Tuesday, 13 December 2016

Composite Scenes

I call 'composite' scenes those where several
characters are occupied with something, while
other characters are engaged with something different,
or with the same thing, but separately.

Diderot, Discourse on Dramatic Poetry

Thursday, 8 December 2016

Dramaturgy is Dead

...which is not the kind of consoling slogan that encourages further reading, but pressing on...

The study of dramaturgy is hampered by many problems, and perhaps the most irritating is the conflation between 'dramaturgy as a process' and the job of the dramaturge. Admittedly, this is only a nuisance to people like me, who are attempting to define an area of investigation. But even really useful books like Dramaturgy and Performance (Turner and Behrndt) dedicate as much time to the role of the dramaturge as to the discussion of history and theory. 

But I have a feeling that dramaturgy, as a field of study, has been dissolved into Performance Theory. I'm dating the change to around 1992, and blaming America.

From the 1950s onward, dramaturgy was adopted by sociologists. This led to an expansion of the objects studied through the various methodologies of dramaturgy and, in 1992, Richard Schechner shouted at Theatre Studies. Schechner was interested not in 'theatre' (even at its most expansive definition) but performance. Consequently, a whole bunch of stuff was given attention, which is great. Unless I happened to be trying to examine aesthetics. 

Note: at this point, the author gets seriously off topic. There are some thoughts on why he wants to be a moral thinker. There is a complaint that morality has been high-jacked, or something. 

I have many problems with performance theory: there is a danger that it turns mundane experience into an aesthetic event. That is, rather than making moral judgments on behaviour, the sociologist sees them as an art event. I guess, despite my antics, I want to be a moralist.

There's a great deal of bunkum surrounding 'moral judgment': it's often associated with conservative social thinking - the religious right, condemnation of certain lifestyles and identities, voting for anti-immigration political parties. In that amazing and ridiculous battle being staged in social media - the one about identity politics or 'political correctness' or Social Justice or whatever it is being called this afternoon - morality is the core issue. For both sides, the morality of particular actions is called into question. 

Hold on, I am getting in over my head...

So - my personal belief in the individual's freedom to define their
own sexual identity, or gender identity is a moral decision. Maybe that is different to taste, but I remember hearing 'your aesthetics are your ethics' somewhere. I just think that a society where diversity is respected (yes, I'm using the short form of slogans to identify with a certain position and/or group) would be a better society.

Performance Theory, which possibly feeds from existentialist notions of 'no absolute self', encourages a ... surface reading of behaviour. Possibly. It might do. Not sure...

Hold on there, Ramblin' Rose. This doesn't matter. The worth of performance theory in terms of social morality is irrelevant to your case. If I have to remind you ... you are supposed to be worrying that the discipline of dramaturgy has been subsumed into performance studies. 

Wednesday, 7 December 2016

Define and Determine...

'Many analysts offer minimal descriptions of the necessary elements of theatre, the most famous being Eric Bentley's formula A impersonates B while C looks on... Marvin Carlson ... (makes the distinction) between drama as the written text and the theatre as the process of performance'.
W Sauter, Approaching the Theatrical Event, pg 19

I have no idea why anyone would care, but today I am fascinated by definitions. Back in the day, I'd be happy enough with a working definition, and I'd use it until it broke. Being a critic, that would usually last a while - maybe a few months, if I didn't think too hard. But writing longer essays for academia, rather than increments of about 250 words, tends to break a definition quickly. Besides, I need a foundation for these fancy words I'm hoping to use.

A shift from the idea of theatre as a 'work of stage art'... toward an understanding of theatre as 'a communicative event'.
W Sauter, Approaching the Theatrical Event, pg 20

I thought that I knew what theatre was. The great thing about being a popular critic (and I don't mean anyone likes me... I don't like myself that much, but that might be because I hang out with myself too often)... the thing about popular criticism is that it can use words in the vague way of 'common understanding'. When I say it's theatre, the reader can say - yep, it's that thing I see down the Citizens'. There's no need to work out the boundaries of theatre, as opposed to dance, or Live Art, or consider the theatricality inherent in the process of buying a coffee. It's just that thing, over there. 

The need to define 'theatre' might come from an anxiety about the status of theatre studies within the academy. 

The neighboring aesthetic disciplines all had their objects at hand: literary historians read poems and novels... (et c)... Theatre historians, however, first had to recreate the objects of their studies... they had to convince their colleagues that this object was theatre and not drama.
W Sauter, Approaching the Theatrical Event, pg 21-22

I am currently trying to define dramaturgy in a manner that is simple enough to make sense, yet draws a clear boundary between it and other familiar fields of investigation. It's not quite enough to have a simple description: the historical development of the idea seems crucial, because that reveals some of the traces that determine its function.

Performance Studies is a Lie?

Hands up who knows the difference between Performance and Theatre Studies? The clue's in the question, and say what you see...

It's all about the field of study, but it turned into a turf war at some point during the 1990s. Richard Schechner made an explosive speech in 1992. He gave pelters to Theatre Studies departments for failing to equip students with either vocational or academic skills. He finished off by demanding a curriculum that looked at wider areas of performance, including the study of rock concerts, church services, sports and... anything else he could think up in five minutes.

Unsurprisingly, Theatre Studies professors got annoyed. Bill Worthen pointed out that adding a bunch of things to study was hardly a bold move forward into a greater appreciation of the subject - that would need a few details Schechner missed out, like, say, a binding theoretical conceit. Jill Dolan was a bit more generous, suggesting that the two sets of studies could 'mutually empower each other'. It was probably Schechner's attitude that pissed people off, mind. 

There's also a fine irony in Schechner's advocacy of Performance, too. Let's see how he ended up shouting in Atlanta, 1992.

'A concept of cultural performance was introduced in the 1950s by Milton Singer,' says Willmar Sauter (Theatre or Performance or Untitled Event, Iowa, 2000). 'For Schechner, interculturalism, not universalism became the basis of performance studies, which in his view implies a paradigmatic shift away from performance studies.' (page 39, The Theatrical Event).

In other words, once the idea that performance was part of social behaviour was suggested, Schechner couldn't wait to head off around the world and check out anything that looked a bit like performance. Somewhere in his writing, he talks about hiding in the bushes watching a ritual. That's called stalking in most cultures.

Anyway, he makes a fair point that Theatre Studies tends to be Eurocentric - and privileged a certain historical and geographical context. Instead of the 'universals' that are supposed to be contained in the art of Great White Males, Schechner embraces all cultures. That seems pretty right on.

Only, no. His understanding of theatre studies was exclusively American. Sauter, again, sees Schechner's 'revolutionary' approach as a product of the limited field of study offered in American Universities. Plenty of subjects that come under Theatre Studies in European Universities - including opera, dance, musicals, happenings - were excluded in the USA's curriculum. Schechner's interculturalism didn't extend to thinking about theatre studies beyond his own country.

Schechner's Performance Studies aimed to replace 'theatre' with four areas: entertainment, education, ritual and healing. Apart from the last giving away what a hippy he is, these seem to miss 'art'. He also includes religious ritual under entertainment, suggesting he hadn't been to Mass recently. 

So, Performance Studies does fit nicely with the attempt to expand academia beyond Eurocentric bias. But it kicked off against a very limited notion of theatre, and introduces a bunch of stuff that isn't performance in the same way as theatre. And theatre has a quality that sets it apart from mundane performance, even if I am not getting into that cesspit today. I would argue that Schechner stomped about the world imposing Western norms of performance on all manner of events, and Performance Studies is less an intercultural project than a colonial exercise in subsuming diverse histories and cultures under a single rubric, so Western Academics can convince themselves that they are, actually, universalists. 

I did say a slight irony, mind....

Why I Love Dramaturgy

Let's face it, I only discovered dramaturgy through the University of Glasgow. Before then, I was a critic, wandering and mumbling in the forest of theatre, hoping to discover something that would make sense of my rambling ways.

Dramaturgy is a relatively new field of enquiry: coined by Lessing in the eighteenth century, it emerged during The Enlightenment as a general approach to the theatrical event. Unlike previous theatre theory, however, it emphasises the production as the focus of study. It's never been that popular as a term, at least within anglophone theatre. In the early 1990s, it was eclipsed by Performance Theory. Even those authors who clearly concentrate on dramaturgical processes don't always describe their work as dramaturgy. Martin Esslin's The Field of Drama doesn't even mention it, although I suppose he'd argue that his area is semiotics. 

The semiotics of drama being another area that lost ground, this time to identity politics in the 1990s.

However, I am enthusiastic about dramaturgy. Partially because it is eclectic - it is less a methodology than a field of study, so it can adapt most approaches within its remit. Then it contains the role of the dramaturge - contains rather than is defined by, naturally - and there is plenty of theatre that 'needs a dramaturge' to cut down its excess. 

But when Lessing came up with his Hamburg Dramaturgies, he shifted the emphasis away from the script towards a look at theatre as it exists in time and space, in front of an audience. Like much Enlightenment thought, it is preoccupied with the event rather than the abstract. Even Aristotle and Plato dealt with generalisations about 'theatre'. Dramaturgical readings prefer, in my definition, to consider productions of a play, instead of the play's script. 

If that doesn't feel like a surprise, I only get excited about it when I compare it to earlier discussions of performance. Take France, before Diderot came along. The big issue back then was whether a play manipulated Aristotle's Unities appropriately. 

Popular criticism is a form of dramaturgical analysis, poking at the specifics of an event. So dramaturgy is what I do, even though I am not a dramaturge.

(I do know a dramaturge, though. He's available for work, I believe.)

There are dangers for a critic, like me, who gets too involved in dramaturgy, though. I've noticed that I am a little more dogmatic about what makes theatre 'good' these days. That might be the result of reading Diderot, who had a bit of an agenda. I also have a habit of referencing productions that I have not seen. I like to show off my reading.

However, there are some good sides to it. Anything can receive a dramaturgical reading - that is, an interpretation of a text towards production. I'm still rambling, but I've got a map. Or a compass. Probably a compass.

Elfie's Magical Dramaturgy: Liam Dolan @ The Pavilion

Christmas is on the way quicker than you know and I can’t wait! This year is my first Pavilion Pantomime & I am SO excited to be in it.
I’m playing Elfie & we've got a magical adventure that you’re going to absolutely love!! The cast are fantastic, made up of old pals and new ones & I’m really looking forward to spending Christmas with them in Glasgow.

I know that you've had a successful number of years out at Kilmarnock - what attracted you to the Pavilion this year?

I’ve been in Kilmarnock for 12 years. This year I was offered the chance to appear in the Pavilion in a brand new production of  Elfie’s Magical Adventures - I have always been a fan of the Pavilion Theatre & Doing Panto there was one of my lifetime ambitions so I jumped at the chance.

How are you feeling about being an Elf this year?

I love it, It’s so much fun creating a magical Christmas character

You clearly love panto time- what is it that draws you back to it every year?

It’s the best time of year for me as a Performer, It’s a family tradition that everyone loves & for some kids Panto is their first ever Theatre Experience and it’s fantastic to be part of that.

How well does it fit with your other work - which is very diverse, but does have a strand of work for younger audiences?

It fits in very well, I sometimes have to re-schedule things as the
Panto is a priority and it takes up a lot of time with two shows a day, six days a week

Is there anything about the Pavilion pantomime that has surprised you?

No, I have seen the Pavilion Pantomime every year so I knew what to expect, I have also worked at the Pavilion on other projects so I knew how beautiful the building was and how fantastic the audiences were.

Is Craig Glover as much fun off stage as on?

Craig and I are great friends outside of work - we have an absolute ball on and off stage so the chemistry you see onstage is genuine.

Why do you think panto keeps its place in the programme? I mean, it must be the oldest popular form still drawing in audiences…

Pantomime is a British Institution, It is part of peoples festive activities and going to the panto has been passed down from generation to generation.

Tuesday, 6 December 2016

En Attendant Morrison: The role of the author after the death of God: Complication

If Beckett's decision to discuss absence through a diegetic absence provokes questions about God's absence, it does not challenge the position of the author as a divine, creative force. Morrison's arrival at the end of Animal Man throws the author into the action, and thereby undermines his authority.

In this single page, Morrison's character flippantly alludes to Christianity, associating himself with 'The Lord' who gives and takes away, establishes his power ('I wanted to use you'), his powerlessness in 'the real world,(I can't do anything') and the constrictions on his creativity ('comic books are realistic now'). He even identifies a brutal philosophy of 'might makes right' as the moral foundation of human behaviour, dismissing the idea of human superiority ('no more intrinsic right to life than does a white lab rat').

Animal Man meets his creator, only to be disappointed. The creator refuses his prayer on a whim, and claims his creation's emotions merely as an expression of his own. Far from being liberating, Animal Man's meeting with God is another cruelty, following on from the murder of his family.

Undeniably, Morrison represents himself as a diffident and limited deity: he absolves himself of responsibility for Animal Man's experiences, blaming the comic market's desire for realism, while taking credit for the heroic compassion that drove Animal Man to battle cruelty. He appears to share characteristics with a gnostic ideal of the demiurge, without its overweening egotism.

The demiurge is a step away from the Christian ideal of a perfect and compassionate God: Morrison regards the world as savage, and morality a matter of strength masquerading as a spiritual hierarchy. However, Morrison abruptly takes on a more Christian identity: going on to critique the apparent human need for violence, he suggests a moral alternative.

Having introduced himself into the world, and recognising his limitations, Morrison sets himself up as the moral arbiter. Ironically, having expressed anxiety at his 'preachy' attitude within the story, he directly addresses his victim and demands a higher morality.

En Attendant Morrison: The role of the author after the death of God: Orientation

At the climax of his run on Animal Man (1988 - 1990), Morrison imagines a confrontation between his protagonist and the creator. After building a meta-fictional narrative from issue five onward - in which an 'expy' of Wile E Coyote descends into the DC Universe and becomes a Christ-like figure, Morrison guides the characters to recognise their status as fictional. During a peyote trip, Animal Man and his ally are able to 'see' the readers, and postulate that their suffering is an entertainment for these other dimensional beings. After Animal Man's family are killed, his revenge attempts lead him to a limbo-like dimension, where unpopular comic book characters await their return to continuity, and finally to the meeting with Morrison.

Morrison's Animal Man is frequently considered part of the 'British Invasion', a period during which American mainstream comics employed British writers, following the success of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon's Watchmen. Morrison was initially employed for a four issue mini-series: this was expanded into an ongoing series. Indeed, The Coyote Gospel (issue five), marks the shift in duration and tone, as Morrison introduced the artist as a character (represented by a paint brush that adds blood to the coyote's final scene).

The accepted description of this transition observes that the first four issues reveal the influence of Moore's style, but The Coyote Gospel deliberately moves towards something different. 

In this interview with Blair Butler, Morrison remembers his desire to 'reconstruct' comics, moving away from 'superheroes in the real world', specifically citing Watchmen as an example of the 'let's bring them into reality' school. 

Morrison's subsequent career in comics has followed this enthusiasm for the highly colourful and hyper-real tropes of the superhero. Unlike Alan Moore, or even fellow 'British Invasion' superstar Neil Gaiman, Morrison has repeatedly worked on familiar superheroes, becoming the writer of X-Men, Batman and Superman, frequently re-inventing them as heroic rather than 'realistic' or 'gritty'. While Morrison and Dave McKean's Arkham Asylum shares the brutality of many 1990s' 'adult comics', and The Invisibles reflects on Morrison's personal interests in the occult and critical theory, he has applied his meta-fictional style to the 'mainstream' comic book universes of DC and Marvel.

The final issue of Animal Man, then, sits at the end of Morrison's earliest successful run on a mainstream comic book. Although the choice of hero rescued a generic and marginalised character - Animal Man still does not have the same cachet as Batman or Superman - his adventures were firmly within the DC Universe. Before meeting his maker, Animal Man chats with Superman and Martian Manhunter, joins the Justice League of America (itself a signifier of his acceptance by mainstream continuity) and even receives his own 'rogues gallery'. The bold finale, in which the continuity of the DC Universe collides with 'reality' (depicted as a Glaswegian canal in dark colours) is remarkable not merely for 'breaking the fourth wall' but doing it within an established continuity.

As NerdSync points out, breaking the fourth wall is not unique to Morrison - his allusion to Deadpool is a reminder that one of the most popular characters in the Marvel Universe is based upon this ability. However, uses the fourth wall as a way to examine notions of fictionality and authorship, and challenges the status of the author as a divine creator.

The presence of the author is in sharp contrast to the manufactured absence of the author in En Attendant Godot. While one of the protagonists, Vladimir, expresses a meta-fictional understanding of the play ('I begin to weary of this motif,' he complains of one routine (Act 2, line 623)), and Pozzo asks whether he has entered 'the board', an allusion to the stage, Beckett does not allow his characters a sustained awareness of their fictionality (in Endgame, however, the repetition of performance is both a metaphor for the repetitious relationship of Ham and Clov and a running commentary on the nature of performance).

Yet despite Beckett's own denial ('if I had meant God, I would have said God' quoted in The Essential Samuel Beckett, 2003 p. 75), Godot's arrival provides a meta-narrative for the protagonists: their various antics become a way of filling in the time until his arrival. His absence becomes powerful because of the character's expectation, and considerable commentary exists that attempts to define Godot's identity, from Hobson's 1955 review in The Times of the first production in English, which suggests that a moment of respect at the mention of the divine implies a Christian theology lurks behind the surface absurdism.

Lucky's speech - which begins as philosophy before descending into stream of consciousness gibberish - does recognise a theological vision, but rapidly degenerates. References to the crucified thieves - and the Gospel writers' failure to give a consistent account of the Crucifixion - and Estragon's bootless appeal to God's salvation at least set up the notion of a creator, which is endlessly disappointed.

Monday, 5 December 2016

The Problems of Dramaturgy (part one of a series that will never end)

I study dramaturgy. I am not a dramaturg. There is a deep suspicion of both words, at least in the UK. Back in the 1960s, when King Critic Kenneth 'Bondage' Tynan wanted to be the dramaturg for the fledgling National Theatre, he was forced to change his title to Literary Manager, since dramaturg sounded 'a bit too German'. Racial prejudice aside, the study of dramaturgy can be complicated by the attitude of both its supporters and detractors.

One problem is that the job of the dramaturg and the process of dramaturgy are frequently conflated. Even Routledge's Big Book of Dramaturgy concentrates mainly on specific functions of dramaturgs. Since dramaturgs are frequently treated as an optional extra by Scottish theatre - David Leddy and Dominic Hill, two of Scotland's most dynamic directors tend not to use one - and their role is dictated not by a consistent definition but the needs of a particular production, tying together the process with the job marginalises the visible presence of dramaturgy. 

The decision not to use a dramaturg is - ho ho ho - a dramaturgical one. This brings me nicely to the second problem.

Dramaturgy struggles to maintain a popular definition. While it does have many different interpretations, the diversity of its practice ensures that these obscure a clear and concise description. The use of dramaturgy within a sociological context - inspired by Goffman - opened up a dialogue with anthropology and relocated its field from the stage and into everyday life. With its boundaries rendered porous, a tight, theatre-focused definition would exclude its contemporary areas of concern.

As irritating as dictionary definitions can be, they do pull dramaturgy away from its competing functions towards a functional foundation for its use. The emphasis on its wide range of applications, and the roles of individual dramaturges drags into into a vague word that can be used to describe anything that is vaguely a 'performance'.

En Attendant Morrison: The role of the author after the death of God: Abstract

In his episode analysis of faith in the twentieth century, Believe Everything, Luther Blissett identifies three strands of atheist thought. The 'responsible' atheist - who attempts to recognise the challenges of religion's collapse - is contrasted with the 'irresponsible', who simply ignores the social consequences. A third category 'which overlaps both of these extremes' (pg 27) is the militant atheist. Blissett positions writers including Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins as militant atheists, due to their enthusiasm for describing the negative impact of religion on social and political behaviour.

In the final, fragmentary chapter, Where God Resides Yet, Blissett addresses the problems of creativity. Within literature, he argues, 'the artist still holds the status of God, converting natural signs into icons and symbols and insisting on a system that delivers meaning' (pg237). While the influence of religion within political and social systems has been eroded, the notion of a creator-God, Blissett concludes, is manifested in the novel and the theatrical performance. 

He does, however, suggest that Beckett's Waiting for Godot is an attempt to challenge the author's divine agency: replacing the omnipotent deity with a gnostic, hostile or absent God (pg 345). Unable to completely remove traces of his presence, Beckett draws attention to this failure by placing absence at the centre of the narrative.

Grant Morrison, however, takes this process a step further. In Animal Man, he presents himself as a fictional character within the narrative, effectively enabling the protagonist to address his 'God'. While Morrrison's work repeatedly returns to metafictional meditations - The Invisibles repeatedly merges Morrison's autobiography with the melodrama of the story - it is only in Animal Man that he presents a direct analogy between the artist and God.

Using Blissett's terminology, both Beckett and Morrison are 'responsible', attempting to reconcile the absence of God and the demands of artistic creativity.

Dramaturgy Does Not Determine Destiny

Wherever dramaturgy is conceived as a practice of thought in advance of the event, it will be collapsed into a form of authorship and covert power; the dramaturg will become another name for ‘author,’ ‘director,’ or ‘choreographer.’ Dramaturgy does not belong to a subject or to a resolved temporality. Dramaturgy, if it is anything, is a practice that enables us to shake off intentional fallacies and disrupt economies founded on notions of individualism.

Gee, thanks, Adrian Heathfield. Way to start an article that attempts to reclaim dramaturgy from the dramaturg: I always believe that the best way to introduce an idea is to mystify its meaning with cod-academic verbiage. 

For the record, Heathfield's conclusion follows my own instincts: dramaturgy has moved beyond the theatrical event, and informs (and is informed by) sociology, and does not belong exclusively to the dramaturg. However, the arrogance of Heathfield's tone - the essay contains a series of dogmatic assertions - and the use of ideologically driven terminology may help to explain why dramaturgy has become a toxic idea. 

Let's take that definition again.

Dramaturgy, if it is anything, is a practice that enables us to shake off intentional fallacies and disrupt economies founded on notions of individualism.

'If it is anything'. 'If it is anything'. It serves only to attack individualism, does it? Heathfield offers nothing so simple as a definition of this practice: instead, dramaturgy is an instrument, a weapon against 'intentional fallacies', a phrase I am going to look up online.

 Where do I begin? If the author is serious about deconstructing the notion of authorial intent, maybe not having their name above the essay might help. Okay, yes, it's a provocation, and leaving the argument loose helps the debate, but... but... reducing dramaturgy to a tool for a political agenda ignores so much research, so many potential uses.

Back to the language: if dramaturgy can liberate the spectator from the tyranny of the artist - that is, to become the co-author of meaning, and have confidence in asserting their own interpretation - hedging it inside a bunch of fancy terms won't help. Coherent explanation, the relationship of theory to the specific event... why hide? 

Thursday, 1 December 2016

so bored part 8976

I am tired of reading about the Enlightenment. In recent years, it has been accused of being racist, championed as the foundation of contemporary western civilisation and become the pivot around which discussions of identity rotate. Ever since Adorno threw his toys out of the pram (The Dialectic of Enlightenment, 1944), it's become, like, this symbol or something. And now I am researching it, because it's the era which gave birth to dramaturgy. 

As much fun as it might be to be researching something that is right at the centre of contemporary controversy, it just depresses me. Reducing a period of dynamic philosophical argument into a slogan is hardly expanding human knowledge, and poking at the past for its sins strikes me... oh... as exactly the kind of thing that Enlightenment philosophers might do. So, yeah, there is a point to both sides. 

Fictional Matters

Fictional Matters
2 – 4 Dec | CCA Glasgow

The first edition of Fictional Matters, curated by choreographer Colette Sadler, brings together both Scottish and International artists working within and across film, music performance and visual arts. 
Reflecting on Sadler's on-going artistic research, this event opens up a field of enquiry around the perception of the inanimate and its fictional potentialities through mediation and transformation. It seeks to create a platform for exchange and discussion on the expanded notion of choreography and performance with and beyond bodies.

The weekend will include work from and by Miranda Pennell, Daria Martin, Adam Linder, Ela Orleans, Glasgow School of Art and dance artist members of The Work Room Glasgow.
More about the event, and the programme, can be found here.