In this short article, I will share some of my ideas on narrative in devised theatre, discussing my dramaturgical approach. I will start with a quote from the commediante, writer, and capocomico Flaminio Scala:
I believe that the art of making good plays well belongs to those who can perform them well, because if experience is the teacher of all things, then she can teach to whoever has the ability to create and perform scenarios how to lay them out too; [...]for comedies truly and in essence consist in actions, and in narrations merely by accident.
(Flaminio Scala, Il Finto Marito’s prologue, 1619)
According to Scala, experience and practice can teach how to lay out good comedies to "whoever has the ability to create and perform" material for the stage. It's noteworthy that Scala opts for distendere (meaning "lay out" or "spread out") rather than scrivere (meaning "to write"), signifying the act of arranging according to a plan. Here Scala is affirming that experienced actors are able to write plays (literal meaning) as well as "arrange well" the material they create and perform. In other words, actors understand dramaturgical principles; they do not have to follow an author's narrative; they are free to create through improvisation and devising, with the narrative eventually emerging almost "by accident."
This concept resonates with me. The idea that actions, rather than narrations, are the real essence of a piece does not imply a lack of narrative or dramaturgical coherence. It simply means that narrative is "found" at the end of the creative process rather than being the "driving force" or "core" of the exploration.
Everything begins with a theme, an event, or a source of inspiration that comes from life or art. It can be real or fictional. These stories or events are only a starting point. My aim is not to retell, reinterpret, or adapt them; it's simply to utilize them as inspiration. The story told in performance is often unknown at the start of the creative process because the narrative will be "found" by the actors "merely by accident." This is what I label "Accidental Narratives."
In my approach to devising, actors have a pivotal role not only in developing characters but also in shaping the performance as a whole. While my role as a director is important in developing and shaping the dramaturgy, I view it as a collaborative experience where actors, designers, and the director mutually inspire and stimulate one another. This type of work embodies a non-hierarchical theatre aesthetic, a "visual dramaturgy." As noted by Lehmann, "This does not mean an exclusively visually organized dramaturgy but rather one that is not subordinated to the text and can therefore freely develop its own logic." 1 Through improvisation and devising, actors develop a dramaturgy that emerges from a collaborative experience beyond the written text of a single author. Images, physical actions, gestures, music, and sounds become dominant elements within the performance. They are as effective as words and, in my opinion, often more powerful than words.
It is not only what actors do (physical actions, gestures) or say (words) that matters. Performers' interactions with space, lighting, and objects are equally significant and lead to the construction of the narrative.
All performance elements—objects, symbols, imagery, characters' actions, and physicality—are signs. The audience's interpretation of these signs contributes to the development of a "performance text." Scholar Hans-Thies Lehmann and Richard Schechner before him utilized the expression "performance text" to define a dramaturgy that includes the linguistic material ("written text"), the staging, and how all this "interacts with the theatrical situation."
Lehmann distinguishes this type of theatre based on a "performance text" from text-based theatre based on the mise-en-scène of a "written text." In the latter, the meaning of the performance is determined by the sequence of events; in the former, it emerges through the interweaving of all the actions on stage, the layering of images, sounds, and symbols, as well as the complex and unpredictable occurrences taking place throughout the live event. The "performance text" exists only at the end of the creative process when performers share their work with an audience.
In this context, the word "text" means "a weaving together." This "weave of the performance," according to Barba, "can be defined as "dramaturgy," that is, drama-ergon, "the work of the actions" in the performance."2 This includes not only physical and vocal scores but also text, lighting, set, objects, changes in the dynamics of the scene, tempo, rhythm, and pace.
In a performance, actions (that is, all that has to do with dramaturgy) are not only what is said and done, but also the sounds, the lights, the changes in space, or even the evolution of the musical score. All the relationships, all the interactions between the characters or between the characters and the lights, the sounds, and the space are actions. Everything that works directly on the spectators’ attention, their understanding, their emotions, and their kinaesthesia is an action.3
This echoes Scala's observation that "comedies truly and in essence consist in actions": anything on stage that triggers the spectators both physically and emotionally.
These actions form a texture, or "text," either through concatenation or simultaneity. Sometimes, actions follow a chronological order of cause and effect, while other times they occur simultaneously. The simultaneous presence of different characters and scenes on stage contributes to the narrative of the piece. As Barba observed, "complex" meanings arise from a performance that explores simultaneity. These meanings arise from the interweaving of many dramatic actions, each with its "simple" meaning, and "from the assembling of these actions by a single unity of time".4
The material generated in rehearsals, i.e., all the different characters and their stories, is put together as a coherent piece during the final stages of the devising process: the montage. During this phase, the director guides, divides, and reassembles the audience's attention by selecting specific scenes and sequences of scenes and polishing or altering performers' actions while considering the text, relationships, music, sounds, lights, and use of props.
Through a process of trial and error, I manipulate the actors' material by juxtaposing and interweaving different scenes, moments, and images. When necessary, I work on transitions, thinking about the effect the actions should have on the audience, with particular attention to each scene's pace and tempo-rhythm. The director's choices made through montage guide the spectators.
The construction of meaning can occur when the director organizes the material into a sequence in which one action seems to respond to another or into a simultaneous execution where both actions derive their meaning from their mutual presence.5
I believe that "Accidental Narratives" in collaboratively devised theater embody a dynamic creative process where narrative emerges organically from the interplay of actions, physicality, sounds, and visuals. It is a collaborative journey of discovery, the result of collective creativity and artistic exploration, shaped by a director who orchestrates these elements into a cohesive ‘performance text." Drawing inspiration from Flaminio Scala's belief in the creative agency of actors, this approach reframes the traditional notion of storytelling. By embracing the concept of "Accidental Narratives," we open the door to a rich tapestry of theatrical storytelling, where the unexpected becomes a source of creativity and where characters and stories emerge "almost incidentally."
1 Lehmann, H. (2006) Postdramatic Theatre. Translated from German by Karen Jürs-Munby. London and New York: Routledge.
2 Barba, E and Savarese N., Gough, R. (ed) (1991) A Dictionary of Theatre Anthropology: The Secret Art of the Performer. Translated from Italian by Rowan Fowler. London: Routledge.
3 ibid, p.66.
4 ibid, p.68.
5 Barba, 2006.