Elliott Hayes Award 2023

Macro Dramaturgies of Care

The LMDA Elliott Hayes Award Acceptance Lecture

by David Harris, Jarkko Lehmus and Katalin Trencsényi

Notation for the readers:

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1, Introduction (David, Katalin, Jarkko)

DAVID: Thank you LMDA very much for honouring our work with this prestigious award. All three of us, David, Jarkko and Katalin, feel enormously grateful for this reward for Outstanding Achievement for Dramaturgy.

KATALIN: It makes us proud and happy to be acknowledged and we are humbled to join the line of eminent dramaturgs who have previously received this award. Thank you, it’s an honour to be part of that list of excellence.

JARKKO: It would have been wonderful to share the same physical space with you today and celebrate together – alas, it wasn’t possible for the three of us. So, instead, we asked three colleagues to represent us and deliver our speech. Hopefully, at the end of a stimulating conference and the gala dinner, there is still some room left for a ‘dessert’!

DAVID: Collaborating remotely is not an alien situation for the three of us, who worked between two countries (the United Kingdom and Finland) and three locations (Hastings - on the south coast of England, Helsinki and London). So, we co-wrote this speech the way we wrote the d’n Dramaturgs’ Contract Package – working together, from separate locations towards a shared goal to take this opportunity to offer you some food for thought in exchange for the Elliott Hayes Award. We promise to keep it light and sweet, yet nourishing.

2a, On macro dramaturgy and working processes (Katalin)

KATALIN: Behind every successful dramaturg – there are many stories of failure! (...)

As a dramaturg, researcher, and lecturer, I am often asked to run workshops for practitioners. There is one exercise I do, where I start by asking the participants to think about an artistic process they were involved in, in which things went wrong. Yes, when (some) things had failed. 

We’ll pause here for a moment and ask you to close your eyes and think of one such failure. [...] No, perhaps not the most traumatic one, just an average story of an artistic procedural failure. [...] You have no such stories? Lucky you! I want your job! [...] Or to have your capability to completely erase bad memories! [[...]] For most of us, there exist such stories, memories of unpleasant events, disappointments, stress, frustration, and perhaps even arguments. The more I search for the reason behind those failures, the more it crystallises for me that the three main causes of such problems - the three apocalyptic horsemen of flawed artistic processes - are: lack of time, lack of money and lack of communication.

Right now, I would only like to focus on the third one: lack of communication. To my mind, improving only on this could ameliorate considerably the quality of our working processes, perhaps even prevent the harm that may occur.

As strange as it may sound, the first result of such communication about a working process is a contract, where the working conditions are clarified and measures are put in place for damage limitation and hopefully, prevention. It is not a pre-created template to unilaterally force on the weaker party, nor is it an annoying bureaucracy to get quickly out of the way, nor a silly piece of paper to sign, nor something to not even bother to have. It is our first opportunity to engage in a meaningful dialogue with our collaborator/partner (organisation) in order to think through the process ahead of us together, mitigate the potential problems and arrive at conditions that would serve us and support the working process. [...]

“Are you aware of the things you do in order to deliver your artistic message that go against that message?” – this question was raised by an artist at a recent dramaturgy residency I was involved in the town of Aarhus in Denmark. In our race to the goal, of creating a product, what do we sacrifice on the journey? Perhaps it is time that we relax our grip on the outcome (the product, the success, the box office income), and examine the values reflected in our working processes. And it all starts with a good contract.

Working without one or accepting unacceptable conditions doesn’t only harm us and the process, but also has an impact on the field – it creates precedents. Precedents of harm, carelessness, or underpayment, and before we know it, this becomes the norm. 

A good contract is a document that shows that every aspect of the working process and potential failures have been thought about, and there are measures in place to try to fend them off, or if they happen, there is a plan, a mutual agreement on how to deal with them. A good contract is a pledge of care, a promise of good working processes.

These stories of when things go wrong and sometimes fall apart led me to widen the area of my dramaturgical thinking. To me, dramaturgy starts here: thinking about the working process. And I’m not alone in this.

The late Flemish dramaturg and thinker, Marianne Van Kerkhoven (who coined the term new dramaturgy in the 1990s) distinguished two (interlinked) areas of dramaturgy: ‘micro’ and ‘macro’ dramaturgy. While micro dramaturgy is “that zone, that structural circle, which is situated around a concrete production,” i.e., the dramaturgy of a piece, macro dramaturgy, on the other hand, “deals with the social relevance and function of theatre”. That is to say, macro dramaturgy focuses on the social role and responsibility of theatre as a public institution. Macro dramaturgy is, therefore, “the dramaturgical work through which the theatre gives shape to its social function”. For instance, notes Van Kerkhoven, it attempts to deal with such enquiries as: “What kind of threads connect the daily theatre work to a larger whole?”

One of these ‘threads’ is to bring our dramaturgical awareness to the working conditions within the field, since they affect the lives and livelihoods and mental well-being of those people who dedicate themselves to our field. A decent contract and recommended rates for dramaturgs seem to be a step in the right direction.

2b, Why was a contract needed? The importance of the dramaturgs’ contract (David)

DAVID: Over the past sixty years, dramaturgy in the UK has been a slowly emerging profession and still does not have a set of specific disciplines. At best, freelance dramaturgs are regarded as fellow theatre-making practitioners and have been dependent upon the goodwill of director and manager colleagues for the terms and conditions of their engagement and their fee. Regrettably, goodwill has on occasions led to exploitation in terms of hours worked and fee levels, and sometimes in terms of acknowledgement of their creative contribution. Dramaturgs (working in Britain) have had to learn the lesson that, as a freelancer with no recognised professional body for support, they are on their own. It is in this environment that dramaturgs needed to achieve recognition and acknowledgement for their expertise and secure fair terms of engagement.

Dramaturgs not employed by theatres or educational organisations have not been able to rely on any regulation of fees or working conditions. There have been some landmark court cases in the UK which have ensured that self-employed individuals or freelancers in other industries receive holiday pay, sick pay and pension contributions. Not so dramaturgs. These cases are mainly related to plumbers and cab drivers, members of what, in the UK, is known as the gig economy which has expanded exponentially in the last twenty years.

The Dramaturgs’ Network is not a trade union and is not able to negotiate collectively on behalf of dramaturgs with any individual organisation or with managers’ associations. As freelance dramaturgs are self-employed, an attempt to agree on fee rates could be deemed contrary to anti-competition legislation. Being self-employed means dramaturgs are businesses and agreeing not to compete on price with other businesses in the same field may be construed as anti-competitive. So, regulation intended to prevent large businesses forming cartels is also preventing dramaturgs agreeing on a fair fee for their work!

The journey

This ground-breaking contract package is the first-ever comprehensive contract specifically created for dramaturgs in the United Kingdom. It contains nine recommended practice documents designed to help freelance dramaturgs and producers create fairer and better-informed employment contracts. At the heart of this project is a desire to enhance the visibility of the dramaturg’s contribution by identifying the many concrete tasks that the role embraces. The creation of this package was a several-year-long process (initiated in 2004 but starting in earnest in 2015) and drew on the expertise of a wide range of employment and theatre professionals. It included meetings with representatives of other guilds, unions, and professional bodies of the field, enlightening them about the work of dramaturgs so that they might understand why, for instance, a slightly reworked playwright’s contract is not suitable for dramaturgs.

Over one thousand working hours were spent meticulously developing, checking and further honing all nine documents. Creating this comprehensive package has been a gargantuan task. It included research into legal issues, surveying data of the field, collecting sample contracts and comparing them, harvesting case studies, discussing various scenarios (things that can go wrong) during a production process, devising these legal documents, creating clauses for every possible scenario, devising a ground-breaking job description, and creating the accompanying user manuals.

The task schedules

The task schedules have rendered the contract unique. There are three extensive schedules specific to three separate strands of dramaturgy: new drama development, production dramaturgy and devised work. They form appendices to the contract and enable the dramaturg to pin down with the organisation engaging them exactly what tasks they will be expected to undertake. The tasks are also graded (as basic, standard and specialist); the greater number of tasks from the specialist group, the higher the fee. 

We know of no other creative contract which has a similar set of tasks that comprise a robust mechanism for fee calculation and clarifies the dramaturg’s engagement in detail, thereby avoiding ‘job creep’. Beth Blickers from APA Agency New York has described this concept as “ground-breaking”.

2c, Contracts as caring for the creative process and the people involved in it. (Jarkko)

JARKKO: Much has been written about using the term ‘to curate’ in new contexts outside of museums and the visual arts. When the art objects being cared for are performances created by people, what and who actually needs to be cared for, by whom, from when, until when, and how? These are pertinent questions for me as a dramaturg and a director of an arts organisation.

We, dramaturgs and creative professionals at large, often ask: “What does the work do?” When thinking of what a work of art does to the people experiencing it, a dramaturg most often thinks of the audience. Faced with the same question a manager equally often thinks of the bottom line. Both are important, and at the same time do not paint an entire picture of what our industry is doing. Caring for the audience and the bottom line can lead to forgetting to care about the very first people experiencing the work: the creative professionals creating it. What we should also be asking is: “What does doing the work do? What is it that we are actually doing to the world by this creative process and the work of art that is created during it?" Caring for the people that do the work is caring for the work itself and recognising its full effect on the world that it happens in.

Caring is work and work is quite often easier with appropriate tools. Alan Brown and Rebecca Ratzkin’s tool called ‘Arc of Engagement’ helps to visualise how audiences are creating unique experiences around a core artistic exchange. The arc consists of encountering the first information relating to the work of art, deciding and preparing to go to experience it, actually experiencing said work of art, processing the experience and the echoes that the experience leaves in our lives. Maybe the idea of this tool could be employed in thinking about the artistic process as well? The result could be an Arc of Creation, that would start from the initial idea, followed perhaps by developing the idea with a small creative team, fundraising or pitching, gathering the entire production crew, the bulk of the creative process, performing or launching, the team’s feedback sessions concluding the official process, and the echoes carried by the individuals that took part in the process. Contractual negotiations are important milestones on this arc.

My path into dramaturgy and management was guided by the situations encountered as a performer. Spending a quarter of a century in studios and stages in some thirty different countries offered a few good practices and a cornucopia of examples of how not to do things. Some related to working conditions, some to cultural policy and some to dramaturgical decisions that had to be made on the fly while on stage (again and again, and by all of the performers knowingly or unknowingly). Most of these issues could have been foreseen and avoided by proper planning and communication. Lack of planning and communication is lack of care.

This leads back to the original questions of what and who needs to be cared for, by whom, from when, until when, and how. Put simply, everyone involved in a creative process has a responsibility of caring for each other during the entire process. However, not everyone in a creative process is in an equal position of power. The unequal positions of power are especially evident in contractual negotiations. They are some of the critical points where the questions of care feature very prominently. A contract is not only a legal document, but also an important tool for fostering transparent and solution-oriented communication. Clear and well thought out contracts and contractual negotiations are a crucial part of aligning the multiple trajectories of the individual creatives arriving together to create a fruitful and healthy arc of creation. Contracts set the ground rules that should be able to be relied upon for the entire creative team to be able to concentrate on the actual task at hand: to freely, safely and happily create together something life-transforming.

3, Conclusion (David, Katalin, Jarkko)

DAVID: The pandemic has generated a tide of activism in the industry in the UK and beyond. 

KATALIN: As we are writing this speech in June 2023, teachers in the UK are preparing for a two day-strike in July, junior doctors and train drivers are balloting for new strikes, in order to have their voices heard, demanding better working conditions. In Mexico teachers are considering going on a general strike, in Canada, federal workers recently ended their strike, and in the United States, members of the Writers Guild of America have been on strike for nearly two months.

JARKKO: In Finland over the past year, technology industry workers, paper industry workers, transport workers, dock workers, truck drivers, healthcare workers and private sector social care workers have been striking.

KATALIN: These events point to structural socio-political issues and lack of care in many areas of our societies and are calling for change.

JARKKO: Our field also is in need of change – as we so painfully recognised during the pandemic.

DAVID: A new organisation, Freelancers Make Theatre Work, (a grass-root volunteer organisation that arose from freelance creatives who suddenly found themselves without work and compensation) produced a survey in 2021, which made the UK industry recognise that 70% of people in it are freelance. That’s 296 000 estimated jobs in the arts sector. Yet, the majority of performers, creatives, crew and managers are working without the security of permanent contracts. 

The survey is, at best, anecdotal evidence but it illustrates why fees, terms and conditions have been so unfair for so long. Paradoxically, many freelancers with transferable skills such as sound engineers, lighting designers and productions managers have left the industry and moved into events: a freelancer who designed the soundscape for a new immersive production of Twelfth Night might now be preparing the sound backing for the launch of a new consumer product. 

Dramaturgs had nowhere to go other than teaching or writing, which many were already doing. Our contract will not create opportunities but when those opportunities arise, it should ensure that they have fair fees, terms and conditions attached.

JARRKO: The vast majority of dramaturgical processes are undertaken by people called something else than a dramaturg. In an industry tight on money professional dramaturgs are a luxury commodity. In Finland, a sparsely populated speck of land on the northern edge of Europe, the percentage of freelancers on the creative field is similar to the UK. We do have a legally binding collective agreement for the entire theatre field, but the agreement is negotiated by the institutional theatres’ employers’ representatives and the employees’ unions. In other words: the few decide for the many. Dramaturgs are part of this collective agreement, but the variety of tasks that dramaturgs can and are employed to undertake are not recognised on a formal contractual level. Only last year a one-sentence mention of production dramaturgy was added to the collective agreement text describing work that is more akin to that of a literary manager of an institutional theatre. The Dramaturgs’ Network’s contractual package is a significant step towards recognising the depth and breadth of a dramaturg’s contribution to a creative process.

KATALIN: As a dramaturg, I believe in theatre’s role and responsibility as public service. This is a strong, critical function: questioning the deep structures within and around us. How can we bring awareness to the way we perceive the world we are part of? How do we recognise and question structures at an artistic, as well as societal level, that we collectively deem cannot be otherwise? How can we together create new dramaturgies that meaningfully respond to these questions? I am convinced that our dramaturgical tools can be successfully used to observe and communicate these and facilitate positive change on a micro and a macro level.

JARKKO: As dramaturgs we absolutely must, at every turn of our professional lives, critically and courageously help our fellow creative professionals to navigate towards leaving behind a better world than the one we found, one glorious theatrical success (or failure) at a time. This is not an easy task, but what is the use of aiming lower?

Hastings - Helsinki - London June 2023



David Harris worked as a stage manager and company manager before becoming a Company Secretary and an MBA. He was Business Manager at Company of Angels for nine years and Finance Manager at Told by an Idiot. He is now Business Manager for Simon Spencer Productions Ltd and co-producing the musical Starr! (Photo Credit: David Harris)

Jarkko Lehmus is the director of Cirko - Center for New Circus in Helsinki, Finland, and a freelance dramaturg. He has worked internationally both on and off the stage in over 30 countries. His experience ranges from physical theatre to neoclassical ballet and conceptual performance art to commercial television productions. (Photo Credit: Juukka Nuutinen)

Katalin Trencsényi is a dramaturg, theatre-maker, and researcher, working in the fields of contemporary theatre, dance and performance in the UK and internationally. She has edited and authored many books, including Dramaturgy in the Making (Bloomsbury, 2015). Currently, Katalin is working as a lecturer on the Comparative Dramaturgy and Performance Research programme at the University of the Arts Helsinki. (Photo Credit: Bálint Somlyó)

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