‘It almost seems as if it wanted two men to write an Australian play, one to create it, and another to put it into shape for the stage.’—’ JC Williamson (Memoir)
Disregarding his reference to gender, the person Williamson referred to as ‘putting it in shape for the stage’ was what we’d probably refer to today as a dramaturg. The great actor and entrepreneur, of course, had a woeful history of ignoring local dramatists for his commercial stages. We can be grateful, however, for a young university student, barely 20 years of age, Leon Brodzky (aka, Spencer Brodney; 1883-1973) who first advocated for a national (or ‘municipal’) theatre in the pages of Melbourne’s Critic in 1903, the first official champion of the Australian playwright.
Brodsky’s cause was taken up by a number of personalities over the early decades of the new century: Bryceson Treherne (1879-1948) in Adelaide; William Moore (1868-1937), with his annual Australian Drama Nights from 1909; Euphemia Coulson Davidson’s Playlovers Club during the War; and Louis Esson, Vance Palmer and Stuart Macky’s Pioneer Players, active 1922-1926. But it was not until Leslie Rees, Rex Rienits and Doris Fitton established the Playwrights Advisory Board (PAB) in Sydney 1938 did the movement to foster the Australian playwright and the production of locally written play receive an institutionalised focus. The not-for-profit organisation provided ‘dramaturgical advice’ to playwrights,’ then ‘negotiated productions with both professional and amateur theatres, acted as an intermediary in the nomination and collection of royalties,’ as well as advising theatre companies on appropriate repertoire. The PAB service devolved to the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust and other agencies in the 50s and 60s, but found currency again when the Australian Playwrights Conference held its inaugural workshops in 1972. Subsequently, the Australian Playwrights Centre (now morfed into Australian Plays Transform) has become an integral and influential contributor to the growth in Australian drama.
The concept of dramaturgy is still widely misunderstood, however, and the nature of the role played by dramaturgs in the contemporary theatre is often confused. There is no association nor agreed industrial standard for those who nominate as dramaturgs; there is no conversation about specific functions and skills, rates of payment, nor conditions (including copyright). Training, until recently has been sporadic: I developed the first undergraduate course in Dramaturgy at the University of Wollongong’s Faculty of Creative Arts in the early 1992 as a foundation subject for the Performance Degree; The University of Melbourne offers a Master of Theatre (Dramaturgy); Griffith University, a one semester course in script dramaturgy; Sydney University advertise Dramaturgy as part of Theatre and Performances Studies; the University of Queensland provides a combined Playwriting & Dramaturgy course as Creative Practice. Those Theatre Studies courses that still remain (University of NSW, University of Notre Dame, University of Southern Queensland etc) incorporate dramaturgy as a fundamental tool.
I first encountered the concept of dramaturgy through director Rex Cramphorn (1841-1991) while working with him as designer on All’s Well That Ends Well and attached to his production of The Provok’d Wife at NIDA; his forensic approach to classical texts—known as ‘excavation dramaturgy’ (often disparagingly as ‘the meaning police’)—was a revelation. Rex himself, had been tutored by Dr Philip Parsons while working as designer on Richard III at the New Fortune Theatre at the University of Western Australia. Parsons completed his Doctorate at Cambridge (in Restoration Theatre) and returned home to teach English at the University of Western Australia (1960–65) where he was influential in performance-as-research projects, building a replica (New) Fortune Theatre to facilitate the production of the plays of Shakespeare and Marlowe ‘under Elizabethan working conditions.’ In 1966, Parsons joined Australia’s first Department of Drama at UNSW. He later collaborated with student (later director) Wayne Harrison (an Hons graduate in History), crystalising and developing his type of script analysis, and an Honours Course in the discipline of dramaturgy eventuated. Wayne Harrison was appointed the first Literary Manager (Resident Dramaturg) at Sydney Theatre Company in 1981.
Meanwhile, having graduated from NIDA (Design), my early experience was with the fledgling Griffin Theatre Company who had just committed to only producing new Australian play. Here was Brodsky’s municipal National theatre in practice. I was fortunate to engage on new work with directors like Alan Beecher and Peter Kingston , both skilled with over a decade of practical dramaturgy through the experience of ‘play development’ with the Playwrights Conference workshops. By the late 80s I began a long collaboration with Wayne Harrison: initially joining with Parsons on a series of research productions of Shakespeare ‘under Elizabethan working conditions’ [the company was called Dramaturgical Services Inc (DSI)]; and, a few years later worked as both Wayne’s designer and dramaturg while he was Artistic Director of the Sydney Theatre Company. I continued the DSI experiments at the University of Wollongong after negotiating an Elizabethan courtyard theatre into the new Faculty building, and have created courses in Dramaturgy at both Toi Whakaari (New Zealand Drama School) and WAAPA.
The primary objective of this new website is to pool all my lecture notes and writings on the discipline of dramaturgy accumulated over thirty years as a resource on textual analysis, play building and performance: genre and style; story and plot; dramatic structure; indeed, as comprehensive a survey a possible, that also covers the emerging discourse in the dramaturgy of music theatre (opera, musicals, dance) and post-literary platforms.
Further, I’ve begun to codify the role and function of the dramaturg in the Australian Theatre and am working towards the establishment of a Professions Dramaturg Register to provide a reliable database of service providers.
In additional, an equally important objective is to make available previously unpublished or inaccessible Australian play texts 1890-1950 (as downloadable PDFs) through my boutique publishing venture JANUS Imprint. I’m also interested to provide local idiom Australian translations and adaptations of classic European and Asian repertoire. I’m currently working with Professor Okana Weretiuk (The University of Rzeszów, Poland) on a joint translation project to make the key texts in the history of the drama in Ukraine available; in turn, to introduce significant Australian playwrights to both Poland and Ukraine. JANUS Imprint also publishes Australian theatre history.