Heterarchical Dramaturgies

Katalin Trencsényi*


This essay, following Chantal Bilodeau’s call for new dramatic theories, investigates the patterns with which we are thinking about the world when (re)presenting it on the stage. If the Aristotelian form can be interpreted as hierarchical, conflict-led and expressing patriarchal values, what are those heterarchical dramaturgies in contemporary theatre that promote a more equal worldview? Looking at recent examples of drama, performance and contemporary dance, this paper draws up a parallel universe of new dramaturgies (including complex systems theory, game theory and musical dramaturgy) that are open, playful, dynamic, not binary, non-linear and promote a more complex worldview. It examines the emerging theory behind them and discerns what value and overall meaning arise from using these dramaturgies in theatrical composition.

Keywords: Aristotle, heterarchical dramaturgies, new dramaturgy, dynamic systems theory, dramaturgy as stratigraphy, archipelago dramaturgy, game theory, musical dramaturgy

GALILEO: The universe has lost its centre overnight, and woken up to find it has countless centres. So that each one can now be seen as the centre, or none at all. Suddenly there is a lot of room.


In an essay published as part of the Theatre in the Age of Climate Change-series of the online theatre portal, HowlRound, Canadian playwright, translator and artistic director of Arctic Cycle Chantal Bilodeau announced her decision: to no longer rely on the dramaturgical rules that were laid down in Aristotle’s Poetics (“Why I’m Breaking Up with Aristotle”). Her reason for leaving behind the theory that has shaped and defined the majority of the dramatic works of the Western culture in the past 2,500 years is that our Anthropocene age needs a new narrative that cannot be achieved through using Aristotle’s arguably dated model. The Aristotelian structure, states Bilodeau, is not only a model for structuring drama but it also inherently includes values: a patriarchal-hierarchical way of thinking about the world and the human race’s place in it as an aggressive conqueror—a worldview that is no longer morally sustainable in the twenty-first century. “Is it ethical to embrace a dramatic form that was designed to justify inequality and violence?” asks Bilodeau.

Although Bilodeau’s understanding of Aristotle’s Poetics seems somewhat narrow (notably, her criticism of “Aristotle’s pyramid” is based on Gustav Freytag’s interpretation of Aristotle—inherently reading into it values of a nineteenth-century Western society—rather than the original work[2]), yet the suggestion of looking beyond the popular view of the Aristotelian paradigm to explore and (re)discover other forms merits further consideration.

In European cultures (and in others that adapted its worldview and idea of representation), the Aristotelian plot development with its triad (beginning, middle and end) structure and plot direction from complication to solution is certainly the most popular model to shape a dramatic work. This triangular form, in Freytag’s interpretation (the one Bilodeau constructs her arguments against), is characterised by a progressive linear narrative moving towards an apex. According to this understanding, the story starts with an instigating incident, which sets a rising chain of actions in motion, heading up to the climax, which then is followed by a falling line of action towards the plot denouément. In this interpretation, the “Aristotelian” plot structure revolves around conflict (conflicting forces) and confrontation and ends in one element conquering the other. This triangular-shaped plot is a very reliable form; therefore, it has remained popular. Today, it can be found everywhere from drama to cinema; moreover, its use is extended to shaping various narratives beyond the domain of the arts, including “reality” TV.

Yet, the structures we create when telling our stories also reflect our values. The shapes of a society’s stories are at least as interesting as the shapes of their pots and spearheads, noted Kurt Vonnegut (qtd. in Jones). Moreover, Bilodeau suggests that “the structure we use to build our societies, and the structure we use to shape our stories, are one and the same.” She therefore demands: how can writers formulate a new vision and serve societal change, if structurally their work is bound to an oppressive format?

Aristotle by Jusepe de Ribera. Oil on canvas, 1637. From the Indianapolis Museum of Art at Newfields. Rights: The Clowes Collection. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Apart from ethical and political problems, Bilodeau lists epistemological reasons that make the Aristotelian model problematic today:

Moreover, writing plays where scenes have a neat cause and effect relationship in the Internet age where ideas emerge through associations, and where biomimicry is replacing old mechanical principles, seems archaic. And with quantum physics telling us that two realities can exist at the same time and that an observed behavior is forever changed by the act of observation, shouldn’t we explore all the possible realms of existence and consciousness rather than stick to a thin sliver of observable reality? Humans are not the center of the universe anymore. Time is no longer linear. Our species could go extinct. These are profound ideas that should inform how we structure our stories.

In the following, I would like to take up Bilodeau’s invitation by questioning this postulate of European theatre and see whether if we look beyond the most popular dramaturgical model, other dramaturgies can be recognised. This investigation seems timely when our society is in transition: what are the patterns with which we are thinking about the world when (re)presenting it on the stage? What are those non-hierarchical dramaturgies that can promote a more equal worldview?

The urgency of these questions and their relevance to current theatrical practices was highlighted by an open letter to dramaturgs, written by British playwrights in March 2021 and signed by over a hundred colleagues worldwide: “We need to talk about Dramaturgy.” In this letter, the signatories highlight “certain patterns of injury specific to writers of colour after bruising encounters with Eurocentric dramaturgy” (Abdulrazzak et al.). The points raised in the letter reveal how the dominating dramaturgical theory (and subsequent practices) can contribute to the oversight of works that use different dramaturgies that are rooted in different cultures or knowledge systems and thus can lead to the systemic exclusion of plays written by playwrights of colour.

This dramaturgical monoculture is especially concerning, considering that as soon as we move our glance away from the geographic (and socio-political) area where the Aristotelian paradigm is prevalent, a plethora of different traditional dramaturgies can be found: the rasas of the Natyashastra, the spiral dramaturgies of Indigenous cultures, the carnival’s anti-establishment dramaturgy, the circular Hero’s journey of myths and legends or the conflictless Kishōtenketsu composition—to mention just the most obvious ones. Since this field is too vast to explore within the remits of a single essay, here I will focus on contemporary theatre within the European culture only to show that even inside this framework there are plenty of non-linear dramaturgies to be found.

Towards a New Dramatic Theory

Bilodeau’s essay generated a lively conversation on the HowlRound portal, which led to a subsequent podcast interview with her by Mike Lueger. In this conversation, Bilodeau further explored this idea and began to outline possible new dramaturgies. To define the framework within which these were to be envisioned, Bilodeau describes a heterarchical worldview:

The heterarchical worldview is circular. It’s not as much a power structure. It’s a distribution of power. It’s more collaborative. It’s networks, so people are connected in a bunch of different ways. If there is power, it’s more shifting, so it’s not like one person or one entity always holds it. It kind of shifts depending on what’s needed. … In a heterarchy, in general, more people have more agency.

qtd. in Lueger

The idea of an alternative poetics that contains other than the male experience has been part of the discourse of feminist literary criticism since the late 1970s. These examinations first concerned the genre of the novel, which was perceived as standing on Aristotelian premises of conflict.

In an essay, “Aristotle’s Sister: A Poetics of Abandonment,” Lawrence Lipking noted “how much literary theory serves masculine interests” and that “a woman’s poetics” should repair this imbalance (78). His suggestion for a female poetics for the existing canon of female literature was one that was not based on myth and culture—socio-political constructs that women have been historically excluded from—but on their “common experience and common suffering” (72). Exploring for “unmanned spaces” within the framework of the existing Western, male-shaped paradigm, Lipking arguably found this universal female knowledge in “abandonment.” He then imagines Aristotle’s sister, Arimneste composing her alternative poetics:

“Poetry,” she writes, “is the expression of a life, personal, incomplete, and proportioned to the self; employing whatever language and conventions one has been allowed to acquire; presented in fragments; and achieving through sharing the emotions of loneliness and abandonment, a momentary sense of not being alone.


Although at first sight “abandonment” may not sound aspiring to future female writers, however, this poetics offers opportunities. What is notable here is the freedom of form it proposes—since fragments or incomplete forms are not adhering to the Aristotelian beginning, middle and end format; and the opportunities for a variety of artistic language and style that is offered in this “female poetics.”

Others sought to propose a more affirmative concept for an alternative literary theory to replace the prevailing one. For instance, Ursula K. Le Guin in her 1986 essay, “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction,” suggests a move away from the theory of conflict to another, non-violent theory that culturally precedes the story of the hero: the story of the “container,” the holder, the recipient. Her position is that the “killer story” (and the worldview it represents) has reached its end, and if we as a society don’t want to die with it, we need to seek a different one, the “untold one, the life story.” This one, however, is a non-violent narrative that is not driving towards a settlement but perpetual sustenance. In the “carrier bag narrative,” we can also observe an emphasis on process conscious working:

Conflict, competition, stress, struggle, etc, within the narrative conceived as carrier bag / belly / box / house / medicine bundle, may be seen as necessary elements of a whole which itself cannot be characterized either as conflict or as harmony, since its purpose is neither resolution nor stasis but continuing process.

Sisal basket being woven in Kenya. Photo: Shopobatala for Wikimedia Commons

Around the same time, Danish-Greenlandic author, playwright, director and theorist Ulla Ryum put forward the concept of circular and spiral dramaturgies, “a network of actions in a circular, ascending sequence,” an open structure, as a non-Aristotelian narrative technique. This she named “female dramaturgy.”  Ryum accompanied her essay on these new dramatic forms with annotated illustrations that depict spider web-like shapes. What is even more notable in Ryum’s arguments is that instead of the causality of linear, “outer” dramatic actions, this dramaturgy, through its interactive effect, generates inner associative processes, “inner actions” (Ryum; Arntzen).

The question of whether there exists a dramaturgy that does not build on patriarchal values appears in a blog post written by dramaturg and theorist Duška Radosavljević (“A Question, a Case Study and Seven Digressions”). She refers to Leonard Shlain’s book (The Alphabet Versus the Goddess) about a female worldview that was lost with the rise of literacy. According to Shlain, this female perspective is “holistic, simultaneous, synthetic, and concrete” as opposed to a “linear, sequential, reductionist, and abstract thinking” that defines the male outlook (Shlain 1). Radosavljević agrees that this female worldview cannot be expressed through Aristotelian dramaturgy, and in her essay, she attempts to outline a “pre-Aristotelian mode of theatre-making,” based on her empirical experience of observing female theatre makers at work.

According to Radosavljević, this “female dramaturgy” can be described as: “fragmentary, [prefers] cyclical structures; [the authors] tend to dwell on a specific theme rather than pursuing action-filled plots; their storytelling is more ornate and full of digressions; and they are possibly more conflict-averse.” She proposes that the emblematic figure for this kind of creative process might be Penelope from the Odyssey, weaving and un-weaving her cloth, “being more interested in repeating rather than completing an action.” In her essay, Radosavljević uses expressions that point towards a new vocabulary when describing this kind of work, for instance, she employs the metaphor ‘embroidering’ when talking about the embellishments of the plot.

Radosavljević’s proposition is echoed in artist, writer and curator Janis Jefferies’s ideas expressed in her essay, “Ravelling and Unravelling,” starting from a postulate that “plots are woven as well as garments” (61)—a premise rooted in the etymology of the word “text” (from the Latin “texere” to weave). Jefferies then describes an aesthetic (and politics) through the metaphor of weaving: “weaving manifests the intersection of two threads, the warp and the weft, running at right angles to each other, going in different directions, yet coming together to form a substantial and flexible whole” (70).

This aesthetic is characterised by an emphasis on (repeated) labour and a more process conscious approach, which, according to Jefferies, has an “inherently feminist politic and poetic” (69). Then, referring to Barbara Clayton’s book, who names this meandering, process-conscious strategy and poetics Penelopean, Jefferies concludes with a quote from her: “as a process, it participates in a network of ambiguities that undermine stable and fixed meaning” (Clayton 39).

In the essay, Jefferies recalls the etymology of the name of Penelope: “Her name, an acronym of ‘pene’ (web) and ‘ops’ (eye) suggest an insight into a problem with the tools at her disposal” (64); and notes that in many of Plato’s dialogues “weaving is used as an ontological metaphor and a way of analyzing knowledge itself” (70).

In prehistoric European cultures (unlike, for instance, in cultures in north Africa), weaving is identified as a female activity. In Greek mythology, there is another mortal female figure who is renowned for her knowledge in spinning and weaving: Arachne. According to the myth, she challenged Athena (the goddess of women’s handicrafts and an accomplished weaver), and, as a punishment, she was turned into a spider[3].

Arachne by Otto Henry Bacher. Etching, 1884. From the open-access collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Notably, the spider image appears in Deleuze’s 1976 essay on Proust, when introducing the body without organs (corps sans organes)  metaphor for a narrator who is weaving the web of the narrative:

. . . she answers only to signs, the merest sign surging through her body and causing her to spring upon her prey. The Search is not constructed like a cathedral or like a gown but like a web. The Spider-Narrator whose web is the Search being spun, being woven by each thread stirred by one sign or another: the web and the spider, the web and the body are one and the same machine. . . . Involuntary sensibility, involuntary memory, involuntary thought that are, each time, like the intense totalizing reactions of the organless body to signs of one nature or another. It is this body, this spider’s web, that opens or seals each of the tiny cells that a sticky thread of the Search happens to touch.


Although Deleuze writes about the working process of a narrator of a novel, the description of this heightened sensibility and the capability of “spinning in any direction” vividly evokes that lived dramaturgy experience of those who have ever devised a new performance, when the piece and its dramaturgy are being generated and shaped at the same time.

With these examples, we can now recognise metaphors emerging for these different worldviews and, consequently, about these different ways of thinking about composition: the Aristotelian linear paradigm versus the complex system of the Penelopean woven (and unwoven) fabric or the Arachnean web. A linear cause and effect development versus a non-linear, dynamic and complex one: interconnected and mobile systems, where directions are not necessarily predetermined and multiple viewpoints are allowed.

What is striking about this latter, non-linear approach to composition is that it sits seamlessly within Eugenio Barba’s definition of dramaturgy. Barba in the Dictionary of Theatre Anthropology uses the etymology of the Greek word (“drama” and “ergon”) and defines dramaturgy as “the work of the actions” in a performance; whereby an action is “everything that works directly on the spectators’ attention, on their understanding, their emotions, their kinaesthesia” (75).

Barba’s definition has two consequences for dramaturgy: first, it expands beyond the dramaturgy of a written text (a play), since it is considered as the weaving together into a “texture” of everything that can become an action; that is, “not only what is said and done but also the sounds, the lights, the changes in space” (Dictionary 75). The second consequence of this is that Barba moves beyond defining dramaturgy as a linear development of the narrative—or the linear development of “doing time” in space (to borrow Tim Etchells’s metaphor)—and acknowledges dramaturgy as a simultaneous plurality of various horizontal layers of different constituents that are also woven together in a performance.

In fact, Barba recognises a more complex relationship between these levels of organisation of a performance, and he notes that we can talk about three interconnected layers of dramaturgy (On Directing and Dramaturgy). These are: the organic or dynamic dramaturgy of a performance (the sensory/kinaesthetic composition), the narrative dramaturgy (the meaning) and the evocative dramaturgy (the spectators’ response). “Each of these levels has its own logic, its demands and objectives” (10). In this model, the linear, narrative dramaturgy—something that would traditionally be defined as ‘the dramaturgy’ of a play—features as only one of the horizontal components, it is sandwiched between vertical layers that are at work at the same time.

Similarly, whereas in the Aristotelian, hierarchical paradigm we can observe a linear, logical, cause and effect progression, the Arachnean, heterarchical paradigm approaches the world holistically, in its complexity. “Dramaturgy is for me learning how to handle complexity,” noted Marianne Van Kerkhoven, the “founding mother” of new dramaturgy in her keynote lecture “European Dramaturgy in the 21st Century” (11).

Certainly, the move towards narrative paradigms other than the Aristotelian in the history of the Western theatre cultures began much earlier: mainly as a result of formative meetings with cultures beyond the European theatre traditions. For instance, Antonin Artaud, whose encounter with a Balinese dance performance set off an inspired exploration that resulted in his ideas about the Theatre of Cruelty. Theatre innovators of the following generation (Grotowski, Barba and so on), who, finding inspiration in the tradition of oral, folk and indigenous cultures, developed the practice of theatre anthropology and thus drew attention to many different forms of storytelling and dramaturgies. From the 1960s onwards, theatre and dance performances that were created through collaborative processes and improvisation led to the formulation of the theory of new dramaturgy.

It was Van Kerkhoven who, in the early 1990s, suggested the term new dramaturgy to use for those compositional methods that were not compatible with the Aristotelian theory[4]. The theory of those theatre and dance performances belongs to the paradigm of new dramaturgy, which questions the primacy of the text in a performance and which aims to weave together the various components of a performance in a less hierarchical, more open and playful form. The corresponding creative process is no longer a two-step process (Danan 5): the author writes the play that is then interpreted and staged by the director, but the performance and its dramaturgy (its temporal-spatial structure) are developed at the same time with the development of the piece in the rehearsal room:

[It is a] quest for possible understanding, [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. In this kind of world picture, causality and linearity lose their value, storyline and psychologically explicable characters are put at risk, there is no longer a hierarchy amongst the artistic building blocks used. . . .

Van Kerkhoven, “On Dramaturgy” 18–20

What is notable in this definition is how Van Kerkhoven’s description of new dramaturgy mirrors Deleuze’s above-mentioned concept about the ‘body without organs’ when describing the creative process.

New dramaturgy offered a comprehensive term and vocabulary to approach composition that did not correspond to Aristotelian principles and describe collaborative practices. There have been attempts to replace the adjective with a more accurate one that would be still open enough to contain the plurality of systems and variety of aesthetics the term “new” was supposed to cover. In the ensuing discourse, this was also referred to as “open” (Van Kerkhoven), “expanded” (Eckersall), “postdramatic” (Lehmann), “contemporary” (Lehmann and Primavesi), “slow” (Eckersall and Paterson), “porous” (Turner), “eco-critical” (Gade); and it has also been suggested “queering” new dramaturgy (Campbell), thus opening the term up to non-conformist, antinormative and anti-institutional aesthetics.

These manifold adjectives suggest that, by questioning the postulate of Aristotelian dramaturgy, parallel new universes of dramaturgies can be found (and rediscovered) beyond (or next to) Poetics. To conclude this part of my essay, I am proposing to combine the theory of new dramaturgy with the theory of complex systems to arrive at a new dramatic theory which, for its name, could perhaps take the adjective Bilodeau put forward and be named: heterarchical dramaturgies.

Having briefly outlined this emerging dramatic theory and its possible theoretical origins, in the second half of this essay, I would like to investigate systemically: What are the occurrences of these heterarchical dramaturgies in contemporary theatre and performance? What are the main principles behind them, how do they operate and what value and overall meaning arise from these different dramaturgies in theatrical composition?

Organising a Performance

When creating the “texture” of a performance, we look at occurrences, recognise patterns, movements and correlations, and arrange the constituents of a performance into a composition, a dynamic form. By creating a unique chemistry between familiar and unfamiliar, excitement and reassurance, stories are formed, narratives emerge, emotions are evoked. The way we compose, our dramaturgy will depend on and reveal what we think about time, space, culture and theatre’s role within the given society. When leaving behind the linearity of the plot and the hierarchy of text (that is, the Aristotelian dramaturgy), there are a variety of systemic, heterarchical approaches to organising performative abundance and shaping complex systems on a (micro-)dramaturgical level that can be observed in contemporary theatre.

Dynamic Systems Theories

Dynamic systems theory is a “theoretical framework that is used to understand and predict self-organizing phenomena in complex systems that are constantly changing, reorganizing, and progressing over time,” displaying “nonlinear behavioural changes” (Connell et al.). Applied to dramaturgy, it regards both the creative process and the texture of the performance as dynamic systems. For a starting point, some dramaturgs when theorising the dramaturgical practice take the theory of James Grier Miller’s living systems (Little), others start from Niklas Luhmann’s theory on social systems (Szatkowski).

Living systems

For dramaturg Ruth Little, this means recognising that “we are all within these universal patterns and processes” and thinking ecologically about the liveliness of the artwork, interconnectedness, patterns, and change (“Dynamic Structure and Living Systems”). This seems to echo Peter S. Stevens’ thoughts, which looks at shapes and patterns that occur naturally and observes the aesthetics found in spiralling, branching patterns, meandering and explosions. Stevens noticed “that the immense variety that nature creates emerges from the working and reworking of only a few formal themes” (3). Then, he demonstrated, through laws of science (turbulence, flow, surface tension, close packing, the constraints of space and so on), how they evolve.

Gritstone outcrop in Derbyshire. Photo: courtesy of the author

Novelist and theorist Jane Alison takes a similar position to Little’s, noting that these forms are not only around us but within us (our capillaries, our cells, our organs repeat these forms we can recognise in nature); moreover, we instinctively follow these natural patterns. Therefore, she suggests, they could be effectively used in shaping narratives too, as described in her book Meander, Spiral, Explode. Alison’s suggestions for the use of these narrative patterns in novels, such as wave, spiral, radial, branching and other fractal patterns, or cellular, repeating patterns (21–22), can easily apply to the shaping of a performance.

In Little’s thinking about dramaturgy, though, the emphasis is not on the pattern itself but on its creation and most importantly its disturbance. Like Stevens, she too is more interested in the process that brings about these changes than the pattern. Little argues that: “living systems are fluent and adaptive; they incorporate feedback and change and are constantly moving, flowing. They slip free of rigid principles.”

Naturally, for this approach, dramaturgy extends beyond the literary realms and becomes a “far more open, dynamic field of practice where the attention is on the process itself, on the unfolding and becoming and all forms of change” (Little qtd. in Meade). This way dramaturgy becomes:

a field of knowledge and a practice [. . .] considering and behaving as though the work itself is alive, and that all of its parts are in relation with one another in the same way that any ecological system is.

Little qtd. in Meade

Therefore, what dramaturgy does is to consider the constantly changing relationship between action and meaning. Consequently, “meaning is [. . .] found not in the pattern itself, but in its disturbance, and the creation of new patterns.”

Dramaturgs who apply living systems theory (for instance, Little working with choreographer Akram Khan or with the Canadian urban dance ice skating company, Le Patin Libre) are informed by an understanding of non-linear dynamics. For instance, in the ice dance performance of Vertical by Le Patin Libre, the formation, disruption and reforming of new patterns can be observed.

Vertical by Le Patin Libre (2017)
Social systems

Another school applying dynamic systems theory to dramaturgy extends Niklas Luhmann’s theory on social systems to the performance creating process. According to the Aristotelian linear model, the starting point for organising a drama (or a performance) is the gaze of the observer and their special position, outside the observed system. The framing of the story and the arrangements of its components, therefore, depend on the direction of the observer’s gaze and thus rely on the observer’s decisions; that is, what is important and what is redundant from this point of view. However, this observer is not neutral (a reliable “absolute”), not to mention that this chosen view has its own blind spot. “Causal judgements are ‘political’ judgements,” warns Luhmann (qtd. in Szatkowski 64).

This approach applied to the composition of a performance, therefore, abandons the idea of a “neutral” cause and effect or necessity, furthermore, it no longer regards the playwright or the dramaturg as an objective and detached observer. Instead, it turns to the theory of self-organising (autopoietic) or self-referential systems (Luhmann; Deleuze) when thinking about the organisation of complex systems.

Following the theory thoroughly, if during the creative process the reliance on “programming at the initial point,” known as sensitive dependence on initial conditions is taken into account, this recognition contributes to widening the focus of the work and bringing awareness to the various social and political contexts around the production. One of the many implications of this is acknowledging, for instance, that there is no such thing as an “empty space.” Before an actor crosses that space, before an observer notices that action, it is already socially determined.

This approach, furthermore, brings awareness to the conditions of the work, the chosen creative process, and how the initial questions of the creators and their working process determine the artwork they set out to make. It draws attention to the importance of taking care of the macro dramaturgy of the production. Macro dramaturgy is related to a larger, social-political context of the creative process. It is concerned with the social relevance and function of theatre and considers its relationship with the community, the environment etc. – as outlined by Van Kerkhoven in her 1999 essay on micro and macro dramaturgies.

Archipelago dramaturgy

Not unrelated to dynamic systems theory is the concept of archipelago dramaturgy. Inspired by geography, forces of nature and the philosophy of Éduard Glissant, Canadian dramaturg Jessie Mill and I came up with the above idea[5]. As a starting point, we turned to Glissant’s Treatise on the Whole-World and applied it to dramaturgy:

Archipelagic thinking suits the pace of our worlds. It has their ambiguity, their fragility, their drifting. It accepts the practice of the detour . . . it means, being in harmony with the world as it is diffracted in archipelagos, precisely these sorts of diversities in spatial expanses, which nevertheless rally coastlines and marry horizons. We become aware of what was so continental, so thick, weighing us down, in the sumptuous systematic thought that up until now has governed the History of Human communities, and which is no longer adequate to our eruptions, our histories and our no less sumptuous wanderings. The thinking of the archipelago, the archipelagos, opens the seas up to us.


The archipelago (a formation that breaks with the solid demarcation of land and water) as a metaphor can illuminate ways of being and doing that are “inter-related, mutually constituted and co-constructed” (Stratford et al. qtd. in Pugh 10), through which a different understanding can be gained about the world, our place in it and our identities. Thinking with the archipelago, paying attention to the “power of cross-currents and connections” (12) and the dynamic form of constellations can enable the artistic process to negotiate a fluid balance between a variety of cultures, practices, and knowledge systems.

An archipelagic approach can also inform our relationship with and organisation of mobile, multiple and interconnected dynamic forms during the performance making process. Archipelagic dramaturgies evoke and rely on interconnectedness, inter-relations, circulations and navigations.

Although to give a full description of archipelago dramaturgies might be the topic of another article, here I would like to highlight some of its main features. Archipelago dramaturgy operates with fluid, unstable rules and often employs hybrid aesthetics. Its point of view is “peripheric,” unlike the prominent, “mainland” narrative. Its values are heterarchical and are based on negotiation and collaboration. It often employs multiple points of view or lays out a constellation of different perspectives. Archipelago dramaturgy urges to break down binaries and oppositions. “The archipelago says things are relational, island to island—not mainland to island,” noted interdisciplinary performance artist Lois Brown. Its dramaturgy is dynamic, often meandering or oscillating. This also applies to the way it works with the audience: in many cases they are co-creators, collaborators of the performance. Often, it is used to express complex topics that are overlooked, marginalised or fall outside the mainstream narratives.

An example of archipelago dramaturgy might be the pieces STRIKE/THRU + A Casual Reconstruction by Montréal-based Nadia Myre (a visual artist and Algonquin member of the Kitigan Zibi Anishinaabeg First Nation) with Johanna Nutter (a seventh-generation euro-settler theatre maker, co-creator of STRIKE/THRU). These two, interrelated hybrid performances, through variously staged and mediatised conversations, talk about the complexity of identity, conciliation and reconciliation between first nations and settlers. At the heart of these pieces is a verbatim re-enactment of a recorded dinner conversation (A Casual Reconstruction) that took place between a group of friends with mixed (first nation and “other”) heritage about identity, belonging and the scars of colonialism that are still felt today. The conversation, however, is read by six members of the audience (invited from the locals where the show is performed), through six microphones on stands, set up to form a circle. Thus, through this staged gathering, they are changing perspective literally and metaphorically, while participating by holding space for the view of an “other” during the performance. 

A Casual Reconstruction by Nadia Myre at First Voices Week at Concordia University, Montréal, 7 February 2019. Photo: courtesy of Nadia Myre
Dramaturgy as Stratigraphy

Beyond sociology and systems theory, other disciplines can influence new dramaturgies. Applying terms from geology and archaeology to the ways of organising a performance, theatre director Mike Pearson introduced the metaphor of dramaturgy as stratigraphy[6].

Stratigraphy is a branch of geology concerned with the study of rock layers (strata), the processes of their layering (stratification), and the various formations they create. It deals with, as Pearson explains:

the description of layers of rock—their nature and composition; their sequence and relationship to one another; their distribution in space and time; the conditions and events which led to their accumulation; the transformations through which they have subsequently passed; and the different resistances they have offered to the sculptural forces of nature, producing the present topography and landscape.

Reading Pearson’s description of the process of stratification, paying attention to those keywords, it is striking how easily they translate into the processes of dramaturgy. What this kind of dramaturgical approach does is that, in a dynamic process, it distinguishes units and describes their development and their relationship to each other in time and space. Pearson (who studied geology and archaeology) suggests that stratigraphy can provide a useful metaphor “to describe the processes of conceptualization, composition and exposition” when creating performances, “that are often not predicated upon the staging of dramatic literature, and that invariably require and involve unconventional practices of production.”

Inspired by Peter Greenaway’s ten aspects of cinema vocabulary, Pearson argues that the various ingredients of a performance (that show internally consistent characteristics) can be regarded as the different layers of sedimentation. He notes: “In Site-Specific Performance, I figure dramaturgy as a stratigraphy of layers—of action; soundtrack; text and scenography, the latter to include all scenic installation, lighting, pre-recorded media, and technological and technical aspects.” The most important layer is the bed, the defining basis, on which the various layers of the performance stack up. These can be different according to the given performance.

Illustration: Mike Brookes

Pearson then employs stratigraphic laws and principles when describing the relationships between the various layers of a performance (lateral continuity, cross-cutting relationships and so on):

Each production . . . exhibits combinations of such strata. May betray evidence of tilting, folding and faulting. May include erasures and unconformities, and intrusions of dissimilar materials. And, particularly in the transition from conceptual planning to practical realization, may be subject to metamorphic experiences: to decisive reconfigurations, edits or elaborations—at the hands of directors, and of performers; and from expediencies and exigencies in rehearsal and performance—that completely change its envisaged or initial nature.

What is pertinent about Pearson’s model is that, just like Barba’s dramaturgy, this too distinguishes the “vertical layers” of a performance, which are present at the same time (in the same space); moreover, their interactions are highlighted. This model avoids thinking about dramaturgy as (only) a linear, horizontally progressing movement, but takes into account its “vertical parameters,” those components that exist simultaneously in a performance, and the various complex relations between those layers, how they interact with each other and change—thus emphasising examination and comparison, instead of the urge to simplify it into a narrow, linear, concluding progression.

This approach can not only be useful when shaping devised performances but can also be applied in text-based theatre. Pearson and his long-term collaborator, director and designer Mike Brookes, for instance, used this method when creating their large-scale, site-specific shows for National Theatre Wales, such as Coriolan/us in 2012. The performance was a new version of Shakespeare’s tragedy, drawing upon Brecht’s 1950s unfinished adaptation of the play, and it was a collaboration between NTW and the Royal Shakespeare Company, as part of the World Shakespeare Festival. The site-specific production was performed in a disused World War II aircraft hangar of the Royal Air Force in the Vale of Glamorgan, and it showed “the role of the people and the impact of conflict in and on urban populations in contemporary situations” (as announced on the performance’s website). During the performance, the audience heard the actors’ speeches via headphones, using silent disco technology, while they were free to move around the space, which also included two screens where the action was projected from different perspectives.

Coriolan/us by Shakespeare and Brecht (2012), directed by Mike Pearson and Mike Brookes. Photo: Marc Douet, with permission of National Theatre Wales
Game Theory

Applying mathematical thinking when looking at the organisation of a performance led to connecting theories of algorithm and game theory to dramaturgy. This approach focuses on meaningful choices (how to select intelligently from a vast number of possible options), decisions and their implications and, through this, draws the attention of the audience to the effects of their individual choices and actions. This dramaturgy is best suited to creating interactive, participatory performances, which depend on the spectators’ actions and choices as to which direction the performance goes in.

Probably it was Bandersnatch, the 2018 interactive episode of the Netflix sci-fi-horror series, Black Mirror (writer: Charlie Brooker, director: David Slade), that made this form very popular. Yet, there are many examples of this dramaturgy in theatre and performance too. For instance, World Factory (2015), a performance created by Zoë Svendsen and Simon Daw, a co-production between METIS, Company of Angels, New Wolsey Theatre (Ipswich) and the Young Vic in London. “Part theatre, part documentary, part adventure game” (as it was stated on the show’s website), the performance exposed the global capitalist textile industry’s exploitative system through engaging the audience in an interactive game. The spectators were organised in teams and were running their own imaginary textile factory in China “for a year,” trying to survive while competing with each other at the expense of their workers. At the end of the performance, the players were reminded of the real-life implications of their decisions and actions by being presented with the statistics that were generated from the game. An excellent Brechtian alienating effect to turn the game back to reality and emphasise our agency and responsibility in a global economy.

Extracts from performances of World Factory at the Young Vic, May/June 2015

Similarly, Brighton-based company, Hidden Track in their award-winning 2018 production of Standard: Elite (writer: Eliott Hughes, director: Anoushka Bonwick) used a dramaturgy based on the audience’s choices. As the title suggested, the audience members had the option of two types of tickets and, subsequently, of different treatment: basic services (standard) and the VIP treatment for an elite (better chairs, free refreshments and other advantages). To obtain the higher audience status during the performance and the subsequent privileges, the audience had to participate in a “free competition.” The show vividly demonstrated the injustices built in and driving the capitalist social and economic system, and it exposed the false ideology of free competition and the myth that hard work and entrepreneurialism will bring everybody their deserved success and advancement in society.

Trailer of Standard: Elite, a Hidden Track production (2018)

Likewise, the Exeter-based company, Kaleider’s 2013 immersive performance, Money (conceived and directed by Seth Honnor) employs game dramaturgy. In this “invisible curated” live experience there are no actors performing: what unfolds in the game show is entirely up to the audience.

The space for this site-responsive performance is always a place where civic decisions are made, city halls, assemblies and so on. Placed on the table that the audience encircles is that day’s Box Office income. The participants’ task is simple: within the framework of an hour to come to a unanimous decision about what to do with the money. If a consensus is reached, the money will be spent on what the group decided, if they fail to reach a consensus, the money rolls over to the next show.

The performance is what happens in the room for the ensuing hour: the discussions, debates, arguments, votes, in order to reach a decision as the passing time pressurises the participants. This simple question and how the decision is made (or not) create an exciting performance; moreover, they draw attention to our agency and responsibility in democratic processes.

An introduction to Money by Kaleider (2015 Edinburgh showcase)

As these examples highlight, the advantage of performances applying game theory is that the spectator will not only be activated to participate in but will become an agent of the performance. Therefore, performances that intend to talk about political issues or seek to encourage the spectators to mobilise themselves and become instigators of changes in society prefer to employ these strategies. We can even include Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed as another category in this group of dramaturgies.

Another feature of game dramaturgy is that it works well in the interactive online theatre format, as was recognised by Swamp Motel, a London-based company, established by former artists of punchdrunk Ollie Jones and Clem Garrity. The company extended the format of Alternative Reality Game (ARG) to online theatre experience and debuted their first hybrid ARG performance during the first UK lockdown in the spring of 2020, Plymouth Point. Starting in an intimate Zoom conference format in a small group with a live host, the performance utilised transmedia storytelling through a variety of platforms (social media, internet, mobile phone). It required proactive problem solving and the ability to working as a team from the audience whilst participating in an immersive online theatrical thriller experience. What contributed to the success of this theatrical escape game was that it managed to create a social experience online, something that was sorely missed during the pandemic, and which live-streamed online theatre performances struggled to achieve.

This new, hybrid genre not only blurs the boundaries of theatre, film and gaming but also the boundaries of reality and imagination. For instance, its sequel, The Mermaid’s Tongue (2020), starts on Zoom as an art session with the audience as members. When they check-in, they are presented with a live model to draw, before another group member contacts them in a live chat, drawing their attention to the suspicious death of another, fictitious group member. This live conversation kicks off the audience’s investigation; starting from the art club’s newsletter and working against the clock, they need to find clues to solve the crime. During the investigation, the players participate in an auction on their mobile phone to obtain the diary of the victim, in which they find information that leads the investigation to the real world. Through hacking into the CCTV cameras of a real London art gallery, or by reading the essay of an existing university lecturer, the audience members play the role of self-appointed detectives, whilst strange, threatening messages arrive on their mobile phones from a dangerous international criminal society.

Trailer: The Mermaid’s Tongue by Swamp Motel (2020)

It seems that the format seems to best fit genre pieces, such as thrillers, crime investigations and murder mysteries, as the sequel to close the trilogy, The Kindling Hour (2021) proved. It would be interesting to see whether this genre can be utilised in adaptations of classics; for instance, some of Shakespeare’s tragedies (such as Macbeth) seem suitable for this.

Another category that belongs to dramaturgies based on game theory and meaningful choices and which should be briefly mentioned here is chance dramaturgy: employing chance or creating a succession of random decisions when formulating a performance. Most notably, Merce Cunningham employed this dramaturgy using Yi Ching to make decisions about certain aspects of his choreography: “through the chance means, it’s determined what the movement is and how long it takes and where it is” (qtd. in Vreeland Dalva 61).

To close this overview of game theory inspired dramaturgies, it is important to make one more note. Good algorithms not only require a large amount of information (crude data that is analysed) in order to balance out exceptions and anomalies, but they rely on feedback, which then needs to be reworked into the system, so it can be adjusted accordingly. Like statisticians who use errors to train their models and make them “smarter,” the dramaturg’s feedback can enable artists to adjust, refine or improve the performance, thus updates and adjustments can make a rigid algorithm become a “dynamic model.” Yet, a model’s blind spots, warns mathematician Cathy O’Neil, “reflect the judgements and priorities of its creators” (21), echoing Luhmann’s thoughts.

Musical Dramaturgy

A musical approach to dramaturgy also applies dynamic systems thinking. According to the late dancer, choreographer and dramaturg Raimund Hoghe, dramaturgy is “how time, space and rhythm come together in a piece,” it is “that charged space that holds the work together” (qtd in Trencsényi “A Portrait of Raimund Hoghe” 229). This way of thinking and the usage of tools borrowed from musical composition when organising a performance (for instance, canon, fugue, counterpoint) can be observed in pieces created by Pina Bausch[7].

Notably, the early twentieth-century American dancer and choreographer Doris Humphrey came to similar conclusions when talking about composition in her posthumously published book, The Art of Making Dances (1959). When analysing the forms a dance piece can take, Humphrey noted that there are five basic forms (akin to musical forms) that the majority of contemporary dance pieces tend to take. These five forms are: the A-B-A form, the narrative, the recurring theme, the suite (in which the movements are linked thematically and tonally) and the “broken” form (Humphrey 149).

Musical dramaturgy can be observed in many of the works of director Alain Platel created with the Ghent-based ensemble, les ballets C de la B. For instance, it is the main principle of composition in nicht schlafen! (2016). In the performance, the dancers’ scenes were woven into an intricate musical collage created by composer Steven Prengels from Mahler’s symphonies, Bach’s BWV 4. cantata, pygmy music, and the sound recordings of sleeping small animals (Vandenhouwe)[8].

Not only choreographers but playwrights too can employ musical dramaturgy for their composition. An example might be the Ivorian Koffi Kwahulé, who composes his dramas inspired by the music of John Coltrane and Thelonius Monk and who in his works applies “jazz poetics.” Kwahulé finds thematic similarities between jazz music and his writing. In his opinion, jazz as an art form talks about the traumas and injuries that Black cultures have suffered. In a similar way, his plays deal with how to live with the loss of the historical inheritance of colonialism. In his dramas, alongside the thematic similarities, Kwahulé also employs jazz structures. In the text, he creates tension by using repetitions, refrains and riffs “to capture both something of the pain of contemporary existential despair and the exuberant energy of improvisation” (Miller qtd. in Bilodeau).

Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks thinks similarly in musical terms about form and composition. “Language is a physical act,” notes Parks (11). “It’s something which involves your entire body—not just your head” (11). A given word is configured from the totality of body, emotions and sound, she argues. She names this dynamic musical dramaturgy, which builds from repetitions, keeps returning to the main motifs and through small but meaningful changes layer by layer develops its dynamics and thus rolls along: Repetition and Revision (Rep & Rev) (Parks 8–9).

Interestingly, when describing stratigraphic dramaturgy, Mike Pearson too listed a similar method as a structural tool, manipulating the various strata of a performance: using “sectional breaks . . . moments of crisis or innovation, with sudden shifts in emphasis and orientation.” He explains this cumulative technique: “The progression may then develop in an episodic or katachretic manner—‘This, this, this’; rather than in the parataxis of more conventional narratives—‘This and then this and then this’” (Pearson).

The works of British playwright debbie tucker green must be mentioned too when talking about the musical dramaturgy of plays. In the following excerpt from ear for eye (12), we can observe not only this technique but also how the sound, melody and rhythm of the lines accumulate an overwhelming feeling:

Before the dogs spat
and the pigs barked
and the people spat
and the dogs barked
before hateful eyes
more hate-filled
than mouths—and mouths which were
overflowing with their . . .
When actions
were actively
violently violating us
and inaction was
violently violating us
hate fuelled. Driven.
Before our children had
no chance
had no chance
to be children,
had no choice
have no choice
but to be
When involved
was physical
was difficult
was dangerous
is physical
is difficult
is dangerous.
Is relentless.

Eric Kofi Abrefa and Sarah Quist in ear for eye written and directed by debbie tucker green at the Royal Court Theatre (2018).
Photo: Stephen Cummiskey

The rhythm and the dynamics of these words have a sensual effect on the spectator and imbibe these plays with the elemental force of music and poetry. Parks thinks this is not accidental since the musical dramaturgy of Rep & Rev is rooted in African and African American literary and oral traditions (Parks 10). Maybe this is the reason why those artists (playwrights and choreographers) prefer to use this dramaturgy for whom (alongside the thematic connection) the postcolonial theme and/or physicality of the performance is of high priority.


In Hindu myth, there is a story that is known as Indra’s net. According to it, in the heavenly kingdom of the deity Indra exists a vast, cobweb-like net that stretches infinitely to every direction. At each node or crossing point of this enormous net, there is a jewel, and this is repeated along the whole web, infinitely. In every jewel, each glittering surface reflects every other jewel in the net—an infinite reflection, like mirrors placed opposite to each other. Move one jewel, and the constellation and the reflection in every other jewel will change.

In one interpretation of this story, each jewel represents knowledge, a different worldview. Perhaps they can represent the “possible realms of existence and consciousness” Bilodeau was talking about in her essay; interconnected yet all reflecting the rest of the world in their own way. Thus, Indra’s net may be an apt metaphor to imagine the vast number of possibilities heterarchical dramaturgies can offer.

Dew on spider web. Photo: Luc Viatour. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Should we then break up with Aristotle? Perhaps it would be an extreme move to completely banish the Aristotelian paradigm, but it would be useful to rearrange our thinking about composition, in which the Aristotelian form is one of the many possible dramaturgical systems that can exist next to each other. It is not too difficult to do so if we consider Jane Alison’s suggestion to put the “Aristotelian arc” in motion and translate it to its classic natural form, a wave. The wave is “a clear instance of energy charging static matter until that energy is spent and equilibrium returns, elegant and satisfying” (21). “Its rise and fall traces a motion we know in heartbeats, breaking surf, the sun passing overhead” (6).

These systematic approaches to organising “the unintelligible chaos of actual occurrence and the arrangement of them into works of art” (Shaw) reveal a lot about the gaze of the organiser. What pieces of information do they regard as important and what is considered redundant? How do they see the world as a whole: a dynamic organism, an interaction and accumulation over time of various distinctive layers, a clever machine, a game or a rhythmic composition? A given structure “carries its own story,” warns Kwahulé (qtd. in in Mouëllic 107).

With this, we have arrived back at Bilodeau’s thoughts. Perhaps if we acknowledge the existence of these various models of composition, this will also affect how we think about our societies in the twenty-first century: instead of homogenous, hierarchical organisations, perhaps we can begin to consider them heterogeneous, dynamic systems which are based on cooperation and exchange. Or, to paraphrase choreographer Jonathan Burrows’s thoughts: dramaturgy is a negotiation with the patterns we are thinking about the world.


[1] An earlier version of this essay was published in Hungarian in Játéktér, 2020/2, pp. 53–65.

[2] Whilst these questions are valid, it is important to make the distinction that Bilodeau’s arguments are not set against Aristotle’s original work but rather its nineteenth-century interpretation. In the Poetics, Aristotle doesn’t mention the terms that Bilodeau has problems with. Instead of “conflict” in Aristotle’s Poetics, the dramaturgical development of the plot is from “complication” through “change” to “solution”—a framework that is less oppressive than Freytag’s interpretation Bilodeau is setting her arguments against. Similarly, in the Poetics Aristotle talks about “probability” and “necessity” when considering the actions and does not mentions causality in the plot development. Whilst I find Bilodeau’s suggestion interesting and fruitful, these distinctions in what she is setting her arguments against should be noted.

[3] Through this metamorphosis, Arachne has had both the experience of being a human and a non-human; therefore, I prefer to use her story for a weaving metaphor, which thus expresses a less gendered, and perhaps even post-human worldview than Penelope’s story.

[4] See the 1994 special issue of Theaterschrift edited by Van Kerkhoven.

[5] Between 8–12 March 2021, Jessie Mill and I led a week-long, intensive workshop for mid-career Canadian theatre professionals, organised by Playwrights’ Workshop Montréal and Centre des auteurs dramatiques (CEAD), where we explored the possibilities that thinking with the archipelago can offer to dramaturgy.

[6] I would like to thank to Mike Pearson and Mike Brookes for their support of my research by sharing the unpublished manuscript of the 2014 IFTR Keynote Lecture and allowing me to use some of the accompanying illustrations.

[7] For more on Bausch’s working process, see Trencsényi, “Introduction,” pp. 32–40.

[8] About the creative process and the dramaturgy of that performance, see Trencsényi, “Experiment,” pp. 32–60.


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*Katalin Trencsényi is a dramaturg, innovator and researcher based in London, working in the field of contemporary theatre, dance and performance. A freelance dramaturg since 2000, she has worked with the National Theatre, the Royal Court Theatre, Soho Theatre, Corali Dance Company, Deafinitely Theatre, and with many independent artists, including disabled multimedia artist Nancy Willis (UK), and choreographers Jody Oberfelder (US) and Justine Doswell (IRL). Katalin has taught at RADA, the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama (visiting lecturer), as well as internationally, including Australia, Canada, Russia, and the US. She is the author of Dramaturgy in the Making (Bloomsbury Methuen Drama, 2015) and editor of Bandoneon: Working with Pina Bausch (Oberon Books, 2016). Katalin is co-founder of the Dramaturgs’ Network. She holds a PhD from ELTE, Budapest.

(Photo: Lilla Khoór)

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