Category Archives: Research

deep dramaturgy

Five principles for deep dramaturgy of site-specific practice produced by Heidi Taylor, a dramaturg, director and performer from Vancover, Canada.

From Dramaturgy and Performance by Cathy Turner & Synne K. Behrndt 2008:196

1. All signs in the performance space have meaning, independent of their usefulness to the project

2. Accidents and contradictions contribute to the complexity of the work – if they are embraced rather than ignored, they may satisfy the idiosyncratic and deep felt structures of the work

3. Active choices about every element of the production, from the first audience contact to the end of the event, has the potential to increase the audience’s ability and willingness to attend to and appreciate our obsession with detail

4. The diversity of theatre flourishes with increased audience contact, which is not synonymous with larger audiences

5. Basic ideological, political, economic and technological structures must

therefore change. (Taylor in Turner and Behrndt, 2008:196)



I spent five days up at the Edinburgh Festival, I delivered my thesis, drove to Exeter and flew to Scotland. I was interested to see whether the solo shows I was going to see would all be autobiographical in some way, whether autobiography is the source material for solo work. I have been chatting to solo performers for my thesis, so have been thinking about this for a while and was made aware there was not a vocabulary that we could share when we talk about the practise. Solo performers dramaturg their own work, the process and skills involved combine devising, writing, designing and performing processes. If we could define this process as a dramaturgical one then we would be on the way to sharing a vocabulary, yet people still shy away from the term.

Dramaturgy ‘is the structure built from [the performance’s] various components: words, physicality, music, lights, sound and space. It is also how those components relate to the experience of the work as a whole’ (Dramaturgs’ Network: online).

I only had four days really, if you take out the travelling, and I also watched performances that involved more than one person, so I didn’t spend my entire time focused on solo performance but, the solo shows I did see were, yes all autobiographical and even the two handers were too.  Not a definitive answer at all but one that I will be mulling over for the next year and maybe, just maybe next year I will have more time to put my theory to the test.

Solo shows I saw

Rachel Mars  ‘The Way You Tell Them’ at Summerhall

Danny Braverman’ Wot No Fish! ‘ at Summerhall

Daniel Bye’ The Price of Everything ‘at Hill Street

John Osborne the Beach at Pleasance Dome

You can see there that two of the shows were performed at Summerhall, what a fantastic venue! A former school of veterinary studies, the venues inside were so quirky, like the circular anatomy lecture theatre. There was a courtyard with a bar and Indian street food served by ‘spice man’ himself, Tony Singh; a wonderful pub called The Royal Dick, and a lovely cafe inside selling some extremely fat and creamy cakes. Teenage son got is hair cut in the courtyard by a tonsorial artist, who would be creating a sculpture out of the cut hair. Really you could have spent your entire festival here and experience a huge range of performance (dancing plastic bags in L’Apres-midi d’un Foehn – version 1, sublime and a rock balancing performance Freeze that was so tense some of the audience couldn’t watch). Likewise at Forest Fringe at the opposite end of the city (God help you if you were trying to get from one to the other in a short space of time), in the Out of the Blue Drill Hall in Leith. Here again, you could spend the whole day experiencing different modes of performance, sit on the sofas with a coffee, eat a ‘healthy’ lunch (rather than lunching on the hoof) and just generally let the creativity surround you. I saw a couple of  lovely two handers here, Tim Crouch and a smith in What Happens to Hope at the End of the Evening and Chris Thorpe and Hannah Jane Walker in I wish I was Lonely.  Then Action Hero’s Hokes Bluff  rounded off a really enjoyable day away from the main thrust of the fringe. I could have easily spent my four days within Summerhall or Forest Fringe such was the selection on offer.

Danny Braverman says on his blog that ‘the essence of the fringe doesn’t change’ and that is absolutely true, yet when I first arrived in the mid 1980s there were far more professional theatre companies trying to get their shows spotted. Now the casts are much smaller it seems and, in terms of finance, a solo show is much more adaptable for the vagaries of the Edinburgh fringe. The Hill Street Theatre ran solo shows throughout the entire festival, so I can imagine we will be seeing far more in the future.


This weekend marks the date that I crossed the last t on my thesis and now all I do is take it to be bound and hand it in before I head off to the Edinburgh Festival midweek. Whilst I was printing off the thesis in our spare bedroom I noticed the plant in the window had started to flower. We’ve had it for twenty years, it belonged to my partner’s grandmother  and we took it when she passed away, I have no idea how long she had it for. We’ve been very hard on this plant, (as we are with all the succulents we have), we forget to water and we shove it away on a North facing window but now, amazingly, it has presented a flower, and why now?

2013-08-18 16.10.20

The performance I created for my practice as research study was called Coffee with Vera in the Vestry, Vera was a character created from many voices and stories I collected during my research. Yet, the name I gave her was the name of my partner’s grandmother, Vera. The character of Vera was, along with myself, the co-host of a coffee morning in a site-specific performance created for the space I performed it in. Referring to site-specific performance Cathy Turner in ‘Palimpsest or Potential Space’ says

‘the “host” is already the layered “space” formed by lived experience, so that the givens of site-specific performance comprise not only the machinery of “place”, but also the patina it has acquired with past use’ (2004: 374).

The term that Turner uses “host” comes from Cliff McLucas of Welsh theatre company Brith Goff. The “host’ was his term for the site, the building or space that was “hosting’ the performance. The performance, in turn was the “ghost” which was/is brought to the site. I was now playing a host within my “host” – the site, and a host within my “ghost” – the performance, moreover the voices I had used to create Vera were also the voices of ghosts, people  who had passed away.

Maybe with all this research into Vera she is ghosting us in other ways – just to let us know!

Interesting links

A couple of links here to some writing by Hannah Silva on solo performing, (which will come in useful when I need some extra quotes), and an interview with Chris Goode, (who is currently lodging at the Bike Shed Theatre, half way through a three week residency) by Belinda Dillon for Exeunt magazine. Both will be invaluable to dip into over the next few weeks and both of whom feature in this post.



Evidencing the research


Showing the first coffee morners the 1820 map of Plymouth, that showed a potential town square where the Synagogue would have had a prominent visible position – unlike today.


The 1820 map of Plymouth


Family photographs and ephemera that fuel my interest in my identity and ancestry.


The second coffee morners listening to Vera’s stories.

Thanks to Anna Kelly, secretary of the Plymouth Synagogue for the photographs.

starting to write

DSCF1026Writing is not a discipline I have ever tried, although as a theatre maker I have devised and dramaturged texts for performance. I have been a script reader for ten years and think I know a good playscript when I get one, the Drum theatre Plymouth most recently  produced a first time play, Forever House by Glen Waldon, that I read last Autumn. My problem is I have a tough time creating a flow to any written text, a story arc, I always have. I was never any good at writing essays at school and knew there was a trick to it (I always called it a trick because I couldn’t ‘see’ it). It’s just taken me three months to write an extended essay on  dramaturgy, my first two drafts being well and truely red marked by my supervisor. Just let me’ talk’ you through the essay, I’d be happy with that.              Having said all that I came to my performance script with a sense of excitement and anticipation. I knew that I wanted to include not one story, not two but an assortment of stories that weave together. How was I going to do that when I fall down at the process of weaving them together? Well, my performance will take place in a non-theatre space, it has a community attached to it, who have ownership of it – I need them on-board as collaborators. By interviewing the community members I can find stories and gather material for my score rather than starting to write from scratch. By recording conversations I can take dialogue from the interview, this is called verbatim – a method becoming increasingly used for the theatrical recreation of political stories and social miscarriages of justice, as used most prominantly in this country by the Tricycle Theatre in Kilburn, North London, under the artistic directorship of Nicholas Kent in the naughties, and by playwright David Hare for Out of Joint with plays The Permanent Way and Stuff Happens. Sometimes, like in the work of Alecky Blythe (London Road, The Girlfriend Experience) the actors actually wear headsets to hear the words spoken before they repeat them, in a ‘recorded delivery’. The technique involves recording interviews from real life and editing them into a desired structure.

‘The edited recordings are played live to the actors through earphones during the rehearsal process, and on stage in performance. The actors listen to the audio and repeat what they hear.They copy not just the words but exactly the way in which they were first spoken. Every cough, stutter and hesitation is reproduced. The actors do not learn the lines at any point. By listening to the audio during performances the actors remain accurate to the original recordings, rather than slipping into their own patterns of speech’ (taken from)

Thus creating a performance that has to be the same every night, unlike what we are led to believe about the beauty of live performance, that being ephemeral is different every time.

the Jewish Museum

Just had a few days in London with a visit to the Jewish Museum and the first night of Told By an Idiot’s My Perfect Mind at the Young Vic, which was a co-production with the Drum Theatre Plymouth. I would have taken a trip to the museum anyway, as my performance is inside an orthodox Jewish building, but finding out that the Chief executive is Abigail Morris, who directed me in the Verity Bargate award winning play Kindertransport by Diane Samuels in 1993, meant that it was even more important. What a great place, rooms of wonderful artifacts and interactive information, oral histories plus answers to questions at the push of a button. Having Abigail as a tour buddie was a great advantage with little insights and then a meeting with Elizabeth Selby – the social history curator and collections manager who found me items relating to in particular, Plymouth’s synagogue.

JM 1054

property of the Jewish Museum

this calling card above is particularly interesting as Abraham Joseph came from a family who were one of the largest and most well respected within the Hebrew congregation. Abraham was a purveyor of naval clothing and advisor to Prince William, (the third son of George III) who was captain of the frigate Pegasus. The notes attached claim that the Joseph family maintained royal connections for three generations.


property of the Jewish Museum

Here is a silver snuff box presented in 1837 to Aaron Nathan, the constable of East Stonehouse, which celebrates his discovery of a gang of coiners.

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.

Solo performance making- starting to find an approach.

If we, as solo performance makers have to wear many hats, have to look at how many components relate to the work as a whole, we have to develop an approach to our applied dramaturgy. Approaching how to address it, how to textualize it, how to speak it and inevitably, how to perform it. We should re-imagine our practice as curating a piece of theatre, or performance, where we can see the framing of the whole. Whatever site we are using we should look at the space as a collaborator. If we work with a community for our performance, as performance ethnographers we should treat them as other collaborators, certainly if their words become the text. I certainly believe that Claire Macdonald’s comment in Conducting the Flow: Dramaturgy & Writing (2010) sums up my practice as research, ‘[t]he new dramaturgy does not proceed from text as a known set of procedures, but instead explores what those procedures might be’.


homemade matzos

When I went along to the Plymouth and West Devon Records Office I took a notebook that I picked up because it still had some spare pages in it. I had used it last year when I went to Los Angeles to visit friends – it was small and fitted inside my bag easily. I found a recipe inside a magazine in our host’s kitchen for matzos and, because the recipe only called for three ingredients, I wrote it down. During my research about the synagogue and it’s vestry I came across a page, translated from the early 1800s, calling for the congregation to come and make their own matzos. At the same time I found the noted down recipe for homemade matzos in my notebook and I started to piece together a germ of an idea.

My research will now include food and what it stands for. The vestry has been used for the preparation and eating of food, for celebrating during religious festivals, for certain rites of passage, bar and bas mitzvahs, weddings and funerals.

Here is my first attempt at homemade matzos.DSCN4430