When people learn that I am a theatre person, I tell them I practice dramaturgy. The conversation continues with: “Drama, what? What is that?” One of the most difficult tasks a dramaturg can perform is defining dramaturgy itself. Theatre people will never agree on a single definition, but the pieces of literature agree that the goal of dramaturgy in the creative process of performance-making is to resolve the antipathy between the intellectual and the practical, fusing them into an organic whole.
I am a dramaturg. I am also a teacher. I believe my dramaturgical practice informs my teaching and vice versa.
The dramaturg enters the rehearsal hall. She asks questions about the visions and intentions of the people involved in the production. She listens and eventually makes sense of the discussion points. Later, she constructs a structure based on everyone’s insights. This structure is then used as the conceptual framework of the play production. She also makes sure that the play’s concept is communicated to the audience intellectually and aesthetically. In the end, she is proud of her creative process: to make good theatre better.
The teacher, on the other hand enters the classroom. She asks questions about the day’s lesson. She listens to her students. She engages them in conversations. She makes sense of the discussion points of everybody. Later, she integrates all points and come up with a synthesis. She is proud of her work: to mold them to be better artists, better scholars and most importantly better individuals.
Some writings about dramaturgy describe the dramaturg’s creative process as critical provocateur or someone who takes care of the context of the play. Others describe his primary role as the person-in-charge of the educational aspect of the play, calling him a literary manager because of his intermediary role between the production and the audience. Finally, some call her the script doctor or someone who diagnoses and gives prognosis as to whether a playscript is stageable or not.
Despite the many definitions and descriptions, scholars and artists share three dramaturgical principles. These principles activate my teaching vocation, hence, my personal framework that informs my teaching philosophy.
First, dramaturgical process takes questions seriously. When I was a young educator, I was terrified when I see a student raising his hand after a discussion because for certain the student would ask a question. Back then, I believed that I was expected to immediately provide an answer. I was very insecure. In one conversation I had with a mentor, I told her about this fear. Her advice was a story of two woodcutters. Both of them are given the same kind of axe and they are given the same amount of time to cut woods. For every hour of cutting wood, they were given 15 minutes to rest. However, one woodcutter had a more sizable amount of wood compared to the other one. On their way home, the other asked, “how come you cut more than I did, we have the same kind of axe and the same amount of time.” His response: “I was sharpening my axe every time we rested.”
This story implied two things. First, the questions from the students are part of their learning growth – they ask because they wonder. They paid attention to details. They did not just hear the discussion, but they listened well. They did not just see the point, but they noticed the big picture. Second, the story reminded me that I should not be afraid to admit that some of the questions may not be answered instantly. I may not even have the answers to their questions – yet. As part of the learning process, I also learn along the way. We are all in it together. Besides, learning is a long journey, and it includes shifts, turns, irregular roads, where along the way, detours and stop-overs are necessary. We cannot rush the sojourn. My students and I are all part of this journey and it depends on us if we make it enjoyable even if there are rough roads along the way. As an assurance, I tell them, we will get there – we will reach the destination. However, if we do not engage, respect and enjoy the process, appreciating the end point will be difficult.
Second, the dramaturg is often idealized as the fountain of information of a production, yet despite the drive to know everything about the play, his intellectual potency is very limited. We gain confidence in not being able to answer some questions instantaneously because we are not expected to know absolutely everything. Even if the teacher has a doctoral degree or even if he specializes in the area, we must not forget that our intellect is limited even if it has this endless drive to know. This is the paradox of knowing.
This is also the reason why dramaturgs, despite the expectation of knowing everything about the play, constantly navigate the archives to learn new insights and even to unlearn preconceived notions about the backstory of the characters, the context of the play, the background of the playwright, the historical milieu to which the play is situated, among other many critical aspects of the play. The dramaturgs provide renewed ways of perceiving the play but they are aware that their perceptions are just few of the many perceptions, hence, such perception cannot be treated as “the” gospel truth of the production.
As a teacher, I have a responsibility to my students to facilitate the road to truth-telling and truth-finding. But what is “the” truth? What is “the” true? Way back the thirteenth to the fourteenth century, it was truthful to say that the earth was the center of the universe. Also, a few centuries ago, to think of a flat earth was considered true.
I always tell my students that we are engage in the learning process because of that thirst and hunger for truth. In relation to this, I constantly caution them that sometimes when we arrive at our destination, we may be welcomed by something else and not the “truth” we expect. But this is not a reason to fret because this is the very reason why we engage in informed conversations. Besides, what we talk about truth in the classroom is always coming from the context of the subject in the hereand now. At the same time, most of the critical areas of the discussions are coming from various historicized human individuals composed of various positionalities. As human individuals, we are subject to err. Our positions are not the composition of the absolute or “the” truth. These positions are coming from our prejudices, from our interpretative framework, from our contemporaneity; hence, we are beings subject to commit mistakes. And when we err, it is not the end of learning, it is also part of learning – it is part of the drive to know. There is nothing wrong if we need to go back to where we started.
Third, the heart of dramaturgical process is collaboration. Collaboration here is defined as the engagement in a contrapuntal conversation where participants are not afraid if consensus is not met at once. This is a collaboration where we agree to disagree. This is a collaboration where we respect each other’s difference and that openness to difference is the collective’s ethical starting point.
Since early 2000s, during the heyday of dramaturgical methods in the theatre, collaboration has become an important conceptual practice in the theatre. With the intermediary disposition of the dramaturg, theatre making was transformed from the authority of the “me” often embodied by the director into the creation of the “we” – a performance collective. The buzzword became: we can make a difference together. “Just as diversity brings creative benefits, so collaboration does too,” says theatre artist Lyn Gardner.
Collaboration, whether on the stage or in the classroom, only comes about when all involved stop protecting their own self-interest and put the other’s interests before his/her own. Gardner adds, “a successful collaboration gets more out it than you do.” Remember, Charles Darwin once wrote, “those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed.” In this day and age, it is likely to prove the same thing in a classroom setting and for those making contemporary performance.
I am a teacher. I am a dramaturg.