Working towards clarity – excerpts from a mentoring process for dramaturg geeks








Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus.

Excerpts from a mentoring email exchange between Kelina Gotman and Kaite O’Reilly.

I was recently asked to interact and support librettist and director Kelina Gotman on an innovative interdisciplinary project she is making with composer Steve Potter for London Sinfonietta’s Blue Touch Paper: 100 Combat Troupes.

On 19th Februry 2012, Kelina first sent me her draft libretto and some questions in an email she wanted engagement with – queries about structure and narrative. This began what I felt was a fascinating exchange, a process of mentoring where, through our interactions, Kelina clarified the concepts, dramaturgy, and intentions of the piece. By seeking my involvement – a stranger she had not yet met – Kelina had in effect decided to externalise her thoughts and creative process, responding to my queries and opening up in a remarkably fearless, and imaginative way. Her emerging thought processes became transparent; her rough initial explanatory notes consolidated into clear intentions and key concepts, culminating in the Preliminary Notes on her script, which I have included towards the end of this post.

Looking back over the development of her ideas and the forming of her thoughts in our emails, I felt I had participated in a wonderfully rich and rewarding exchange – and one which I thought might be of interest to those engaged with process and dramaturgy, too – so this is a one-off post, documenting a process, especially for the dramaturg geeks.

Kelina and I met twice, and I met her collaborator, composer Steve Potter, once over the past two months.  The following are excerpts from Kelina and my private email exchanges on dramaturgy and meaning – they were never intended for public scrutiny, but I have received Kelina’s permission in reproducing them here.

The emails are slightly edited (identified by a series of dots), but otherwise I have not rewritten anything with a view for publication, nor have I changed the layout, spelling, nor corrected any typos. The occasional word has been inserted [like this, in square brackets] to assist comprehension and there is a ‘dialogue’ where I inserted my responses to Kelina’s questions into her original emails, using capital letters or a different font.

None of Kelina’s script (apart from her preliminary notes) is reproduced here, just our email exchange. 100 Combat Troupes, as part of Blue Touch Paper, will be previewed on Wednesday 16 May from 7.30 at Village Underground, Shoreditch, London.

100 Combat Troupes   

Music by Steve Potter

Libretto by Kélina Gotman

 First full exchange by email – initial thoughts and queries from Kelina (KG) to Kaite O’Reilly (KOR) on her draft of 100 Combat Troupes:  9th February 2012.

 KG:   Here is some of what I’m thinking about / what I would love to talk about and look at when we meet:

1.  Structurally, flow / narrative (or conscious lack thereof, in the case of narrative): we have developed an episodic structure, with virtually no narrative through line, though there is some sense of characters, and they do evolve…. But is the piece legible? Accessible? An episodic structure, with juxtaposition of scene-worlds, can create a wonderful sense of chaos and ‘sense’ emerging out of non-sense. If it is pulled off well- it approaches dream logic; but if not, it just loses people. I hope we can achieve the former, not the latter. So perhaps we can think about this in terms of the script and mise en scene.

2. Structurally/framing:…. you may have read in the press release that we were working with a Borges story (‘The Circular Ruins’), but transforming the Dreamer into a cast of revolutionaries, working together to dream up other possible worlds. This has sort of receded- or shifted- yet I think it remains formally significant, in terms of a framing device. We currently have the musicians standing in as these dreamer/revolutionaries, though nothing indicates it formally in a very explicit way…. I realised as if a thunderbolt had hit me that actually we were staging not so much an episodic structure as a denkbild (thought-image), specifically the Angelus Novus that [Walter] Benjamin describes, after the painting of the same name by Paul Klee. You’re probably familiar with it, but basically it’s the angel of history being blown inexorably into the future, with its back to it, looking at all the rubble of history, helplessly (and in despair). In a way, what we have is – in fact – not so much an episodic structure as a series of flashes- these scenes all go by very, very quickly- of history, and dreams. The angel actually emerges in the last scenes. I’m not interested in saying this explicitly- perhaps it’s just a figure we’re working with- but this notion of the explosive constellation at the end of time…. operates slightly differently from the episodic form… So, is the overall frame clear enough, or are the foundations clear enough at least on our end for the whirl of text and image to be anchored (and thus for the audience to enjoy this, even if they don’t understand what they’re enjoying exactly, and puzzle over it after- which I think is a great response to any work) (I’d much rather the audience feel stimulated, excited, and puzzled, as if they couldn’t put their finger on what they had seen, than to offer something simple and digestible on first watch…).

3) Moral/political ambivalence: Another thing we’ve gone for is an ambivalent sense as to the value of this ‘dreaming’. To a large extent, of course the take-home message is: dream! We need to dream. This is the year of Occupy, and the decade of the Arab Spring. Crony capitalism won’t go on forever. What do we want next? But rather than look just at political alternatives, we’re going the whole way and juxtaposing this with wackier worlds, nonsense worlds- also politically to say, these are important too. We need to remain playful. Joyce and Lewis Carroll are part of this world too (art needs to be funded, etc.) (this is also a political stance)…. Revolutions also produce dictatorships; technicolor dreaming in fantasyland also produces Disney, which in its sickliest version wrecks lives through too much disconnection with ‘reality’. We’re interested in these contradictions.…. it’s the ambivalence we want to inhabit… How do we make this moral complexity productive, rather than just confusing? The idea is that there are no simple answers… and we should be able to be okay with this…

KOR’s email to Kelina. 5th March 2012, after a face to face meeting.

 KOR: ….I think some of the confusions I experienced were based on the draft nature of the text – ie, as director and writer, perhaps you were writing in shorthand as you had a strong sense of how each moment might be realised in your mind – ensuring this information is on the page may ensure misunderstandings don’t occur again and may help clarify themes, actions, motifs, and aesthetics both for you and your collaborators.

I love the truth in the old EM Forster quote – ‘how do I know what I think until I hear what I say?’ I think it was very revealing, the distance between what you described [when we met] in response to my query of themes and intentions of the work, and what’s actually on the page. Sometimes when in the process, it takes a while for everything to co-exist in the same time – and for the lingering ghosts of ideas to quit or be excised from the stage.

I think looking at each structure as an entity in itself, then scrutinising what the content is, how that might be read, plus the meaning it takes on when in juxtaposition with the other structures and the order in which they appear and therefore the whole – is essential.

I am also curious about the music, its tempo-rhythm, quality, energy, content and ‘sound’ and the impact this will have on the scenes. In many ways I was commenting on a fragment –

 Email interaction – KOR’s inserted responses into Kelina’s email. 12th March 2012

KG:   …..Narrative/not-narrative. I was really struck by the extent to which you were finding narrative in there, and this has gotten me to rethink how to create radical polyvocality/push at the limits of incoherence to arrive at something that still is cogent, precisely as multi-perspectival. What I mean is that I want to push further in the direction of mood/different worlds, so that we’re not seeing narrative through lines, but rather a juxtaposition of worlds, as we had intended. (Having just seen the Cage Songbooks at Café Oto last night, I’m even more thinking about how to create these slightly anarchic multiple perspectives/non-hierarchical, but still with some coherence- that’s the challenge). What I’ve also realised is that this is not to discount the presence of ‘characters’ in these worlds, only that we need to reinforce the fact that they’re same actors, different people across these worlds. Like I said verbally, I think this will be greatly aided by the fact that they’ll radically be changing their voice and body masks, but I’ll need to really emphasise that, and have it be clear in the script.

KOR:   GREAT! I agree, it’s clarifying the DIFFERENCE between the figures/characters per ‘world’ – I’m doing similar with a show I’m doing for Sheffield Crucible – doubling and tripling – showing it is the same 4 PERFORMERS, but different ‘characters’. i think the change of body mask/voice will be essential – that was not clear in the draft I saw and so it invited the notion of narrative/journey of ONE figure/character throughout  – that’s what I mentioned re-[getting an undesired sense of] progression/continuous action.

I worked with a neuroscientist on my play about the brain – The Almond and the Seahorse – and he couldn’t emphasise enough that we are hot-wired for narrative and our brains will always try to find links, patterns and logic in even the most fragmented situations…. There are experiments where people are given a few tiny fragments and yet the brain/imagination will draw in something that is coherent and has a unity. Grotowski always said the montage exists in the eye of the audience – and of course that’s true. It’s, ironically, the balance between showing enough illogic to prevent a linear narrative (as the brain will look for narrative and connections), but also ensure it’s not so abstract as to irritate the audience and make them feel it’s ‘non-sense’ they’re witnessing…. There needs to be that pleasure and satisfaction, too….

KG: Frame: we’ve decided that really this piece is staging the Benjamin Angelus Novus, and so to just forget all this stuff about Borges, and stop trying to tell that story as background-to-where-we-got-now. I need to relearn to tell the story as a denkbild, and as the angel of history looking back over the rubble of history, being blown inexorably into the future. And that rubble is contemporary market capitalism, so the rubbish is definitely junk from the marketplace. And the musicians are the 1%, in grey suits, with ashen faces. …Will also cut the Beckett reference, which is unnecessary. But yes, in a way we’re streamlining the story/structure: this is just Benjamin/angelus novus, and we’re going to try to tighten up the mise en scene.

KOR: … Fantastic…

 Exchange by email – 14th March 2012.  Capitals are by KOR, inserted as responses into Kelina’s original email:


KG: …I’m not sure this is helpful as an email. I should really rewrite the script – or just revise, making all these things more clear.

1. The play is enacting Benjamin’s figure of the angelus novus.

2. It is a constellation of image fragments, depicting scenes from the last couple hundred years; they should be jarring, discontinuous, but also funny, critical, and evocative of tropes from popular and political culture (feminist critique in Disney sequence, eco-critique in cereal box sequence, etc.).

3. The audience experience (if there is such- of course they’ll all experienced this differently) is a massive shock to the system/don’t know what hit them/bordering on overwhelming/baffling/hilarious, but that’s also what we’re interested in… through that mess, shafts of light, that reconfigure how they see themselves in a world… yes… gone mad (because our world has gone mad/is mad, and it’s healthy to see it that way sometimes, even if in Technicolor/exaggerated and sped-up form).


KG:…Um.. signing out for now… I really hope this is not more confusing than before. It feels clearer in my head! Will send updated script as soon as I can… have been really swamped…


Kelina’s preliminary note for collaborators, extracted from the new, revised draft after our second face to face meeting, with Steve Potter.  1st April 2012.

 KG: From script: Preliminary note about the text and mise en scène: This piece stages a denkbild, or “thought-image”: that of the Angelus Novus, or Angel of History, painted by Paul Klee and described by Walter Benjamin in his “Theses on the Philosophy of History.” The Angel of History is being blown inexorably into the future, facing the past with horror. He can do nothing of the detritus spread out before him at his feet, which he witnesses in flashes. This is a constellation, a time fragmented, exploded, outside time: it is messianic, perhaps – time in which (here) all of modernity and capitalism is exploded, in shards. We stand in and outside of it simultaneously, from a vantage point that is estranged, but caught; trapped, but lucid.

The scenes, thus, operate as shards in this explosive constellation: they may partake of a single world, but they are discontinuous. These are not characters whose trajectories we follow, but personages woven in and out of disparate scenes, coexisting, bleeding or blending in and out of one another, without constancy, and without a singular narrative through line. This is a radically polyphonic universe: voice and body masks indicate shifts in the quality or mode of delivery from scene to scene, which change pitch, tone and hue. Some scenes are humorous, even hysterical; others are more sombre, or tranquil. All pass by so quickly that the audience hardly has the occasion to process what has happened before we move onto the next. Yet through this constellation, and these flashes, a sense of powerful alienation emerges, estranging these fragments of modern capitalist life: we see desperate dreams of Disney princesses; eco dreams of houses built romantically from scratch. Anarchism flashes by as a possibly viable alternative, before being tossed into a psychedelic dreamscape of hallucinogenic proportions: speed leads to exhaustion, which leads to insomnia and manic desires – a conquering Adam’s redrawing the rivers and oceans of the world – before all this folds into the messianic hum of quiet laughter, old jokes, and a ghostly forgetting: not quite redemption, but a sense of community or commonality that is oddly, uncannily familiar…. 

KOR’s email response to the revised draft. 1st April 2012:

KOR:  I think there is much more clarity here – I do think some of the very good introduction you have written [above] would be useful as a programme note – you don’t need much, just that clarification of thought-image, shards of discontinuous exploded world(s) and not ‘characters’ with linear consequential action, but figures woven in throughout…

I think there reaches a point where we go ‘enough on paper – we need to see it, now’ – and I feel we’re virtually there. I think it’s very ambitious, what you set out to do (especially with our hot-wired for narrative brains!) and I think that multi-vocal, fragmented thought-image you wanted to create is certainly in existence in these few pages – the concept is clear, the work of the actors and musicians defined – time to flesh it!

…I think the concept is much clearer, as is the aesthetic and ‘rules’ of the worlds you are creating and getting your figures to inhabit, be it briefly. I think the clarity of images and what you are communicating will be obvious once you start rehearsals.

My only thoughts when we met were

1) about linking the Angelus Novus to the singer on her stage truck…. You may want to decide how pronounced or subtle that is once you start getting the work ‘up’

2) drawing out that link between the central concept/image (Angelus Novus) and the quote from Marx  [“The social revolution […] cannot draw its poetry from the past, but only from the future. It cannot begin with itself before it has stripped off all superstition in regard to the past.”] – you’ve started to pull that out more, and it’s pleasing to me – question is, whether you need to tweak or echo or develop that connection more in the end…

I also wonder if you want to be more explicit (as opposed to putting it in brackets!) when you refer obliquely to the 99% and Occupy Wall Street/St Pauls, etc movement. If it’s important that reference is understood and received by the audience, you may need to make the reference precise. Your scenes are dystopias and not necessarily this world we inhabit now – if a figure refers to political activity/peaceful social disobedience and you want the audience to know this is referring to the occupy movement, you need to make it explicit, as the audience may assume you are referring to an imaginary world. If this isn’t important, no matter – but if you really want the audience to get that reference, you have to say so.

One other thought is probably unnecessary to state, as you are also director – but as a writer, I would never leave responsibility of an important moment to an actor to have to improvise…. You need to script that – even if roughly, otherwise you’re putting a lot on the actor (even if you are also directing the performer)… To a strict dramaturg (which I can often be), this looks like the writer copping out of an important moment! I often pull people up on this – when the stage directions tell us how scary or amazing this improvised or rehearsed moment will be…. As strict dramaturg, I would say if this involves language and text, a script should be provided for the actor to improvise or jump off from – so I think you have a little bit of extra work to do here!

That aside, I wish you all the best with this. I’ve really enjoyed our short but stimulating interaction – I will also write something at some point on my blog, but will run it by you first, to get your blessing before putting it in public domain.

Kelina’s response to KOR’s edited email exchange as possible blog post. 4th April 2012:

KG: Hi, this is GREAT! It is so great to see the conversation traced… as narrative (of course, now am conscious of a different ‘voice’- the voice that becomes the blog post… but no matter)… You have my blessing.

Thanks again for such a stimulating set of meetings and exchanges. I’ve learned hugely, and hope dearly that we’ll continue to be in touch!

2 responses to “Working towards clarity – excerpts from a mentoring process for dramaturg geeks

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