Co-conspiracy: An Intergenerational Dialogue on Queer/ing Dramaturgy

Alyson Campbell* and Meta Cohen**

Abstract

This article explores an intergenerational collaboration between two Naarm/Melbourne-based queer artist-researchers or “co-conspirators” (Halberstam, In a Queer Time 162–63): director-dramaturg Alyson Campbell and composer-dramaturg Meta Cohen. Structured as a dialogue between the two of us, with interspersed analysis, critical framing, photographs and diagrams, we consider how our collaborative work generates new queer dramaturgical practices and offers new ways of thinking about queer(ing) dramaturgies. We realised that for both of us the process begins with the corporeality of text but that each offered “know-how” (Nelson 114) the other did not have. We conspired together to examine what this means in creating a performance dramaturgy and, further, what it might mean for a project of queering performance.

Keywords: affect, musicality, queer performance, queer dramaturgies, collaboration, scoring, Gertrude Stein, “co-conspirators,” intergenerational

Introduction

The discussion is based around the project that formed the genesis of our collaboration: a production of Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights, or DFLTLX, by Gertrude Stein (2019). This was a student production at the Victorian College of the Arts, University of Melbourne. Alyson was directing and Meta was formally the dramaturg as part of their Master of Dramaturgy program at the VCA, but their role soon expanded to include composing. What emerged was a synergy around the meeting of a (queer) director who thinks musically and a (queer) composer who thinks dramaturgically, which has led to an ongoing lively collaboration that we like to think of as our queering “co-conspiracy” (Halberstam, In a Queer Time and Place 162–63). The intergenerational nature of our work together chimes with Jack Halberstam’s exhortation that “[a] queer pedagogy must also try to break with the oedipal deadlock that creates and sustains intergenerational conflict” (“Reflections” 363). We understand that coming from different generations adds to the vitality of our collaboration; and indeed, in our work we seek to conspire with artists across a wide generational span.

Our collaboration entails exploring new ways to articulate and map what is happening in the processes of making and rehearsal. In this article, we examine how this investigation has led us to new dramaturgical practices, notably acts of scoring: for Cohen, a form of dramaturgical scoring (Murray, Campbell and Cohen), and for Campbell, a more explicit use of musical vocabulary to describe her scoring of the performance. The two areas of expertise now do this cross-fertilisation dance where we work towards specificity and openness in the work itself and the making process. 

We both see ourselves as hybrid in our identities: Alyson is Irish or U.K./Australian (already uncertainty born of colonisation in there) and Meta is Austrian/Australian. We are drawn to making work in Naarm, as it is a place full of queer performance and full of potential for queering performance, given the number of self-identified queer artists working in the city and region. There are far too many to name, and that is a dangerous exercise that risks exclusion, but, for example, at Melbourne Fringe 2023 more than 50% of the 400+ shows identified themselves as belonging under the LGBTQ+ strand (Abrahams; Boehme et al.). As such, Naarm is a particularly exciting place to be undertaking the project of trying to see, understand and make queer work, surrounded by a vibrant community of practice.

Starting the Dialogue

AC: Meta, who are you?

MC: I am a composer who is also a dramaturg and a sound designer, and I work across music, theatre and other mixed media. I’m particularly interested in musical thinking and dramaturgy, and how that might intersect with queer performance. Who are you, Alyson?

AC: I am mostly a director; one with a dramaturgical bent or a very dramaturgically focussed director. I’m not sure if that’s helpful—in one sense obviously all directors are, aren’t they? Maybe it’s something about my love of texts that I don’t understand quickly, or which resist ease of understanding. So, I like the dramaturgical challenge of “difficult” work that makes my synapses fire in working them out. And I really do that collaboratively. I’m not someone who sits with the text and tries to figure it out on my own.

In seeking ways to articulate our various roles and collaborative modes, we are attracted to thinking around “co-conspiracy” and how this relates to queerness and our work on queer performance. Gender theorist Jack Halberstam writes:

Queer subcultures in particular are often marked by a lack of distinction between the archivist and the cultural worker . . . The queer archivist or theorist and the cultural worker may also coexist in the same friendship networks, and they may function as coconspirators [sic] . . . Finally, the academic and the cultural producer may see themselves in a complementary relationship.

Halberstam, In a Queer Time 162–63

In short, in the spirit of Halberstam, we are queer, intergenerational “co-conspirators” who are making interventions into queer performance, focusing particularly on affect and musicality.

AC: Meta, you are the one who proposed the idea of co-conspiracy. Do you want to talk a bit about how you arrived there, and we can think through why it appeals to us so much as queer collaborators who think dramaturgically.

MC: While delving into ideas of performance-as-archive, I went to a lot of Halberstam’s writing on queer archives (In a Queer Time). I was particularly interested in the role of the artist-researcher and the relationships between queer archiving and queer practice. I was struck by the division between them not being as stark as I had assumed; how they are entwined, and how that complicates their function. I’ve been thinking about our collaboration and how that works—its different layers. So, I was interested in bringing it to our conversation.

AC: I love it as a term and Halberstam’s definition. That blurring of the academic and the artistic resonates: we’re dramaturgical thinkers! And co-conspiring is a way of thinking, I guess, about a particular approach to composition, or making, that is also somehow connected to queer/ness/ing.

Queering Dramaturgy Through Composition and Orchestration

One thing we were to think about for this edited collection is: how do dramaturgical practices and ideas encounter or interact with, resist and challenge, or reform the wider social, cultural and political structures in which they are embedded? Both of us are thinking about what makes dramaturgies queer and what is queering dramaturgy and why would we do it? To what end? What is it doing in the world? We’ve been discussing how queering dramaturgy gives us a particular philosophical angle or a positioning that has something to offer in resisting normative social, cultural and political structures.

AC: I’ve been trying for a long time to think through how that works through affect and how affect is political (Campbell, Experiencing Kane: An Affective Analysis; Experiencing Kane: An “Affective Approach”). And if it’s political, how does that work as a queering strategy? What is the relationship between “doing theatre in a political way,” as Nikolaus Müller-Schöll puts it (qtd. in Campbell and Farrier 15), and what Stephen Farrier and I have called “doing theatre in a queer way” (15). How, exactly, does that work?

For both of us, one of the starting places is form.

And, crucially, the political potential of form. While we know that realist theatre has been important for LGBTQI++ communities over time and through crises and the ongoing need for representation and visibility, we think that queer performance does its politics in a different way. It’s less based on a character- or plot-driven teleology that remains stuck to ideas of consistency of character. Queerness wants to resist fixity (Busby and Farrier 156). So, that brings us inevitably to form, which is perhaps the crux of our co-conspiracy: our attempts towards specificity in how we think about form and how it works. To a surprising degree, we’re queer formalists!

This formal precision requires specific techniques in order to articulate and shape it. Two vocabularies we have found useful for this shaping are those of affect (for instance, Gilbert; Epstein; and see Campbell, Experiencing Kane: An Affective Analysis) and musicality in theatre making (Rebstock and Roesner; Roesner), which we regard as tools for dramaturgical queering.

AC: For me, part of the excitement of our co-conspiracy is the specificity of language you bring through your specialist knowledge of musicality—your “know-how” (Nelson 114)—and then your work looking at how that’s queering, or how you can think about queering, through musicality.

MC: As with any lens, though, it can only be delivered with collaborators who want to share that language. I think the reason we find so much resonance is through your thinking around affect and the way that elements are arranged—and then, of course, the interest in bringing those aesthetic considerations towards queerness, and all of the social and political implications of that.

AC: I do know that, for a long time, people have written about my directing as a type of choreography, or something that lends itself to thinking of it as something other than, for instance, psychology-led types of realist directing.

MC: There’s also that thing your former colleague Paul Monaghan said about your directing: that it’s a “dramaturgy of punctuation.” That is musical. It’s the first thing that really struck me when I started working with you: you’re not necessarily using musicological language, but it’s a musical understanding. For example, the way that you organise bodies in space looks, to me, like layers of melody or harmony, or like instruments; it’s orchestration.

The Trouble with Harry, by Lachlan Philpott, dir. Alyson Campbell. Melbourne International Arts Festival, Northcote Town Hall, 2014. L to R: Dion Mills, Elizabeth Nabben, Emma Palmer, Maude Davey. Photo: Sarah Walker

AC: Is orchestration where we meet? Composition, but more precisely orchestration? Is that right?

MC: I’m not sure! I suppose, in general, composition is more involved with generating and orchestration more with arranging. But then it also depends on how you define what it is to compose—orchestration can be part of composition, and arrangement is compositional if you look at the etymology: compose—from componere—to put together.[1] It’s an interesting question. Do you see yourself more as composer or conductor?

AC: I love this question! Mainly because I don’t know how to answer it. What belongs where?

MC: Perhaps that’s where we get back to the idea of co-conspirators, where the divisions aren’t as clear as one thinks. Because when you think about it, conducting can be quite a compositional act, depending on the collaboration. And then there’s text composition and stage composition; two different compositions.

AC: And there are two (of the other kind of) stages because, in the first stage, I’m doing something we could call composition, and then the conducting for me is really when I’m in those last stages. That’s a particularly affective realm when it’s about dynamics, pace, transitions and atmosphere. Those difficult open texts I like so much allow, and require even, a lot of this shaping.

This brings us to Gertrude Stein’s Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights or, as we named it, DFLTLX, which offers an example for us to talk about openness, difficulty, affect, musicality and queerness. We found the openness of that text an invitation to take the base materials and arrange them in a particular way, or “com-pose” them.

The Musicality of Open Texts: DFLTLX

MC: What drew you towards working on Stein?

AC: I think partly because in my PhD writing, trying to understand Sarah Kane’s idea of “experiential theatre” through working on her very open text 4.48 Psychosis (Campbell, Experiencing Kane: An Affective Analysis; Experiencing Kane: An “Affective Approach”), I was really struggling to find theatre writing about working with this sort of text. And I landed on phenomenology, and from there to affect, and then to what the cultural theorist Jeremy Gilbert calls “affective specificity.” In theatre scholarship, it was the writing of Jane Palatini-Bowers on Stein about “lang-scape” (25) that really opened this up for me: how do you put that lang-scape onto the three-dimensional stage and populate it with bodies in some way that is responding to the lang-scape that the writer has given us? But it was through music writing and musicology that I stumbled towards a specificity of language with this. It was the musicologist David Epstein’s idea of “shaping affect” (148) that really opened a new process up for me. So, I came to Stein through Kane, and then, inevitably, it had to get back to Stein.

What did you think when you first got the Doctor Faustus script?                                    

MC: Well, I had a version of it that was very closely typeset and, when it’s not spaced out, it’s quite stressful to look at! There’s this overwhelming wash of text, with very little punctuation. So, I did feel a little panicked when I first saw it! 

An excerpt of Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights by Gertrude Stein (100–101)

AC: I know. The actors did too. That’s not to say I didn’t either! You have to figure out exactly how to get the words off the page and into actual mouths and bodies, and work out how many people are speaking at a time and with what kind of force and energy; all of those things.

MC: Yes! But actually, for me, it was a pretty quick and early change towards “okay, I can’t try and understand this like I’ve been taught to understand theatre,” so my default then is to slip back into my “native language,” which is music, because that’s my first practice. Once I made that shift, it just opened up, really, because you look at it like a score instead—or an invitation. I’m a composer who particularly loves to work with vocal and choral music, so I’m quite used to reading texts with the lens of “is this settable? How does the musicality of it work? What are its patterns? How might you do something else with it?” That text has so many invitations—as we’ve discussed: who says what? With what orchestration? How many voices? What is the punctuation? What are the emphases? Do you resist its rhythm, or do you lean into what the text is doing, and does that approach change over time? How do you design sound that doesn’t overshadow the rhythmic qualities of the text? Also just knowing that the text is the libretto to an opera without an original score or scenography (Rae 139) made me excited because, actually, the whole thing is settable and full of potential.

That doesn’t mean the whole thing is necessarily easily settable, however!

AC: That’s such a great example of how you’ve been talking recently about “doing dramaturgy like a composer” and “composing like a dramaturg” (Cohen). And that’s it in action really, in that the challenge of the work takes you back to language that you know. But also, of course, it is the musicality in there, which is so crucial in terms of thinking about the way performance works as an experience, and not just this meaning-making machine to transfer ideas; we can feel something, and we know it differently.

And I think that’s what I loved about the text. I certainly had my moments of panic too, but what you were bringing in terms of your dramaturgical thinking via composition, the patterns you were finding and the different documents you were making to identify and track those patterns was so helpful, and often the first time anyone had given me materials like that. For example, your pitch extractions.

MC: Those pitch extractions I made assigned specific pitches to certain repeated syllables to illustrate the word-music Stein was making. This helped me understand how that repetitive language, which at first glance seems like merely a wash of words, can build to sonic climaxes and contains a powerful affective drive. It’s about patterns, repetitions and accumulations—familiar terrain for a composer.

We can see/hear how these extractions worked in the example below, with text, Meta’s musical key for the pitch extractions and how this sounds when sung:

Excerpt of Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights by Gertrude Stein (98–99)
Pitch extraction key for a passage of Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights. Notated and designed by Meta Cohen

And Meta’s sing-through, applying the pitch key above:

AC: These sorts of materials made the repetitions tangible in a new way for me, as a director—particularly working through a difficult text with emerging artists. Your modes of pattern-mapping really helped us all get to grips with the formal density and find our way through it.

Staging Stein: Queer(ing) Perspectives and Dramaturgical Strategies 

Building on our tendencies towards formalism, in this section we focus on formal strategies that allowed us to understand Stein’s text as queer and, further, how we could realise that queerness, particularly through musicality and affect, in the staging of it. Even an attempt to describe the “plot” reveals what we might understand as a queer resistance to a normative approach to temporality and causal development. Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights is Stein’s take on the Faust myth, beginning after Faust has sold his soul to the devil (in Stein’s version, in exchange for the power to control electric light, giving the piece what we read as an ecofeminist spin—see Mortimer-Sandilands and Erickson).

AC: I’m still wondering for each of us how we were reading the text of Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights as queer or, maybe more precisely, full of queering potential. We’ve talked about Stein’s work being queer avant la lettre in terms of how we’re co-opting that word, but if we think back to our queer formalism, what is it exactly that jumped out at each of us?

MC: An immediate touchpoint in terms of queer potential is the figure of Marguerite Ida and Helena Annabel (MIHA)—a woman with four names—who draws attention to binary notions of gender, identity and heteronormativity.

As the play disrupts any sense of linear or temporal logic, it is difficult—and perhaps of limited use—to give a synopsis attempting to condense it into a coherent or linear plot, but perhaps one way to approach this task is to trace MIHA’s trajectory through the play. She may not be eponymous, but she is a central figure in this version, which points to the piece’s genesis: Stein had originally written a novel called Ida about a woman who is bitten by a viper (Bay-Cheng 103). Throughout the piece, MIHA appears in various situations. She is lost in the woods (a metaphor for her sense of bewilderment and ongoing identity crisis). She is bitten by a viper. A country woman with a sickle advises her to seek out Doctor Faustus for a cure. He cures her, or perhaps he doesn’t. She is dead, or perhaps she isn’t. She goes through some kind of rebirth, in which she is able to control natural light—the only light over which Faust has no power. There is a sense of celebrity about her (she is talked about). A man from over the seas attempts to possess her. Mephisto commands Faustus to bring her with him to hell, but there is some ambiguity as to whether this happens or not.

MC: As Sarah Bay-Cheng notes, “a reader or viewer must constantly reconcile the manifold nature of Marguerite Ida-Helena Annabel [sic] with the singular pronoun ‘she’” (117), challenging the solidity of this categorisation. Stein is very careful about which syllables are said with reference to (or by) which characters, in a way that works much as a linguistic version of a musical motif. Tracking them was one of my first impulses. When you look at MIHA, it’s full of “Am I?” and “Where? Here?” questions (Stein 95–98). This syllable-tracking allowed us to understand how the repetition of those sounds draws attention to them—they form the aural tapestry you’re hearing, and the balance between repetition and variation works through what could be seen as a musical accumulation, much as “rep and rev” in the work of Suzan-Lori Parks (8–10).

“Syllable-tracking” process: from DFLTLX dramaturgy pack by Meta Cohen

MC: I’m wondering if this kind of tracking helped you stage the piece and whether it helped you think about the queerness.

AC: It really did. All of this pattern-tracking that you were mapping and offering went directly into my thinking about how to translate these into embodied patterns, whether that was movement or gesture, belonging to a persona or belonging to a moment more broadly. How I understand that as related to a queering process precisely is in its resistance to a focus on psychological character development (which is impossible to track in this work anyway—which is queer in itself).

DFLTLX is certainly a great example of what Steve Farrier and I have talked about in the Introduction to Queer Dramaturgies, where we rather foolhardily made another binary: the gay play or queer performance (Campbell and Farrier 6)! There’s nothing in it that you would point to and say: this is a gay play, with gay characters who are being represented in their lives and their dilemmas. Not at all! But it does feel very queer. MIHA is a useful reference: four names for one single woman. And, as you note, all those questions, which clearly undermine stability of character or stability of identity. The ambiguity of plot, the obscurity of the whole thing, also feels queer.

Alyson in rehearsal with the cast, staging MIHA (Molly Roberts) “lost” in the woods. Photo credit: Meta Cohen

AC: On a formal level, this ambiguity is also challenging the idea of a “play” as a thing that is stable.

MC: Absolutely. I think Stein also challenges the stability of language itself to hold the “real”: the technical demands of the words and their repetition draws attention to their construction, much like MIHA’s name draws attention to her lack of one stable identity.

AC: Yes, and MIHA herself as a construction. The excess certainly feels queer (see Gindt 250).

Formally, the text demands an exploration of ambiguity and resistance to fixity that we understood as full of queering potential at the time. The fluidity is evident both in the characters’ fractured identities and the text’s temporal uncertainty: we go forwards and backwards with no normative temporal logic and tenses change sentence to sentence. As Cultural Studies scholar Daniela Miranda has noted, we might understand Stein’s attempts to create a “continuous present” as a queerly temporal device (20).

AC: Obviously the work predates now-established ideas of queer temporality that are resisting the “chrononormative,” as Elizabeth Freeman would put it (3) or “straight time” as Halberstam would frame it (In a Queer Time 5), and Muñoz too (3–4). And that adds to our sense of Stein as proto-queer. This radical experimentation with temporality in theatre is a delightful thing to play with in performance and gave us tangible elements that we could identify as making us feel that this was a queer work, or, at least, a work full of queer potential.

Moving on from a focus on Stein’s text to our work in staging it, we will unpack some examples of how that queering potential plays out in performance choices we “co-conspire” to make.

Applying Formal Patterns in Rehearsal and Performance

MC: Well, we were talking about questions of identity—and particularly fragmented identity. I think you did a lot of it in the casting: I remember having lots of discussions about MIHA and, eventually, settling on only casting one person as this woman with four names, because you lose the linguistic joke otherwise, right? Other theatre-makers have, for example, cast three women as MIHA (Durham 136).

AC: We did have three, but only one at a time! This was partly as a pragmatic decision in a student show, but partly as an aesthetic choice, as it also disrupts stability, right? If realism strives to diminish the distance between character and actor, this break in continuity is another–possibly queerly—disorientating device.

MC: And the casting of Faustus was interesting because the opening conversation between Faust and Mephisto we staged as a very choral section, where the only defined “character” was Mephisto and everybody else on stage was Doctor Faustus (in a cast of fifteen).

DFLTLX, Victorian College of the Arts, 2019. Mephisto (in foreground, played by Myfanwy Hocking) in dialogue with a multiply embodied Doctor Faustus (visible also: Isabella Perversi, Leela Bishop and Shawnee Jones). Director: Alyson Campbell, VCA Acting Company 2019. Photo: Drew Echberg

AC: Yes, that was very satisfying to play with, as choral text with certain pace and intonation and the mix of multiple and solo voice. That was quite a choice, I guess! It was very connected to the staging of it, with the bodies massed in different ways: sometimes, they were spread out over the stage in a conventionally aesthetically pleasing symmetrical pattern—for example, with each reaching up to a light bulb and “lighting up” the stage (see Figure 7)—and then, at other times, they became this kind of single organism held quite tightly together, moving and responding as one.

You’ve talked with me about a “choral psychology” in relation to this. Could you say a bit more about that?

MC: When you’re singing in a choir, you have to have a real awareness of what the other parts are doing and how you fit in with their musical phrases. So, to apply this to the type of choral speech we were using: not everybody is saying all of the words, but everybody knows all the words and exactly how they weave together to the point where, if you’re coming in in the middle of a phrase that’s speeding up, you have to be able to match that point in the accelerando—otherwise you throw it off-kilter. You’re a part of an organism which resists the normalising structure of “I am playing this character. I’m this person.” You’re sort of everybody all the time. It’s a type of listening.

AC: That’s so interesting, because even as you’re talking, I’m thinking about my work on Kane, or Martin Crimp, or Lachlan Philpott (see Campbell, Experiencing Kane: An Affective Analysis; Adapting Musicology’s Use of Affect Theories; From “Bogeyman” to “Bison”; Translating “Gaytown”; Taking an Affective Approach to “Doing” Queer Histories). I realise I’m so drawn to those joyful moments and textures when, really, everybody does need to know the whole thing, even though it’s just one voice popping out of it. And all the years I’ve spent experimenting with rehearsal techniques to work out ways to make those decisions in collaboration. Because I never make them in advance/on my own.

MC: I remember you had everybody learn the text as a monologue first—almost trying to understand the multiple different potentials of the text, right?

AC: I think it’s a type of “group thinking”: there’s a multitude of offers, and you can start to pick out one that might work.

MC: Is this maybe also linked to queerness in terms of understanding that there are so many possible different versions of something? And that one “version,” like anything, is just created by a series of decisions that are taken? This reminds me of Gavin Lee’s proposition of a queer formalism in music theory that rejects a singular reading of something (8).

AC: But also, in terms of queerness, there is something political in the resistance to the “lead”—the single actor, rather than the ensemble. It’s queer ecology, in which the multiple is more powerful than the solo. With Stein, it’s a cubism, isn’t it—many angles and planes. With MIHA, our performance choices don’t create a “gay figurehead,” but it is a queering in its refusal to sit in a single version of her. This might be seen also in the set design, in which we had multiple curtains, which revealed more and more of the depth of the stage as the performance went on, and there was something about hiding things and revealing them, in general, and specifically something about the revelation of MIHA.

Playing with ideas of revelation in the MIHA scenes. Here, MIHA is played by Molly Roberts. Photo: Drew Echberg

MC: You know, I think that hiding/revelation has got something to do with mythologising. You have the anticipation around this hybrid woman-person long before she appears on stage. She is talked about. It’s not a talking-about that is necessarily empowering in the first instance, but there’s certainly a sense of celebrity or hype. In the sound design, in my role as composer, I chose to emphasise Stein’s repetitive language and aural motifs. Building on brilliant musical offers from the actors, I created a Leitmotif (musical theme) for MIHA which appears in the sound design and references to her from very early on.

The MIHA theme. Notated by Meta Cohen. Audio recording demonstrating some iterations of the MIHA theme throughout the show
L-R: MIHA 1 (played by Molly Roberts), MIHA 2 (played by Sunny Youngsmith) and MIHA 3 (played by Essie Randles). Photo: Drew Echberg

MC: Much like Stein’s language is “variations on a theme” (Balkin 440), perhaps we might understand Marguerite Ida and Helena Annabel as variations on the theme of “woman.” She’s certainly more myth than “character with Aristotelian drives”—but I think the way we chose to stage it was playing with those archetypes.

I’m thinking particularly about the moment in which MIHA’s musical variations culminate in a moment of re-emergence. MIHA has returned from the dead after being bitten by a viper, or perhaps has not died at all—it’s not quite clear. We chose to amplify the building anticipation around her in a sequence in which the stage co-opts the musical and scenographic conventions of a moshpit. There is a strong affective build through carefully scored rhythmic, dynamic and textural shifts in the spoken text, culminating in MIHA’s re-emergence as a punk star. The riot grrrl-style[2] song she sings is built around the MIHA Leitmotif, forming its final variation. It was a type of reclamation of her own motif—from a woman who has been constantly filtered through the gazes of others.

Scoring last part of the build towards the punk song. Documentation by Meta Cohen
MIHA (played by Sunny Youngsmith) as a punk star. Photo: Drew Echberg
Performance of the punk song. Performers visible (L-R): Myfanwy Hocking, Sunny Youngsmith, Essie Randles and Molly Roberts. The band features all three performers who play MIHA throughout the show. Photo: Drew Echberg

AC: Attaching that to a kind of punk, non-normative femininity—musically—was one way we were trying to find her power, which I think is in the text.

MC: Absolutely—and also in terms of placing Stein in dialogue with a more contemporary context. I think a lot of decisions we made around MIHA were in dialogue with normative, non-normative and archetypal femininities: the punk moment was one example, but I’m also thinking of her early song—Do Vipers Sting. Throughout the play, we talked about using varying musical genres as a way of engaging with the temporal uncertainty of the play. Like MIHA’s resistance towards fixity and binary (Salvato 44), that song is in between genres, beginning with jazz influences that place it within conventional expectations of the sultry-yet-satirical song performed by a single (usually female) performer in cabaret, burlesque or musical theatre settings. But then, the beats and time signatures constantly shift in the second half, preventing it from becoming fixed, and the tonality changes. Along with your Busby Berkeley-esque movement sequence, this allowed it to flit between playfulness/sexuality and a dialogue with the “real” and metaphorical threat of the viper bite, and perhaps, also, a deeper existential preoccupation with “woman-ness”: “Am I Marguerite Ida or am I Helena Annabel?” (97).

An example of the choreography performed with the song “Do Vipers Sting.” Here, MIHA is played by Molly Roberts. Photo: Drew Echberg
An excerpt of Do Vipers Sting. Music by Meta Cohen.

As our thinking around the organisation of these two moments indicates, we see our choices around scoring and musicality as ways of “amplifying” queer threads we were reading within Stein’s text and translating them into performance choices. These dramaturgical interventions allowed us to embrace ambiguity within the piece despite making choices that were, in their organisation, very specific, which is something we see as a concern within our current work as queer(ing) co-conspirators. 

Co-conspiring Towards “Poetry Rather than Porridge”

Since DFLTLX we’ve now worked together a number of times, as artists and scholars/researchers. Beyond our partnership being “valuable” by virtue of it being intergenerational, it is key to emphasise that age is not our only point of difference: we also bring varying fields of experience and knowledge (affect/theatre/languages/music) towards a shared interest in queer(ing) performance. That we find delight and queer fun (see Boehme et al.) in this collaboration opens up apparently limitless possibilities for our future co-conspiring, built on the ways these separate fields of knowledge expand each other’s practice.

AC: For instance, as a director I have always been interested in texts that work in non-realist ways, where the language is doing very particular things, and trying to find language for that. Bogart’s Viewpoints (Bogart and Landau) and Barba’s “organic dramaturgy” (60) have been very helpful. But, as you know, I have been trying to articulate what I was doing in terms of affective specificity: what specific affects was I creating, or trying to create, and what specific elements were involved in making them? So, for me to suddenly work with someone who brought your composer-brain and language, and the specificity of all of that, in terms of musicality and its relationship with affect, has shifted my understanding of what’s possible. I think I always knew what was possible, but what changed was the capacity to realise it. For me, working with you means that when we encounter a text and you produce your graphic scoring and offer your ways of understanding rhythm and affective patterning—patternings of all sorts, but particularly around affect—that’s really exciting for me.

MC: The question we ask each other a lot is: “to what end?” And specifically, for me: what is the point of looking at theatre musically? And so, when you were just talking about the affects you were aiming to create: here, I meet somebody who has done an entire thesis on shaping affect as a maker, rather than just experiencing it as an audience member, and who thinks about how to actually harness it in creative decisions. For me, then, our co-conspiracy offers the chance to work with someone who has an expansive vision about what performance could be, the skills and craft to implement it and the motivation to focus it towards queer dramaturgical ends. We’ve talked about the way you organise bodies in space, which I understand as so musical but is simply not a skill I have! It’s also that you’ve got a nuanced vocabulary and process for creating the type of performance that we’re both interested in—and it’s a vocabulary that I think is very compatible with my musical one. So, through our collaboration, I am beginning to find the answer to that “to what end” question. We’re able to find a shared language very easily.

AC: We are.

I think something about our co-conspiracy is being able to build layer upon layer of finer and finer detail over a couple of productions; having sound created in the room alongside a movement score. When we know what the mood is, and have a sense of what the performers will be doing, then you make sonic offers and that’s often the thing that gets them through a navigation from A to B to C to D. In my work with large casts, it’s usually a complex physical score, with precise trajectories of the direction the performers will move in; where exactly they’ll land; what pace they’re going at; what the other people around them are doing, so that they’re … you know, poetry rather than porridge.

MC: I love that.

AC: They’re moving to beats. And I guess that comes down to that thing, too, about specificity and openness. The argument might be, “wow, their every footstep is scored” (which, essentially, it is), but actually, once it’s in this flow together, then there’s all that freedom for performers to figure out what else they’re doing—with their faces, and bodies, and all the rest of it. And that may even include something that attaches to character!

MC: But that’s not the immediate priority.

AC: Not the first priority, no.

MC: I mean, you’ve said “score” now. And I think that’s really where we meet, isn’t it, because it’s this intimate dramaturgical understanding of theatre as scored (see also Bogart and Landau; Home-Cook; Rebstock and Roesner; Roesner).

AC: Yeah.

MC: I think we both do it separately, but when we work together, it really matches up, doesn’t it? Because we both understand ourselves as contributing to that score, or forming it. So co-composing, I guess?

AC: Yes! And, as to the queerness of this co-conspiracy/co-composing, I suspect partly it is simply sitting outside forms, like psychological realism, which are very Western and very male, logocentric systems. We’re committed to a different idea about performance, in which the specificity of the final score brought about by our combined know-how, in the end, produces openness. Not just for the performers, but—because our affective composition is producing a swirl and an atmosphere and a momentum, rather than just telling a story—it also, maybe counterintuitively, produces an openness for the audience too. Rather than affective specificity in the making stage determining an affect or emotion in the reception of the work, it sits as an offer; and it affects people in lots of different ways. We would hope anyway! It’s not a fixed emotional or even narrative trajectory.

MC: When we’ve discussed specificity and openness before, I’ve linked that to the possibility of what José Muñoz talks about in terms of a queer utopian potentiality that has not yet been reached (Muñoz qtd. in Campbell, Cohen and Lockhart-Wilson 361). Because those moments aren’t easy to grasp, or didactic, this particular way of scoring—which is not necessarily aiming for psychological consistency or narrative clarity—might bring us closer to those queer utopian glimmers.

AC: What a great place to wind this up! I suppose we can just finish by looking at how this co-conspiring is going to work in the future. What’s next?

MC: Well, we’re writing an opera . . .

AC: An opera—it’s sort of obvious, right?

Thanks

Our thanks to the cast and creative team of DFLTLX—it was an extraordinary co-conspiracy between all of us.


Endnotes

[1] “Compose” comes from the Latin com ponere, to put together. This idea is picked up by the editors of Composed Theatre, Matthias Rebstock and David Roesner, who specifically apply the term in a musical sense to their analysis of theatre (20).

[2] This refers to a subcultural political feminist punk movement. See Gilbert, Signifying Nothing.

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Photo Credit: JulieMc

*Alyson Campbell is an award-winning director, theatre maker and dramaturg whose work spans a broad range of companies and venues in Australia, the U.K. and the U.S. over the last 30 years. Alyson is a Professor in Theatre at the Victorian College of the Arts, The University of Melbourne. Orcid page. 

Photo credit: James Reisner

**Meta Cohen is a queer composer, sound designer and dramaturg with work spanning music, theatre and interdisciplinary art. Their research focusses on the intersection of theatricality and sound, specialising in sonic dramaturgy and musical thinking in theatre making. Meta is currently undertaking a PhD at the Victorian College of the Arts, The University of Melbourne. Orcid page.

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