A question, a case study and seven digressions

by Duška Radosavljević

I am tickled by a question a fellow dramaturg asked me the other day: is there such a thing as female dramaturgy?[1] Not so much a 21st century feminist dramaturgy but rather a pre-Aristotelian mode of theatre-making that can be characterized as female rather than male.

It’s hard to speculate around a question like this, but it did remind me of something the neuro-surgeon and author Leonard Shlain said in his 1998 book The Alphabet Versus the Goddess. According to Shlain, writing entails pretty much the same neurons in the hand-to-eye co-ordination process as those used by men specifically while hunting. Women’s habitual hand-to-eye co-ordination, meanwhile, works differently, he argues, because the neurons active in taking care of babies are different; hence, women see the world more holistically. Writing, claims Shlain, is intrinsically a male activity, and the advent of literacy, interestingly, coincided with the end of matriarchal, goddess-worshiping cultures.

I don’t have the book to hand to quote Shlain directly, but the way I have processed this reading would lead me to think that female dramaturgy would be different from the male, Aristotelian, linear, conflict-based one in a number of significant ways. We could not imagine exactly what the pre-literate female brain was like and what kind of theatre it would have led to, but we could perhaps deduce some key features of female dramaturgy from observing the work of theatre women more closely. If I may be allowed to generalize on the basis of personal experience, I would suggest that women favour fragementary, cyclical structures; they tend to dwell on a specific theme rather than pursuing action-filled plots;[2] their strorytelling is more ornate and full of digressions;[3] and they are possibly more conflict-averse.

I can give a more specific example too. I was recently invited to work as a dramaturg with Notnowcollective on their show Wonderwoman: The Naked Truth. Notnowcollective are two theatre women based in Birmingham – Kristina Gavran, a writer, and Tina Hofman, an actress, director, producer.[4] Their piece, Wonderwoman, is specifically about motherhood rather than femininity as such. Despite some reservations about my ability to rise to the challenge given that I am currently on maternity leave and living in a different city, Tina and Kristina wanted me to be part of the process precisely because of these circumstances – the ability to understand the constant balancing act, the dealing with the interruptions, the guilt, the occasional need to work below one’s own standards. (They didn’t say all this but intuitive understanding too can be deemed to be part of the package.)

At first I read the text – a document of a semi-devised creative process the two had undertaken for about a year. It was charming, funny, strong, erratic, erotic, rough at the edges and simply wonderful. Then I visited for a runthrough – because my baby is breastfeeding and I don’t drive, I came to Birmingham with my whole family in tow. Baby Katarina and I went into the rehearsal room, our boys out into the groovy gardens of Birmingham Mac for an afternoon. And this is it: unlike other (men-led) rehearsal rooms, this one was filled with an informal, chatty, gentle energy. Our conversations took place over walnuts and dates with known places of origin. We delighted in hearing each other’s personal stories.[5] There was no excessive compulsion about having to reach goals or targets. I felt completely relaxed about having to change or feed the baby while working. She felt okay about sleeping in the room.[6] The sunshine warmed the room discretely, and the main problem was: how to make the fights between the two characters convincing enough!

I was not able to attend the premiere, but I did see the final script and the video recording of the performance. At the end of it I can tell you this: Wonderwoman: The Naked Truth is a vibrant and earnest piece of theatre – the kind in which the fights are playacted, the kind in which a particular theme[7] is explored within a cycle of carefully crafted fragments, and the kind I would imagine pre-Aristotelian theatre women would approve of.

[1] Digression 1: The question, posed by my friend Beatriz Cabur, was in fact prompted by this fascinating article: http://howlround.com/why-i-m-breaking-up-with-aristotle.

[2] Digression 2: Here I am thinking of the image of Penelope weaving during the day and undoing her weaving during the night, only to start all over again the next day. I’m thinking of this image not in the context of its own narrative causality as envisaged by Homer (whoever s/he may be), but as an emblematic image of a female weaver being more interested in repeating rather than completing an action.

[3] Digression 3: Or maybe the right term would be embroidering?

[4] Digression 4: Both of these women practice professional storytelling too. This is significant.

[5] Digression 5: Tina and Kristina are both Croatian. I am Serbian. This might have been significant at one time too. We spoke in a mixture of languages, patching together experiences, past and present, with some plans and desires for the future.

[6] Digression 6: I may be forgiven for confessing this now: I was completely exhausted when I arrived into the room after weeks of not sleeping and overdelivering on other fronts, and suddenly I was feeling completely rejuvenated and revived just by being there

[7] Digression 7: If you must know, the theme of the piece would be best expressed as ‘Can you have it all?’. But then ‘Can you have it all?’ is actually the way a man would put it, within a male world. Within a female world, the question would be something more like: ‘How can I smoothly and productively integrate into my life the roles of a mother, artist, lover, ethical member of the society and a joyful human being?’.

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