I think I need to step out of various characters (and invent another one).
Nearly all of the performance that I have seen in the past year would be improved by working with a dramaturg.
I don’t say this lightly, nor in an attempt to get work. Those works that have not left me with this thought have either been very bad (so the script, the actors, whatever, needed replacement) or very good.
The critic’s job – at least as far as I am concerned is not to recommend how a show can be improved. The critic points out what is, not what could be.
(Yes, sometimes I fail in this duty and it can be as simple as saying ‘the script doesn’t work’ rather than ‘the script needs to be rewritten’. Equally, questions of ethics might encourage a more didactic mode. ‘They shouldn’t have punched that audience member in the face’ is probably reasonable.)
However, now I know what a dramaturg is (thank you, Anselm Henrich, Vicky Price and Carl Lavery at Glasgow University), I am bold enough to make a Big Claim.
By defining three roles of the dramaturg – although there can be more – it is possible to suggest a way for most performances to improve.
First of all: the dramaturg will kill your babies. Working as an outside eye, the dramaturg is merciless when watching, and has no sentimental attachment to that really cool bit you love. They can tell the director that the scene where the actor does a sexy voice is a bit naff.
I know most directors think that they are able to do this. Evidence suggests otherwise.
Next job: structure and coherence. Again, the dramaturg – who does not plant the seeds of creativity, but helps them to grow – can get an overview of the piece, and suggest adjustments to its sequences or rhythms. This one is especially useful within a devised process.
Quite often, cutting out scenes is less helpful than changing the order. Having a sudden black-out three-quarters through a show (not having used them before) might suggest to the audience that ‘it’s finished’ and a sudden round of applause is going to disrupt your final quarter.
A dramaturg might, finally, take on board a bigger picture. The maker, being immersed (quite rightly) in the process, might not consider the importance of sightlines. The dramaturg can sit in the space, examine the seating and point out that the smart sexy pas de deux on the floor is going to be invisible to anyone past the first two rows.
I’ve deliberately generalised these examples, but they are from shows I have seen recently. No names seem necessary (none of these were bad, they just gave me good examples).
As a bonus suggestion, the dramaturg could probably do a better job of writing programme notes than many artists.
Of course, there is a University course dedicated to training dramaturgs. And my mate Elliot Roberts has stayed in Scotland and it would be good for everyone if he could get enough work to hang about for a while.
Mind you, the joy of the dramaturg is finding the one who suits a particular performance. But I shall leave that for another pompous lecture.