What is feminist dramaturgy? Ana Fazekaš explores the different forms feminist dramaturgical practice is taking across the Western Balkan region.
“Dramaturgy is about how you do things, and for us it’s mostly about developing a practice that isn’t violent.” Nataša Antulov
Dramaturgy resides in a liminal space, always in-between registers; being everywhere and in a certain sense being everything, all the while remaining outside of focus, intangible, substantially invisible. A structural and structuring all-encompassing presence that, looked at from the outside in, is not so much perceived as reconstructed; the skeleton of a performance, its inherent rhythm, underlying all of the more easily perceptible elements. Dramaturgy is also a very specific practice, the core of the developmental process of a performance piece. And this very malleable nature is that which gives dramaturgy immense potentiality, a power contained in the very ambivalent position of releasing, fracturing, or dispersing power.
“Structurally, the issue is that it seems to be considered a sufficient feminist gesture to engage women, but not necessarily pay them well; to call them to talk or write about ‘women’s issues’, but not give them systemic power to change things, or give them a stable position in which they can function. Authority is maintained by walking over the people that are in a disempowered position to begin with.” Vedrana Klepica
Thought of in terms of gender/ed dynamics, dramaturgy embodies and reflects a lot of what can be thought of as conventionally feminine principles in the patriarchal framework that shapes traditional theatre. So it should come as no surprise that dramaturgy is the field in which an interest in feminist principles, strategies, and politics is being articulated more strongly than in any other role present in theatrical structures. The concepts of invisible, emotional and mental labour, as well as the dialectics of care, that had been central to the build-up towards second wave feminist theory and activism, remain of interest in contemporary feminist-leaning art, but also gain new meaning in the context of artistic production. In conversation with several prominent young(ish) authors, that are shaping the contemporary performing arts scene as we speak, we investigate how these questions open up and resonate, and map out at least some of what constitutes the (ever-)emerging practice of feminist dramaturgy in the regional context.
The open-ended beginning
“When entering a process, it’s important for me to think in terms of egalitarianism, inclusivity, and intersectionality, to navigate the kinds of micro-politics that are at work, from the very beginning.”
I’ve known Nina Gojić and her work since we were both still students almost a whole decade ago, and although I’ve always recognized her artistic projects as well as her activist engagement as aligned with intersectional feminist principles, I’ve only recently heard her explicitly talk about her practice as feminist dramaturgy. There is something empowering in this need to name, to lean on and against a feminist tradition, as well as towards a more widespread momentum. Sometimes as dramaturg in dramatic theatre, but more often as part of a collective dance or intermedia performance project, Gojić is developing an impressive body of work, that insists on an open structure and a prefigurative approach to dramaturgy, while maintaining consciousness about the conditions of labour as well as mutual care and respect between all persons involved in the process. “Everything is negotiable, open to conversation and change, and even when there is a clear division of roles, there can still be egalitarianism and responsibility in how we treat each other,” says Nina.
Last fall, Nina Gojić was part of the artistic team working on a piece entitled Vulnerable Bodies, initiated by dance artist and choreographer Ana Jelušić, along with Marta Krešić and Zrinka Užbinec. In a performance conceptually and aesthetically clean, direct, as well as layered and subtle, Vulnerable Bodies engages with conflicted experiences of freedom, and perpetual threat of abuse and violence faced in a social space by women’s bodies (and the same goes for non-normative bodies, as well as those belonging to an oppressed class). Working on the piece, the authors talked a lot about consent, what is gained and what is lost by the action of giving or withholding it. Among the very many interesting aspects of this work that not only investigated, but embodied vulnerability on a structural level, an ironic auto-reflexive subversion is performed by Gojić. Nina enters the performance space, ambiguously deconstructing and shifting her role and position as dramaturg, making the ordinarily invisible work seemingly visible, only to let it fall through the cracks again.
For me this layer was extremely potent, but then again, I couldn’t block out the fact that it was the first time I saw Nina on stage, performing some part of her invisible work, while most of the audience hadn’t thought about her role as dramaturg and merely saw a different performative register. Which begs the question: if we’re not looking for the presence of dramaturg/y, would we know what we are looking at?
Feminist dramaturgy today isn’t necessarily explicitly focused on the representation of what could be thought of as conventional feminist topics, such as gender equality or sexual violence. Not because these topics wouldn’t be of interest, but because their mere representation renders them less potent and even potentially exploits the painful lived realities, all the while putting the bodies through a retraumatizing process, and for what? Gender(ed) dynamics are omnipresent and all-encompassing, not limited to examples that provide violence in its most visibly deadly form.
Contemporary pieces that engage feminist dramaturgy may or may not reference feminist preoccupations directly, and often they look at these topics awry, but of far greater significance is how feminist dramaturgy re/defines the working process.
In general, the pieces are developed collectively, there is a clear, transparent, yet open and fluid consensus on the division of labour, roles may be distributed, but there remains a strong sense of community, everything is aimed to be communicated openly, awareness is sharpened in regard to the workload and payment of each person in the process. And a lot of attention is devoted to care, being gentle and thoughtful with your own and others’ boundaries, needs, and capacities. In the culture sector, with burnout becoming norm and the oppressive system making no effort to provide help and support, surviving requires that we genuinely and systematically take care of ourselves and each other as much as possible.
What a way to make a living
Traditional theatre attains the most strict and rigid hierarchy of all performing arts models. The process is technically collective, but the director occupies the position of artistic centre and ultimate power over all others, s/he holds the artistic vision as author and authority. The rest of the team joins the process of constructing the vision. Inherently patriarchal and masculine, this infrastructure reflects the perception of a work of art being the product of singular genius, and while we’d buried the author more than half a century ago, [H]e seems to remain as a phantom limb, kicking away in the artworld that still needs him in order to structure and arrange the field.
This perspective is one of the points feminist dramaturgy aims to put into question, deconstruct or make transparent, re/examine or devastate. Thinking that there could be something to the fact that a horizontal approach to collective work is usually seen in independent artistic productions, most often those in fields of dance, performance art, and new media, I’ve asked myself, and then my very brilliant interlocuters, whether the very structure of theatre prevents a feminist approach to truly take form.
For Vedrana Klepica, one of the most prominent writers of the younger generation, it’s not about the structure, it’s about people, how they value, lead, support, and connect to each other. “But the problem starts at ground zero – the institutional leadership that develops the repertoire, then hires the director to fulfil their vision. The writer is simply never as important, and if you don’t get access to the institution by the grace of the director, there’s not much you can do about it.”
There seems to be a steadily rising practice among dramaturgs interested in developing what is awkwardly called original work, to either occupy or simply eliminate the role of director in the process. Able then to pursue a spontaneous interest beyond institutionally commissioned work (that is usually what allows you to survive financially), dramaturgs and writers often develop their most interesting projects off-off-scene. Klepica says: “I’ve learned a lot working with various directors, but I was never in the position to fulfil my vision… which is why I started to work on my own plays and direct them myself. I was paid next to nothing, I had to connect cables and sweep the stage, and honestly at some point I thought of myself as the worst director ever because I didn’t live up to the perception of an eccentric individual that never needs to engage in dialogue with the people around him. But for me that kind of approach represents the very death of democracy and art, and working on my own projects I had the freedom to do what I wanted to do, and in a way that supported my collaborators as autonomous authors, respectful of their ideas and inputs.”
There are many dysfunctional aspects to Croatian (as well as regional) cultural politics reflected in the ways institutions function, as well as in the ways the indie scene doesn’t function in a sustainable way. But it doesn’t have to be like this… does it?
Hierarchy as violence
Talking about institutional theatre, dramaturg Nataša Antulov, who until recently worked inside such a structure, doesn’t mince words: “You can’t make a substantial relation if there is a hierarchy.” A hierarchy of power, a creative machinery at work in which people are stratified, which produces asymmetry in terms of the value and respect they are given, as well as in terms of money earned, is inherently violent. And working within such a structure puts one in the position in which it seems impossible not to reproduce the violence. “At some point, I realized I couldn’t work inside an institution anymore, I couldn’t even be in that kind of process creatively, regardless of who was leading it. I couldn’t deal with the violence of it: finding yourself in a position of literally begging the director to consider what you’re saying, what you think or need. It’s like a really bizarre S&M, except you never come.”
I kept coming back to care as a practice both central to dramaturgy and feminist practice in general, with special significance in regards to the conditions of labour that seem to arise on every step of the way while talking about the regional art and culture scene. But care is not an unambiguous action, concept or practice, the relationship between one who cares for another and the other being cared for is a saturated balancing act of power dynamics; the symbiotic bond can erode the relationship, often on the edge of become violent itself. But then again, can we afford not to care?
Or is the question: can we afford to care and keep caring?
Nataša Antulov reflects on this ambivalence: “The more you put yourself in the position of caring, of re-productional labour (at home or at work), the more men around you seem to dissipate and disappear, and somehow it becomes assumed that this is your role. And then you have to explain that it’s not. At home, you just quit working. At work, you stop believing in the greater cause. Institutions need to create politics that structurally perform care, that are aware of who and what they are leaving behind by the way they function. Because they leave a lot of people behind”
And yet, these artists keep going. Nataša does all of her para-institutional work in tandem with actor (and high-school bff) Aleksandra Stojaković Olenjuk. Feeling the stifling nature of her own hyper-visible yet artistically suppressed position as a theatre performer, Stojaković initiated their natural collaboration, and while they receive little to no substantial support, they merely took this as a chance to learn that they “don’t need anything”.
In Antulov’s own words: “Turns out we’re deciding to be the self-exploitative cliché – we don’t need anything to happen except the thing itself. We’re doing it because we have to, because we need to escape God, Boss and Husband, and these three are everywhere. But at least we know what we don’t want. We don’t want to work on audience development, we are bored with branding, naming and PR strategies, we can’t afford to plan two years ahead because our lives are just too complicated with kids and regular jobs. We are privileged enough to have jobs that pay our credit loan so we approach our work as leisure time and total productional de-growth.
Through our political activities we will fight for the best working conditions we can imagine; we will be caretakers, well organized, project oriented, but when it comes to our art we want to do whatever the fuck we want and not what Creative Europe, God, Boss or Husband wants.”
Oh, the obscenity!
The interest in women’s bodies and embodiments, in sexuality and its representations, in violence as act and potential, seems to emerge in the works of all authors cited in this text, and yet each work is different, and reaches far beyond its general topics. Recounting their post-partum experiences and navigating the rupture between motherhood and female erotic desire and sensuality, Antulov and Stojaković did a piece called Lolipop. Aleksandra explains the way the dramaturgy emerged from the contact and trust between the two co-authors that is more important than anything else: “After multiple births, after all the voices have been muted by children’s laughter, we are bathing our kids in the bathroom, and someone is crying. I don’t know whether it’s Nataša crying, or me, about our virtually non-existent sexual desire.
We need to put it in context. It’s about sexuality and the lives we live. What about this new maternal body? What do we do with it? What do we do with the experience of giving birth, that belongs so exclusively to women? So we witness each other. We address each other. The structure of Lolipop is developed by direct communication, as a dialogue between Nataša and myself, and then that dialogue continues on and dictates the dramaturgy, staging and performance.” A desire for desire pushed Lolipop and so many other performances into being, a connection so fierce that boundaries dissolve in bathwater, a hungry gaze for sensuality is awaken. But how do we answer it?
The recently published bilingual book by dance and performance artist, choreographer, dramaturg and thinker Ana Dubljević entitled The Feminist Pornscapes: on feminist dramaturgical thinking in dance and performance practice is an extended case study of the piece Still to come, a feminist porn-scape. Developed as an MA project at the University of Giessen by Zrinka Užbinec, Ida Daniel, Rahel Crawford Barra, Frida Laux, and Ana Dubljević, Still to come was a piece that reflected (on) itself, with this book as one possible spin-off of its restless core that pushes further towards questions, experiments, research…
What Dubljević does both masterfully and unpretentiously in The Feminist Pornscapes is propose an open-ended affective thinking text, woven through bodily and embodied knowledge and non-knowledge, that formulates questions rather than attempting answers that would calcify that which is most powerful when it remains fluid. Importance is given to body knowledge, affective experiences and critical potentials. Among other things, the book plays on the intersections between (feminist) dramaturgy and (feminist) pornography through the conceptual prism of ob/scenity, proposing feminist pornscape as a genre whose processual nature supports the principals of feminist thinking in dramaturgy.
Still to come
To give justice to the work already accomplished, yet perpetually in progress, by Antulov, Dubljević, Gojić, Klepica, and Stojaković, as well as other women in the field whose voices are coming through more clearly and loudly, this article would have to be an ever-expanding polyvocal continuum that holds all of the multiplying questions and none of the pacifying answers that feminist dramaturgy pro/poses. It would be loud, and scary, and beautiful, and impossible, and stubborn, and fierce, and gentle, and it would have an incredible sense of humour. But since this text, unlike feminist dramaturgy, has to come to its natural end, we might as well finish where we’ve started, in the heart of the paradox of dramaturgy, its seductive elusiveness and ambiguity, its everything-and-nothingness.
In the words of Nina Gojić: “Dramaturgy is something that we all do together. That is the paradox of our position; whether there is a dramaturg in the process or not, and regardless of how much and what she does, there will always be dramaturgy, it just always happens. Everything in the process is relevant, everything is workable. There are many misconceptions about what dramaturgs do, that they somehow impose a structure, but that’s not true, or at least it doesn’t have to be. And that is the premise of our politics.”
Ana Fazekaš (Zagreb, 1990) is a critic, editor, and essayist in the fields of performing arts, literature, and pop culture, currently working as freelance writer for various publications including Kulturpunkt.hr, Kazalište, Kretanja/Movements, Kritika HDP, and Booksa. She holds an MA in Comparative Literature and Russian Language and Literature, and is currently working on her PhD thesis on the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences in Zagreb, focused on psychoanalysis, gender studies and transdisciplinary art theory.