dramaturgical strategies for solo performance

So as a solo performer I have to create a strategy for my solo work. My supervisor, Professor Roberta Mock, went ahead and created a solo performance when her collaborator pulled out. Her performance of Down/town was, as Matthew Reisz said in the Times Higher Education,  ‘a cabaret act followed by a more formal lecture’ that ‘demonstrated’ her research work. You can read Reisz’s article here. Mock believes that you are in a very vulnerable place making a piece of solo work essentially on your own. There is always a danger that it could be too inward looking, too personal, too self-indulgent, or simply inexplicable. Mock went ahead with the show as a solo piece using the applied dramaturgy of the disciplines she already knew, that of directing and sceneography. By using the disciplines she felt at home in first, Mock was able to ‘fill in’ the gaps from years of group devising with students, years of watching and observing. She then asked a fellow artist/lecturer, and someone she could trust, to watch the show four days before the performance to give her a second opinion.

I saw a show called The Lad Lit Project about a month ago performed by Alexander Kelly, the co-artistic director of Third Angel. Third Angel would normally work around two co-directors, one being “a foil”  to the other, when not actually in the piece. In this instance the second director was unavailable so Alex asked Deirdre Heddon to be involved in the development of the piece. Being geographically miles apart they started an email conversation and having no previous knowledge of the genre of lad lit Heddon was able to ask authentically objective questions. The email conversation also enabled Kelly to be reflective on his acting out of Heddon’s provocations, in order to articulate clearly back to her. Although the word ‘dramaturgy’ didn’t get mentioned until the end of the five-month process, the provocations that Heddon asked and that Kelly had to address they realized had become a dramaturgical enquiry, therefore giving their combined essay on their correspondence, a title, Distance Dramaturgy. (Heddon & Kelly, 2010). Each show that Kelly makes has a different strategy but he accepts that he needs an-‘other’, or a ‘foil’, as he prefers to say, for dramaturgical imput.

Phil Smith calls his ‘foil’ an ‘outside eye’ – Smith makes performance walks and for his 2004 Crab Walks he used actor Anjali Jay as his dramaturgical aide. Because Jay had accompanied Smith on some of the walks he was going to use ‘she was able to identify what was key in their affect, and cut away unnecessary “setting up” and glosses’ that were evident in Smith’s first draft. What came into play here was the fact that Jay herself was a performer, so she was able to use her actor’s dramaturgy and, in doing so, she enabled Smith himself to perform the text, she ‘made it performer friendly, and audience friendly’.

It seems to me from these examples that the addition of a second set of eyes that can watch the performance at a point before the intended audience, but with enough time to make adjustments, is a priority. Whatever we call that person, an outside eye, a foil, a collaborator, this one intervention can stop the solo performer creator from becoming, in  Mock’s words, ‘too inward looking, too personal, too self-indulgent’.

Smith has also worked without a second set of eyes but he claims he has taken on board a lot of what his outside eyes gave him and is quite fierce with himself. Smith works site-specifically, where the site itself can suggest what should come next. The site itself becomes the collaborator and part of an extended dramaturgy and, as Smith points out, ‘you should respect the site’s layers and textures as the first script’.

All quotes from personal or email conversations.

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