellent addition to current critical literature in its multi-faceted approach to the subject and its illustration of theory with detailed case studies.
The book aims to speak to a broad audience that includes practitioners, students and scholars, and its tone is conversational. Graham notes in the Introduction that the reader ‘may follow my journey or use different chapters to pursue specific interests’. The book begins with a historical overview of the development of the role of dramaturge and identifies two distinct strands: the dramaturge as ‘in-house critic’ and as ‘collaborator’ – which is the role that Graham focuses on most in the rest of the text. Her examination of different geographical iterations of the role of dramaturge summarises its evolution from the original German context; it is a particularly helpful synthesis of existing literature that effectively explains why the dramaturge is such a chameleonic figure.
The next chapter is devoted to the development of dramaturgy in Aotearoa New Zealand and provides an excellent companion to existing studies of local theatre history, particularly the development of playwriting. Through examining how plays were developed in the period from the 1970s onwards, Graham delivers a compelling insight into how theatre participated in the development of narratives of national identity. Her case study of the writing and workshopping of Greg McGee’s Foreskin’s Lament is excellent in this regard. Lack of documentation often hampers this kind of rehearsal room historiography. However, Graham’s detailed research and interviews evoke for the reader a vivid sense of the play’s development, and the personalities and dynamics that shaped it.
A distinctive feature of the book is the chapter devoted to the subject of Māori dramaturgies. Graham’s particular interest is in how a model of dramaturgy based on tikanga can ‘extend and deepen Māori and non-Māori performance composition processes’. The chapter considers a range of case studies, including Harry Dansey’s Te Raukura (1972), collective performance Maranga Mai (1978), Roma Potiki’s Whatungarongaro (1990) and Hone Kouka’s Nga Tangata Toa (1994). Drawing from her reconstruction of the development processes for these performances, Graham considers how a distinctive model for Māori dramaturgy has developed. The chapter ends with a series of questions that emerged for her as a result of her conversations with Māori theatre artists. These questions are a practical resource for any theatre maker in New Zealand and provide a template, as she suggests, that may be ‘reframed’ in order to suit other cultural contexts.
The emphasis on questions reveals a vital component of Graham’s own dramaturgical methodology, which she outlines in the next chapter. This is the most practitioner-oriented chapter of the book, and approaches the potential of the dramaturge within the creative process in a manner that is highly accessible. In brief, Graham identifies five strands to her practice: questioning, listening, reflecting, facilitating dialogue and suggesting. The careful explanation of each stage demonstrates an ethical sensitivity that complements the creative curiosity and critical framing that she identifies as central to the work of the dramaturge.
This sensitivity is feminist in character, and a particular strength of the book is the manner in which Graham reflects on the political underpinnings of the creative process. As she consistently argues, the dramaturge is there to ‘create multiple possibilities’ and to ‘encourage nuanced thinking’. In an earlier section of the book, Graham draws on Pierre Bourdieu’s theory of habitus (defined by Graham as ‘the enduring set of dispositions that brings together political and social context and individual agency’). She suggests that a dramaturge has a role to play in helping artists reveal their own habitus, and in working with them to explore different sets of choices – to ‘offer other ways of seeing and doing’. For Graham, the feminist iteration of this ethos is ‘the provocation to think otherwise, to become otherwise’. She further argues that what she describes as a ‘feminist nomadic subjectivity’ is capable of ‘resisting certitude’. This is a significant re-visioning of the original role of the dramaturge who, as ‘in-house critic’, operated precisely from a position of certitude and authority.
Graham’s final chapter provides a rich series of examples, drawn from her own practice, that illustrate her multivalent approach to dramaturgy and demonstrate the range of her practice. These include inter-arts, community theatre, verbatim theatre, dance, new writing and site-specific theatre. Graham continues to detail her interventions according to the process she lays out earlier in the book, including lists of questions and highlighting the perspectives of others artists that she worked with on the potential of the dramaturge within the creative process. The case studies provide strategies and approaches that other practitioners might explore within their own work.
The sense in which Graham opens up her own practice for scrutiny and invites others to borrow from her processes reflects the overall generosity of the book. By promoting reflection on ways of working, she invites the reader into a lively conversation about how theatre is made, and how the values that underpin our methods impact upon what we make. The result is energising. The book speaks not only to the history and development of the dramaturge, but also more broadly to how dramaturgical thinking might spur ‘new ways of thinking and doing’ that promote heterogeneity and inclusivity.
It is wonderful to see Playmarket continuing to broaden the range of texts they publish, and Performing Dramaturgy is an excellent addition to their catalogue.
EMMA WILLIS is a senior lecturer in drama at the University of Auckland, where her teaching includes playwriting and creative research methods. She has published research on New Zealand theatre, contemporary performance, theatre and ethics, memory and spectatorship, and has worked as a dramaturge on various theatre and dance productions.