The Seven Principles of Leave No Trace Dramaturgy

Katalin Trencsényi*

Abstract

The “founding mother” of new dramaturgy, Marianne Van Kerkhoven in two of her essays on macro dramaturgy (1994, 1999) noted that the context for contemporary performing arts has changed. Consequently, the place and the role of the dramaturg in the creative process have also changed. This essay focuses on the creative processes in collaboration from a wider, macro-dramaturgical perspective and explores the responsibility of the dramaturg(y) during the working process, and in the artistic life and the wider society. The paper takes for its starting point an ecological approach and examines what are the principles and guidelines that can inform the ethics and methods of non-harmful creative processes.[1]

Keywords: micro and macro dramaturgy, creative processes, ethics, radical tenderness, harm reduction, porosity, sustainability

Introduction

As a dramaturg I believe in theatre’s role and responsibility as public service. For me this necessitates our existence (and our claim for public funding). A strong, critical function: questioning the deep structures within and around us is what is driving my artistic philosophy as a dramaturg, researcher, and pedagogue. How can we bring awareness to how we perceive the world we are part of? How do we create and shape artworks that respond to the human condition?  How do we recognise and question structures at an artistic, as well as societal level, that we collectively deem cannot be otherwise? How can we together create new dramaturgies that meaningfully respond to these questions?

Within the organisational structure of theatres and ensembles, the dramaturg is positioned between decision makers and creators. This liminal position (with no vested interest in any side) gives us an opportunity to have a more detached view of the creative process, institutional structures and bring awareness to problematic issues related to the working process, and influence decision making. Moreover, our dramaturgical tools can be successfully used to observe and communicate these and facilitate positive change.

Micro and macro dramaturgy

Theorist Marianne Van Kerkhoven, creator of the term of new dramaturgy, and the late dramaturg of Kaaitheater in Brussels and Rosas dance company, in two of her essays, published in the Etcetera magazine in the 1990s, made an important observation (“The theatre is in the city and the city is in the world and its walls are of skin…,” and “Van de kleine en de grote dramaturgie”). She noted that the context for contemporary performing arts (theatre, dance, performance and live arts) has changed. Consequently, the place and the role of the dramaturg in the creative process have also changed. One of the indicators of this phenomenon, for instance, is that the working process is now focused at two interlinked areas whose radii run in contrary directions: micro and macro dramaturgy.

Kerkhoven defined these two new concepts thus: while micro dramaturgy is “that zone, that structural circle, which is situated around a concrete production,” the dramaturgy of a piece (“Van de kleine en de grote dramaturgie” 67). Macro dramaturgy, on the other hand, “deals with the social relevance and function of theatre” (67). That is to say, macro dramaturgy focuses on the social role and responsibility of theatre as a public institution, its correlation with the local communities and the curatorial work that deals with developing the profile and philosophy of the organisation. These two dramaturgies, of course, are related. In fact, according to Van Kerkhoven, the role of the dramaturg is an intermediary to connect micro and macro dramaturgy in a creative process in which “artists can help us read the world and decipher its complexity” (69).

Macro dramaturgy is, therefore, “the dramaturgical work through which the theatre gives shape to its social function” (67). For instance, notes Van Kerkhoven, it attempts to deal with such enquiries as: “What kind of threads connect the daily theatre work to a larger whole?” (67) And keeps asking the question: “What is the relationship between the dramaturg’s position in individual productions and their duties in the current social context in general and in the performing arts in particular?” (67)

To the former question the trailblazer of British dramaturgy, the first literary manager of the Royal National Theatre, Kenneth Tynan gave a succinct answer: “no theatre could sanely flourish until there was an umbilical connection between what was happening on the stage and what was happening in the world” (372).

To the latter question, which queries the relationship between the role of a dramaturg in the rehearsal room and their responsibility to the artistic life and in society in general, I would like to attempt an answer in the following. This is a complex question, for which, one essay is not adequate to give a full and complete answer, therefore within the framework of this paper I am going to examine it from one viewpoint: the ecology of the creative process.

Since the time when Van Kerkhoven coined the term “new” dramaturgy (for the collaborative practices employed by independent ensembles working in the field of contemporary theatre and dance), these methods of devising have become part of the mainstream theatre-making vocabulary. In fact, those exploratory independent movements or gestures of resistance that were intended to move away from the canonised perception of artmaking, by today have become institutionalised.

As a result of the change in working methods, the focus of the dramaturg’s attention has widened, and alongside the work concerned with composition and interpretation, there is a growing emphasis on bringing awareness to and taking care of the actual working process, as part of the dramaturg’s responsibility.

Dramaturg and theorist Guy Cools formulated similar thoughts:

[I]n my own ongoing process of trying to situate myself, I define dramaturgy today as the critical reflection of the artist as to the why and how to develop one’s language and one’s creative process. My interest and focus have shifted from supporting the creation of a particular production to the development of a particular artistic language, and from there to the creative process as such. If I am able to offer artists tools to transform and improve their creative process, eventually also the language and the work resulting from it will evolve.

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The question of how to transform and improve creative processes is a complex one. In the following I will only focus on one aspect: how the actual process of making the piece has a profound impact on the outcome. Therefore, it is essential that the process be part of our dramaturgical considerations.

The responsibility of the dramaturg

“Are you aware of the things you do in order to deliver your artistic message that go against that message?” – this question was raised by an artist at a recent dramaturgy residency in Aarhus, Denmark (MMDD). In our race to the goal what do we sacrifice? It is time that we relax a bit our focus on the outcome and examine our working processes.

A recent report conducted by a British non-governmental organisation, PlayWell, about Preventative Care in the creative industries in the United Kingdom showed a grim picture of mental wellbeing in our field. It concluded that “Creative Industry workers are three times more likely to suffer from mental ill health than the rest of the population” (PlayWell). The report stated that “nearly half of the respondents have had to seek professional mental health support because of working conditions in the Creative Industries.”

When examining the causes that led to this, 80% of the respondents experienced neglectful, defensive, or controlling practices at work, 75% experienced barriers or burdens caused by systems or bureaucracy, 60% experienced serious misconduct or abuse, and 40% experienced stigma, prejudice or discrimination (PlayWell). Add to this the problems of substance addiction and alcoholism in the arts (something we often ignore), the shocking revelations of #MeToo and #BLM movements about practices of oppression and abuse in our industry, and the picture is alarming.

If we compare this with the image the creative industries want to present of themselves as dynamic, exciting, visionary, innovative, and adventurous endeavours – the difference between the two pictures is revealing. Why is it that all this progress is achieved at the price of unhappiness and exploitation?

These days when ethical considerations have become part of our choices when making plans for travelling or buying a product, why is it that we ignore the circumstances in which artworks are made? Why are we still pursuing dated images about how artists are supposed to work or live and regard their suffering as a necessary sacrifice for the greater good? Why are harmful or toxic work cultures, long working hours, high pressure, and low pay still present in the industry? Why is it accepted that working in our field is an unsustainable career path for most? Why do we regard ‘putting up with’ and being silent about bad practices as being a moral duty, and part of the artistic process?

These questions need to be answered by all of us in the industry and resolved at different levels: first and foremost, at structural, institutional, and managerial levels. But beyond that nothing prevents us from investigating this on a smaller scale, focusing on our own collaborative creative processes.

To help this examination, I am borrowing seven viewpoints from a Canadian environmental conscious outdoor recreational organisation, called Leave No Trace Canada, who promote ethical trekking. I found these imperatives on a poster when I was leading annual dramaturgy intensive courses for mid-career theatre professionals at Playwrights Workshop Montréal between 2018 and 2021.[2] From our discussion with the participants of the workshop, we discovered that this ecological approach can be successfully applied to the ecology of theatre- and performance-making.

These seven principles, borrowed verbatim from Leave No Trace Canada’s ecological imperatives, are:

  1. Plan and prepare
  2. Travel and camp on durable surfaces
  3. Dispose of waste properly
  4. Leave what you find
  5. Minimise campfire impacts
  6. Respect wildlife
  7. Be considerate of other visitors

In the following I am going to interpret these ecological imperatives as metaphors and will explore how they can be translated into considerations and methods in performance-making context.

The seven principles of leave no trace dramaturgy

It is evident that the core of these seven principles is the “Don’t harm!” imperative. To summarise it: the aim is that when creating a performance (just like when walking in nature), we should traverse the landscape (the creative process) in a way that whilst the experience of the walk (the performance) is maximally impactful, the actual working process should leave the minimal trace on our environment. It is crucial that this kind of ‘leave no trace’ or ‘invisible’ dramaturgy does not treat the participants of the collaboration in a hierarchical way. Instead, this is a non-hierarchical relationship, characterised by so-called radical tenderness towards the collaborators, the community, and the environment.

Radical tenderness is a notion that was developed in the 1990s by the transdisciplinary arts organisation La Pocha Nostra, established by the Mexican-American artist Guillermo Gómez-Peña. This oxy-moronic term came to my attention through the 2015 manifesto written by two of the artists who were collaborating with LPN: Dani D’Emilia and Daniel B. Chávez. Through asking this question they wanted to uncover “how can radical be tender – and tenderness be radical – in our alliances, our communities, and our interpersonal relationships?” (Radical Tenderness Manifesto)

The term radical tenderness is dynamic, action-filled, and is in motion: it comes from a place of anger and dissatisfaction and is heading towards a caring acceptance. As D’Emilia and Chávez noted: “While we do not foreclose on the possibility of rage, we ask how even rage can be tender within political, transfeminist, and decolonial projects of resistance” (Radical Tenderness Manifesto). This takes us back to the socio-political responsibility of macro dramaturgy, which Van Kerkhoven was talking about.

The Seven Principles of Leave no Trace Dramaturgy, are standing on the ground of this socio-political responsibility and are informed by radical tenderness. They do not form a manifesto – it would be counterproductive to force rigid rules on the lively and fluid way a theatre operates. They rather serve the purpose of examining and understanding our own working process from seven different aspects.

Artwork by Leo Tomalin
Plan ahead and prepare

In 1978 Mira Rafalowicz (renowned for her collaboration with the American director and founder of Open Theater in New York, Joseph Chaikin) as part of a series of interviews with American dramaturgs in Theater magazine, published an essay on her dramaturgical work (27-29). In this essay, she distinguished four stages of the creative process and described how the dramaturg’s work changes at each of these phases.[3] Yet, she also noted that prior to the first stage of the work, a preparatory phase is needed, when agreements are made about how the collaborators are going to work together. Rafalowicz called this stage: Basic Level. The essay didn’t further detail this vital phase. Nevertheless, the naming of this preliminary stage acknowledges that this is the foundation on which all the other stages of the work are built.

It may sound self-evident, that before the start of the working process, we think through every aspect of the work in advance, including how we are going to work. Yet, often, because of lack of time or other pressures, we don’t spend enough time with this phase beyond some rudimentary agreements. Sometimes this stage is skipped, and the work relies on “customs,” “traditions,” and unchallenged automatisms (“this is how it’s done”). Sometimes we assume our approach is evident to everyone else, and don’t communicate with our collaborators about our plans on how we intend to work together on this particular project.

In collaborative working processes, this is an oversight that can impact the work at a later stage. Inevitably, late solutions can often limit the number of choices available or result in having to fall back on unnecessary hierarchical decisions. “It would be useful if the collaboration would begin with clarifying our expectations from each other.” – noted dramaturg Katalin Deák in her 2019 survey of the dramaturgs’ work in Transylvania, Romania (“Sztárdramaturgokról még nemigen tudunk”).

There are practitioners who recognise this. Jacob Zimmer, Canadian dramaturg starts the working process with these clarifying conversations:

Early, before the rehearsals, the most important work happens: conversations that clarify the questions and curiosities that lead to making a piece. We talk about how to work, how to create vocabulary, structure, and meaning. We talk about where to work since different rehearsal spaces produce different shows. We talk about when to work since different schedules produce different shows. We talk about what to do in the rehearsal – what kind of training, how much talking, how much doing: should there be field trips, improvisation?

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When the outset of the working process is not an interpretation of existing material (a play for instance), but starts with the personalities, histories, memories, embodied research of the people in the rehearsal room, as ingredients from which the new piece is going to be devised, these conversations and decisions have an enormous impact on the dramaturgy of the piece. The process will shape and define the outcome, therefore the macro dramaturgy begins here, by drawing up this framework. From Zimmer’s notes, it is evident how relevant these early discussions are, where the aims and working methods are scrutinised, discussed and clarified.

American dramaturg Katherine Profeta mentions another aspect of the conversations which is necessary to include at this stage: “disclosing one’s own motives for entering the (…) collaboration” (189), whereas American director Tara Branham emphasises the importance of the regular survey of the mental well-being of the participants and whether all their needs are being met.

What is evident, therefore, is that this phase of the work is essential. The result of this preparatory work is not only a better understanding of the people and their motives but also a roadmap for the ensuing work.

Although, this would lead to a different area of investigation, I would like to mention briefly here that thinking through and negotiating the contracts for the work belongs to this phase of the process too. The difference is that these conversations are individual discussions between producer and creator. Yet when the contracts are drawn, in effect, the basic institutional framework for the working process is decided and recorded in these legal documents. It is, therefore, the responsibility of both parties to think about what kind of framework is suitable for the given artistic process.[4]

Yet, beyond the legal agreement, further negotiations are needed between all the participants to enable an effective way of working together. Unlike signing a contract, this is a communal conversation, it is much more informal, and its outcomes are documented in a way that suits the purposes of those working on the project. This is an opportunity for everyone being involved in the project to share the same physical space, get to know each other, understand each other’s viewpoints, and arrive together at a “social contract.”

For instance, at a recent workshop in Denmark, when creating our collective agreement for a weeklong residency, we had everyone in the room with whom the group would meet during their work. A fierce argument broke out about documentation of the work and the use of camera in the room, which gave us an opportunity to clarify two different purposes for taking photos: images that help the artists by being “outside eye” recordings of the actions in the rehearsal studio and bring awareness to the working process, and those pictures that are for promotional purposes. Once these clarifications were made, the group could make an informed decision and then was able to benefit from the presence of the camera in the studio in a way that contributed to the development of the work.

Artwork by Leo Tomalin
Travel and camp on durable surfaces

This advice concerns an indispensable yet most precarious component that requires respect and attention: risk-taking. Regardless of how well prepared we are, and how much experience we have, every new artistic creation is an unknown territory to explore. With every work we are taking a risk. These risks can be different: for instance, by realising a new playwright’s drama; or trying out a new form of artistic expression; or choosing a sensitive topic that can divide audiences; or choosing a novel way of engaging with the audience etc. What connects all the above is that they contain an element of novelty, an element of the unknown. The hazards that we undertake voluntarily contribute to the excitement of the work and the joy of discovery during the creative process. It is fundamental therefore that the risks that we take upon ourselves and our partners in creation, should always be necessary but never autotelic. It is important that the way we choose to work (the unbeaten path we decide to explore), should be reliable, durable, and enduring, since we are responsible for the mental and physical wellbeing of our “fellow-travellers.”

When taking risks, we also need to consider how much unpredictable but necessary risk we are taking and what might represent foolhardiness, empty provocation, or might be causing harm.

Indubitably, these boundaries are not unequivocal – they are drawn depending on the situation, the community, the culture, and the time. That is to say, the risk taken and the piece’s dramaturgy are intertwined. Therefore, it is essential to map, to assess the area that the new piece is going to explore, so that the new work can reach right to its edges in order to discover those “threshold moments” (as dramaturg Ruth Little calls them when interviewed by Chris Meade) where interactions can take place between the unknown and the familiar, the safe and the dangerous (the “don’t go there” moments, as Mårten Spångberg calls them), the frightful and the pleasurable, to find something meaningful and truthful about the human condition. In ancient Greece there was a word for this: deinos, meaning frightful and beautiful at the same time.

Where these boundaries lie are subjective, it is therefore up to our discretion, where these fine lines are drawn in the actual process when taking risks during the creative act.

One more note on risk-taking: it is important to give some consideration to who is taking these risks, who is shouldering more risks, and who is taking proportionally higher risks? For instance, I am thinking of freelance artists, whose vulnerable position in the theatre ecology has been exposed during the pandemic. Too often, there is a disproportionate existential risk imposed on them by institutions. Sometimes these problems arise when organisations dealing with freelancers use structures or procedures that are more suitable for employees. A place to start understanding the viewpoints of self-employed artists and how, for instance, last-minute cancellations or late payments can affect their livelihood might be the British volunteer organisation, Freelancers Make Theatre Work, which came into being during the pandemic. Their survey of the self-employed workforce in the UK, The Big Freelancer Report (2021), can provide an insight into what it is like to be at the weaker end of the theatre chain, and how much it can improve the wellbeing of freelancers if proper attention is paid to their needs. Sometimes, these are small changes that can make a difference.

Artwork by Leo Tomalin
Dispose of waste properly

From the point of view of waste management, theatre is arguably one of the most waste-producing industries – in the literal and the metaphorical meaning of the word “waste”: residual, redundant material.

When considering the process of creating a new performance, it is fundamental in the time of climate crisis to give some consideration to the cost for the environment. How might we strive for a carbon-neutral footprint by rethinking how work is created and distributed in the theatre? The mission of a British pioneering non-profit organisation, Julie’s Bicycle is exactly this: through their advocacy and other services to help the arts and culture sector to develop sustainable practices and “championing environmental justice and fairness” (“About Julie’s Bicycle”).

Sustainable thinking may even enrich the work. For example, costume designer, Dorine Demuynck from les ballets C de la B dance company in Gent, Belgium, uses clothes from second-hand shops for her work. Demuynck thinks there is an ethical and ecological imperative for not getting or making something new that will be disposed of later. Besides, she is motivated by the idea that those ‘pre-loved’ clothes already have a history, a hidden narrative that they carry with themselves into the rehearsal room. There is another important aspect for Demuynck in using garments that were worn by other people: “The second-hand clothes are coming from different countries of the world, so they also contain their own typical cultural style” (qtd. in Trencsényi, “‘An Experiment in Democracy’” 48).

Yet, there is another kind of “waste” that our artistic process, in progressing through experimentations produces. “Try again, fail again, fail better!” – I could quote Beckett’s words for this method. A surplus of generated material, research notes, sketches, new drafts, developments, restarts, variations, edits, cuts, and corrections lead to a new piece – leaving in its wake redundant material.

This “waste” can be generated at different stages of the work. Sometimes there is an abundance of research material. Or there is redundant, leftover material that was created through improvisation which cannot find its way into the new work. Surplus material is left over at another stage, when honing the work: when we are removing everything that the piece can do without. Dramaturg Ruth Little likens this disposal of material to the stages of a rocket ship that, having fulfilled their purpose in the creative process, need to detach (qtd. in Trencsényi, Dramaturgy in the Making 230).

It is worth developing strategies for the management of redundant material. Here another important dramaturgical role can be brought into play: documentation. A mindful way to preserve this material for remembrance in case it will be needed in the future.

When visiting the rehearsal studio of les ballets C de la B in 2016, what caught my eye was director Alan Platel’s rehearsal journals (or the way he refers to them, the “production books”): a set of thick, red-bound diaries lined up on his table. In these diaries, Platel meticulously documented the development of the new piece which was based on the ensemble’s free embodied searching process around the chosen topic. These books contained his thoughts on the research, preserved information on what they did at that day’s rehearsal, contained sketches of the dancers’ improvisations, as well as newspaper cutouts, images, and even notes on events that happened during the working process in the world which touched upon their lives. This depository became crucial at a later stage of the work when finding and constructing potent images for the stage.

There are further benefits of documentation. During the composition stage of the work, it allows us to revisit ideas or material. Some of it may come in useful at a later stage, when the various building blocks of the performance are placed together, and we begin to think of transitions between separate sections and need material to bridge those parts.

At other times, when the working process seems not to progress, or the piece in development doesn’t ring true, and we feel stuck, the documentation can provide an opportunity to go backwards on the creative journey, and check every junction where decisions were made. Revisiting these crucial moments can provide an opportunity, without restarting the process, to undo previous decisions or make different choices and see whether that would allow us to solve the problem.

Finally, a documentation process can be very valuable at an even later stage: after the completion of the work. Going through the documentation can allow the artists to bring awareness to their own methods and thinking processes, to recognise how they work, and what questions they keep returning to. These reflections can contribute to the articulation of the artists’ own language, allow them to recognise their artistic paths, and even guide their future creative processes and explorations.

Artwork by Leo Tomalin
Leave what you find

There is an important question hidden in this imperative: who does the material of the performance belong to, who owns the performance? Is the artist a catastrophe tourist? Or are we facilitating a public discourse on issues that are important for the community? What motivates our work? This is the core interrogation lying inside the dramaturgical triad of: “Why this? Why here? Why now?” – questions. Can a community’s culture or trauma be used without appropriation? Whose stories can we tell? How far does our artistic licence and responsibility stretch? What happens to the community after their story is shared?

These are complex questions, and the answer to them requires an ongoing dialogue between the given artists and their community. Let’s leave them unanswered here with a note that they warn us about the importance of two-way communication and striving to be a porous organisation, “which acts as a catalyst for activity that passes through and beyond itself” (Turner and Radosavljević). The imperative also reminds us of being considerate of the culture of that community where the ensemble, the company or the theatre is operating.

Those who have been in the industry long enough may remember that not that long ago, theatre in Europe wanted to shock, shake up, disturb, provoke, or even offend audiences. It seems that this attitude has changed somewhat. Whilst the role of critical questioning remains, it seems that theatre and performance today are changing their attitude toward the ecosystem in which they operate and consequently the methods they use in relating to the audience are transforming too. Perhaps expressing ourselves in (post-) postdramatic theatre means that we no longer feel a hierarchy or a separation between performers and audience, a recognition that we share similar values. Or maybe the tools of alienation (Brecht), offence (Handke), or shock (in-yer-face theatre) have been exhausted, and contemporary theatre now prefers to speak the language of inclusion, involvement, and shared experience. These earlier, hierarchical, controlling performer – audience relationships seem to be transforming, and the recognition of our shared responsibility results in a different audience – performer relationship, which too is based on respect.

As artists, we are becoming aware that we are only temporary visitors, guests who in reciprocity need to be considerate of the place and the community where we work. Respect doesn’t mean ignorance, lack of critical thinking, or questioning. Similarly, dishonesty or untruthfulness is disrespectful. It is not the depth of our disturbing questions but our attitude towards a sustainable, long-term dialogue with our environment (human and non-human) that is the aim.

Artwork by Leo Tomalin
Minimise campfire impacts

This advice warns about danger that is also part of our work. During the creative process, we need to awaken or “fire up” certain energies, but it is important to treat these natural forces with respect. As artist-creators we are working with different kinds of knowledge: experiences that are stored in our bodies, feelings and intuitions, images from the subconscious, dreams, and memories. Of these, we have only a limited conception and control over. How to activate and how to quell these energies before they become self-destructive or all-consuming? It is essential that we have techniques to enable us to descend and return safely.

On another level, this advice warns about the tensions and potential conflicts that may arise during the working process, so that we have ways and strategies to deal with them. Tools that are within the ethos of our creative process and won’t betray it. For so often when we feel threatened or under attack in any way, we tend to fall back on aggression and hierarchy.

When discussing with my dramaturgy students the Japanese kishōtenketsu (plot without conflict) format, Marleen Wengorz and Konstantinos Avramis noted that if we take the starting point of any European conflict-based drama (“my uncle has murdered my father and married my mother,” for instance)[5], the question is not the conflict but what follows it, what will be the reaction to it, how do we respond. Are we going to see the clash of opposing forces, or will there be a meaningful twist that will move the plot forward without escalating the conflict further? These days when wars keep reminding us of the unending drama of conflicting forces, this is a profound question to ask about the impact of friction.

Artwork by Leo Tomalin
Respect wildlife

This admonition draws our attention beyond the rehearsal room and asks us to respect the community(ies) and culture(s) to which we, creators, ensemble, and theatre belong. What are those cultures that we mediate or bring into a dialogue? Who is the theatre providing their public service for? For ticket holder customers in the evening only, or is it a place for the community to come together to debate matters that are important to it, or interact, or celebrate? How do we make sure that every member of the community feels welcome and at home in the space of the theatre building? What activities does the organisation offer to the various members of the community? How does the organisation fulfil its function as a public service? The way libraries in Northern Europe in the past decade rethought their roles and democratised their spaces might be informative and inspirational for theatres in rethinking their function and operation within the society.[6]

It is one of the traditional roles of the dramaturg to mediate and facilitate between the audience and the artists. This advice also implies rethinking that role. It also warns to examine what we think we know about our community and what we think we know about the audience. It encourages reciprocity and warns us not to think of the public as a resource, commodity or in any way that may be degrading.

Furthermore, it also warns that when we are making work with the involvement of the local community (say, creating a piece of verbatim theatre), to give attention to the perspective of the people involved in it. What guarantees that the work will be based on reciprocity and respect? What ways are the participants (for instance, local non-professionals) granted to express their views, and how can they contribute to decisions? How do we artists contribute to the future life and long-term operation of that community and ecosystem in which we have interfered during the creative process? How does our relationship continue and evolve after the artwork has been made?

Artwork by Leo Tomalin
Be considerate of other visitors

This advice warns about sustainability, on a societal level. It draws attention to the fact that our working process is part of a social-cultural ecology, where there is no legitimate place for any kind of exploitation. How can we take care of our colleagues’ physical and mental well-being? What happens to them after the end of the project? It is also important to remind ourselves that people have different limitations regarding physical and mental tolerance. Furthermore, we may not even start from the same place in the rehearsal room. What is it that we make or even pressurise our collaborators to agree to do?

Blinded by our goal, we can often ignore our own health (physical and mental), forget about the amount of time we spend working or the intensity of the work. It is untenable and unacceptable to keep people under sustained stress long term and normalise this state. Moreover: no artwork can justify people being humiliated during their work.

Award-winning Ukrainian theatre director, Andrei Zholdak is infamous for his powerful, visual, provocative work that realises on the stage the poetry of aggression.[7] This method can include physical and emotional bullying of the actors and creating extreme situations of fear. Some theatres in Europe find this controversial working process acceptable and are ready to overlook ethical issues in favour of the impressive result. Theorist Ildikó Ungvári-Zrínyi analysed Zholdak’s artistic considerations in light of his manifestos, and beyond the singular problem of one director’s extreme way of working recognised larger, structural issues that are rooted in the theatre system. She noted:

The institutional structure of Eastern European theatre supports ‘othering’, the technique of exclusion. (…) there are no tools for adequate treatment of the actors within the framework of institutional theatre since the organisation blindly trusts the director’s personality, knowledge, and ethical stance – that’s the reason why they abandon even those few rules that guarantee the safety of the actor. The power relationships are asymmetrical …

Director Tara Branham recalls her moment of recognition when one of her collaborators asked: “What would a people-centred theatrical process look like?” The question prompted Branham to rethink the entire working process and devise collective harm reduction practices in the rehearsal room.

The term harm reduction, explains Branham, comes from social practices, and in her understanding, it means “tools, agreements, or policies that are designed to lessen the negative social or physical consequences associated with various human behaviours. Basically, how can we plan for harm?”. It was crucial for Branham to realise that it is not one person’s responsibility, it is a collective duty:

I was the director in a process where I did everything I could think of to make the space “safe” and harm still occurred.… My sole ownership of our collective safety compounded that harm. I set myself up to believe that I alone could and should be responsible for every person’s mental, emotional, and physical well-being. I have found this kind of well-intentioned and overly controlling leadership to be unsustainable and unsuccessful.

In my practice, I’ve been seeking to collectively define “harm” in our spaces. This first step is vital. Once the definition is established there are tools we can all use to help reduce the possibility for harm. Most importantly, we can create a structure for how we collectively manage it when it occurs.

Alain Platel thinks similarly about the director’s social responsibility. For him it is a strong political commitment:

It’s like an experiment in democracy and in how to live together. (…) It is something I take care of a lot. For me, it would be impossible to make performances in which you show things that you can’t live with here in the studio. That’s why when I hear about processes that are violent where people suffered, I think it’s a failure.

There are moments of tension. Of course. But I am talking about respect. And I am less afraid of the possibility that in the end we have a performance that I am not happy with, than having a piece that the dancers would not be happy about; and they would have to tour with it for a year and feel miserable inside. It’s an obsession for me that I feel that everybody is confident and comfortable in the performance.

Platel qtd. in Trencsényi, “’An Experiment in Democracy’” 41

To be considerate of other visitors also means not forgetting the people who came before us and those who will follow us. This piece of advice warns about discretion and empathy, and instils a long-term, sustainable perspective into our work. It urges to look at the working process, the collaboration, and the audience from multiple perspectives. This task is inherently dramaturgical.

Conclusion

These seven viewpoints may inspire our thinking about the working process and urge us to clarify these questions together with the people we intend to work with. The process is time-consuming, but it is worth the investment. It will enable us to disclose, map, and document our values, outline the framework for the working process, and allow to proceed mindfully towards our destination.

It is essential to bring awareness to the working process and conditions for everyone involved and be committed to finding methods of working in a way that causes no harm or negative impact on our collaborators, our environment, or the local community where we are operating. This change of perspective is crucial to our work. As Van Kerkhoven noted:

[A] production comes alive through its interaction, through its audience, and through what is going on outside its own orbit. And around the production lies the theatre and around the theatre lies the city and around the city, as far as we can see, lies the whole world and even the sky and all its stars. The walls that link all these circles together are made of skin, they have pores, they breathe. This is sometimes forgotten.

“The Theatre Is in the City”

The dramaturg’s liminal, mediatory function seems suitable to generate effective changes in these areas. Expanding the “curatorial focus” to taking care of the creative processes could be one of the most important areas of the dramaturg’s role. It is still concerned with thinking about dynamic structures, but on a larger, macro dramaturgical scale: structures that relate to the whole creative process within which the artwork is realised, and the ensemble operates.

In this way, the role of the dramaturg becomes a facilitating one on a procedural level as well. Borrowing theorist, curator, and dramaturg Sandra Noeth’s words and expanding them to the area of macro dramaturgy: “It is much rather about the shouldering of responsibility with respect to the politics of decision-making” (254).

With that we have arrived back to the political responsibility that was assigned to the role of the dramaturg since its inception.  In the case of new dramaturgies, however, this is a very different political role: through the creative process it is about maintaining democracy, for which we have more than ever a profound need today.


Endnotes

[1] This paper was presented as a Keynote Lecture at the National Taiwan University of Arts’ 17th Crossover Dialogue International Conference (21–22 May 2022). An earlier version of this lecture was given in Hungarian in Budapest at The Dramaturg’s Changing Place in the 21st Century conference, organised by the Dramaturgs’ Guild (HU), honoring the memory of dramaturg Annamária Radnai (15–16 October 2021).

[2] I would like to thank former artistic director Emma Tibaldo and the team of PWM, that between 2018 and 2021 I was given a chance to curate and lead the annual “Exploring Practice Intensive – Dramaturgy” intensive courses. The thought of the Seven Principles of Leave no Trace Dramaturgy emerged during my 2018 intensive, and together with that year’s cohort (Alexis Diamond, Sarah Elkashef, Marcel Jeannin, Émilie Martz-Kuhn, Jen C. Quinn, Diane Roberts, Ed Roy, Ülfet Sevdi, Emma Tibaldo and Sarah Williams) we discussed these ideas. My paper was inspired by those conversations, they urged me to further develop these ideas to outline a dramaturgical process fit for the 21st century’s demands and values.

[3] In my monograph, Dramaturgy in the Making (2015), I based the investigation of the various dramaturgical processes on the structures outlined in said essay of Mira Rafalowicz.

[4] For more on this topic, see Craig, et all, 2021.

[5] A plot that can be found in many European tragedies from Oresteia through Hamlet to Caryl Churchill’s Kill.

[6] For instance, I am thinking of the Helsinki Central Library, Oodi (in Finland), or Tilburg’s award-winning LocHal library (in the Netherlands), or Dokk1 library in Aarhus (in Denmark), which all rethought the function of the library and its role in society and transformed their space and their activities accordingly.

[7] It was Romanian theatre critic Oana Stoica who coined the term for Zholdak’s aesthetic in a 2015 review. See, Ungvári-Zrínyi, 2018.

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Photo: Marina Dmitrieva

*Katalin Trencsényi (HU/UK) is a dramaturg, theatre-maker, and researcher, working in the fields of contemporary theatre, dance, and performance. As a London-based dramaturg, she has worked with the National Theatre, the Royal Court Theatre, Soho Theatre, Corali Dance Company, Deafinitely Theatre, and with many independent artists. She is co-founder of the Dramaturgs’ Network (UK). Katalin is the author of Dramaturgy in the Making (Bloomsbury Methuen Drama, 2015) and editor of Bandoneon: Working with Pina Bausch (Oberon Books, 2016). Katalin has taught at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA), the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama (visiting lecturer), as well as internationally. In 2019, she served as Drama Creative Fellow at the University of Queensland. Currently, Katalin is working as a lecturer on the Comparative Dramaturgy and Performance Research programme at the University of the Arts Helsinki.

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