Anchor Man

Reflections on working as a dramaturg with Hetain Patel on his recent performance work

This is a blog post about the work of Hetain Patel after seeing American Man (2016) at Sadler’s Wells. I have worked with Hetain on four of his pieces for theatre, Ten (2010), Be Like Water (2012), American Boy (2014) and now American Man, a theatrical sequel, continuing his explorations into notions of cultural identity and how popular culture shapes (or shape-shifts) who we are. Hetain has described his work as ‘scratching an itch’ and he often returns to the same itch but scratches it in different ways.[1] A cinematic Spiderman jump across his grandmother’s living room floor, a photograph of himself crouched like Spiderman on a kitchen table, a video duet between his father in his Bolton car body shop and Hetain in a dance studio, lip-syncing and body-syncing, to his father’s words and movements. This gallery piece was then re-enacted live in Be Like Water, so Hetain not only samples popular culture, but also his own back catalogue, shifting between shapes, between artforms, between stage and screen. My role, as dramaturg, has been to help him to find a way to scratch this itch. In some ways, in relation to American Boy and American Man, I have been like an anchor man.

I interviewed 30 artists during my PhD research about the dramaturg, they often used nautical terminology to describe the role they played. They spoke about how the dramaturg enables them to remain ‘anchored’. Goat Island used to refer to ‘anchor points’[2] in their work for the audience and actors have long used ‘anchors’ for their role, for example, Peter Barkworth.[3] Visual artist, Hetain Patel says of his relationship with an outside eye, ‘I want someone to keep me anchored to what I told him or her about at the beginning, to keep me anchored to the starting point.’[4] Just as Lone Twin describe their creative process thus: ‘We always have a clear trajectory for a piece, it works as an anchor’,[5] so other artists require the presence of another to keep them on course. This is especially the case when the course is uncharted. Julia Locascio describes the role she plays: ‘the devising director is a creator of a final piece but also the creator of a process and is a kind of navigator for a collective creation process’.[6]

AM 2A recent email from Hetain, inviting me to work with him as a dramaturg on American Man, read: ‘I’m not sure if it is but this feels like one of the earliest times in a process that we will be working together, which is to say I still don’t have a totally clear idea about how the show will be, conceptually. It will be useful to think it through with you’ (personal communication, 2 November 2015). This process of ‘thinking through’ is the starting point of a dramaturgical relationship. That relationship unfolds with an archaeological dig through the material Hetain amassed during the Research and Development phase of the project. In the case of American Boy, that material comprised different film clips exploring notions of cultural identity.

Pearson and Shanks suggest that: ‘What archaeologists do is work with material traces, with evidence, in order to create something, a meaning, a narrative, an image – which stands for the past in the present. Archaeologists craft the past’.[7] If Cardullo is correct, the dramaturg ‘crafts the process’ through meaning-making. Pearson and Shanks use the term ‘assemblage’ here to describe the way in which material is processed, patterned and ordered in performance structures. They say, ‘What begins as a series of fragments is arranged in performance. Dramaturgy is an act of assemblage’.[8] The dramaturg and the archaeologist share an investigative and excavational vocabulary and both are concerned with assembling meaning. As Pearson and Shanks conclude, ‘Both archaeology and performance involve the documentation of practices and experiences’.[9] In the case of American Boy, the fragments are film clips and the process of ‘assemblage’ is the ‘storyboard’ that Hetain creates to find a narrative between them all. This process of assembling includes the ‘documentation’ of his visual and performance practice and his ‘experience’ attempting to assimilate these clips. However, just as archaeologists assemble meaning from what is left behind, so architects assemble meaning from structure in three-dimensional space. Turner and Behrndt point out ‘‘Dramaturgy’ need not only apply to dialogue. Architects have related it to the ways in which buildings suggest the possibility of a range of uses’.[10] They cite architect Bernard Tschumi’s description of ‘events organized and strategized by architecture’ to suggest we read architecture in dramaturgical terms.[11] They conclude, if ‘Tschumi looks at the performance of architecture the theatre dramaturg looks at the architecture of performance’.[12]

AM 1A dramaturg is frequently concerned with structure and the way in which a performance is both ‘organized and strategized’ within structures. For American Boy (2014), we focused on how the different film clips might be organised and drew up a sort of timeline and thematic rubric for how they might cross-fade. When working with Hetain, the process becomes more architectural when we start to find a structure that can accommodate this material. We are, in fact, drawing up a blueprint for how the performance might look. For example, in American Boy (2014), Hetain found a film clip of the actor Michael Caine describing what it is like being an actor moving from theatre to film in an acting masterclass. As his work uses multi-media, I suggested that he return to this material throughout the piece as a motif, each time changing his relationship to the audience by starting with direct address and then using a live camera to mediate the text via monitors. The Caine text becomes a way of engaging the audience in the narrative, whilst illustrating the difference between the live and the mediated performance. The Caine text is an architectural structure for the film clips that Hetain lyp-syncs and body-syncs. Yet it is also the keystone motif that thematically and conceptually links the different film clips. It uses the structure and device of film to frame different reflections on how film affects us. American Man was different in that Hetain worked more with fictional rather than found source material, satirising celebrity, misogynistic presidents, dystopian you-tubers, sexist MCs. The work collides sign language with martial arts with Michael Jackson moves, to create an ominous choreography, hinting at the uncertain future that is now our present.

Turner and Behrndt propose that; ‘The Dramaturg’s ‘toolkit’ for discussing dramaturgy often produces suggestions for ways of summarizing and encapsulating overall structures’.[13] I interviewed an architect to explore this concept further and he said: ‘When I design a building I am imagining the narrative of its use.’[14] We could perhaps argue there is a connection between architecture and the structure of a story. Cathy Turner studies the relationship between architecture and dramaturgy in her recently published book Dramaturgy and Architecture: Theatre, Utopia and the Built Environment (2015), which explores the dramaturgy of space.[15] Certainly when identifying the structure for American Man, we were considering it as a form of architecture to see how the story could be told. This is potentially a litmus test for why we might employ these different definitions. As Locascio suggests, when describing Bogart’s approach, the dramaturg is ‘a sort of litmus paper. I think this is analogous for the work the dramaturg does for the director or the ensemble as a whole’.[16]

The dramaturg always operates in this liminal space and often defines their own input, their own language, their own vocabulary, in lieu of a contract or job description that might be able to calibrate their mode of input. What is clear is that at different stages of the process, the dramaturg might play, or be contracted to play many different roles. It is a shifting role that, as Claire MacDonald concludes about dramaturgy, ‘… is a term in flux, a not-yet-settled word, a word that might even have the status of one of Raymond Williams’ keywords – words that are significant, but contested, words that are argued over. Words whose time is now’.[17] For example, when I worked with Hetain Patel on Be Like Water (2010), I found myself looking at video, text, set design and publicity copy and reflecting on how all of these might convey a sense of fluidity. I describe this as an ‘holistic dramaturgy’ or a ‘360 degree dramaturgy’, informing across all aspects of the process from inception to final delivery.

AM 3My contact with Hetain has been fluid too. Dialogue has happened in cafes, in tube trains, in rehearsal rooms, via email, via SMS, via Skype. After the premiere of American Man, I send him this text message: ‘Really felt temperature change in the room. Hard to ignore topicality. Even thumbs up now speaks of Trump’. It is this kind of immediate feedback that informs our dialogue. Action Hero suggests that ‘The dialogue happens between the work’,[18] whereas Goat Island would claim ‘The dialogue is the work’.[19] The dialogue is constantly shifting between contexts and tenses and can also take place in different languages, both literally, for example when Hetain speaks Mandarin in Be Like Water or Gujarati in Ten, American Boy and American Man. The practice of an outside eye sometimes approaches the practice of a translator. As Walter Benjamin said; ‘It is the task of the translator to release in his own language that pure language that is under the spell of another, to liberate the language imprisoned in a work in his re-creation of that work’.[20] For example, in American Man (2016), Hetain introduces himself to the audience speaking some kind of hybrid language of English and Gujarati which then becomes the opening lines of a track by Eminem. He translates himself, as dialect shifts from his Indian origin, to his Bolton roots, to his hip hop influences.

This is what Hetain does, from the playground of his childhood in Lancashire, to his Grandmother’s living room carpet, to galleries in the USA and India, to main stages in London. Shape-shifting, skin-shedding, liberating the language both of his British-born, Indian background and that of our shared memory of references from popular culture. It is interesting to see an audience leave his recent work, ticking off how many references they ‘got’, as they would on leaving the cinema, and perhaps the disturbing aftertaste of American Man comes from the way our memory of these references has been subverted, or replaced, by another darker, more uncomfortable version. This is particularly prescient at the moment, post-Brexit and post-Trump, and perhaps a wider question for satire, when our post-truth reality becomes so unpalatable, how do we still satirise it? As Hetain said in the post-show discussion at Sadler’s Wells: ‘I just want to turn up the volume of the identity debate’. His work is created in collaboration with a team of artists, but perhaps he is his own anchor man, keeping the work on course, navigating a route between the rocks and the whirlpool, sailing the mostly uncharted waters between disciplines, between cultures, between projects, always looking for the next way to scratch that itch. Maybe all I can do now the work is on tour, is remain an anchor point by reflecting on its original intention. This blog post is a tentative map of the territory. However, as Turner and Behrndt say: ‘Perhaps the dramaturg is a map-maker, but is nevertheless, like the other devisers, engaged in a journey of exploration’.[21]

[1] Michael Pinchbeck, Outside Eye Project blog [online] (3 November 2010)

<http://outsideeyeproject.wordpress.com/2011/10/03/dramaturgy-in-dialogue-hetain-patel/> [accessed 17 May 2012].

[2] Michael Pinchbeck, ‘The worship of detail, the detail of worship’, Dance Theatre Journal, 22.3, 5-10.

[3] Peter Barkworth, About Acting (with a Bit of Name-Dropping and a few Golden Rules) (London: Secker and Warburg, 1980), pp. 40-41.

[4] Michael Pinchbeck, Outside Eye Project blog [online] (3 November 2010)

<http://outsideeyeproject.wordpress.com/2011/10/03/dramaturgy-in-dialogue-hetain-patel/> [accessed 17 May 2012].

[5] Thomas Frank and Mark Waugh, We Love You: On Audiences (Frankfurt am Main: Revolver, 2005), 168.

[6] Michael Pinchbeck, Outside Eye Project blog [online] (3 November 2010) <https://outsideeyeproject.wordpress.com/2016/01/14/dramaturgy-in-dialogue-julia-locascio/> [accessed 10 December 2015].

[7] Mike Pearson and Michael Shanks, Theatre / Archaeology (Routledge: New York / London, 2001), p. 11.

[8] Ibid., p. 55.

[9] Ibid., p. 56.

[10] Cathy Turner and Synne Behrndt, Dramaturgy and Performance (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), p. 5.

[11] Ibid., p. 5.

[12] Ibid., p. 5.

[13] Ibid., pp. 5-6.

[14] Michael Pinchbeck, Outside Eye Project blog [online] (3 November 2010) <https://outsideeyeproject.wordpress.com/2012/03/23/dramaturgy-in-dialogue-matthew-letts/> [accessed 28 February 2016].

[15] Cathy Turner, Dramaturgy and Architecture: Theatre, Utopia and the Built Environment (London: Palgrave Macmillan UK, 2015).

[16] Michael Pinchbeck, Outside Eye Project blog [online] (3 November 2010) <https://outsideeyeproject.wordpress.com/2016/01/14/dramaturgy-in-dialogue-julia-locascio/> [accessed 10 December 2015].

[17] Claire MacDonald, ‘Conducting the flow: Dramaturgy and Writing’, Studies in Theatre and Performance, 30.1 (2010), 91-100.

[18] Michael Pinchbeck, Outside Eye Project blog [online] (3 November 2010) <http://outsideeyeproject.wordpress.com/2012/04/19/dramaturgy-in-dialogue-gemma-paintin/>

[accessed 17 May 2012].

[19] Michael Pinchbeck, ‘The worship of detail, the detail of worship’, Dance Theatre Journal, 22.3, 5-10.

[20] Walter Benjamin, Illuminations: Essays and Reflections (London: Pimlico, 1999).

[21] Cathy Turner and Synne Behrndt, Dramaturgy and Performance (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), p. 183.