An Unfinished Conversation: Play Texts, Digital Projection, and Dramaturgy
Julian Meyrick & Katie Cavanagh
This essay examines a potential research confluence between dramaturgy, traditionally focused on the play text, and the concept of mental time travel (MTT) as put forward by cognitive psychologists Thomas Suddendorf and Michael Corballis. It sketches the definitions of dramaturgy extant today, and the methods and values surrounding its creative practice. In describing MTT, it makes points about the cognitive operations transforming the elements of drama into a holistic, inter-subjective encounter. The active ingredient in theatre is audience memory, of both past and prospective (that is, future) events. We argue that drama presents not just a type of information, but a mode of understanding, one that instantiates a theatre event by feeding an audience’s episodic memory. We move this discussion forward by highlighting how cue structure embodies the crucial roles of time and its management, while also considering the relationship between visual and verbal information. Dead Centre and Sea Wall, two short plays produced by Melbourne’s Red Stitch Actors Theatre – on which the authors worked as director and digital designer respectively – are used as our practical example to show the way in which the visual/verbal dyad occurs in a contemporary drama. The cue structure is provided (Appendix), and two dramaturgical moments analyzed using MTT. In conclusion, we suggest a rapprochement between text-based dramaturgy and performance dramaturgy in light of a possible unity of interest in the cognitive processes underpinning theatrical events.
Dramaturgy; drama; cognitive psychology; mental time travel; time
This essay examines a potential research confluence between dramaturgy – the study of dramatic structure in performance – and cognitive psychology and neurophysiology, and related phylogenetic processes. Given that arguably the most influential theatre theorist of all time, the Russian director Constantin Stanislavski, based his famous ‘System’ on the insights of the then-emerging field of cognitive psychology (Moore, 1984), it is odd this alliance has been little pursued since. Drama provides artists and audiences not only with a sensory experience but a mental one. Individual responses are shaped by the demands, invitations and expectations of a real-time flow of information embedded in drama’s different elements, of which Aristotle in Poetics identified six: narrative, character, language, spectacle, melody and idea (2013). Scholars have studies audience response from semiological, sociological, and anthropological perspectives (Ubersfeld, 1982; De Marinis, 1987; Pavis, 1992, 2001). How spectators accrue meaning collectively from a drama, and how artists get it in there in the first place, is an important question for theatre and performance scholars. But the relationship between dramaturgy and audience response has not been the subject of special investigation. Dramaturgy remains predominantly a practitioner’s craft, one employed by artists when making creative work: it uses a folk language, different from the theoretically sophisticated discourses of the Academy. The concepts it uses derive mainly from literary studies, as befits its origins in nineteenth century German textual criticism (Luckhurst, 2006). Perhaps this is why dramaturgy is strongly associated with the literary play text, despite the fact that dramatic structures can be found in a wide variety of social situations and performance forms (Goffman, 1959, 1975, 1983). Film and television are clear examples, but also online gaming, cosplay, TED talks, sporting matches, political demonstrations, and religious ceremonies, make use of them (Schechner 1986). If we think of dramaturgy as a ‘how’ skills-set, less concerned with general explanations than optimal outcomes, then better dramaturgical concepts would pay dividends for contiguous research areas. We could move away from using words like ‘dramatic’ and ‘theatrical’ to refer to any strip of action with emotionally vivacious features.
The essay is divided into three section. The first section gives a brief overview of contemporary dramaturgy. Academic publications on dramaturgy appear regularly, but these reflect only a small part of its professional practice, perhaps an unrepresentative one. The second section outlines one interesting concept from contemporary psychology, that of mental time travel (MTT). This idea, which relates to past and prospective memory in human cognition, appears in the joint work of Thomas Suddendorf and Michael Corballis alongside a concern with the theory of mind (metacognition) and the evolution of language (1997 and 2007).[i] The idea is obviously complex, embedded in a multi-disciplinary scientific approach. What makes its transshipment into this paper allowable is that Suddendorf and Corballis use the metaphor of theatre to explain how MTT works. By reversing the arrow of interpretation, the work sheds light on how human cognition operates in theatre from psychological and neurophysiological perspectives.
If the general understanding of drama benefits from this research, what can dramaturgy offer MTT in return? Nothing – literally – but a very specific kind of nothing. The third section of the paper describes a theatre project on which the authors were lead creatives. This project deployed a number of technologies, crucially the literary play text and digital projection. Section three focuses on one aspect of the combination of text and projection: the cue structure. What is a cue? It has no form and no content. It has no qualities and attracts no differentiated analysis. No one talks, coming out of the theatre, about a ‘really great cue’ nor is a deficiency in drama typically assigned to this facet. A cue is a colourless temporal wedge, a point of sheer duration whereby the other elements of drama achieve position and shape. It is time’s representative in its purest form, and researchers concerned with MTT will gain a better understanding of theatre as a metaphor by unpacking its nature and use. What we present is the cue structure (Appendix) for our show (Appendix 1), contextualizing MTT in terms of our audience’s acquisition of it as a shared cognitive experience.
Section 1: Dramaturgy
Turner and Behrndt provide a working definition of dramaturgy in their seminal book Dramaturgy and Performance (2008), which contains an overview of the secondary literature, much of which describes the craft approaches to be found in different countries. They note the slipperiness of the term, which they compound by pluralizing it (dramaturgies). This is in keeping with their goal of ‘broaden[ing] the picture to include a wider range of practices’ (Turner and Behrnt, 2008: 2). Thus disincarnated from its literary manifestations dramaturgy becomes,
… an overarching term for the composition of a work, the internal structure of a production, as well as … the collaborative process of putting the work together … We see its necessary relationship to processes of analysis. Indeed, the term ‘dramaturgy’ is often used as short-hand for ‘dramaturgical analysis’ … Hence… ‘dramaturgy’ [may] be defined as ‘the architecture of the theatrical event, involved in the confluence of components in a work and how they are constructed to generate meaning for the audience’ … It [is] clear that the object of analysis extends beyond the performance itself, to include the context, the audience and the various ways in which the work is framed. (2008: 17-18 quoting AdamVersenyi original emphasis)
In the television series ‘Breaking Bad’, the lead character Walter White, a high school chemistry teacher, tries to define his subject. ‘Chemistry is everything,’ he contends, referring to the ubiquity of chemical bonding, the force that makes the whole of nature inhere. We might make a similar claim in respect of dramaturgy. Despite the fact that it takes as its object of analysis dramatic structure, it is chiefly concerned with how this unfolds experientially. Its true interest is dramatic operation, and this active focus makes dramaturgy not a species of critical description but an engine of inquiry, something that can be deployed to achieve both better dramatic engagement in a particular work and a better understanding of dramatic engagement in any work. Gad Kaynar refers to the dramaturge’s ‘very narrow, very broad view’ and quotes Lars Seeberg’s observation that the role ‘“is different from that of the external critic. [They] must not completely immobilize the intellect but apply [their] analysis non-reductively, attempting to analyze actively, opening instead of stiffening, explosively and not implosively”’ (2006: quoted 257). If this sounds vague, perhaps that is the attraction of dramaturgy. In a world where the arts are subject to ever-increasing role specialization, dramaturgy presents as a language of universal address, albeit a subaltern one, allowing practitioners to talk about their work in holistic fashion.
Kathryn Kelly has observed the rapid spread of dramaturgical practices in Australia in the post-millennial period. She notes the same problems with dramaturgy’s definition as Turner and Behrnt, and the same association with the play text, symbolized by the fact that the Australian National Playwrights Centre (now Playwriting Australia) was the first professional body to formally acknowledge its role (2013: 1). During the 1990s, however,
… dramaturgy [became] a complex and theoretically rich set of creative practices deployed across the range of non-textual and post-dramatic performance-making artforms, which [could] be described loosely as contemporary performance. In academia, dramaturgy [gained] a profile in Australia as a field of inquiry for the analysis of the patterns of individual performances and repertory. By the end of the [decade], the term … was co-opted to describe the traditional process of conceptual editing and advocacy embedded by the Australian script development agencies; the traditions of literary management developed by Australian theatre companies; as well as the oblique work of contemporary performance. (Kelly, 2013: 3)
This observation on the art form alignment (and political alignment) of dramaturgy in the charged atmosphere of a post-colonial culture attempting to establish its own suite of theatre practices has also been noted by Peter Eckersall, who sees it as the outcome of long-term trends:
Since the 1980s Australian performance has evolved into complex and diverse systems: hybrid spaces, technical innovations, diverse company structures, alternative means of production, visual-media theatre, dance theatre, physical theatre, and so the categories proliferate … The rise of performance dramaturgy that is associated with work of these kinds has corresponded to a rising performativity and metatheatricality, relating broadly to what Hans-Thies Lehmann has identified as post-dramatic theatre. This has created the need for creative specialists who keep track of the complicated flow of ideas, technologies and forms associated with such work. (Eckersall, 2006: 287)
Whatever problems dramaturgy involves by way of definition, vocabulary and objects of analysis, it is certainly here to stay. For reasons related both to drama as an art form and theatre as an institutional practice, dramaturges take a regular place in the interdependent creative teams who develop projects in theatre, television and film. Consequently, it is an area that asks for productive relationships with academic research – with symbolic interactionism and ethnomethodology, for example, or, as suggested here, with cognitive psychology and neurophysiology.
Section 2: Mental time travel (MTT)
In a succession of articles in scientific journals from the early 1990s onwards, Australasian psychologists Suddendorf and Corballis have described and applied the concept of mental time travel in human and non-human species (Suddendorf and Redshaw, 2013; Suddendorf, 2013; Corballis, 2013; Suddendorf et al., 2009, Suddendorf and Corballis, 2007, Corballis and Suddendorf, 1997). The phrase, which Suddendorf coined, refers to,
… the faculty that allows humans to mentally project themselves backwards in time to re-live, or forward in time to pre-live, event. Past and future travels share phenomenological characteristics and activate similar parts of the brain. Mentally reliving past event is also know as episodic memory… and has been the topic of intense research efforts. By contrast, mental construction of potential future episodes has only very recently begun to draw attention. Nevertheless, there is growing recognition that mental time travel into the past and future are related, and that the ultimate evolutionary advantage must lie with the capacity to access the future… The world is dynamic and organisms that can pick up on significant regularities… and act in tune with them… have an advantage over those that do not. (Suddendorf & Corballis 2007: 299 original emphasis.
The teleological aspects of MTT are confronting for theatre scholars. The emergence of drama in ancient Greece in 600BCE is usually approached as a normative cultural development not an adaptive behavioural response (Carlson, 1984; Arnott, 1989). However, dramaturgy is unlikely to turn into a branch of neurophysiology. Dramas certainly have aggregate features – ‘significant regularities’. But while these are of cognitive interest, they are not what people chiefly value in an individual dramatic experience. It is the singular qualities with which audiences are chiefly concerned. Seeing a tragedy or a comedy, an audience’s knowledge of genre facilitates engagement with the specific form and content. This engagement would be entirely undercut if the style and substance were a carbon copy of a tragedy or comedy they had seen before.
What is really interesting in terms of MTT’s presumed function is the biological fact behind it: humans have a very poor sense of linear time. Research has shown that ‘chronology appears not to be a basic property of human memory, but rather depends on active repeated construction’ (Friedman, 1993, cited Suddendorf and Corballis, 2007: 309). It is too much to suggest that human beings invented drama to give ourselves a better sense of time. But it is certainly true that the cognitive operations involved in following a dramatic artwork are time-dependent, and thus act as a means by which we can perfect our mastery of information applying to the past, present and future as discrete states of temporal experience.
The taxonomy of memory is widely agreed. Memory is divided into two, declarative and non-declarative, the latter being stimulus-driven, the former voluntarily accessed. Declarative memory itself also breaks into two, semantic and episodic, the first concerned with abstract knowledge, the second with subjective experience. This is the difference between knowing how to drive, and knowing how you learnt to drive. Knowing how to drive involves mastery of road rules and mechanical procedures. Knowing how you learnt to drive involves the recall of feelings, places, faces and events, what Suddendorf and Corballis, drawing on the pioneering research of Endel Tulving, call the ‘www criterion’, a demonstrated understanding of what happened, where and when. Episodic memory is of particular interest given that it is ‘not about regularities but about reconstructing particularities of specific events that have happened to the individual’ (2007: 301). The authors explain:
The mental reconstruction of past events and construction of future ones may have been responsible for the concept of time itself, and the understanding of a continuity between past and future. Having a concept of time allows us to understand that the past and future are on the same dimension, and what was the future eventually becomes the past. Mental time travel allows us to imagine events at different points along this continuum, even at points prior to birth or after death… [It] cannot be defined in terms of the veracity of the content. (301)
The non-veracity of episodic memory is key to its value. For MTT to be of adaptive benefit, imagination must be brought to bear on reality to rearrange what has happened before for clues to what might happen next. A certain amount of ‘play’ is built into the way in which we remember the past and prospect the future. It is this imaginative relationship with fact – not so much a rejection of veridical truth as a continual reshaping of possible outcomes – that sees Suddendorf and Corballis employ theatre as a metaphor to explain how MTT works. Their table, presented in seven sections, is summarized below. Each section is associated with a set of cognitive skills. These provide potential topic areas for considering how drama unfolds as a mental experience.
Table 1. Components of mental time travel
- The stage: To entertain a future event one needs … some kind of representational space for the imaginary performance. In cognitive psychology the concept of working memory is usually conceived of as such a space (or workbench) where information is temporally combined and manipulated.’ (307)
Cognitive skills involved:
- Ability to combine short term and long memories
- Ability to engage in offline processing (ie. day dreaming, free association)
- Ability to collate imaginative play with the real world
- Ability to construct secondary representations to allow mental, rather than physical, trial and error
- The playwright: ‘To generate content, imaginary events need a script or narrative. This requires access to a declarative data-base – that is stored information that is not stimulus bound but can be made available top-down.’ (307)
Cognitive skills involved:
- Ability to combine and recombine existing elements according to the principle of ‘discrete infinity’ (i.e. recursive thinking)
- Ability to understand that others have beliefs, desires and intentions
- Ability to access, particularly through language, a recursive concept of time (e.g. the 30 different tenses in English)
- The actors: ‘Events typically involve characters and mental time travel might well have evolved in order to predict … the behaviors of others … To represent self and others realistically requires declarative knowledge of individuals and some folk psychology (theory of mind) to predict how they act.’ (308)
Cognitive skills involved:
- Ability to consider self in alternative versions of future events
- Ability to understand the notion of ‘free will’, the deliberate choice of one path of action among several paths
- The set: ‘Mental play also needs a physical context that operates according to real-world principles.’ (308)
Cognitive skills involved:
- Ability to appreciate the time dimension through ‘www criterion’
- Ability to recognize different semantic representations of time patterns (hours, days, weeks etc.)
- Ability to use location-based information (both verbal and visual) to judge temporal scale effects
- Ability to place events at particular points in time using order codes and distance information
- The director: ‘The future contains many possibilities and hence mental time travel involves entertaining different versions of scenarios and evaluating their likelihood and desirability. Like a director trying out alternative ways of presenting a scene, [it] requires rehearsals and evaluations.’ (309)
Cognitive skills involved:
- Ability to engage in dissociation and metacognition (think about thinking)
- Ability to envisage future actions and rehearse the self in performance of them
- The executive producer: ‘Enacting a planned event requires voluntary control, including executive functions, such as the ability to inhibit other stimulus-driven responses in favor of one that suits the anticipated events best.’ (310)
Cognitive skills involved:
- Ability to inhibit immediate response to increase total future reward
- Ability to anticipate one’s own future mental states (‘no easy feat’ 310)
- Ability to perform a future action at the appropriate time
- Ability to manage motivational and goal systems – cognition in complete charge (‘Modern humans often juggle a multitude of different goals and must decide when to do what to achieve which aims’ 310).
- The broadcaster (aka the production): ‘A play is not just a metaphor for mental time travel, it is often a public expression of it. More generally, humans use language to exchange and complement their mental time travels into the past and their ideas about future events.’ (310 emphasis added)
Cognitive skills involved:
- Ability to use language (‘language is exquisitely equipped to express events that are distant in both space and time from the present’ 310)
- Episodic memories are actively constructed and prone to error
- Mental time travel often involves only small snippets of events (‘Humans can relate events from different times and identify patterns that help us make sense of the present’ 311)
- There are significant differences between the past and the future: the former has happened, the future is uncertain
- Over the course of an individual’s life semantic memory replaces episodic memory as a guide to prediction and action (e.g. the ‘reminiscence bump’ and the need to purge ‘episodic clutter’)
‘In summary, the theatre metaphor implies that mental time travel requires a constellation of skills and is not simply an isolated capacity’ (310).
The idea of MTT not only helps identify the particular cognitive skills used in relation to drama, it provides a central and abiding concern for dramaturgical analysis: time, in both its primary and secondary representations. So fundamental is memory to human intelligence, and so fundamental is an accurate sense of time to memory (both past and prospective), that it is a small leap to argue drama is wholly dependent on the comprehension of time for the accrual of meaning. How are time and temporal representations managed in the theatre? How is our distinctive cognitive flexibility as a species deployed by artists and audiences within the dramatic experience itself?
Section 3: Words, Images and Cues
Dead Centre and Sea Wall are two short, one-person, companion plays that premiered at Red Stitch Actors Theatre in Melbourne in August 2015.[ii] Here is a review of the plays which discusses performance, production and direction. Together they last just over 60 minutes. The two characters, who speak directly to the audience, are Helen and Alex, a young, happily married couple whose young daughter, Lucy, dies in a tragic beach accident. Dead Centre, which Helen narrates, is set months, even years, after Lucy’s death. Sea Wall begins with a description by Alex of his father-in-law shortly after he meets Helen, then touches on the high points of their ten-year relationship. Information about Lucy’s fall from a cliff, the climax of both narratives, is revealed towards the end of that piece, 55 minutes into the show overall. The timescale the two play texts traverse is thus considerable, about eleven or twelve years, and the time codes deployed complex. Apropos Lucy’s death, Dead Centre starts in the future, Sea Wall in the past. Both head towards the fall as an eternal moment, a kairos lying outside ordinary time, shaping the action as an emotional flow – the point which the plays move towards, or away from, in pursuit of dramatic completion.
Even calling the characters ‘Alex’ and ‘Helen’ assumes the achievement of a task that requires cognitive effort from an audience. In Dead Centre what they see is a British woman of a certain class and age who says she has abandoned her husband and run away to Australia in search of a new life. Later she corrects herself and says ‘ex-husband’, calling him ‘Alex’. In Sea Wall, a man with an Irish accent calls himself ‘Alex’, but only after the play has been going for 10 minutes. Later he calls his wife ‘Helen’ and his father-in-law ‘Arthur’. Not until the show has been going for 35 minutes, over halfway, can an audience infer the names of all the characters, and thus speculate on how the two play texts are connected. Lucy is mentioned only in Sea Wall. She is not referred to at all in Dead Centre, directly or by implication. There is only the barest hint that the woman talking to us – for whom the name ‘Helen’ is not yet a possible designation – has an uncomfortable, perhaps painful relationship with children in general. Here is a personal review, which shows an audience member’s reaction to the play.
Working out who is who is part of the ‘www criterion’ Suddendorf and Corballis see as key to episodic memory. It is possible to comb through the scripts of Dead Centre and Sea Wall and show where such information is explicitly given, where it is implied, and where it is available in multi-interpretable form. The wonder is that individual audience members accomplish this job of work without complaint and with such regular success as to make the overall impact of a drama predictable, at least in part. That is, audiences collectively make regular and reliable distinctions between what they know for certain, what they think is probable, and what they merely suspect, using this gradient of understanding to navigate not only the welter of meanings in a play text, but also the paralinguistic signals provided by the design, the music, other members of the audience and so on.
Elsewhere we define the play text as ‘a device that turns information into experience’ (Meyrick, 2006, 2014 and 2015a, b, c, d). The focus of this paper is on how the play text and other types of theatre technology combine to further affect this transformation. If play texts were no more than the literal information contained within them they would, like bus timetables and car manuals, appeal solely to our semantic memory. But they evoke a deeper response, collectively bounded but individually differentiated. The question is how? How does drama achieve its encounter effects while avoiding being a rigid disseminator of literal information on the one hand and a trawl net for random feelings on the other? In part, the answer lies in the order in which increments of information are relayed, in part the media in which they are embedded. Woven together in the right dramaturgical way, the results exceed an audience’s semantic memory and appeal to their episodic memory. There they fuel the free play of imagination that is part of episodic memory’s standard operation. Un-reliant on the criterion of veracity, episodic memory co-opts ‘snippets of events’ portrayed in a play and melds them with snippets from other sources. Thus, the drama cognitively catalyzes in the minds of an audience, unfolding as something akin to false memory syndrome.
To illustrate how this happens, the appendix details the cue structure for Dead Centre and Sea Wall, listing cues under four column headings: lighting (LX), sound (SND), digital projection (SFX) and ‘Cue go’, which gives the relevant line or action in the texts at which one of these elements is introduced, altered, or withdrawn. This shows that there are 35 lighting cues, 34 sound cues, and 37 digital projection cues. The control system that permits these cues to be combined in a precise way is Cue-Lab, a program simple enough to be run by a single operator and cheap enough to be afforded by a small theatre like Red Stitch. Control systems and cues are closely related. If a cue is a kind of nothing, the control system is responsible for managing the kind of nothing that it is. Cues for light, sound and digital projection all have different physical properties, and thus different cognitive effects.
The fifth column describes actor-related action in the back part of the stage. Red Stitch is a steeply-raked, 80-seat venue, roughly 12 metres long by six metres wide. The stage area is four metres by four metres. The design for Dead Centre and Sea Wall was a simple bisection of the stage by a ceiling-to-floor charcoal black scrim, of good quality. A scrim is a traditional theatre property, a cloth which lit from one side becomes transparent, lit from the other becomes opaque. A black scrim in a black theatre can effectively disappear, even in a small venue, leaving audiences gazing at an impenetrable wall of darkness in front of them.
In the final column of the appendix we attempt to list some of the major moments of understanding, or ‘turns’, an audience might cognitively achieve when watching the show. This is provisional – and skimpy. It contains information that is both coercive and non-coercive. Told that Helen and Alex truly love each other, an audience is not free to imagine that they don’t, unless further information is provided making this a possibility. Other types of information are ambiguous, generalized or perspectival. There may be suggestions that Alex loves Helen more than Helen loves Alex, for example; or that true love does not exist; or that the character telling us about their love is not unbiased. Language, being denotative, is a good vehicle for communicating coercive information – or, at least, for appearing to do so. Images, being conative, are more associational, evoking a number of potential meanings. Two examples of how the play text and digital projection – word and image – work together in Dead Centre and Sea Wall to prompt a complex cognitive response can be given. There are many to choose from, but the examples show the different ways memory is a resource for deeper mental engagement with the drama. Suddendorf and Corballis identify two distinct subsystems in MTT, what they call ‘a phonological loop’ and ‘a visuospatial sketchpad’ (2013: 306). This is how we navigate large parts of our lives, and thus the drama in our lives: with our eyes and ears.
The first example involves the sequence LX cue 9 and 10, and SFX 6, which occurs a third of the way through Dead Centre. At this point, Helen is talking about wanting to visit the Australian outback, describing it ‘as about as far from England as it is possible to get’ (4). At the start of the sequence, light reveals Alex at the back of the stage, behind the scrim, then extends forward to allow the actor playing him – though who he is precisely the audience do not know yet – to set up a tripod and camera. The digital projection onto the scrim, which comes shortly after, reveals three picture windows in which tongues of cloud and blue sky slowly appear. Having finished speaking, Helen looks outwards and Alex upwards. Neither look at the scrim, but the mental combination of faces, words and images via the cue structure, offer that:
- The two characters are related
- The man has something to do with photography (corroborated in Sea Wall when Alex reveals himself to be a professional photographer)
- The man shares the woman’s feelings of wanting to escape (perhaps for the same reason)
- The idea of escape is literally a ‘blue skies’ one, full of possibility rather than practicality: escape as a prospective memory
- Their idea of escape is our idea of escape, if we endorse it as subjectively valid.
It is the fifth point which is intriguing, suggesting not so much a relay of information as a melding of minds, the co-opting of a dramatic moment into an audience’s episodic memory by the expropriation of well-timed verbal and visual snippets. Declarative memory is voluntary, so this aspect of drama’s operation is by nature non-coercive. An audience cannot be forced to cognitively ingest a moment and ‘make it their own’. But the means to do so can be provided, and what we are suggesting is that how dramas deploy verbal and visual media is key to the success of this, as is the management of time via the cue structure.
The second example involves the cue sequence SFX 33, SND 34, LX 30, 31 and 32, and SFX 34. This occurs at the penultimate point in Sea Wall, when the drama is all but over and Alex has stopped speaking. At the start of the sequence, a low tone repeated throughout the show is heard, and slow-moving crashing waves are projected onto the scrim. Light then appears behind the scrim allowing the woman we now know as Helen to step forward in a beautiful blue dress. Alex turns to watch Helen through the scrim for a few seconds. Then the light fades on the scrim, wiping her image, before fading in turn on Alex. A shutter then reveals another scrim behind the front scrim – almost at the back of the theatre – onto which, and through the projection of the waves, a 35 second video clip is shown of a young girl playing on a beach. Front scrim, back scrim and the stage then fade to inky darkness signalling the end of the show.
By this point in the drama all the explicit information has been released, and what is left for an audience is a period for offline processing and deepening connection. The image of Helen in a blue dress picks up on a description given by Alex in the fiftieth minute as something which took place on the eve of the holiday on which Lucy was killed: ‘
She asks me to come into the bedroom because there’s something she wants to show me. And I get there and she’s wearing this dress. It’s a blue dress. With this dropped back. She asks me to tell her what I think. I swear for about thirty seconds I couldn’t speak. She looked. Oh. And the idea that I was married to her. And that we had our girl. And this was our life. (Stephens: 292)
What this sequence cognitively offers is:
- Life is a combination of great beauty and great horror
- The beautiful moment of Helen in the blue dress Alex described verbally was indeed beautiful (i.e. can be visually corroborated)
- The sea is an image of life, love, beauty, and loss
- The lovely daughter which Alex described, and Helen did not, was indeed lovely (i.e. can be visually corroborated)
- Alex and Helen’s understanding of life, love, beauty and loss is our understanding of life, love, beauty and loss, if we endorse it as subjectively valid.
The finish of a play is always complex, an end-time in which an audience’s thoughts are not easily predictable. However, the same principle applies to this as to any other moment in a drama’s unfolding: a number of verbal and visual snippets are given, and these can be co-opted to episodic memory via the cue structure, which must separate them in a way that makes them individually ingestible and collectively coherent. The ‘corroboration’ referred to in points 2 and 4 is a dramaturgical effect not an analytical procedure. By intersecting with our memory of past verbal information – hopefully episodic, certainly semantic – and retrospectively providing physical details for what until then were probably vague imaginings, a moment is pinned down by a visual correlative. Memory pathways are secured by asking an audience to reprocess the moments of Helen in a blue dress and Lucy at the beach, but in a cognitively more precise way.
An Unfinishable Conversation
Raymond Williams coined the term ‘cultural formation’ to describe the aesthetic allegiances that characterized avant-garde art in the twentieth century, the so-called ‘style wars’ (Williams 1973). Realism, Symbolism, Dadaism, Absurdism, Epic Theatre, Theatre of Cruelty: each of these subsets of cultural Modernism is recognizable in its approach to page and stage. The penalizing attitude of the estates of Arthur Miller, Samuel Beckett and Bertolt Brecht towards the interpretation of the play texts of these dramatists, for example, is well known (Rabkin, 1985). By contrast, the French surrealist Antonin Artaud’s play texts provide a loose set of images and exhortations that eschew even the idea of interpretive fidelity (Innes, 1984). Symbolism, Dadaism and Absurdism freight what Roland Barthes would call period rhetorics (Barthes, 1981:1), endurated relationships with staging conventions that renders them un-modish and un-mobilised, at least for now.
But however these formations are conceived, and whatever post-Modernism did to them in its lax pluralism or diversity of practice (whichever way you see it), it has bequeathed to the theatre a new fluidity, and a chronically unstable connection between page and stage. All plays are now problem plays. The problem they exemplify is their textual status. No longer is it possible to assume that a mundane body of theatre knowledge, passed via artisanal transmission, will ensure adequacy of stage presentation. From the Modernist era onwards play texts must be interpreted, the rejection of interpretation being only another variant of the interpretive stance.
This divide between text and performance, which was always there, but to whose imaginative possibilities Modernist artists became newly awakened, provides the ground for the dramaturge today. Dramaturgy exists neither solely as a set of editing skills nor as an ordering of performance moments, but as a disjunctive creative consciousness, one concerned with the interplay of contingency and necessity in the realization of a dramatic potentiality. It is this disjunctiveness the philosopher Alain Badiou alludes to in his infuriating but inspiring essay Rhapsody for Theatre (2008) when he says that play texts exist in a ‘future anterior’ – as entities that will have been performed:
In fact, the ignorance, or the denial, or the distain for theatre texts, for edited pieces, has its roots in an essential uncertainty. Can we give a simple answer to the question ‘What is a theatre text?’ No, because taken in isolation the text does not decide this question: it is only one of the main constitutive elements of theatre. Only that which has been, is, or will be played counts as theatre properly speaking. The event (the representation) retroactively qualifies the text whose written existence nonetheless anticipated it. A text will be part of theatre if it has been played. Hence: the theatre text exists only in the future anterior. Its quality is in suspense. (XLII, original emphases)
This observation deftly captures the reality that time is the essence of drama’s existence and meaning. Plays are, even when appearing on stage for their premieres, remembered objects, and assumed to be remembered objects. It is this assumption that allows for the purposeful activation of audience cognition with a view to making the play text’s experiential snippets their own. In addressing the conditions that apply to dramas when staged, MTT provides less a general explanation than a deeper understanding of what happens in an audience’s mind. Perhaps the classic sociological distinction is over-drawn anyway, since to understand what takes place when a text is enacted requires that some aspects of its operation be clarified as precisely as possible. In this clarification lies an opportunity to transcend the pesky divisions of an art form that clings to its stylistic differences – ‘text-based drama’ vs ‘devised performance’ – beyond the point of useful creative return. In this respect MTT is an ‘unaligned discourse’, favouring no particular approach or type of drama. It is a tool of considerable analytic power, one that can ‘technically mediate’, in Bruno LeTour’s phrase (1994), the ‘black box’ that is a play text to reveal some of its labyrinthine mysteries.
For there are a number of unfinished and indeed unfinishable conversations involved in the staging of any play. There is one between text and performance. There is one between the elements of a drama, its verbal and visual sign structures. And there is one between the theatre event itself and the audience encountering it, who must decide whether they will complete the conversation in their own minds and become one with the drama as an affective experience. The mode and condition of these conversations is time, both the time code that a drama uses in its representational surfaces, and the real time in which it is staged. The permutations of drama are thus also permutations in the cognitive processing of temporal structures, which provides a final observation: that if there are an infinite number of stories in the world and infinite number of ways of telling them, then it is our adaptive capacity to remember what has in fact not yet taken place that makes this creatively possible.
[i] Note on other MTT papers examined here.
[ii] We have listed in a separate bibliography all the URLs for Red Stitch, the production, and the media coverage and reviews. Together they provide a comprehensive sense of the company and the show. A number of URLs include embedded video links. A formal production website containing more extensive documentary and visual material is currently under construction.
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Barthes R, trans. Heath S (1977) Image, Music, Text. London: Fontana.
Carlson M (1993) Theories of the Theatre: A Historical and Critical Survey, from the Greeks to the Present. Ithaca, London: Cornell University Press.
Corballis M and Suddendorf T (1997) Mental Time Travel and the Evolution of the Human Mind. Genetic, Social, and General Psychology Monographs 123(2): 133-162.
Eckersall P (2006) Towards and Expanded Dramaturgical Practice: A Report on ‘The Dramaturgy and Cultural Intervention Project’. Theatre Research International 31(3): 283-297.
Innes C Holy Theatre: Ritual and the Avant-Garde. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
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Kaynar G (2006) Pragmatic Dramaturgy: Text as Context as Text. Theatre Research International 31(3): 245-259.
Kelly K (2013) Post-Millennial Australian Dramaturgies: Changes in Australian Performance and Dramaturgy since 2000. In: Fotheringham R and Smith J (eds) Catching Australian Theatre in the 2000s. Amsterdam: Brill/Rodopi, pp.79-98.
Latour B (1994) On Technical Mediation: Philosophy, Sociology, Genealogy. Common Knowledge 3(2): 29-64.
Luckhurst M (2006) Dramaturgy: A Revolution in Theatre. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
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Meyrick J (2015a) Australian Plays: How to Persuade a Nation to Question Its Own Soul. The Conversation, 12 May. Available at: http://theconversation.com/australian-plays-how-to-persuade-a-nation-to-question-its-own-soul-40161 (accessed 10 June 2015).
Meyrick J (2015b) Playwriting Doesn’t Get Better or Worse – But It Does Evolve. The Conversation, 1 May. Available at: http://theconversation.com/playwriting-doesnt-get-better-or-worse-but-it-does-evolve-40162 (accessed 10 June 2015).
Meyrick J (2015c) We Can’t Get Those Two Hours Back – Drama Works as Time Unfolds. The Conversation, 15 April. Available at: http://theconversation.com/we-cant-get-those-two-hours-back-drama-works-as-time-unfolds-39687 (accessed 11 June 2015).
Meyrick J (2015d) Need A Stage Coach? Why Some Plays Work, and Others Don’t, The Conversation, 9 April. Available at: http://theconversation.com/need-a-stage-coach-why-some-plays-work-and-others-dont-39363 (accessed 13 June 2015).
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Moore S (1984) The Stanislavski System: The Professional Training of an Actor. Harmondsworth: Penguin.
Pavis P (1992) Theatre at the Crossroads of Culture. London: Routledge.
Pavis P (2001) Languages of the Stage: Essays in the Semiology of the Theatre. New York: PAJ Publications.
Rabkin G (1985) Is There a Text on This Stage?: Theatre/Authorship/Interpretation. Performing Arts Journal 9(2-3): 142-159.
Schechner R (1985) Between Theatre and Anthropology. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Stephens S (2009). Seawall. In: Stephens Plays 2. London: Bloomsbury Methuen Drama.
Suddendorf T (2013) Mental Time Travel: Continuities and Discontinuities. Trends in Cognitive Science 17(4): 151-152.
Suddendorf T and Redshaw J (2013) The Development of Mental Scenario Building and Episodic Foresight. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 1296: 135-153.
Suddendorf T, Addis DR and Corballis M (2009) Mental Time Travel and the Shaping of the Human Mind. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society 364: 1317-1324.
Suddendorf T and Corballis M (2007) The Evolution of Foresight: What is Mental Time Travel, and is it Unique to Humans? Behavioral and Brain Sciences 30: 299-351.
Turner C and Behrndt S (2008) Dramaturgy and Performance. Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Ubersfeld A (1982) The Pleasure of the Spectator. Modern Drama 25(1): 127-139.
Williams R (1973) Drama from Ibsen to Brecht. Harmondsworth: Penguin.
Dead Centre/Sea Wall
http://redstitch.net (last accessed 15 September, 2015)
https://vimeo.com/132712585 (last accessed 15 September 2015)
http://redstitch.net/gallery/dead-centre-sea-wall/ (last accessed 15 September 2015)
http://www.darwinfestival.org.au/show/dead-centre-sea-wall (last accessed 15 September 2015)
http://brisbanefestival.qtix.com.au/event/bf_dead_sea_15.aspx (last accessed 15 September 2015)
http://www.artour.com.au/artists/dead-centre-seawall (last accessed 15 September 2015)
http://touringselector.com/production/2470/dead-centre-sea-wall (last accessed 15 September 2015)
http://australianplays.org/australian-plays-on-stage-august-2015 (last accessed 15 September 2015)