Sunday 21 January 2018

Stage - Dramaturgs: from pen to stage, the true navigators of theatre

Creative guidance: Dramaturg Hanna Slättne
Creative guidance: Dramaturg Hanna Slättne

Chris McCormack

The window of Hanna Slättne's apartment in Belfast looks out on a sweeping valley of red-brick houses and decommissioned work yards. As dramaturg for Tinderbox Theatre Company, her desk is appropriately covered with papers (not to mention the prestigious Kenneth Tynan Award for Dramaturgy), but Hanna also has to keep an eye on the bigger picture. "What do the artists of Northern Ireland need now?" she asks.

Hanna, who combines intellectual savvy with giddy excitement, has stepped out of rehearsals for Tinderbox's next production: Famla by John McCann. Her passion for theatre, she says, comes from taking part in community theatre while growing up in Sweden.

"I realised what fascinated me was the dramaturgy - I didn't even know that's what it was called - that is, how or why a play works in a particular way depending on decisions we make in making it."

She trained in London and started working as a freelancer.

Dramaturgs are often pictured as assisting playwrights in developing scripts. But Hanna makes a clean distinction between dramaturg and the more traditional role of literary manager: "You can't just sit in the office reading scripts and giving notes to writers. If you're going to give advice to theatre writers, you need to be a theatre maker. Hence, you need to be in the room."

She arrived in Belfast in 1994 to take a full-time dramaturg post, a type of position nearly unheard of at the time. The then Tinderbox Artistic Director, Michael Duke, who had worked with dramaturgs in the US and Scandinavia, decided to put the role at the centre of the company.

"Michael had a strong belief in working with a playwright rather than an idea," she says. "Over months, the writer, the director and the dramaturg are talking, looking, asking questions. Then the form appears and the writer writes."

Hanna can neatly recall the complex processes involved in mounting different Tinderbox productions. She helped to map the use of music, for example, in Stacey Gregg's 2012 play Huzzies, a drama showing a woman's escape from family life into a band.

"There's one story but there's another story of a band - a story through the music. We had to think about the dramaturgy of the music and how that evolves during the band's journey."

Mapping Huzzies wasn't without its challenges.

"Stacy didn't want the piece to have a naturalistic timeline, but the live music kind of created its own sense of time. It takes a certain amount of time to play a tune and that anchors the audience very firmly in one sense of time." Naturalism was a more decisive choice for her in mapping David Ireland's play Summertime in 2013. The drama about a minister struggling to establish himself with his Belfast parish is a startling lead-up to an atrocity.

"It was definitely coming from those horrific events in Norway in 2011," says Hanna. "We took the choice to go naturalistic fourth-wall, so that you'd absolutely get the sense that this is spinning out of control. Everyone is trying to do the right thing, but they're missing each other all the time."

The development of a play sounds like an extensive process ("Very often, the first draft and the final draft are nothing alike") until a script finally feels ready and Hanna calls a workshop with actors. That wasn't the case with Abbie Spallen's satire of the Peace Process, Lally The Scut, in 2015. "When I came across it, it was in a very advanced stage. We knew this had to be on in Northern Ireland."

Hanna describes the new play Famla as "an ambitious piece linguistically". McCann's drama sees a young woman in need of escape, seeking out a derelict old house that's held her fascination since childhood. Another unusual sanctuary was shown in McCann's previous play The Clean Room.

"These places are not metropolitan," says Hanna. "As John would say about The Clean Room, these are people who never benefited from the peace dividends after the peace process. The same is for the characters in Famla. They are stuck in their own ideas of what happened and what needs to happen.

"John is very metaphorical and passionate about where Northern Ireland is at the moment. As dramaturg, I've needed to keep an eye on that metaphor - if it's going to be in there, it needs to work all the way through. It needs to resonate and pay off."

The bigger picture for Hanna, however, is Northern Irish theatre in the context of world theatre. "It's the dramaturg job to see what's happening internationally, to keep in touch, to check out what is the thinking."

Duke had convinced the Arts Council of Northern Ireland to establish a dramaturgy fund, enabling Hanna to create opportunities for companies across the country to explore form.

The dramaturgy fund was cut in 2015 and Tinderbox has a new artistic director in Patrick J O'Reilly.

But Hanna optimistically embraces the opportunity to evolve Tinderbox's own process. "It's an exciting new direction. I started out not necessarily wanting to only do new writing. I now get to work with all genres of theatre."

Famla runs at The MAC, Belfast, from March 21-25

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