A personal perspective on the fall and rise of Australian dramaturgy by Iain Sinclair

An AustralianPlays.org series of guest essays from leading voices in Australian theatre.

We’re inviting our guest writers to express their own ideas and opinions freely. We encourage you to add your voice to the conversation, on Twitter, Facebook or by leaving a comment on this page.

“Maybe only after working for 20 years did I really begin to develop a skill for self-criticism; that thing of swinging from the objective to the subjective. You need that subjective belief in yourself… That level of commitment is not just an idea; it’s a whole visceral lifestyle … to be able to step back and go “oh that’s a crock, Johnno”, calling yourself into the office, sitting yourself down, and giving yourself a big fucken rap, “now get back out there and do it properly this time!” I wouldn’t have minded having someone say that stuff to me…can you buy dramaturgs? …I’ll start saving.” – John Romeril

John Romeril is quoted from Real Time’s article on the Dramaturgies Project.
RealTime issue #70, Dec-Jan 2005 pg. 25.
© Peter Eckersall & Paul Monaghan & Melanie Beddie.

Like most dramaturgs, I came into the practice by actively putting on new work. I started staging new writing straight out of drama school; I’d finished a post-grad MA in Text and Performance Studies overseas and headed straight to Canberra to start my theatrical foray into the national conversation. Mary Rachel Brown had written her first play and, alongside Kenneth Spiteri and Simon Clarke, we set up a new writing theatre. We began with a piece Mary had written about a gifted young maniac from the western suburbs of Sydney going through the prodromal stage of schizophrenia. It was called A Streetcar Named Datsun 120Y. Reviews were glowing, audiences were fighting to get tickets and we quickly found ourselves believing that we might – just might – be geniuses. All we had to do now was attract the attention of our betters and join them at the table. Job done.

So we thought.

At the time, the most senior figure in professional theatre in the ACT was the director Carol Woodrow, a respected dramatist and, it turned out, a veteran of the Australian National Playwrights Centre’s play development process. We invited her along and gathered expectantly to receive her praise. It didn’t come in quite the form we anticipated. Carol set about methodically probing us with questions – what exactly was the world of the protagonist? What were the forces that governed his behaviour? What are the cultural difficulties that he came up against? What did we actually know about clinical mental illness? Could we articulate the obstacles in his path? How credible was the sequence of events? What possible chance of redemption was the piece offering?  Did we have ambitions beyond merely making a room full of people laugh at someone in an excruciating and tragic predicament?  The questions just kept coming and culminated in the all-time classic: “Yes, having a character play I used to love her but I had to kill her by Guns‘n’Roses while simultaneously using his dick as a metronome was a potent stage image but how did it relate to the central question of the play?” While it makes me smile with mild shame now, I remember feeling terrifically wrong-footed at the time. What were all these damn questions? We were young geniuses; what need did we have for a…a…what? A ‘dramaturg’? What the hell is this? Germany?

We weren’t quite humble enough at the time to understand that Carol was looking out for us as fellow dramatists. She could see weaknesses in the fabric of our storytelling that no amount of vaulting ambition could hide. We sheepishly answered some of her questions, cockily batted off others and secretly resented many more. On her way out, Carol hugged us with a special ferocity, told us that she liked our chutzpah and looked forward to a time when we had something more substantial to offer. As she left, she called back with a fist in the air, “More power to your elbows”. We shook our fists back in a slightly different spirit.

A Streetcar Named Datsun 120Y went on to tour nationally and each member of the company ended up playing the central role (yes, we each attempted the metronome thing). We took it to all the fringe festivals – twice – and somewhere in that long run, those weak points in the play started to run thin, unravel and become holes until one by one, each of us fell through one. Ultimately we found ourselves standing depleted and inert in the North Melbourne Town Hall. Kenneth had just stopped mid-tech twenty minutes before we opened (fringe schedules) and flatly declared, “I’m bored”. He was speaking for all of us. It turned out that we really did need that dramaturgy after all. We called the company Elbow Theatre (for Carol) and vowed to keep dramaturgy at the centre of all our subsequent work.

Our initial reaction to interventionist dramaturgy was, it turns out, traditional and very Australian. While dramatic enactment has been on this land since the great serpent delivered the first people, the process of dramaturgy and the job of the dramaturg only started to appear in the late 1970s, and since then it has had a rough ride to recognition. Even now, there are fewer skilled professional dramaturgs in the country than Mrs Palmer has daughters. Australian culture holds a natural antipathy toward the outsider expert, the educated provocateur, the wanker who is all hat and no cattle. With dramaturgs, that feeling is compounded by the unavoidable fact that the job of the dramaturg is, by definition, non-productive. Dramaturgs are champions of ephemera; they advocate for a refinement of process and mechanism and, as a result, they can be seen as experts without a metier, an “artist without a means” as Karl Kraus puts it and whether it’s fair or not, there is a thin but pervasive thread of distrust toward the process of dramaturgy that is still pervasive here. Dramaturgy has been given room to evolve in our sister theatre cultures to the extent that an ability to engage in high level dramaturgical conversation is now a central requirement of its leading theatre artists. In the US, UK and Germany, it is even becoming common for artistic directors to have been dramaturgs rather than directors. In Australia however, dramaturgy is still viewed with suspicion and it is getting to a stage now where we are being held back from an increasingly sophisticated international conversation.

I’d like to present a personal perspective on some of the main reasons why a paralysing prejudice against the dramaturg persists in Australia. It will centre around two ideas. The first is that dramaturgy became intermingled with academic, literary  and economic preoccupations that did not always serve the playwright, and the second is that a lot of people who were paid as dramaturgs in the 80s and 90s were unregulated amateurs who did a terrible job, put a lot of playwrights’ noses out of joint and gave an honourable practice a bad name. I also hope to signal some good news on the horizon in the form of a new collaborative, holistic dramaturgy that is becoming the standard, dedicated to the needs of the play and the playwright as the era of the ad hoc, authoritative ‘bad Australian dramaturg’ recedes.

Dramaturgs are often mistakenly seen as being held in the thrall of ‘text’. It translates to a perception of them as being rule-driven advocates of stopped time, and an orthodox standpoint, of a correct way of doing things, something that is naturally anathema to the artistic impulse. It’s unfortunate because my experience with quality new dramaturgs shows that they invariably advocate for the mirror opposite. This difference centres around the artistic idea of  what ‘text’ is. The essential nature of text is often misunderstood and a dramaturg’s understanding of this concept will define whether they are useful or damaging to a play. Plays are very different to literature – they are a damn sight older for starters. From the moment we developed language, anthropologists tell us that we re-enacted events in a social context and inferred meaning from them. We put on plays. Plays have been with us since our ability to speak and that makes them older than Prometheus. The human technology of writing came along some ninety five thousand years later and we are still trying to get the two artforms to match up. Because plays use speech and action, the most convenient way to encode them is with the written word, but they are not perfectly matched. Written plays are always designed to be deciphered back into drama, in the same way that musical notation is translated back into its natural state. Only literature exists in its native state as writing. Artforms of the present moment are elemental and ephemeral in nature; they are ancient and intuitive and there is only so much of them that can be captured and encoded on the page. Performers of present moment artforms know this at a core level and when they deal with text and notation, they intuit that they are dealing with approximate guidelines that need to be breathed into, rather than slavishly followed. Dramaturgy is the art of encoding dramatic action (by the playwright) so that it can be decoded back again into fluent events on stage (by the actors/director).

The idea of scripts being dramatic code was a lesson we did not learn at school. Drama is taught to children as literature, not as dramaturgy. I remember the first time William Shakespeare, that great lion of dramatic art, was paraded before us in an English class and subdued by the quantifying instruments of literary criticism – plot, character and theme. It was abysmal and we were all bored titless. Our aversion to the intellectualisation of drama happened on an ancient instinctual level. Literary criticism and drama are a bad fit. You can’t judge the character of a lion by the way it interacts with someone holding a chair; there is an implicit  politic of subjugation present that any natural dramatist bucks against instinctively. I spent most of my English classes on Shakespeare either pushing a bic pen in eye or jumping out the window to smoke Winnie Blues behind the cricket shed. Dramatists are natural anarchists and even Shakespeare for all his supposed ‘themes’ of a ‘return to order’ dramatically demonstrated that it was in chaos where the real change happened, where “shit got real” as my year ten smoking self might have said.

A good dramaturg knows the essential difference between literature and drama and advocates for drama at every turn.

The term ‘text’ has come to be understood as ‘print’ or ‘writing’ but the ancient meaning of the word was far more poetic in wonderful and surprising ways. We get the term from the Latin texere meaning ‘to weave’ (familiar cognates include textile and texture) but what is it that is woven? What are the threads? In Aristotle’s time, these threads started out as events. Their word for events was ‘drama’. When these events were then held in the mind, they became, in their words again ‘ideas’, something you literally saw. When you interacted with the idea, it became a thread. Ancient Greek for thread is ‘clue’; those “clues” then intermingled and juxtaposed until they started to collect meaning and become culture. We literally weave actions of the mind together and the fabric we create in that process is called ‘text’ . Text is nothing less than human culture at its most elemental.

So how did text become a fixed thing? Somewhere along the line, the active and dynamic weave of thoughts and actions got caught in the thrall of print, the juju of the printing press and the physical fetish of the book. The way religion and law use writing may have had something to do with it. If an idea becomes written, it gains an air of officialdom. A priest would declare, “It is written” as he denounced a heretic; a judge would “throw the book” at a law breaker and so on. Interestingly, the fetishisation that happened to the printed word didn’t quite happen to printed music. We all still instinctively know that a musical score is code for an experience performed in real space and real time. Only practitioners (and the occasional oddball) would sit down of an evening to read a score from front to back and yet all of us were handed a copy of Shakespeare and left to fumble about in his terrifically complex dramatic code before we even hit puberty.

A good dramaturg makes sure that the ancient supple idea of ‘text’ runs freely in a playscript, reminding us that a playtext functions like musical notation rather than literature.

A play is wrought not written; we don’t call play makers play-writes for a good reason. A play does not need to be written in order to exist (the term ‘playwriting’ is a relatively new one that stems from a slippage in the homonym of ‘write’ and ‘wright’). Ultimately, it only matters that performers know what to say and do and when by the time of performance. When a company has learned their lines and movements and thrown away the prompt copy, the play exists again in its pre-literate promethean sense, rendered back into a sequence of dramatic events primed in the mind and waiting to tumble through time. Plays weren’t even written as a whole document until very recently. The most common form for playtexts was as separate ‘rolls’ handed out to each actor (that’s why characters are called roles). These rolls were then woven together in situ by practising dramatists working collaboratively. It was a logistical mechanism; it was simply impossible to hand write ninety thousand odd words on papyrus with rare ink and a bird feather, sixteen times over to give each artist a full script (from ‘scribere’ – to write). Actors were handed their rolls in just this manner for over three thousand years.

Shakespeare famously renders exactly this mechanism in A Midsummer Night’s Dream when he has Flute mistakenly read all his allocated lines in sequence. The director, Peter Quince, complains, You must not speak that yet; that you answer to Pyramus: you speak all your part at once, cues and all Pyramus enter: your cue is past. Shakespeare’s joke is clear. Flute didn’t know that he had only been given threads that he had to weave together with his fellow dramatists in rehearsal and he didn’t understand that he had to work out where his actions fitted into a sequence of events. It’s quite a complex in-joke and it means that the audience must have known that actors worked from separate building plans that needed to be assembled as a team. The notion of a playscript as a single document mostly came into existence when enterprising prompters compiled them as souvenirs for punters but as a rule, from Sophocles right through to Kidd, dramatists never worked from a fully written playscript.

Playwrights, like all the other ‘wrights’ are builders, engaged in a trade that requires skilled knowledge of structure. The noun, ‘wright’ comes from the old English ‘werhta’ meaning ‘to build’ (hence wheel, mill, wain and ship). Anyone who has been around theatres knows that carpenters are always close by and it’s not such a long bow to assume that a builder of plays would be associated with a builder of sets. Ben Jonson makes a clear distinction between a poet and the builder of plays in his Epigram 49.

PLAYWRIGHT me reads, and still my verses damns,
He says I want the tongue of epigrams ;
I have no salt, no bawdry he doth mean;
For witty, in his language, is obscene.
Playwright, I loath to have thy manners known
In my chaste book; I profess them in thine own.

Jonson also incidentally states the ancient challenge of dramaturgy to keep the “salt” in and the “wit” out as he derides the earthy anarchy of the stage in favour of the “chaste book” of literature.

A playwright draws out plans to ‘wright’ a play in much the same way that a carpenter or a master builder draws plans to ‘wright’ a building. The challenge with all building plans is to make sure that the code from the mind of the architect is of a high enough quality that it can be wrought by builders into the physical world –  in our case actors and directors. It’s all about the quality of the building plan. That’s where dramaturgy comes in.

A good dramaturg knows that a playscript needs to be the best possible plan for dramatists to rebuild events that have already happened in the playwright’s mind.

There aren’t many ‘urgys’ in the world. The Ancient Greek term ‘ourgos’ means ‘arrangement’. All of the urgys we have in English imply great levels of skill and are heavily polarised on each end of the weave of human culture. On one end we have the sciences: metallurgy (the application of the properties of metal), chemurgy (rendering organic materials for industrial use) and micrurgy (manipulation of cells under a microscope). On the other we have religion and magic: liturgy (the enactment of holy orders), thaumaturgy (enacting miracles), theurgy (supernatural actions on humans) and hierurgy (enacting systems of worship). All the great urgys are clustered at either end of the great science versus religion divide. Except for one. Right in the middle, between belief and knowledge, is dramaturgy, the artist’s urgy – a process that requires a skilled arrangement of events or as the ancients called it, drama.

A good dramaturg knows that dramaturgy is suspended equally between science and religion.

So, going back to core meanings; a playwright builds events in the mind; the text is the way in which those events are woven together to render meaning and the dramaturgy is the best possible arrangement of those events. Seen in this way, it seems strange that a dramatic artist would profess themselves to be anti-dramaturgy. Wouldn’t that be like an aeronautical engineer professing themselves to be anti-physics, or a musician to be anti-sound? What are anti-dramaturgy dramatists really declaring their antipathy toward? I suspect it’s actually against unskilled intervention. We all know there is no such thing as bad physics, only bad physicists and so on. The same goes for bad dramaturgs. It’s easy to pick a bad one because that practitioner doesn’t have the playwright’s weave of ideas at heart.

Part of the problem with the perception of dramaturgy in Australia has been that there has been no industry standard for measuring the quality of a dramaturg. Pretty much anyone has been able to call themselves one. I have met many people who have read a few new plays, had a few opinions about them and gone on to call called themselves dramaturgs. The theatre industry is a remarkably open career market in the sense that anyone can pretty much just start telling people that they are a [insert theatre job here] and go for it. Direct a play and say you are a director, stick up some lights and say you are a designer. The big trick is getting people to rate you. This is where most dramatists pass or fail the litmus test. You get people to rate you by presenting your work. If your work is favourably viewed by enough people enough times, sooner or later you start having something that resembles a career. Dramaturgs are harder to rate however because their work is invisible and unquantifiable. There is always an out for a bad dramaturg. If a new play fails, he can say it’s because the playwright didn’t listen to his sage advice. If it succeeds, she can say it’s because the playwright listened to her sage advice. In the 90s, it seemed that these pop-up dramaturgs were everywhere but the new millennium seems to have done a number on them (along with the Y2K bug and the dotcom bubble). At the same time the word margarine disappeared from supermarket shelves, so too did dramaturgs disappear from company staff lists. There are a good few dramaturgs still hidden in the machine of course; they just have different job titles. The industry is suddenly replete with  benign and hard to apprehend job titles like Associate Artist. I’m one right now at Playwriting Australia, even though I quietly know that I am actually working there as a ‘d’ word. The big companies have Writing Co-ordinators, Literary Managers and Literary Directors and sometimes even an artful amalgam of the lot in the case of Associate Director: Literary. Queensland Theatre Company and the Malthouse appear to be the only two companies with named dramaturgs on the payroll. It’s an ugly word and there’s just no polishing it; even as I write it now, Microsoft gently delivers a familiar red squiggly line under it and incorrectly offers me ‘dramaturge’  which is only commonly used to mean playwright in French.

How was the damage done to the shopfront of the dramaturg? In the 80s and 90s in Australia, there was an explosion of people of calling themselves dramaturgs. Funding bodies love oversight. The newly found position of script supervisor fitted like a glove and the trend caught on. It’s easy to see the attraction of attaching somebody to a process who is dedicated to making sure the play is ‘better’. If the play failed, at least due process was seen to have been followed. The problem was that recruitment was completely unregulated and the Australian theatre industry had no standards or educational construct to assess a dramaturg’s worth, let alone anything that resembled an industry model in best practice. I met many self titled dramaturgs who knew nothing of Aristotle or Lessing or Goffman or even Edgar or McKee. One or two of these self-titled dramaturgs turned out to be brilliant but they were part of a very wide spectrum of practitioners. The lion’s share of them were directors and playwrights cashing in on a new wage opportunity, acting on the mistaken assumption that the job was to instil production values, aesthetics and pace into playscripts. Some were academics with increasingly esoteric pecadilloes and many, many more were just out and out charlatans. A kind of ad hoc standard in dramaturgical practice started to emerge and its underlying principles still make me shudder.

Here’s an example.

Just under ten years ago I was approached by a playwright who had a promising first playscript. It was the recipient of a prestigious playwriting award that was administered by a major professional theatre company. It came with a development period, a dramaturg, a series of developments and a reading attached. After going through the entire process, the host company decided not to go ahead with a production of the play on the basis that “nobody was interested” in the subject matter and that it was structurally confused. The playwright, dusted herself off from the indignity of being fiddled with for a year only to be unceremoniously dropped, and contacted me to see if I was interested in staging the play as a co-op. We had met working at a National Playwrights Conference. She warned me that the play had received a lot of dramaturgical punishment and, in her words, “felt like an empty wallet”. I read the most recent draft and I agreed with her assessment. It felt tired and depleted.

When I started studying practical dramaturgy, the standard joke was that a bad dramaturg will ‘Pinterise’ any play that comes across their desk. This meant that they would fillet the language, reduce the character count, take out all the jokes, excise the poetry, flatten the language, shorten the title, harden the drama, elevate the stakes, enforce unity of time and space, reduce the number of scenes, shorten the running time and (most famously), remove anything that the writer ever loved in a slavish adherence to the maxim “kill your darlings”. It’s hardly a flattering characterisation of the master dramatist Harold Pinter’s work, or even an honest one, but it does go a long way to describing what often happened when a playwright was lumped with a bad dramaturg. The draft I received on this occasion showed all the hallmarks of this kind of intervention. It also, however, showed signs of being written by a playwright with an exceptional innate dramaturgy all her own. As a new writing director, I was torn over what to do with this already over fingered manuscript – the sorry term applied in the industry is ‘shop soiled’. Do I reverse the process step by arduous step? Do I put it on as is and hope that the original spirit glimmers through the ruins? Or do I walk away because it wasn’t my mess to clean up? I decided to ask the playwright for the pre-dramaturgy draft and any parent material that had survived the process. What I received back was quite literally the heart and soul of the piece, heartfelt direct address monologues, stunning lyrical flourishes, artful meta-theatrical interruptions of dramatic flow, bold reframing devices, classy and courageous embedded metaphor, poetic ambition and genuine innovation. It was too long and a bit over-wieldy sure, but it was magnificent and its massive heart was beating loud and strong. Over a few months, the playwright and I wove all of the gold thread back into the text, the gaudy purples the deep jet blacks and even a bit of mirror and tinsel here and there. We found a courageous producer to take a chance on us, then put the thing on, the unapproved pre-company dramaturgy, over-rich poetically and politically ambitious version, the one sniffed at for being laden with self-pity and a tiresome preoccupation with a certain war. We put that damn version on. It won a Sydney Theatre Award for best independent production, was the first play to transfer from the indie ghetto black box to the main-stage, had an extensive national tour and is now regarded with great affection as one of the highlights of post-millennial Australian theatre. Even the most contentious moment which the original dramaturg had cut out (and we reinstated) went on to become one of Australia’s most widely used audition pieces.*

A good dramaturg knows that the best interventionist dramaturgy is often none at all. A bad dramaturg thinks that  intervention is process.

The act of advising on and shaping a play text as it heads toward production has always happened of course. The big question is whether or not the presence of a dramaturg amplifies the dramatic impact of the work. Nowadays, charlatan dramaturgs find it hard to get away with their nonsense. Industry standards are beginning to rise and dramaturgs are proving themselves more valuable as a result. We rarely encounter ad hoc freelancers with a random grab bag of opinions about aesthetics pacing and efficiency anymore (though they are certainly still out there). Playwrights are increasingly aware of their own internal dramaturgy and in many cases are engaged in their own dramaturgical training. This means that a base level of sophisticated and sensitive interaction is beginning to be expected of dramaturgs and those who can’t tell pre-modern poetics from post-modern aesthetics are getting some special “editing suggestions” of their own.

A good dramaturg knows that the playwright’s internal dramaturgy is always more valuable than anything externally imposed.

How do we make sure that Australian theatre continues to create highly skilled, well-crafted works of inspiration that extend the national dramatic conversation?  One way is to increase the number of good dramaturgs out there and to continue weeding out the bad ones. There are exciting developments in dramaturgical training (which of course is the best way to bypass the resurgence of the charlatan). Playwriting Australia has a dedicated dramaturgy internship program which provides practical as well as pedagogical inroads into best practice and next year will mark a significant turning point in the growing rehabilitation of the Australian dramaturg when the Victorian College of the arts launches its Masters in Dramaturgy, an holistic course that is also refreshingly practice-based and catholic in its taste. I’m certain it will go a long way toward lifting Australian dramaturgy toward a level of international best practice where it belongs. Quality new dramaturgs are increasing in number thanks to the generosity of a small number of master practitioners willing to share their craft as well: Chris Mead, Francesca Smith, Tim Roseman, Louise Gough, Raimondo Cortese, Tom Healey,  Julian Meyrick, Peter Matheson and (even though he doesn’t use one himself) John Romeril and already major companies are using top notch new dramaturgs such as Jenni Medway, Anthea Williams and Mark Pritchard.

With practitioners like these sharing their time, skill and expertise and with formal, practice based training on the rise, best practice models are beginning to emerge and there is good reason to be optimistic about the overdue evolution of dramaturgical culture in Australia.

I wonder if I can still do that metronome trick.

Iain Sinclair

Iain Sinclair is a director, dramaturg and translator. He has championed many playwrights including Kate Mulvany (The Seed), Tom Holloway (Beyond the Neck), Mary Rachel Brown (A Streetcar Named Datsun 120Y), Duncan Graham (One Long Night in the Land of Nod, The Highway Crossing), Caleb Lewis (Songs for the Deaf), Victoria Haralabidou (Why did the Aborigines Eat Captain Cook?), Donna Abela (Jump for Jordan) and Eddie Perfect (The Beast). Iain has also directed an equal number of mainstage productions of established works including All My Sons, Our Town, Mojo, Blood Wedding, Lord of the Flies, Hurlyburly, My Arm and Killer Joe. He is currently working with Dan Lee on his new play, Bottomless with Red Stitch in Melbourne and directing Matthew Ryan’s new play, Brisbane for Queensland Theatre Company. Iain is the Associate Artist (and Resident Dramaturg) at Playwriting Australia.

John Romeril is quoted from Real Time’s article on the Dramaturgies Project.
RealTime issue #70, Dec-Jan 2005 pg. 25.
© Peter Eckersall & Paul Monaghan & Melanie Beddie.

The part time dramaturg in question is no longer a dramaturg or even living in the country. 

We acknowledge that we live and create on unceded lands. We pay our respects to the First Peoples of Australia, and to their elders past, present and future.

© Australian Plays Transform 2024