TaPRA 2023, Directing and Dramaturgy Working Group: BACKSTORY

Deadline: Tuesday 11 April 2023

Directing and Dramaturgy Working Group
TaPRA 2023, 30 August – 1 September, The University of Leeds

In her lecture on ‘Plays’ in 1935, Gertrude Stein wrote:
the thing seen and thing felt about the thing seen not going on at the same tempo is what makes being at the theatre something that makes anybody nervous.

The temporal ruptures and asynchronicities of performance, its different speeds, its delays and deferrals, its overlays of time, are what Directing and Dramaturgy invite your consideration of this year with Backstory (2023).

‘Backstory’ is a dramaturgical term to describe the events that take place prior to a narrative fiction in whose shadow that fiction unfolds and is often thrown into crisis. Work on Inside (2021) and Outside (2022) revealed intersections of directorial and dramaturgical practice and reception spatially, environmentally, scenographically, politically and in terms of community and identity. Through this work it became repeatedly clear how tempo and temporality are implicated and inscribed in the inside and the out of theatre, how the theatre unfolds and is thrown into crisis by its backstory.

Backstory threads through theatre with a weight, density and complexity that demands to be unpicked. Theatres have their histories, their ghosts, their memories, physical traces, their legacies and repertoires. Theatre unfolds in the backstory’s wake: as Christina Sharpe writes in In the Wake (2016), ‘in the wake, the past that is not past reappears, always, to rupture the present’ (p.9). Sharpe is working with the disaster of Transatlantic Slavery and Black subjection, and so deals with an unresolved backstory that is eruptive in the present. This working group’s reflections, in 2022, on outsiders, grief, trauma, memory and climate disaster, made apparent a theatrical language and aesthetic of analepsis and prolepsis, anticipation and reflection, aftermath and backstory. Theatre has a capacity for staging such temporal eruptions in ways that make them freshly apparent.

Ontroerend Goed’s palindromic performance of environmental anxiety, Are we not drawn onward to new erA (2019), considered last year in Outside, ran the entirety of the action forward and then backward (or backward and then forward). The sacrifice of canonical (insider) Iphigenia was ventriloquised in the sacrifice of outsider mother Effie in Splott two millennia later. Colonial pasts erupted in present encounters in Maria NDiaye’s plays in France today. The fractured presents of streamed performance as the theatre industry raced to accommodate Lockdown were no longer based in a performance logic of shared space and time. As the industry absorbs and plays with these new preoccupations, and identifies responsive aesthetics, and as new audiences are found in disrupting the temporal and geographic boundaries of performance, Backstory turns our attention to the implications and affordances of tempo and temporality in direction and dramaturgy.

With this call for papers we are inviting consideration of theatrical Backstory: hauntings and memory, histories and legacies, repression, trauma and the politics of individual, theatrical and social pasts-in-the-present, immediate pasts and longer pasts. We are also calling for an engagement with the ways this compels new performance aesthetics, direction and dramaturgy, and engages in futures of audience imagination.

Memory: How is memory reassembled through performances, its direction and dramaturgy? What new political or philosophical stakes does this make perceptible or urgent?

Trauma and Melancholy: If this national or global moment is hallmarked by grief or mourning or trauma – resulting from a string of fast and slow crises and catastrophes – where does this appear in performance and how is melancholy reverberated or processed in theatre currently? Where has this been done in the past?

Change, Aftermath and Backlash: If crisis (or catastrophe) is not just potentially a moment of trauma but also a moment of change or backlash where do we find Backstory at work in performance that deals with shifts (for better or worse) in race relations, immigration, trans rights and gender? How do we trace the legacies of theatres’ colonial pasts today? Can a break with this past be achieved in a reparative manner?

How does the treatment of a figure re-emerging from the past and staged in the present (Emilia, Mandela, Mugabe) use, disrupt, comment upon or aestheticize Backstory?

Return of the repressed: How useful are psychoanalytic understandings of the return of the repressed to contemporary studies of directing and dramaturgy?

Performers bear the traces in their physicality, gestures, physiognomy of previous roles they have performed, accreting a Backstory of associated roles. This is a phenomenon rarely or only incidentally discussed. Might we attend here to the ways that actors’ and/or characters’ backstories are directed (or not) to intervene distractingly, serendipitously or ironically in a given performance?

Reprising and Reprisals: A conservative tactic of financially insecure theatre industries is to revive past hits or replay canonical classics. Is this happening in the UK / elsewhere? Are there ways the conservatism of this tactic is overtaken by a febrile moment of reception? Are there instances where a classic is revived precisely to use the current moment to disrupt its Backstory and subvert it (Oklahoma!, Romeo and Julie)?

A new moment in UK theatre has seen funding decisions and energy cost crises closing down venues and companies. What is the Backstory of these developments that will play out in our battered industry today and tomorrow?

A cluster of artistic directors in the UK have stepped down this year. The need for new representation in an industry that has seemed too white, too establishment or elite for too long, has been insisted upon for years. Such newness, however, and welcome disruption, cannot outrun the past. How might theatrical pasts haunt its futures?

Intimacy Coaches safeguard the potential harm, and prevent the future trauma, of individual performers. What about the backstories of performers whose future wellbeing was not attended to in this way? How does the intimacy coach inform direction and dramaturgy in ways that reveal the significance or effects of Backstory?

Trigger warnings for performances anticipate the ways that performance might intersect harmfully with the backstories of audiences in the moment. They also anticipate an interpretative field and horizon of reception before the performance has begun. Censorship and legal cases around what can and cannot be shown on stage in the UK or elsewhere are also predicated on backstories and projections of the associations and consequences of watching theatre. How does direction and/or dramaturgy engage with the trigger warning and its role in Backstory?

Cultural Repertoire and Repetition: Diana Taylor and other scholars have attended to the ways that performance is a practice of repetition implicated in the upholding of an archive or repertoire of cultural heritage. Live performance and reperformance of rites, carnival, and other acts of co-memoration have been disrupted for several years by the pandemic in many places globally but are beginning to be re-asserted. What has this hiatus or gap done to the Backstory of cultural repertoire?

MeToo The Backstory of a given director or other figure might be exposed in a swift unfolding MeToo scandal that disrupts the present and future of a project, venue or company but also rewrites their past.

Systems The structure of the industry in the UK requires directors to have a Backstory of visible work and success in order to secure the next gig. How do Directors’ backstories inform production and performance? The precarity of the UK theatre gig economy both relies on networks and backstories, builds up suppressed traumas and permits the erasure of artists who drop out without sufficient sustained work. How might alternative industry systems alter the place and role of backstories and their manifestations in the work?

Duration: Does attention to backstory require different forms of chronicity in theatre and performance? Can durational performances offer different understandings of the past?

Archive: How does the archive for research into direction and/or dramaturgy furnish Backstory in theatre scholarship in ways that are more or less helpful? How do methodologies of archival research fetishize certain backstories and erase others? What is the place of the Backstory of the researcher themself here?

Futurity: Is futurity per se made unthinkable by pandemic, cost of living crisis, war, political instability, unaddressed trauma produced by colonialism and other oppressions and the terrifying now of climate disaster and war? Is performance, in fact, now only Backstory?

We welcome speakers who wish to develop ideas from a previous presentation; we also encourage collaborative presentations and creative interventions from both previous and new contributors to this Working Group, including provocations, practice demonstrations, performative presentations, and formal papers of no more than 15 minutes. We welcome approaches from all aspects of performance and theatre studies, all cultures and regional and global backgrounds and all periods, from researchers across the spectrum of new, emerging, early, experienced, emeritus.

Please indicate your preference of format clearly in your proposal, with a specific breakdown of any technical or access requirements. We will endeavour to accommodate all requests but we are working within finite resources and we may need to suggest alternative format. Interim events, in collaboration with the History & Historiography Working Group, might afford opportunities to develop individual or collaborative responses.

Conference structure

The 2023 annual TaPRA conference at the University of Leeds will be a hybrid event, facilitating participation by online delegates alongside those attending in-person.

Since our conference in 2021, we have been able to experience many benefits of online conferencing, such as increased opportunity for international presenters, lower financial costs to participate, greater accessibility for those with caring responsibilities etc. The 2023 conference at Leeds aims to retain the wider opportunities for engagement that online platforms offer, whilst also creating a space for in-person engagement and social interaction.

In the event of a cancellation of in-person conference activities due to, for instance, COVID restrictions, the event would run entirely online and all registered in person delegates would be offered the opportunity to attend as online delegates, with the difference between in-person and online registration fees refunded.

Process for submitting a proposal

Please email abstracts (no more than 300 words in length), and an additional few sentences of biographical information to the Working Group Convenors, Leah Sidi, Dan Rebellato and Pen Woods, at directinganddramaturgy@tapra.org by 23.59 on 11 April 2023.

IMPORTANT: Please indicate at the point of submission if you intend to attend the conference in person or online. This information is vital so that the conference organisers can effectively plan the infrastructure for the event and Working Group Convenors can schedule panel sessions effectively.

You should also indicate if you have any specific requirements relating to space or AV technology as part of this submission.

Please note: You may only submit a proposal to one working group (or else the PaR Gallery) for this conference, proposals submitted after the deadline will not be considered. You can, however, include an optional second choice of Working Group (this can also include the TaPRA Gallery, where appropriate). If we are unable to accept your proposal, we will then pass it on to your second choice for consideration. Your proposal will not be less likely to be accepted by our Working Group if you indicate a second choice.


Working Group Convenors will inform you whether or not your proposal has been accepted as quickly as possible and by no later than 3 May 2023. Convenors will offer brief summary feedback to all proposals that could not be accommodated. ​​Please note that putting together a full draft schedule for the conference is a complex process, particularly as all sessions will need to be accessible to delegates attending in person and online. Therefore, your patience while this process is ongoing, and prompt responses to acceptances, are much appreciated. Convenors will have completed their draft schedules by the end of May 2023.

Conference costs

The early bird registration fee will be:

£220 standard in person attendance
£120 concession in person attendance
£88 standard online attendance
£48 online concession online attendance

Prices will increase to the following after 23 June 2023:
£250 standard in person attendance
£150 concession in person attendance
£100 online attendance
£60 online concession attendance

All of the above conference fees include TaPRA membership for one year (£35 standard / £17 concession) starting 30 August 2023.

​On-campus ​conference accommodation will cost £58 per night.

Please note: All presenters must be registered for the conference by 14 July 2023; this includes those presenting online.

If you have registered for in person attendance and find yourself unable to attend you will be able to access the conference as an online delegate but will not be eligible for a refund.

Concession definition: Concession rates apply to all postgraduate researchers, unwaged, unaffiliated, and retired researchers, and staff on contracts of either less than 0.6FTE or else fixed for less than 12 months. These categories apply to the attendee’s circumstances on the first day of the conference.


These financial awards support presenters who are postgraduate researchers or unaffiliated/contingent faculty. One award is available for each working group (14 total). Awards can support individuals or teams (i.e., co-presenters). The awards cover:
  • Conference fee waiver;
  • One-year TaPRA membership; and
  • Access to a discretionary fund (maximum £300 per award*) to cover expenses and access costs, such as: travel; accommodation; sustenance; digital access; childcare etc.

These awards are highly competitive and we encourage everyone who is able to secure institutional support where possible. Applications for bursaries must be made at the same time you submit your proposal to the Working Group. This must be within the same document as your abstract/bio.

If applying for a bursary, please include the following:

  • Whether you are applying as a postgraduate or unaffiliated/contingent faculty member;
  • Whether you are applying for an individual or joint award*;
  • A statement of up to 100 words explaining why you are applying for the bursary; and
  • An outline of any expenses/access needs for which you would like to apply to the discretionary fund – including details of expected costs.
Application criteria:
  • Quality and strength of the submitted abstract; and
  • Strategic case made by the WG convenors outlining the significance of the applicant’s contribution to the WG sessions (connection to advertised theme, methodological approach, expected outcomes).

Conveners in each working group will consider applications according to the criteria above and will nominate one application to put forward for a bursary. Final decisions about awards, including requests for expenses and access costs, will be made by the TaPRA Executive Committee by 12 May. Notifications will be issued shortly thereafter.

* The discretionary fund of £300 is available per award, whether the application is to support an individual or a team. I.e., an award made to a team of two presenters means they have access to £300 between them, not each.

TaPRA at the University of Leeds

TaPRA 2023 will be held at the University of Leeds, 30 August – 1 September. The conference will take place on the university campus, with working group sessions and keynote talks held in the Michael Sadler Building, named after a notable figure in the history of modern art in Britain. The main plenary will take place in live streaming enabled Rupert Beckett Lecture Theatre, with additional sessions taking place in breakout rooms across the grade II listed, art deco Parkinson building. Performances will make use of a variety of dedicated performance spaces including the Workshop Theatre, Banham Theatre and stage@leeds.

The conference dinner will be held in The Refectory, a beautiful contemporary venue at the heart of the main campus famous for its musical history. The Rolling Stones, Elton John and Bob Marley have all graced this venue with their presence and perhaps one of the most famous live recordings ever made, The Who Live at Leeds, was recorded here. On campus, accommodation is available during the conference at our flagship residence, Storm Jameson Court. Offering a 24 hour reception and access to a large social space this is an ideal place to stay. Guests of Storm Jameson are also able to make use of the on campus gym and pool facilities at the recently renovated Edge Gym.

Please note: only one proposal may be submitted for a TaPRA event. It is not permitted to submit multiple proposals or submit the same proposal to several Calls for Participation. All presenters must be TaPRA members, i.e. registered for the event; this includes presentations given by Skype or other media broadcast even where the presenter may not physically attend the event venue.

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