Thinking and Talking about Arts and Culture in Southeast Asia
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Asian Dramaturgs’ Network in Adelaide: Getting Messy to Make Sense

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By Kathy Rowland

(770 words, 5 minute read)

The Asian Dramaturgs’ Network, launched in April 2016 in Singapore by dance dramaturg Lim How Ngean, has quickly extended its regional footprint this year with meetings in Yokohama and Australia. Its Satellite Symposium in Adelaide, presented by Centre 42, brought Australian and Asian cultural practitioners into the same breathing space, to share, talk and exchange ideas.

By way of contextualising the symposium’s theme, Dramaturgies of the Social and Cultural, Lim’s welcome address asserted that dramaturgy goes beyond a single project, instead permeating life in ways that were disruptive and political. The opening keynote by David Pledger, the Founding Artistic Director of Not Yet It’s Difficult, made a robust case for the same. Citing the dehumanising conditions of late capitalism globally, and the impoverished political discourses in Australia, Pledger proposed that the practices of contemporary arts – its dramaturgies – be insinuated into the wider social and cultural spheres as a way to disrupt the ascendency of neo-liberalism, and safeguard democracy. Like Pledger, Charlene Rajendran, who presented the second keynote, pressed for an expanded application of dramaturgical thinking as “not merely about the making of performance and the aesthetic managing of performance texts, but the work of looking closely at the human condition, interrogating the socio-political practices that affect local and global expressions …”

David Pledger, the first keynote speaker at Asian Dramaturgs' Network Satellite Symposium 2017
David Pledger, the first keynote speaker
How Ngean, with Charlene Rajendran, the second keynote speaker

The idea of listening was a recurrent theme. Pledger introduced the term ‘body listening’, a way of “not only seeing and hearing but sensing” in the process of making work. Charlene Rajendran in turn identified ‘deep listening’ as an essential skill in dramaturgy (alongside being politically conscious and actively present). In the roundtable, “The Publics and the Arts”, Singaporean director Kok Heng Leun cited the concept of a ‘listening aesthetic’ as a principle in the works created by his company, Dramabox. Rachel Swain of Australian performance company, Marrugeku, described a way of making work marked by a watchfulness, which reversed the power of the artists presenting works to marginalised communities.

Both in theory and in practice, the idea of listening implies an intentional inversion that moves the dramaturg or the artist from subject position, to object position. Bearing in mind that the originating (European) function of the dramaturg was one predicated on having an opinion and having the power to express that opinion, the act of listening opens pathways towards equitable relationships along the art making and presenting food chain. Throughout the symposium, the notion of a single, embodied role – the dramaturg – imbued with authority and expertise, was emphatically displaced by an evolving set of processes – dramaturgies – that are dispersed, non-deterministic, open and ever evolving.

Shawn Chua
The first roundtable session, L-R: Lim How Ngean, Shawn Chua, Kok Heng Leun, Rachel Swain

The relationship between art making, power and the public was also an important point of discussion. Singaporean performer and researcher, Shawn Chua described how the state has contained certain forms and expressions it finds inconvenient, for example, Spell#7’s proposed walking tour of Little India Kindda Hot (2005), using strategies of space and legislature in Singapore. At the same time, heritage tours in Singapore use similar forms to market authenticity, nostalgia and audience agency, although these forms, by their very fictive nature offer a false performance of the real. In his presentation “Difference and Deference: Identity Politics & Illiberal Democracy”, Alfian Sa’at used case studies from Singapore theatre (Alin Mosbit’s Kosovo, 1993 and Ikan Cantik, 1997, Noor Effendy Ibrahim’s Ahmad, 1996 and Elangovan’s Talaq, 2000) to illustrate the difficulties of critiquing Islam, within the intersections of minority/majority communities, historical imperialism, authoritarianism and the global anti-Islam.

The second roundtable, L-R: How Ngean, Edwin Kemp Atrtrill, Alfian, Anette Shun Wah

Annette Shun Wah, writer and Executive Producer of the Contemporary Asian Australian Performance and Edwin Kemp Atrtrill, Artistic Director of ActNow Theatre, South Australia also spoke of the arts as a useful tool to dissect issues afflicting Australian society. Wah cut to the chase, saying that in Australia, difference is dealt with in terms of tolerance rather as a virtue. As a result, there were few authentic stories and characters staged, which impoverish the cultural and social identity of the nation. Kemp’s provocative statement, “Art is not real” echoed the valorisation of the imagination and play as essential aspects that dramaturgical practices could insert into contemporary discourses.

Dramaturgical practices are constantly evolving, shifting and revealing themselves in different spaces. Many of the strategies and practices raised by the speakers at the symposium have been in place for decades. The act of gathering them under the umbrella of dramaturgical practices – which seemed to be one of the preoccupations of the symposium – offered a way to frame, and speak about the practices, strategies, attitudes and ethical underpinnings of making art. It did, at times, feel as if the term was in danger of becoming so open and inclusive as to be emptied out of its meaning, in the way that curation, discourse or paradigm have become.

Final discussions

However, in this, only its third outing, the Asian Dramaturgs’ Network is clearly still in the process of becoming. Its objective is to create a network through which to examine dramaturgies’ regional antecedents, as well as to map practices on the ground and identify the naming norms of the same – none of which can be achieved without the kinds of deep, messy, sometimes meandering conversations that took place during this symposium.


The Asian Dramaturgs’ Network Satellite Symposium 2017 was held in Adelaide, Australia from 1 – 2 Oct 2017. It was presented by Centre 42 Singapore in association with the Australian Theatre Forum, and supported by OzAsia Festival and  National Arts Council, Singapore. Kathy Rowland’s trip to the ADN was supported by the National Arts Council, Singapore.

All images used are by courtesy of Centre 42.

Comments: 1

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  1. This is completely ridiculous and reveals theatre scholars, dramatists and practitioners’ insecurities of their relevance in broader society, one that privileges STEM disciplines. To apply dramaturgy to examining the social and cultural of every politics and society is what critical and cultural theory have attempted for decades, without the pretentious use of the term ‘dramaturgy’. Here, a distinct appropriation is distinct and much of the problem lies with the term ‘dramaturgy’ and dramaturgs themselves who essentially don’t know what they’re supposed to do in and out of the theatre. What exactly is dramaturgy in the theatrical discipline – constructing, making meaning, weaving together? Isn’t that what artists already do anyway? And how can one even speak about a ‘dramaturgy’ of social and cultural society then since a priori, that is what has always been done, accessed and understood by philosophy, sociology, anthropology, critical and cultural theory. This belief in ‘dramaturgy’ creating something new is utterly bullshit and only reveals the limitations of an incestuous community trying to stay relevant.