I think Roberta isn’t comfortable with the title ‘dramaturg’. I can see why: it invokes a certain image of a northern European woman in her 50s, maybe, with sharp clothes and a good notebook. It conjures a person with language as their preferred medium, someone who has perhaps stopped making work of their own, someone who writes and speaks more than she moves, probably someone older than the artists with whom they work. A silly trope, but I’ll go with it.
Roberta has some of these attributes – she’s super-stylish and has fine stationery, at least – but in most other ways she breaks this frame. She’s very much a choreographer in her own right, with a strong practice. Her current work, Brocade, is a powerful example of the best of British dance, with a cast of exceptional women performers enacting threads of connection through sophisticated and vigorous physical and aural forms. It’s her practice that makes me want to work with her: how she moves, and how she directs others to move, is what draws me as an audience member and drew me as a choreographer looking for support in my own project, Recreation. If anything, I fit the frame of a dramaturg more clearly: I am a fervent watcher and critiquer; I always have many questions; I operate well in the world of language and abstractions. Conversely, I needed Roberta’s skill as a physically-orientated artist, with a set of dancerly tools, to advance my own desire to focus on something that might be called the fleshiness of my work, the very body-ness. The movement. Something about Roberta’s work, and her suggestions and questions in the studio, are satisfyingly concrete. They look at the whole but draw down into the very tissues of the performers. This, I see now, is how she was working with me, too.
To get to some of these places the work had to be concrete, too. Far from the dramaturg whispering in the director’s ear, Roberta could only help me by working directly. Days before the work was to be previewed, I was totally stuck. The performers and I had been working on a set of processes that had become increasingly detailed and refined, but I couldn’t see them any more: I couldn’t work out their connections, their orders, their staging. I’d spent too long looking too hard, and my sensitivity had disappeared. Roberta sent me out of the studio one morning (and when I tried to come in, I was sent out again), and invited me back in to watch my own show, reorganised. It was refreshing for the performers, and for me, to feel and see the material anew, become resensitised to its values, to like it again. Ultimately I didn’t go with Roberta’s version, but it helped to shake the work of some of the limitations I had given it, and filled the studio, and me, with new energy to complete the show.
In this way, part of Roberta’s role was to just be a friend (we have been friends, on and off, for 25 years or so, so this was always going to be part of the deal). Her job was to follow the project and see how it needed caring for, needed help and support, and to work out ways to provide that. Sometimes it needed a brutal talking-to, and other times it needed a gentle hand-hold. Or, in another way: her job was to follow me and see how I needed caring for, needed help and support, and to work out ways to provide that. Sometimes I needed a brutal talking-to, and other times I needed a gentle hand-hold. It was crucial that Roberta not only came into the studio to see sharings, or that I sent her video: she could only support me by seeing how I work in the studio, and to talk to me about other options, particularly when I was stressed, tired and frightened of making something awful. She helped me by suggesting that I make a list of priorities, or a set of new structures, or work individually with the performers instead of always as a group. These things are sort of obvious, but not when you’re emotional and exhausted and overwhelmed, as I often am when I’m making. I think Roberta was so good at this not because she doesn’t get emotional or exhausted or overwhelmed when she’s directing a project, but because, if I may, I think she experiences all of these things. She encouraged me to delegate more, and more clearly, to take time for myself, to be judicious about how I expend my energy within and around the days’ work. She could draw on her own experience to offer me hints and tips to manage the work and manage myself.
Having Roberta work with me wasn’t just beneficial for this work. Continuing our friendship in this direction fortified my practice in ways that I’m sure will continue to resonate throughout my practice. We settled on the title Artistic Advisor (Dramaturgy) for programme notes and the like, but I reckon she’d agree when I write that a more accurate title would be Clever, Kind Friend.