Dramaturgy: the "intellectual mise-en-scène" of performance

By Dr Bernadette Cochrane

The UQ Drama Creative Fellowship, piloted in 2014, brings a playwright of national standing to UQ’s School of Communication and Arts each year to provide workshops, masterclasses and lectures. These activities have focussed both on the craft of playwriting and on the dramaturgy, or attributes, of the playtext. In 2019, UQ Drama took a different approach to the Fellowship. This year, we were joined by international dramaturg, researcher, and theatre-maker, Dr Katalin Trencsényi whose work encompasses directing selections from the modern classical repertoire to new dramaturgy (understood as a collective noun], and dance dramaturgy. 

Complexity arises from the “intermediateness” of dramaturgy which requires “a sort of double competence in-between theory and practice, critical reflection and embodiment, knowledge exploration and production on one side, and artistic inspiration and execution on the other”

The word dramaturgy stems from the Greek dramaturgia or composition of a play. For much of the 1990s and into the early part of the twenty-first century, dramaturgy meant either the analysis of an extant text or a dramaturg working with a playwright to explore what a playtext, as a work in progress, could become. Textually oriented dramaturgy, while giving rise to creative work, is, however, no longer the only way to understand the concept.  Within contemporary performance-making practice, dramaturgy, having been freed from its historical association with Aristotelian poetics or considered only an attribute of a dramatic text and (or) textual analysis, is synonymous with the totality of the performance-making paradigm. This realignment of the term means that dramaturgy operates in a dynamic state of inclusive plurality.

Dramaturgy is simultaneously critical theory and real-world practice. Dramaturgy is, however, more than merely an instance of praxis. If, as Marianne Van Kerkhoven wrote, dramaturgy “is the twilight zone between art and science” [1] then contemporary dramaturgy fuses the Apollonian, with its emphasis on the rational, on causation and control, with the Dionysian, or engagement with intuition, strangeness and associative thinking. [2] This marrying of Apollonian dramaturgy and Dionysian dramaturgy provides simultaneous and complex challenges and syntheses for the performance-maker within the academy.  The complexity arises from the “intermediateness” of dramaturgy which requires “a sort of double competence in-between theory and practice, critical reflection and embodiment, knowledge exploration and production on one side, and artistic inspiration and execution on the other” [3]. It was precisely this notion of “double competence” that drove the curation of events for the 2019 UQ Drama Creative Fellowship.

Each theatrical concern became mutually interrogative. The ethics, aesthetics, and ecology of each of performance-making mode or interrogation offered provocations and questions about the ethics, aesthetics, and ecology of the other modes and interrogations.

Trencsényi’s work brings together both Apollonian and Dionysian dramaturgies. They are, after all, just two different facets of the same proposition. The synthesis of this approach manifested in a suite of events that included undergraduate workshops on traditional playwriting and textual analysis; masterclasses on both production dramaturgy and applied dramaturgy; a public lecture on dramaturgy and big data; and roundtables with practitioners and academics exploring what is new dramaturgy in their own practices and what dramaturgy in the twenty-first century can become. Each of these activities was meaningful in its own right. All required the participants to engage in notions of double competencies. Dramaturgical synergies were created. Each event examined its own ethics, aesthetics, and ecology within the broader ecology of the Fellowship. More importantly, however, each theatrical concern became mutually interrogative. The ethics, aesthetics, and ecology of each of performance-making mode or interrogation offered provocations and questions about the ethics, aesthetics, and ecology of the other modes and interrogations. The intermediateness of dramaturgy, as an intellectual construct, allowed the individual event to transcend its specific modality or concern. Each activity became a mechanism for the exchange between different knowledge systems and the cultures of those self-same knowledge systems, to rework a previous explanation given by Trencsényi and myself [4]. The double-competency required by contemporary dramaturgy thinking places dramaturgy as the intellectual mise-en-scène of performance-making.

References 

The term “intellectual mise-en-scene” used in the title of this article is drawn from  Lord, Mark. (1997), “The Dramaturgy Reader.” Dramaturgy in American Theatre: A Source Book. Eds. Susan Jonas, Geoff Proehl, and Michael Lupu. Harcourt Brace, pp. 88-101.

[1] Van Kerkhoven, Marianne (1994), “Looking with Pencil in the Hand.” Theatreschrift, Vols 5 and 6, pp. 142.

[2] Proehl, Geoffrey S. (2008) Toward a Dramaturgical Sensibility: Landscape and Journey. NJ: Associated UP, 2008, pp.71.

[3] Blažević, Marin. (2011).  “Dramaturgy’s Complexity.” Dramaturgies: New Theatres for the 21st Century. Eds. Peter Eckersall, Melanie Beddie, and Paul Monaghan. Carl Nilsson-Polias on behalf of The Dramaturgies Project, pp. 51-2.

[4] Trenscényi, Katalin and Bernadette Cochrane. (2014). New Dramaturgy: International Perspectives on Theory and Practice, Bloomsbury, pp. xxi


Bernadette Cochrane is a Lecturer in Drama at the University of Queensland. Publications include New Dramaturgy: International Perspectives on Theory and Practice (Methuen Drama, co-edited with Katalin Trencsényi) and “Screening from the Met, the NT, or the House: what changes with the live relay”. Theatre to Screen. Spec. issue of Adaptation, July 2014 (with Frances Bonner), “Blurring the Lines: adaptation, transmediality, intermediality, and screened performance?” for the Routledge Companion to Adaptation. Bernadette is a contributor to the Cambridge Encyclopaedia of Stage Directors and Directing (2019).