The Accidental Dramaturg

by Francesca Smith


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his essay comes in response to a request from my friend and colleague, Tom Healey (in his role as Literary Manager for the Australian Script Centre) to write a piece for his current collection that might cast some light on the way I approach working with writers.  Tom and I have a rich tradition of wide ranging, often very late night artistic chats, and our passionate and free flowing exchanges are something I treasure.

My memory of the conversation goes something like this: 

Tom: You have a unique approach to unlocking artists. Often we think of the dramaturg as someone who comes in to fix things but I never hear artists say that about you.

You seem to be more about locating the idea and re-aligning artists... Sort of like an osteopath.

What you do is the real work of getting everything back into flow.

Can you talk about the role of intuition in dramaturgy? Everyone thinks that belongs with the artist (writer) but not so much to the dramaturg...

Me: Ok. Sure. (Thinking it would be easy.) 

But it isn't.

* * *

I find myself struggling; tying myself in knots trying to define my approach to something which is by nature so ephemeral and intangible. I haven’t written an essay since I was at university and then only under the intense and liberating pressure of exam conditions. And I’m busy traversing my own creative wasteland at the moment…

What exactly do I do?

It feels very uncomfortable trying to define my own creative process. Since I received an Ozco Fellowship in 2010 and began the journey of trying to make a book about my take on the delicate art of making new work in the theatre (working title No Blood on the Walls), I've been consciously observing myself at work. It's kind of crazy-making – feeling obliged to watch myself and perform creative miracles at the same time. To try and take note of what has been (up until now) always immediate and instinctive is almost the antithesis of everything I practise – the being in the moment, the careful listening.

My friend Antonietta says I somehow speak directly to the creative self of an artist, while putting all the other parts to sleep. How to talk about that?

I look for inspiration in Iain Sinclair's essay, Some Notes on the Text – A personal perspective on the rise and fall of Australian dramaturgy, in last year’s collection – a beautiful mix of erudition, humour, experience, scholarship and artistry, and wonder if I can just say 'Read That'. And please do (preferably before you read this) because he articulates things in a way that I can't, he works in a way that I don't, and he has a big artistic mind that encompasses different worlds and an instinct that responds to different promptings.

The thing is, I don’t particularly enjoy talking about what I do. I just like doing it. And I feel quite protective of my secrets.

Here’s one my biggest secrets: I don't actually think of myself as a dramaturg. And I don't feel like a dramaturg, whatever that feels like, but I have spent time in countless rehearsal rooms and creative processes fulfilling that function and given the subject much thought as I reflect on what has worked, what hasn't and why, when it feels like fun and when it feels hard (in the wrong way).

When I started my journey in the profession, I saw the dramaturg as a sort of nerdy colourless person with no status, who was tolerated in the rehearsal room but not respected. And I thought that anyone who wasn’t in a primarily creative role just shouldn’t be there. I thought it was a form of nitpicking – stalking commas and punctuation – and not connected to the flow of ideas and energy in the room.

And yet over the years, almost despite myself, I have made a place for a creative sort of dramaturgy that springs from my direct experience as a director and creator, that gives life to the work and the artists, and that has proven invaluable and useful – not for a moment to be confused with pedantry and punctuation.

In delineating the difference between the interventionist and collaborative modes of dramaturgy, Tim Roseman coined a neat description of the difference in these approaches at a recent PlayWriting Australia workshop:  'They fix it. You find it'.

But what does it mean, to find the play?

I guess one of my particular gifts is for unearthing the structural idea or creative metaphor which will make the work visible to the artist. And it’s different for each person – depending on their psyche, their temperament, how they’re relating to the work, the origin and impulse behind the work and how they think. Sometimes it will be a shape or an image, and sometimes it's less concrete: a piece of music or a geometric form. It's connected to the inchoate: an intuitive flash that then gives rise to a desire to make the work. I have found that if we use it as our compass, things will go well.

Sometimes it's immediately obvious but sometimes it takes some excavation; digging through layers of confusion, maybe reclaiming stuff from the trash, eliminating the debris, until the essential DNA – the animating principle that will give rise to the whole – is revealed. It’s a Eureka moment.

Now we have a track to follow.

And my intuition leads, sensing what to do next: when to fan the flames; when to push and interrogate; and when to stop, do nothing, and wait.

Just like I’m working in a rehearsal room as a director.

It’s not a primarily heady process for me. I haven't read all the things you're supposed to have read or gone to dramaturgy school. But I'm a really good Listener. For what is there and what isn't. And what could be.

The unlocking process

My way of working with writers (and other artists) evolved gradually and almost invisibly over time and many development processes as the realisation dawned that, while some things worked sometimes and some things blew up in your face, other things seemed to work consistently well every time.

At playwrights' conferences or development workshops or in teaching situations, it was obvious, (to me at least) when people were pulling their punches and hiding behind a smokescreen of things that sounded good or ok but lacked any real power – the difference between polite and stilted conversation and a connection that jolts you like electricity. Over time I'd become convinced that the missing piece was often to be found in the things the playwright most wanted to keep hidden for fear of [insert anything relevant here – mockery, humiliation etc]. The very thing or energy that would transform their work.

Fast forward to a playwrights' conference in NZ and I decide to try something out in a couple of workshops I've been asked to run. I come up with four simple but crucial questions. I try them on myself with encouraging results – they seem to crystallize the important and essential things in a work I'd started some years ago and never finished. So I test them out in my workshops and discover they elicit powerful, true and vulnerable responses and an almost palpable release of inspiration and energy.

The practice of asking four specific and vital questions and answering them on paper was something I discovered worked like magic and allowed writers to discover a clarity they often didn't know was there. But more importantly, it was a reliable magic – it always opened up the process and the work. In a group, the sense of everyone going into their silent depths was palpable, and as the responses were read out, the air in the room got thicker, listening to what amounted to a baring of souls. If you'd been superficial in your answers, you knew it immediately as you read them and then were somewhat humbled by the courage shown by others who had been braver.

So I began to bring this practice into my one-on-one consultations with writers. And it worked every time – showing me where and how the work sat in the artist, what they were clear about and what they weren't; showing us areas that could be mined more deeply but, most importantly, creating a foundation of common understanding that we could build on.

And that was just the start. There were always subsequent and often more interesting questions to be posed. But I came to trust this quartet of foundational questions as a way of aligning the writer and their idea, intent and aspirations, so that they could work from a place of clarity rather than doubt and confusion.[1]

Sometimes the worst that happened was also the best. The writer discovered that they didn't love the piece any more, or didn't really know what they were making (yet), or that they'd felt compelled to keep producing new drafts under pressure of deadlines without really knowing what they were doing; or maybe they'd lost their way and were now wandering helpless in the wilderness with no compass to guide them.

If they were brave or sufficiently experienced, they could sit in the fire with this difficult knowledge until some new clarity became visible. More often than not, they might now see what had perhaps become obscured by too much effort wrongly applied, and they wanted to return to the original impulse and re-grow the work from there.

And so we would.

For someone who hates questions of the personal and intrusive kind, it might seem strange that I would favour such a way of working. Yet I have found that the single most reliable way of growing, deepening or clarifying a work is by asking this series of questions. The process is specific; I ask the questions, the person writes them down and answers them – also in writing. It is governed by two rules: tell the truth, and read out only what you wrote on the paper. It's become a bit of a talismanic ritual, a rite of passage to be undergone at some stage in the process of our work together to ensure we are on the right track.

I trust absolutely that if I follow this trail of breadcrumbs, they will lead us to clarity. When the artist is reconnected to that deep, true place where the idea lives in them, the path re-appears. The work becomes visible again. And they can see a way to keep going. Every time.

That's the osteopathic re-alignment part.

Something about intuition…

Lachlan Philpott once called me 'Eastern Medicine', which seemed a pretty accurate way of describing my way of working with people.

Because I sort of feel my way through things and I'm very simpatico with people who work similarly. We don't need to talk much. It's restful.

And it's not that I'm not turned on by ideas, or have an inability to comprehend complex thought. It's just that I’m a creature of instinct and the work doesn't come primarily from my head. It's a whole other way of doing things, where you’re tuned into the centre of the idea and acting from there, feeling the pulse, holding the vision and listening for the next right thing.

And while it can feel a bit like getting a direct download from the heavens, it is in fact deeply rooted in many years of experience of both people and process, balanced by intellectual rigour and always filtered through my sense of what will work on stage.

All the books I’ve read, the work I’ve seen, my understanding of what it feels like to make something – the necessary difficulties, the blind alleys – that’s the bedrock, the preparation that allows me to come from a place of emptiness, knowing I have a deep well of experience to draw from.

And though I can be analytical when needed, forensic and relentless at the end of a process when the work is ready to be refined and polished, essentially my work practice is a sort of creative alchemy.

If we work together over a period of time, it'll be a bit like I'm sitting in the crucible with you. If it's all flowing well, you won't even know I'm there. It’s a delicate business – too much heat and everything will explode, too little and the process won't ignite. But if I judge well and the alchemy succeeds, we will have made a work together that is strong and coherent, true to itself, clear as a bell and theatrically alive.

But when you lose the signal, it's truly horrible. When that happens, I just have to accept radio silence for a while and be patient. Walk blind through the fog until I can feel the connection again and the next right things are coming thick and fast. And then it’s like I never left. I find I'm asking the perfect questions at just the right time, knowing exactly what to say when, and all my instincts are gold.

Some of my Guiding Principles

More on unlocking

Writers and other artists often come to me when they feel stuck or can't see how to move forward. (Close acquaintance with my own creative demons has made me artful in circumventing the demons of others.)

The first creative session will set the tone for our work together. If we're meeting for the first time, you will be testing me for signs I can be trusted. I will have correlated my impressions from the script (or the outline or idea) with the person I meet and be rapidly calculating what will work best.

We might talk a bit about your hopes and dreams for the piece: how it's going, what you think is working, what your concerns are – who's said what. I'll be listening for the thing that makes your eyes light up and your voice get stronger. Sometimes it's an idea or incident that won't leave you alone, or maybe it's a phrase that still reverberates after many years. It might be something you've lost sight of, buried in too many drafts, or too many attempts to please too many people. Or something you are afraid to articulate, for fear of revealing too much of yourself. Something you Love.

Maybe we will just be breaking the ice and skirting around the work, making friends. Maybe we'll jump right in and I'll offer up my truest impressions and thoughts, and with any luck they'll be on the money. Sometimes I’ll just go for it and identify the problem with one intuitive hit. But more often than not, I will apply the trusted process and ask some of my special essential questions, which will give me (and you) a sense of exactly where you're stuck.

This deftness of technique has its roots in my own painful initiation as a baby writer sharing my embryonic work with others – feeling impotence and shock when my work wasn't understood, humiliation and rage at being treated disrespectfully by jaded professionals and, by contrast, enormous gratitude at being encouraged by people I respected and looked up to. Utter (but silent) fury when directors imposed an interpretation on my work, and the awfulness of then having to watch it fail in front of an audience.

In going through my baptism of fire, I learned the difference between what you should hear and what you shouldn't, what you could use and what you couldn't. Somehow I learned how to hold my nerve, disregard suggestions that didn't ring true, and eventually experienced the joy of feeling my words really working in front of an audience.

The huge difference between those experiences had me searching for the principles that would stand me in good stead as I grew into a professional theatre worker.

I thought I wanted to become a director to direct (read have control over) my own work. So I became a director. Then I learned what was actually involved in realising the work of a writer… So I let go completely of wanting to direct my own stuff. Somewhere in the middle of this maelstrom, I became the dramaturg my writer-self had craved, and in doing so, became it for many others.

It's a strange mix of abilities and experience: the ability to sense the creative pulse in the person and the work, and the experience to know when to speak and when to shut up; to trust deeply in my own instincts.

However, I don't follow my own advice. Like the best plumber with the worst pipes or the best hairdresser with the worst haircut, I am the writer/dramaturg with the messiest modus operandi. I teach gentleness and yet I'm impossibly harsh with myself. I teach ease and yet I make things hard for myself. I know what works and yet I don't do it. I've made an artform out of anxiety and procrastination, and I only take my own medicine when I absolutely have to.

* * *

Still looking for inspiration, I feel myself drawn to re-read another of the essays in this State of Play series, in which Bruce Gladwin talked about his mourning self and working with the pig… the truth of his life. His presence and honesty opens me up, the way all good writing does. 

And I realise perhaps that this is the greater purpose of dramaturgy; to allow the artist to speak with clarity and with perfect honesty  – to be fully present in their own work. 


[1] EDITOR’S NOTE: When I first read the draft of this essay, I went back to Fran to see if she might reveal these questions… Of course the truth is that, although their content remains fundamentally the same, they are recalibrated for each playwright (and each process) and so to "release" them would be misleading. I tried! - Tom.



Fancesca Smith

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Francesca is a director, writer, specialist dramaturg and teacher with a specific and unique approach to the development of new work.

She is a consultant to theatre companies and individual artists around the country, has worked at many Playwrights Conferences, been a mentor for ATYP, Artistic Director of PLAYWORKS, Keynote Speaker at JUTE Regional Theatremakers Conference, resident teacher for the NIDA Playwrights Studio for over 8 years and a judge for the Max Afford, The Patrick White and the NSW Premiers Literary Awards.

She has worked in many areas of the profession and is known as someone who can work across different genres and mediums and with different performance languages.

Francesca was recently awarded a Creative Fellowship from the Australia Council for the Arts and is currently working on a book (No Blood on the Walls) about the delicate art of safely guiding new works to the stage - drawn from her experiences as a professional dramaturg, director and teacher of playwrights.

As an independent artist, one of Francesca's most loved projects has been the highly successful development of Vivienne Walshe’s savagely beautiful play This is Where We Live (Winner of the 2012 Griffin Award) which she then produced and directed for Griffin Independent under the banner of her newly formed company Just Visiting.

 And in the spirit of supporting projects which further the practice of playwriting, Francesca was recently awarded a grant from the Rodney Seaborn Foundation to establish a website as a resource for playwrights, directors, dramaturgs and theatre companies and a platform to explore and disseminate her dramaturgical philosophy and practice.



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Helayne Short
Re: The Accidental Dramaturg
Reply #5 on : Tue July 21, 2015, 20:34:02
Great article. Definitely my kind of dramaturg. Love the last paragraph. 'And I realise perhaps that this is the greater purpose of dramaturgy; to allow the artist to speak with clarity and with perfect honesty – to be fully present in their own work.'

Your book will be game changer.
Kerry Dwyer
Re: The Accidental Dramaturg
Reply #4 on : Fri June 12, 2015, 09:35:37
Great to see you unfold your creative process Francesca and share it with the world. And so good to hear a voice not hampered by the limitations of post modernism - a fearless voice arising from the intuition.
Vanessa Bates
Re: The Accidental Dramaturg
Reply #3 on : Fri June 12, 2015, 09:18:03
Thankyou for this great and inspiring essay Fran. A strong reminder of the slippery magic of writing a play, a magic that needs support and love. And faith. I wish there were hundreds of Frans. I can't wait for your book! (And thankyou Tom for trying to get those questions!)
John Harding
Francesca Snith
Reply #2 on : Thu June 11, 2015, 16:40:09
I love your article Fran, very inspiring and also wanted to say hello!xx

John Harding
(Up The Road) Dramaturg-Francesca Smith
Michele Lee
Re: The Accidental Dramaturg
Reply #1 on : Thu June 11, 2015, 16:08:45
thanks tom. i was wondering what the questions were! ...if i knew them, then obviously they would unlock everything just like that!

beautiful article : )


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