Dramaturgy | Giselle Garcia

by Critical Asia

by Giselle Garcia, Dec. 2021】

A lot of times the dramaturg is actually like the mapmaker—they call it a cartographer. Cartography is an art—there’s an artistic process involved.

—Kok Heng Leun (Asian Dramaturgs Network)

Having been reflecting on the concept of space and dramaturgy for a few years, this quote sparked something in me when I joined the Asian Dramaturgs Network (ADN) event in Singapore in 2016. I found myself intrigued by the discussion of dramaturgy as cartography, learning much from my peers in the Asian region about their own practice. At first I thought that defining dramaturgy as a practice of mapping seems like it is articulating a practice steeped in the legacy of colonialism. After all, George Hill writes that mapping is colonialism’s “visual lexicon for communicating the explicit colonial fetish for discovery” (“Mapping as Colonial Technology: Africa and the Map”). And further, most of our backgrounds are rooted in western dramaturgical theories and histories, at least I can claim that mine is. If dramaturgy is a practice of mapping then it is also rooted in colonial technology in itself.

Is my dramaturgy a case of my own double consciousness? 

With this in mind, I started thinking about how I have always used Elinor Fuchs’s foundational text “EF’s Visit to a Small Planet” when working on the development of new plays. I suddenly realized that the process of discovering a new play is akin to discovering a new world. In this essay Fuchs identifies as an alien (with reference to E.T.) and she explicitly tells her readers to treat reading a play as if they were also an alien on a new planet. So here I am, thrilled to be landing on a new terrain, putting myself in reference to it, writing out notes and experiences in the margins of a playtext, annotations, questions, images, music: making sense of the palimpsestic layers of knots, re-mixes and anachronism. We seek to save it, to birth it, to give it permission to live. We ask ourselves,  “Why this story now? Why is this planet important to map?” 

Is this not an act of colonial fetish for discovery?

On the other hand, ADN utilizes the concept of geography to explore and examine Asian dramaturgical practice—mapping it—as an emancipatory act that takes ownership of a practice generally accepted to be German in origin. Below is a transcript of their Padlet page (Asian Dramaturgs Network):

We’re trying to map dramaturgy and dramaturgical practices in the Asia region (and beyond)! Instructions: (1) Click the plus sign on the top-right and drop a pin in your location. (2) Let us know what ‘dramaturgy’ is called in your local language, with a brief explanation of what it means. (3) (Optional) Write a bit about a dramaturgical practice!

Mapping Asian dramaturgs into the history of dramaturgy is important to recognize, but it also poses questions about the framework: How do we then map practices and geographies that resist colonial mapping? Grids, lines, urban and cultural centers, pyramids and the well-made play? Is cartography still the appropriate framework for understanding dramaturgy?

Following the historical development of mapping and geography from an ontological and epistemological perspective, then yes, perhaps dramaturgy is more akin to a spatially informed philosophical practice than I initially thought. I find myself still convinced by Martin Dodge, Rob Kitchin, and Chris Perkins’s propositions in Rethinking Maps about the way we conceptualize cartography. Since the western world’s late middle ages, maps were produced for navigational purposes and regulating property ownership, and until the 1950s in the United States, was a development associated with a Cartesian knowledge development framework (Dodge et. al 6). Maps then moved from representation tools to communication tools. Prior to this, however, maps were sought to be scientifically evidenced truth documents; representing a world as it is with a known degree of precision. Cartography as an academic and scientific pursuit then largely consisted of theorizing how best to represent and communicate that truth. This however, waned by the 1980s when the problems arising from single universal views changed: map users could themselves create their own maps. 

Since the 1980s, the study of maps has adopted Foucault’s social constructivist critique and led to moving away from maps as representations into a post-representational cartography. Dodge et al. divide these into four categories: maps as inscriptions, maps as propositions, maps as immutable mobiles and actants, and finally, maps as practices. Dodge et al. cite John Pickles when he argues for a “post-representational cartography that understands maps not as mirrors of nature, but as producers of nature” (15). It is a fusion of denotation and connotation, which makes maps an interpretable text: maps as inscriptions are those that can be read semiotically. The interpretation of signs inevitably contain ideologies, and are recognizable social constructions of the way we view the world. Focusing on the construction of meaning led to what Denis Wood and John Fels called a “cognitive cartographics”: maps as propositions of meaning that inform action (17). In the late 1980s, Latour argued the maps could still be a universal scientific practice enabling us to know the world, an immutable concept that enabled the illusion of power leading to exploration, trade and colonialism. However, the quest to understand why we cling to the concept of a map’s immutability inevitably leads us to understanding Actor Network Theory (ANT). ANT recognizes the contextual networks of people, texts, objects and money that shifts the focus to how it is produced and how it produces the world in turn (19). Maps as practices are then cartographies that recognize instability of a map as it focuses on relational practices instead of unified representations. They are constellations of ongoing processes (26).

The focus on relational context is arguably also the heart of dramaturgical practice and is a powerful concept for reclaiming Asian cartography and developing our own dramaturgy. Asian cartographic practice has been relegated to a specialist account of mapping history and so is not present in Dodge, Kitchin and Perkins’s propositions but have no less been important in the ways in which Asia conceives itself. In Cartography in the Traditional East and Southeast Asian Societies, J.B. Harley and David Woodward claim that their work “represents a major effort toward righting an imbalance in previous accounts of the history of cartography, an imbalance usually tilted toward the achievements of Mediterranean and western Europe . . . where ancient artifacts of Asian maps were curiosities of antiquarian diversions treated as ‘exotic’” (843). ADN’s proposition of mapping Asian dramaturgy is then perhaps a speech act for reclaiming a dramaturgy that has been previously exoticized and Othered in western institutions (i.e., the Natyasastra) to one that views dramaturgical mapping as a set of cultural practices that focus on contemporary contexts that shape global storytelling. This aligns with Kuan-Hsing Chen’s work in Asia as Method where he articulates that Asia is “multiplying frames of references in our subjectivity and worldview” because of the multifarious ways Asian histories and cultures  also acknowledge how deeply rooted the West is in Asian subjectivity (223). 

If maps are a way of making sense of the world, then perhaps as dramaturgs and cultural cartographers, we need to make sure that we actually sense the world. It is a spatial and phenomenological practice of understanding how context is shaped, and how it in turn, shapes us. Perhaps locating a practice anywhere is really about locating ourselves and our ethics. The challenge then is how do we map uncharted territories, stories and performances without colonizing it ourselves? Dramaturgy as a prescriptive notion of the ‘right’ way to stage a play or structure a story is something I am constantly unlearning in my contemporary practice, the same way maps as Cartesian truths were once artifacts of a truth we wanted to believe. Perhaps then dramaturgy as mapping is really just another way of making sense of a world. By shifting the knowledge of mapping as a set of relational cultural practices in context, dramaturgs are re-orienting the way we sense the global world as process and practice. This sounds a lot like the kind of dramaturgy Asia is charting.

Giselle Garcia, University of West London, UK


Asian Dramaturgs Network. ADN Re/View Vol. 1. Centre 42, 2021. http://www.asiandramaturgs.com/resources/publications/review Accessed 17 December 2022.

Chen, Kuan-Hsing. Asia as Method: Toward Deimperialisation. Duke UP, 2010.

Dodge, Martin, Rob Kitchin, and Chris Perkins, editors. Rethinking Maps: New Frontiers in Cartographic Theory. Routledge, 2009.

Fuchs, Elinor. “EFs Visit to a Small Planet: Some Questions to Ask a Play.” The Routledge Companion to Dramaturgy, edited by Magda Romanska, Routledge, 2015, pp. 403-407.

Harley, J.B. and David Woodward, editors. The History of Cartography: Cartography in the Traditional East and Southeast Asian  Societies, Vol. 2, Book 2. U of Chicago P, 1994.

Hill, George. “Mapping as Colonial Technology: Africa and the Map.” Cambridge Globalist, 2020. https://cambridgeglobalist.org/2020/07/31/mapping-as-a-colonial-technology-africa-and-the-map Accessed 17 December 2022.

You may also like

Leave a Comment