From Dramaturgy to Dramaturgical


Maska 2010English
maska, vol. 16 no. 131-132 (Summer 2010), pages 54-61

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What is your experience with dramaturges and dramaturgy?
I have, on a very pragmatic level, had basically no experience in dramaturgy. I have barely collaborated with dramaturges, and I've never actually had a position working as a dramaturge. Although I've never had this experience, I could, for today, call myself a dramaturge. The institutional name of a certain operation in performance – and that´s how I would refer to dramaturgy – is not so urgent. It is important to somehow question what this term opens up, what kind of thoughts it triggers when we start to reflect upon it.

How would you define dramaturgy?
Well, let's not rush. I will do a little – let´s say "didactic" – introduction to first explain what I don´t consider to be dramaturgy. Let´s start with a very simple graphic demonstration of what dramaturgy is in a traditional sense. Basically, in a drama we have the structure of an arc, and dramaturgical work consists of constructing this arc as a kind of smooth and functioning structure. So, you go from the beginning, reach the peak, and create an epilogue. What would be the analog to this in contemporary art? I think the biggest difference between traditional art and contemporary art is that the traditional work somehow closes itself off, and it does so because it is always obsessed with eternity. The traditional is inscribed in humanistic tradition and always tends to somehow tell the truth about reality, the world, and so on – the truth that will be eternal, the truth that remains and would be just the same in the Middle Ages as in the modern epoch. Now, if we take seriously the term “contemporary” as something that is developed in the time in which it originates, then in that sense, it can never end, and it can never pretend to tell the truth, since the truth is universal. So, in a way, we can say that contemporary art – if we stay with this graphic form – has the structure of a broken line, the structure of a broken arc. These broken lines don’t mean that the structure will fall apart. We see that there are holes, that there are breaks in between, but somehow the structure still holds. The question is: what here is actually holding this structure together? And this is the first point at which we can somehow start to think about dramaturgy in contemporary performance. These empty spaces or broken elements in the structure of performance are actually places of invitation.

Where do you see the work of the dramaturge in contemporary performance?
Usually in contemporary modes of performance production a dramaturge is doing three things: firstly, acting as the “outside eye”; secondly, serving as the editor of the program; and thirdly, being the “intellectual" in the company. This conception of the “outside eye” is very common; André Lepecki calls this the “monster”1, and though he says that dramaturgy is not a monster, “outside eye” really evokes this kind of monstrous feeling. A dramaturge for me is not an outside eye; he or she somebody who is deeply involved in the work of creation. The second role of the dramaturge is as the editor of the program; you must somehow communicate about the art work, so you have a dramaturge who does this work because he is trained in writing or conceptualizing and so on. And if you look at the program poster for the Ukrep Festival, you can really see the different level, a different degree of language and also of conceptualization of the work that we are going to see. Of course, this doesn’t say much about the final work that we will see, but I must say that I've read some announcements with pleasure and some with slightly less pleasure. Nevertheless, this is an example of dramaturge as editor of the program, and this is very common in theatre institutions and institutions in general. The third idea of the dramaturge is as the intellectual in the company, which is to say, artists basically don’t know what they are doing, so someone who “knows”, can come and explain it to them. But I'd say a dramaturge is none of these things – not an outside eye, not an editor, and not the intellectual of the company.

So, what would dramaturgy be for you then?
First, dramaturgy is a field of operation; the second is that dramaturgy deals with regimes of the visible and invisible; and third a dramaturge is a guardian of the concept. Dramaturgy is a fluid, dynamic, and “dispersed activity” in the working process – immaterial work par excellence. We should differentiate between dramaturgy and the dramaturgical. So on one side there is a kind of fixed and defined role and more institutionalised function, but on the other side you have “dispersed activity”, which can then manifest itself in different elements of the construction of a work of art so that it’s completely integrated into the working process, method, and relations. My question here is whether we can talk about dramaturgy in this sense. In addition, if dramaturgy is a field of operation that is “dispersed” in different dimensions of the work of art, why can we not speak about other fields of operation as being “dispersed” in the same way? Why can’t we say that choreography is also a field of operation that is dispersed throughout the working process and not only confined within its own narrow bounds? Why can’t we say that performance, dance, acting, whatever genre or discipline we are talking about – along with all its conditions and mediators – comprise a certain field of operation that becomes “dispersed”?

Don’t you think there is a danger that we then come to a kind of relativism, saying that “everyone can do everything”?
It´s not about the fact that now choreographers do set-design and the video artist dances. I think that this is, let´s say, the “democratic approach”. The democratic approach is a kind of buying into or constructing of an illusion of a happy community where everyone can do everything. But for what? Why should everyone or why would everyone actually want to do everything? I think that it is not so much about this – that everyone can do everything and the performer becomes the video-maker. It's much more that a performer or somebody who's only ever performed in his career somehow extends his work as a performer into video-making. And what we see in the end is probably much better to look at through the eyes of a performance than through the eyes of, let’s say, video work. In that sense, I think, we have a much more dynamic and radical view on what performance or a work of art could be, because then we don't see performance only in, let´s say, the appearance of bodies in front of spectators, but rather in a much more complex way. So, my point here would be, if we really want to see dramaturgical work as a field of operation “dispersed” throughout a performance, then we should create the conditions for it, by considering all the functions in terms of fields of operation. So, if we want to have the kind of dramaturge that we have, in a way, dreamed about or sketched out in these last two days, then the other participants in the creation actually have to make space for it. They have to make space in such a way that they accept that they are not the authority in their own function, that they are not the authority in choreography, performance, or directing, but that these fields are actually always renewed, rearticulated, requestioned, and in a way always re-established in each new production.

How then is dramaturgical work distinct?
Good question. Let me go to the second feature of what the dramaturgical in contemporary art could be or how we could think about it. I think that dramaturgical work in large part consists of how a work of art deals with the regimes of the visible and invisible. Usually when we watch a work we are subjected to something and we take this as the information that the artist wanted to deliver. Already yesterday and the day before yesterday, we had a lot of discussion about how to actually make the work visible – the process, the collaborative elements that were established – and here it is not so much about showing something that actually didn’t work out in the end but how to show the work itself. I think this is a big question, and in a way maybe we can even say that art is an activity that is very much afraid of showing this process, this “regime of the invisible”. This is maybe a bit of a speculative thought, but we can translate it into even more understandable and closer terms. Couldn’t we say that everything that we see in a performance contains its own negation? That everything presented in the work is showing both what it wants to show and what it does not? My point here is simple. Rather than fearing the kind of schizophrenia in which every art work exists, I think that the work – contemporary dramaturgical work – consists precisely of working with it. The third responsibility of the dramaturgical in contemporary performance is as the guardian of the concept and the guardian of risk; this feature is perhaps more pragmatic, and already deals with the technology of work.

Could you explain this?
What is the artist's worst nightmare? Not only in performance but also in film and all other art fields that deal with the human body – what is the worst nightmare for these artists? In the beginning you have a very wide and open field in which your artwork can operate, but at the end you actually greatly narrow down the size and scale of what is visible in your work. And usually in the production technology of a performance there comes a moment in which the conceptual precision and rigidity are turned into compromise. Because, as you well know, the deadline comes and we must have something to show. And what usually happens is that in this time, when the technology of work starts to put pressure on you, the experimental and open, risktaking dimension of the work is usually drastically reduced and you go for the “safe” things. You know how those things work, you know what will work, and this brings about the ”dulling” of the piece. So in this circumstance, I see the dramaturge as the guardian of the concept, the one who constantly fights to keep the work open and loyal to its basic and original intentions.

What about dramaturgical work in relation to the spectator?
Traditional art understands the spectator in a kind of didactic sense. The spectator is the one who doesn´t know; we (the creators) are the ones who know. The spectator's position means that he cannot intervene or interfere in the piece. I think what differentiates traditional art from contemporary art is the approach to the spectator. Contemporary art understands the relation to the spectator as a kind of dialogue or communication process, and I said as much two days ago when we talked seriously about collaboration. Collaboration must also reach the spectator, otherwise we are not being radical enough, we are not risking enough, we are not going all the way. I think what is interesting in contemporary art is exactly how the work of art communicates with the spectators. These holes that I mentioned graphically in the beginning, I think, are places of invitation for the spectators, places where the spectator somehow finds his place – and
it doesn´t necessarily have to be comfortable. These structural holes do not necessarily mean actual spectator’s participation, not at all.

Could you give some examples?
Via Negativa is a very good example of what I am talking about here.2 In this piece, the spectators' responsibility is very much staged, and this responsibility usually evokes an unpleasant feeling. But what is interesting in the work is that you are a spectator and you realize that you cannot escape being a spectator, that you are there and there is no way not to be. That´s probably one reason why so few people leave the performance; it makes us spectators take on even more than we are sometimes ready to accept. There is much we can discuss in terms of dramaturgical work in terms of structuring the place for the spectator. In his book The Emancipated Spectator3, Jacques Rancière says that contemporary art – and he is talking here about 20th century performance – made a kind of mistake in its desire to activate the spectator. He starts from the assumption that the spectator is always already activated and so the critical performance should actually work with mechanisms, procedures, and structures of spectator activity. So, it´s not so much about activating the spectator, but is – in his terms – more about seeing what the spectator's activity is and also what it could be.

This concept is very interesting but maybe too abstract and speculative. Could you bring us to, say, a dramaturgy of segmented parts of performance? How can we talk about dramaturgical work in relation to time, space, the body?
I will give here perhaps just one or two random examples of how this sort of dramaturgical work can happen. First, let us consider the Boris Charmatz performance Con Forts Fleuve (2002); it is a piece – if you have seen it, you'll remember – in which they performed only on the right side. The audience was sitting only on the right half, and the rest of the space was open – it was not illuminated, but it was there. This set-up, in which only half of the space was actually used, created enormous tension in the spectator, because, although we were all the time trying to focus forward, our gaze was constantly escaping, constantly waiting to see if something else might happen on the other side. So suddenly you had the work of the spectator that was beyond that of the performance itself. Suddenly – and I think this is a very good experience of how to work with spectator activity – you were sitting and there was nothing to be done, but your work became immense because you had to somehow live with this; you had to somehow fill in this gap, this void. The other sort of dramaturgical work is work with time in a performance. We know of many procedures in which time somehow becomes understood in a different way – durational performances, repetition, exhaustion – but one feature that has become very interesting for me in the last ten or fifteen years is something that I call “predictability preservation”. There are many shows and Hollywood-movies in which you know what the outcome will be after ten minutes, but then there are other performances that seem to immediately tell you what will be going on – and it´s not a trick, it´s not that – then BOOM! something else happens. These shows follow this initial scenario and stay with it, and they somehow work; they somehow preserve this predictability. I think, many Jerôme Bel performances work like this; it´s very clear from the very beginning that the performance will last just as long as the performer needs to whistle Stravinsky´s Le sacre du printemps, and when he finishes that will be the end of the performance. But yet you somehow don´t say, “Ah, now I know what will happen.” This is not an answer. You already know what will happen, so you have to somehow find another answer. Another similar example was his performance The show must go on4. You know after three songs that this will go on like this until the end, and yet the viewer still finds the performance very dynamic and communicative. The third example of this sort of dramaturgy is an approach that tells you, that somehow relates with audience participation. You know that I work a lot with audience participation, and I wouldn't have it any other way. But I will give an example of another artist, Portuguese choreographer João Fiadeiro, who recently actually decided to stop creating work, and in one of his last appearances – it was a lecture performance entitled I was here5 – he spoke about his previous show, which was called I am here6. He presented the work in Munich in 20 or 25 minutes, and then he just stopped talking. He was sitting at the table and he just kept sitting, and it wasn't clear whether the lecture had ended. So after a while people started to talk among themselves, then they started to ask him questions, and then they started to plead with him, “Please dance, we know you are a great dancer! We know your shows. Why are you doing this? We know you as a great dancer. Your company is fantastic. Why don´t you perform? Why are you doing this?” And the more they pleaded, the more nervous they became, which means that they raised the right questions because those are the ones that make you nervous. At the end – and this is very bizarre – a guy came on stage with a knife and threatened Fiadeiro, asking what would he do if he were to slash the screen where some images had been projected earlier. What did the artist do to evoke such an immense, nervous, and aggressive audience reaction? Nothing. So maybe instead of huge systems and thousands of collaborations and subtle actions, maybe dramaturgical work is in recognizing these zones of nothingness, zones where things are yet to happen, where there are possibilities for something to grow. Maybe instead of establishing conditions for this task to function smoothly and productively, dramaturgical work must take these fields – choreography, direction, performance – somewhere else, where they might find some answers. Now don´t take this as a kind of illusion or a dreamy escape from the thing itself. Everything that I am saying is much more oriented in the direction of what the performance could be,  nstead of limiting ourselves at a very early stage, for instance, either to a strictly direct or to a strictly cooperative approach. Or perhaps we can be really radical and approach the spectator in such a way that we might collaborate on an equal level? And here, I think that this idea or Rancière's concept of working with spectator activity again becomes an interesting point of departure for dramaturgical work. Not to say that art is not already working with it; a lot of great art engages with spectator activity. But the question is: how do you invite? And if you invite, are you interested in what the spectator brings to the work or have you invited them simply because you feel lonely, need company, or want to manipulate?



1André Lepecki, “Dramaturgy On the Threshold”, Maska journal, Volume 16, Number. 1-2 (66-67) , Winter 2001, pp. 26-29.
2Bojan Jablanovec: Via Negativa, founded in 2002 (
3Jacques Rancière, The Emancipated Spectator. Elliot, G. (tr.) London: Verso, 2009.
4Jerôme Bel: The Show must go on, 2007.
5João Fiadeiro: I was here, 2007.
6João Fiadeiro: I am here, 2005.


Janez Jansa has studied sociology and theatre directing at the University of Ljubljana, Slovenia and performance theory at the University of Antwerp, Belgium. He is author and director of interdisciplinary performances. Jansa’s work includes also visual, multimedia and performance art works. He regularly curates interdisciplinary workshops around Europe and USA and he is the initiator of the organization P.E.A.C.E. - Peacekeepers' entertainment, art and cultural exchange (with Mare Bulc). He has published numerous essays on contemporary theatre and art including the book on Jan Fabre. He has been editor in chief of the performing arts journal MASKA (1999-2006). Since 1999 he is the director of Maska, non-profit organization in publishing, production and education, based in Ljubljana, Slovenia.