Dramaturgy Beyond the Western Model: Interview with Ahilan Karunaharan and Jane Yonge

by Alison Walls*

The dramaturg in the strictly Western European sense of the word is relatively rare in Aotearoa / New Zealand theatre, although the involvement of dramaturgs and a dramaturgical approach to the development and production of new works, in particular, is increasingly seen and valued. Most (if not all) dramaturgs in Aotearoa came to the work of dramaturgy through writing and/or directing. Ahilan Karunaharan[1] and Jane Yonge[2] are two highly-regarded theatre makers (both are directors and Karunaharan is also a playwright), who have branched into the role of dramaturg as a natural extension of their theatrical practice. Outside of the specific role of dramaturg, both artists bring a dramaturgical lens to all their collaborations. Māori and other Global Majority theatre companies have been especially integral in the development of dramaturgy in Aotearoa—and perhaps it can be argued, of Aoteoroa dramaturgy. Multiculturalism and cultural identification have provided an impetus and pathways for Karunaharan and Yonge in the development of new works and the attentiveness to methodology and process also.

Alison: To begin, could you describe how you came to be a dramaturg, including your first introduction to the term?

Ahilan Karunaharan. Photo: Courtesy of the Author

Ahi: The first time I came across it was with you, Alison, when we were in John Downie’s class [at Victoria University of Wellington], and up to that point, I hadn’t quite understood what the role encapsulates. And I think my big takeaway from that was about translation and a dramaturg’s role to ensure that whatever the intent of the creatives in the room or the collective’s intent, it was being translated, and then the research that is required to ensure that the dramaturg is almost a conduit between the creative team and the audience.

This is probably my initial understanding of what the role of a dramaturg was—purely from an academic perspective. I understood what the role was, but I never had the luxury then of having a dramaturg, because everything we had done had been co-op kind of work, or devised work, where a dramaturg would have been really useful.

And I think the second time I encountered it was when we were at Toi Whakaari Drama School. The year above us had done a devised show, Penumbra with Christian Penny and Jade Erickson, which was made over three years.[3] Their working methodologies were drawn from Ex Machina and Complicité, and artists like Simon McBurney and Robert Lepage who worked extensively with dramaturgs.

Also, in my final year I’d gone to London, and many of the companies that I was in there had a resident dramaturg, or a dramaturg connected to the project. So, I guess that was when I really started to understand how multifaceted the role of the dramaturg can be.

When you first started encountering dramaturgs “in the wild” and at the same time, working both as a director and as a writer, was there anything in working with dramaturgs that sparked for you that that was also a way that you could channel your own existing skills and experiences into being a dramaturg for somebody else?

Ahi: I became a dramaturg in a similar way to how I became a director. Not by choice. I was kind of pushed into the role because there was nobody in that space holding or facilitating or cultivating, I guess, the translation of these works. And so, when I was making theatre, there was always a hunt or there was always a need for me to be able to step back and look at the bigger picture, and really look at what are the resources that are needed in here, or what are the stimulants or the provocations that are needed.

So as a maker, as a writer, asking, what do I need? And looking at the gap as a director asking, who do I need next to me to be able to see this? So, I was thrust into the roles of director and dramaturg myself. I think that is where a lot of my impetus, or where my instinct came from, because I haven’t had professional training, either as a director or as a dramaturg, like Jane has.

But then it’s this collaborative nature where we learn from each other, but I think, in my initial writing stages, no, I never really thought all of those skills would come in handy. But now, in hindsight, I think those skills as a director helped me to identify where my skills are required to excavate a script or to lift a script or to deep dive with it, and all of those skills help me as a director as well. So, they are interchangeable. In a way, they’ve fed each other, and that’s the only thing that’s shifted. I mean, the first time I had a dramaturg was for my show, Tea.[4]

Mel Odedra and Mayen Metha in Tea written and directed by Ahilan Karunaharan. Auckland Arts Festival 2018. Q Theatre, 8-9 March 2018. Photo: Andi Crown

The first dramaturg that I worked with was Hone Kouka and Tawata Productions [co-founded in Whānganui-a-Tara/Wellington by Kouka and fellow playwright and director, Mīria George in 2004, with a focus on Māori, Pasifika and Indigenous writers and makers (https://tawataproductions.com). His work is always putting the writer at the forefront and ensuring that voice and that DNA is central: What do you want to say? Who do you want to say it to? What are you wanting to feel—as if it’s a magnet or a pole in the ground. So as a dramaturg, as a creator, we all know what it is that we’re collectively hunting for and working towards.

I would say that is where the initial training for me began. Both Hone and I trained at Otago University, and then subsequently at Vic [Victoria University of Wellington] and Toi Whakaari and the training model was very much borrowed from a European system.

What has shifted for me in the last fifteen years is looking at alternative ways of how dramaturgy can work. Looking at, say, Eastern texts like the Mahabharata or Ramayana that don’t follow the classical five-act structure or don’t necessarily follow protagonist journeys.[5] So, I think that is where, as a dramaturg, I’ve been brought in, because sometimes it offers an alternative way to massage and facilitate and hunt around.

Jane, Ahi referenced your training and, you are another multidisciplinarian: a “director/creator/dramaturg.” So, were you familiar first with the term, or did you already have the practice and then the term gave a name to it?

Jane Yonge. Photo: Courtesy of the Author

Jane: I didn’t train as a dramaturg, I trained as a director. Dramaturgy was, when I was training as a director, this thing that gets bandied about. I don’t know what it is, to be honest. Ahi talked about how it is just what’s needed at the time. I guess that’s something I connect with, but I was training at Toi Whakaari and at Vic [Victoria University of Wellington] because it was a double course thing. And the tutors from both institutions were asking, what is dramaturgy? And Victoria was, I guess, probably a little more traditional, in a sense; what is the context that it’s sitting in, doing the background checks, knowing what kind of fabric the costumes were made of, who was around, the kind of philosophies of thinking of the day. Whereas at Toi Whakaari, maybe because I was in directing training, Christian Penny directed it a little bit more towards: Why this thing? Why here? Why now?

And I think because as a director, as Ahi said, it’s a real luxury to have a dramaturg, so often we are dramaturging our works ourselves. So, we are asking those questions: Why is this thing here? And why is it happening now? Which I think for me is really core in dramaturgy. So, no formal training, really, but just realising, this is necessary. We’re making work because there’s some kind of internal logic to the play and to the audience for the show. And unless you can articulate it across different layers, how are you making decisions? For me anyway, that is what the dramaturgical process follows.

The questions of the work and getting clear on those and what the thing is that you’re trying to build or what the event is or the feeling and then going okay, well, dramaturgy encapsulates everything from the original context, from the size of the venue, the people that are coming, the amount the tickets cost. Who’s in your cast, who the writer is or what the process is. It encapsulates absolutely everything.

And so, to bring in a dramaturg in a traditional sense is quite hard because we don’t operate traditionally really anywhere anymore. Although having said that, I’ve just finished Losing Face, working as a dramaturg, which is the most traditional dramaturgy experience I’ve ever had. I was this conduit between the writer, Nathan Joe, and Samuel Phillips, the director, which was absolutely fascinating, but it also made me ask, how far and how far reaching does the role of the dramaturg go, because I don’t want to get into director territory, and it’s quite hard for me because that’s my go to.[6] It’s a bigger question: what are the parameters of the dramaturg within a process and in a country that has no defined process or role for dramaturgy? 

Ahi mentioned translation earlier. And it’s quite fascinating to think, Jane, of that academic understanding of dramaturgy and the more practical application. But in some ways, that is its own form of translation. What do you need to know about the text to answer the question of why here, why now? And how do we actually do it? I wonder whether with Losing Face, if that experience of dramaturgical practice is partly due to working with a playwright who comes from a more literary practice, with Nathan Joe being a poet as well as a playwright?

Jane: Nathan has read a lot of plays. Nathan has read more plays than anyone who reads plays in Aotearoa / New Zealand. Which means that when Nathan takes your work, he will pull out the most obscure references, and then he’ll say to me, “Jane, you’re a director; why don’t you read scripts more?” The thing with me and Nathan is that we have a real shorthand, because we’ve worked together now on so many things. We have a real shorthand in terms of the things that we’re trying to achieve, and not just within a script; but I know what his goals are as a writer.

For example, he’s interested in how you break a work, and in the past, it’s been, “Turn the house lights on,” and, “Now everybody knows we’re in the theatre,” and it’s like, “Cool, that doesn’t work.” Or, like the actors suddenly see the audience. And you’re like, “Nope, that doesn’t work either.” And this is a dramaturgical question. But in an age of memes and social media and YouTube and TikTok, how do you break something? How do you make theatre meta, without just being in real life? How do you play? What is the game of breaking it? It’s a big question but having an understanding of Nathan’s goals as a writer means that we can talk quickly through stuff, and the dramaturgical questions, or conversations come quite freely—I’m not really thinking about it.

But then, when it comes to translating that to other people, that’s when it gets tricky for me, because if I was directing this, I just feel like this is the game, I know how to do this. But it’s not my work to direct and it’s not my vision. So, I have to honour the vision and absolutely trust the director. What is my role as dramaturg in this moment, particularly the relationship I have with the writer to really support the director and honour their vision as well.I guess it comes back to the role of the dramaturg; in a country where we are all these ‘slashies’—we wear multiple hats—how does the dramaturg intervene or shift or change or massage the work in a way that’s really useful for all of the collaborators?

Do you think that shorthand and intimacy is a distinctively Aotearoa / New Zealand phenomenon, or have you had that experience working with someone with whom you don’t already have an existing artistic relationship, and how has that been?

Ahi: I think for me, the thing that came to the forefront while overseas was just how young our theatre-making history is—we’re such a young theatre-making nation. So, I think some of the traditional formal approaches are still kind of new. And for us, we’re so under-resourced. We work with the idea of “she’ll be right” and of making shows on an oily rag, so our roles are not so clearly delineated. And I think there’s an instinctive sense of dramaturgy that we all bring to the process. But sometimes it’s so muddy because someone is not assigned to do it, and there is not that focus.

I remember when I worked on Counting and Cracking.[7] That was a Belvoir show by S. Shakthidharan. It took him ten years and he had a very close relationship with Eamon Flack, who had been his dramaturg over that time. But looking at Australia’s relationship to Indigeneity and voices of difference and seeing that process and comparing it to my experience in Aotearoa, even though they have more resources, the process was much more fraught for them than here.

There are a lot of things that we take for granted. Jane and I both went to Toi Whakaari where there was a beautiful embracing of tikanga Māori in our training [customary practices or behaviours; tikanga determines the right or appropriate way of doing things]. And I think a lot of those principles guide many of our creative makers. When Jane talks about the experience, the event, the accessibility—all those things are a part of Māori culture.

And I think sometimes we grew up with that experience here, not even knowing that we therefore have that within us. These are certain things that we do, culturally. When I go somewhere as a newcomer, I think, “this is so different to how life is in Aotearoa / New Zealand” and it impacts the way that we make work. And therefore, when we talk about the role of a dramaturg or dramaturgy or how works are conceived or made, or the relationships that a dramaturg has with people, I think it is like a chameleon. It shape-shifts a lot faster and quicker here because we are new to it and we haven’t regimented things just yet. It’s like a new shiny toy that we are still trying to figure out. There is an ease for us as people and also maybe un-ease for us as people. But a curiosity for us as makers, that makes us a little bit distinct and unique.

This is my thesis, absolutely not founded or backed by research or footnotes, but informed by the countries that I made work in, like Canada, the UK and Australia. Norway was different because I didn’t understand what was going on at all, because they didn’t speak English. But there’s definitely something about our youth that kind of leaves things open to more interpretation.

And do you think the concept of whakapapa [genealogy; whakapapa is a powerful concept in Māori culture, linking all living things and the universe back to its origins] also comes into play? Thinking, for example, of Hone [Kouka], and the kind of genealogy there.

Ahi: I’m thinking of what Jane said about Nathan Joe referring to plays and all the work—genealogy is part of what we do, referencing the part of the work. There is something about making space, being in the room, seeing each other and acknowledging all the learning and experience that we are bringing in to be able to facilitate it. And sometimes the dramaturg’s role is to stitch it all together. It’s that thing that Jane talked about: what are the parameters and the thresholds for us as dramaturgs?

But there are certain tikanga Māori concepts and practices that have been part of our upbringing, in our primary and secondary training institutes, and other spaces, that we don’t even realise. And it really does inform how we make work.

Jane, would you say that that’s been your experience also, or that there is a distinctively Aotearoa / New Zealand approach to dramaturgy?

Jane: I think so. But it’s so impossible to define, because it’s defining culture; something which is so elusive and implicit and ingrained. And Ahi was talking about the fact that we live in New Zealand, and how Māori culture is such an important part of our identity, and it is as well for us as makers. When we were doing Scenes From a Yellow Peril—I directed and Ahi was the dramaturg—we were looking at the fact that it was at Matariki [the appearance of the star cluster that marks the beginning of the new year in Māori culture], and what do we do to honour the fact that we’re doing a work, an Asian work, during Matariki?[8] It was really about how we’re here because of our colleagues and our friends who are Māori theatre makers, but to be able to articulate what we’ve learned from them, or what they’ve shown us, is really hard.

Scenes from a Yellow Peril by Nathan Joe. Directed by Jane Yonge. Dramaturgy by Ahilan Karunaharan. Performers Uhyoung Choi, Amanda Grace Lee, Louise Tiang, Nathan Joe and Angela Zhang. Auckland Theatre Company, ASB Waterfront Theatre, 22 June to 3 July 2022. Link Courtesy of Auckland Theatre Company

I think there is something about working in Aotearoa / New Zealand, around orienting the audience and landing us in place and space and something about spirituality that is really important. But not every show does this either or strives to do this. Manaaki [hospitality/care for others] towards everybody in the process, including the audience, is such a strong, important cultural part of how we make work. Making sure we bring our kete [food basket—here, in the sense of what each person has to offer] together at the beginning of the process. Making sure that we are landing, making sure that we are reflecting. Making sure that we are spiritually there together in space. Call it Māoridom, call it something about the cultural fabric of this country, we are drawn to doing that.

Ahi: When I’m in a room and I watch Jane work, I see how she talks to designers, and many of my colleagues always refer to Jane’s experience when it comes to understanding how design can really aid or amplify. And I wonder, Jane, if that is something that came to you in your training, or in your experience of being overseas or watching the language of it, because we don’t really see that here often. I am curious about your time overseas, and if you have any observations from this experience?

Jane:  In terms of working with designers, that was at Toi Whakaari, because we would do the opera project in the second year, and the instructors would tell us, okay, now you have to design an opera, and then we’d do these presentations and then they just would grill us. And they made us really think about the role of a director with design. And more recently, I have been questioning what is the role of the dramaturg within design? Because there is a design dramaturgy. There is a dramaturgy of everything: acting dramaturgy, design dramaturgy, audience dramaturgy. There is a dramaturgy of life. I find with the practitioners that I work with here, as opposed to overseas, there is more awareness around process and people. Maybe because we have questions around what form is here, because we were introduced to theatre in the Western sense and the forms that that comes with. So because we move across time and space with form, there’s a question of how we all come together that’s very different from somewhere like for example, the States. If we’re working in musical theatre, they have such a grasp of what form that is, so that dramaturgy is super clear. Not that it is rote or anything, but they can be innovative within the structures of that form because they know what that thing is, whereas we don’t know anything. But that’s kind of the amazing part of it—that we are inventing as we go.

It’s so interesting because also, even in this conversation, you’re putting “traditional” in scare quotes, and referencing the western tradition. Ahi, you mentioned the Mahabharata, which makes me think of the Natya Shastra, which is basically a book of dramaturgy from a whole other culture [ancient Sanskrit text, attributed to Bharat]. And in Aotearoa / New Zealand there is a particular mash-up of all of those things, with a dose of “I don’t know.” So, relatedly, would you say you identify as a dramaturg, or specifically as an Aotearoa dramaturg? Or something more specific still, or does it move across those identifications?

Jane: I think just as a dramaturg. I think I’m trying to figure out what it is as well, still. I think it’s a lifelong question. It’s like, what is a director? I’m still trying to figure out that, and there is this new role that Ahi created for Scenes From a Yellow Peril, which is production Aunty and Uncle, because that’s just your bag of tricks: “Will do anything and everything that’s needed.” And actually that role is clearer than all of these other ones.

Ahi: It was only two, maybe three years ago that I put dramaturg on my CV. I was doing the work. I was going into productions and helping. I mean, often when I get enlisted to come and do some dramaturgy, you are just there to help. And sometimes I think some of our producers or some of our organisations, even they themselves are unclear what the role of the dramaturg is, because it’s got so many tentacles and it can become so many different things. But I remember putting it on my email signature and then also, probably spending way too many hours trying to think, “Should I put E after the G or not”? And then what that means. I think we had that conversation, Jane. I think it is an ever-evolving thing. And whatever they want and need is depending on who sets that. And maybe that’s the Sri Lankan thing. You know, we’re always in servitude to whatever the work is and whoever set up that post. That might be the producer or that might be the writer or that might be the director. Whoever has initiated that call, then that’s what the dramaturg’s role is. Which I think has shifted now, but I think that’s where my current placement is.

Thinking again of non-Western dramaturgies, the Natya Shastra is quite prescribed, isn’t it; even how many feet the stage should be?

Ahi: Yes, the nine tastes? It’s really fascinating, because I think, maybe it was in second year, at Vic, we were looking at some of the European fundamentals that we were learning, and then, looking at this book, and part of my journey in the last five years has been marrying those two. Often I work a lot with trained or established writers. Or I work in the community spaces where the concept, some of the academics or some of the terminologies, it’s not there, but there is definitely a hunt or a need for someone to hold a certain role, and they may not call it a dramaturg in the traditional sense. But if you look at even historical Tamil or Hindu temple productions, there’s always been a person who’s been sitting in the corner of the room, who’s taking notes, who then gives it to the writer and the director like that. That is dramaturgy. That’s what they’ve been doing. There’s no word for it in Tamil, but their role is to capture and then to filter and feedback; to look at when the audience was in rapturous laughter. When were they sleeping? What were these moments? And so, in a way, that’s what they’re doing. Some of those codes have always been in there, and it’s just about us, as we keep digging deeper to keep finding, getting these resources to do that.

Could you share anything that’s in your dramaturgical tool kit?

Jane: This is what I use as a director, but I’d use it for both, I guess. I start and I make a list of what do I know and what do I not know? And what do I have questions about? And then there are the fundamentals. What are the nights of the performance? What time of the year is it? Who is it written by? Is it written? Is it devised? How many people are involved? Does it require musicians? How many musicians do we need? Which is literally the conversation we were having just before this call, which was, ‘Ahi, can you perform? How many musicians make a band and can you move with your instrument?’  So those would be questions. Then that would go into the I don’t know category, which would be, ‘How many musicians make a band?’ for example. And then that just helps me clearly figure out what the next stages are, or what the challenges are. One of the biggest things, though, for me, as both director and dramaturg is, what are the questions of the work? What is it like? Who is it like? What is it trying to move for us? And not trying to answer that question, or to answer that question with more questions, but just asking, what’s at the heart of the work?

This is prompting so many more strands for conversation. Everything you’re saying makes sense to me. Dramaturgy is a Germanic term, but every established theatre tradition has some kind of dramaturgical guidebook, and then in Aotearoa / New Zealand, we don’t quite have a tradition, or are finding a tradition by mixing different traditions.

Jane: I remember when we did Scenes From a Yellow Peril and someone said, this is such a new form, and I’m like, it’s really not. It’s older than naturalism, because it’s predicated on Greek Theatre, mainly because Nathan had written all these Greek references in. There’s a chorus and the chorus leader. And then there was the spoken word poetry or smash poetry as I like to call it, but that’s really traditional storytelling, like a traveler going to different places and telling the story. In a sense, it was way more traditional than any of the forms that we normally think of as traditional in New Zealand [Aotearoa], and I think just trying to break out of that will help us figure out what our own identity is around dramaturgy and around live performance.

Ahi: How does an audience receive some things that are old and traditional, but that are so new to them? If you studied theatre at University, then you would have done classics or Greek Theatre, but my family and my community would have never seen Greek Theatre. So, the idea of a chorus speaking in unison would be such a revolutionary thing for them. But if they grew up in Sri Lanka, then the response is, “Oh, that’s an oratory recitation kind of process.”  So it’s about understanding different perspectives and understanding the process of creation. I think what I learned with Tawata is that because the room is held entirely by indigenous practitioners, they are really clear about who they are making their work for. And therefore, with that, asking what is it that they want the work to do? And what is it that they want and how do they want people to leave at the end of that experience? That changes when we are working with practitioners and communities entering new spaces and new places.  

In my own making process, I have always wrestled, since I finished drama school, with the question of for whom am I making my work? Because when I think about the organisations that programme me, like in the Auckland Arts Festival or the Auckland Theatre Company, it is subscribed or attended by a predominantly Pākehā [New Zealander of European descent/non-Māori] audience. So, I’m acutely aware of who that audience is, but then I’m still speaking specifically to a community that I want to address. So, when I was working with my dramaturg, it was really important for me to have a dramaturg who can understand some of those cultural nuances and the conversations that we’re having. But at the same time, I’m also mindful that there is going to be sixty to seventy percent of the audience who don’t have these given circumstances. So, I guess it’s like navigating between multiple spaces and how an interesting intersection of knowledge can sit within this. The work can translate and speak to people on different levels and different ways.

One final question. It was actually one of the first questions, and then I skipped over it because you began by saying dramaturgy is very hard to define. How would you define dramaturgy?

Ahi: I think for me, a dramaturg’s work is being able to look at all the devices, all the choices, or the movable elements that help create a live event of some sort, and a dramaturg’s role is to look critically and imaginatively, and perhaps philosophically and metaphorically, at how these things can help aid, amplify or subvert what it is that the collaborative team or the creative team wants to say. So, in a way, it is looking at all of those elements—and that could be through design, that could be through performers, that could be through so many different ways—but ultimately, looking at all the devices and choices, and thinking about the choices and the effect.

Jane: I come back to your image, Ahi, of the person in the room writing notes and then handing them to the director, being able to read the work, or being able to articulate what you’re seeing. And it becomes this beautifully articulate thing from being able to read the work and being able to reflect back what is happening.

I think those are beautiful answers. Thank you so much.


Endnotes

[1] Ahilan Karunaharan is a writer, actor, director and producer of Srilankan Tamil descent. From intimate encounters to large-scale epics, pioneering works for the South Asian community, international arts festivals, immersive participatory installations and musicals, Karunaharan has been involved in shows, productions and festivals both nationally and internationally.

[2] Jane Yonge  creates work that responds to two strands: Aotearoa / New Zealand identity, specifically how New Zealanders deal (or fail to deal) with cultural identity. The other strand is grief, memory, and loss. Jane uses a combination of genres and theatrical forms to investigate these themes: comedy, satire, and psychological thriller: https://www.janeyonge.nz/.

[3] Penny, Christian, Jade Erikson, David Geary, and Penny Fitt,with contributions from Toi Whakaari: NZ Drama School Graduating Class 2004, Penumbra. Directed by Christian Penny and Jade Eriksen,Toi Whakaari, 2004; Auckland Arts Festival, SKYCITY Theatre, 10-17 March 2007.

[4] Karunaharan, Ahi, Tea. Directed by Ahi Karunaharan, Auckland Arts Festival, Loft, Q Theatre, 9–18 March 2018.

[5] Vyasa, Mahābhārata, circa 300 BCE-300 CE; Valmiki, Ramayana, circa 800 BCE-200 CE.

[6] Joe, Nathan, Losing Face. Directed by Samuel Phillips, Loft, Q Theatre, 9 – 19 August 2023

[7] S. Shakthidharan, Counting and Cracking. Directed by Eamon Flack. Belvoir St. Theatre, 11 January–2 February 2019.

[8] Joe, Nathan, Scenes From a Yellow Peril. Directed by Jane Yonge, Auckland Theatre Company, SquareSums&Co, and Oriental Maidens, ASB Waterfront Theatre, 21 June–3 July, 2022; Karunaharan, Mixtape; Singh, Ankita, Basmati Bitch. Directed by Jane Yonge. Auckland Theatre Company, Q Theatre. 


 Photo: Emily Roper

*Alison Walls is a theatre practitioner, scholar, and teacher. She holds a doctorate in Theatre and Performance Studies from The Graduate Center, CUNY, an MFA in Acting from Sarah Lawrence College, and an MA in French Literature from Victoria University of Wellington. Alison is Artistic Director at The Court Theatre in Ōtautahi, Christchurch.

Copyright © 2023 Alison Walls
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