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Performing Dramaturgy is the first comprehensive guide to New Zealand dramaturgy.  

Charting the history and evolution of international practice, Fiona Graham examines the introduction of professional dramaturgy to New Zealand and the development of a practice based on tikanga Māori.

In early 2017, dramaturge Dione Joseph noted:
‘Dramaturgy in New Zealand isn’t new, but . . . it’s ready to be challenged, debated, questioned and included in the wider conversation.’

Through interviews and local case studies, Graham investigates how dramaturges have collaborated with performance makers from playwrights to performance artists to create work that is nuanced and multi-layered.

Informed by thirty-five years of performance development experience, Graham’s Performing Dramaturgy is essential reading for practitioners and students of all creative disciplines who want to apply the principles of dramaturgy to their own arts practice. Like a good dramaturge, this book will unsettle assumptions, catalyse multiple development possibilities and offer strategies for dramaturgical composition.

Read more about it here – Kate Prior interviews Fiona Graham in Pantograph Punch

Available at Playmarket online
Price: $40.00 (GST inclusive)
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Fiona Graham is a freelance dramaturge and performance writer who is currently convenor of the MA in Dramaturgy and Writing for Performance at Goldsmiths, University of London. For the last thirty-five years she has collaborated with performance-makers in the United Kingdom and New Zealand. Her theatre commissions include Passage (Herald Theatre, Auckland, 2010), Breaking China (which toured Britain with Theatre Centre in 2002 and was included in the Singapore International Theatre Festival in 2004) and Legacy (which was written for Auckland’s Massive Company in 1998).

Title: Performing Dramaturgy
Author:  Fiona Graham
Publisher: Playmarket
Published: 12 November 2017
ISBN: 9780908607648
RRP: $40.00 

Theatre , Multi-discipline , Dance-theatre , Book ,

Prepare to be unsettled

Review by John Smythe 12th Jan 2018

Most people working in theatre will have heard the words dramaturg, dramaturge and dramaturgy bandied about without necessarily knowing what it means or involves. Fiona Graham opens the first chapter of Performing Dramaturgy with Belgian dramaturge Maria Van Kerhoven’s observation that “dramaturgy [is] movement itself, a process that does not stand still.” (p11)  So when engaging, or being engaged as, a dramaturge (her preferred spelling), those involved first need to agree on what the role will entail.

My introduction to the term came in 1970 when, as playwright-in-residence at the Melbourne Theatre Company, I was claimed as dramaturge by Sir Tyrone Guthrie, who was about to direct his fourth production of Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well. “I want you to advise me on questions of scholarship and interpretation,” he explained. “And don’t wait to be asked – attack!” It was a steep learning curve for me and in the event my major contribution was to rewrite bits of baffling text we’d concluded had been mangled by ‘Compositor C’, a notorious drunkard.

As co-founder of the National Theatre (with Sir Laurence Olivier) in 1963, Guthrie had appointed the highly regarded theatre critic Kenneth Tynan as British theatre’s first Literary Manager (pp13-14). Tynan described his role as “House critic, attending rehearsals and working on them with directors.” (p27) But the concept of dramaturgy had first emerged two hundred years before, in Germany, when critic Gotthold Ephriam Lessing “published critical reviews and provided intellectual feedback for the development of German theatres, writers and audiences.”

It was between 1949 and 1956 that Bertolt Brecht redefined the dramaturge as “an active artistic collaborator within the rehearsal process” (p15). Graham therefore sets out to examine “the balance between critical analysis (theory) and artistic collaboration (practice).” (p11)

Having encountered dramaturges at Australian and New Zealand Playwrights’ Conferences and Workshops, through the 1970s to ’90s, I had come to see the role as playwright’s advocate – standing up for their intentions and values, and the often intuitive integrity of the original creation, often in the face of ‘we know better’ onslaughts from directors and actors – and then as more of a go-between, mediator or “buffer between playwright, director and cast” as the late Robert Lord put it. (p25) In the process an important principle emerged, that the playwright had final say on any changes and any such changes were ‘owned’ by the playwright. (While all professionals employed for the workshops were paid for their time and expertise, the playwrights were not but they got to retain copyright in the script they developed as a result.) 

Since then the process has, in practice, moved on considerably, as detailed by Graham in five comprehensive chapters – ‘Evolution of the Dramaturge in Western Europe, North America and Australia’; ‘The Introduction of the Dramaturge to New Zealand’; ‘Māori Dramaturgies’; ‘The Intervention Process’; ‘Practice Research Case Studies’ – bookended by an Introduction and ‘Final Provocation’. David O’Donnell’s foreword affirms its value as the first book on dramaturgy to be written from a New Zealand perspective. Having quoted Dione Joseph’s 2016 essay (see Part I & Part II) – “Dramaturgy in New Zealand isn’t new, but in 2016 it’s ready to be challenged, debated, questioned and included in the wider conversation” – O’Donnell concludes that “Fiona Graham’s book answers this need.”

She explores the evolution of the dramaturge from in-house critic to closely-engaged collaborator who may come on board at any point in the development process of a text-based, devised, choreographed or multi-disciplinary work which may or may not involve a writer or director. Interventions and disruptions are often mentioned as dramaturgical tools. In one of the case-studies discussed at the end, the choreographer was also a performer so the dramaturge (Graham) was very hands-on as the ‘inside/outside eye’. Indeed the positioning of the dramaturge inside or outside the creative process becomes an important element.

Many practitioners and academics are quoted throughout the book, advancing countless definitions of the dramaturges role – or are they saying much the same thing in different words? In her introduction Graham writes, “In all these examples the dramaturge is someone who analyses the purpose and structure of the work in order to explore new development opportunities.” (p6) This alerts me to watch for some mention of the equal importance of validating the fundamental strengths in a playwright’s (as opposed to a devised) creation. ‘Discovery’ is mentioned from time to time, which does suggest something of value is already there to be revealed.

Having canvassed the Greek derivations of drama and turgy, Graham concludes, “Put simply, dramaturgy is about making the actions work.” (p6) What is not so simple is the use of terms like ‘Concatenate Pole’ where the written text is central and logic, coherence and order lead to dramatic closure, and ‘Simultaneous Pole’ where all performance elements are equal, and fragmentation, unconnected ideas, chaos and unresolved relationships open to the irrational are labelled ‘Postdramatic’. (p8)

As I read on I realise I’m filtering it all through such embedded notions as the simple ‘What + Why = How’ formula I learned at drama school, the crucial – some would say inevitable – elements of story structure imbued at film school, and the always fundament question: what’s in it for the audience? Do they get to respond personally, empathetically and creatively or are they limited to watching artists being arty for its own sake?

I soon discover that a dramaturge may challenge ‘habitus’ and ‘doxa’ (established practice) “through a process of critical but constructive questioning in order to offer other ways of seeing and doing.” (pp 32-33) Besides, ‘postdramatic’ theatre/ performance art, dance allows the dramaturge to work with different artists to develop multiple ‘texts’ involving “elements like space, light, sound, music, movement and gesture”. (p29)

At this point I can’t help thinking that a playwright’s ‘tip-of-the-iceberg’ text (representing a great deal more than just what is said and done, moment by moment) usually implies all those elements, to be explored and discovered by other artists (directors, designers, actors) who are thereby inspired or provoked to develop their creative contributions to the production and its performance. “In postdramatic performance,” however, “multiple texts are spliced together, creating either a fragmented narrative or no narrative at all. This technique shatters the linear through-line of Aristotle to ‘embrace a decentralised model of creation’.” (pp 29-30)

Results will differ from project to project. Taking, as a recent example, the October 2017 Borderline Arts Ensemble production of Lobsters (Concept & Choreography: Lucy Marinkovich who was also in it; Dramaturgy: Miranda Manasiadis, also mentioned as ‘outside eye), the review by Sam Trubridge gives a cogent account of it and Chris Jannides offers an answer to the “what’s in it for the audience?” question. 

‘The Introduction of the Dramaturge to New Zealand’ chapter traces the emergence of the New Zealand Playwrights Workshop in 1980 via a conference in 1974 inspired by the Australian National Playwright’s Conference (established in 1973) which in turn was modelled on the Eugene O’Neill Theatre Centre’s National Playwrights Conference (established in 1965, with international playwrights and companies invited from 1969; there the idea was “to use an especially skilled critic as a sort of ombudsman between the director and dramatist.”). (p35) Their objective-in-common was to support new playwrights and provoke established theatre companies to move beyond their comfort zones, which in Australia and New Zealand’s case meant classics and proven contemporary plays by established playwrights from overseas.  

The detailed account of the development process visited on Greg McGee’s Foreskin’s Lament is very revealing. But first, a gripe: I am shocked at the statement that “it was the first work to contest what it meant to be a New Zealander.” (p42) My survey of The Plays of Bruce Mason (Playmarket & VUP, 2015) dates this quest from the 1920s and notes the critical contribution of the women playwrights of the 1930s – also mentioned by Graham in her section headed ‘Female Protagonists’ (p57) – before detailing Mason’s lifelong commitment to confronting, contesting and critiquing “what it meant to be a New Zealander” in 17 plays plus other works from 1953 to 1980.

Others investigating the question through the 60s and 70s up to 1980 included James K Baxter, Peter Bland, Warren Dibble, Jane Hewland, Paul Maunder with Amamus Theatre Group, Francis Batten with Theatre Action, Harry Dansey (see below), Robert Lord, Joe Musaphia, John Banas, Craig Harrison, Jennifer Compton, Frank Edwards, Michael Heath, Mervyn Thompson (who also adapted Janet Frame), Gordon Dryland, Roger Hall, Anthony Taylor, Brian Pōtiki with the Maranga Mai collective (see below), Rawiri Paratene, Jeffrey Thomas and Rachel McAlpine.

Graham also chooses to repeat the false assertion “that until the mid-1970s the only real female leading role was that of Katherine Mansfield in The Two Tigers, written by Brian McNeill in 1973” (p57), disregarding such plays as Rabbits by Violet Targuse (1930), The Willing Horse by Isobel Andrews (1941), The Pohutukawa Tree by Bruce Mason (1956) and The Tree by Stella Jones (1957).

Nevertheless the insightful account of how Foreskin’s Lament fared in the Workshop, and subsequently, has the extra value of documenting the states of mind of theatre practitioners when it came to approaching homegrown plays; it marks an important turning point in New Zealand theatre practice. And the ‘Female Protagonists’ section draws attention to the 1980s surge in plays by women, the advent of Magdalena Aotearoa in the 1990s and the continuing “campaign for equal representation in all performance roles and for fully developed female characters with a complex psychological base at the centre of the action.” (p59) But no mention is made of Wellington’s Shebang season of plays by eight women playwrights in October 2000.

Acknowledging “the dangers of cultural imperialism and … the potential colonisation of knowledge when writing about indigenous practice” (p62), in a chapter entitled ‘Māori Dramaturgies’ Graham shares her listening to Māori practioners and her reflections of their different ways of working. She quotes Roma Pōtiki’s argument “that the central questions for Māori artists and theatre practitioners remain: ‘Who am I? Where do I come from? Where do I belong? What is my contribution and story?’” (63) – the timeless and universal existential questions that motivate many practitioners across the spectrum. 

A range of performance development strategies are discussed through four case studies. Te Raukura (The Feathers of the Albatross) by journalist Harry Dansey, commissioned for the 1972 Auckland Festival, “began an important dialogue about the future of Māori representation in New Zealand theatre, including the use of te reo and culturally appropriate development processes.” (p65) Collaboratively created with Brian Pōtiki, Maranga Mai (Wake Up) was first performed at Bastion Point in 1978. “They were fighting and questioning the status quo in New Zealand,” Graham concludes. “They established a collective political dramaturgy that engaged debate among their audiences.” (p67) 

He Ara Hou collective’s devised Whatungarongaro Mai (The Eyes of the People), with director/dramaturges Roma Pōtiki and John Anderson, produced in 1990, was committed to embracing tikanga Māori in the development process and kaumātua Paiki Johnson contributed from outside the central production process. “Pōtiki conserved Māori ritual and protocol but also nurtured a diverse range of theatrical representations.” (p70)

Graham writes that playwright Hone Kouka found inspiration in Whatungarongaro Mai when director Colin McColl commissioned him to work with the Norwegian dramaturge Halldis Hoaas to adapt Henrik Ibsen’s The Vikings of Helgeland. Scholars David Carnegie and David O’Donnell record that the project appealed to Kouka because “the Viking period lent itself to a Māori interpretation, as both shared ‘a hierarchical warrior structure, a pre-Christian belief system that included a chiefly afterlife, highly developed protocols or revenge and reparation, a rich oral tradition of song and high rhetoric, and a thematic focus on the re-emergence of a sense of nationhood of people long colonised.’” (p71)

This section describes the Hoaas/Kouka relationship as a rigorous process of questioning, provoking, challenging and counter-challenging. Keri Kaa was also on board as cultural advisor “to establish a balance between the outside eye, inside knowledge and tikanga Māori” and during the development process “Kouka found his own balance between conservation and experimentation.” (p74)

Graham goes on to discuss ‘Developing a Model for Māori Dramaturgy’ by focusing further on Kouka and Miria George’s Tawata productions. She notes that “Kouka privileges the written text in his development process: ‘The words and text are of the most importance, I do not like to have actors improvising scenes. This takes the kōrero [story] away from the writer rather than feeds into it. I understand what their needs are and use what experience I have to support and challenge them. Confidence and arrogance create challenging passionate work and this is the strength new writing has.’” (p75) But in her discussion of his production of Tu, (p76) she calls it his ‘adaptation’ of Patricia Grace’s novel rather than ‘inspired by’, which is the official credit, given he realigned it to reflect his own whanau experience and gave the three brother characters his own brothers’ names by way of getting his “key emotional kicks” (see YouTube interview with Kouka).

The emphasis on the importance and value of kaumātua – “elders serve as a critical link to the past in the present context to ensure cultural practices and tribal knowledge remain intact for future generations” – along with kaitiaki and dramaturges points to how “negotiating the balance between conservation and experimentation” is achieved in the development of Māori works and productions. (pp 77-81) While achieving such balance also applies across the cultural spectrum, it’s intriguing to note the respect given to age, knowledge and experience within Māori practice compared with the disrespect so often expressed by young Pākehā practitioners, especially of ‘old white males’.

Chapter Four, ‘The Intervention Process’, details five strategies of dramaturgical practice: Questions; Listening; Reflecting; Facilitating Dialogue; Suggesting. In her summing up what a dramaturge does, Graham offers a more logical order: Listens, Reflects, Questions, Facilitates dialogue, Suggests. It is a thoroughly useful manual for anyone taking on the role of dramaturge.

The ‘Practice Research Studies’ that follow (pp 104-148) offer post-production reflections that witness and document the intervention strategies of six diverse productions, hyperlinked to reviews where available:

  • Community Theatre: Our Street (2009), commissioned and produced by Auckland Council arts officer Clare Carmody, devised and written by migrants from 14 countries;
  • New Dance: Slip – I’m Not Falling, I’m Just Hanging On for as Long as You’ll Hold Me (2010) with choreographer Carol Brown, sound artist Russell Scoones and performance designer Dorita Hannah, as part of a Triple Bill by Touch Compass;
  • Verbatim Theatre: Hush (2009) and Be/Longing (2012) by Otago University Theatre Studies / Talking House;
  • New Writing: The Mooncake and the Kūmara (2015) by Mei-Lin Te Puea Hansen with initial director Kiel McNaughton then remotely with Hansen when the Auckland Arts Festival commissioned it for a development season directed by Katie Wolfe but “no longer desired to work with a dramaturge in the production process” (p138);
  • Site-Specific Practice: Close Encounters: PAH (2015) with composer Dame Gillian Whitehead, visual artist Star Gossage and choreographer Carol Brown.

The very different natures of the projects and the resulting ways of working attest to the necessity for the dramaturge to be as present and responsive to a developing work as good actors, directors and designers are. Graham’s documenting of the processes offers a rare insight into how performance works may evolve.

In her ‘final Provocation’ Graham states, “In this book I make the case for an expanded, inclusive, non-hierarchical and reflexive practice that can be employed at any stage of development with an individual writer or any group of collaborating artists.” (p149) She will certainly succeed in her desire to “provoke new dialogues between practitioners” (p150) provided enough of us read it and engage with the concepts. “I would argue that the not-yet-settled task of dramaturgy is precisely this: to unsettle,” she concludes. “This is the key imperative for performance practitioners to adopt in post-colonial times.” (p151)

Prepare to be unsettled, then, if you want your creativity to be stimulated beyond your habitus. For any practitioner,  Performing Dramaturgy is well worth having.


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