“I don’t know why I cried, but I did.” Diversity and the Dramaturgy of Impact in Australian Theatre for Young People

Paul Rae* and Abbie Victoria Trott**


In this paper, we use Melbourne Theatre Company’s production of Rashma M. Kalsie’s 2017 play Melbourne Talam as a case study to explain where and how a dramaturgical sensibility can be identified as arcing across the lifespan of a theatrical event, from production, through performance, to reception. In taking a whole-of-process perspective that turns on the question of what participants thought was “impactful” in the production as it variously emerged in rehearsal discussions, materialised in actors’ performances, and was recollected by youth audience members several months later, we argue that the immanent dramaturgy of the work was disclosed, and that this speaks to the nature of migrant experience in contemporary Australia. 

Keywords: dramaturgy, impact, theatre for young people, migration, Rashma N. Kalsie, Melbourne theatre company

“I don’t know why I cried, but I did” is something a fifteen-year-old student at an Australian state school said during a workshop we conducted in 2015 to explore audience responses to the Melbourne Theatre Company Education show I Call My Brothers (2013), by Jonas Hassen Khemiri. This perplexed and perplexing line exemplifies some of the most compelling features from our research into three successive Melbourne Theatre Company Education touring shows: powerful experiences for indeterminate reasons with multifarious results. In this article, we focus on another of those performances—Melbourne Talam (2017) by Rashna M. Kalsie— to showcase a dramaturgically-informed approach to such research, and to demonstrate its value in assessing the complex impacts that theatre can have on youth audiences, how those impacts come about, and where they go.[1]

What do we mean by “complex impacts”? I Call My Brothers evidently had a powerful impact on the audience member quoted above, and understanding the source of such impact is arguably something of a holy grail among many who are invested in the continuing appeal of theatre engaging with young people. From theatre artists seeking to create that appeal anew and performance researchers interested in how it happens, to arts managers who want or need to demonstrate impact, not least to those who fund them, understanding the relationship between social impact and young theatre audiences across a range of stakeholders is vital. Yet the affective character of the reported effect upon this particular audience member not only flies in the face of the quantifying impetus that drives many measures of impact; its contradictory or occulted aspect (“I don’t know why…”) suggests that focusing on what the audience member knew or was consciously aware of, was at odds with what the work did.

Numerous scholars have identified the challenge such complexities pose to artistic understanding. Eleonora Belfiore and Oliver Bennett state the issue in uncompromising terms when they write: “it is not possible to make any meaningful broad generalisation about how people respond to the arts, and if or how they might be affected by the experience. Even less plausible is the possibility of actually ‘measuring’ any of these aspects” (1). Julian Meyrick, Robert Phiddian and Tully Barnett ask linked questions: “At what point do we stop trying to measure something and try to understand it better? What would this involve, exactly, if we were to do it?” (xiv).

Within Theatre Studies, there has accordingly been a move to understand audience experience by applying participatory and other qualitative models which move beyond the focus on impact as a measurable outcome. Matthew Reason has done innovative work with youth audiences generating non-verbal responses to theatre and dance performances, which then form the basis of guided conversations (2006, 2010). Kirsty Sedgman argues for the importance of paying close attention to how audiences articulate their responses, to arrive at “a situated understanding of the processes by which different people worked (and…struggled) to make sense of their experiences” (317). Julia M. Ritter, meanwhile, has brought a mixed-methods ethnographic approach to her analysis of the fan culture surrounding Punchdrunk’s immersive theatre hit Sleep No More (2003 onwards), to make the case for the spectators as themselves “both incidental and intentional ethnographers” (61) These and other wide-ranging research efforts are significantly expanding understandings of how audiences contribute and respond to theatrical events.

However, while this emphasis on audience research in understanding audience experiences is a necessary corrective to the under-representation of experience in theatre scholarship, too exclusive a focus on audiences may risk reinforcing a conventional chronological distinction between production, performance, and reception. In fact, these elements are continuous with each other, immanent to each other, and thickly informed by prior and anticipated experiences on the part of all participants. In examining how spectators “modulate” performance events, for instance, Marie-Madeleine Mervant-Roux suggests that the audience “acts like a great ‘resonator’ of the production, both during and immediately after, but also long after the performances” (223): they are continuously present in the work. When we therefore take “the audience” to be present, whether as idea or actuality, throughout the creative process, understanding where and how impact happens requires a correspondingly dramaturgical sensibility that begins in production, transforms through performance, and extends and expands through audience reception.

As a practice in its own right, dramaturgy is most often conceived as a creative activity within the production process. However, if we take the scope and aspirations of dramaturgy seriously as researchers, then there is value in expanding that frame by bringing a dramaturgical sensibility to bear upon the entire life-course of a theatrical production (and indeed those that precede and follow it). This approach was envisaged in creative settings by the Australian theatre scholar and dramaturg Peter Eckersall. Writing in a 2006 article, he described how the Dramaturgy and Cultural Intervention Project with which he was then involved aimed “to discover how arts production can extend beyond singular events and activities and contemplate an artistic life that is yet to be realised.” He continues: “Dramaturgy is a process that might describe this transaction and this possibility” (295).

In our research, we have sought to reproduce a similar approach by tying the various dimensions of a given work together. We piloted the method in researching I Call My Brothers in 2015, and further developed it in analysing Melbourne Talam in 2017. The research included rehearsal observation, performance analysis and participatory workshops. We also undertook semi-structured interviews with the cast and director of Melbourne Talam before the season and with the cast on tour, and analysis of collateral materials generated by the production, including publicity and Stage Manager’s show reports. As a new work, the playwright of Melbourne Talam was present in the rehearsal room, and while she did not participate in an interview, her contributions were recorded as part of the rehearsal observations. Rachel Fensham and Megan Upton describe the post-performance workshops we did with young people as:

[e]xtending the idea of story-telling by replicating the activities of a rehearsal room – kinaesthetic and embodied, visual and spatial, narrative and discursive, argumentative and funny, judgmental and tolerant – in short, to organise the responses of secondary school students as a form of theatrical dramaturgy.


Taking a dramaturgical approach can be of particular value when theatre is created for audiences with distinct tastes, interests and interpretive priorities, as is the case in theatre for young people, since the idea of the audience arguably plays a heightened role in the theatre-makers’ creative decision making. For example, reflecting on the cultural diversity of a Victorian schools’ audience, relative to Melbourne Theatre Company’s more demographically homogenous subscriber base, Melbourne Talam director Petra Kalive noted that “it’s really important for this play to happen in front of that audience because those students see themselves represented on stage and think that then they are part of the conversation” (Kalive et al). This desire to make theatre that is heightened by the dynamics of representation, identification, and intercultural production and reception reflects broader trends around the diversification of Australian society, and the sector-wide desire to reflect this in the stories Australian theatre is telling its young people, and who gets to tell them.

Part of the reason the young audience member cited above cried at a particular moment in I Call My Brothers no doubt resides in a concatenation of personal experience and aesthetic effects. But it may also be possible to trace the emergence of that moment—or, perhaps more accurately, locate the moment of its anticipation, the larger motivations behind it, and how they cashed out audience-wide—in the creation of the performance. This is the possibility we were seeking to understand in researching Melbourne Talam.

The play tells the story of three Indian migrants to Melbourne seeking to survive financially and adapt so as to find their talam—a term from Carnatic music meaning metre, though referred to in the production as rhythm. The production ran at Melbourne Theatre Company’s Lawler theatre in Melbourne from 4-20 May 2017, before departing on a two-week, seven-venue tour to regional Victoria and Tasmania. Our goal was to take our insights from researching I Call My Brothers, and think expansively about how cultural difference in theatre for young people was at work across the production, performance and reception of Melbourne Talam, within the context of theatrical creation more broadly. This is not to say we were ultimately able to provide clear evidence of cause and effect, but rather to understand what forms key ideas took at particular moments in the life-cycle of the production. In what follows, we analyse this process, beginning with rehearsals, focusing on the audience-performer relationship from the actors’ point of view, and then considering audience responses. We conclude by reflecting on the value of dramaturgy as a frame for understanding the process as a whole, as well as our research into it.

Rehearsal: Anticipating Audiences (December 2016-April 2017)

Every play varies in the challenges it presents for interpretation by a creative team, and this is acute with a new script, which must be subjected to the stress test of a first staging. In the case of Melbourne Talam, director Petra Kalive and actors Rohan Mirchandaney, Sahil Saluja and Sonya Suares regularly referred to the rehearsal process as solving the play, and identified an answer in the title. Talam is both a theme of the play, and a key to its successful staging. In the opening scene, we are introduced to three characters who are out of sync with the rhythms of the city in ways they either do not understand, or cannot solve: IT guy Poorna (Saluja) likes to think he is at ease with his own rhythm, but this leaves him vulnerable to abrupt changes in those of his workplace and contributes to a debilitating accident mid-way through the play; impoverished student Jasminder (Mirchandaney) struggles to afford the basics of housing, food and transport that would allow him to enter Melbourne’s flow; and self-styled modern woman Sonali (Suares) believes she has embraced the dynamism of Melbourne as a Western city, only to discover the persistent pull of a more traditional rhythm beating away beneath the surface of her life. Opening at the underground Flagstaff railway station—a busy central intersection—the scene is quite literally set for the characters, who are initially unknown to each other, to confront the challenges of, first, making their trains, and subsequently navigating all the other connections and syncopations their situations throw at them.

Rohan Mirchandaney, Sahil Saluja and Sonya Suares in the opening scene of Melbourne Talam (2017). Melbourne Talam written by Rashma M. Kalsie, directed by Petra Kalive, Melbourne Theatre Company, The Lawler, Southbank Theatre, performed by Rohan Mirchandaney, Sahil Saluja and Sonya Suares, May 2017. Photo: Jeff Busby

From a practical point of view, solving the play involved sustaining the attention of audiences who could not, predominantly, be presumed to be familiar with the characters’ cultural milieu, coming as they did from culturally diverse communities across Melbourne and regional Victoria. Indeed, one of the most distinctive features of the play was not that it presented “the” Indian experience of migration to Melbourne—but three quite distinct such experiences. The process of ensuring that a majority non-Indian audience would not feel overwhelmed by unfamiliar circumstances and allusions began with interactions among creative team members themselves, with the actors and playwright explaining details and providing context for their colleagues in the rehearsal room.

The focus on rhythm also enabled the team to determine where cultural exposition was not required: emphasizing the overall flow and pacing of the play also allowed for the introduction of references and other details that could ensure a greater fidelity to the source experiences and cultural legitimacy in the eyes of those audience members who would be familiar with the Indian and Australian-Indian contexts. This was particularly apparent around the use of language. The play is peppered with exclamations and references to other people and to everyday life in Hindi and Punjabi. Early script work entailed a complex set of negotiations around such terms. While a primary focus of the director was to communicate the characters clearly and immediately to the audience, this was a matter of ensuring clear intention rather than transparent meaning. When the actors felt uncomfortable saying an English word, an Indian language equivalent was chosen instead, as when “jaan,” a Hindi term of affection, replaced “baby.” In this case and others (such as the exclamations “arere” and “kya yaar;” or “Kantabai” to refer to Sonali’s childhood maid), the words themselves could not be presumed to be understood by the majority of the audience (observation February 2017). But the sounds they made, and their contribution to the rhythm and flow of the speech, came to the fore as the primary vehicle of meaning and emotional expression.

For the actors, one of whom, Saluja, was born in India, and the other two in Australia, this is turn highlighted complex challenges of identification. Finding the basis on which the audience would identify with the characters lay in how the actors identified with them. Mirchandaney admitted to early anxieties about passing as the India-born characters, mentioning that he felt more drawn to the Australian characters, of Indian and non-Indian heritage alike (Mirchandaney et al). Suares drew on the inter-generational experiences of her family to develop the character of Sonali, who, as the only woman and only one of the three to return to India at the end of the play, presents an ambivalent take on female empowerment (Mirchandaney et al).[2] Saluja had read the role of Jasminder, a Sikh, in an earlier iteration of the play. As a Sikh himself, he confessed to retaining a particular identification with that role, even though he was subsequently cast as Poorna, a Hindu, based, presumably, on other aspects of his personality and demeanour suiting him to portray Poorna’s character and trajectory through the play (Mirchandaney).

Original marketing images, and book cover of Melbourne Talam (2017) Melbourne Theatre Company

These considerations worked themselves out through myriad practical details and creative decisions as rehearsals unfolded. For example, an early concern raised by Suares over publicity threw the question of audience identification into sharp relief. On the first day of the creative development week, she asked why a stock image was being used for Melbourne Talam—one depicting the rail system of Melbourne’s longstanding metropolitan rival Sydney —when publicity for all of Melbourne Theatre Company’s mainstage shows featured pictures of their respective cast members. Suares’s concerns were twofold. First, that a rare performance featuring an exclusively non-white cast should rely on a stock image risked reinscribing generic visibility for minorities at the expense of individual distinctiveness. Second, it was a lost opportunity for the publicity images to initiate a relationship between audience and performers that would carry over into the live event (Mirchandaney et al). Melbourne Theatre Company shot new publicity images with the actors, and Suares later recounted meeting ethnically Indian audience members who had come on the basis of the poster, underscoring how she felt that the publicity had become particularly “meaningful” because people who might otherwise not feel welcome in the theatre were “invited into this space” (Mirchandaney et al).

Revised marketing image for Melbourne Talam (2017) Melbourne Theatre Company

These are just some of the ways in which anticipation of the audience figured in the creative process. The discovery of key concepts that could inform both theme and form, the seeding of audience relations in interactions amongst the team, and between actors and characters, and in pre-show visual representations, can be generalised to other cases. As our research subsequently demonstrated, however, while this contributed to an effective performance for many audience members, specific impacts were—perhaps necessarily—impossible to predict.

Performance: Talam Variations (May-June 2017)

We can gain fascinating insights into where and how what was planned in the Melbourne Talam rehearsals was stress-tested in performance by analysing the show reports written by stage manager Lisette Drew, whose sustained attention to the show and unique knowledge of its functioning provides a trove of data about the smallest variations between individual performances in Melbourne and on tour in May—June 2017. Because of her immersion in the production, Drew was able, as one of us has described it elsewhere, to “trace how moments of impact develop in the room, become realised on stage, and are echoed by the audience” (Trott 253).

The readiest evidence of audience engagement in the 31 show reports of Melbourne Talam comes in the lists of laugh lines (which are plentiful at the beginning of the play) and the wow factor when a hidden travelator in the set first begins to move. The reports also underscore how wide-ranging are the details that can influence or indeed disrupt a performance. Obvious examples include phones ringing, technical faults and latecomers. More distinctive factors include a transition from the Melbourne run to the first regional venue in Mildura, 550km northwest, where “excited giggles could be heard in all the usual places and also in some different moments” (Drew 23 May); a teacher shushing a class, leading to a more subdued response overall (25 May); and an inopportune laugh that “broke up the tension” of a scene (6 June).

The reports also record variations in the tone and pace of the show. In particular, we see Drew tracking the fate of the director’s and actors’ preoccupation in rehearsal with finding the right rhythm for the piece. The report (5 May) for the opening performance notes that “[d]espite a few line fumbles, the cast did a beautiful job at finding their rhythm and flow with the audience responses”). Thereafter, some performances (9 May) are disjointed—“[t]he rhythm varied in scenes but this didn’t stop the laughs or affect the storytelling” while others (10 May) maintained “a consistent pace and rhythm throughout.” Again, a variety of factors influence this. For instance, on 30 May playing the “largest venue” (Bendigo’s Ulumbarra Theatre) to the “smallest house” on the tour “threw our rhythm off slightly,” and the return to a more intimate space the following day (31 May) meant “we could connect again to the storytelling.” Disruptive audience members also took their toll. Drew speculates that on 15 May “some rude remarks” from an audience member in an early scene made the rest of the audience quieter, leading to “some out of sync moments” from the actors. The following day (May 16), however, despite a “rowdy” school group who engaged in “wolf whistling in Sonali scenes and laughing at inappropriate moments”, “[t]he cast were focused…and didn’t let the disruptions get to them”.

One can also discern in the reports a growing confidence on the part of the actors with one of the most challenging aspects of the play: although it begins light-heartedly, Poorna’s accident at the climax of Act One changes the mood, and the play ends on a somber and ambivalent note. While early reports foreground the Act One laugh lines, later reports reference the “quiet attentiveness” (Drew) of the audience (on May 18), who were “in tune with the storytelling and were listening intently,” empathising with “all three main characters.” This further allows for specific effects to be noted: an attempted suicide scene caused the audience (on May 23) to feel “quite a bit of shock” in one show; an earlier scene in which the same character toys with a knife (on June 9) made the crowd “quite uncomfortable;” and by the penultimate performance (on June 8), Drew noted that “[t]he accident was chilling today and left me breathless.”

Rohan Mirchandaney, Sahil Saluja and Sonya Suares when Jasminder has his accident at the end of Act 1 of Melbourne Talam (2017). Melbourne Talam written by Rashma M. Kalsie, directed by Petra Kalive, Melbourne Theatre Company, The Lawler, Southbank Theatre, performed by Rohan Mirchandaney, Sahil Saluja and Sonya Suares, May 2017 Photo: Jeff Busby

In interview later in the tour, the actors reflected on their experience, corroborating and elaborating on what the show reports were documenting. Before opening, the actors had had a number of preoccupations: managing the stage business of prop and costume-based character transformations; telling the story well; and worrying that the play’s negative representation of white Australians was one-note. In practice, both the show and the actors’ experience of the audience was more nuanced. The question of identification played itself out in particularly rich ways. The opening scenes have, in Suares’s word, “buoyancy” (Mirchandaney et al), eliciting laughter from audience members. This provided audience and actors alike with an opportunity to relax into the performance, and establish rapport. More muted responses to the later scenes were harder to interpret, and the actors developed numerous strategies for recognising audience engagement. Suares described using the direct address mode of the play to seek out particularly responsive individuals, saying of her character Sonali: “She really solicits. If someone laughs at a funny moment, the next line is all [directed at] that person because they’re there and they’re with you and that kind of helps you bubble it along” (Mirchandaney et al). Saluja, on the other hand, noted that in the absence of audible audience feedback, it was important not to lose confidence, but dig into the text, finding new resources for further nuancing the character. Suares explained how she discovered latent dimensions to the character in response to some boorish heckling from young male audience members in Melbourne, highlighting to her that the characterization of Sonali as largely suffering from traditionalist attitudes back home in Delhi risked overlooking the more subterranean misogyny women face in Australia, where “not even the operating logic of the theatre audience and stage relationship with them” can override “a complete entitlement to just harass” (Mirchandaney et al).

At the same time, the initial concern that audiences would view the play as one-dimensional on racism did not materialize, though the reasons are complex. Partly, it is because, while representing Indian nationals, the Indian-Australian cast was recognisably Australian in their capacity to represent a range of Australian characters, and partly because audiences that include school groups are particularly reflective of Australia’s increasingly diverse young population. But it is also because the themes of the play—pithily summarised by Mirchandaney as “discovering your identity through displacement” (Kalise et al)—are not limited to the specific cultural context depicted, and were perhaps particularly resonant in parts of the state where Melbourne looms large in the aspirations of young people who live regionally, several hours’ drive or train ride from urban centres. A final reason is suggested by Suares, who noted that the presence of multiple Indian characters on stage, rather than a stock one amongst other cultural backgrounds, granted Indian people “their full range of humanity.” In these identifications, a culturally dominant audience “are invited to do the same imaginatively as …[we] non-white people [who] go to the theatre are expected or invited to do for a character…your whole life” (Mirchandaney et al).

A final unexpected aspect of the actors’ experience of identification was the importance of post-show discussions. Mirchandaney noted that culturally and linguistically diverse audience members tended to speak up more on the tour (Mirchandaney et al). This could be because they had fewer opportunities for such public identifications on stage, and also because it provided a supportive environment to give voice to their own experiences in front of their classmates. As noted earlier, the script is striking for the amount of exposition it contains. Some of this was cut in rehearsal. But it may also testify to the ways that arrival in culturally unfamiliar surroundings demands narration and self-narration within the migrant experience. The play opens with Poorna arriving at Flagstaff Station:

Poorna: Is that my train?
He walks up to the train, studies the information scrolling on the train.
Hurstbridge – that’s not mine, thank God. Let me check the TV screen.
He goes up to the display monitor, scans it. His umbrella is dripping. He shakes it, spraying water all over.
Ah, there’s plenty of time for my train. Now I can relax.
He sits down on a seat.
I could have taken the earlier train if I had walked faster but I was enjoying Carnatic music in my mother’s voice.
He inserts earphones, switches on music on his phone.
Aah! ‘Vathapi Ganpathim’ … I recorded this when amma was doing her morning practice. All my life I have woken up to this song.

Kalsie Melbourne Talem 1

Here, Poorna’s ostensibly interior monologue is not only given external form, but lent an expositional cast for the benefit of the audience. It is a multilateral register which captures something of the experience of displacement. In this case, Poorna syncopates his participation in the scheduled rhythms of his adopted city with the comforting elaborations of the ragas sung every morning by his mother in a hymn to the Hindu deity Ganesha. More broadly, this narrative mode points to the ways in which the experience of a new place can prompt a constant monologue of speculation about and interpretation of one’s surroundings, which in turn seem to demand that one explain oneself and justify one’s presence. This in turn is amplified in reports home, and the navigation of social interactions. In some ways, we might see Melbourne Talam as itself an extension of this, on the part of its writer, an expatriate Indian now living in Australia. It is what makes for a play that addresses diverse audience members and interpolates them into the experiences of its characters, while at the same time complicating simple identifications. Self-narration both expresses the self and divides one from it. Investigating audience responses directly enabled us to explore this in greater depth.

Reception: Residual Audience Impacts (August-September 2017)

In August and September 2017 we conducted workshops with three regional senior high school drama classes who had seen Melbourne Talam. The first school was on the edge of Geelong, an industrial city 100km southwest of Melbourne, the second on the northern rim of Melbourne, and the third in Wodonga, a rural city 250km to the northeast. The workshops lasted ninety to one hundred and twenty minutes, and took place in the students’ usual learning environments.

By contrast with our assessment of the intentions and preoccupations of the creative team – and perhaps in line with the unpredictability of reception embedded in the crying audience member of I Call My Brothers cited at the beginning of this article—cultural difference was not a theme or consideration that any of the participants volunteered during the workshops. Having noted the absence of this theme during the first workshop, we sought to address it directly with a more culturally diverse second group. In a writing exercise, we included a review that directly commented on cultural diversity stating: “our relationship as an audience to the material is vital in allowing us to empathise with the characters and connect. But equally important, is this diversity on our stages” (Della Bosca). We asked the students: “what does the reviewer mean by diversity in this context?” After some thought, one participant answered: “of characters I would say…they all came from…different socioeconomic statuses” (workshop August 31, 2017). When asked directly if “diversity” could mean “cultural diversity,” one participant did say “it’s true what the writer was talking about how she was saying…they [the characters] can’t fit in because their culture’s different” (workshop August 31, 2017). But overwhelmingly the participants agreed that the differences related to “the difficulties they [the characters] face” (workshop August 31, 2017) amongst themselves, and not differences that were generalisable to their being Indian, nor indeed to cultural differences between the characters and the audience.

In the third school, we framed the question differently again, asking where the participants’ empathy for and identification with the characters came from. One participant responded: “I haven’t been sent back to India, but you can empathise because it’s such as realistic thing, it’s not like fake. It really happens, and they showed that it’s like a real thing” (workshop September 1, 2017). One could speculate that the participants were deliberately avoiding the “sensitive” topic of race and ethnicity. But our reading from the tone of the answers, supported by a follow-up conversation with teachers, was that these audience members’ identification with and empathy for the characters was stronger than any perceptions of their difference from them. Where there were relevant differences, they were specific to the individual. This reflected the goals of the creative team, who concluded that achieving the right level of specificity for each character by making them as Suares notes: “heroes in their own narrative” (Kalive et al) would resonate with teenagers’ own sense of self-discovery and enable broad possibilities for identification.

Nevertheless, as researchers we were surprised that cultural difference was not raised by the participants in the workshops. Were we asking the wrong questions to draw this out, or is it an example of being more out of touch with youth audiences than we thought? This latter possibility was supported by the differing outcomes of a simple survey we ran as part of the workshop, as well as during our interactions with theatre professionals and educators. Participants were asked to circle three words drawn from a variety of industry and academic reports which best describe how theatre affects young audiences. What was important to young people, meaning, was quite different from what the people who worked with them thought: they prioritised enthusiasm and belonging. This underscores the fact that what is important to young people is at variance with adult-determined narratives that scaffold much theatre for young people and its reception. For this reason, the participatory model of audience research has become central to ensuring that youth audiences can explore the impact of theatre on their lives by allowing for the vagaries of memory, the precision of recollection, and a recognition of the complex and dynamic relationship between audience reception and artist intention.

Conclusion: Dramaturgies of Research

For Anne Hamilton and Walter Byongsok Chon, “[d]ramaturgy is a process integral to the origination, development, production, and reception of plays and theatrical performance,” which fosters a dramaturgical sensibility: “the ability to question, reflect on, and act on the creative choices that bear fruit on the page, the stage, and beyond” (1). From a practical point of view, this description risks being too capacious to be useful. But from a research perspective, it highlights the importance of thinking continuously across the many activities that comprise a theatre production, which is not as common a practice as one might think.

Granted, such an approach can be time-consuming. Researchers need a nuanced understanding of theatre-making, and the process produces complex and ambiguous data that require careful interpretation. While these are clear impediments for resource-poor theatre companies, however, it behoves researchers—and, ideally, other stakeholder agencies—to recognise that meeting these challenges promises to produce much richer and more accurate accounts of what a given event did or did not mean or achieve. Such impacts rarely move in a straight line, and a dramaturgical approach can also highlight points of disconnect, where anticipated effects fail to materialise or are adapted over the course of a run, while audiences themselves make their own meanings from the unexpected ways the work resonates with their personal circumstances.

In an increasingly diverse theatre for young people landscape, the stakes in understanding such phenomena are particularly high. Theatre-makers are creating work for audiences who are often hungry for meaning and identification, and find it across a range of stories and experiences older generations may be tempted to distinguish along conventional lines of difference. This is not to say such differences are unimportant—rather that their handling will be significantly informed by the countless details of individual productions that researchers are well-placed to observe.

In the case of Melbourne Talam, for instance, we would highlight two closing observations that arose out of the research approach we took. One concerns casting. Beyond matching an actor to a character, our research highlighted the integral role the actors played in enhancing the impacts of the production overall: their critical perspectives on how the performance was being represented, their resourcefulness in shaping the play in rehearsal and performance (including nuanced self-reflection in aligning the worlds of their characters with their own lived experience), and their articulate engagement with audience members during post-show Q+As, cannot be taken as a given amongst all actors. In a sense, these actors played the project, rather than only the role.

The second implication is the necessity of complex theatrical material: something that the creative team can engage with rigorously and expansively so as to ensure its integrity, and that audiences can find their own way into and through. Young people in particular respond powerfully to powerful performances. They are looking to identify with characters, and are creative and open-minded in finding opportunities to do so. However, it is hard to predict exactly what they will find most powerful, and it may be the hallmark of a good production that this varies from performance to performance. Diversity is necessary—but it is not an end-point in itself.

In one of our Melbourne Talam workshops, a sixteen year-old participant volunteered that she had cried during the performance. In this case, she had a clearer idea of the reason than the audience member cited at the beginning of this article: she found the scene of Poorna’s accident upsetting. And we had a clearer idea of the reason, too. We had watched how much work had gone into drawing the audience into the world of the play and shaping the narrative so that an otherwise melodramatic moment would be powerful and meaningful. As director Petra Kalive said of the characters: “They all have moments of success in the first act…Then when the rug is pulled out from under their feet with the train accident and the moments after that, as they are literally unmasked, we can plot through that as they recover, discover themselves anew, and then move on. Or not” (Kalive et al). A similar thing might be said of the audience. Tears spring from many sources.

NOTE: Funding: This work was supported by Australian Research Council: [Grant Number LP160100047].


[1] We also researched Hungry Ghosts by Jean Tong, the 2018 Melbourne Theatre Company Education production, using a similar process.

[2] For a discussion of how Suares’s experience as a second generation migrant has informed her career as an actor and her approach to acting, see Rae, Peterson and Suares.


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Photo: Courtesy of the author

*Paul Rae is Professor of Theatre Studies and Head of the School of Culture and Communication at the University of Melbourne. He is the author of Real Theatre: Essays in Experience (2019) and Theatre & Human Rights (2009), co-editor, with Tracy Davies, of The Cambridge Guide to Mixed Methods Research in Theatre and Performance Studies (2024), and a former editor of Theatre Research International. Paul is currently working on two books: Performing Islands and Mousetraps: Adventures in Theatrical Capture. 

Photo: Courtesy of the author

**Abbie Victoria Trott researches postdigital theatre with audiences. She is an experienced theatre, circus, and multimedia performance stage and production manager. Abbie has taught theatre, media and technical production at a tertiary level since 2013 and is published in the International Journal of Performance Arts and Digital Media and Australasian Drama Studies.

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