Dramaturging from Within: The Dramaturg as First Experiencer in Immersive Audio

Hanna Slättne*

Abstract

This article focuses on the role of the dramaturg in the process of creating performances in which immersive audio is at the heart of the meaning-making, arguing that in immersive audio the dramaturg takes up a position of first experiencer, rather than first spectator, and that this requires a changed approach from the early stages of conceptualization through to production.  Drawing on, revising and augmenting existing ideas and tools in the field of dramaturgy rather than radically dispensing with them, the article theorises three shifts in the attention of the dramaturg in such work by contrast to pre-existing practices; namely: a shift in the positioning of the dramaturg, a shift in anticipated positioning of the audience and a shift in the potential structuring of the audience’s experience. The work presented here assembles its own toolbox for immersive dramaturgy by applying George Home-Cook’s notion of “aural attention” to the dramaturgical process, expanding Elinor Fuchs’ set of dramaturgical questions to ask of a stage play, and finally offering a tool for composing dramaturgically by considering how meaning functions across “layers of perception” when creating an immersive space for an audience to inhabit.

Keywords: Dramaturgy, immersive audio, headphone theatre, development process, dramaturgical tools, aural attention, perceptions

In her article EF’s Visit to a Small Planet: Some Questions to Ask a Play, Elinor Fuchs writes that the play “is in itself another world passing before you in time and space” (6). She proposes a list of dramaturgical questions to explore in creating the world of the play. Who inhabits the planet? How does time work? What is the climate like? What is the mood of the planet? Theatre-makers including the dramaturg, Fuchs writes, “squint and look at the planet, the world of the play from above” (6).

When creating worlds for immersive performances, particularly those placing immersive audio at the centre of meaning-making, the dramaturg’s vantage point changes. This article suggests that at the beginning of an immersive audio project it is helpful to consider the artistic team floating around in an empty aural space. Through the artistic equivalent of a big bang moment, a planet or planets emerge within this universe through the process of gathering, organising and naming the space dust.

The dramaturg, together with the artistic team, becomes an explorer aiming to find common understandings. The dramaturg rescinds their traditional outside perspective to become one of the universe’s first inhabitants. There is no vantage point from which the dramaturg can squint from afar. The dramaturgical process changes to that of facilitating the artistic team in discovering their universe and its planets from within. Elinor Fuchs’ idea of the planet is not replaced but expanded to include a journey of exploration.

Audience shot at Unheard by Vanessa Haynes, director Hanna Slättne, Brian Friel Theatre, September 2018. Photo: Parkway

Dramaturgs have been extending and honing their immersive storytelling skills to include digital 360 environments, immersive XR technology, experiential theatre and, most recently, during the COVID-19 pandemic, digital and online theatre. They are discovering that, in the field of immersive tech, sound is one of the most powerful components of storytelling and dramaturgy and that headphones become portals through which audiences are invited into a universe consisting of multiple experiential layers that are inhabited simultaneously. The use of headphones in work by artists such as Lundahl and Seitl, Complicité, ZU-UK and Janet Cardiff has revealed an endless range of possibilities, whether used together with live elements, audience participation, visuals, staging, movement or any other combination of the above.

This article is written from a practitioner’s point of view and focuses on the challenges facing a dramaturg; within it, I share creative process discoveries and tools from my practice. As we step into the aural cosmos as practitioners, no amount of squinting will suffice; we need to engage other senses. The tasks of conceptualizing the dramaturgical core of the project and facilitating mutual understandings of it amongst collaborators remain; however, additional tools and approaches are needed. The article follows the dramaturg on the journey from the beginning of a project to production. It suggests a series of shifts in how to approach doing dramaturgy differently within immersive audio. The choice of shifts as a key term deliberately foregrounds an embodied kinesthetic repositioning affecting the perceptions of the dramaturg, as well as the audience. It also reflects how the way we direct attention to aspects of the story and experience changes. Through these shifts, I suggest additional questions and approaches to be added to Fuchs’ list to build a universe rather than shaping a planet.

The Sonic World of Worldbuilders by Hanna Slättne

Shift 1 deals with the placement of the dramaturg and how it impacts on the very early parts of the process—the conceptualizing and the formulation of artistic ideas as they evolve. I suggest that the internal actions of doing dramaturgy change as we move from outside to inside in terms of how we connect to each other’s ideas, perceiving them from the position of experiencer rather than onlooker. This repositioning highlights the visual orientation of language, and how this creates conceptual challenges when creating work from within an emerging aural space.

In Shift 2, I focus on how to dramaturg the anticipated audience’s experience from within. I suggest questions and tools which are helpful in defining the relationships between the dramaturgical idea, the universe of experience and how to structure the piece around the experiencing body. I refer to this emerging structure as a “scaffold” that is used early on in a process, before many decisions have been taken, in order to facilitate taking those decisions.

Shift 3 address ways to consider the dramaturgy of the multiple potential routes that an audience can take as they journey through the universe. For this task, I have developed a tool I refer to as “layers of perception,” to help map the options and challenges in structuring audience journeys across the sensory and the virtual. Each shift triggers additional questions to complement Fuchs’ approach to the small planet.

These three distinct shifts are meant as prompts and provocations for dramaturgs entering the space of immersive audio to create their own bespoke tools. In the same spirit as I conduct my own dramaturgical work, this article deliberately avoids proposing a “one-size-fits-all” model. While prior to entering a creative process I may refer to models such as “layers of experience” (Gröppel-Wegener and Kidd) or to existing ideas on what constitutes immersive theatre (Machon), I am also aware that dramaturgical practice is relational and embodied, and it takes place in a specific time, location, and with a particular team—all with a focus on what is yet unknown. It is a practice of listening, thinking, connecting, perceiving, constructing and shaping together, and I have always found that bringing in pre-existing shapes, models, or schemata is detrimental to these processes.

In order to accentuate the conditions of dramaturgical practice, I refer in this paper to examples drawn from my current projects, whose final outcomes are still unknown at the time of writing this article: my ongoing PhD project Worldbuilders, created for and with people with Parkinson’s disease, and a commission as yet in development for the Dublin Theatre Festival with the working title of Take Me Somewhere, an immersive audio experience addressing our changing relationship with touch facilitated through a one-to-one engagement with a performer. I also refer to Reassembled Slightly Askew (2015), a completed piece whose innovative process I reflect upon in hindsight. 

Reassembled Slightly Askew. Photo: Dahlia Katz
SHIFT 1—The Dramaturg as First Experiencer

In his article “Dramaturgy as a way of looking into the spectator’s aesthetic experience,” Slovak dramaturg Milan Zvada argues for an interactive dramaturgy that shapes the intended effects of the performance on the audience (202). The title itself makes clear how Zvada’s dramaturg does not fully move towards inhabiting the aesthetic experience of the audience, as they are still conceived as “looking into” the spectating audience’s experience from the outside. On the other hand, venturing into immersive audio—leaving the physical position at the periphery of a rehearsal room and the stage space behind—the dramaturg is positioned at the centre of experiential exploration. From this position, the dramaturg helps shape the intended effects on an audience, the aesthetic experience; and in anticipating the audience’s engagement, they become the first experiencer. Together with the rest of the artistic team, the dramaturg enters the empty aural space of potential to find, explore, mould and experience it from within.

In a traditional dramaturgical process, artists sometimes refer to the “framing” of a story to explore its thematic, time and space span. However, framing has connotations of two dimensionality and of looking at a “picture” from the outside. When shifting one’s position from an outside or from above looking at a planet to inside the emptiness of a new-born universe, the externally situated embodied actions of dramaturgical reflection and observation are not an option. Janek Szatkowski, in comparing the similarities between working with theory and doing dramaturgy writes that “reality is an infinite complex simultaneity of matter, spaces and movements. The only chance we have to create meanings (also scientifically) is temporarily to produce a ‘stop’ of this restless movement and reduce complexity” (Szatkowski xiv). This idea of the “stop” is helpful when reflecting on an emerging aural space. To create this “dramaturgical stop,” we need to freeze a moment of a dynamic three-dimensional sensory experience for the purpose of collective dramaturgical scrutiny. We need to inhabit this frozen moment and explore it from within, and this requires a new set of sensitivities and approaches from the dramaturg.

Focussing on the workings of sound in theatre and the aural attention of audiences, George Home-Cook argues that theatre-makers provide “material affordances” through the “designed theatrical environments or atmospheres” to the “attending subjects” (168). When an artistic team design a theatrical environment for these attending subjects, they first need to reach a shared understanding of their chosen “dramaturgical stop.” They engage in a collaborative act of aural sense-making—of reaching, stretching and attending to each other’s perceptions, ideas and meanings to identify, articulate and shape the artistic intentions.

From the many possibilities offered by the ideas and materials generated, the dramaturg slowly hones what the artistic team mean and want for their production. Home-Cook suggests that the audience’s act of attending plays a “vital role in [the] manifestation” of theatrical atmospheres (168). I argue that the artistic team goes through a similar process to manifest the sonic atmospheres through their collaboration in the first place. Home-Cook invites us to “attend to the processes by which we attend to things” within “the aural dimensions of theatre” (172).  

During the artistic process the dramaturg can note how the sonic atmosphere may manifest differently depending on where the team directs the audience’s aural attention. This task fits well with the overall responsibility of the dramaturg to keep a focus both on the process and on how meanings are engendered. The shift in doing dramaturgy from within moves the focus to the act of attending to and facilitating how the artistic team attends to things, how they stretch their aural attentions and how the universe of the immersive experience manifests itself. This is a dramaturgical process of attending as collaboration that corresponds with Home-Cook’s idea of audiences “attending as participation” (171).

As part of the attending as collaboration in the early stages of development, the dramaturg facilitates the communal naming of different elements, discoveries and ideas. In this process of naming, the internal workings of the dramaturgy begin, initiating how meanings operate within the new universe. It is during this process of formulation that the artistic team will encounter how their aural acts are coming up against the visual orientation of the rehearsal room language.

As artists begin to generate audio, find an aural range of possibilities, grasp and stretch towards each other and deepen their own perceptions to reach a common understanding of what they want to convey to an audience, they are reliant on a pre-existing dramaturgical vocabulary littered with imagery and metaphors that restrict the fully sensory embodied experience to a predominantly visualist register: phrases such as “framing” (discussed above), “in the mind’s eye,” “focal point,” “visualise,” “shed light on” and “vantage point” are all used in English to explore structure, meaning and the imagination. When naming, envisioning and imagining (note how the latter two words themselves carry a visual bias) a sonic universe, we are referring to qualities, elements and devices which we can neither see, nor potentially yet hear. In immersive audio, when working on a sonic mise-en-scène, or as Andy Lavender suggests, “the arrangement of experience: mise-en-sensibilité” ( 97), it evolves not on stage but in the collaborators’ minds. As a result, meanings can be misconstrued by using visualist language and can misdirect the audience’s attention. The dramaturg therefore needs to be mindful of and attend to the language used and its consequences on dramaturgical meaning-making.  

In addition, as Mildorf and Kinzel point out in Audionarratology, there are contested meanings around commonly used words such as sound, aural and soundscape. They conclude that “finding a common language for interdisciplinary collaboration creates serious conundrums” (Mildorf and Kinzel 4). The dramaturg should thus be aware of the different understandings of terms within an interdisciplinary artistic team.

Development of RSA, Shannon Yee with the visual score and the binaural head microphone

As elaborated upon in Lend Me Your Ears Laboratory #4 on www.auralia.space, during the process of Reassembled Slightly Askew (RSA) (Radosavljević et al.), the team initially struggled to conceive a sonic world from the written script. RSA is an immersive audio piece in which the audience is blindfolded, lying in a hospital bed. They inhabit the biographical experience of the writer Shannon Yee as she goes through a traumatic brain event as though from within her body. We were an experienced interdisciplinary team: a writer, a director, a sound artist, a choreographer and the dramaturg. Just as the audience would have no visuals during the show due to being blindfolded, neither did we during the process of making it. This meant we were grasping and stretching to find the world, listening to materials, imagining and attempting to shape moments to find a common understanding through discussion alone—however, it eluded us.

As the team dramaturg, I felt we needed a new approach to find the solid ground from which to create our “dramaturgical stop.” I suggested that Shannon and I translate the script to a visual score, expressing the combination of emotions, textures, sounds that linear text, story and language with a visualist bias could not capture. In this way we found the crucial plot moments of the piece, not through language but through shapes, colours and spatialisation that expressed the memory of the experience from Shannon’s aural position at the time. This was a major turning point in our process.  The visual score, as we paradoxically referred to it, allowed all the artists to orient themselves in our evolving sonic universe; from there, we found a shared language. For example, we named sections of the structure “fogs,” which unintentionally reflected this aspect of the process, encapsulated the experience of Shannon as well as providing us with a three-dimensional shape that we inhabited.

A rigorous attention to language from the start can help immensely in reducing confusion and finding the right metaphors and vocabulary with which to communicate the aural space unique to the artistic team. This is not about replacing familiar working vocabularies but about being aware of how they work in the context of the performance piece.

Having established how this first shift in the dramaturg’s position from onlooker to first experiencer affects the dramaturgical process and the use of language in rehearsal, the next section focuses on tools facilitating the shaping of the experience-universe for an audience from within.

SHIFT 2—Dramaturging from Within

The traditional idea that the dramaturg is positioned both inside and outside the process is, as discussed above, challenged by a reformulation of the dramaturg’s position as first experiencer. From within the universe the dramaturg needs a different set of tools to oscillate between nurturing the dramaturgical core ideas and the evolving structures of the universe. In “The Art of Creating a Skeleton,” I argued that the dramaturgs’ role is to focus “on the internal strength” of the work (Slättne). Dramaturgs do this by comparing what we see evolving on stage with the expressed artistic intentions. If we cannot see the materials, as in the case of immersive audio, we need a different mechanism through which to compare and test the ideas and to steer decisions on how the text works in conjunction with other senses and how we record and spatialise the sounds.

In my immersive projects, I have created a set of questions focussing specifically on how we are inviting and addressing the audience. The questions aid the collaborators in operating inside the evolving aural space in the same way as a scaffold holds together a building process. This notion of a scaffold helps retain or reinvent the traditional inside/outside position of the dramaturg through which they test and probe how the core ideas are reflected in the emerging world and how they will be experienced by the audience.

These dramaturgical questions can be added to Elinor Fuchs’ questions for a small planet. They carry implications for an aural perspective and, therefore, for the placement of sounds in both the physical and the sound world—the mise-en-sensibilité—as well as which recording techniques and tools to use. It can feel artificial to introduce these questions before major decisions have been taken on many aspects of the experience, however, across a project’s duration they pay off. The scaffold can help the team to create what might be called “sonic footholds” for the audience, coherent landing points within the story materials from which to extend ideas of journeying (see SHIFT 3).

Examples of questions which can be used to create an external scaffold include:

  1. Where is the audience situated in relation to the action of the story? Do they inhabit a passive “ghost” presence, or are they in the body of a character enacting the story?  
  2. Who do we invite the audience to be inside the experience? Are they a character? Are they themselves? Something in between? Do they transition from one to another during the experience? 
  3. How is the audience addressed? What are the aural and dramaturgical consequences of different forms of address, (for example between addressing the audience using the firstperson “I” or the second person “You”?) Who is addressing the audience? And where are they? Is there a narrator? A facilitator? Actors? Do they inhabit both the audio world/s and the physical? What are the physical as well as the narrative relationships between the audience and the performers within and across the different layers of perception?
  4. Which of the audience’s senses are engaged in addition to the aural? Visual? Movement? Taste and smell? Touch? Within the world of the experience who are these senses attributed to? A character’s or the audience’s own?
  5. How is the scene set for the audience? Is it a physical or a visual virtual space, or the audience asked to imagine it? Or a combination of both?

One example illustrating the scaffolding idea can be drawn from the process on Reassembled Slightly Askew (2015). Before we arrived at the visual score through which to unpack the dramaturgical core, and before we arrived at the decision to place the audience inside Shannon’s mind, we were dealing with too many options. We were discussing and experimenting with a wide range of the aural equivalent of perspectives and vantage points within the sonic world, and I felt we were drifting. At that point, I suggested an external scaffolding idea that we design the sonic space solely from within Shannon’s body and mind: her internal thoughts, how she hears the world, how she hears herself speaking in the world, and how she hears others around her. Within this sonic universe, audiences journey through unconsciousness as well as consciousness, and we created our sonic footholds within the aural implications of this decision, allowing us to leave some of the visualist language behind. At the time, suggesting this scaffold felt heavy-handed, causing me to have some doubts, however it gave us creative freedom. The scaffold, if blunt at times, enabled us to explore different combinations of sound design and text to support the audience in navigating the journey through consciousness, unconsciousness, aural hypersensitivity and fatigue. Most importantly, it enabled me to remain somewhat on the outside, observing how our decisions on where to direct the audience’s attention within the available layers of perception manifested the artistic intentions and shaped the overall audience experience.

Reassembled Slightly Askew by Shannon Yee, Paul Stapleton, Anna Newell, Hanna Slättne and Stevie Prickett. 2015

In my ongoing project Worldbuilders (2021), the external scaffolding came from the requirement that the audience would engage in the experience as themselves. This led to experimenting with different forms of narrative address; different ways of writing for co-creation and ways of thinking about the spatialisation of the sound. I continue to try new things out, exploring the storytelling consequences as expanded on in the article “Creating immersive audio stories for people with Parkinson’s disease” on http://thewritingplatform.com/

Creating a joint understanding of how the audience is situated within the experience, will help the artistic team in taking decisions about their universe and the dramaturg to harness the useful tension stemming from operating in-between the inside and the outside. The final shift addresses the structuring of potential audience journeys across different sensory and virtual layers over the duration of the experience.

Extracts from early draft of The Cave, Worldbuilders portfolio, by Hanna Slättne, September 2021. Best enjoyed with headphones
SHIFT 3—Dramaturging Across Multiple Layers

In Fuchs’ article, she assumes “that in the world of the play there are no accidents, nothing occurs ‘by chance,’ not even chance” (6). Peter Boenisch suggests that “the signs and symbolisations” available to the attending and perceiving audience have an effect on their “sensorium” (Boenisch 109, original emphasis). Having established the audience’s sonic footholds within the space that will contain this sensorium, the dramaturg now focuses on structuring the journeying across the duration of the experience (corresponding with the traditional dramaturgical concerns with structuring a play across time and space). Boenisch suggests that the effects “are always ultimately real . . . they are always ‘authentic’ in the observer’s experience” (109).

One important aspect of the dramaturgical process in immersive audio is to identify potential unintended dissonances between different sensory and virtual layers. Dissonances that appear as accidents or chance pitfalls can disrupt the sense of “authenticity” of the audience’s sensorium. For example, in Blindness an adaptation by Simon Stephens of José Saramago’s book, directed by Walter Meierjohann and produced by the Donmar Warehouse in 2020, the audience, arriving in pairs, was seated next to each other in the physical world. During the show, I had the experience of the main character in the aural layer physically “running through” my friend in the “real world,” creating a sense of dissonance for me.

Klich and Scheer in Multimedia Performance argue that “Immersion cannot be measured within the design of the work, or in the intention of the creator, as it is a subjective experience that can be measured only by the participants” (136). Immersion perhaps cannot be measured in the design; however, a rigorous dramaturgical process exploring the artists’ intentions in relation to a potential sensorium allows these intentions to resonate through the decisions taken when creating the piece, ensuring a sense of uninterrupted immersion, if that is what the artistic team sets out to do. Shaping the audience experience includes considering what the audience might consider the “real world” and how this is layered with the virtual layers, in what Lev Manovich refers to as the “augmented space” (219); that is, a physical space overlaid with layers of information which are carefully crafted to support the artistic vision. As a dramaturg, I expect an intentional dissonance within the augmented space to add to the dramaturgy of the piece. If it is unintentional, it is likely to draw the audience’s attention away from what is meaning-bearing in the composition which was my experience in Blindness.

The dramaturgical process of making immersive audio may therefore involve directing the audiences’ attentions to shape the information in the “augmented space” (Manovich) and to consider how the audience could navigate the experience across its duration in line with the artistic intentions. The dramaturg may lay out options, explore how a focus on different senses affect the dramaturgy at various moments and identify gaps, accidents and chance in the internal workings of the aural universe and the sensorium.  

To do this work and to uncover unfulfilled expectations of acts of agency, interaction, and physical sensations within the experience, I have developed the “layers of perception” tool. The layers referred to include the proprioceptive, narrative, sense of self, the visual and dramaturgical experience, each generating a different set of dramaturgical questions to add to Fuchs’, depending on what kind of project the artists are creating:

  • The proprioceptive experience: The audience perception of where their body is, in which position, which location, venue, seat, and who is sitting next to them. How do movements around them in the sonic world correlate with their proprioceptive sense of self and how are the sounds which are heard through the headphones referenced in what the audience can touch, see and engage with in the physical space?
  • The narrative experience: The story, narrator, characters and instructions—setting a scene in a single or multiple fictional location. What senses are engaged in evoking the fictional experience? How do the dramatic and emotional stakes of the story affect the audience across the different sensory realities which the experience asks them to engage with?
  • Agency and sense of self: Is the audience a ghost presence/observer, or is the experience situating them within a location? How are they addressed, and how is this connected to the other sensory layers of perception? How is their sense of agency connected to their other sensory experiences? 
  • The visual experience: Where are the visuals, and who creates them? Is the experience giving the audience visuals, or are they creating them in their imaginations? Do the audience have the option to open and close their eyes? How does that impact on their experience?
  • The dramaturgical experience: How is the experience drawing attention towards specific aspects of the different experiential layers to tell a particular story and what can the artistic team do to avoid, mitigate or harness the dissonances which arise? How does the artistic team bridge potential gaps between the artistic experience and the audience’s subjectively felt sense of self in creative ways?

For example, in Take Me Somewhere (currently in development), the key dramaturgical problem is to draw the audience attention to what they perceive through touch and how words and story impact on and shape what they perceive. In it, we aim to combine two directions of travel: a physical and an internal imaginative journey. Physically, the audience is travelling through a real space, facilitated by an actor, and the sound design draws their attention to their own physiological senses of self, movement, touch and interaction. Internally, the journey moves from a third-person perspective of a character that they are not inhabiting, to their own, subjectively felt sense of self and first-person perspective. The physical and internal journeying operate in reverse aiming to merge into new reflective and sonic location.

Haptic explorations for Take Me Somewhere, Peter Power, and Hanna Slättne, Spring 2021

Thinking about the direction of travel across the “layers or perception” helps the dramaturg to gauge how a piece works. It helps to take decisions on directing the audience’s aural attention through different means of storytelling and to identify potential unintentional dissonances that can pull the audiences out of the sensorium. How artists shape the experience across different layers of perception is unique to each show. Also unique in every case is what artists choose to make significant during the experience.

Conclusion

In summing up, I want to reiterate that, as a practitioner and researcher, I do not set out to offer a rigidly set approach or to propose a general working model. Keeping artistic processes open, responsive and bespoke to the people and the ideas in the room is key. Rather, the aim here has been to draw attention to the specific considerations, questions and tools that peers entering the area of immersive audio can incorporate into their own ways of working.

The article suggests that as we move from thinking about a stage play by means of Fuchs’ analogy of a small planet to an aural universe, we must stay attentive to the meanings and experiences different layers of perception open up when the audiences travel through them. I have offered three shifts to consider whilst dramaturging a new piece, in which headphones are an instrumental part of the experience. I have outlined the potential of dramaturgs considering themselves as first experiencers, rather than first spectators, and have drawn attention to how this shift changes the way the dramaturg interacts with the artistic team to develop the dramaturgy of the piece, as well as the act of doing dramaturgy.

The dramaturg cannot be on the outside but is instead one of the artistic team in the process of grasping, stretching, listening, enacting and embodying through the phases of excavation and exploration. The dramaturg should be alert to how language impacts on the imagination and how dissonances between layers of perception can disrupt an audience’s experience. Early consideration of the audience’s positioning can be helpful, as it will have an impact on the options open to the artistic team in how to convey their artistic vision, and, in shift 2, I suggested questions and tools which support them in doing that. Finally, in shift 3, the focus turned to some tools to help dramaturgs to map how meanings evolve as the audience journeys in between the different “layers of perception,” across the duration of the experience.


Bibliography

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*Hanna Slättne is a dramaturg—facilitator, collaborator, researcher and maker. Her current pratice-based research focuses on immersive audio, sensory and embodied dramaturgy in arts and health, digital storytelling and live performance.

Copyright © 2021 Hanna Slättne
Critical Stages/Scènes critiques e-ISSN: 2409-7411

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