Progressive Dramaturgy

Learning the language of a play

Stephanie Greer and Alan Humphreys. Photo: Eileen Long
Stephanie Greer and Alan Humphreys. Photo: Eileen Long

On our second night in residence at the Bike Shed Theatre, David Lane held a discussion on progressive dramaturgy, and the dramaturgical processes we went on with The Disappearance of Sadie Jones. This is a transcript of the event. 

David began by reading a poem by Billy Collins. It is a poem also quoted in an article on dramaturgy by Mark Bly called ‘Pressing an Ear against The Hive’ (Theatre Topics, Vol.13, No.1)

Introduction to Poetry
By Billy Collins

I asked them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide

or press an ear against its hive.

I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,

or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the wall for a light switch.

I want them to water-ski
Across the surface of a poem
Waving at the author’s name on the shore.

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose
To find out what it really means.

David went on to contextualise his work with quotes about dramaturgy and a brief history of the role. I am leaving these parts out and jumping straight to the meat. What follows is a slightly abridged transcription of the session:

David Lane: Sarah Dickenson describes the dramaturg as a ‘situational role’: it’s always going to be different depending on the project you are working on. I personally think about it in two ways. Every piece of theatre has a dramaturgy, made up of its composition – all the elements contained within it such as acting, light, sound, music, text, staging, how the audience is cast, how the audience move through the work imaginatively, intellectually, physically….and we use the word ‘dramaturgy’ to define it as a dynamic system: all of those forces working with one another in different combinations at different times throughout the piece. The other way of thinking about it is as a process….

Dramaturgs in the UK tend to be working with new writing but not solely. The thing that separates the dramaturg’s role from the director’s is that not all directors know how to work with a playwright from nothing to a 3rd or 4th draft of a play: that’s a key skill, and it involves working with every writer in a different way in order to help that writer write the work they want to write. One of the reasons I’ll end up working freelance is that writers want someone to work with them who isn’t a theatre, because perhaps they feel they will get feedback that’s just about them and their work, rather than feedback delivered in the shadow of a particular artistic agenda.


I’ve worked in two capacities: the first is what I call a ‘desk dramaturg’. I do a lot of work with the script and writer, over the phone or in a room, with the writer, director, whole company….it will be about structure… you can see on the walls around us some of the ‘desk’ work, which is about introducing the play to the whole company by looking at its composition, what organises it, what makes it tick as a piece of work.

The other role is a ‘floor dramaturg’, or a production dramaturg…someone who is in rehearsal with actors, director, perhaps the writer – looking at it kinaesthetically, looking at gesture, arrangement of space, light, sound, stage, and how those languages are cohering with the text to guide an audience through a play, to shape a journey for the audience through the piece.

Different dramaturgs use different metaphors, I know one who always talks about cooking, creating a recipe…I’ve developed a metaphor recently, the thing that fascinates me about plays is that every play has its own map, is unique and the minute you walk into a play and say ‘I know what you should be and if you don’t do that you’re not a play’ then you’re in massive trouble, you’re going to miss signing the Beatles. By that I mean missing the play that’s doing something progressive because it speaks a different language from the one you’ve learnt, the one you’ve decided, in your infinite wisdom, is the only way to write a play. As soon as anybody in the theatre does that you’re not listening to the play – you are listening to what you are saying the play is.

One of the things that struck me about Hannah’s work is that it really required me to be inquisitive and to trust that something of real sophistication and confidence was going on in that script which fascinated me but I didn’t understand. I had two choices at that point. I could say ‘you need to write a three act structure here because this is a total mess and I don’t get it’ or I needed to sit down and say ‘I don’t know what you’re doing here, I don’t quite get it but I want to understand it and I believe there is something in here that I’ve not seen before.’ That ended up being the journey we went on.

I look at the mapping of the play, the logic it has, what are its rules, how does it work, what are its organising principles…around what is this writing organised …what’s driving it, where are its motors…is it around a person, a political idea, a theme, a philosophy …I think about plays as a universe….everything in a play is there for a reason, so it’s there to exert some kind of force or pressure on another element somewhere in the play….whether that is an object, an idea, a line of dialogue, a gesture , it does something…everything in the script has an active purpose…an object exerts a pressure on character….location on person…..there is a dynamic universe of elements whizzing around, knocking together. I look for tension, rhythm and tempo and ask what that tells me about how ideas are positioning themselves…. I aim to learn the language of the play and to never go into a play assuming I know how to speak its language.

Stephanie Greer. photo: Eileen Long
Stephanie Greer. photo: Eileen Long

Every play should be like exploring a foreign language for the first time, and you very quickly discover structural echoes, things that are similar to your own language…it’s very rare I will sit down and read a play and not know any of its languages. I will know some of them, normally I will know 99 per cent of them. I think with this play I probably recognised about 60 per cent and wanted to know what the other 40 per cent were.

It’s about reading from the bottom up, asking what the play is trying to do ….and to approach it on its own terms. If you approach it from the top saying ‘this is what a play is’ then firstly you’ll really annoy writers and secondly you will only ever make work that looks like what you say a play is.

There is a short essay by Elinor Fuchs called ‘Visit To A Small Planet’ (Theater,
Vol. 34, No. 2, Summer 2004): the principle that Fuchs introduces is that you come to character last, and that’s a really different concept to how most of us go into a play…Normally we ask who is it about, what is their journey, what do they want?

Fuchs asks that you go into the play first looking at the world, because if you go in looking for character you’re going to miss the world that they are in. So her methodology is about the world they are in: not landscape in a physical sense, but how does the world work, does it obey laws of physics, are we in different places at once: reality, dream, a hinterland of imaginations, and reality at same time….How is the world socially or physically organised? The idea is that you try to get an understanding of how the world of the play works before judging what the people in it are doing.  They can only ever be operating in relationship to the world around them.

We have a real obsession with character driven drama in this country…we’ve learned from the schools of Aristotle, Freud, Jung, Stanislavski, Lee Strasberg, who all place character at the centre. Actor training is delivered in the same way. A lot of actor training looks at character, psychological motivation, characters in a causal world, time moving in one direction: obstacle, journey, decision, choice, success, failure, play ends…We are deeply engrained that that’s the way a play works, that it hooks around character and it’s not actually true…which brings me to the progressive bit…

Tori Haring-Smith wrote an article called Dramaturging Non-Realism (Theatre Topics, Vol. 13, No. 1). She was looking at plays by Caryl Churchill, Suzan-Lori Parks, Anne Bogart: plays that don’t exist in the ‘real world’. She plays with the vocabulary we use to talk about plays. If  ‘character’ only means someone like you or me then you are cutting out loads of options of what a person on stage could be. You can have roles, figures, ghosts, echoes, outlines, a character that represents a myth, a city…if you think of character as one concept it’s limiting. Likewise language doesn’t just mean dialogue, but how text arrives in the piece…narrative doesn’t mean story necessarily, and in fact narrative, plot and story can be viewed as different things. I believe you have to start thinking about how they can be defined more loosely to allow a bigger conception of what a play can be.

The Disappearance of Sadie Jones
The Disappearance of Sadie Jones

Julian Meyrick wrote a fantastic piece about dramaturgical development…he looks at plot, language and character being the three elements of a play but defines them in a very particular way. Plot is referred to as any sequence that arranges material in time and place: that’s not the same thing as story, that’s sequence….you might have a sequence of images, a room that’s empty that fills up: that’s a narrative of space, but it’s not plot in the way we think about character-driven, causal action. He then describes character as the points of deep understanding in a text – I think his exact wording is ‘the accumulative development of thought or feeling in time’ – ….so, if you think about Ibsen, Chekhov…we’ll come to understand their plays through these huge moments of choice the characters make….at those moments, the play contracts and action, theme, meaning all seem to condense into one choice, a moment of deep understanding….Meyrick’s idea is that this moment of deep understanding – this point of contraction – could come from music, image, the relationship between an object and people on stage…not necessarily human beings as character.


Finally language does not just mean dialogue….theatre might contain the language of space, light, sound, objects, puppetry, architecture….all these are our resources as a writer….sometimes those languages speak more clearly than the language I’m using now. Meyrick comes to language as that which serves plot and character: it’s ‘the substance, verbal, visual or behavioural, by which formal coherence is expressed’. Very often in plays, the world is made coherent simply because people are speaking dialogue – but there are many other ways that a play can make its world coherent to an audience.

I think this relaxing of vocabulary in the way we think about plays is one of the first ways of thinking about playwriting and dramaturgy progressively…because you are opening up your conception of what a play can be, which is important in terms of theatre being progressive and encompassing more ways of telling stories….look at multi-platform work using iPhones, projected text, online activities, multi-platforms that require new ways of thinking about what a play is.

I was recently running a course in adaptation at the Bristol Old Vic and one of the tasks I gave writers was to adapt a Picasso painting….though I was very specific about this. Don’t use it as inspiration for something you’d normally do – actually study the Poetics of the painting. What would it look like if it were a play? What happens to character and place and time and structure? We were looking at the the later Picasso…cubist, refracted images…Why can’t we write a play like that? Why do most plays look like photos not Picasso paintings? What are poetics of the image, of a Picasso painting?


You might walk into the Tate Modern with a certain set of interpretive tools: are these tools the same ones you expect to take into a theatre? What do you expect from an art gallery in terms of meaning, and how is that different to what you expect when you walk into a theatre? I suppose it’s my contention that we need more of how we walk into art gallery in how we walk into the theatre.

One of the things we talked about on that course was that as soon as you are in a theatre and a human walks on stage, you are working against an assumption of us being in reality…there’s a human in front of us in our real world and you have to work with or against that….a Picasso painting is its own thing and is not sitting in relation to anything apart from what we bring to it. In theatre we expect this thing over there, on the stage, to do all the work for us….I’m not sure that’s the only way to encounter writing, or to write a play.

With Picasso we are immediately removed from assumptions of realism and naturalism…it’s got its own world, its own rules…it is expressive of its subject. Someone criticised Picasso by saying he couldn’t paint a tree. He replied ‘no, I can’t: but I can paint the feeling you get when you look at a tree’, and I think that brings us back to The Disappearance of Sadie Jones.

I think what Hannah is really good at is writing the feeling you get when something happens rather than the thing itself: that’s the lens this play gives us on the world. And I think that’s a really hard thing to take as an audience sometimes, because you are anticipating a play to give meaning – in an art gallery you’re not. Where are the plays that sit in the middle of that? That say ‘move towards me audience, maybe you will come out with multiple meanings and that’s OK.’

Jackson Pollock, 1912 - 1956. Number 7, 1951
Jackson Pollock, 1912 – 1956. Number 7, 1951

If you take a Jackson Pollock – who holds the authoritative meaning on what a Pollock painting means? We are uncomfortable of theatre doing the same thing – containing hugely multiple meanings, expressing the act of expression itself – we often think with plays that there is something wrong with it, because it’s not being clear. It’s performance art, or installation, or ‘not a play’, which is reductive to this idea of progressive dramaturgy.

On the Old Vic course we also talked about structure using the language of music: recitatives, phrases, movements, sequences, chorus…all of these elements exist in writing and help structure work but often what we watch on stage is linear, with characters doing big things, making big choices that make sense to us at the end. Which I’m not sure is the only way to create stories.

So that’s just to give an introduction to in some way, the openness that was required for me coming to Hannah’s play. When I read the first draft I was excited because I knew that if I were to work on the play with Hannah it would really push me, I wanted to move towards the work and work it out, it was a challenge. One of the first things I did was to write down loads of words that came to me, and we ticked them all off – not a checklist, but an assurance that the two of us believed the play was exploring the same sorts of things….it was about all of those twenty things, yet I still had loads of questions about what was holding the play together.

Alan Humphreys playing Danny
Alan Humphreys playing Danny

Taking Fuchs’ idea of worlds, the way I organised the draft in my own head before I had a notes meeting with Hannah was to basically section off the play when I thought we moved from one world to another. The play moves between different worlds, worlds of imagination, worlds of reality, worlds of the imagination that are controlled by characters, worlds where the characters were out of control, worlds that might be at odds with the previously established time-frame of the play. There are also moments in the past that we re-visit but are fractured in some way. We’re moving between lots of worlds, so I suggested this was the organising principle of the play. So why is that, and where do we go from there…? Which is a good place to bring Hannah in…why did you want to work with a dramaturg and where were you in your process with this play?

HS: I think at the time David came to work with me, I’d actually written the play two or three years before that and had taken some time re-writing and re-drafting, and I had sent it out everywhere. I purposefully didn’t write stage directions into the script, I wanted collaborators to come in and bring their worlds to it, I wanted to work with a director and designer and I didn’t want to set what all of those things would be, I wanted that collaboration…I sent it to theatres, the usual new writing places, I got some good feedback, some ‘completely didn’t get it’ feedback, and I was really at the stage of giving up…on the play…But I also knew that if I didn’t do this play I would struggle to write the next thing…I had to see it.

So I invited David in, because he was the only person I’d met who looked at the play on its own terms. I had experienced various meetings with people who asked me a stock set of questions which I wasn’t able to answer, didn’t want to answer, and couldn’t answer until we saw the play with performers, until we’d gone through the kind of process that we’ve gone through now, which has been a month of time with actors as well as a lot of time looking at the work. It seemed that if I couldn’t give answers at that point then I was demonstrating that the play wasn’t working, I also found it hard to find someone who would give it the time it needed. I would have a meeting with a literary manager or director and they would say ‘I’m afraid I’ve only had time to have a quick read, but this is what I think…’ They didn’t say ‘this is wrong,’ but the way they approached me was hostile towards the play, and me; in some cases I wasn’t being seen as a theatre maker but as a kind of beginner writer who needed to be told how to do it, or as a spoken word performer who should stick to that and devising.

Stephanie Greer, photo by Eileen Long
Stephanie Greer, photo by Eileen Long

DL: If you ever read a play properly it should take half a day minimum…I can spend 5-6 hours on a script, or a whole day, and only then do I feel confident enough to talk to the writer about it. If I don’t go in understanding it as best as I can then I’m no use to them, I can go in with questions, but in order to see it on the play’s term and the writer’s terms, you need to read it at least three times.

HS: Yes, so you came into our meeting having read it three times, with three sets of notes after each reading. And that was different to how anyone else had approached the work. I’ve been thinking about this, and partly it’s because David is great and would do that for anyone, but also I was paying him for his time myself, whereas everyone else I’d met, it was usually their job of course to meet writers, but I felt because I had said to David ‘I want to work with you and I will pay you for your time,’ that then I really got the time.

Asking and paying someone to work with you is very different to the feeling of being a lowly writer going to a theatre for that meeting. David’s approach to the play was entirely different and restored my faith in it, and everything that he said about it, in that first meeting was just such a relief…that’s what I thought I’d done! Thank you! And his response was the opposite of the other responses I’d had. It looks weird on the page, and others had said, it’s just poetry, there’s no characters, there’s no emotion it’s just clever…but David saw the emotion in it, on the page, it’s very hard to see that and hard to read a play that doesn’t look like a play. And that’s not really a criticism of those readers, because I find it very difficult as well, it is really difficult to read a play that is not written for the page. So many plays are written for readers who know how to read a play and know what they think it should look like, but there’s a big difference between writing a play for the page and writing for the stage.

DL: Just as an industry perspective –often, script reading is one of the first jobs you get in a theatre, and I think that’s really problematic, if it’s one of the first jobs you get, what are you bringing to that process? If I’d read Hannah’s play when I was a script reader at twenty-two, I probably would have said the same things, but reading at at thirty-three after eleven years of writing my own stuff and working as a dramaturg as well, I knew what its theatrical potential could be, and that’s what you should be looking for…if it works on page that’s fine I’ll go away and read it, but how is it going to work in space and time with actors? So after we had that meeting Hannah said, I’ve got some money to do two weeks R&D at Beaford.

HS: I applied for money for the whole thing, first I got development money from Jerwood and I used that to apply to the Arts Council …because I had realised, no one’s going to accept this, no one’s going to produce it, I really want to do it, I’ve got to do it myself, direct it myself, and I’m going to get the money. And that’s actually a brilliant position to be in as writer and director, I can choose who I work with and can do the project on my own terms. Basically that involved three weeks development, two weeks at Beaford arts and one at CPT….Then we’ve gone quite quickly into this production, since last week. It’s a very empowering thing for writers to have some kind of control over your own process….because I’ve done quite a bit of work in theatre and performance, and studied directing, I’ve got some of those tools that a lot of writers are nervous about, but it’s very important to find a way to see your work and not just write play after play after play that doesn’t get produced.

'The Disappearance of Sadie Jones'

DL: So we met up, Hannah said, I’ll pay you to come in for first day and a half. In our first meeting I asked open questions – what does success look like at the end of R&D? What images do you have in your head about how we work on it? What does the room look like? And through those open questions I devised a process that would make the dramaturgy of the play visible, in the room. That’s what this stuff around us on the walls is – making the dramaturgy visible.

Because part of our concern was that all of those things Hannah has described about literary managers, script readers, the things that I’ve talked about in terms of having quite a narrow conception of what a play is….might we have performers in the room who are also having those struggles, those fears? So one of the first things we did was ask the actors to write on post it notes what they were most frightened about and excited about, and there were a lot of things ‘what if I don’t get the play?’ ‘what if I don’t understand the characters?’ ‘what if I don’t get how Hannah’s work is meant to work?’.

So we got rid of all of that at the very first stage and found ourselves on an even keel, all five of us sitting around the room going ‘we need to work out how this play operates and what its universe, world is so we can discover a common language and vocabulary’, that’s what we wanted….a way of talking about the work, because talking about ‘story’ or ‘plot’ wasn’t going to work, that’s not what drives the play. The play is driven by experience, image, memory, gesture, musicality, poetry, dreamscapes, those are not  ‘plot’, in the way that we think about cause and effect, linear plot…so we did a couple of processes…we had a read through but what we asked the actors to do after they read was to respond on paper, and brilliantly, they nearly all drew pictures, that says a lot about the play, the things that resonates are images rather than words…

'The Disappearance of Sadie Jones'

We wanted to know what the play meant to the actors in room, what did they think they were making, all of those things were consolidated into this…I made a record of what the five of us agreed….skeletons and outlines, clocks and circles, a sequence of progression rather than a plot, we see things from different perspectives, it’s a play about someone’s insides…This was just the first day, trying to work out what everyone in that room agreed on about the play, what was contained in the play.

The other thing we did was we tasked everyone in the room with breaking the play down into movements or phases, where did they feel there was a shift between one thing and another? Just to see what they thought was organising the play…We got back together and my job was to navigate these perspectives into a common consensus on how we moved from one place to another, we ended up with a working understanding of the play’s composition….I took that away over night and drew the play on a page, so this is something I’ll do with my own writing…map the play out, so you can see…we ended up with four movements, which were broken down…We had 17 sequences of something in the play…it enabled us to understand the play’s structure collectively, to make it visible, available to everyone in room…that was what I did on first day, find a way of helping the company access the play and its construction.

I’ve only discovered today that this was then produced….Taking the principle of mapping the company did this…it’s very long…let’s put it down that way…(unravelled on table) can I put you on the spot Lizzie…could you tell us what this is….


Lizzie Crarer (actor): It’s funny looking at this now as it’s actually quite sparse, we did it again at the beginning of last week and it’s much more detailed…So basically it started to become clear that there was some linear narrative, a real time real life sequence of events that happened to these people….which as performers we needed to know as well…On one level you need to know who these people are and what they are doing so that you can then see what the strange associations between things are…so I think this side is what’s going on in the imagination and the upper side is what we worked out what had actually happened to the characters..

DL: One of the definitions I read at the beginning is appropriate: ‘the dramaturg is facilitator of dramaturgical thinking’ – that thinking was applied again at the end of the process, in my absence. Looking at this now it occurred to me that the play has an associative structure: what I mean by that is you have moments that brush against one another….you are required to make associations between a gesture in minute twelve that comes back in minute sixty seven…an object, a line, relates…you are moving through a world picking up on connections, associations, lines, phrases…something Hannah is very insistent about is that it is OK for an audience to come out with different understandings of the play they have just seen, and that they are experiencing something, not just watching something…

I suppose I will say a couple of things that have happened over the time from starting at Beaford to going into production and working as a ‘floor dramaturg’ in the last two weeks. I’m also interested to hear from Lizzie and Stephanie too about their experiences as actors…but certainly, a couple of key changes occurred through having an outside eye coming back into process….There are a few moments of narration in the play, it’s a tiny tiny thing, but I felt that the audience needed this narration in the past tense rather than present: it’s a common thing to create an off-stage world for the audience, but you have to be very careful about how you position it in space and time in our imaginations, because if you get it wrong we get totally confused and we lose it. I was insistent about the audience being able to position this off-stage world which was being revisited….but the narration of what we were watching was delivered in the present tense. So we switched it and those moments transformed…

I suppose those interventions have been co-directorial but also keeping a close eye on the text, and saying to Hannah, I really think we need this bit of text lifted up as it’s an anchor for the audience, it’s a moment when we are going to make those synapse connections….thinking about gesture on stage…allowing the audience to map the play in the same way we did at Beaford. We need to go into that space and to come out feeling that we can map that experience, going ‘I’ve got a map of that play’ and it means this: those maps might be different person to person, but that doesn’t matter. Is that fair?

HS: Well I think personally I don’t need people to be able to map the play, I think that would be quite hard actually, on a first viewing, but I want them to be able to feel it, and to come out feeling that something has changed in the gut…and then when they remember the play to remember that sense of being in a particular place in a particular atmosphere and what it felt like…

DL: I suppose maybe mapping doesn’t necessarily mean tying down narrative. I suppose by mapping I mean that you come out having been able to connect things, and, having been given that opportunity – perhaps through us identifying those anchors, those associations, and putting them more at the forefront of the production language – we are therefore able to feel more deeply those emotions you want us to be feeling.

HS: Yes, and it could be making connections between events happening on stage or between what you’ve experienced yourself or seen yourself and connecting that with what’s on stage. I love seeing work that enables me to write as a viewer….When I used to watch a lot of dance work, it was as if streams of text were coming out of my head provoked by the relationships I was seeing on stage, and for me it was telling me lots about what it is to be human. I think if something you are seeing triggers or tells you something about how you feel or resonates…that’s exciting…

I think everyone has a different mind, a different way of thinking; ‘mapping’ could be the way a lot of people think, but other people don’t…I was going to say, something to mention is that I didn’t understand the play either, it wasn’t that I understood it and no one else got it , it was that I liked it, but I didn’t really understand it and it has taken me a long time to get to the understanding of it that I’ve got now, now I feel confident and clear about what it is. I think I knew all of that intuitively, I had it in me, but it took quite a long time to piece things together, and when we got there it was very exciting, because that’s the process of constructing meaning and understanding, which is  the same process which happens when you watch work. Because I wrote it from an emotional place… I had this thing, I liked it, I didn’t want to re-write it to make it make sense, I wanted to understand what I had written and it did go through different drafts, but not the kind of drafts we are told to write, not drafts imposed by an outside idea of what a play is, but drafts that helped the play become what it was.

DL: One more thing about structure….I don’t think dramaturgs or dramaturgy necessarily holds the elixir of amazing theatre: it’s theatre, it happens all the time anyway, there are many directors brilliant at dramaturgy, it’s part of what they do.


There’s something about form I wanted to demonstrate with three [different shaped] glasses. Say you’ve go a certain amount of content in a play, and that’s the amount of content there….. I can put that same content in this glass here or this glass here or this glass here, but each of those containers will tell you a completely different story about what that content means…there are different associations with each shape. Something that I’m really interested in with plays is looking at expressive structure: structure is not a stiff thing you hook content onto but it is active, it does something, forming the structure of play is part of how meaning is constructed. Caryl Churchill is fantastic at doing this, the shape of her plays, the form of her plays, is part of what they mean, it’s not just that those plays are in three acts, boom, done…

Something that Hannah does with The Disappearance of Sadie Jones is that structurally it’s incredibly sophisticated, because the shape of the play expresses….to me it’s the closest thing to that ‘Picasso play’ that I’ve read. It expresses an emotional experience and uses different shapes to do that.

LC: You were asking about the experience for the performer….the word ‘mid wife’ came to mind, the dramaturg’s role is like delivering a baby, certainly that initial few days in Beaford, it’s interested being reminded about it because I think it set the tone for the way in which we were to approach play, which was establishing an attitude of openness, inquisitiveness, curiosity…which I think is something that Hannah is excellent at doing, which is being very objective, ruthlessly objective of your own work…but I think it’s really good to include performers in that and having a dramaturg in the room opens up that dialogue and it’s a really great starting point, and then again last week and this week, it’s been really helpful to have someone who is not the director, not the producer, but an objective third party to come in and ask helpful questions which you can get lost in when you’ve got into your own process…we’ve created this world, we’ve gone into it, it makes total sense to us now! Well not total sense…but we’ve built a kind of logic and it’s really useful to have someone say.…have you thought about this?

DL: Watching you do a run through on Tuesday, you could see how the physical, vocal, spatial language had absorbed this structural understanding…it was amazing to watch actually, before the lights or sound or props were in the mix the performers’ bodies and voices were moving us between worlds, moving us between dimensions in the play: that was amazing, you found a way to move between these sequences just by being performers in the space.

Stephanie Greer (actor): For me it was a bit different because I wasn’t in Beaford or at CPT so it feels like I’ve been involved in this for a while but actually that’s not true…it’s for two weeks…but I was really glad that we had someone come in…I think if you have a writer who is also director….I think Hannah is the best person to direct this piece, but equally Hannah knows everything about this more than anyone else and actually it was really good for someone to come in and be really clear about what is going on, so he’d be like, OK, the audience don’t need to know what that is but there is clarity, whatever that may be, for us…I don’t know whether my lack of knowledge of what happened at Beaford was useful for the process, but it was great to have someone else who hadn’t been in every single day of the process to share that with.

DL: Julian Meyrick said you can only experience a play or script fresh once, everything after that is decay: and it’s the hardest job as writer, director, actor, to revisit and keep fresh that first impression of what you are watching, and that’s the role that I had to take into the room, I needed to imagine I’m watching this as an audience member for the first time….again…so coming in and out of the process with a month and then 3 weeks then 4 days between watching it helped me to do that, helped me to come back to it and watch the broad sweep of the piece and pick out those moments where I didn’t understand something or catch something, or something could be accentuated…trying to think like an audience member….

'The Disappearance of Sadie Jones'

So we’ve got twenty-five minutes for questions or comments….

Question from floor: I just wondered what process you went through to select performers, because that must be very important…what was their understanding about what they were about to do?

HS: I was crazy lucky, I still can’t believe my luck with this team. I did this massive audition about a year ago, and I just put out a call myself, I didn’t go through agents, or casting directors or anything, just a call on the Arts Council Jobs website and Ideas Tap, and I got hundreds of applications, and I didn’t know how to choose, who to invite to audition, it was really hard, I’m sure there was something a bit random about it.  The audition was really about getting the actors to play with the text, I didn’t really tell them anything about the text, I didn’t know how to talk about it at that stage yet either, but I do think it was useful to run workshop auditions where people were working together and experimenting with the text and I think …well Lizzie just came in and she was Kim, one of the characters, which was amazing, but also I knew that Lizzie ‘got’ the play.

Of course actors will always say ‘I really love the play’ if they want the part, but I saw that Lizzie honestly did really love it, or get it, and because so few people had ‘got’ it, on the page, that was very important, and I just loved what she did. And I had another actor (Kathryn O’Reilly) already on board…turned out she played Sadie during our development process, but Stephanie was in the same audition with Lizzie, so when I was looking back over audition tapes, when Kathryn wasn’t able to go forwards with the production…there was just something about how Stephanie tasted the words, something about how she approached the language, that made me think – yeah I think we’ll work really well, I think this will be great, and it was such a good decision. Stephanie has only been here for two weeks, and she came to the first day of last week having learned all her lines…the entire play, it was astonishing.

LC: And it was the hardest text I’ve ever had to learn.

HS: She just knew it! Alan was in that same audition, and it is kind of interesting that I’ve ended up with three actors who were all in the same audition and worked together… I’ve got a team who are all really nice people to work with which is partly who you choose, you bring people in you get on with but also about making sure the process from the beginning is open…and it had to be…and in a way I was quite vulnerable, being the director, because I also didn’t know what it was…I was there saying ‘I don’t know’, I don’t quite know how to work on this, I would get up in the morning and be running the day but not really with any idea of how it was going to go, and I’ve never experienced that before, I found it exciting not to know what I was doing and because I’m lucky to have such generous people in the room, we’ve discovered how to do it over the process…so now I feel very confident with it, but I do think if you know exactly what you’re doing…if you know what you’re going to write before you write it, if you know how you’re going to write it, if you know what it is when you’ve written it and you know exactly how to direct it then what’s the point? Then you haven’t done anything new.

SG: I think it’s worth saying as well that if you direct your own work then you do have the choice of who you work with.  I found it really strange actually how little directors and theatres care about who the writer wants in the play, so you can have worked with a writer in development of the script, and they will be saying to the director ‘please see this person for this role’ and the director will say OK yeah fine, and not do that and not go with them…the writer can then feel they’ve got no control over their work.

Question from floor: I want to ask about the process of the performing, so you got this piece of paper and you wanted to know what actual action is happening to this person in the real world…and then there was the imaginative world, and you had these parallel lines running…and I wanted to ask whether you as a writer, were surprised about anything your actors found….and was it a journey you yourself had made prior to trying out….?

HS I had done it but not in such a clear way, I had an idea going into the meeting with David that this is a linear thing over forty eight hours but it wasn’t completely filled in and I enjoyed doing that with the actors…I think what surprises me and what I don’t do is back story…what had happened before this play starts, and definitely when I talked to Stephanie, she was talking about how Sadie grew up, and what her mother was like, and what she’d experienced in childhood and how she’d adapted to that, all of these things we hadn’t really talked about but it all rings true. That’s something that I don’t tend to think about so much.

LC: It’s a two way thing, because as an actor you want to know who this person is, and that’s prejudice too, about character being primary…so actually there’s a lot we have to chuck out to meet you in this work, and work out a different way…a way that is more akin to music…and sometimes this play is just a musical  score…it feels like that..

HS: It goes though various stages, I think we got to a stage where actors were asking a lot of questions like ‘why am I doing this?’ ‘Where am I?’…And I couldn’t really answer because…well, you’re in the imagination or, it’s kind of a dream and it doesn’t make sense and there isn’t logic in this place… and I felt we were getting trapped, and I think it was Kathryn who said ‘you’re the director, what do you want?’ And I went away and came back and said ‘I want us to treat this like a piece of music’ and that was very helpful, for a while. We went through a logical process of figuring out the characters’ psychological, and literal journeys,  then a musical stage, then we looked at the body, physicality…to see what that does to meaning and that in a way moved us towards and away from the play.

Where we are now I think has taken elements of all of that but I wouldn’t say now that we are treating the play as a piece of music because I think what I’ve discovered is that if you do that, without a sense of character and emotional journey, that’s when it becomes what people were telling me it was. I think the musical parts should be communicating something about the inner world of the characters or emotion in this particular play, so it’s been a weird layering up of processes, and now those layers have brought us here.

DL: The director Katie Mitchell has a process she talks about in her book, On Directing, where she sits down with a play and goes through it scene by scene or unit by unit and asks, what are the things that are facts that I can pull out and what questions, or impressions have I got, and I think that’s something I did…What are the things I feel are facts, what are impressions…the reason I do that…the audience goes into the theatre with very little, the title, maybe a strapline, the blurb, everything after that is accumulation, you are accumulating knowledge so dramaturgically that role of going in and watching over and over is about wiping the slate clean and starting from nothing…again…and what’s building up, section by section…this is what I mean by mapping in the brain…you’re accumulating and all that time trying to make sense of accumulation…which things are sitting up, where are the anchors, the moments when I go ‘I get that’…where are those moments through the play, if we hit those, the bits in between can cope with being multiple in their meaning, and undefined.
The Disappearance of Sadie Jones is on at the Bike Shed Theatre in Exeter until 20th April. It will tour in the Autumn.

David Lane is a playwright and freelance dramaturg based in Bristol. He is regularly working with the Egg in Bath, Half Moon Young People’s Theatre, Goldsmiths College in London and as a workshop leader with Bristol Old Vic. He has been commissioned to write and adapt for young companies at Theatre Royal Plymouth and Salisbury Playhouse and for rural touring with Forest Forge. He has written articles on dramaturgy in the journal Studies in Theatre and Performance; his book Contemporary British Drama was published by Edinburgh university Press in 2010 and a feature on playwright Jim Cartwright is included in Modern British Playwriting: The Eighties by Methuen Drama. He is convenor of Final Projects on the MA Writing for Performance at Goldsmiths College and has taught modules in dramaturgy, playwriting and text and performance at Exeter University, City University, Brunel and Sussex. He is also part-time coordinator of Theatre Writing South West, which has been supporting and developing new writing in the region since 2004.

9 thoughts on “Progressive Dramaturgy

  1. A fab and gorgeous read. Thanks so much for sharing this, and inspiring as I’m chasing a Picasso down a rabbit hole right now…. Fab stuff!

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