The creative processes that precede the actual staging of a theatre piece have received scarce scholarly attention, even though they are essential to both the appearance and perception of a play. The Didascalic Imagination is a research project that aims to gain further insight into those preparatory stages of a production by focusing on the changing role of the director’s notebook or the Regiebuch in contemporary theatre.
The Didascalic Imagination derives its title from the term “didascalia.” In its original meaning, didascalia refers to the parenthetical comments added by the playwright to instruct actors on how to perform and stage the piece (Pavis 1998, 267). Yet the scope of these didascalia substantially broadened from the moment the director emerged as a separate function in theatrical practice. Thus, from the beginning of the twentieth century onwards, didascalia started to include also stage directions that deviate from the original text by giving it an extra interpretative dimension that bears the director’s signature. As such, didascalia became a distinctive feature of the director’s notebook or the Regiebuch, which generally contains the dramatic text accompanied by the notes written by the director in the margins of the script. In this respect, however, the Regiebuch is often regarded as a mere supplement to the actual theatre text. Almuth Grésillon’s description of didascalia as a form of “paratext” (1996) reflects well the status commonly assigned to such notes: they are literally situated on the side of the script, which retains its primordial importance. Such notes, it can be argued, are considered parasites that infect the text with the ideas and revisions of the director.
Against this historical background, the research project The Didascalic Imagination proposes to expand the conventional understanding of the Regiebuch. It starts from the observation that, in contemporary theatre, the traditional functions and material forms of the director’s notebook – together with the didascalia featured in it – have radically changed. Whereas the classical Regiebuch still stands in service of the dramatic text, more recent versions of what we call notebooks (in the broadest sense of the word) have become autonomous and crucial instruments for directors who are at the forefront of what Hans-Thies Lehmann has famously called “postdramatic theatre” (1999). As a general label, postdramatic theatre marks the demise of the privileged status of the dramatic text, which now functions as only one out of many elements for artistic creation. This development is clearly reflected in the notebooks of contemporary directors who are known for their interdisciplinary background as well as their interest in the new possibilities offered by the emergence of new media. The documents that chart their creative processes are no longer restricted to the size of the page and assume instead a great variety of forms, media, and techniques.
These changes not only demand an expanded understanding of the notebook, but also a thorough inquiry into the correlations between these material traces and the actual performances. This dual question is what The Didascalic Imagination aims to explore.
The Didascalic Imagination calls for an increased attention to directors’ notebooks (in the expanded sense outlined above) by foregrounding them as invaluable, though often overlooked, resources that provide crucial insights into the genesis of contemporary theatre. In this respect, the research project aligns itself with the emerging field of the genetic study of performance.
Only recently, theatre studies started to catch up with the relatively well-established tradition of genetic research in literary studies. In contrast to the various examinations of manuscripts of authors such as James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, or Franz Kafka (e.g., Van Hulle 2004), theatre scholars have been rather neglectful of the information that resides in the documents generated during artistic creation, not the least because the focus primarily lies on the works as they are presented on stage. Prominent theatre theorists as Josette Féral (2008) and Almuth Grésillon (2006), however, have argued that, in order to understand what a certain theatre performance aims to communicate or convey, one also needs to take into account those creative processes as well as the various documentary traces that give shape to its form and content.
Despite the growing interest in the genetics of performance, the focus tends to remain on the textual aspects of these so-called pre-performance documents, without regard of their inherently performative nature (see, for instance, Grésillon and Thomasseau 2005). The Didascalic Imagination, on the other hand, aims to examine how directors’ notebooks contain the seeds of theatrical production, or how they co-constitute a performance rather than being merely representational documents that show how a particular piece came into being. Consequently, one of the primary objectives of the research is to scrutinize how renewed forms of the Regiebuch correlate with the postdramatic aesthetics as outlined by Lehmann.
The Didascalic Imagination intends to map out a spectrum of contemporary notebooks by focusing on a carefully selected range of leading directors who have each developed a distinct way of creating theatre. These directors include: Guy Cassiers, Romeo Castellucci, Jan Fabre, Heiner Goebbels, Jan Lauwers, Luc Perceval, Ivo van Hove, and Robert Wilson (see our profile page for more detailed information on each of these directors). The choice for these directors is informed by the specific creative methods that characterize their artistic practice and which also result in highly different forms of notebooks. By means of this corpus, the research project aims to develop a detailed, yet not exhaustive, overview of the manner in which the director’s notebook is currently being re-imagined.
To this end, the team of researchers follows a three-pronged approach that includes (i) archival research, (ii) in-depth interviews, and (iii) close analyses of notebooks and performances.
(i) Directors’ notes are generally private documents that are only sporadically shared with larger audiences. Of the artists that comprise the corpus of this research project, only Romeo Castellucci, Jan Fabre, and Robert Wilson have published or exhibited some of their preparatory notes or drawings. In close collaboration with the directors, The Didascalic Imagination aspires to open up these rich collections of genetic documents that often have a striking pictorial and aesthetic quality of their own. The aim of the archival research, however, is not so much to develop comprehensive inventories of the artists’ notebooks, but rather to make representative selections that afford insight into the main methods of creation that characterize each director’s distinct way of working.
(ii) A crucial objective of The Didascalic Imagination is to acquire insight into the complex interactions between a director, his notebooks, and the other participants of the rehearsal process. To this end, the team of researchers conducts a series of in-depth interviews with each of the directors and, if relevant, with their closest collaborators. These interviews are explicitly document-based: a concrete sample of the notebooks serves as the impetus for a conversation in which the relation between the notes and the rehearsal process is discussed. In this manner, the research project is able to obtain first-hand information on both the role and forms of the notebook in the artistic practice of the directors under scrutiny.
(iii) Using the information from the interviews, the analysis of the collected documents takes as its general starting point the observation of German dance theorist Franz Cramer who asks “whether art can ever be translated into another form, another medium?” (2007). Contemporary versions of the notebook are based on a crucially different materiality and mediality (drawing, writing, scores, video) than the performances they help originate. Cramer’s remark astutely questions the relationship between these different media. How do contemporary rehearsal documents relate to, and help bring into existence, the rhythmical and visual structures that are particular to a theatrical production? The approach proposed by Josette Féral may be useful here: the director’s notes make visible the “decision process” of a given production, i.e., the routes that were explored during rehearsals but not realized in the final production (2008). The third and final objective is thus to clarify the question of translation or intermedial transposition, and, by doing so, to shed light on the relation between the complex roadmap of the sketchbook/notebook, and the resulting musicality and visuality of the production that was finally decided on. This obviously requires not only theoretical research, but also an extensive practice-based component.
Cramer, Franz Anton (2007) (Capturing Intention): Documentation, analysis and notation research based on the work of Emio Greco | PC. Amsterdam: Emio Greco | PC & Amsterdamse Hogeschool voor de Kunsten.
Féral, Josette (2008) ‘Towards a Genetic Study of Performance: Take 2’, Theatre Research International 33.3: 223-233.
Grésillon, Almuth (1996) ‘La double contrainte: Texte et scène dans la genèse théâtrale.’ ITEM online 27 Nov. 2006.
Grésillon, Almuth and Jean-Marie Thomasseau (2005) ‘Scènes de genèses théâtrales’, Genesis, 26: 19-34.
Lehmann, Hans-Thies (1999) Postdramatisches Theater. Frankfurt: Verlag der Autoren.
Pavis, Patrice (1998) Dictionary of the Theatre: Terms, Concepts, and Analysis. Translated by Christine Shantz. Toronto and Buffalo: University of Toronto Press.
Van Hulle, Dirk (2004) Textual Awareness: A Genetic Study of Late Manuscripts by Joyce, Proust, and Mann. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.