Tuesday, 23 June 2015

Leo Burtin Makes Dramaturgy at Home

GKV: How would you explain the relevance - or otherwise - of

dramaturgy within your work?
Leo Burtin: I guess, I should start by acknowledging that the definition of dramaturgy that I am writing from is one that is relatively fluid, and doesn’t have particularly clear boundaries. Dramaturgy in my work means different things from one piece to the next. I guess this is somewhat obvious, and you can feel free to edit out this preamble if it doesn’t seem particularly helpful. 

It makes for a nice segue into thinking about dramaturgy as a process of editing. Dramaturgy is what turns a shapeless blob of material, thoughts, conversations, and whatever else my work might be made of at this point, into something which is a coherent whole.
One of my main collaborators on my latest piece, The Midnight Soup, Mark Whitelaw (who you could describe as a dramaturg), quite early on in the process asked of a bit of material “Is this just glitter?” This stayed with me, and dramaturgy became about chipping away at everything that wasn’t necessary. It was about questioning each piece of material, and thinking about how everything was going to be weaved together to form the piece.

This is something that is ongoing, and that we will carry on doing as the piece meets more and more audiences into the future.

Working with a dramaturg from the very start of the process, also created a space within which I couldn’t be precious about any of my ideas. There was another pair of eyes, another set of thoughts, an alternative look on the work… Anything that doesn’t serve a purpose, anything that doesn’t serve the work itself has to go…, or be made to work within the overall composition of the piece. In fact, this role, particularly in the case of The Midnight Soup, wasn’t only performed by Mark, but also by the rest of the team. Even though the piece looks like a solo performance, it’s very much a company creation.

When I make work that is genuinely solo (which is quite rare, really), the dramaturgy is in the audience really, and in my relationship to them.

How does this thing which I’ve made, and which makes sense to me, communicates with a stranger?

Dramaturgy to me, is also about what comes before I step in to the studio… It’s about the different sources, the different conversations, the different ideas which I carry with me (consciously or not), and it’s about acknowledging all of this, knowing that I can’t really ignore that all of it forms part of what makes me who I am, and my work what it is. 

It’s about analysing all of that, and seeing how much of it will influence what will become the performance, and to what extent it will contribute to making as good a piece as possible.

What particular traditions and influences would you acknowledge on your work - have any particular artists, or genres inspired you and do you see yourself within their tradition?I have had the gigantic privilege of working on Rajni Shah’s Glorious a few years ago. Out of this initial professional relationship, Rajni and I became close friends, and she became an unofficial mentor figure. Working with her enabled me to articulate more clearly the things I cared about, and to see what I would need to do, what skills I would need to develop to make the work that I want to make.

At university, I took a module in performance composition taught in part by Andy Smith, who is another person (of, I guess, a similar generation of artists as Rajni) whose work has hugely influenced me. I admire Andy’s ability to create a space where storytelling becomes the start of something much bigger, with ever expanding radical potential.

I also see a lot of work, by my peers, and by more established artists, the generation that has come before, and I have found a bit of a family in people who might describe their work as socially engaged practice… Which is a whole other can of worms which I won’t open here. I guess one tradition I see myself within, is the kind of tradition which places the individual, and what happens when a collection of individuals become the audience at the core of both the process and the work itself.

I guess there are also lots of influences which are a lot older… I have a passion for languages, and studied linguistics and ancient languages when I was younger. I grew up in rural France. I’ve read almost everything by Anne Percin and Christophe Spielberger. I am obsessed with Rimbaud and Ponge. All of these things, and many many more come into play… Every conversation I have, every person I meet, everything I see or read becomes a possible influence.

Do you have a particular process of making that you could describe - where it begins, how you develop it, and whether

there is any collaboration in the process?
This varies from piece to piece, and is again, something that is in constant flux, and for which I don’t have a specific answer.

I guess I could talk about the process behind The Midnight Soup, which really started nearly ten years ago, when my grandmother gave me her diary. After reading extracts from it, I was blown away by the poetry of her everyday life. I felt that there was a story to be told, of a life that there is seemingly nothing special about… I wrote a lot about banality, experimented with how simple words can create powerful images, and how what is left unsaid can mean a lot more than what is being said.

I guess I thought about all of this, and experimented with it, on and off for the ten years that followed, without really ever making anything from it.

When my grandmother ended her own life in 2012, I was touring I’ve been waiting for you, a piece which I had made from realising that there was no word for home in French. Around that time, I was making a few things about this lack of home, running away, not really knowing where you can belong…

In 2012, shortly after my grandmother’s death, I also moved into my 12th house… the 12th place I was going to call ‘home’ for a while. I made an audio piece entitled Twelve from that very home, and for the first time talked about my grandmother’s diary in my work, acknowledged the influence it had had on my work so far, and I guess, the influence my grandmother, and my family more generally had had on my practice.

In my 9th, 10th, 11th and 12th home, I was often cooking for other people, which is something that I love doing. I often had the best, and the most complex conversation around a meal, somewhere then, what was going to become the Homemade series started…

I guess this long preamble goes to show that the process never really starts when you think it does… A series of things, and of influences, lead you to make proposals, get into a room, and start talking to yourself, into a microphone, or write a lot.

Which is what I did for some of 2014, trying to work out what The Midnight Soup could be. How could I invite strangers to share some food and listen to a story, and how that could be the start of a bigger conversation.

Then I mentioned this idea to a few friends, and two people who were going to become quite key… Mark Whitelaw, with whom I had just worked on another show (Frontierland, with More Music) and Annabel Turpin, the artistic director of ARC in Stockton, who was going to become the first funder-partner on the project.

Out of a few conversations, it became clear that I was now ready to step into a room and get cracking. I made an application to the Arts Council to buy me the time that I needed to undertake “research and development”

I chose to work in Open Space. For a few reasons, one being that it would allow me to create a context for myself where it would be okay to not know what was going to happen, and another to allow for the process to always be open to others (whoever they might be)

I spent the first week mostly writing, I also met a group of older ladies and talked to them about the project and invited them to keep a diary during my residency week and to send it to me at the end, I staged a public intervention where I would swap a plateful of home cooked food for one of your favourite recipes, and I had lots of conversations… with the bar staff, with Becci my producer, the chef at the theatre, and Mark.

I took all this away, and then invited a group of artists-friends to be “peer-reviewers” - they came for dinner, I read a little bit of my writing, we had a chat, they asked questions… I continued with this process after each of the residencies. Trying stuff out on friends and seeing what would stick.

Then it was time to put the piece in front of an audience… we knew what shape it might have, there was text, there was things to do.

And of course, that’s not where the process ends. In many ways, this is where it all starts.

What do you feel the role of the audience is, in terms of making the meaning of your work?

I am very fond of the concept of co-authorship, of the idea that no artwork can really exist without its audience/viewer/reader/etc.

In the case of The Midnight Soup, there is something very literal about that. Around half the show entirely relies on the conversations the audience will have at the various moments which I have set out for this to happen. If they keep completely quiet, I’m making a different show.

Even when I make work which doesn’t rely quite so heavily on direct engagement from the audience, I leave gaps, ellipses, holes for them to fill in. A while back, in some artistic statement or other, I think I said something about my work being about provoking stories, rather than telling them… I guess there’s still some truth in that.

Are there any questions that you feel I have missed out that would help me to understand how dramaturgy works for you?
I don’t think so… I guess I could give some kind of summary of this long ramble, which in many ways would say something about dramaturgy being partly about research, partly about editing and composition, and partly about leaving enough room for the audience to make meaning, and have the right balance of things they are told and things they have to find for themselves…

No comments :

Post a Comment