Louise Gough has been away from the Australian theatre sector working in film and television for a few years, and somehow theatre managed to get through. But I for one am ridiculously glad to see her sitting in the audiences of the National Play Festival. I’ve missed her. More than missed her, I’ve mourned her absence.
Because I happen to believe that Australia is a few dramaturges short of a theatrical picnic. I know. Out there and controversial.
Lots of people say they are dramaturges because they like stories a lot and have a lot of opinions. Some people say they are dramaturges because they have sat in on a few creative developments and noticed they had a bunch to contribute to the conversation about character and narrative. Other people believe they are dramaturges because they’ve been in the industry for years and shouldn’t they know a story when they hear one, right? Worse still, are working dramaturges who believe they know the story better than anyone, especially the writer, and are willing to bully and badger until they either get their way or force the writer to collapse with grief.
Come on, we all know dramaturges who shouldn’t be. It’s slightly annoying. It’s very frustrating. It’s a process of keeping out of their creative trajectory whenever possible. So I shall not dwell unnecessarily on the matter of it.
That which is infinitely more interesting is hanging about with dramaturges who do know what they are doing, who do have a presence of mind and precision that is worth listening to, worth paying for, worth studying and emulating. One such is Louise Gough. She was given space at the National Play Fest to discuss her creative development process. This was part of the National Play Festival’s industry program session called Expanding Your Mind. The set up for this event was slightly bewildering; a person could choose to sit in a group with one of three speakers for 30 minutes to listen to what they had to say about their process. Then another three speakers presented in various parts of the room, and you chose who to sit with again. Then another three speakers, and we chose again who to sit and listen to. There were over one hundred people involved in this and the room was large and echoing, so hearing what the speakers were saying was a challenge at times.
( I won’t even tell you what other two speakers I heard speak, because frankly, they were ramblers who probably didn’t read the brief. )
But Lousie is not and never has been a rambler. She delivered. She spoke with a certain humility, saying she was new back into the theatre world, and unsure of the things she had missed. She spoke like a person who understood the value of ‘the beginner’s mind’. But in 30 minutes she gave more thought-food and she made more sense than any other speaker at the conference entirely.
Louise is the real deal. Clarity. Articulation. Knowledge. That’s a dramaturge.
One of her key gems was her strong ethic that every new work is a prototype, and so every process for development should be designed to serve that:
I hold no dogma and create bespoke processes with each individual or team I work with.
She doesn’t believe in a cookie-cutter development process, and I am 100% inclined to believe her. The bog-standard creative development model that has arisen in theatre— five days where the writer, director and actors sit about in a back room theatre space and try to nut out how to progress the work forward via discussion and the occasional improv, topped off at the end of the week by a strenuous event called a public reading— has become a staple.
Does it give the writer what they need to move the work forward? In my experience, not always. I’ve been in a fair few creative developments as a writer and as a dramaturge. Also quite a few times as an actor. When it doesn’t work, the writer can end up feeling empty-handed, confused, despondent and truly none the wiser. This is not necessarily because the work is no good, or the creatives involved, least of all the writer, didn’t use the time well. Rather, I suspect it is because there wasn’t enough in the way of the beginner’s mind happening. The perspective was too narrow. The process was constricting or in some way not benefiting the script. And the dogged funding-body criterion that requires a public outcome (the public reading) can eat into confidence, and time in such a way as to negate the good things that have come out of the first part of the process.
I am dramaturg to 17 writers this year in the Write Sparks program and the JUTE Writers-in-Residence Program. Some of them are new to writing for theatre, some of them are not. There is a huge range in topic, style and cultural background with each of them. How can the process of development be made stable but flexible? How can we maximize the time and energy within a creative development or a dramaturgical session to best serve the work? I do know for sure, that one size will not fit all for these writers.
Louise spoke about how the dramaturge’s job is to keep the writers in touch with what they are writing. Theatre and production companies have a tendency to collapse a project down to a “product”, the work. And when a project fails to develop satisfyingly, she urged dramaturges to review the process first, not the work itself. She spoke eloquently on support for the writer, support for work, support for the craft. She spoke about the times when the writer loses contact with the work, the why of the work, is when the work will diminish.
One time a few years ago, I was assistant dramaturg with the good Doctor David Fenton, an extraordinary academic, dramaturg and director who knows his stuff inside and out. The work being developed for performance was that of a performance poet who had created a work about living in Far North Queensland. The first day of the creative development we really struggled. It all felt very wrong and clumsy. It was so frustrating. The writer was feeling a bit bushwhacked by it. So were we. David went outside for a break and then re-entered. He paced the room for a little more thinking. He then announced that we were trying to make this into something that it simply wasn’t. Our process was faulty. We were hacking into the core of the work hoping to find something that wasn’t there. In his wisdom, he declared we were going to relax and permit the poetics at the core of the work be the why, rather than try to discover a whole new why and way of retelling it.
From that moment on, it felt like the work flowed. The writer got her bearings. We knew the parameters of the piece. She had confidence. We had allowed the work to dictate the process.
Three takeaways for playwrights and dramaturges (and yes, directors, who are in charge of process in a creative development):
1. When you are stuck for going forward with a script, go back to the roots of the work. The why. Drill down for the core. The spark of passion, the very thing that brought the writer to the work in first place, is the magic. It is what drives the work. It is the key. Every freaking time.
2. Be up for new things. Enter every process with a beginner’s mind, as if you have never done this before. Allow the work to be discovered.
2. Look to process first not the script itself, when things are going awry and the writer is looking bewildered. The process is just the path, not the destination.
And this from Rhett Powers regarding the Beginner’s Mind….Try these 11 things the next time you step into a creative space.
So how can you develop a Beginner’s Mind, a mind open to many possibilities, a mind ready to ask questions? Here are a few practices from Mary Jaksch of Goodlife Zen:
- Take one step at a time.
- Fall down seven times, get up eight times.
- Use Don’t Know mind. Don’t pre-judge.
- Live without shoulds.
- Make use of experience. Don’t negate experience, but keep an open mind on how to apply it to each new circumstance.
- Let go of being an expert.
- Experience the moment fully.
- Disregard common sense.
- Discard fear of failure.
- Use the spirit of enquiry.
- Focus on questions, not answers.
With a Beginner’s Mind, you will be more open to possibilities and more creative.
My trip to Sydney to attend this event was largely supported by Cairns Regional Council and Queensland Government RADF program. The Regional Arts Development Fund (RADF) is a partnership between the Queensland Government and Cairns Regional Council to support local arts and culture in regional Queensland. It was also sponsored in part by JUTE Theatre Company.