Progressive Dramaturgy by David Lane

Stephanie Greer by Eileen Long

Stephanie Greer by Eileen Long

…Working on ‘The Disappearance of Sadie Jones’ by Hannah Silva.

The Bike Shed Theatre in Exeter recently hosted writer Hannah Silva and her production The Disappearance of Sadie Jones. As part of her two-week residency, dramaturg David Lane was invited to hold a discussion on progressive dramaturgy and the processes he used to work with Hannah on her play. This discussion was written up on Hannah’s blog.

I contacted David to ask him if I could reproduce the article on 17Percent, as I think it says something important for writers who don’t write to the traditional, three-act, realist structure, and gives those who work with them a real way of starting a dialogue with the play and the writer. Thanks to David and Hannah.  

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.

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.

Every play has its own map: it’s 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 missing the play that’s doing something progressive. 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 which I didn’t yet 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, what are its organising principles… I think about plays as a universe….everything in a play is 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, 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 aim to learn the language of the play.

Every play should be like exploring a foreign language for the first time – though 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 percent of them. I think with this play I probably recognised about 60 percent and wanted to know what the other 40 percent were. It’s about approaching the play 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). Now normally, we ask who the play is about first, what is their journey, what do they want? Fuchs’ methodology is about first investigating the world those figures are in: does it obey our 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 and why.

In ‘Dramaturging Non-Realism’ (Theatre Topics, Vol. 13, No. 1) Tori Haring-Smith starts to compare the vocabulary we use for realism against that for non-realist plays. For example 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. Julian Meyrick also 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, but it is 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 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….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’. I think this relaxing of vocabulary is one of the first ways of thinking about playwriting 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 later Picasso…cubist, refracted images…Why can’t we write a play like that? Why do most plays look like photos not Picasso paintings? 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? I suppose it’s my contention that we need more of how we walk into art gallery in how we walk into the theatre.

With Picasso we are immediately removed from assumptions of realism. Someone criticised him once 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’. I think that idea of expressing the felt experience brings us back to The Disappearance of Sadie Jones. Hannah is really good at 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 – plays that say ‘move towards me audience, maybe you will come out with multiple meanings and that’s OK.’ We are often uncomfortable with theatre containing hugely multiple meanings, expressing the act of expression itself –we think there’s something wrong with it because it’s not leading us clearly enough. It’s performance art, or installation, or ‘not a play’, which is reductive to this idea of progressive dramaturgy. We can talk about structure using the language of music: recitatives, phrases, movements, sequences, chorus…all of these elements exist in writing and help structure a different exploration of our world.

I wanted to move towards Hannah’s play and work it out: it was a challenge. Before we had a notes meeting I started sectioning off the play when I thought we moved from one world to another. The play moves between 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. I suggested this to-and-fro and dovetailing of worlds was the organising principle of the play. Why is that?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?

Hannah Silva: I wrote the play about three years prior to the time David began working with me on it. When I finished that first draft I thought I’d done it. I thought this was the one that theatres would snap up. I spent some time re-writing and re-drafting, and I 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, a few directors, I got some good feedback, some ‘completely didn’t get it’ feedback, and after a couple of years of that 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.

I invited David to work with me 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 seemed to have fixed idea of what a play was. They would ask me a stock set of questions which I couldn’t answer, didn’t want to answer, and wouldn’tbe able to answer until the play was on its feet. It may be unintentional, but these questions are asked in a manner that suggests if you can’t answer them, then you haven’t got a grasp on what you’ve written. Perhaps I didn’t have a grasp on what I had written at that stage, but that wasn’t because there was something wrong with it, it was because it’s a complex play. The play needed a long process to even get to a point where we knew which questions were useful. I felt no one gave it the time that 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 towards me. 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.

David came into our meeting having read it three times, with three sets of notes after each reading. That was different to how anyone else had approached the work. I was paying him for his time myself,which is different to meeting a literary manager whose job may be to have these kind of meetings, but when you walk into a theatre it’s the theatre which sets the terms of the exchange. Because I had said to David ‘I want to work with you and I will pay you for your time,’ I really got the time. You’re in a very different position as a lowly writer going to a theatre for that meeting. In that position, you just have to be grateful for whatever you can get. 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!

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 it’s hard to read a play that doesn’t look like a play. 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. There’s a big difference between writing a play for the page and writing for the stage. Many plays suit readers who know how to read a play and know what they think it should look like, theatre websites often publish guidelines of what their readers look for. And while these guidelines are designed to be flexible, to not miss the play that does something different, it seems to me that approaching a play with a checklist engages the wrong part of the brain from the offset. David’s open use of the terminology we use to discuss plays is rare.

I got development money and I used that to apply to the Arts Council. Although initially I wanted someone else to direct I hadn’t managed to find the right person and I finally realised that if I wanted to see this play on stage I had to do it myself. I was determined to get the money to make that happen. 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. That involved three weeks development, two weeks at Beaford Arts and one at Camden People’s Theatre….Then we’ve gone quite quickly into this production. This ‘development’ thing has become a kind of industry in itself, and writers are not the ones designing the models. It’s a very empowering thing to have control over one’s own development process. It’s essential to find a way to stop writing play after play after play that doesn’t get produced.

DL: Hannah said, I’ll pay you to come in for the first day and a half. In our prep 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. 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, its world is so we can discover a common language and vocabulary’, that’s what we wanted… 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… we asked the actors write a response on paper after the first read and, brilliantly, they nearly all drew pictures. That says a lot about the play, that the things that resonate are images rather than words…

The other thing we did was we tasked everyone in the room with breaking the play down into movements or phases, to see what they thought was organising the play… My job was to navigate these perspectives into a common consensus in how we moved from one place to another, and we ended up with a joint working understanding of the play’s composition….I took that away over night and drew the play on a page…we ended up with four movements, which were broken down…We had 17 sequences of something in the play…it enabled the company to access the play and its construction more easily.

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 those interventions I’ve made since we moved into a rehearsal situation 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… 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 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’s on stage and what you’ve experienced yourself. I love seeing work that enables me to write as a viewer….When I used to watch a lot of dance, I’d occasionally find reels of text were coming out of my head, provoked by the relationships I was seeing on stage, and for me it was telling me about what it is to be human. The experience of watching a performance would produce poetry. I think if something you are seeing triggers or tells you something about how you feel or resonates…that’s exciting.

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, it’s 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: 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.

Lizzie Crarer [actor]: 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!

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.

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 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.

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 incredibly lucky, I still can’t believe my luck with this team. I did this massive audition about a year ago, I just put a call on the Arts Council jobs website and Ideas Tap, and I got hundreds of applications. The audition was really about getting the actors to play with the text, I didn’t tell them anything about the text, I didn’t know how to talk about it at that stage yet either. 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 [Crarer] just came in and she was Kim, one of the characters, which was amazing, but also I knew that Lizzie ‘got’ the play.

I had another actor already on board [Kathryn O’Reilly] turned out she played Sadie and brought a lot of power to the role. But Stephanie [Greer] 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: I’ve got a team of 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 that’s something David helped with. I was quite vulnerable, being the director, because I also didn’t know what it was…I was there saying, or at least thinking ‘I don’t know’, I’d be running the day but not really with any idea of what would happen next. I’m lucky to have had such generous people in the room, we’ve discovered how to do it over the process…so now I feel very confident with it. 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.

Stephanie Greer: 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 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: As a writer, were you surprised about anything your actors found….and was it a journey you yourself had made prior to trying out….?

HS: 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. I did an interview with Stephanie on my blog, and she was talking about how Sadie grew up, and what her mother was like, 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 rang 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: 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. It was Kathryn O’Reilly who said ‘you’re the director, what do you want?’ This wasn’t a challenge, it was a genuine question and interest in getting to the bottom of a problem. I went away and did some thinking on a bit of paper and came back and said ‘I want us to treat this like a piece of music’ and that was very helpful, for a while. When the piece works musically, the meaning follows. We went through a logical process of what’s going on stage, 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 has taken elements of all of that but I wouldn’t say 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 any 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 layering up of processes, and now those layers have brought us here.

DL: 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 will tour in the Autumn, please visit: for details.

David 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.

This article has been edited and kindly reproduced from

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