Photo by Anna Klepikova.

Since 2015, we have been working collaboratively—as an anthropologist and a theater professional—to design affective engagements with empirical material. Our practice, which we call affective devising, is a form of dramaturgy that simultaneously works with all the elements of the stage in the creation of a performance event. Traditionally, dramaturgy uses an already existing script as a blueprint for the staging of a performance, while research informs how to bring a script into theatrical expression. Instead, we put elements of the stage (lights, sets, objects, sound, and bodies) into conversation with research to both analyze and render our material. This approach provides narrative and nonnarrative structures for theater practitioners and anthropologists. As an experimental approach to empirical material, it both creates space for nonnarrative renditions and performs a kind of thinking-in-practice. Nonrepresentational theory challenges the importance of meaning and the “divide between theoretical and practical work by ceding certain theoretical conundrums to practice” (Thrift 2007, 22).

Our practice is not an experiment in performing ethnographies (Turner 1982; Schechner 1985), nor does it use performance as a lens for understanding the social (Goffman 1959). It is instead an exploration of dramaturgy as a practical design approach for thinking and working with the empirical.

Traditionally, dramaturgy has served several functions. The dramaturge may research the numerous contexts (social, historical, political) of an already existing text to assist directors in staging the play. Or the dramaturge may assist in the process of new play development, helping a playwright shape character development, language, themes, and narrative structures. In both roles, the traditional dramaturge is oriented toward texts. We do not use dramaturgy simply as a tool for interpreting or structuring a script. We stretch its scope to include elements beyond text (such as light, sound, object, architecture, and space) to create generative structures. A performance emerges as the product of a collaborative process among members of a company (of theater makers and/or social scientists) all designing structures together. In our technique, narrative progression—the traditional purview of dramaturges—is just one way to create theatrical threads that an audience can follow. While text and narrative are not dismissed in affective devising, they are decentered and made to interact with other elements of the stage. Our experiment allows anthropologists to think through the stage (in both theory and practice) to analyze and structure their data into traditional or more performative productions. In this new light, dramaturgy as design can frame the writing of ethnography just as it does a theatrical performance.

We developed the performance Un-stories using this practice. During seven weekend workshops, we engaged field notes, interview transcripts, legal documents, and media sources collected around the so-called refugee crisis in the Mediterranean. Our group created discrete theatrical moments (as short as a few seconds or as long as several minutes), framed by the words “we begin” and “we end.” This simple framing device allows us to think structurally about the units of theatrical time that eventually make up an entire performance progression. But, first, we explored each theatrical element by creating moments that investigated their sensorial qualities; this way, we found out what they could tell us rather than making them function in the way we had decided they must. Letting go of the urge toward signification can be challenging, and making these moments is a way of creating an experience with the material that does not necessarily lead to knowledge or understanding. These explorations can free us of the burden of story-making and create an affective space to play with phenomena and spectacle for their own sakes.

As the work gets more complex, these moments are put into relationship with gathered texts, which may lead to the discovery of forms that can hold textual content. For example, in the course of research at ports in Sicily where boats of refugees arrive, we observed people being greeted by humanitarian associations. Upon disembarking they were immediately given a pair of fake Crocs and their old shoes were thrown away. During our devising, the Crocs emerged as a form that could provide structure to a larger piece. They allowed the company to move in and out of character, but they also formally enabled representations of the care and control of the state, gesturing toward specific translations of the foreign body into legal categories (refugee, victim of human trafficking, economic migrant, or unaccompanied minor). Crocs became a dramaturgy, creating structures the audience could recognize and follow.

This type of dramaturgical devising allows us to shape and contain bodies of empirical material using the nontextual bodies in the stage space. A pair of Crocs can hold text from interviews, archival documents, observations from field notes, and more. They create structures within which the empirical material can be presented. Stepping into Crocs allows the conveyance of bureaucratic and legal voices of policymakers and humanitarian agents. Stepping out of Crocs allows for the speaking of a language that exceeds the rhetoric of the state. This is a nonnarrative—or affective—dramaturgy. Audiences have responded to the use of the Crocs in less conceptual ways. For example, at our May 2017 performance at the University of California, Davis, some audience members felt the constraint of the Crocs’ form rather than understanding it; others had a bodily experience of the Crocs as a physicalization of being categorized.

By putting empirical material into conversation with other elements of the stage in the creation of Un-stories, we discovered forms into which we could introduce content to create continuity in a nonnarrative and affective performance. Might thinking through the lens of affective dramaturgies help other social scientists design new relations with their sites and materials, allowing for more experimental approaches to writing?


Goffman, Erving. 1959. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. New York: Anchor Books.

Schechner, Richard. 1985. Between Theater and Anthropology. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Thrift, Nigel. 2007. Non-Representational Theory: Space, Politics, Affect. New York: Routledge.

Turner, Victor. 1982. From Ritual to Theater: The Human Seriousness of Play. New York: PAJ Publications.