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  • Navigating Turbulence:The Dramaturg in Physical Theatre
  • Bruce Barton (bio)

Certainly, it is a familiar observation that few theatrical terms are more fluidly evocative or problematic than "dramaturgy." The range of possible definitions of the term is practically as broad as the number of its practitioners is great, and most contemporary discussion on this topic has productively moved beyond attempts to categorically determine and fix its "correct" objectives and/or techniques into a consideration of its effective variety and potential. Yet most understandings of the concept include two basic characteristics of sound practice: 1) an effort to establish and maintain a degree of critical objectivity; and 2) a deep commitment to the creator(s) involved, the project, and the art and craft of theatre. Further, while highly elastic in terms of specific strategies, a central role of dramaturgy is to question habit, to complicate unreflective expediency, and to dig beneath the surface of unearned presumption.

In terms of developmental dramaturgy, while these seemingly simple precepts are considerably more complex in application, the situation becomes even more complicated when the role of writer is fragmented and dispersed among a collaborative body of creator/performers utilizing found, adapted, and invented text within a physically-based devised process of discovery. The role of text in a creative process that foregrounds what Eugenio Barba has described as a "dramaturgy of changing states" is charged with anxiety and ambivalence, as inherently ambiguous and instinctual physical movement wrestles with the conventionally delimiting constraints of symbolic language, generating what Barba effectively calls "turbulence." Within the context of this increased level of indeterminacy, it is not surprising that the role of developmental dramaturgy is an elusive and mobile target. Is it, in fact, possible to distill a specific aspect or set of activities out of the development of new physical work which can confidently be called dramaturgy? Or is physical theatre creation not, perhaps, itself the most explicit expression of dramaturgy (developmental and production) possible?

My attempt in this article to come to terms with these questions will proceed through a series of related considerations. In the first section I address the general context of inquiry—in this instance, Canadian theatre—through a brief description of common dramaturgical objectives and practices employed in this country. In the second section I consider the specific context of this study: the influences, motivations, and strategies of the Toronto-based devised theatre troupe, Number Eleven, with which I have worked as a dramaturg on multiple occasions. In the third section I narrow the focus still further through the depiction of my experience as dramaturg on Number Eleven's creation/production of The Prague Visitor. In the article's conclusion, I attempt to summarize and generalize [End Page 103] my observations to this point and consider the implications therein for the broader context of developmental dramaturgy—both physical and text-based. Are there lessons to be learned from the experience of physically-based developmental dramaturgy that can be capitalized on generally in a variety of developmental contexts?

A "Developing" Nation

While the strategies employed and objectives pursued by Canadian dramaturges are similar to those practiced within many other nations (particularly the US), the relative amount of developmental as opposed to production dramaturgy is uncommonly disproportionate—to a degree that conspicuously underscores a disconnect between these two spheres. Influenced by a broad cross-section of factors ranging from a historic national inferiority complex to unrealistically truncated contemporary production schedules and budgets,1 the vast majority of dramaturgical activity in this country concerns itself with new play text development.2 The effect of this situation has been both positive and negative: while there are currently an unprecedented number of professional productions of Canadian plays (albeit most of them clustered in Toronto and, to a lesser degree, Vancouver), this focus on development has also resulted in what playwright Elliot Hayes described, as early as 1986, as "The Workshop Syndrome."

A survey of the pages of Canadian Theatre Review across the nearly two decades since Hayes proposed his pessimistic definition of "[w]orkshopitis" (36) yields a remarkable (and depressing) consistency of tone and position. Playwrights of highly diverse backgrounds, orientations, and reputation equally lament a near automatic...


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