Rethinking Authority, Creativity and Authorship in Twenty-First-Century Performance: The Director’s Revised Role

Avra Sidiropoulou*


The conversation about the director’s changing identity, as our century gallops towards or stumbles through challenges that few could have anticipated even a few years—let alone months—ago is becoming all the more complex. Today, directing practice has crossed many disciplines, methodologies and ecologies of theatre-making. My article sets out to explore some emergent dynamics that reflect the director’s role within the current performance landscape; a landscape in which directorial jurisdictions are no longer contained within the realm of pre-scripted dramatic plays and one which engages with unconventional performance environments framed by the proliferation of intermedial forms, intercultural collaborations and a variety of human and nonhuman (im)materialities. In so doing, I will set out to locate the shift from perceiving the director commonly as the production’s single uncontested authority to an agent of symbiotic meaning making.
Keywords: director, spectating, collectivity, textuality, performativity, presentness, Castellucci, Rau, Rimini Protokoll, Ruping

Τoday, the concept of interpretation has acquired a much more accommodating meaning, as spectators have become quite accustomed to alternative, “porous” dramaturgies, namely art forms that allow “for new information, theories, and discoveries in science and technology to enter the domain of dramaticity” (Sidiropoulou, Directions 117). The “rebalancing of the text and performance hierarchy” (Radosavljević 150) has resulted in theatre textuality becoming multifarious and multi-authored, both unsettled and unsettling. “New” dramaturgies—categorically hyphenized or conflated and based on equally elusive textualities—are  subject and vulnerable to the intrusion of the authentic experience, the establishment of different normativities, emergent or updated artistic and critical habitats. As such, they often operate as a bridge that connects writing with the mise-en-scène.

Many artists in Europe and the West have been ready to position themselves with admirable flexibility to such an elaborate continuum of modes of creativity and reception, aiming for encounters and interactions, a kind of “conciliatory” theatre-making mode that Peter Boenisch calls “relational dramaturgy” (qtd.  in Trencsényi and Cochrane 232). Instead of settling/locking interpretation firmly on a be-all-and-end-all idea, the director releases its constituent parts, individual threads of creativity, which, in interweaving freely with each other and with the audience, contribute both to the signification and the presentness of performance. Interpretation—which is always performative and never static—is more than ever before centrifugal rather than centripetal.

Complex Textualities

If dramaturgy is about the process of collaboratively generating theatre texts, theatre textuality points to narrative composition and, in its more updated usage, the material presence of a story-telling component on stage. As such, it can refer to the playscript, but also to the actor’s body, scenography, visual and digital forms—as separate entities of interpretative focus or as an integrated whole where meaning is produced dialogically. Essentially, these combinatory textualities encourage the director to consider horizontal, non-hierarchical modes of analysis and synthesis. The director becomes a collector, a compiler and a connector, who juxtaposes/contrasts/mixes the different textualities in order for the uber-text (a combination of the aesthetic idea, the essential story and the performed/physical and perceptual/affective experience) to emerge.

Framing, the exegetic manipulation of verbal, visual-somatic, digital and aural configurations and elements of staging, therefore, becomes a rudiment of theatre composition. In fact, arranging these elements in non-serial fashion provides narratives that can work autonomously and not merely alongside the dialogue. Set and digital design notably inscribe their own narrative onto the performance from the outset of the creative process. One may for example refer to the productions of Romeo Castellucci, in which scenography is integral to the dramaturgy of the work. In On the Concept of the Face, Regarding the Son of God (2011), a piece about the vulnerability of aging in a Godless time, excremental icons are used to make a pessimistic statement about the lack or loss of Christian faith. An originally immaculate white space is gradually being soiled as a result of an old man’s incontinence, while an early Renaissance portrait of Jesus looms over the excruciating repetition of the routine of the son changing his father’s diapers.

Considering theatre a product of a literary mind and a collaboration of stage processes, one may regard theatre textuality as an operation that unites the discursive and the symbolic with the material and the embodied. And just as any dramatic text is in some form or other encrypted, so is non-dramatic textuality. When one analyzes a play, one ultimately decodes its performativity, unleashing connections between the abstract world of language on a page and its concrete realization onstage.

Within a broader understanding of textuality, this two-way process (the dialogue between the dramatic play and its performance) is expanded ad infinitum, given the wide array of compositional textualities. At the same time, decoding performativity is no longer a matter of entering the kernel of a singular meaning and prioritizing it in performance; rather, it calls for a way of determining how each of the individual languages/textualities can connect. Deciding on the degree of connectivity and the nature of such connection is the director’s responsibility.

Similarly, it is worth rethinking the function of preparatory “analysis” when the verbal text takes “second stage. Acknowledging this “new way of directing” (which in fact is not really so “new” as an artistic reality, but has received more thorough typological analysis in the recent years) as a practice of synchronously, rather than consequentially, selecting and composing different pivots of signification, we can potentially accept the methodological mechanisms of analysis and synthesis in rehearsal as essentially concurrent.

Director’s Authority and Collaborative Connectivity

Marianne Van Kerkhoven’s stipulation, already back in 1994, that “the ‘single’ individual no longer has the structural means available to master reality’s complexity” (20) precociously suggests that not one single expert or authority could ever be enough in a theatre based on different disciplines, aesthetic departures and methodological trajectories. This understanding invites collaboration and openings, defies the notion of borders and calls for new coalitions. Essentially, theatre’s collaborative extraversion necessitates the establishment of new authorial roles.

That being said, the director is, on the one hand, emancipated but, on the other, burdened with the overload of choice. Polyvalence and multiplicity require swift adjustments to the interpenetration of forms and bold crossing of aesthetic, structural and perceptual boundaries. Indeed, increasingly people from different fields enter the directing practice, which is de facto interdisciplinary.

These scientists cum writers cum dancers cum digital engineers-directors pit their expertise and research against experience and training. Their director identity is validated by the general acceptance of the fluidity of practices recently attaching themselves to the theatre. If digital interfaces can claim their function as theatre textuality, then, equally, the IT expert can also claim directorial role. Inevitably, the hybrid identities of the new director also signal the emergence of “expertise” over talent, of craft over art.

The Possible/Impossible House. Conceived and devised by Forced Entertainment in collaboration with Vlatka Horvat. Directed by Tim Etchells. 2015. Barbican, London, UK. Photo: Tim Etchells

The “crisis” of the traditional “twentieth century role” of the director in this domain of non-stratified theatre-making is clearly tied to the question whether, ultimately, in the open, highly egalitarian modes of creativity we are discussing we still need the director to “tell us what to do.” If so, what would the director’s presence contribute to this landscape of textual indeterminacy?

In principle, directors lead by mobilizing an intricate, competitive and visceral exchange, where, ideally, the meaning (the essential “why”) of the work remains fluid, determined by individual criteria of cognition and value. Granted, the democratization of meaning (which goes as far back as post-structuralist notions of the “open” text)[1] establishes a non-hegemonic acknowledgment of authoring involvement: playwrights, directors, dramaturgs, actors, designers and spectators are all similarly entitled to the performance’s meaning.

Given the valorization of ensemble practice and devised forms over the empire of the director-auteur, some have hinted at the director’s weakened role in the theatre. However, although the network of individual readings and creative contributions is quite complex, directors hold strong, refusing to let go of the master key of interpretation. In the context of collaborative engagement, the individual insights of every group member will be adjusted, in varying degrees of compliance, to the director’s overall vision. And unless the formal operational principle of the company is strictly defined as that of a collective, during the delicate stages of conceptualization, ordinarily the director is expected to provide the preliminary structure on which everyone can start building. He or she functions as a catalyst, who makes the interpretation happen, a guarantor and a facilitator of connectivity.

While the principles of collaborative theatre-making permeate the preparation stages—which include collection of existing or production of new material, dramaturgical research, analysis of significant textual, imagistic and performative patterns and so forth—the director still decides on how the gathered materials are to connect. Again, notwithstanding the palimpsest nature of any act of interpretation, the interest now lies not so much in layering these formal elements according to an evaluatory system of what comes first and what last, but in setting the rules of these layers’ collegial co-existence.

In this elaborate circuit of synergies, textuality becomes a manifestation of the “Great Idea” (for luck of a better term) behind dramaturgical analysis and staging.

Indeed, although companies that build performances collectively exploit more communal work principles, in many groups that still claim to function as ensembles, decisions will eventually gravitate toward one person assuming responsibility for the production’s comprehensive form. In those cases, the artist-leader or artistic director is loosely “enlisted” to determine its signature style. Once again, directors carry upon them a fraction of the distinct properties of their collaborators, whom they represent. They are, in other words, the representatives of the ensemble, their authority endorsed in selecting and editing the team’s individual chapters in the collective work of performance.

Promotional trailer of Beware of Pity by Stefan Zweig. Directed by Simon McBurney. 2015. Schaubuhne.
Directing and the Historiography of Experience

More than ever before, today, there is pressure for the director—and for performance—to pose, if not answer, the question of what is “real” and sustain the aporia of how reality can be represented. Theatre assumes the function of a research machine, where new political theories, social philosophies and scientific discoveries are scrutinized and analyzed critically.

Seen in this light, creating a theatre event is claiming part in the making of history. If there is one thing that twenty-first-century performance has shown us is that it is more important to produce reality than to represent it. Directors such as Milo Rau are like historians who excavate the history of our globalized world; they must, if not interpret, at least present the largely interconnected stories of human beings in fragile societies today. Like historiographers they probe into modern dystopias often through a transnational perspective.

In Orestes in Mosul (2019), Rau transports the themes and characters’ of Aeschylus’ trilogy The Oresteia—a foundational text of Western civilization about civic justice—to modern day Mosul, a city in Iraq that has been devastated by the crimes and atrocities of the Caliphate of Isis, which held it captive until 2017. Part of Rau’s research, rehearsals and filming of the project took place in Mosul, where the director and his NTGent theater company travelled. Rau worked with Belgian actors (two of whom of Iraqi descent) as well as with local professional and amateur actors from Mosul, to create a reading of the play adjusted to the grim reality of modern-day Iraq. In the production that opened in Ghent and retained only about 20 percent of Aeschylus’ text, the Belgian actors performed the main characters of Aeschylus’ trilogy against the individual stories of Mosul and its citizens, projected as footage that had been recorded while the company rehearsed in Iraq.

One might protest that Rau’s production was more of a documentary—a “making of” of Orestes in Mosul—than a comprehensive reading of the tragedy. But that had never been among the director’s intentions, anyway. Instead, Rau investigated the limits and possibilities of justice and forgiveness, making the spectators witnesses to an open “performative” wound, a collective trauma that only history will be able (or not) to resolve in the depths of time. Here, theatre-making built the circumstances of extensive research on an appalling twenty-first-century tragedy.

Involving local artists and focusing on extensive visual material and personal stories and testimonies, Orestes in Mosul examined important political issues that meant to bring the Western audiences face-to-face with their moral responsibilities. The director operates as a historian, a compiler and interpreter of moments of crisis, taking us outside of the common spectatorial borders—geographical as well as perceptual—outside our comfort zone. No doubt, this identity of analyst-inquisitor is one of high risk, as one must remain consistent to the existing but also open to new constituent lines of inquiry in the course of creating the performance.

And for that, the audience is crucial, since history, as it unfolds, needs witnesses to record its frantic course. Artists no longer seem to fight clearly defined ideological battles. On the contrary, the obliteration of clear-cut oppositional forces (such as, for example, the rift between left and right or of enemy states pitted against each other) has resulted in a philosophy of theatre that focuses more on “ethical responsibilities” of both creator and viewer, what Lehmann sees as the political vision of postdramatic theatre. He proposes a “politics of perception,” what he calls “an aesthetic of responsibility (or response-ability)” (186), which can “move the mutual implication of actors and spectators in the theatrical production of images into the centre and thus make visible the broken thread between personal experience and perception” (186).

Promotional trailer for Orestes in Mosul. Directed by Milo Rau. Festival d’autumn. Paris, 2019

Audio-guided performances are a telling example of the audience’s co-authoring part. Rimini Protokoll’s Remote Mitte—part of the global project Remote X that took place in various cities all over the world—is an audio-guided stroll through Berlin’s historic Mitte, where the audience is asked to follow instructions through a set of headphones. The acoustic guide, acting as a director-God, informs us of the next destination, controls our turns, the crossings, getting on and off trains and into buildings and so forth. In this performance, spectators become performers. They act and interact with the director-apparatus, while also forming their own experience. The directing agency is subsumed by an acoustic avatar that gives instructions to the ear-phoned peripatetic audience. In effect, the director orchestrates the agency of the human, of the technology, but also of chance (Schipper qtd. in Leeker and Schipper 200).

In this hybrid event-authorship, the voice of the machine is the voice of the director, responsible for laying out the rules of the game, in effect, the rules of the performance. Even so, the director can influence the choices only to a certain degree; by allowing the unpredictable to enter the largely pre-determined course of events, the director yields a degree of authorship to the spectator: “the actions that you decide to perform dictate what kind of experience you have” (Schipper 200). One might in fact argue that the experience of the spectator could be another form of textuality, its cognitive and emotive fluctuations being a fundamental base in the performative interaction between audience and stage. Although functioning within  the operational framework of the director-machine, the audience is a performer, a co-writer and a co-producer.

Remote Mitte by Rimini Protokoll. Directed by Stefan Kaegi. 2015. Berlin, Germany. Photo: Gorki Theatre

Encouraging the audience’s co-responsibility is fundamental in artistic projects where mediation is a key structural element and where the performer’s carnality collides against the omni-presence of the mediated voice or bodies. Conflating the virtual and the here and now, the director functions both as a guide—utilizing the traditional role of an agency who helps the actor fulfill a specific vision of the dramatic character—and a creator of new characters, new realities, new texts.

Director, Spectator and Authorship

The elasticity of theatre textuality does not preclude the need for narrative cohesion and stable points of reference acting as entryways for the audience to access the world on stage. While the boundaries of theatre innovation remain thankfully uncharted, directors may be the second in order mediator between the auditorium and the stage, but, ultimately, they are the one to influence the degree of the audience’s power to interpret. Yet here, interpretation, far from equaling authorship of a fixed, accident-proof aesthetic product, also references the phase of creating circumstances that are favorable to the collective ownership of the theatre event.

As postdramatic practice has shown, spectating develops on the premise that the audience becomes its own viewer, resistant to being manhandled into passivity. In this respect, being a director today also involves the orchestration of an experiential event, in all its floating indeterminacy. In other words, it is not so much about producing a performance whose air-tight semiology can be perceived and decoded through intellectual stimulation, alone.

An interesting example to bring up is Münchner Kammerspiele’s 10-hour long, 4-part marathon, Dionysos Stadt. In 2018, Christopher Rüping built this tetralogy in the spirit of the ancient Greek festival of Great Dionysia. In addition to being a maximalist, fascinating interpretation of the myth of Prometheus, the Trojan War and the Oresteia, this work provided an exhilarating mode of composition that pushed the boundaries of spectatorial experience. The director created the conditions for a communal experience, in which the kaleidoscopic retelling of important stories and themes of the Western literary canon went hand-in-hand with an experimentation with an eclectic array of theatre traditions and discourses, including improvisation, slapstick comedy, formalist aesthetics and tragedy. The disparate performance styles and genres offered an unapologetic spectacle that brings the audience members together.

Rüping’s talent lies both in creating the occasion for fun, emotional and mental stimulation and for building a contemporary community of solidarity, involvement and participation. More than its dramaturgy or the mixture of styles that aptly come together, more than the stories that reveal the nuanced content of the ancient Greek texts, we leave the theatre with a sense of event-ness, of a give-and-take, and a rewarding feeling of having added to the new community specifically created for and around the performance.

Dionysus Stadt approximates the ideal of Dionysia, the dramatic agon in honor of the god Dionysus. Every aspect of the production caters to the evocation of the festival spirit: fruit and nuts are served to the audience during the intermission, and the production staff is clothed in white long robes. Things really explode in the fourth and final part of the performance, which stages a football match, as the main actor, Nils Kahnwald stands center-stage, offering a treatise on the melancholy of the French world-renowned football player Zinedine Zidane. Critics and audiences alike talk about a vibrant, intoxicating experience, a staging of a festival in the truest sense of the word. At the end of this rollercoaster of lasting visual, acoustic and emotional resonance, we are left wondering to whom Dionysos Stadt belongs: the ingenious director, the alert performers, or the receptive, resilient audience?

Anne Ubersfeld identifies the spectator’s ludic pleasure to be “the pleasure of a ‘gratuitous’ acting-out, effected by an actor and re-enacted in the mind of the spectator” (132–33). She refers to “the pleasure of a psychic coincidence between the actor and the audience” (133), an intimate encounter that seems to exclude the director. Here, the new director—as opposed to the director in more traditional forms of theatre—differs in that he or she encourages this ludic pleasure even more. Indeed, while Ubersfeld specifically refers to the actor’s ability to “invent signs that will create an effect of surprise” (132), the director is even more aware that “the pleasure of the unexpected is a necessary stimulus to the jaded palate of the regular theatre-goer” (132). This pleasure also relates to what Patrice Pavis calls “destinerrancy:” “The moment authority over the text or the performance is surrendered, the power of decision is transferred to the actor, and in the final analysis to the spectator’s gaze. Performance reclaims its rights” (45).

As actors transform in every performance, letting the eye of the audience affect their performing body, the director eases the osmosis between performer and spectator, which can shape a new textuality each time. To put it simply, directors play with the law of chance to which they are attracted and which they also fear. For Ubersfeld, there is indeed pleasure in “aleatory occurrences . . . the results of the chance happenings of the performance, of the materiality of the stage,” which, she argues, are a “source of pleasure” (133), as “he spectator takes delight in what is chance encounter, in what he alone has chanced to see” (133). Allowing the chance element to infiltrate the performance, directors empower both actors and spectators. They may cede or retrieve their power at will by enabling performer and spectator to form their own unpredictable relationship, which is ruled by phenomenological contingency, and then intervene to ensure that the exchange of gazes never becomes stale. That the Great Idea will not get locked in any given gaze for too long but will continue to circulate among actors, spectators and the world beyond the theatre.

In his analysis of the “emancipated spectator” (within or outside the traditional theatre structures), Jacques Rancière argues that spectators act by observing, selecting and interpreting as well as by linking what they see to other things that they have seen on other stages; their way of participating in the performance is by “refashioning it” in their own way” (13).  Indeed, spectators “see, feel and understand something in as much as they compose their own poem, as, in their way, do actors or playwrights, directors, dancers or performers” (13).

Boenisch adds to Rancière’s notion of emancipation—“the shaking up the underlying spectating relations and its implicit hierarchies”—and considers such emancipation an “essentially dramaturgic operation . . . achieved where the individual intelligence of the spectator as spectator in their irreducible distance as thinking interpreters is affirmed without any reservations” (Boenisch qtd. in Trencsényi and Cochrane 234). Needless to say, this observation heralds a more mature and, in fact, more enjoyable operation not only for the audience, but also for the director, regardless of the production’s modes of expression. Το refer to Pavis again, “a mise-en-scène can very well be structured in a rigorous manner; in the old-fashioned way, and still be open towards a non-authoritarian [reading] discourse, favouring otherness” (45).

Promotional trailer of £¥€$Lies by Ontroerend Goed. Script: Joeri Smet, Angelo Tijssens, Karolien De Bleser, Alexander Devriendt.] Directed by Alexander Devriendt. 2017
Perpetual Paradoxes and Future Directors/ions

Today, directors are faced with the challenge of younger generation “app” spectators, who grew up worshipping mediation and have little tolerance for the kind of profound and slow contemplation that live performance requires. Theatre-makers often tread on quicksand, trying to compete against their audience’s very private, safe rapport with their screen; a rapport that has largely infiltrated the identity of the new spectator.

Rüping’s Dionysus event manifests the kind of communication as communion that is so vital to the theatre, especially as excessive mediation threatens to numb the essential rapport between spectator and performer and rob us of any opportunity to truly connect (to the stage, to the other spectators around us). Especially in the pandemic-defined times, one needs to question the forced omnipotence of the online expedient, which, overused, might jeopardize the essential liveness of theatre.

Zoom theatre, theatre “on line,” “on demand,” “at home”—recently offered as a valuable alternative to the extensive lock-down measures in a big part of the globe—may be a solution for temporarily satisfying our need for artistic creation and consumption during times when theatre production has suffered a terrible blow, but should be treated as such: namely, an extreme measure for extreme times. If what is currently viewed as an “alternative” establishes itself as the “new normal,” theatre risks becoming disengaged from its vital organs, the physically present communities of spectators. True, the director will regain some of the earlier authority, being called upon to filter the trajectory of interpretation through the eye of the camera, by focusing the audience’s attention on specific moments of performance, by hierarchizing what deserves to be spotlighted at different times, by making the face as opposed to the body the major carrier of interpretative content (through close-ups); in short, by allowing video editing and special effects to replace moments of theatrical crisis, of hesitation, of pause, of utter and profound silence.

Yet, this advantage is ultimately a form of regression, a return to those conservative forms of spectating that contemporary performance is so intensely struggling against. Empowered by means traditionally assigned to film-makers, directors may indeed be better equipped to control the way something is perceived, but this control will cost them, as it will, in the end, cost the theatre event; without the independent gaze of the spectator, no interpretation and no act of theatre authorship can ever be complete, no liminal experience can occur. Without the spectator in the real room, the director may be reduced to a controlling Big-Brother who is able to censor by elimination anything that has gone “wrong” in the live performance as well as decide for us but without us what and how the performance means.

Clockwise from top left: Jay O. Sanders and Maryann Plunkett, Sally Murphy, Laila Robins and Stephen Kunken. What Do We Need to Talk About? By Richard Nelson. Filmed live on Zoom by the Public Theatern. April 2020. Photo: the Public Theater

Ιn a more hopeful scenario, directors will continue to be the arbiters of the performance’s structural, thematic, sensory and embodied relationships, while the core of “meaning” remains open. Every performance carries its own slippery nature, a challenge that the director will inevitably hand down to the audience in order for the cycle of interpretation to continue to run its course. The moment this handing down of authorship (and ownership) of meaning occurs is when the most sensitive and essential act of spectatorship begins, one that is bound to influence the experience of spectating. Erika Fischer-Lichte places the notion of such transformation in the centre of performativity, because theatre performances are “not only always staged but are also principally capable of triggering liminal experiences, even if the experiences afforded and methods used differ” (195). In the same way, she argues, that “the mise en scène aims at reenchanting the world, aesthetic experience as liminal experience strives to transform the performance’s participants” (195).

Transformation happens when the director seals the main question mark that the performance raises (what something means/how something means), by acknowledging the vulnerability and tumultuousness of interpretation as a necessary condition for textuality to be artistically validated. In other words, the director can bridge the performative anxieties of artists and the perceptual and emotional needs of spectators, providing consolation and closure to the unanswerable questions and debilitating what-ifs that are deeply connected to the paradox of interpretation: the questions the performance raises are its answers.

Given how infinite the possibilities and combinations of artistic expression are, the director should make sure that no text or textuality will ever be finite or shut down; accept that every new interaction between audience, performer and the idea, in their endless and unpredictable variations, will refresh and reposition the text anew. Indeed, the director is the Big Other (per Lacan) in his/her “radical alterity and unassimilable uniqueness . . . the symbolic order which mediates the relationship with that other subject” (Evans 133). In performance, the director is a symbolic figure of synthesis and arrival (rather than departure) of all the separate layers of textuality that have been employed to create it. Ironically, the director’s newly claimed power lies in being able to surrender it.


[1] See Umberto Eco’s The Role of the Reader: Explorations in the Semiotics of Texts (Indiana UP, 1984); also, Roland Barthes’ “The Death of the Author” in Image-Music-Text (Fontana, 1977). 


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Ubersfeld, Anne. “The Pleasure of the Spectator.” Translated by Pierre Bouillaguet and Charles Jose. Modern Drama, vol. 25, no. 1, 1982, pp. 127–39.

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*Avra Sidiropoulou is Associate Professor at the Μ.Α. Programme in Theatre Studies of the Open University of Cyprus and Artistic Director of Athens-based Persona Theatre Company. She is the author of two monographs: Directions for Directing: Theatre and Method (Routledge, 2018) and Authoring Performance: The Director in Contemporary Theatre (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), and she has contributed articles and chapters to several international peer-reviewed journals and volumes. She is currently editing an international collection on representations of twenty-first-century crisis on stage (Routledge, forthcoming).

Copyright © 2020 Avra Sidiropoulou
Critical Stages/Scènes critiques e-ISSN: 2409-7411

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