The Perfect Jenga Tower - the dramaturgy of Thrive

People often say that if you can’t explain what you do to a small child then you don’t have a real job – I have this problem a lot as a dramaturg. Dramaturgy is a sort of “story-science” for theatre – an understanding of the right amounts of a recipe to put into a production to make sure it’s just right and that the audience can follow what’s happening without it being spoonfed to them in really obvious ways. It’s a role where you double up too, a mixture of midwife-and-mechanic: assisting in the “birthing” of a project (although the author/playwright/deviser retaining the “parental rights”) and helping out to make sure things are running smoothly “under the bonnet” after that – if you’ll allow the mixing of the metaphors. It’s this role that I’ve been doing on Zest’s new show, Thrive.

If you’ve seen work by Zest before you’ll know that their style is very much their own; it’s one which allows you to explore the set and make your own journey through the play. This, in previous incarnations, has been done through some extra nifty sound design and real attention to how the show is constructed and the audience are guided through the world of the play (the latter being a key dramaturgical skill). With Thrive however the headphones from previous shows are gone and the audience follow three distinct characters, each with their own distinct individual and personal internal world – alongside the shared world of their school, home and social lives! This is quite some logistical and story-telling feat when you allow an audience to roam in the theatre space rather than be sat in their chair for the 60 minutes of the show! You can hang out with Raph and add to his lyrics as he is MC-ing, play Jenga with Ollie or tag the walls of the theatre in spray paint with Ashleigh. To make this work, however, and to ensure that no matter where you watched the show from or where you interacted with the space or the characters, you’d follow the story and see the three young people affected by the death of their friend work through their grief and grow as stronger people, to thrive.

We did this using dramaturgy, which is a fancy way of saying we found techniques which helped us plot the route taken by the characters and made sure that there were certain points that in the storytelling we hit so as to make sure central development points were clear to an audience. We did this firstly through creating graphs of the characters’ journey’s through the play – these were to see where the characters were at every point, with some coping at different paces to others and helping each other too. We also applied the widely known Kübler-Ross model, or the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance, to where the characters were. 

We then overlaid this with the archetypal story structure: The Hero’s Journey. It’s the story structure most common to most cultures across the world – many theorists calling it an ur-text, one which we know instinctively. From Luke Skywalker to Harry Potter to Simba in The Lion King, The Hero’s Journey can to some extent describe their progress. With the innovations that Zest make to the staging of their theatre and the placement of the audience within that space too, we felt that a structure that could be loosely understood easily. Indeed, Thrive uses one of the oldest story arcs we know: From suffering to rebirth (the plot of the Passion play or the Easter story).

This is not to say that Thrive is predictable and the joy of having three core characters, although Raph often feels like the mentor or helper, is that they are progressing along both this story journey and their journey in their grief at different speeds. However, the use of such a story structure, we feel, assists in ensuring an audience can almost instinctively feel where characters are in this, without perhaps seeing every element because they’ve been caught up in an extra competitive game of Jenga. Equally, Thrive uses movement, shadow-play and other non-verbal forms to relay the feelings of the characters which are too hard for them to say – this again is helped by the story shape that the dramaturgical journey the company and I have been on in the making of the show with audiences, we hope, understanding what these feelings are through an understanding of where the characters are in their own journeys when they make these physical statements (much in the way that a character could burst into song in a musical). 

This has been my first project with Zest and their first working with a dramaturg rather than this problem solving being something done by the core creative team. I hope you come down and see what we’ve constructed in Thrive: from Barney’s set design to the piecing together of the story and the structure – each section carefully crafted and weighted, like a perfect Jenga tower!


Gareth Morgan is a freelance writer, theatre-maker, schools facilitator and dramaturg. He has previously worked as an assistant director, script-reader and dramaturg for Nottingham Playhouse, Manchester Royal Exchange, New Perspectives Theatre Company, West Yorkshire Playhouse, Nottingham Writers' Studio's Triliteral Festival, Excavate, Cast in Doncaster, Derby Theatre and Theatre Writing Partnership.