Now! Not Then

There are not many people who have had a greater global impact on theatre-making in the last 100 years, than Bertolt Brecht. I don’t imagine there is a theatre student anywhere who has at least not heard of him, studied him briefly. I am a great believer in his theatre practice. However, his plays tend to leave me, well, a tad bored. There are a couple I really like, The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui and Fear and Misery of the Third Reich, for example, but the rest often feel a little dry.  Now of course this is often due to the way they are staged but I can never help feeling that his longer works would benefit from significant trimming   And this is the dichotomy with Brecht – Brecht, the theatre practitioner and Brecht, the playwright – in contemporary theatre. His practice continues to be fundamental to a whole host of theatre making, but his plays in performance, are far less common than they used to be.


This really comes as no surprise, when theatres are trying to find ways of competing with a fast-moving, attention-shrinking, digital world. So it was with some joy that I read Michael Billington’s article in The Guardian:

Bertolt Brecht: irresistible force or forgotten chapter in theatrical history?

Brecht’s belief that drama should present moral ideas through action is unfashionable, but as theatre becomes ever more narcissistic, audiences are seeking him out again

In the Jungle of Cities

In the Jungle of Cities

It’s that man again: Bertolt Brecht. His early play, In the Jungle of Cities,is being revived at London’s Arcola, and later this month he’s back in the West End, as Jonathan Church’s Chichester production of The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui moves to the Duchess. It’s a production that won lots of praise when first seen last year, not least for the comic demonism of Henry Goodman’s performance as the eponymous Chicago racketeer who provides a metaphor for Adolf Hitler. But, for all its dazzling energy, I suspect the production will raise all the old arguments about Brecht’s standing today. Is he still an irresistible force or simply a chapter in theatrical history whose reputation has declined with the collapse of eastern European communism?

In weighing up the pros and cons, one has to start with a basic fact: as both a practising dramatist and visionary theorist, Brecht changed the face of modern theatre. Just to take Britain alone, I’d argue that the historic visit by Brecht’s Berliner Ensemble to London in 1956 [The link is to a review from the time] did more than any other single event – even than the premiere of Waiting for Godot a year earlier – to shake us out of our rooted complacency. The spare Brechtian aesthetic had a profound influence on the newly founded English Stage Company at the Royal Court, and the realisation of what a permanent company could achieve shaped the creation of the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1960 and the National theatre in 1963.

Directors, designers and dramatists were all influenced by Brecht’s idea of an epic theatre in which narrative replaces plot, the spectator is turned into an observer rather than someone implicated in the stage action, and each scene exists for itself alone. Above all, Brecht’s belief that drama should present moral and political ideas through action left its stamp on a huge range of plays, from Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance by John Arden, Luther by John Osborne and Saved by Edward Bond in the 1950s and 60s, through to Fanshen by David Hare and Destiny by David Edgar in the 1970s. As David Edgar once said: “Brecht is part of the air we breathe.”

Lest you think I exaggerate Brecht’s influence, I turned up a catalogue to an exhibition, Bertolt Brecht in Britain, mounted at the National Theatre in 1977. Among other things, it includes a checklist of annual productions. In 1972 you find 15 professional Brecht productions in the UK ranging from Arturo Ui in Belfast and Bradford to Mother Courage and Her Children in Watford and Canterbury, and a West End revival of The Threepenny Opera with a cast that included Vanessa Redgrave andBarbara Windsor. There were 77 amateur productions including a staggering 36 – many staged by students – of The Caucasian Chalk Circle. For good measure, BBC Television also presented Arturo Ui starring the formidable Nicol Williamson.


All this is unimaginable today. Few regional theatres have the financial resources, even if they had the will, to mount a Brecht play. The right-wing thought police would, I suspect, quickly be on the case if any school put on a Brecht show. And there is about as much likelihood of BBC doing a prestigious Brecht television production as there is of it presenting a play by Sophocles, Shaw, Ibsen, Chekhov or any of the great classic dramatists. Even in academia Brecht is much less central than he used to be: a friend told me that a supposedly comprehensive undergraduate theatre course devotes roughly two hours a year to him.

Yet, even if Brecht is out of fashion, his legacy is all around us. Stephen Unwin, in his excellent A Guide to the Plays of Bertolt Brecht, points to one key example in the growth of documentary drama. The kind of work staged at London’s Tricycle theatre under Nicolas Kent, starting with Half the Picture in 1993 and taking us up to Gillian Slovo’s examination of theLondon riots in 2011, fulfilled many of Brecht’s theatrical criteria. This was work that, in Brecht’s definition of epic theatre, offered the spectator a picture of the world, forced him or her to take decisions. It appealed to reason rather than feeling. Even the performance style made it clear that actors were representing, rather than identifying with, particular characters.

I also sense the Brechtian influence at work in some of the big plays on public themes that have emerged in recent years. They may eschew the Brechtian visual approach, but they engage with the issues of our times in ways he would have understood. In Enron (2009), Lucy Prebble traced the fall of the Texan energy giant to show how capitalism depends on con-tricks and illusions. In 13 (2011), which many critics myopically repudiated, Mike Bartlett argued that popular protest was now a bigger force for change than entrenched political parties. And in the 2013 play Chimerica, Lucy Kirkwood boldly invites us to compare and contrast China and America: it is a work that genuinely activates thought in that its apparent conclusion that America tolerates dissent while China punishes it is brought into question by the cases of Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden.

Brecht may be out of fashion in the self-regarding world of immersive and site-specific theatre, where everything depends on the minor shocks and sensations felt by the individual spectator: however good such shows may be, you generally come out of one by Punchdrunk or Shunt wanting to change your clothes instead of the world. But Brecth’s legacy is still too pervasive and potent for him ever to be entirely invisible.

We are also learning how to do him without the pedagogic reverence that for years put people off. Jonathan Church’s excellent Arturo Ui ushers us into a Chicago speakeasy where we listen to the seductive sounds of a jazz trio. And Roxana Silbert’s modern-dress Royal Shakespeare Company production of A Life of Galileo earlier this year used a text sensibly trimmed by Mark Ravenhill and seemed vitally connected to a world in which a liberally intentioned pope found himself trapped by institutional conservatism.


Brecht is too big a force to ignore…..But I’d like see our theatre go beyond revivals of Galileo, Mother Courage, The Caucasian Chalk Circle and The Good Person of Szechwan. I’d be fascinated to see St Joan of the Stockyards, with its Salvation Army heroine, Paul Dessau choruses and parodies of Goethe and Schiller. Brecht may not be as fashionable as he once was. But, in a theatre that tends towards narcissistic introspection, his ability to engage with the world and instruct delightfully seems to me more urgently important than ever.

Secret Theatre

I really enjoyed an article I read earlier in the week about a British theatre,  The Lyric Hammersmith, that is attempting to do something new, to shake things up a bit. Written by Matt Trueman, for The Guardian I thought I’d share it with you.

Sean Holmes on Secret Theatre: ‘There are no assumptions; it’s about honesty’

Frustrated by British theatre’s conservatism, the Lyric Hammersmith boss has decided to shake things up with a season of secret shows

“A lot of theatre is quite boring,” says Sean Holmes, fully aware this is not the sort of statement made by artistic directors of major…..theatres. These days, however – part moroseness, part mischief – Holmes is happy to lob a few home-truth hand grenades.

With funding squeezed, we’ve come to expect cultural cheerleading. Arts leaders fight their corner, championing their chosen discipline wherever possible. Theatre, we’re told, feeds television and film. It pays its way in VAT and cultural tourism and generally does this country proud.

Sean Holmes

Sean Holmes

In June, the 44-year-old stood in front of an invited audience of peers and told them as much. “Maybe the existing structures of theatre in this country, whilst not corrupt, are corrupting,” he said. Maybe the theatre we trumpet as the best in the world, isn’t. Maybe it could be better, broader, bolder.” It was a barnstorming speech that pulled no punches. Even Holmes – burly, shaven-headed and one of British theatre’s great straight-talkers – admits he was afraid. “I was absolutely shitting myself; so nervous. I’m sure it pissed a lot of people off.”

Holmes runs through the basic argument again: “Most British theatre is well made, and maybe that’s what most audiences want. But there’s another audience – a young audience – that’s hungry for something else, for something that might just change them. Most theatre simply isn’t interested in doing that.”

Instead, he believes British theatre is rooted in commercial structures and standard practices. It runs on unquestioned assumptions – that rehearsals last six weeks, that the writer is central, that acting means pretending to be someone else – all of which add up to cultural hegemony and artistic compromise. Lest this sound like runaway hubris, Holmes includes himself: “Any criticism comes from self-criticism; me going, ‘I’m too cautious’.”

This frustration has prompted Holmes to challenge the norms with an atypical season born of unique circumstances. In April, a 20-strong ensemble – 10 actors and 10 writers, directors and designers – started working together under the label Secret Theatre. This month, they’ll open the first two shows of an eight-month, seven-show repertory season. The aim is to question the way theatre is made in this country and the type of theatre that results. “We believe that theatre matters,” runs the company’s manifesto. “We are hungry for change.”


There are two fronts to this: structural and artistic. The ensemble will be together for a year…..Six weeks of workshops preceded rehearsals proper; theoretically, the extra time spent together allows them to build a shared vocabulary and aesthetic understanding without reverting to habitual methods. Change the structures and you shift the possibilities.

“The starting point is that there are no assumptions,” Holmes explains. “With everything we do, we ask, ‘What the f**k are we going to do with this?'”

The philosophy extends beyond design and direction to play selection, casting decisions and marketing techniques. Audiences will book shows by number, not title. They might find themselves watching a classic text, a new play or something else entirely. Who knows what?

Casting isn’t merely gender- and colour-blind – the ensemble necessitates non-literalism – it is also willfully topsy-turvy at times. Scripts aren’t sacred. Scenes are played out of order. Lines get chopped and changed. Stage directions are obliterated. If a moment needs a dance routine, it gets one. If a pop song does the job better than dialogue, it’s tagged in. Every decision is up for grabs.

All this stems from last year’s (production of) Three Kingdoms. Simon Stephens’ play – and Sebastian Nübling’s distorted staging, in particular – has clearly had quite an impact on Holmes. Though it opened to underwhelmed reviews and half-full houses, the production found vocal champions online and, by the end of its three-week run, was selling out entirely, mostly to eager young audiences. Holmes talks about a generation waiting for their 1956-Look-Back-In-Anger moment: “On a good day, Three Kingdoms was the John the Baptist to that.”

Three Kingdoms

Three Kingdoms

Stephens, now Secret Theatre’s resident dramaturg, recalls “a response I’d never seen in my career”. He believes Three Kingdoms left three major marks: “Audiences remember the inventiveness of actors, their unapologetic presence in the room and their sheer physicality.” The performers didn’t just act out a scene, they warped it into something else. They didn’t kowtow to the script’s demands. They made it anew, in their own personal and inimitable style.

Secret Theatre has maintained not only the same “spirit of attack” but also the same honesty, says Stephens. “No pretending” has become the company’s mantra. The cast play themselves, even in some of the most iconic roles in drama.

“Our aesthetic is, ‘Look at us. We’re just humans on a stage’,” says Holmes. “It’s about honesty. We can’t get a fight director. We can’t do accents.”

Everything needs an alternative approach, one that the actors can own entirely. The refusal to pretend means they have to rely on analogy and metaphor, so that frying an egg might stand in for a scientific experiment. It adds an extra layer to the play, representing and commentating at the same time. “It’s about going against the text – not to be perverse, but to reveal the writing.”

Even as early as mid-July, rehearsal performances feel dangerous. Classic scenes are unrecognisable and fiercely charged. The company, most of whom are significantly younger than Holmes and Stephens, clearly relish the agency and provocation it’s provided. Actor Leo Bill, 33, feels like it allows him to consider himself an artist – something frowned upon in the wider industry that deems acting a craft. “You couldn’t stand up at drama school and say, ‘I’m an artist.’ You’d be told to sit down and shut up.

Secret Theatre in rehearsal

Secret Theatre in rehearsal

I’ve met older actors who are adamant they’re not artists. They just do what the director tells them as best they can.”

Not so here. Actors pull scenes in radical directions without warning their colleagues. They arrive onstage with props they’ve just picked up. They’re happy to actually fight each other; to spit and snog and sing. There’s no sign of the “middle-class politeness” that so frustrates Bill in other rehearsal rooms. At one point, a group discussion of a short confessional monologue dissects the paradox of sin and forgiveness – a cycle that makes both terms redundant – within a minute. “Usually there isn’t time for talking,” says Bill, “because you’ve got four weeks to put a show together.”

But Secret Theatre is underpinned by a luxury: freedom from normal commercial pressures. “Whatever we did this year, we would struggle financially,” Holmes admits. “There was always going to be some kind of deficit.”

Reduced design costs will compensate for increased wages, but the theatre will have to dip into reserves nonetheless. “It’s an opportunity to examine every aspect of how we run a theatre building,” says Holmes.

In that, Stephens draws comparisons with the Royal Court’s Open Court. “Three things over one summer could really force people to interrogate the conditions in which work is made.” Yet, where those projects have quietly downplayed their radicalism, Secret Theatre has defined itself with a combative, critical rhetoric that could easily trigger a backlash. “We’re just putting some plays on,” Stephens adds. “That’s all we’re doing. We’re not bringing down the government or starting a political party.”

But Holmes and his young company are already looking to the future. “Far worse than it failing is the possibility that it succeeds,” says Holmes. “Then we have to make it sustainable.”

When I read something like this I always have to question (albeit in this case, in a very small way) whether the intention will be fulfilled. The response on Twitter to the opening Secret Theatre #1 put my mind at rest:

@LyricHammer what you’re doing with Secret Theatre is possibly the single most important experiment in british theatre in decades. go on!

Just seen Show 1 @LyricHammer. OMG! Really OMG! Came out feeling shellshocked. Battered. GO. You need to see this for yourself.

The #SecretTheatre ensemble are brilliant. 2nd time this week. 1st two shows are pure theatre and inventive to the nth degree.@LyricHammer

#showone@LyricHammer#secrettheatre is a cluster bomb into the violent subconscious of England. And quite, quite beautiful for it. I think

@StephensSimon@LyricHammer Tremendous quality of dislocation and presence simultaneously in the performers.

Post Update:

Evernote Camera Roll 20130915 145639_FotorHaving made this post, I then noticed that the opening week of Secret Theatre had created a bit of a (Twitter) storm. Two Secret Theatre shows opened, a little confusingly, Show 2, followed by Show 1. One theatre critic, Mark Shenton, went to see Show 2 and then tweeted the real title, A Streetcar Named Desire. And this is where it all got a bit bizarre. Some people were outraged that Shenton had undermined the idea underpinning Secret Theatre as this Storify trail shows. Jake Orr, a well-known theatre maker weighed in with an attack on him on his blog, Where Theatre is Thought, calling Shenton Scrooge for spoiling the fun. And so it went on, with Lyn Gardner having her (sensible and grounded) say in her blog post, Not so Secret Theatre.

Untitled_FotorThen came an apology from Shenton in The Stage, To Tweet or not to Tweet a secret.

All in all, quite funny really, I think. Great free publicity for Secret Theatre and a theatre critic who will be a bit more careful with his tweets.

Tunnel Vision

In celebrating having passed the 5000 view mark, from 90 countries, Reading Room Asia is rather pleased. So I’m going a little left-field with my final post of the day.

When I am trying to teach my younger students about the concepts of creating abstract performance, I sometimes explain the condition of Synesthesia, which has always intrigued me.  It helps them get the idea that something can be symbolised by something else.

Therefore I really liked this when I saw it:

photoJames Wannerton tastes words when he reads or hears them. He noticed, at the age of 4, 49 years ago, that each London Underground station created a distinct taste. I think it’s great that lots of the tastes come from when he was a child. You can read more here.

I’m convinced there is a piece of theatre here, somewhere.

The Theatre of War

I was interested to read yesterday that the world-renowned Sydney Theatre Company  is to collaborate with the Australian Defence Force in a new verbatim play that will bring the stories of servicemen and women to the stage in the centenary year of the start of the first world war. What is even more interesting is that it was the military itself that approached the company with the idea. The new work will be based on the real experiences of Australian defence personnel who were wounded in Iraq, Afghanistan and East Timor. The process is underway and 20 soldiers are currently telling their stories through workshops. Daniel Keene will write the play, which will be preformed by both professional actors and ex-soldiers.

The Long Way Home - STC

Interestingly, Keene says that the project is not verbatim theatre (see the Q and A below), but all the news reports and the company’s own artistic director says it is.

Q & A: Daniel Keene (from the SCT Website)

What interested you about The Long Way Home as a project?

Firstly, it seemed a unique way to make theatre. Making theatre is what I’ve done for a very long time, and it’s something that I enjoy enormously. The Long Way Home presented a very particular set of circumstances, the most intriguing of which was the fact that I would be starting with no idea of what the final outcome would be. danielkeene200pxEverything depends on what the soldiers are willing to offer me. They are the ones who will determine what the play/show will be about. My job is to shape the material they offer into something that is theatrically effective.

Another reason I was interested in the project is that I think it’s important for the public to hear the stories that these soldiers have to tell. The ADF have been on multiple deployments over the last 20 years. They represent Australia, they act in our name. But does the public actually know what they’ve been doing or what they have achieved? More importantly, I think it’s critical that service men and women tell their own stories, the good and the bad, stories about their successes and their failures, and that the public’s understanding of the ADF isn’t limited to Government pronouncements and PR.

And I guess finally, deciding to participate in the project was a moral decision. The men and women involved have sacrificed an enormous amount in the service of their country. Whether or not you agree with the Australian government’s decision to become involved in a conflict such as the one in Iraq, the people involved in this project have given the best of themselves. And some of them have paid a very high price. It felt right to be able to offer something in return.

The production is based on first-hand accounts from soldiers. How do you fit into that as the playwright?

From the outset, both Stephen Rayne and myself have been clear that we did not want to make a piece of reportage, nor anything like a documentary. This will not be a piece of Verbatim Theatre. It isn’t question of the men and women involved in this project simply repeating their stories, but of creating a piece of theatre out of those stories; we want to escape the merely anecdotal. In doing that, perhaps by working together we can assign a larger meaning to those stories, illuminate their context, explore their cultural and emotional significance. This notion of creationis part of the healing process for the men and women involved in the project. As I’ve said, we want to get beyond the anecdotal and head someway towards the creation of meaning. I’m right now discovering how I fit in to that process. My job right now is to listen carefully, to pay attention to detail, and to resolve to be as truthful to what I hear as possible.

Is this process of writing familiar or is it new ground?

I’ve done a two projects a somewhat similar to this, both in France. They both took place in Marseilles, and they both concerned people living (to put it bluntly) at the very bottom of the food-chain. Some were living on the street. Many of them were immigrants and refugees from North Africa. I wrote two plays based on these people’s experiences, which they then performed, with the help of a small group of professional actors. I know that it was a liberating experience for the people involved. What I remember most of all is how exhausting it was for me! But it was an amazing experience.

Being in the midst of a creative development with the soldiers right now, has there been anything particularly striking or surprising about their stories so far?

We are only just beginning, and stories are only just now emerging, but what is already striking is the openness and the willingness of the soldiers to take part in this process. There is a lot of vulnerability in the room, but there is also a lot of courage.

In Search Of Meaning

marian-van-kerkhovenIt seems to me that there is such a thing as a major and a minor dramaturgy, and although my preference is mainly for the minor, which means those things that can be grasped on a human scale, I would here like to talk about the major dramaturgy. Because it is necessary. Because I think that today it is awfully necessary. We could define the minor dramaturgy as that zone, that structural circle, which lies in and around a production. But a production comes alive through its interaction, through its audience, and through what is going on outside its own orbit. And around the production lies the theatre and around the theatre lies the city and around the city, as far as we can see, lies the whole world and even the sky and all its stars. The walls that link all these circles together are made of skin, they have pores, they breathe.

These words were spoken by Marianne Van Kerkhoven, a Belgian dramaturge who died last week. Kerkhoven was a leading light in political and ‘new wave’ theatre throughout her career. It is perhaps not surprising that I hadn’t heard about her work until after her death, but it is clear that she was extremely influential and highly regarded. Again it got me pondering the role of the dramaturge in theatre making, particularly after my recent post, You Do What?. I came across a piece, written by Kerkhoven, and posted on Sarma, a site that, amongst other things, has a focus on dramaturgy. It is titled On dramaturgy – Looking without pencil in hand  and makes interesting reading.

“(…) distance is often linked with the most intense state of feeling, in which the coolness or impersonality with which something is treated measures the insatiable interest that thing has for us.” (Susan Sontag)

1. The request to talk or write about it leads time and again to the same awkwardness: the feeling of being asked to reveal someone else’s culinary secrets or recipes.

2. In artistic practice there are no fixed laws of behaviour, or task that can wholly defined in advance, not even for the dramaturge. Every production forms its own method of work. It is precisely through the quality of the method used that the work of important artists gains its clarity, by their intuitively knowing – at every stage in the process – what the next step is. One of the abilities a dramaturge must develop is the flexibility to handle the methods used by artists while at the same time shaping his/her own way of working.

3. Whatever additional tasks – sometimes very practical and certainly highly varied – the dramaturge takes on in the course of an artistic process, there always remain several constants present in his work; dramaturgy is always concerned with the conversion of feeling into knowledge, and vice versa. Dramaturgy is the twilight zone between art and science.

4. Dramaturgy is also the passion of looking. The active process of the eye; the dramaturge as first spectator. He should be that slightly bashful friend who cautiously, weighing his words, expresses what he has seen and what traces it has left; he is the ‘outsider’s eye’ that wants to look ‘purely’ but at the same time has enough knowledge of what goes on on the inside to be both moved by and involved in what happens there. dramaturgy feeds on diffidence.


5. Dramaturgy is also being able both to affirm and to repudiate at the right moment: knowing what, when and how to say something. Based on a realization of the vulnerability of the building blocks, but also conscious that the construction sometimes needs a good pounding.

6. It also invites the building up of a special type of personal relationship, in order to carry on conversations that are on the one hand highly specific – they are, after all, concerned with that progress of practical work – and on the other very serene and ‘wasteful’ in the ay a very personal contact is.

7. By means of his/her writing about a production, the dramaturge smooths the way towards its public airing. Whatever he/she writes must be ‘correct’; it must describe the work in an evident and organic way and lend a guiding hand on its way to its life in society, a life which often has a destructive effect on its meaning.

8. Dramaturgy is also sometimes – one is working after all with ‘groups’ – a psychological mediation. The basis for this lies not, however, in the technical approach of the professional ‘social worker’, but rather in the disinterested motives of ‘a friendship in the workplace’.

9. Dramaturgy is a limited profession. The dramaturge must be able to handle solitude; he/she has no fixed abode, he/she does not belong anywhere. The work he does dissolves into the production, becomes invisible. He/she always shares the frustrations and yet does not have to appear on the photo. The dramaturge is not (perhaps not quite or not yet) an artist. Anyone that cannot, or can no longer, handle this serving – and yet creative – aspect, is better off out of it.

10. Dramaturgy means, among other things: filling in in a creative process, with whatever material necessary; the assimilation and ‘guarding’ of a project’s ‘first ideas’ in order, occasionally, to restore them to memory; to suggest without forcing to a decision; being a touchstone, a sounding board; helping provide for inner needs. For this reason one of the essential axes on which the practice of dramaturgy turns is the accumulation of a reservoir of material – amassing knowledge in all fields: reading, listening to music, viewing exhibitions, watching performances, travelling, encountering people and ideas, living and experiencing and reflecting on all this. Being continuously occupied with the building up of a stock which may be drawn from at any time. Remembering at the right time what you have in your stockroom.

11. There is no essential difference between theatre and dance dramaturgy, although the nature and history of the material used differs. Its main concerns are: the mastering of structures; the achievement of a global view; the gaining of insight into how to deal with the material, whatever its origin may be – visual, musical, textual, filmic, philosophical etc.

12. At present, purely literary or linear dramaturgy is seldom to be found, in either dance or theatre. Dramaturgy today is often a case of solving puzzles, learning to deal with complexity. This management of complexity demands an investment from all the senses, and, more especially, a firm trust in the path of intuition.

“There is an immense difference between looking at something without pencil in the hand and looking at something while drawing it.” (Paul Valéry)

bt dramaturgy logo

Still a definition of the role remains hard to grasp.  This led me back to dramaturg’s network, which I have mentioned here before, and found the following; an attempt to tie a definition down written by John Keefe, who is a lecturer in theatre, a director and a dramaturge:

Dramaturg : Dramaturgy – Towards a Definition

Provocations for a discussion

To begin: an indication of the multiplicity of responses to the two terms ranging from the abstract to the technical….

Dramaturgy: from ‘text’ – a weaving together; from ‘drama-ergon’ – the work of the actions; thus, that which concerns the weave of the performance, (see Eugenio Barba & Nicola Savarese, A Dictionary of Theatre Anthropology, 1991).

Dramaturgy is the dialogic relationship between subject matter and its theatrical framing; content and form, (see Norman Frisch, Theatrerschrift 5-6, 1994).

Dramaturgy is the concern with composition, structure, staging and audience from literary analysis and historiography, (see Gotthold Lessing, Hamburg Dramaturgy, 1767-69).

Dramaturgy: not only the subject but also the object is constantly moving; dramaturgy is movement itself, a process, (see Marianne van Kerkhoven, Performance Research 14:3, 2009).

Dramaturgy: the wooden walls of small drawers with brass handles in the hardware stores of my childhood; the dramaturg opens each drawer to reveal new objects of indeterminate but indispensable use, (see John Keefe, State of Mime, Summer 1995).


Dramaturg: a literary reader-editor concerned with playscripts, (see A Dictionary of Theatre, Penguin).

Dramaturg: one who assists the traffic between stage and auditorium through the conceptual preparation of a production in its political, historical, aesthetic and formal aspects, (see Bertolt Brecht, The Messingkauf Dialogues, 1939-55; The Journals, 1934-55).

Dramaturg(e): one who is responsible for research and the development of plays, (see Wikipedia).

Dramaturg(e): a researcher and intellectual ‘go-fer’ who acts as the artistic conscience for the theatre, (see Bert Cardullo, What is dramaturgy, 1995).

So trying to bring these and other suggestions and definitions together:

Dramaturgy – as theatre science, a rigorous, analytical and sensitive approach to theatre practice and discourse (the play-text and stage-text), bridging the tension and ‘agon’ between the conceptual and the practical as the two (Janus) faces of theatre.

Dramaturg – as theatre scientist, one who looks and listens with knowledge, insight, rigor, sensitivity and open-mindedness helping to create the play-text with writer and director and/or the stage text with the production ensemble for presenting to a theatre ensemble (performance and audience). The function may be performed to a lesser or greater degree by members of the production ensemble, by other theatre or curatorial professionals, by education professionals whereby their contributory role is acknowledged as such.
The spectator is, of course, his/her own dramaturg by nature of their presence and engagement.

I’m not sure whether these are definitive definitions, but they are the latest and things seem to be merging toward a wide-ranging, encompassing understanding of the nature of the role….probably.


Perhaps it would help if we had a definitive way of spelling it –  ‘e’ or no ‘e’, that is the question.


The Dark Side

I have just been reading about a puppetry festival, taking place in England’s south-west. What took my interest, however, was that half the programming was specifically puppetry for an adult audience. The Bristol Festival of Puppetry – Exploring Different Worlds, has companies and performances from four continents and its programme for adults has a particularly dark feel about it – take a look here. One of the companies, Duda Paiva, looks fantastic. Brazilian born, Dutch resident Duda Paiva describes his work as a

lively cross-over of dance and objects in an exciting and original form of contemporary visual theatre.

Sounds fascinating, doesn’t it? Well, take a look at extracts from two of their pieces. The first is called Bastard!


And the second, Malediction


In connection with the festival, Rachel McNally, the organiser has given an interview to Regina Papachlimitzou from Exeunt, in which she talks about why puppetry has an enduring appeal, and why audiences have such a visceral response to puppetry: 

This is not a full answer, but it’s a partial answer: when you watch an actor perform, even though the performance can be brilliant, and they completely inhabit that character, you still are aware that there is a person behind that character, who is an actor, because you see their face and it’s so familiar. So, for example, if you see Tom Cruise in one movie and then you see him in another, you know it’s Tom Cruise performing and acting. Whereas a puppet is only that character. So you have to believe the puppet, that’s the only existence that puppet has, is to be that character and so if you’re prepared to believe in that puppet, in that character of the puppet, then you believe whole-heartedly in the story.

That’s a very transformative experience for an audience, because you allow yourself to buy in completely, and to be transported. There is an innocence to that which can take you to absolutely delightful places, but on the other hand you can go to some very dark places [as well]. Because you have to go with the puppet. There is obviously the performance that’s coming from the puppet but it’s then also what [you are] putting onto the puppet [yourself], because a puppet does not have facial muscles, so you read them slightly differently.

The other side of it is to do with the relationship between the puppeteer and the puppet. Increasingly in performances, you don’t see the puppeteer blacked out. You see the facial expressions of the puppeteer. Most puppeteers try to keep themselves relatively neutral, because they want the focus to be the puppet. There’s something joyful about seeing someone give that much attention and detail to create a life. Because the puppeteer is investing their own huge level of focus in a puppet, that gives you another reason to go along with the puppet.


The Wright Way

bruntwood_head_mid_res.jpg300x424.028268551Over the last year I have watched three plays emerge from the creative minds of two (now ex) students, on to the page and then on to the stage (or a toilet in one case). I was humbled by and astonished at their skill.  I’m a deviser of theatre by nature, a practical playwright if you wish. So to see them hone their skills through trial and error, draft and redraft was as much as a learning experience for me as it was for them.

There is lots of advice out there of course – a simple Google search tells you that – but I wonder where the line is drawn between a taught/learned skill and an innate talent. So I was delighted when I stumbled across this recording on The Open University by playwright Mark Ravenhill, talking about his craft and his approach to writing:

You can read the transcript of the recording by clicking here and then clicking the text tab.

Drama Online

And finally for this week a potentially groundbreaking new resource for theatre students and teachers called Drama Online. It says about itself:


Drama Online introduces new writers alongside the most iconic names in playwriting history, providing contextual and critical background through scholarly works and practical guides.

Currently it is in BETA development but there is already so much on there. To get to the plays, you will have to have a subscription, but a lot of the areas, such as the Playwrights & Practitioners and Genres pages are accessible to all users. If this continues to grow it will become a key resource for theatre students everywhere.

Smack My Bitch Up?

Following on from my post last month, Body Talk, about theatre and women’s rights movements two articles produced in the British press in the last couple of weeks strike a particular chord. Following the performance of a piece called Nirbhaya at the Edinburgh Festival, a work that focused on gang rape and sexual violence against women by men, what is best described as a spat has broken out about the portrayal of rape on stage.


Nirbhaya was inspired by the horrific multiple rape on a bus and subsequent death of an Indian student, Jyoti Singh Pandey, in Delhi in December 2012, which hit the headlines and provoked shocked reactions around the world.

In her Guardian Blog, Lyn Gardner argued that

with rape centre-stage, theatregoers can no longer turn a blind eye…….violence in theatre makes us contemplate something we may prefer to ignore.

This was in response to an article by Tiffany Jenkins in The Independent which argued that sexual violence onstage (and screen)

demeans both sexes and ignores healthy relationships.

Fascinating, just fascinating and at best, very spurious on the part of Jenkins. Have a read. I would argue that the theatre is exactly the place where human rights issues such as this should be explored. If you are in any doubt, take a look at two reviews here and here.


It’s Not All Custard Pies

A bit of an unusual post from me today, courtesy of, written by Linda Rodriguez McRobbie. It deals with the history of the clown figure, from a range of cultures, which haunts many people’s nightmares and the psychology behind why – really good reading (if you aren’t scared by clowns!)

The History and Psychology of Clowns Being Scary

A terrifying clown walks in a Halloween parade in New York

A terrifying clown walks in a Halloween parade in New York

There’s a word— albeit one not recognized by the Oxford English Dictionary or any psychology manual— for the excessive fear of clowns: Coulrophobia.

Not a lot of people actually suffer from a debilitating phobia of clowns; a lot more people, however, just don’t like them. Do a Google search for “I hate clowns” and the first hit is, a forum for clown-haters that also offers vanity emails. One “I Hate Clowns” Facebook page has just under 480,000 likes. Some circuses have held workshops to help visitors get over their fear of clowns by letting them watch performers transform into their clown persona. In Sarasota, Florida, in 2006, communal loathing for clowns took a criminal turn when dozens of fiberglass clown statues—part of a public art exhibition called “Clowning Around Town” and a nod to the city’s history as a winter haven for traveling circuses—were defaced, their limbs broken, heads lopped off, spray-painted; two were abducted and we can only guess at their sad fates.

Even the people who are supposed to like clowns—children—supposedly don’t. In 2008, a widely reported University of Sheffield, England, survey of 250 children between the ages of four and 16 found that most of the children disliked and even feared images of clowns. The BBC’s report on the study featured a child psychologist who broadly declared, “Very few children like clowns. They are unfamiliar and come from a different era. They don’t look funny, they just look odd.”

But most clowns aren’t trying to be odd. They’re trying to be silly and sweet, fun personified. So the question is, when did the clown, supposedly a jolly figure of innocuous, kid-friendly entertainment, become so weighed down by fear and sadness? When did clowns become so dark?

Maybe they always have been.

Clowns, as pranksters, jesters, jokers, harlequins, and mythologized tricksters have been around for ages. They appear in most cultures—Pygmy clowns made Egyptian pharaohs laugh in 2500 BCE; in ancient imperial China, a court clown called YuSze was, according to the lore, the only guy who could poke holes in Emperor Qin Shih Huang’s plan to paint the Great Wall of China; Hopi Native Americans had a tradition of clown-like characters who interrupted serious dance rituals with ludicrous antics. Ancient Rome’s clown was a stock fool called the stupidus; the court jesters of medieval Europe were a sanctioned way for people under the feudal thumb to laugh at the guys in charge; and well into the 18th and 19th century, the prevailing clown figure of Western Europe and Britain was the pantomime clown, who was a sort of bumbling buffoon.

But clowns have always had a dark side, says David Kiser, director of talent for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. After all, these were characters who reflected a funhouse mirror back on society; academics note that their comedy was often derived from their voracious appetites for food, sex, and drink, and their manic behavior. “So in one way, the clown has always been an impish spirit… as he’s kind of grown up, he’s always been about fun, but part of that fun has been a bit of mischief,” says Kiser.

“Mischief” is one thing; homicidal urges is certainly another. What’s changed about clowns is how that darkness is manifest, argued Andrew McConnell Stott, Dean of Undergraduate Education and an English professor at the University of Buffalo, SUNY.

Stott is the author of several articles on scary clowns and comedy, as well as The Pantomime Life of Joseph Grimaldi, a much-lauded 2009 biography of the famous comic pantomime player on the Regency London stage.

Grimaldi was the first recognizable ancestor of the modern clown, sort of the Homo erectus of clown evolution. He’s the reason why clowns are still sometimes called “Joeys”; though his clowning was of a theatrical and not circus tradition, Grimaldi is so identified with modern clowns that a church in east London has conducted a Sunday service in his honor every year since 1959, with congregants all dressed in full clown regalia.

In his day, he was hugely visible: It was claimed that a full eighth of London’s population had seen Grimaldi on stage. Grimaldi made the clown the leading character of the pantomime, changing the way he looked and acted. Before him, a clown may have worn make-up, but it was usually just a bit of rouge on the cheeks to heighten the sense of them being florid, funny drunks or rustic yokels. Grimaldi, however, suited up in bizarre, colorful costumes, stark white face paint punctuated by spots of bright red on his cheeks and topped with a blue mohawk. He was a master of physical comedy—he leapt in the air, stood on his head, fought himself in hilarious fisticuffs that had audiences rolling in the aisles—as well as of satire lampooning the absurd fashions of the day, comic impressions, and ribald songs.

A drawing of Joseph Grimaldi as his famous persona Clown Joey.

A drawing of Joseph Grimaldi as his famous persona Clown Joey.

But because Grimaldi was such a star, the character he’d invented became closely associated with him. And Grimaldi’s real life was anything but comedy—he’d grown up with a tyrant of a stage father; he was prone to bouts of depression; his first wife died during childbirth; his son was an alcoholic clown who’d drank himself to death by age 31; and Grimaldi’s physical gyrations, the leaps and tumbles and violent slapstick that had made him famous, left him in constant pain and prematurely disabled. As Grimaldi himself joked, “I am GRIM ALL DAY, but I make you laugh at night.” That Grimaldi could make a joke about it highlights how well known his tragic real life was to his audiences.

Enter the young Charles Dickens. After Grimaldi died penniless and an alcoholic in 1837 (the coroner’s verdict: “Died by the visitation of God”), Dickens was charged with editing Grimaldi’s memoirs. Dickens had already hit upon the dissipated, drunken clown theme in his 1836 The Pickwick Papers. In the serialized novel, he describes an off-duty clown—reportedly inspired by Grimaldi’s son—whose inebriation and ghastly, wasted body contrasted with his white face paint and clown costume. Unsurprisingly, Dickens’ version of Grimadli’s life was, well, Dickensian, and, Stott says, imposed a “strict economy”: For every laugh he wrought from his audiences, Grimaldi suffered commensurate pain.

Stott credits Dickens with watering the seeds in popular imagination of the scary clown—he’d even go so far as to say Dickens invented the scary clown—by creating a figure who is literally destroying himself to make his audiences laugh. What Dickens did was to make it difficult to look at a clown without wondering what was going on underneath the make-up: Says Stott, “It becomes impossible to disassociate the character from the actor.” That Dickens’s version of Grimaldi’s memoirs was massively popular meant that this perception, of something dark and troubled masked by humor, would stick.

Meanwhile, on the heels of Grimaldi’s fame in Britain, the major clown figure on the Continent was Jean-Gaspard Deburau’s Pierrot, a clown with white face paint punctuated by red lips and black eyebrows whose silent gesticulations delighted French audiences.

French artist Auguste Bouquet's rendition of Jean-Gaspard Deburau as Pierrot

French artist Auguste Bouquet’s rendition of Jean-Gaspard Deburau as Pierrot

Deburau was as well known on the streets of Paris as Grimaldi was in London, recognized even without his make-up. But where Grimaldi was tragic, Deburau was sinister: In 1836, Deburau killed a boy with a blow from his walking stick after the youth shouted insults at him on the street (he was ultimately acquitted of the murder). So the two biggest clowns of the early modern clowning era were troubled men underneath that face-paint.

After Grimaldi and Deburau’s heyday, pantomime and theatrical traditions changed; clowning largely left the theater for the relatively new arena of the circus. The circus got its start in the mid-1760s with British entrepreneur Philip Astley’s equestrian shows, exhibitions of “feats of horsemanship” in a circular arena. These trick riding shows soon began attracting other performers; along with the jugglers, trapeze artists, and acrobats, came clowns. By the mid-19th century, clowns had become a sort of “hybrid Grimaldian personality [that] fit in much more with the sort of general, overall less-nuanced style of clowning in the big top,” explains Stott.

Clowns were comic relief from the thrills and chills of the daring circus acts, an anarchic presence that complimented the precision of the acrobats or horse riders. At the same time, their humor necessarily became broader—the clowns had more space to fill, so their movements and actions needed to be more obvious. But clowning was still very much tinged with dark hilarity: French literary critic Edmond de Goncourt, writing in 1876, says, “[T]he clown’s art is now rather terrifying and full of anxiety and apprehension, their suicidal feats, their monstrous gesticulations and frenzied mimicry reminding one of the courtyard of a lunatic asylum.” Then there’s the 1892 Italian opera, Pagliacci (Clowns), in which the cuckolded main character, an actor of the Grimaldian clown mold, murders his cheating wife on stage during a performance. Clowns were unsettling—and a great source for drama.

England exported the circus and its clowns to America, where the genre blossomed; in late 19th century America, the circus went from a one-ring horse act to a three-ring extravaganza that travelled the country on the railways. Venues and humor changed, but images of troubled, sad, tragic clowns remained—Emmett Kelly, for example, was the most famous of the American “hobo” clowns, the sad-faced men with five o’clock shadows and tattered clothes who never smiled, but who were nonetheless hilarious.

Emmett Kelly as "Weary Willy," the most famous example of the hobo-clown persona

Emmett Kelly as “Weary Willy,” the most famous example of the hobo-clown persona

Kelly’s “Weary Willie” was born of actual tragedy: The break-up of his marriage and America’s sinking financial situation in the 1930s.

Clowns had a sort of heyday in America with the television age and children’s entertainers like Clarabell the Clown, Howdy Doody’s silent partner, and Bozo the Clown. Bozo, by the mid-1960s, was the beloved host of a hugely popular, internationally syndicated children’s show – there was a 10-year wait for tickets to his show. In 1963, McDonald’s brought out Ronald McDonald, the Hamburger-Happy Clown, who’s been a brand ambassador ever since (although heavy is the head that wears the red wig – in 2011, health activists claimed that he, like Joe Camel did for smoking, was promoting an unhealthy lifestyle for children; McDonald’s didn’t ditch Ronald, but he has been seen playing a lot more soccer).

But this heyday also heralded a real change in what a clown was. Before the early 20th century, there was little expectation that clowns had to be an entirely unadulterated symbol of fun, frivolity, and happiness; pantomime clowns, for example, were characters who had more adult-oriented story lines. But clowns were now almost solely children’s entertainment. Once their made-up persona became more associated with children, and therefore an expectation of innocence, it made whatever the make-up might conceal all the more frightening—creating a tremendous mine for artists, filmmakers, writers and creators of popular culture to gleefully exploit to terrifying effect. Says Stott, “Where there is mystery, it’s supposed there must be evil, so we think, ‘What are you hiding?’”

Most clowns aren’t hiding anything, except maybe a bunch of fake flowers or a balloon animal. But again, just as in Grimaldi and Deburau’s day, it was what a real-life clown was concealing that tipped the public perception of clowns. Because this time, rather than a tragic or even troubled figure under the slap and motley, there was something much darker lurking.

Even as Bozo was cavorting on sets across America, a more sinister clown was plying his craft across the Midwest. John Wayne Gacy’s public face was a friendly, hard-working guy; he was also a registered clown who entertained at community events under the name Pogo. But between 1972 and 1978, he sexually assaulted and killed more than 35 young men in the Chicago area. “You know… clowns can get away with murder,” he told investigating officers, before his arrest.

Gacy didn’t get away with it—he was found guilty of 33 counts of murder and was executed in 1994. But he’d become identified as the “Killer Clown,” a handy sobriquet for newspaper reports that hinged on the unexpectedness of his killing. And bizarrely, Gacy seemed to revel in his clown persona: While in prison, he began painting; many of his paintings were of clowns, some self-portraits of him as Pogo. What was particularly terrifying was that Gacy, a man who’d already been convicted of a sexual assault on a teenage boy in 1968, was given access to children in his guise as an innocuous clown. This fueled America’s already growing fears of “stranger danger” and sexual predation on children, and made clowns a real object of suspicion.

After a real life killer clown shocked America, representations of clowns took a decidedly terrifying turn. Before, films like Cecil B. DeMille’s 1952 Oscar-winning The Greatest Show on Earth could toy with the notion of the clown with a tragic past—Jimmy Stewart played Buttons, a circus clown who never removed his make-up and who is later revealed to be a doctor on the lam after “mercy killing” his wife—but now, clowns were really scary.

A predecessor of the modern clown, the medieval court jester exemplified the delicate blend of funny and horrifying

A predecessor of the modern clown, the medieval court jester exemplified the delicate blend of funny and horrifying

In 1982, Poltergeist relied on transforming familiar banality—the Californian suburb, a piece of fried chicken, the television—into real terror; but the big moment was when the little boy’s clown doll comes to life and tries to drag him under the bed. In 1986, Stephen King wrote It, in which a terrifying demon attacks children in the guise of Pennywise the Clown; in 1990, the book was made into a TV mini-series. In 1988, B-movie hit Killer Klowns from Outer Space featured alien clowns harboring sharp-toothed grins and murderous intentions. The next year saw Clownhouse, a cult horror film about escaped mental patients masquerading as circus clowns who terrorize a rural town. Between the late 1980s and now – when the Saw franchise’s mascot is a creepy clown-faced puppet — dozens of films featuring vicious clowns appeared in movie theatres (or, more often, went straight to video), making the clown as reliable a boogeyman as Freddy Kreuger.

Kiser, Ringling’s talent spotter and a former clown himself, acknowledged the damage that scary clown images have done to clowning, though he was inclined to downplay the effect. “It’s like, ‘Oh man, we’re going to have to work hard to overcome that one,’” he says.

But anecdotally at least, negative images of clowns are harming clowning as a profession. Though the Bureau of Labor Statistics doesn’t keep track of professional clowns specifically (they’re lumped in with comedians, magicians, and other miscellaneous performers), in the mid-2000s, articles began popping up in newspapers across the country lamenting the decline of attendees at clown conventions or at clowning workshop courses. Stott believes that the clown has been “evacuated as a figure of fun” (notably, Stott is personally uncomfortable with clowns and says he finds them “strange”); psychologists suggest that negative clown images are replacing positive clown images.

“You don’t really see clowns in those kinds of safe, fun contexts anymore. You see them in movies and they’re scary,” says Dr. Martin Antony, a professor of psychology at Ryerson University in Toronto and author of the Anti-Anxiety Work Book. “Kids are not exposed in that kind of safe fun context as much as they used to be and the images in the media, the negative images, are still there.”

That’s creating a vicious circle of clown fear: More scary images means diminished opportunities to create good associations with clowns, which creates more fear. More fear gives more credence to scary clown images, and more scary clown images end up in circulation. Of course, it’s difficult to say whether there has been a real rise in the number of people who have clown phobias since Gacy and It. A phobia is a fear or anxiety that inhibits a person’s life and clown fears rarely rate as phobias, psychologists say, because one simply isn’t confronted by clowns all that often. But clown fear is, Antony says, exacerbated by clowns’ representation in the media. “We also develop fears from what we read and see in the media… There’s certainly lots of examples of nasty clowns in movies that potentially puts feet on that kind of fear,” he says.

From a psychologist’s perspective, a fear of clowns often starts in childhood; there’s even an entry in the psychologists’ bible, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders or DSM, for a fear of clowns, although it’s under the umbrella category of a pediatric phobia of costumed characters (sports mascots, Mickey Mouse). “It starts normally in children about the age of two, when they get anxiety about being around strangers, too. At that age, children’s minds are still developing, there’s a little bit of a blend and they’re not always able to separate fantasy from reality,” explains Dr. Brenda Wiederhold, a veteran psychologist who runs a phobia and anxiety treatment center in San Diego that uses virtual reality to treat clients.

Most people, she says, grow out of the fear, but not everyone—perhaps as much as 2 percent of the adult population will have a fear of clowns. Adult clown phobics are unsettled by the clown’s face-paint and the inability to read genuine emotion on a clown’s face, as well as the perception that clowns are able to engage in manic behavior, often without consequences.

But really, what a clown fear comes down to, what it’s always come down to, is the person under the make-up. Ringling’s Kiser agreed.

“I think we have all experienced wonderful clowns, but we’ve also all experienced clowns who in their youth or lack of training, they don’t realize it, but they go on the attack,” Kiser says, explaining that they can become too aggressive in trying to make someone laugh. “One of the things that we stress is that you have to know how to judge and respect people’s space.” Clowning, he says, is about communicating, not concealing; good clown make-up is reflective of the individual’s emotions, not a mask to hide behind—making them actually innocent and not scary.


But have bad, sad, troubled clowns done too much damage? There are two different, conflicting visions of the clown’s future.

Stott, for one, sees clowning continuing on its dark path. “I think we’ll find that the kind of dark carnival, scary clown will be the dominant mode, that that figure will continue to persist in many different ways,” he says, pointing to characters like Krusty the Clown on The Simpsons, who’s jaded but funny, or Heath Ledger’s version of The Joker in the Batman reboot, who is a terrifying force of unpredictable anarchy. “In many respects, it’s not an inversion of what we’re used to seeing, it’s just teasing out and amplifying those traits we’ve been seeing for a very long time.” Other writers have suggested that the scary clown as a dependable monster under the bed is almost “nostalgically fearful,” already bankrupted by overuse.

But there’s evidence that, despite the claims of the University of Sheffield study, kids actually do like clowns: Some studies have shown that real clowns have a beneficial affect on the health outcomes of sick children. The January 2013 issue of the Journal of Health Psychology published an Italian study that found that, in a randomized controlled trial, the presence of a therapy clown reduced pre-operative anxiety in children booked for minor surgery. Another Italian study, carried out in 2008 and published in the December 2011 issue of the Natural Medicine Journal found that children hospitalized for respiratory illnesses got better faster after playing with therapeutic clowns.

And Kiser, of course, doesn’t see clowning diminishing in the slightest. But good clowns are always in shortage, and it’s good clowns who keep the art alive. “If the clown is truly a warm and sympathetic and funny heart, inside of a person who is working hard to let that clown out… I think those battles [with clown fears] are so winnable,” he says. “It’s not about attacking, it’s about loving. It’s about approaching from a place of loving and joy and that when you really look at it, you see, that’s it really genuine, it’s not fake.”