And that Makes the Job even More Mysterious

On Dramaturgy: Florian Malzacher in conversation with Piersandra Di Matteo

In: “The Dramaturg Today”. Ed. Piersandra Di Matteo. Sound Stage Screen, Vol. 1, Issue 1 (Spring 2021).

Di Matteo: In recent decades we have witnessed a shift in the dramaturgical paradigm. Practices of dramaturgy coming from the contemporary dance field are helping reshape the function of the dramaturg as part of a “collaborative turn.” This has prompted a more adequate understanding of this figure in the performing arts. What is your take from the perspective of practice?

Malzacher: Firstly, I should admit that I actually have very little experience as a dramaturg in the way the profession is usually understood in German-speaking countries, with their very specific tradition. This is mainly because the projects I have been involved in have been based neither on a dramatic text nor on common work divisions within repertoire theaters. My work is always in conversation with the realm of postdramatic, devised theater. And one of the most obvious qualities of these approaches is: they tend to be very, very different from each other. And so do the possible roles of dramaturgs in this field.
In this regard, I am mainly interested in how the model of the “dramatic dramaturg” is supplemented as well as fundamentally challenged by a whole range of new or changing job descriptions and job divisions within the field of postdramatic theater, conceptual dance, etc.

That said, I should add that even in more conventional theaters the role of the dramaturg has never been easy to grasp and is often interpreted in quite different ways. The dramaturg is still the most mysterious figure on a theatre’s payroll.
But especially in devised theater (i.e., theater in which the script takes shape through rehearsals and improvisations) the work of a dramaturg is, usually, first and foremost to figure out what the work actually is. What is needed depends on working methods, aesthetics, group constellations, but also on the specific personalities of the artists—which means primarily the directors that are most often the main conversation partners of the dramaturg. The understanding of the role of the dramaturg does not become easier due to the fact that roles in postdramatic theater are always-already in flux—there are all kinds of collective approaches and shifting positions within the artistic process, for instance between being a performer, a writer, a director, a technician, a curator—or a dramaturg. We are part of this game of shifting job descriptions.

Concerning this, Bojana Kunst points out that the postures of the dramaturg today could definitely be understood as the embodiment of creative subjectivations due to aesthetic transformations only insofar as you take into consideration the changes in the political economy of labor, where the production of languages, contexts, and human cognitive and affective abilities comes to the foreground. She invites us to include the rise of this figure within the broader spectrum of cognitive labor in the post-Fordist economy…1

To make things even messier, it is necessary to stress that so far we have been talking about the part of dramaturgical work that is related directly to one specific artistic production. Another big part is programming a season or a festival—a work that is closer to the one of curators. Most dramaturgs in theaters or festivals do both, even though with different priorities in terms of time and interest.

Personally, I have been working mainly in the second field, as a curator and writer. But when it comes to my work as a production dramaturg, then the relationship to the artist is very different from the one as curator—I consider myself mainly in a serving position. It is a different conversation, a different negotiation. As a production dramaturg, the job is to find out: What is best for the work? What is best for the director, for the other artists involved, for the performers, etc.? What is best for “an audience”? For the artwork itself? Obviously, there are no absolute answers to any of these questions—and, just as obviously, the answers might contradict each other.

The dramaturg’s work is not recognizable by an audience afterwards. And in some cases, it might even be invisible for yourself or the director. At times, the influence is very subtle, it has to be very subtle. Sure, you could say: “Here she took some of my advice, here he cut something because I said so…” but that is not the point. I even find it problematic when in certain circumstances the role of the dramaturg becomes too important—for example, if the director is an artist from a different field and does not have much experience with theater. My suggestions as a dramaturg are most often not meant to be accepted one-to-one, but rather to start a conversation, to challenge and to be challenged. In the end, I am not responsible for the production. I do not make the final decisions.

Yes, but some kind of responsibility is at stake…

Of course, because we are committed to contributing in making it a good work. But it is not in our hands. In cases where a dramaturg is also representing an institution—as artistic director, for example—one could theoretically try to force some decisions onto the artistic process. This is a thin line—and it is necessary to be very transparent about it. For an independent dramaturg, this kind of power potentially does not even exist. I cannot give any orders, nor would I want to. I have neither the power nor the mission nor the assignment to be responsible. I can try to convince—but even there I would be careful, because in the end it is the artists’ choice.

What similarities and divergences can you identify between the roles of dramaturg and art critic? A dramaturg produces theoretical texts concerning production, too. What changes in the writing?

Well, for me personally there is a connection even on a biographical level, since I used to work as a critic for several years—and I was involved in parallel as a dramaturg in a few productions while I started curating my own programs. There we have again the concept of permanently shifting roles. For me these activities are related. The reason I stopped writing criticism for newspapers and magazines was mainly due to a conflict in loyalty and not in methodology.

So, for me there is a dialectical principle inherent to the dramaturgical work which is related to the role of the critic. It can be the job of a dramaturg to challenge the production, to point out possible weaknesses, incoherencies, and such, just as a critic would do—but with the important difference that you tell it to the director, not to the world.

How much criticism, how much dialectical reasoning is useful in a specific production depends very much on the personality but also on the concrete methodology of the artists one works with. Some want to argue, some want to be challenged, others have more affirmative modes of inquiry—and others again are very vulnerable when in the middle of the artistic process. To be honest: if someone mainly needs affirmation, I am not the best dramaturg to work with. I do not say it is wrong, I am just not very good at it.

How would you describe your work as a dramaturge with the Nature Theater of Oklahoma?

My work with Nature Theater of Oklahoma is particular in that it happened mainly in the context of large state theaters such as the Burgtheater in Vienna or the Düsseldorf Schauspielhaus. Within these environments, the dramaturg often becomes a negotiator between the production and the institution. Or sometimes a diplomat, and sometimes a translator between the systems.

There are still so many frictions and non-compatibilities between devised works and repertoire theaters. And it is also a different way of having to engage with the audience in these contexts, where there is less experience with non-dramatic work. More writing, more talking, more communicating.

In the case of Nature Theater of Oklahoma one must say that the directors Kelly Copper and Pavol Liška often have a very clear concept and very clear ideas from quite early on. And they are a couple—so there is a lot of dialectical work already done between the two of them. Generally, the work of a dramaturg is quite different if the work is very conceptual—for instance, you can have difficulties discussing length if the idea is to avoid cutting any part of the text, or if there is a musical score that cannot be shortened.

…and what about other artists you have worked with?

In the case of Lola Arias (or Rimini Protokoll, but I have only worked with them as a dramaturg for their very first production, Kreuzworträtsel Boxenstopp) the performers were not actors but amateurs, and in some cases (Airport Kids and Futureland) even children or teenagers. The work is less about a concept as it is about facilitating the needs of the performers, too, or even to protect them. In the case of Futureland, the performers were unaccompanied minor refugees in Berlin. There is a whole support structure for the performers, for the production, and for the director, which the dramaturg is part of. I guess at times my dialectical approach in this was challenging…

Do you follow all the rehearsals?

No, I just join every other rehearsal, sometimes even only once every couple of weeks. Not only because a freelancer has other obligations, too, but also because I need distance. For me it does not work to sit through each rehearsal.

Distance is an interesting word. Many dramaturgs used to affirm exactly the contrary. For example, André Lepecki—in this dossier as well—maintains that it is important to establish a form of proximity with the work, which inevitably involves a close relationship with the director/choreographer, performer, collaborators—the need to be part of the process and not an external eye…

Of course, I need proximity to the artist. I even usually only work with artists that I already have a relationship with. Obviously, it helps to already have an idea about how to communicate in relation to the work, what are the expectations, etc. In this kind of proximity, we can then negotiate the distance required to be able to contribute in a productive way. I know that today it is often much more about affirmation and proximity than about criticality and distance—I guess, I am a bit old-fashioned in my dialectical thinking.

I believe the distinction you made between this proximity with the artists (and their aesthetics) and the distance from the work/production is quite important. I can also recognize how my dramaturgical practices are a continuous negotiation between being inside the process in terms of the work’s aesthetic and political course, and also giving room to refresh the gaze, being able to analyze all the elements as though I was seeing and analyzing them for the first time, with all the consequences they introduce… This could be a way not to give in to consoling oneself with what is already known, with what looks good because it is familiar…

Yes, and then of course it is not about showing off how amazingly critical one can be. Sensitivity is important. Especially at the beginning things are often still very open and vulnerable. Later, a certain time pressure comes into play—the premiere has to be ready at a given date. There is a moment when things need to be uncovered, where decisions have to be made, darlings have to be killed. Here a more distant position can help to figure things out more clearly.

Coming back to what you said about working with Nature Theater of Oklahoma, what do you think about new possible forms of institutionalizing this role? As we well know, in Germany there is a solid tradition, while in Italy, for example, such role is not widely acknowledged at an institutional level, which is reflected in its economic treatment. These figures are closer to artistic projects, rather than institutions, even though we are beginning to see some signs of change.

The concept of the Hausdramaturg (In-house dramaturg, or Production dramaturg) was mainly fostered at the Brecht’s Berliner Ensemble after the Second World War. It was not only a matter of specific people and positions—it was mostly about having a dialectical position within each production process.

In the context of independent theater companies, on the other hand, the idea of a dramaturg chosen specifically for each project, rather than being assigned due to work schedules, seems more appropriate. Especially since independent venues and production houses—if they have dramaturgs at all—face the problem of having many productions in place at the same time. In these cases, they are often not able to be involved more than briefly, as outside eyes, only joining towards the very end of the process.

For artists, in any case, it might make more sense to have continuous relationships with dramaturgs, or perhaps to choose them for specific productions, topics, aesthetical challenges in the various roles they can play: as translators, diplomats, critics, as outside eyes, as artistic troubleshooters, or just as someone to talk to.

And since we are speaking of institutions: recently I get more and more invitations as a dramaturg with another very different function; i.e., not to accompany a specific artistic production, but rather to advise the festival or program at large; to ping-pong ideas about the institution in general as well as about certain parts of their program. This role might be called a “curatorial advisor,” but actually to me this feels very much like the work of a dramaturg, helping to find out what they actually want without being one of the in-house dramaturgs or curators myself; to shape together the core of their ideas and try to push them on a conceptual level. Here again the distance or even a certain ignorance toward their pragmatic challenges and daily routines might actually be helpful at times. If one is deeply integrated within an institution, then it is not easy to find the space for more radical thinking. At times someone is needed who does not immediately have to think about the consequences of organization, financial responsibilities, etc. Someone who is—to a degree—able to think irresponsibly. Or rather who is responsible only to the artistic or curatorial concept. It seems like we have to add “curatorial advisor” to the list of roles a dramaturg might play.

  1. See Bojana Kunst, Artist at Work, Proximity of Art and Capitalism (Winchester: Zero Books, 2015).

You have worked in the editorial field, curating books that are important in fueling debates and creating discursive spaces in the performing arts. For example, Truth is Concrete (2014), Empty Stages, Crowded Flats (2017), The Life and Work of Nature Theater of Oklahoma (2019).2 These books give us an idea of the different lines of tension that animate your work. How is this editorial work related to the figure of the dramaturg?

In Germany, writing and editing used to be very much part of the work of a dramaturg—when I grew up every production in a municipal theater would have often quite ambitious program booklets with sometimes long texts and additional material. This has now largely disappeared. Today we might rather associate this with the visual arts, where text production is usually part of the job of a curator.

For me, as a former journalist, writing about theater and the arts has always been part of my work. It is a way to communicate with a broader audience but also to take part in the internal reflections of the field. And, not least, it is a way to think through things. I also write for myself.

Again, even writing and editing comes with different agendas: if I edit a book about a company, I understand myself, to a certain degree, in a serving position. It is about trying to bring out their voice and not necessarily overwrite it with my own interpretation. It lies somewhere in the middle; I am not their spokesperson but also not a neutral critic. It is, again, a mix of proximity and distance.

You have spoken about the interconnection between dramaturgical thinking and curatorial instances. This link is interesting to me, as it concerns my practices as well. For me, performing arts curatorship is powered or nourished by a dramaturgical stance that involves questioning spectatorship, modes of perception, spatiality and temporality, multi-layered field of intensity, and diagrams of affects. In particular, I’m referring to curation that is situated outside the classic definition of program-making. What is your point of view on this? When I ask, I have in mind your curation of Truth is Concrete (2012), the 170-hours non-stop marathon camp on artistic strategies in politics you made in Graz; or the congress Artist Organisations International (2015) you curated with Jonas Staal and Joanna Warsza for Hebbel am Ufer (HAU) in Berlin; or the performative training camp Training for the Future (2019), recently programmed with Staal for the Ruhrtriennale…

Programming a festival, especially large festivals, involves a lot of pragmatic agendas. So often the result is not as consequent or clear as one would like. Specific curatorial projects have at least the possibility of being more precise. Here a more curatorial approach comes into play—and should be played with; especially in the performing arts, we should remind ourselves that the aesthetic strategies of curating can draw a lot from the strategies of a theater director (as Harald Szeemann emphasized) as well as a dramaturg (as Beatrice von Bismarck noted).

In the case of my collaboration with Jonas Staal, it is again a bit different. In Training for the Future, I am neither an outside-curator nor a not-so-responsible dramaturg. It is a form of shared work. Of course, the visual language and some of the conceptual rigidity comes from Jonas, as it is very much in line with his other artistic work. There are discussions about certain aspects, but generally I mostly enjoy thinking within the frame of his artistic approach. In the end, it is a shared responsibility, a shared general development, shared content etc. And again, in this collaboration there are different roles, where mine might be more concerned with pragmatics but also with bringing in other points of views, challenging a certain rigidity, contextualizing…

Again, it is about the different roles we play…

Yes, sorry to be repetitive—but the concept of role-play is helpful for me in understanding different working circumstances. The role of the dramaturg sometimes offers certain possibilities to do something, to decide something in a certain way, which an artist might not want to do. On the other hand, the role of the artist entails decisions that I would not take in the role of curator or dramaturg. Additionally, the roles of set designers, production managers, financial directors, technicians, and so on, come into play. They might even overlap or rotate in different environments. In some long-term collaborations it took years to define them, and they still might change again. There is no essentialism in this role-playing. But understanding that it is a play allows us at times to step back, breath, and then enter again. It allows a dialectical way of working.

  1. Truth is Concrete: A Handbook for Artistic Strategies in Real Politics, ed. Florian Malzacher & steirischer herbst (Berlin: Sternberg, 2014); Empty Stages, Crowded Flats, Florian Malzacher and Joanna Warsza (Berlin: Alexander Verlag, 2017); The Life and Work of Nature Theater of Oklahoma, ed. Florian Malzacher (Berlin: Alexander Verlag, 2019).