Playwright and dramaturge Gary Henderson points out that classic rugby analogies, although clichéd, work well because they’re specific to our culture, our country, and our people. Dramaturgy, he argues, is no different:
“If you’re a rugby player you cannot break the rules, but what you can do is subvert the expected conventions,” he explains. “A brilliant rugby player is the one who will side-step when everyone is expecting them to pass, or will tackle when fans least expect it. This is still part of the language of the game but there is an active subversion of the expectation – this is why Foreskin’s Lament is brilliant.”
Conventionally, a dramaturge is a theatre specialist responsible for providing critical support and feedback to the playwright and occasionally to the director. The process can range from traditional forms of script advice to responding to other elements such as narrative arcs and plot as well as providing the context and history of previous productions. Depending on the nature of the production, the dramaturge may also provide programme notes or develop audience engagement plans. But, like developing a language of the game, dramaturgy is inherently a process of theatrical navigation. It reflects an exploration of who we are as artists, how we make work, and how we connect to our audiences. This process can extend far beyond the traditional expectations of dramaturges and their relationships with other members of their team and in New Zealand there is plenty of room to develop what this role could, and should, look like. If we can have such pride in our national sport (irrespective of whether we are in fact fans of grown men in stubbies chasing a leather-skinned nugget across the field), then surely we also deserve a dramaturgy that is distinctive to us as New Zealanders in 2016.
In fact, as Henderson suggests, we deserve a winning dramaturgy – one that takes risks to surprise its audience, both at home and internationally. It’s no longer an option to do what’s safe. We want to push the boat out further than ever before. We want to take our community with us to new and exciting places.
Dramaturgy is a shared process of learning. Here you will find the opinions, questions, challenges, and observations of industry practitioners, creatives, and performance academics; these are the voices of Aotearoa New Zealand on dramaturgy.
This is our kōrero. Join us.
Towards a NZ dramaturgy began as a personal project.
I wanted to explore what University of Kent academic Patrice Pavis describes as a “rich, varied, confused, and tormented landscape”, and engage with dramaturgy on its own terms right here in Aotearoa New Zealand.
Let’s be clear: dramaturgy is not new. In New Zealand, dramaturgy has been practiced outside the arena of euro-centric aesthetics for more than four centuries. It’s spanned a range of art forms, from circus to devised; immersive and participatory experiences, as well as rituals and ceremonies. Dramaturgy extends beyond black words on white pages and indeed far beyond the physical walls of a venue. It resonates with ancestral knowledge and ontological understandings and refutes any singular monocultural perspective. This is the dramaturgy of Aotearoa New Zealand: a practice embedded in the land as much as in our people, and it comes today with a need to broach a much wider dialogue. This will be key to reconceiving how we imagine dramaturgy in this country.
Without a set text on what dramaturgy might mean locally, I began a series of conversations. Thirty vibrant, articulate, and engaged practitioners took the time to contribute to this kōrero (conversation) and their collective insights (over 30 hours of transcribing and close to 60,000 words) reflect the fact that we’re committed to activating a robust dramaturgical process for our industry.
Responses varied from conceptualising dramaturgy as an act of ongoing creative collaboration to finite input during a rehearsal process; from cultural structures and tikanga to exclusively script-based support; the development of emotionally intelligent universes through non-verbal communication; and of course, the practicalities associated with funding and availability and accessibility of those with this expertise. But there was consensus. The function of dramaturgy, as suggested by these conversations, is that however limited or broad its scope, it refuses to operate in binaries. There are no universal truths to be quickly superimposed upon this practice. But it’s important to engage with the diversity of opinions and its various iterations in practice. Through initiating efforts to develop, flex, and expand a vocabulary on dramaturgy we can develop the tools and processes to take our work to the next level.
Dramaturgy is not drama. Nor is it exclusively about words. It’s a process that, as Professor Sharon Mazer from AUT explains, is the “navigation between a text and its inherent theatricality.” Whether that text has been freshly penned or handed down through generations, transmitted through oral traditions, or devised through a series of physical and non-verbal narratives, dramaturgy as a practice offers a means to uphold the integrity and authenticity of a work.
According to Jaime Dorner, former University College of Learning (UCOL) programme leader and director, the dramaturge is responsible for two very distinct functions: “creating logic in the world of the work, and then working with the director to materialise that world.” It’s a succinct and unequivocal expectation that Dorner has found generally (if not always) works well when establishing boundaries between the playwright, director and the performers. A range of factors during the creative process often blur these roles, but it’s a process, he argues, that’s worth the investment.
There are many like Dorner who advocate for greater clarity and accountability of the dramaturge’s role, and choreographer Malia Johnson is no exception. “A director is too close to the material to be able to do this for themselves, and it is vital that this role be encouraged more prolifically,” she says. Johnson’s experience in dance and theatre as well as fashion (she was the former choreographer for World of Wearable Art) gives her collaborations agency and direction, but also a distinctive understanding of the wide application of dramaturgy to live performance. “Dramaturgy for me is that the dialogue enables you to progress further into the matrix and meaning of what you are creating… [it’s] bringing in-depth knowledge, and adds value for the possibilities for a production to grow.”
There’s also a widespread agreement that dramaturges are needed to interrogate what Theatreview editor John Smythe describes as “the artefact”; but as he also explains, it’s vital that the role carries with it a purpose of investigation that goes beyond the immediacy of the text. He suggests this should be undertaken “in order to support the process by which the creators fulfil the potential of the work, and potentially take it to a whole new level.”
Delving beyond the industry vocabulary that accompanies these discussions, dramaturgy is at its heart linked with dramatic storytelling and the stage. According to dancer and choreographer Victoria Hunt, dramaturges are more than just roles defined through western terminology. “Kaumātua or kuia are the essential dramaturges,” says the Sydney-based practitioner. “They are the elders and knowledge keepers, the cultural advisors and caretakers, and they guide, support, inform, and bless the process and the work in order to give it life.”
Often dramaturges are offhandedly referred to as the critical eye or the outside voice – without actually clarifying what the role could actually mean for any given work. As Hunt indicates, by developing a habit of tearing ourselves away from the vocabulary normally associated with dramaturgy and becoming more aware of the environmental and cultural resources available, it becomes easier to engage with how we want to define the role of the dramaturge in our work.
It’s also useful to remember that while we may be a semicolon at the bottom of the globe, we’re an integral part of the world’s changing dynamics. As our stories and people travel, our understanding of the world and our place also change. As a Pacific nation we’ve been host to generations of manuhiri, visitors who bring a distinct perspective that contributes towards sculpting a dynamic cultural ecosystem.
A recent import into our theatre community, American dramaturge and literary advisor Alison Horsley is a highly skilled creative whose work ranges from different forms of script advice to production dramaturgy and programming support. Working in an environment of burgeoning growth and rapid change at the Court Theatre in Christchurch, the musical theatre specialist believes the dramaturgical context is fundamental to the development of any work:
“Dramaturgy is a giant context story that involves understanding and translating the vision that comes from the creative team all the way to the audience. It involves working with the playwright, director, and actors so they have an idea of the historic and cultural background of the work, so that no matter what the content there is always a context. If it’s decided that Romeo and Juliet is set on the moon, my job is to create that ‘world of the moon’ for the creatives and the audience.”
Constructing this creative reality isn’t limited to theatre – it extends across all art forms. Dance educator and critic Raewyn Whyte recalls a long history of dance dramaturgy in New Zealand, one she’s keen to see revitalised. “In this country we do have a tendency for works to be character- or commentary-based, and as a result dramaturgy often becomes about obsessing with the text,” she says. “But as in the case of dance it’s crucial to realise that there is a huge socio-political universe here that deserves to be encountered.”
Singer, actor and dramaturge Waimihi Hotere works extensively in creating work where song, movement, and speech are all fluid. Through her creative work as both a practitioner and scholar she explores ways that can extend and deepen the creative vision of the works and its relationships at all levels. “As a dramaturge, it’s my job to be the architect of a space in which the director, cast and crew – in fact everyone involved in the company, as well as the audience – can actively engage with each other,” she says. “It’s the first and often most fundamental step that ensures the work will be valued.”
Although a subjective, shifting system dictates the ‘value’ of any given work, the uncomfortable question that seeks clarification of intention is more persistent. Programming Advisor at Auckland Arts Festival Angela Green has regular exposure to new works at all stages of their development, and is a passionate advocate for ensuring intentionality is a priority. In a world where live performance must compete with various art forms, she refers to shows that have crystallised their intentions. “The X Factor has a purpose and it knows exactly the box it has to tick,” she says. “That’s entertainment. If we’re truly calling ourselves artists, we need to have the same degree of articulation for our purpose. But often we just don’t.”
It’s a sentiment shared by former co-producer at Taki Rua and general manager of Indian Ink, Esther Roberts. “I’ve not gone to many shows where I feel I have been considered in the process,” she confesses. “As an audience member I’ve often found that the purpose of the work is really unclear… sometimes that could be because the story is really weak or the performances aren’t hitting the right mark or the set design is distracting – and I feel bad for saying that.” Nevertheless, she does feel it’s important we challenge each other. “Everybody’s artistic vision should be relentlessly questioned, and that’s what good art does: it gets people to ask questions, not in an aggressive manner but in a way that is conducive to developing people’s curiosity.”
That question of vision and purpose is a dilemma faced across all sectors of the industry. Tainui Tukiwaho, playwright and artistic director of Te Pou, suggests that a re-engagement with the both the underlying and immediate intentions of the artist are essential to revitalising a sense of clarity. “Quite often I don’t think people understand the kaupapa of their work,” he says. “You’ll often hear artists say ‘I want to put on a show but I don’t want it to be stink, I want to put on a show but I don’t want people to judge me, I want to put on a show but I don’t want to get it wrong’ – so they are driven by the desire of not wanting certain things, and often that’s exactly what ends up happening.”
It often comes back to artists and our accountability to our art. But how do we use dramaturgy to honour the work and its creatives? Refining the purpose of a work is the start of a conversation to achieve greater clarity, but it also requires an understanding of the world of the work. This is a shared universe developed by the different creatives and performers, held together by the creative community, and ultimately extended to the audience. The need to value dramaturgy arises not from a need to merely consolidate a definition (being such a porous term can work to its advantage) but to ensure it experiences emancipation from exclusively literary and euro-centric paradigms.
Pedro Ilgenfritz, director, dramaturge, and senior lecturer at UNITEC explains this approach.
“The reach of dramaturgy goes beyond the exclusive laws of dramatic composition. Its context cannot be solely limited to drama or dramatic understanding… as a dynamic practice, it moves into other areas and disciplines – of history, sociology, philosophy, psychoanalysis, linguistics, semiology – and in doing so, is connected with social, historical, cultural, economic, spiritual and political processes.”
Ilgenfritz’s comment, like those of many of his colleagues and industry peers, highlights that dramaturgy and its latent value depend on a flexible system. In order to value dramaturgy, it’s essential the codes for dramatic construction are recognised as operating under a range of different factors.
This is evident not just in theatre and dance, but in film as well. Karin Williams, creative producer for theatre and film, is excited about what a robust dramaturgical process could bring to the community. “Within the Pasifika community we are on the verge of greatness – but what will take us to the next level is developing the critical skills to create a work that will have life on the stage or on the screen and long after the lights come up.”
To reach that next level, there need to be changes. We need to improve the infrastructural support for dramaturges, as well as how we receive dramaturgical feedback. We can do this through interrogating the existing system and its operating models and finding new and innovative ways to create outcomes that can have a high degree of dramaturgical impact.
“We need a culture of critical conversation and dramaturges have the capacity to challenge not just the content but the vision of the work,” says Williams. “We’ve been waiting for these changes and the tipping point is fast approaching.”
But the proverbial playing field isn’t level. In fact, it’s a pretty steep slope for some of our teammates and the game certainly doesn’t get any easier. From being cast as a nameless terrorist to working closely on developing his own craft as a playwright and dramaturge, Ahi Karunaharan has experienced all sorts of criticism, and after almost two decades he isn’t shy about receiving unadulterated feedback. “The dramaturge becomes your best friend but is also your most dreaded critic,” he says. “That tension is a good one to have, because it’s better to have harsh feedback given to you during the rehearsal than plastered all over a review.”
That doesn’t make it necessarily any easier. Honest feedback is often subjective, and will depend on the invited dramaturge’s experience in theatre/dance/film making/storytelling, their connections to the community and their knowledge of contextual factors such as history, politics, sociology and more. Sometimes, as Lemi Ponifasio, choreographer and activist, says “it’s hard to say out loud, but when the work just isn’t good enough, it just isn’t good enough.”
Once said however the question then becomes: how do we address this?
Indeed, as our community kōrero highlighted, aside from endless cups of tea (or other forms of liquid refreshment) there are some pragmatic steps we could take towards developing a healthy conversation around dramaturgy.
Stuart Hoar, Playmarket script advisor, suggests one such step might be to acknowledge the conflict that arises in how different dramaturges conceptualise this practice. He believes there’s a lack of a coherent philosophy in dramaturgy, which means “it’s understood in different ways depending on circumstances – and as a result it’s often hit and miss.” Like other dramaturges, he’s clear we need to improve not only our ability to receive critical feedback, but also engage with how to provide dramaturgically sound advice that is useful, relevant and practical.
Other sources of tension arise when role expectations haven’t been solidified early in the process. Melbourne-based NZ director Geoff Pinfield argues that the cross-sector variation of a dramaturge’s contribution dilutes its efficiency and effort needs to be made to clarify clear indicators of success as well as intended outcomes. “When I’ve seen dramaturges credited in the independent sector, it’s often someone who’s turned up to a few rehearsals said ‘hmm and ahh’ and added their two cents, but they haven’t really been part of the creative process. That, to me, really curtails the utility of having such a role.” This frustration is seconded by Theatre of Auckland (TOA) director and founder Jason Te Kare, who points out that the process is further compromised when “more often than not the role of a dramaturge is lumped in with role of director.”
It’s a messy state of affairs, but that doesn’t mean it has to stay that way. Dr. Murray Edmond, Dramaturge for Indian Ink and Associate Professor at the University of Auckland, adds that it’s crucial the functions of different roles are clear in order to be effective. “There are directorial functions, authorial functions, and performance functions and these roles need to be respected. If a dramaturge can add something, then good. If not, then the dramaturge is not needed.”
Playwright and dramaturge Robin Kerr is also adamant about the need to have clear responsibility, especially as dramaturges are often considered individuals who can provide a quick fix and a ‘spot of dramaturgy’. “In a classic scripted process, the writer comes up with a structure and often the dramaturge comes in when much of the work is close to finished, and is expected to challenge that,” Kerr explains. “But the damage has been done, and the dramaturge has the unfortunate job of hoping to inject something of substance when in fact the initial premise may need to be completely re-worked.”
It became obvious when speaking to the community that the need for a cohesive understanding of dramaturgy is paramount to the success of this term in the theatrical lexicon of New Zealand. Lack of knowledge and skill, blurring of roles and the ‘quick and dirty’ version of dramaturgy are all factors that contribute to a lazy, if not ineffectual, dramaturgical process. However, once these sources of tension are acknowledged and addressed, it’s possible to construct healthy and proactive relationships. These relationships support not just creators, but the very alchemy of dramaturgy: storytelling.
Well, if only it were that easy.
One of the assets of a small industry is a penchant for swapping hats: a producer one day might moonlight as a director or playwright the next. This environment can create fertile opportunities for a rich and dynamic range of skills, but unfortunately the culture also readily lends itself to being moderated by gatekeepers and cliques. Outsiders invariably find themselves on the periphery and might form an alternative group, often out of necessity, rather than purpose.
As radio producer and dramaturge Adam Macaulay explains, one of the primary reasons for this phenomenon is the lack of transparent and healthy relationships within the creative teams and wider community.
“There seem to be lots of situations, at least within major centres, where actors in rehearsal one week may be directed by someone who they themselves directed last week in a production that’s possibly written by a mutual friend. This can contribute to careful social dynamic, a mixture of fear to criticise and assumptions about who understands what about the script and how best to realise its story on stage.”
Academic and choreographer Dr Carol Brown explains that individual autonomy needs to be recognised. “The relationship between the director, dramaturge, and the performers requires a space where healthy conversations can facilitate a shared value exchange – where the politics and architecture of relationships can be in genuine conversation.”
Building this type of useful professional relationship also necessitates learning the art of communication, including the value of face-to-face encounters and efforts to recognise the individuals and their own story that they bring to the work. Playwright Renee Liang admits that choosing a dramaturge is very personal. “You need someone who will make you feel safe enough to explore but also make sure you see the holes and inconsistencies for yourself,” she says. “In a culture where critical feedback is still largely shunned, it’s necessary to re-cultivate relationships to facilitate a larger cross-section of contributions.”
Gabrielle Vincent, programming and artist development manager at the Basement, is confident that these changes to develop better relationships have started. “We need to find our own voice in dramaturgy… while we have recognised dramaturges in this country like Gary Henderson, Stuart Hoar and Hone Kouka, we realise we need to continue sharing the knowledge and exploring different methods and bringing in different voices.”
But this is just the start of the change.
As veteran cabaret performer Mika Haka explains, more than just an infrastructural or hierarchical change is necessary. “When you do something Māori, anyone else (especially non-Māori) feel they can’t comment in a critical way. As a result, most Indigenous works at any festival never get a bad review – but then again, they never gets a great review either, and this is because the overwhelming majority of critics lack the language and the skill to comment at an engaged level on the work.”
Haka isn’t alone. There are numerous other theatre makers and rapidly growing forums (for example, Asian Creatives Aotearoa, and the Pasifika Theatre Makers) who have taken steps to address the inequity across the industry. There’s also an increasing recognition that strategic changes are necessary for both short-term gains as well as long-terms solutions, and the pronounced emphasis that the work must take into account the audience in ways that go beyond simply securing ‘bums on seats’ and ticking boxes to fulfil funding requirements.
Rob Mokaraka, playwright and actor, is another voice relentless in his passion to engage the audience in new ways. “Making theatre isn’t the same as making sushi,” he says. “It may be technically correct, brilliant even, but if it lacks the wairua and cultural nuances, how will it ever satisfy an audience?”
It may be a culinary metaphor but Mokaraka, known for taking time and effort to distil his script and production values, isn’t alone. Arnette Arapai, playwright and producer, is also committed to making efforts to disrupt the hegemony of the system that often, consciously or not, reiterates a particular model of what success looks like in New Zealand:
“The brand of Māori and Pasifika theatre is entirely constructed. We don’t call Roger Hall a palangi male playwright, but I’m a Pasifika female and that label comes with a number of expectations. Narratives of domestic violence? Stories of child abuse? What about obesity? Of course, those are the works that end up served on the mainstream table. These issues are important, it is essential they are addressed, but they still continue to dictate the content of our stories, how they should be told and sometimes, even how we are expected to feel.”
That, for some, is the model of theatrical success: a yardstick that ticks the checkbox of well-defined and rounded characters, clear dramatic arcs, crisp dialogue and pacing and complementing lighting, sound and costume design. But as creatives have highlighted, there are a range of socio-cultural aesthetics that also need to be taken into account. Different stories have different histories. There’s no uniform mould that will produce ‘success’ as that in itself is subjective, but by taking the necessary steps to ensure that tensions are acknowledged and new relationships developed, change can happen. Reviews in particular have an important responsibility here. Proactive efforts and a willingness to engage with a range of different cultural contexts allows for an informed commentary to extend far beyond merely watching a work come to life in a black box. After all, the bigger the circle, the better the conversation.
Let’s be honest.
There isn’t a magic dictionary or an online course that suddenly provides cultural competency in the arts. There isn’t a fairy godmother/father/aunty/cuzzie that can sprinkle a few tonnes of twinkly cultural intelligence and there’s certainly no patronus on hand that will charge through patriarchal hierarchies or narrow-minded insecurities on your behalf. It’s not a world of M&Ms with a goofy tune and promises of good things in crayon colours. In fact it’s sometimes a liberally bespattered Twitterverse.
But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to start a revolution.
Let’s return to one of the fundamental qualities of dramaturgy: talking to each other and being genuinely interested in having a thoughtful and meaningful kōrero. It was what guided these conversations, and it invokes a sense of collective commitment on a subject and process in which we all, at varying levels, engage. As choreographer and dancer Tanemahuta Gray says, “Dramaturgy offers a chance to kōrero, a chance to wananga, and that process allows an exploration of thematic ideas, as well as taking the work to a deeper level – and sometimes the process can be more meaningful than the final product.”
We can take certain steps to foster a culture of dramatic change. The first is to recognise the value we bring to the conversation on dramaturgy. At the 2014 international arts summit in Edinburgh, then-artistic director of the Edinburgh Festival Jonathan Mills called delegates from around the world to recognise that the currency in which we trade as artists is our culture. He spoke not just of diversity in regards to ethnicity, age, ability, gender, or sexual orientation but of a culture of recognition and trust, where individuals and communities are empowered to tell their stories and are supported to share those stories with audiences everywhere. This is the dramaturgy we need to embrace. Later he also remarked that coming from the Southern hemisphere (he’s Aussie) we have a specific orientation to the world, a lens that we share as Pacific nations, and that’s a gift that we can use to take our work to new heights.
But it’s tricky.
Dramaturgy has the potential to be part of the new currency in which we trade. It’s a process that can offer insight and depth to any creative work and has proven to be an asset – but without taking risks, it’s not likely we’re going to head very far.
Taking risks is more than just an advertising campaign. It begins by making efforts to decolonise the current structures and knowing that different forces are at work alongside different, and occasionally competing, histories. It begins by taking stock of our place within the arts community in New Zealand and ensuring that all the elements of a healthy, rich culture can participate fully in developing a cultural ecology. It begins by establishing an environment where the value of dramaturgy is recognised, and a dramaturgical process is alive and healthy; and yes, it begins with this kōrero and knowing that dramaturgical exchange has the potential to create transformation – not a massive tectonic shift, but a change in the fuel that we use to fire our imagination and practice.
It also requires knowing that the past and present are already fleeting memories. The only way to engage with the lessons of the past and all the sources of knowledge and wisdom that have been collected and collated is to empower the community to see how dramaturgy is already making these changes. Nathan Joe, playwright and critic, is a young practitioner eager to see theatre generate discussion on how dramaturgy can be used to re-imagine the future of local creative works. “There is a tendency to emulate other mediums, and while it can result in more theatricality, it can also reduce theatre to the poor man’s simulation of cheap entertainment,” he says. “The dramaturge’s job is to remind the audience of the power and magnitude of inherent theatricality, and that’s the future of where our work needs to move.”
Dramaturgy in New Zealand isn’t new, but in 2016 it’s ready to be challenged, debated, questioned, and included in the wider conversation. There is work to be done to refine our expectations of the role and the context in which our work is made; efforts required to value the already existing dramaturgical inputs that are made and in doing so, create structures that will extend their currency to create inclusive circles of creative collaboration. Finally, it is utterly essential that we recognise that it is our shared responsibility to be liberal in our thinking, generous in our support, and tireless in our quest for excellence. This is after all our story and we get to tell it.
To move towards a New Zealand dramaturgy requires us as artists, and as an industry, to take action. In response to the collective insights of our community we need a movement towards establishing dramaturgy as an essential component of our creative process.
So consider this an invitation.
Consider this a recommendation.
Consider this a guideline or even the Pirates’ Code.
Consider this what you will, but it’s our call to action.
The question is: are you ready to play the game?
Towards a New Zealand dramaturgy is an ongoing project. In 2015 thirty practitioners and creatives generously gave their name and I would like to acknowledge their contribution: Adam Macaulay, Ahi Karunaharan, Allison Horsley, Angela Green, Arnette Arapai, Carol Brown, Esther Roberts, Gabrielle Vincent, Gary Henderson, Geoff Pinfield, Jaime Dorner, Jason Te Kare, John Smythe, Justin Gregory, Karin Williams, Malia Johnson, Mika Haka, Murray Edmond, Nathan Joe, Pedro Ilgenfritz, Raewyn Whyte, Renee Liang, Rob Mokaraka, Robin Kerr, Sharon Mazer, Stuart Hoar, Tainui Tukiwaho, Tanemahuta Gray, Victoria Hunt and Waimihi Hotere . Our conversations were never less than half-an-hour and on a few occasions even extended to ninety minutes! The transcriptions of these kōrero came in at over 30,000 words and I would like to acknowledge that this essay in no way summarises the vast diversity and richness of our conversation. There will be many more essays, reflections and opportunities to continue this exchange. I would particularly like to thank Stuart Hoar from Playmarket and Sharon Mazer from AUT for their unstinting support and willingness to continually engage, debate and review my work; Matthew Harnett for his critical feedback and support; and finally, to my theatrewife, Nathan Joe, whose unflagging good humour and robust feedback has made sure that this iteration of Towards a New Zealand Dramaturgy has made it to the page.