by Zoë Svendsen
by Zoë Svendsen
The question of what a dramaturg ‘is’, or ‘does’, is a hard one to answer. The word is used to cover a whole range of practices, from programming to literary management. What I largely do, however, is what is sometimes called ‘production dramaturgy’. As ‘dramaturg’, I am employed as a member of the creative team and work closely with the director of the production to develop the concept of the production. Dramaturgy can be described as the structure of all the relations between elements in the theatrical work: text, the form of the embodiment of the text, the themes and how they are expressed in verbal, visual and sonic ways. Therefore the nature of the role of dramaturg depends very much on the specific nature of the relationship with the director I’m working with – and on the context of the work.
My process does involve editing (and sometimes rewriting) text, but it starts with close collaboration on the ideas driving the production and engages with all aspects of theatricality – much of the thinking and co-imagining is done well before rehearsals start, influencing casting decisions and at times, plans for the form the rehearsal process will take. The ‘edit’ of the text evolves from the conversation about the production as a whole – it is the result of the production process, rather than its starting point. For me, text very much does not come ‘first’, but is interpreted, and worked with as just one aspect of the material from which theatre is made.
In this sense, working as a dramaturg is a practice of attending and responding.
Attending – for example – to the historical context of the original play, in order to understand it fully, and to recognise how its structure would have worked to express meaning for its original audience.
Responding – for example – to the needs of the rehearsal room, to the direction an actor wishes to take their role. It is, however, easier to describe what dramaturgy is, than to say what a dramaturg does.
More recently I’ve been developing the practice of ‘climate dramaturgy’ which looks at the whole system of making theatre, in the context of climate crisis. This brings together the performance and installation work I do with METIS, with the experience I’ve developed working as a dramaturg on productions of early modern drama. What these different strands have in common is an interest in exploring and interrogating capitalism. Whilst METIS explores the contemporary operations of capitalism and how we might evolve beyond it, plays of the early modern period are often grappling with what capitalism means for who we are – and how our relationships work.
Shakespeare and his peers were working in the febrile atmosphere of a newly commercial, expanding, multicultural London, fuelled by capital gained from the theft of resources and enslavement of people overseas. The plays, in many different ways, grapple with what was then a new way of being human. Breaking the old ties of feudal cultures, which broadly defined you by your social role (whether king, queen or peasant), capitalism brought individualism and the sense that ‘man’ might be separate from, and able to act on, the world to change it.
In reality, this idea of the human as an agent was generally intended for a particular subset of people: that ‘man’ that capitalism enabled, was almost always white, European, non-disabled and educated. Far from increasing freedom for European women, for example, over the sixteenth century the advent of capitalism brought destitution for those without male protection, and arguably less autonomy in the social sphere, than in precapitalist societies. Meanwhile for the global majority, emergent European capitalism entailed the theft of resources, appropriation of land, cultural erasure, enslavement, and at times genocide.
Nevertheless, in Europe, and particularly in London, this new idea of ‘freedom’ – the possibility of acting without regard for designated role, or previously established rules – captured the imagination of many kinds of people and appeared to promise agency and power to any who sought it.
How does this relate to ‘climate dramaturgy’?
Climate crisis is – four hundred years later – another chapter in the price of that ‘freedom’. The promise of ‘freedom’ to act to achieve your desires or purpose without regard for others, social rules or nature, is the enticing side of a colonial capitalism so invasive that scientists have named a whole geological epoch after it: the Anthropocene. This is where climate dramaturgy comes in, because it asks us to look beyond our immediate situation to the wider contexts in which we live: thus the practice is a theatrical invitation to explore who we really are – and who we could be.