The relationship between mise en scène and dramaturgy in the production process

Katalin Trencsényi*

Katalin Trencsényi © Lilla Khoór
Katalin Trencsényi © Lilla Khoór


This article argues that historically production dramaturgy and mise en scène developed hand in hand and are therefore inseparable. By investigating the staging of three classics,Fatherlessness / Platonov at the Örkény Theatre, Budapest, a devised adaptation of Berlin Alexanderplatz at the Schaubühne, Berlin and The Changeling at the Young Vic Theatre in London, it shows what role production dramaturgy can play in developing the contemporary mise en scène.

Although the role of the dramaturg was established by G.E. Lessing in the eighteenth century, this dramaturgy (and the role of the dramaturg for some time) was concerned with ‘new drama development’ and ‘curating’ (to use contemporary terms). The role of the production dramaturg (a practitioner who works with the director in order to develop the mise en scène) was a later development. It was brought about alongside with the evolvement of the role of the modern director, which, (although there are some antecedents, for instance, Goethe’s work at Weimar Theatre (1791–1817) is widely considered to appear at the end of the nineteenth century. From their birth, therefore, production dramaturgy and mise en scène are two inseparable entities.[1]

The role of the production dramaturg developed hand in hand with that of the modern director at the end of the nineteenth century: a collaborative, synergic, sometimes interchangeable role, with a hermeneutical function of understanding the meaning of the play and helping to unfold this during the rehearsal process, in order to create a coherent and artful mise en scène. We can observe this role developing in the work of Meininger Hoftheater from 1866 to 1890 in the collaboration between George II, the Duke of Saxe-Meiningen, the director of the company with his wife, actor and dramaturg Baroness Helene Freifrau von Heldburg, and director and stage manager Ludwig Chronegk; or in the work of the Moscow Art Theatre under the leadership of Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko and Konstantin Stanislavsky.

Brecht is considered to have developed the role still further. His legacy was to bring the current audience into this equation and to relate the play in question to the time of the production, emphasising (or sometimes even ‘exploiting’) its message in the here and now. In other words he argued for not a historically or psychologically accurate mise en scène but instead a socially and politically sensitive staging. The consequences of this for dramaturgy were considerable: in order to use ‘old material to make a new play,’[2] the dramaturg had to understand and moreover to practise production dramaturgy as a process of adaptation.

By the end of the twentieth century, theatre seemed to have loosened its function as the immediate agent of political change and enlightenment. At the same time, however, another influence was beginning to emerge: the changes in theatre making that started around the 1960s and 70s (performance art, non-text based theatre, dance theatre etc.). This ‘new dramaturgy’ (a term coined by Marianne Van Kerkhoven) referred to a process-oriented method of working, where:

…the meaning, the intentions, the form and the substance of a play arise during the working process […]. In this case dramaturgy is no longer a means of bringing out the structure of the meaning of the world in a play, but (a quest for) a provisional or possible arrangement which the artist imposes on those elements he gathers from a reality that appears to him chaotic.[3]

As a response to this expanding theatrical universe, production dramaturgical practices have incorporated the new dramaturgical experience of collaborative creation processes, whereby the ‘mise en scène’ is developed during the work together with the performer-creators, and sometimes even gains its meaning only during its interaction with the audience. As these practices are diverse, consequently, production dramaturgy today (which is developed in response to the given creative process) can take many forms.

Perhaps as a result of the explosion of the theatrical (i.e. dramaturgical) canon – that is to say there is no descriptive dramaturgy (or ‘performance poetics’) that could be applied to every piece of theatre, dance or performance today – contemporary theatre has become very dramaturgical, or dramaturgically conscious. This is evident, as often the given production process needs to develop its (own) dramaturgy that is unique to the production.

In the three examples below I will show the diversity of contemporary production dramaturgy in text-based theatre, and how it responds to the mise en scène – and has in fact developed together with it. What these three productions have in common is that the starting point is a classic (novel or play), which, during the creative process, undergoes a strong transformation, some sort of interpretational-adaptation process. The piece’s dramaturgy is developed during this work in a synergic way with the mise en scène that often finds its final shape in the rehearsal room.

Fatherlessness (Platonov) – Örkény Theatre, Budapest[4]

Guest director Yuri Kordonsky’s production of Fatherlessness at the Örkény Theatre (a public repertory theatre) in Budapest had to resolve two main challenges facing any production of this early work by Chekhov.

As the title of Chekhov’s (probably) first play was lost, most of us know it by the name of its central character, Platonov, although philological research suggests that Chekhov might have called itBezattzavshchina / Fatherlessness. This is also the title under which the play was published in 1933, in the first complete works of Chekhov.[5]

Kordonsky and dramaturg / translator Annamária Radnai agreed to use this title, as it corresponded with Kordonsky’s idea too: to focus on the fatherless figures, father-son relationships, and missing fathers in the play.

The second dilemma a production faces with this play is that it is at least twice as long as an ‘average’ play (approximately six hours). Therefore it has to be radically cut. However, once you take away half of a play, what you are left with arguably is a version. Radnai says:

In the case of Platonov I think that every playtext is an adaptation. There are other plays such as this, for instance, Büchner’s Woyzeck, that whatever you do with them, it will count as an adaptation. Statistically, the amount of decisions you have to make will reach a critical mass that will simply certify it as an adaptation.[6]

Since the last Hungarian translation of Platonov had been made in 1978, it was obvious from the start that the production would also require a new translation. Before translating the whole play, though, the director and the dramaturg edited and cut the text in the Russian original.

Once they agreed on the concept of the play – the story of a generation without fathers – this helped them to decide what in the play was important for the mise en scène, what to focus on, what to leave out: If we thought that two father-son relationships were very similar in the play, we only needed to make a decision which one to drop. The aim was to show prototypical problems,’[7] notes Radnai.

They also made up one rule to shape the play: ‘to have only twelve characters, just as in the other great Chekhov plays.’[8] This restriction was an entirely ‘arbitrary’ artistic decision. As the production was made in a theatre that has a permanent ensemble, they could have had as many actors as they wanted to work with.

Sticking to this new rule, Kordonsky and Radnai removed all the servants and maids from the play, and their functions (delivering a letter, for instance) were given to other characters who were neutral in the given scene. They also decided to leave out Osip, the thief: just as with the servants, his dramaturgical purpose (to beat up Platonov) could be performed by another character with more reason to do so.

When working on the script, Kordonsky and Radnai decided to treat this play as they would a work of a less experienced playwright, and develop (or ‘correct’) the young Chekhov’s work in the light of his mature plays. ‘I knew exactly how I wanted to cut the play,’ recalled Kordonsky later in an interview, ‘towards the mature, great Chekhov plays. I tried to take away everything that belongs to an earlier, say, romanticist tradition.’[9]

The decision to subject this early Chekhov play to ‘new drama development’ did not stop at a textual level, but concerned its structure and the whole mise en scène. Radnai explains:

We tried to make this non-polyphonic play as polyphonic as the later, four great Chekhov plays are – not only in the playtext (the editing and translating) but also in the directing (the acting and scenic solutions). We tried to follow the scheme these mature plays suggest, not only in the number of characters, but also in the dialogue-technique, and the linguistic style.[10]

Rather than focusing on the narrative of the central character, Platonov, Kordonsky aimed instead to juxtapose the various stories of all the characters. In his opinion this is the dramaturgy Chekhov moved towards in his later plays – and away from having one protagonist.

If you think about it, in one of the greatest Chekhov plays, The Three Sisters, we would find it hard to tell who the main character is. There is no one central character in Uncle Vanya either. If I’d put it in musical terms, I’d say, from harmony I pushed the play to polyphony.[11]

Kordonsky also changed the usual emotional hierarchy of the play. In his interpretation Platonov’s wife, Sasha, is not stupid but is his better half: she’s wise, energetic, forgiving, and a reliable emotional companion. On the other hand, his lover, Sophie, is neurotic and artificial, and gradually becomes more unbearable with her demanding emotions towards Platonov. Radnai says:

We could be sure that we were not falsifying this play, as we weren’t changing it according to our own concept or taste but in consonance with Chekhov’s mature plays. And his characters across his plays (for instance, the character of the doctor) are very similar. One can tell that they were written by the same author. All we did with this play was tried to lift it to the quality of Chekhov’s later works.[12]

With the translation Radnai’s aim was to create a new, modern, yet timeless text that wouldn’t feel dated or archaic, but neither would be too contemporary or slangy: ‘My aim was to use words that we can say today as well as they could have said one hundred years ago.’[13]

Once the translation of the edited version was ready, it was still too long, so Kordonsky and Radnai cut it back by some twenty-five pages. They removed the beginnings of scenes, and started them with actors already on stage involved in the dialogue.

The second act of the play is a set of duets: they enter, have their dialogue, exeunt, then another two characters enter, talk, exeunt etc. Here, instead of the repetitions of these duet forms that Yuri found mechanical, we overlapped the end of the scenes with the beginning of the following one.[14]

The dramaturgical work on the play-text continued during the rehearsals:

During rehearsals I often notice alien, false things left in the script with my ears; whereas the actors feel the problems, untruthful situations with their bodies. And these problems might have dramaturgical consequences. We realise that something is not working, something is missing – maybe we had cut a sentence that was a stepping stone to create the situation, and without that step the situation cannot be realised, as the way leading there is missing. Then we put that missing link back.[15]

Radnai thinks the key to working on a Chekhov play is to analyse it thoroughly, to look beyond the inadequate answers, the unfinished sentences, and the responses of those characters who find it impossible to express themselves (for example, when instead of an answer they reply with a song).

During the rehearsals Kordonsky asked the same from his actors: to look beyond the text and express the hidden feelings that provoked the sentences instead of playing them as ‘I’m not saying what I really mean.’ This resulted in a livelier, more dynamic performance.

This dynamism, this speed, the restlessness of the characters was also helped by the way the production exploited the humour in the play. It also emphasised the physical and emotional intoxication of the characters, the chaos they live in and the absolute hopelessness of their situation.

The set furthered this aim of gently freeing the Chekhov play from its period and showing how contemporary his observations are regarding the confused emotional state we are in. The set (designed by Csörsz Khell) served the fast scene-changing by being multifunctional, non-naturalistic, balancing somewhere between a real and a metaphorical space. The costumes (designed by Anni Füzér) were contemporised slightly but without placing the production in a past or a current period.

Radnai admits that their concept (showing the father–son relationships) worked to a lesser extent after the end of the first act. Maybe that was what the young Chekhov originally set out to write about (one can find Turgenev’s and Goncharov’s influence in the play), however, the team discovered that this concept cannot be maintained till the end of the play, as ‘the Platonov story annexes this aim.’[16]

Kordonsky emphasises that the mise en scène was born during the creative process:

As far as the production is concerned, it wasn’t pre-cooked in my head beforehand, at all. I don’t have visions – I’m interested in intuitions. Sometimes moments occurred when I saw something I could never have expected, something that made me surprised. These were my happiest moments.[17]

Kordonsky’s mise en scène (and the dramaturgy of the production), however, gave a unique answer to the challenges the text presented him with: what do you do if you have an overwritten early play that yet somehow contains in embryonic form the big themes and characters of the later, great plays of the author?

Rewrite the play from the knowledge of the author’s later plays; make sure you balance and juxtapose the central story with the multiple stories of the different characters. The result is exciting polyphony.

Berlin Alexanderplatz – Schaubühne, Berlin[18]

Maja Zade, dramaturg at the Schaubühne, explains how Brecht’s legacy in Germany is to regard the development of the mise en scène as a collaborative process:
German directors since Brecht have the ambition to interpret the plays in a new theatrical way. You are experimenting at the rehearsals. And to make those experiments at the rehearsal a real process, you need other people to talk to. These can be the actors as well as the dramaturg.[19]

Although strong reinterpretations of classics has been a trademark since Thomas Ostermeier has been running the theatre, as a general artistic policy the Schaubühne has avoided adaptations of non-theatre texts. However, there are some exceptions to this rule, such as the production of Berlin Alexanderplatz.

As the theatre employs four dramaturgs who are intensely part of the work in the rehearsal room and help curate a season, there was nothing unusual about the fact that the idea to commission director Volker Lösch came from Zade. Lösch is described as a ‘determinedly political

director,’[20] who is ‘plugging his productions firmly into reality.’[21] His trademark is ‘the use of citizens’ choruses, amateurs who articulate their political views, their fears, their concerns and their experiences of life on the stage.’[22]

Zade had seen Lösch’s previous works, and she was struck by the unique form of his performances, and how much the mise en scène was influenced by the locus and the community where the production was created. Zade recalls an interview in which Lösch admitted that by spending most of his time in the theatre he was losing touch with the reality he was supposed to make theatre about; therefore he decided to take the reality into the theatre. ‘What he does is, he puts people on stage who are invisible for the society,’[23] notes Zade. What also impressed her was the way Lösch experimented with the use of chorus on the contemporary stage.

For instance, his production of Medea – a project based on Euripides, in the Staatstheater Stuttgart in 2007, was set in a German community where the protagonist was portrayed as a Turkish immigrant living in contemporary German society, and the chorus was played by a group of immigrants recruited from the local community. Relocating the drama, and finding corresponding conflicts in contemporary German society, made the performance of this classic tragedy a poignant warning about the existing traumas in intercultural societies.

Zade persuaded Ostermeier to invite Lösch to the Schaubühne and give him an opportunity to direct in Berlin. Lösch suggested Berlin Alexanderplatz as a ‘local’ story for the city, and a work he had always wanted to stage.

The novel is set during the time of the Weimar Republic in Berlin and is concerned with the struggles of a small-time criminal, Franz Biberkopf, trying to live a reformed life after being released from prison: finding it impossible, he sinks back into the underworld. According to Lösch’s decision, the chorus would be the people of Berlin, played by offenders, and the production would include their own stories of struggling today at the bottom of society. Lösch brought his dramaturg and long-term collaborator, Beate Seidel to work with Zade, and with this the work of creating the playtext with the two dramaturgs began.

First Lösch, Seidel and Zade read the novel and decided which parts of it they wanted to use in the production. Then they split up: Seidel and Lösch went back to Stuttgart, and from this selection of scenes created a draft playtext to serve as the starting point for the beginning of the rehearsals. The novel was very theatrical; it lent itself to adaptation easily. Once the draft-adaptation was ready, they consulted with Zade, and adjusted it, including her suggestions.

While director and one dramaturg were creating an adaptation of the novel for the stage, Zade went to local prisons, contacted probation officers and visited homeless shelters to recruit the chorus. The idea was to find twenty people whose presence would fill the performance space, and their own stories would be woven into the play-text. The conditions for being involved in the production included the proviso that they had to be willing to share their stories with the theatre.

The agreement between the chorus members and the theatre was that it was entirely up to them which stories they chose to contribute to the performance. These stories could then be given to any of the chorus members in the performance to recite – in this way protecting the offenders’ anonymity. They also had a right to veto during the creative process. ‘A lot of them felt ashamed to talk about these things,’[24] notes Zade. Their engagement in the show meant that these ex-offenders and offenders from open prisons had to keep to an uncompromising (albeit longer than usual) rehearsal period; not turning up at work was strictly sanctioned. (The performer would be expelled from the production.) Yet they received lots of support from the theatre – there was even a staff member allocated from the theatre to look after the chorus. ‘You had to invest a lot of your time, because these people gave you a lot. Sometimes we went to social services with them or to employment,’[25] recalls Zade.

Later, on the publicity material, it was advertised that the show was created by Lösch and the ensemble – ‘because it’s their text, and it was a completely collaborative process, although the final decisions, obviously, were made by Lösch,’[26] explains Zade. The program also stated that it was a ‘free adaptation’ of the original novel. All the above mentioned ethical considerations were part of the production process.

Once the chorus members had been found, they were all interviewed, and the interviews were transcribed. The director and his two dramaturgs then read all these interviews, and decided, which excerpts from these verbatim texts (like contemporary testimonies ‘from present day Biberkopfs’[27]) would be used in the production, and where and how they would be woven into the play-text and the performance. This dramaturgy was very similar to the structuring stage of the devising process, whereby all the scenes that have been generated in the rehearsal room eventually have to find their place in the performance.

The dramaturgical work mirrored the collage technique employed by the original novel. ‘That’s why we felt we remained true to the original,’[28] notes Zade.

‘I found Volker a really interesting director. He really works together with his creative team, nd it is a collective work. After every run we all sat there and talked about it, and everybody was involved in these conversations,’[29] recalls Zade. The director’s questions during the process included: ‘What story do we want to tell? What do we want to say to this end? Are we really challenging people? What are we saying about society?’[30]

As the rehearsals went on, the chosen excerpts from the prisoners’ stories eventually found their places in the performance, and the show grew gradually. There was one of the dramaturgs present every day, ‘as we were working on the version every single day and we had to make decisions every single day.’[31]Zade also learnt that with shaping the text in the rehearsal room, they had to make decisions very early on, as the chorus members, unlike professional actors, were not accustomed to learning new lines last minute.

Obviously, the choice of the performers (people with no previous acting experience) had influenced the style of the acting. It was very different from the style of using subtle psychological motivations Zade was used to at the Schaubühne. This roughness and rawness coming from the acting became an important ingredient of the mise en scène.

Apart from the structural similarity, there was a strong political motivation behind involving these offenders’ confessions in the performance: they not only mirrored or juxtaposed the original novel’s plot and dramaturgy, but also offered a stark reminder that the problems portrayed in the novel are still present in contemporary German society.

This also served as a surprise element for the mainly middle class audience of the Schaubühne: to share a space with the underclass, that segment of the society, one normally avoids or ignores, and confront them live. The plan was even to plant some of the chorus members in the audience. This was a risk – as the company had no idea how the audience would react. Zade recalls:

I found it very powerful to give these people a platform and bring them into the conscience of the middle class, mainstream society. Although it’s a kind of documentary theatre on some level, on the other hand it is presented through the artful form of a well-trained chorus. But because it is like a Greek chorus, you feel like the society is standing there, a mass of people speaking directly to you, so you feel you needed to listen to it, you can’t ignore it.[32]

Zade considers the work they created to be an adaptation because the genre has been changed and they were adding new text to the original:

I generally find that an adaptation often works when you do something to it that’s not in the original material (film or novel), so you bring something else to it. That’s the justification that you moved it from the form and created a new piece.[33]

After the premiere, from time to time Zade sat in to watch the performance during its run. ‘As a dramaturg it is part of my job to check on the show. It is important to see how the audience responds, and to hear what they say after the performance.’[34]

The Changeling – Young Vic, London[35]

The production of The Changeling, by Thomas Middleton and William Rowley, for the Young Vic Theatre in London was the first time British director Joe Hill-Gibbins and dramaturg Zoë Svendsen had worked together on a full piece. Prior to this they had tested their collaboration in a workshop with the Royal Shakespeare Company, exploring the mise en scène for Measure for Measure. Svendsen recalls:

Joe wanted to foster a conversation about concept and how to bring the ideas generated by the play to the stage. Thinking about the play as material you generate the performance from – this was the impetus for us starting to work together.[36]

From the outset both Hill-Gibbins and Svendsen agreed that they didn’t want to create a historically focused production of The Changeling, nor do a show grounded in realistic-naturalistic conventions. Instead, they were interested in how to exploit this powerful Jacobean play’s theatricality, ‘trying to realise the play as fully as possible on its own terms.’[37] As Hill-Gibbins noted in an interview: ‘We don’t disguise the fact that we’re in the theatre; we use the mechanism of theatre explicitly to tell the story, that’s something I like to do – but it also comes from Middleton.’[38]

Svendsen thought similarly about the purpose of their working process:

Indeed, when working on a classic play, I feel that’s at the very heart of my role: not to take anything for granted. Instead, with the director, we think everything through – ask ourselves why the text is shaped in that way, to try to make sure we’ve acquired the fullest understanding of it. And then we let our imagination run riot, provoked by the rigour of really trying to ‘get’ what’s going on.[39]

From the above quotes it is apparent that their methodology falls within the framework of the ‘Regietheater.’ Their challenge therefore was how to make meaningful theatre, appreciating the particular Anglo-Saxon cultural system they were working in, yet trying to get inside the text in a different way. Svendsen adds: ‘The idea was to fashion the components of the rehearsal process from the form of the play itself.’[40]

According to Svendsen, her role as a production dramaturg therefore was twofold. One was ‘to think fundamentally about the relationship between text, the production concept, and process,’[41] and the other was how to ‘shift these relationships’[42] in a way that would be achievable by actors who were trained in the UK, without dislocating them from their socio-cultural embedding where they felt they could work with confidence.

Svendsen and Hill-Gibbins’s starting point therefore was to find a common language with the actors, through which they could begin to build up the mise en scène together. They found that certain elements of the Stanislavsky method ‘that dealt with intention and change’[43] (that British actors seemed to be familiar with) could work as a common ground from which they could begin their journey, utilising it as a tool for the non-naturalistic staging they set out to achieve. Another entry point they found for the rehearsals was the British hands-on approach: that actors are familiar with and confident in discovering more about the play via exercises in the rehearsal room.

Their work began, months before they set foot in the rehearsal room, with ‘an extensive long-term conversation’[44] between director and dramaturg. During this conversation they were ‘pooling ideas’[45] from various sources, as well as talking about space, relationships between characters, imagining them in realistic and non-realistic space, and sharing their

personal responses to the drama. They established their reading of the play ‘as a complex riff on a psychological war between sexual control and surrender,’[46] and began thinking of various approaches to the play. However, they were not creating a rigid, pre-built concept in advance, only preparing the ‘foundations’ for the rehearsals.

Svendsen often uses the word ‘conception’ instead of concept, to express that this is a germ from which the performance grows through the contributions of all the people involved in the creative process:

It is a problem if you think about the concept as a scaffold that gets imposed on a play, or something that locks everything down. I think about it rather as conception: you conceive it, and it is something that you nurture. And you are trying to find out what it is at the heart of the play that concerns you.[47]

Talking about a concept(ion) does not necessarily involve thinking that once some sort of ‘meaning’ has been found, the rehearsals will then ensure that only this meaning is ‘expressed’ through the acting and other performative components of the show. The concept(ion) is rather the ‘stem cell’ of a performance from which the whole body of the performance gradually grows and develops, a living, malleable, organic entity that is itself forming as the work progresses.

This concept(ion) can also be imagined as the matrix from which the experience and the meaning of the performance will ‘emerge’ for the spectator (to refer to Erika Fischer-Lichte’s term[48]).[49]

The discussions between director and dramaturg about the play led them to discover the dramaturgy ofThe Changeling: it was driven by the desire of the various characters. This understanding gave them an idea of how to work with the actors:

Once we realised this inherent structure, it was a real gift, as it can be translated into practical questions that can help the actors’ work during rehearsals: ‘What do I want to do?,’ ‘What do I need?’ and also ‘What is it doing to us as audiences?’[50]

From then on Svendsen and Hill-Gibbins’s pre-rehearsal discussions were directed towards how to generate a vocabulary for the mise en scène that would enable them to make those desires active through the acting, yet avoiding an overarching psychological logic for every character’s actions.

These conversations fed into the director’s conversation with his long-term collaborator, designer Ultz – with whom they were developing the design in a similarly organic way.

Prior to the rehearsals, they planned a two-week workshop as embedded research (using four actors and six young directors from the Young Vic Directors Program), during which they wanted not only to test their structural findings but also to discover more about the space this play would inhabit.

The added benefit of these workshops was that they were held in the show’s actual performance space (the Young Vic’s Maria studio theatre). This enabled them to experiment site-specifically, and test their ideas against the possibilities the space could offer to them.

‘I think a lot about space and spatial relations – how they generate atmosphere and also inflect psychology. For me dramaturgy is about temporal and spatial structures and how they intersect,’[51] notes Svendsen.

Ultz visited these workshops, and his design benefited from watching the research and development work. His design took influence from the breeze blocks that the Young Vic is built from, and from the architecture of the theatres of the time when the play was written (early seventeenth century). From this a design emerged, where the audience was wrapped around the stage. But the experience of watching was heightened, ‘to frame the view of the play,’[52] by sitting the audience behind netting.

During the workshop Hill-Gibbins and Svendsen enabled the actors to build their own spaces and inhabit them; mapped several scenes according to the actors’ moves, and brought in a variety of objects to use them as props for the exercises. They observed how the play influenced the actors physically and spatially, which props were used – and all these findings helped to form and firm their ideas about the mise en scène.

Their main focus was, however, on the ‘play’s potentially problematic structure, the perceived disconnect between its main-plot and the scenes set in the madhouse.’[53] The workshops allowed them to discover how ‘similar the two plots are, on a deep structural level.’[54] This led them to treat the two plots as equally important, and emphasise the similarity of these two worlds through the mise en scène. This recognition guided them later when editing and cutting the playtext, and rearranging or amalgamating some of the scenes.

The actors responded to this kind of work well: ‘to take the text as a tool.’[55] Indeed, the workshops led them to find a solution to one particularly problematic, fragmented act (Act 4), ‘the wedding night,’ where ‘there is no centre to the act, because the central ritual is happening elsewhere – everyone’s sneaking off and doing things they shouldn’t be doing, a series of secret meetings.’[56]

Another important discovery during the workshops was to realise that the play wasn’t written from the viewpoint of one character or an ‘empirical reality.’[57] There were several strong characters operating within the play, but nobody’s view was prioritised, no ground of truth was established, rather than the play switched ‘from lens to lens as those desires were established.’[58] This recognition informed the mise en scène in the sense that the space was overlaid with places of simultaneous realities.

The workshops also provided a highly theatrical yet very sensual solution to the question of how to present this play that is ‘full of sexuality rolling out of control.’[59] The team discovered the food parallels in the text, twinning ‘hunger with pleasure.’[60] This provided them with an opportunity to experiment with food on the stage (creating a mess with food, smearing food on the characters’ bodies etc.) – thus creating an explicit, yet artful form of presenting the sexuality apparent in the play. Svendsen calls this practical preparatory period ‘a process of recognition and response.’[61]

The month between the research and development workshop and the beginning of the rehearsals were occupied with planning and preparation. The conversations between Svendsen and Hill-Gibbins at this stage were ‘going back and forth about what this play is doing and what it is about.’[62]

Svendsen did some more research about madness and sexuality in the seventeenth century – although she cautions against excessive research: ‘it is only important in relation to what it does for the production.’[63] In their case it was the similarity she discovered between the way desire makes people behave (contravening social norms etc.) and how mentally ill people in those days were seen to behave. This was fed into the ‘mirroring’ dramaturgy of the two plots as well as influencing the acting.

The rehearsal period was an ‘unusually long time to realise the ideas in situ,’[64] as a sympathetic gesture from the Young Vic, supporting their work. Here they still had time to experiment with different ways of building up the performance’s architecture, adding layer after layer to it.

The work was developed during the rehearsals via exercises rather than discussions (although there was a ‘dictionary corner’ in the rehearsal room), and as the weeks progressed it gained more and more clarity. However, Hill-Gibbins was conscious not developing a consensus about the meaning of the play, because there were competing subjectivities in the drama with different aims – for each of them the story was about something else. This decision helped them highlight the misunderstandings within the play, as well as show the simultaneously existing different worlds.

Once the complex spatial and kinaesthetic structure of the performance was in place, Svendsen’s intensive rehearsal room workload lessened to two to three visits a week to watch when the ensemble was running bigger units of the play together. Her role from this moment on was also a ‘classical’ dramaturgical role, watching run-throughs and giving her feedback on them.

Once the play premiered, it proved to be such a success that the theatre decided to repeat the show in its main space later that year. As the Young Vic is not a repertory theatre, it meant that the production had to be ‘repurposed and recast,’[65] re-designed and re-directed. This second production process gave the creative team an opportunity to rethink and re-evaluate their ideas about the play, take apart and re-organise its structure, and make it fit for a larger space, whilst retaining its intensity.

Svendsen later describes, how, when she compared the script they created for the second production with the original playtext, to her surprise she realised that they had gone full circle: ‘We’d left the original order a long way behind, only for us, unwittingly, to work our way (almost) back to it. But by then the difference was that we really understood what every word was doing.’[66]


The above examples suggest that contemporary production dramaturgy is a complex, open-ended, dynamic process, and is always the result of collaboration.

Yet, in the above examples, the three ‘historical’ layers of the theory and experience of production dramaturgy developed throughout the history of theatre and performance, can all be observed.

From the modern era (the Meininger Ensemble, the early Moscow Art Theatre) is taken the notion of the production as a coherent whole that is realised through the work of the ensemble. From Brecht’s legacy we can see the notion of dramaturgy as adaptation and collaboration. From new dramaturgy comes the openness towards an emergent form that arises during the creative process.

‘One shouldn’t overlook the fact that it’s not the play but the performance that is the real purpose of all one’s efforts,’ wrote Brecht in The Messingkauf Dialogues,[67] and this can sum up the aims of the mise en scène. Staging a classic is an action of intersemiotic translation that is distilled through the sieve of contemporary interpretation – it is an unavoidable hermeneutical action that we may even be able to call an adaptation.

The etymology of the word ‘adaptation’ suggests an intentional interpretational shift: ad – toward, aptus – fitting a purpose.[68] ‘When we call a work an adaptation, we openly announce its overt relationship to another work or works,’ states Linda Hutcheon.[69]

When dramaturgy is regarded as adaptation, to widen the original Brechtian definition towards the sense of ‘cultural re-creation’ and/or ‘re-contextualisation,’[70] this ‘overt relationship’ carries the opportunity for intertextualism and opens up a dynamic dialogue between the classical playtext and its mise en scène.

Contemporary mise en scène is not regarded as a rigid concept through which the play is forced, but an open-minded approach, a framework that demarcates the context within which the makers investigate the play collaboratively and give their response to it here and now. This openness and playfulness are the marks new dramaturgies have left on production dramaturgy and through it on the mise en scène.

This playful re-interpretation realised through the contemporary mise en scène, allows us to see the work afresh – reminding us that these classics were once the daring new dramas of their period.

The consequences of the contemporary production dramaturgical processes for the production dramaturg’s work are that it is a collaborative, synergic, fluid and responsive role, one that develops as theatre-making changes; yet in itself it carries its ‘historical inheritance,’ renewed, refreshed, adapted, and is always in a flux. Perhaps it is this ‘constant movement’[71] (to borrow Van Kerkhoven’s words) that can keep dramaturgy and mise en scène alive.


[1] A detailed argument for this can be found in my forthcoming book, Dramaturgy in the Making. A User’s Guide for Theatre Practitioners (Bloomsbury Methuen Drama: London, 2015).
[2] Lion Feuchtwanger on the subject of his adaptation in collaboration with Bertolt Brecht of Edward IIafter Christopher Marlowe. Quoted by Ingham, 2004, p. VII.
[3] Van Kerkhoven, 1994, pp.18-20.
[4] Apátlanul (Platonov) / Fatherlessness (Platonov), by A.P. Chekhov translated by Annamária Radnai, Örkény Theatre Budapest, 2007. Director: Yuri Kordonsky, dramaturg: Annamária Radnai, set: Csörsz Khell, costume: Anni Füzér, lighting design: Tamás Bányai, cast including: László Széles, Éva Kerekes and Kriszta Bíró.
[5] On the philology of the Chekhov play I rely on Edit Bogdanov’s notes for the Katona József Theatre’s production of Platonov. (Katona József Színház – Magyar Televízió, 1991. DVD, Budapest Film Kft, 2008.)
[6] Radnai, Annamária, interview with Katalin Trencsényi (Budapest, 24 August 2009).
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Kordonsky in Czobor, 2008.
[10] Radnai, interview, 2009.
[11] Kordonsky in Czobor, 2008.
[12] Radnai, interview, 2009.
[13] Ibid.
[14] Ibid.
[15] Ibid.
[16] Ibid.
[17] Kordonsky in Czobor, 2008.
[18] Berlin Alexanderplatz. A free adaptation for the stage by the Schaubühne Berlin of the novel by Alfred Döblin with chorals by Volker Lösch and the ensemble, 2009.
Director: Volker Lösch, speaking choir: Bernd Freytag, set: Carola Reuther, costume: Cary Gayler, dramaturgy: Beate Seidel, Maja Zade, lighting: Erich Schneider, cast: Robert Elsinger, Lars Götze, Andreas Gronde, Volker Hauptvogel, Andreas Knud Hoppe, Toni Jessen, André Kaczmarczyk, Para Ndombasi KialaMohamad Koulaghassi, Johannes Kühn, Markus Lamberty, Matthias Lamp, Rose Louis-Rudek, Eva Meckbach, Dirk Muchow, Wolf Nachbauer, Sebastian Nakajew, Adam Nümm, Peter Paul, Tom Radisch, Mathias Radke, Sergej Riesenberg, Lutz Rinke, Felix Römer, David Ruland, Ralph SchachtAxel Schmidt, Detlef Schnurrbus, Uwe Seidel, Felix Tittel, Doreen Zanona.
[19] Zade, Maja, interview with Katalin Trencsényi (Berlin, 16 March 2010).
[20] Dössel, Christine, ‘Portrait: Volker Lösch,’ 50 Directors – Goethe Institute’s website, [accessed: 7 September 2014].
[21] Ibid.
[22] Ibid.
[23] Zade, interview, 2010.
[24] Ibid.
[25] Ibid.
[26] Ibid.
[27] Ibid.
[28] Ibid.
[29] Ibid.
[30] Ibid.
[31] Ibid.
[32] Ibid.
[33] Ibid.
[34] Ibid.
[35] The Changeling by Thomas Middleton and William Rowley, Young Vic, London, 2012. Direction Joe Hill-Gibbins, design: Ultz, sound: David McSeveney, light: James Farncombe, dramaturg: Zoë Svendsen, choreography: Maxine Doyle, original sound design Paul Arditti.
[36] Svendsen, Zoë, interview with Katalin Trencsényi (Cambridge, 24 June 2012).
[37] Svendsen, email message to author, 11 September 2014.
[38] Hill-Gibbins in Tripney, 2012.
[39] Svendsen, ‘The Structure of What Changes,’ Exeunt Magazine, 13 February 2013.
[40] Ibid.
[41] Ibid.
[42] Ibid.
[43] Ibid.
[44] Ibid.
[45] Ibid.
[46] Ibid.
[47] Svendsen, interview, 2012.
[48] See Fischer-Lichte, 2008.
[49] For more on production dramaturgical processes, see ‘Chapter 6 – Methods: Product-led Production Dramaturgy,’ in Trencsényi, Katalin, Dramaturgy in the Making. A User’s Guide for Theatre Practitioners(Bloomsbury Methuen Drama: London, 2015), pp.129–163.
[50] Svendsen, interview, 2012.
[51] Ibid.
[52] Tripney, 2012.
[53] Ibid.
[54] Hill-Gibbins in Tripney, 2012.
[55] Svendsen, interview, 2012.
[56] Hill-Gibbins in Tripney, 2012.
[57] Svendsen, interview, 2012.
[58] Ibid.
[59] Hill-Gibbins in Tripney, 2012.
[60] Ibid.
[61] Svendsen, interview, 2012.
[62] Ibid.
[63] Ibid.
[64] Svendsen, Exeunt Magazine, 2013.
[65] Tripney, 2012.
[66] Svendsen, Exeunt Magazine, 2013.
[67] Brecht, 1978, p. 69.
[68] Ingham, 2004, p. 329
[69] Hutcheon, 2006, p.6.
[70] Fischlin and Fortier (eds.), 2000, p. 2, p. 3.
[71] Van Kerkhoven, 2009.


Bogdanov, Edit, ‘Notes for the Katona József Theatre’s production of Platonov.’ Platonov by A.P. Chekhov, recording from the Katona József Színház, Budapest. Magyar Televízió, 1991. DVD, Budapest Film Kft, 2008.

Brecht, Bertolt, The Messingkauf Dialogues, translated by John Willett, London: Methuen, 1978.

Czobor, Szabolcs, ‘Rendezőként hontalan vagyok…’ – Jurij Kordonszkij, színházcsináló (interjú), Magyar Narancs, 2008/1.[accessed: 2 August 2014].

Dössel, Christine, ‘Portrait: Volker Lösch,’ 50 Directors – Goethe Institute’s website, [accessed: 2 August 2014].

Fischer-Lichte, Erika, The Transformative Power of Performance. A new aesthetics, translated by Saskya Iris Jain, Abingdon / New York: Routledge, 2008.

Fischlin, Daniel and Fortier, Mark (eds.), Adaptations of Shakespeare. A critical anthology of plays from the seventeenth century to the present, London: Routledge, 2000.

Ingham, Michael Anthony, The Prose Fiction Stage Adaptation as Social Allegory in Contemporary British Drama. Staging Fictions. Lewiston: The Edwin Meller Press, 2004.

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Stegemann, Bernd, interview with Katalin Trencsényi (Berlin, 16 March 2010).

Svendsen, Zoë, interview with Katalin Trencsényi (Cambridge, 24 June 2012).

Svendsen, Zoë, ‘The Structure of What Changes,’ Exeunt Magazine, 13 February 2013 [accessed: 2 September 2014].

Tripney, Natasha, ‘Changing The Changeling,’ Exeunt Magazine, 13 November 2012. [accessed: 2 September 2014].

Van Kerkhoven, Marianne, ‘On Dramaturgy,’ Theaterschrift 1994, 5-6 (1994):9-35.

Van Kerkhoven, Marianne, ‘European Dramaturgy in the 21st century,’ Performance Research, Vol 14, No 3 (2009):7-11.

Zade, Maja, interview with Katalin Trencsényi (Berlin, 16 March 2010).

Katalin Trencsényi © Lilla Khoór

*Katalin Trencsényi is a London-based dramaturg. She gained her PhD at the Eötvös Loránd University, Budapest. As a freelance dramaturg, Katalin has worked with the National Theatre, the Royal Court Theatre, Deafinitely Theatre, Corali Dance Company and Company of Angels amongst others. From 2010 to 2012 she served as President of the Dramaturgs’ Network.
With Bernadette Cochrane she is co-editor of New Dramaturgy: International Perspectives on Theory and Practice (Bloomsbury Methuen Drama, 2014).

Copyright © 2014 Katalin Trencsényi
Critical Stages/Scènes critiques e-ISSN: 2409-7411

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Dramaturgy and mise en scène