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  • Writer's pictureMatthew Short

Dramaturgy and Heritage: The start of a study

My dramaturgical practice not only utilises my education and professional experience of theatre, but pulls in my background of ethnology too. The further I develop my conceptualisation of dramaturgy, the more apparent the intersections of ethnology become. As a zealot for continual learning and researching (and of course, reading) I have recently started a research masters degree at the University of the Highlands and Islands with the Institute of Northern Studies. My work is an ethnological study of the role that heritage processes play in theatrical dramaturgy particularly in the formation of a Scottish Highland creative identity.

Many ethnological explorations of heritage focus on museums, or otherwise heritage sites that have often, in some form, been “museumised”. The museum played an integral part of national identity formation, delivering a narrative of what a nation’s past was built upon thus instilling the essence of that nation. As museums became public, or even nationalised, they further perpetuated legitimising ideas of national identity. The formalisation of national museums and collections mirror the formalisation of theatre in the UK, particularly through the royal patent theatres in the restoration period through to the Victorian era. Since these theatres were the only spaces allowed to perform “serious” dramas, they too became hubs of nation-building through controlled and warranted narratives of “national” plays.

Despite functioning in different ways, by looking at museums and theatres as tools of the nation-state to design a specific national identity and history, we can begin to see how the lens of heritage studies applies to the field of drama and theatricalisation. Obviously, many forms of performance are protected as intangible cultural heritage, but my research examines more hegemonic production (meaning not necessarily at risk) as equally important in understanding heritage processes.

So, the question is, what does this have to do with dramaturgy? My perspective is that dramaturgs hold a position in the theatre world similar to that of a curator within the museum-sphere. The bare bones of my argument is that one of the key functions of both a curator and a dramaturg is some form of narrative management. Both positions utilise a range of skills and methodologies to produce and/or curate the telling of a story which harnesses some level of performativity. They similarly draw upon cultural contexts and symbols which typically have a temporal aspect. As such, my research into heritage processes in theatre situates the dramaturg as a key actor in the development of these processes, and in the absence of a dramaturg, examines how all production staff embody dramaturgical practices to advance the heritage endeavour (even if not realising it).

The temporality of heritage is interesting as it reaches from the past, across the present, and into the future. Heritage is consistently active, not something frozen in a stasis of history. It is with this understanding of its temporality, and agency, that then allows me to see the heritage processes that aren’t strictly formed within historical drama. I typically find that our contemporary drama, particularly with the rise in popularity of the monologue, is a positive space of reclaiming otherwise marginalised voices. In this respect, what we are witnessing is a rewriting of the hegemonic history of the nation-state. We find that suddenly our understanding of a national heritage is diverse, a cacophony of voices and different experiences. And as such, our understanding of our community and nation evolves, it embraces more narratives, and we pave the way for a much more enriched heritage to be passed down to future generations through dramatic/performative literature.

Even if drama is not historical in genre, it often narrates some form of history. The history of the character, the history of a place, whether immediate, recent, or ancient. Narratives typically spin cultural cues that have been formed through an historical process, and most contemporary narratives utilise a familiar chronological structure, historicising the story within itself. As such, my study positions drama in a social context that is at once history-making, commenting on the moment, and conceiving potential futures. This analysis is particularly relevant for the Scottish Highlands whose own history is built on layers of complexity and diversity, but also can sit somewhat uncomfortably within the context of a Scottish and especially a British history.

I’m still very much in the early days of my research, but it has been interesting so far to untangle the complexities of the Scottish Highlands. They are not a linguistically or culturally bound area, the East and West of the area have very different kinds of histories even if there are shared hardships, and people don’t always agree upon what counts as the Highlands. At the moment I am particularly focused on Inverness as a Highlandic space that is particularly vulnerable to the subjugation of the British crown. It is here during the 19th century that I’m finding development of Scottish national plays, often relying on symbols of the Highland culture, written predominantly by English men. This is the time that Prince Albert and Queen Victoria completed the purchase of Balmoral, and such symbols of the far north become romantically popularised.

Given the nature of this work, I often find myself reflecting on my professional role as a dramaturg, and what heritage processes have I been a part of (actively or unknowingly)? I look to my work with Teater Dictat and think about the way we’ve been developing a queer heritage. By looking at the typical heteronormative canon of English drama, and then by queering them, I’ve been able to look at the unwritten queer histories from these periods. I’ve been able to recreate and reimagine queer lives in alternative contexts. Together, Dictat and I have been developing a new queer world which can relate and speak with other queer contexts around us to present a more hopeful heritage for the future.

Since I’m at the start of this study, I aim to post occasionally here about how the research is going. I imagine that moments of surprise and interest that I discover during my time with this topic will help me generate blog posts that can spark further thought and reflection. I also picture that there will be far more curiosity from me about my own practice, and that my dramaturgical awareness is bound to develop in new ways as I continue. So, this will be the space for me to air these thoughts and reassess how I work as a dramaturg from here on out.

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