Aural/Oral Dramaturgies: Editors’ Introduction

Photo: Giudi di Gesaro (Silvia Mercuriali’s Swimming Home)

Duška Radosavljević* and Flora Pitrolo**

It is, perhaps, particularly suitable to our topic of dramaturgies of speech and sound that the process of putting together a special journal issue functions on the principle of call and response. In our Call for Papers issued in 2020, we began by drawing attention to several themes that had been at the core of the AHRC-funded Aural/Oral Dramaturgies project (2020–22). The initially perceived “paradigm shift” in twenty-first century theatre and performance towards speech-and-sound-driven dramaturgies (specifically verbatim theatre, amplified storytelling, gig theatre), quite unexpectedly grew in significance and ubiquity during the COVID-19 pandemic, making the need for new critical insights and academic and creative methodologies more urgent.

As we called out to the community of scholars, critics and dramaturgs in preparation for this issue, we called therefore for articles and “academic artefacts” “combining or substituting the medium of the written word with the affordances of the digital domain,” anticipating audio-visual recordings, coded submissions and other “formal experiments.”

Our own research into this topic has been one long and complex conversation, which incidentally began as a chat infused with a shared enthusiasm for Yugoslav underground music of the 1980s and 1990s on a train journey from Canterbury to London, long before the official start of this project. Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic made our planned rehearsal ethnography work impossible, the research took on the previously unforeseen form of Zoom chats, experiments, interviews, Q and As, curated conversations and documentaries, all archived as the “Lend Me Your Ears” collection on Figshare and on www.auralia.space. But long before the pandemic obliged us to think creatively about how we address, think through and express the ontological and epistemological implications of newly emerging dramaturgies of speech and sound, we were already delighting in the fellowship and surprise of finding productive convergences and divergences in the process of listening into how the other listens.

This journal issue, mostly assembled by the conventional means of email correspondence, is the closest it gets to a return to normality, though not without exciting innovations, additions and provocations in response to our call, with a continued commitment to the pre-existing sense of originary curiosity.  

Julian Henriques—whose interdisciplinary exchange on call and response contribution with Andrej Mirčev is available in Lend Me Your Ears and on Figshare—writes in his book Sonic Bodies that antiphony provides a primary example for “the reciprocal relationship between research, researched and the activity of researching” (102). We have indeed relished the dynamic reciprocity generated through this editorial process—from the early submissions of abstracts whose multitude far exceeded our capacity to conduct them all into a single symphony (though we are grateful to Critical Stages for managing to accommodate many of those parallel voices, themes and compositions alongside this special issue elsewhere in the journal), via the generous, stringent and endlessly fascinating process of peer review, refining, reframing, coaxing and finetuning our final selection of ten contributions. The opportunity to hear out, eavesdrop, listen in on, respond to and work with all our contributors in this sense has been humbling, edifying and resonant.

The topic of oral/aural dramaturgy has been stretched here into a variety of modes, genres, functions and questions of academic study; and the authors assembled come with a range of cultural and professional backgrounds, moments in their career, and balances of research and practice.

A starting lens through which to read the papers presented in this issue might be the centrality of the body and of embodiment in dramaturgical practices, where the ear functions as portal to rethink our dramaturgical relation with the world. From the point of view of practice, this is a starkly evident topic in the work of Hanna Slättne and of Shannon Holmes, two practitioners who in this issue generously share the workings of their respective processes with immersive audio and with voice: both their interventions are very much “studio based,” and approach an idea of dramaturging by ear that does justice to the physical and cultural complexity of listening.

While Slättne attempts a Copernican “shift” in the practice of dramaturgy by thinking through the physical implications of immersive audio on the dramaturg’s conventionally external positioning in relation to the work, Holmes zooms in on the intersections between the maker’s body and technology in a creative process which seeks to make meaning across the barriers imposed by dementia. For Electa Behrens and Øystein Elle, the body is a means of considering the materiality of voice so as to open up questions about embodied positionality, “disturb normalized relationships between text, song and sound as meaning-carriers,” and provoke the reader/audience into a conversation about how distinct subjectivities negotiate their differences in the world. Beginning by asking “where and how do we meet?” the authors extend a set of interrogatives that urge us to confront the social and racial relations of academic practice head-on, while also developing a presentational mode suited to this task, poised between performance, film-essay, video-meditation, and more traditional scholarly formats.

This sort of intersubjectivity, effectively summarised as characteristic of the “aural” by Lynne Kendrick with reference to Western philosophy, is of course at the core of much contemporary sound-based theatre and performance, and, therefore, also at the core of many of the articles and artefacts in this issue. Particularly expanding for us in this context have been the contributions from other cultural, experiential or disciplinary perspectives. Here, for example, Katie Beswick and Javon Johnson engage in a transatlantic exchange about the sounds of cities, assembling their own call and response from personal histories and archives of popular music into the innovative form of a mixtape article where academic references and pop lyrics carry equal significance. In a similar though culturally and formally distinct vein, Lisa Lewis and Lapdiang Syiem join voices to explore Welsh and Khasi postcolonial Others by means of orality as dramaturgy, again interrogating the historical relations between the two people rooted in the “cataclysmic introduction of literacy to a culture that was hitherto entirely oral.”

From the point of view of theatre criticism, Ted Motohashi and Tomoka Tsukamoto provide a fascinating reading of Japanese director Satoshi Miyagi’s “two-in-one” method applied to Léonora Miano’s Révélation (2018), in which aurality accounts for the plurality/diversity of voices and makes “oral histories” of slave trade possible. The authors teach us about the “Othello paradox”—the deep logical flaw of the position internalised by Western theatre that the highest excellence of expression occurs at the character’s lowest biological point. Working on similar concerns with the production and reception of the Western actorial tradition, Sarah McCourt analyses how Filter Theatre’s production of Twelfth Night (2006) distributes visual, embodied and aural modes of performance: how do the conceptual and aesthetic methods of “gig theatre” complicate and extend questions about aurality already embedded in the Shakespeare canon?

Cutting across different forms of criticism by theorising “the hearing body” as an epistemological device in response to Robert Wilson’s and Mikhail Baryshnikov’s Letter to a Man (2017), Sylvia Solakidi’s contribution reinvents the form of the essay as “fugue,” offering another manifestation of antiphony, which proceeds by accumulation, transforming “in the round,” rather than by way of dialogic back-and-forth. Solakidi’s departure point in Merleau-Ponty’s motion from the visual to “being in the world” (Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology lxxvii) as a synergic, systemic understanding of perception. This resonates with Georgina Guy’s contribution to this issue, in which she puts forward the interdisciplinary notion of “installational theatre” vis-a-vis spectatorial and sensorial bias to address how the other listens through the prism of ability. Guy theorises the “syndemic” image in post-Covid performance practices as a socio-economic “interplay of cultural representation and incidents of infection.”

Finally, in Peta Murray, Alyson Campbell and Meta Cohen’s experiment in queer dramaturging, voicing what after Brandon LaBelle (and Fred Moten and Stefano Harney) they term the “under-he(a)rd,” many and complex interplays are also at work, and while this too begins as a reflection on pandemic conditions, the focus shifts from the “inter” to the “play” as the article invents its own “infectious” glossary of neologisms. Language too, as Laurie Anderson had it, is a virus—and its endless capacity for reinvention, adaptation and contamination is fully exercised here: words deform and transform, take hold across languages and contexts, invent a nomenclature for that which canonical discourse hasn’t yet named, thrive in the potential of intuitive recognition.

Indeed, looking back to the process of call and response that has brought us to this issue, we feel a call for papers is a little like a call in a forest, in which one might intuitively recognise a fellow species even though the language we deploy is not the same. This is not a collection of responses that necessarily starts from the same position or “on the same page”: this is not a survey of the field. Instead, each contribution begins from a different discursive positionality, and although a set of shared critical references emerges here—a trans-historical, trans-disciplinary field drawn out between Adriana Cavarero, George Home-Cook, Brandon LaBelle, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Jean-Luc Nancy, Pieter Verstraete, Salomé Voegelin—this is a polyphonic portrait of what it might mean to think about the oral/aural in relation to theatre and dramaturgy now. Some voices will be familiar, others will be alien; some will be familiar voices speaking in alien tones. We do feel however that listening into how the other listens always initiates another conversation, and that like another splendid bird in a forest, the reader too will want to join in this process of call and response.


Bibliography

Anderson, Laurie. Home of the Brave (LP). Warner Bros, 1986

Cavarero, Adriana. For More than One Voice: Toward a Philosophy of Vocal Expression. Translated by Paul A. Kottman, Stanford UP, 2005.

Harney, Stefano, and Fred Moten. The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study. AK Press, 2013.

Henriques, Julian. Sonic Bodies: Reggae Sound Systems, Performance Techniques, and Ways of Knowing. Continuum, 2011.

Home-Cook, George. Theatre and Aural Attention: Stretching Ourselves. Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.

Kendrick, Lynne. Theatre Aurality. Palgrave Macmillan, 2017.

LaBelle, Brandon. Sonic Agency: Sound and Emergent Forms of Resistance. Goldsmith Press. 2019.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. Phenomenology of Perception. Translated by Donald A. Landes, Routledge, 2014.

Nancy, Jean-Luc. Listening. Translated by Charlotte Mandell, Fordham UP, 2007.

Radosavljević, Duška, Flora Pitrolo, Tim Bano, Andrej Mircev, Julian Henriques. LMYE Salon #1: Andrej Mircev & Julian Henriques—Dramaturgy as Sonic Warfare, Auralia Space, Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, 2020, doi: 10.25389/rcssd.13017644.v7.

Verstraete, Pieter. “Radical Vocality, Auditory Distress and Disembodied Voice: The Resolution of the Voice-Body in The Wooster Group’s La Didone’,”. In Kendrick, Lynne and David Roesner. Theatre Noise: The Sound of Performance. Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2011, 82-96.

Voegelin, Salomé. Sonic Possible Worlds: Hearing the Continuum of Sound. Bloomsbury Academic, 2021. 


*Duška Radosavljević is a writer, dramaturg and Reader in Contemporary Theatre and Performance at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, University of London. Her scholarly work focuses on modes of authorship in contemporary theatre and, in addition, she has written for and about performance in various contexts including The Stage NewspaperExeunt and The Theatre Times. Duška is the author of the award-winning monograph Theatre-Making: Interplay Between Text and Performance in the 21st Century (2013) and editor of The Contemporary Ensemble (2013) and Theatre Criticism: Changing Landscapes (2016). In 2020–22 Duška has held a Leadership Fellowship funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), in which she has collaborated with Flora Pitrolo on www.auralia.space. Her previous AHRC-funded work also includes the Mums and Babies Ensemble. 

**Flora Pitrolo received her PhD in Drama, Theatre and Performance Studies in 2014. She has since worked as Research Associate at University of Kent on large Creative Europe and AHRC- funded projects and has lectured at Roehampton University, Queen Mary University of London, Goldsmiths College, Syracuse University London and at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. Her work investigates alternative European performance and music cultures of the 1980s, with a special focus on Italy. She has published both as a scholar of performance and as an electronic music journalist. Her most recent large project is the collection Global Dance Cultures in the 1970s and 1980s: Disco Heterotopias (forthcoming Palgrave 2022), co-edited with Marko Zubak.

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