Ghost Light, Meet the Dramaturg: Siting Yang

BY Emma Schillage, May 6, 2022

Ghost Light, Meet the Dramaturg is a Theatre series featuring Columbia Dramaturgy students, faculty, and alumni, learning about their work, aspirations, and pandemic passion projects.


In Michael Mark Chemer’s book, Ghost Light, he uses the metaphor of a ghost light to represent the work of a Dramaturg. Dramaturgs work behind the scenes, always thinking and searching for creative possibilities, guiding the way, even once the stage goes dark. In this series, we shine a light on Columbia Dramaturgs.


This week we are featuring third-year Dramaturgy student Siting Yang (she/her). Siting Yang is an interdisciplinary theater-maker based in NYC and Beijing.  She seeks to explore radical aesthetical expressions of individual discontent, resistance, and digression. Her recent credits include: HoD (upcoming); Clouds (directed by Liz Peterson, Columbia University); The Findings Series (produced by Ilana Becker, The Civilians); The Tin Drum (Written by Yizhou Zhang, University of Toronto);  War Eagle (706 Youth Space, Beijing); and Marat/Sade (NoNo Theatre Festival, Beijing). She received her BA from Peking University in German Literature and World History and is currently pursuing her MFA in Dramaturgy at Columbia University.

Tell me a little about your first experience in theatre. 


Siting Yang [SY]: I did a bunch of amateur high school drama, of course, like everyone else. My first real engagement or experience in the theater that led me to choose Dramaturgy is pretty recent. It was about four years ago in 2018. I was commissioned to adapt a play called Marat/Sade by Peter Weiss. 2018 was the 50th anniversary of Weiss joining the Communist party in 1968. And there was this student activist group in Beijing that wanted to do a series of activities around the show. They got in contact with me to help put up the show. I was a student of German literature, and so I had the language skills and some high school drama skills to do a translation and adaptation of the play. I knew nothing about how an actual production in the industry worked. So I just kind of improvised the translation, collaborated with Dramaturgs, and put together an ensemble. That was my first experience. 


What drew you to German literature? What was interesting about it for you?


SY: I’ve always loved reading, and the typical literature department in China is still in the model of the national language and literature model. You can choose to do Chinese literature or you can choose to do something else. I thought, I'm still young, and I want to learn a lot about other people. I tried multiple foreign language departments and then just clicked somehow with a professor in the German department. But  I have always enjoyed German literature. I was very absorbed in Kafka because all teenagers should be absorbed in Kafka. 


What was your first encounter with Dramaturgy as a profession?


SY: People should really be careful when they talk about Dramaturgy because I don't think anyone knows what the word means. I'm graduating, and I'm going into my Ph.D. right after this. So, during this month I've been talking to a lot of professors and talking about Dramaturgy as my background. I’ve talked to multiple people, including people like Martin Perner or Mark Robinson, who is a Dramaturgy professor at Yale. Whenever I bring up the question,  ‘what is Dramaturgy?’ everyone answers that it is something very hard to define. But I think that is because it means very drastically different things when it comes to considering different time periods and different cultural contexts and different individuals. 


When I was working on the Peter Weiss piece in Beijing, I encountered Dramaturgy more unconsciously, through the tactics and methodologies that I encountered. I started with translation because I produced the piece for a Chinese audience. So I started with the question of how to bring the lively field of speaking and hearing and communication into a translation of a play. 


Personally, more questions emerged for me through adaptation or recontextualization of a dead text. I do think that today, that's a very important aspect of my understanding of Dramaturgy, which is to build this bridge in and out of the theater space. You need to help theater go out into the world and help the world go into the theater. I know that is a very big and abstract thing to say, but I think it also starts from thenotion that theatre should not be fake. When you are in a theater, you should constantly remind people that you're not looking at an illusion and it's a dramaturg's job to make theatre not so illusionary. Even though at that time, I did not know the word Dramaturgy,I did unconsciously practice a lot of Dramaturgy in the process of making Marat/Sade


You mentioned that you will pursue a PhD after you graduate. What do you plan on studying? 


YS: Well, that's the decision I'm trying to make right now. I am between pursuing a theater PhD, which is now under the English department, and a program in German literature. So, you see that German literature is still with me. 


What is interesting is that Dramaturgy is actually a very German tradition. I would say, of course, a lot of it is set within French parameters. At least, my interest and my engagement with Dramaturgy certainly came from the German dramatic tradition. Like every Dramaturg at Columbia, my first lesson, I guess, wase the Hamburg Dramaturgy, which is an influential work on drama by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, written between 1767 and 1769 when he worked as a Dramaturg for Abel Seyler's Hamburg National Theatre. Lessing was considered to be the first officially appointed Dramaturg. It is the first book on theory and practice where the word Dramaturgy is actually included. Lessing’s works and ideas on Dramaturgy are actually closer to what American people are doing today. The early Enlightenment introduced the idea of  curating theatre as a means to nurture people's minds, which is kind of arrogant, but also fascinating. 


With your experience in German practice and having studied at Columbia, how do you think about your own Dramaturgy practice? How would you describe the work that you do? 


SY: I came in with very little my first year, so I was very confused. For me, it has become a very improvisational process. I love just making things randomly happen. I really enjoy working with directors on devised work, especially for people's material projects, which is a project that director’s in the Theatre department do. The material projects are considered to be a ‘mind map’ for the directors to explore and create something that exemplifies their work. It is all about pulling things out from their deep unconscious. It acts like therapy and the directors are pulling out what they want to say to the world. They need a person to be the brain to put something into shape for them. 


More specifically, I think I use Dramaturgy as a creative and generative craft. I enjoy putting together different materials or objects and making meaning out of them. So if you have to put this craft into a category, people would say, I'm a writer more than a Dramaturg when I'm doing my work. But deep down, I would say my methodology is more Dramaturgical, or analytical. 


I noticed that you do some work with The Civilians Theatre Company. What is it like working with them?


SY: It was my first internship as an artistic intern. Firstly, it was a lot of administrative work. I would help produce the online presentations of their R and D group. They have a residency program where six to seven artists each year develop an investigative theatre piece with them. At the end of the season, they put up this presentation series called Sign Series. When I was there, I helped out organizing things around this series. I got to talk to a lot of people working on these projects. I also got to read a lot of new scripts. I was able to attend their meetings from time to time which was really interesting. It was a great opportunity to get to know artists who are interested in political and investigative theatre. I wrapped my internship a while ago, but I'm still in touch with The Civilians. I am also talking with one of their resident writers and I am slowly developing a piece. It’s in its very early stages, so I don’t want to share too much about it just yet. 


What would you tell someone who is just coming into this program or someone who is just starting Dramaturgy? What advice would you give to them? 


SY: When you come into this program, you are not adhering to one specific formula to follow. It is really about training your mind and challenging what you believe. It is also about interpersonal skills, I would say. So be sure to read more shows, and to have more drinks with great people.


I know you spoke a little bit about German literature and how that brought you down this path, but during your time at Columbia, has there been a professor, practice, or an experience that has influenced the way that you think? 


SY: The first person that comes to my mind is Professor Leslie Ayvazian. I guess you will get that answer a lot from the Dramaturgs because she is a person that makes you believe you can write and just encourages you to go ahead and write. I wrote my first play in English in Leslie's class, and I wrote my second play in Chinese, based on an assignment from Leslie's class. So that class already gave me two plays. 


I also take a lot of seminars within the grad school, especially with the English and German departments, and I read critical series with Professor of Humanities Bruce Robbins, who is super brilliant, but also a very down-to-earth professor who makes you believe that you can read critically. So the philosophical and theoretical and critical thinking I got from those classes helped me a lot in my writing. 


How has your experience as an international student influenced your work as a Dramaturg? 


SY: The simple answer is that my home is my root. I am able to carry a lot of real material from my home, in my mind, in my body, and in my experience. In my personal history, I have always loved talking to, working with, and making works for people that are totally foreign and other from where I come from so the distance in between and the space of exchange come from a mutual misunderstanding instead of understanding. It is actually what inspires me the most in terms of making art and writing.


Also in relation to this question, I am currently working on a play for my thesis, and one of the questions I’m working on is actually about the exchange, the travel, and the in-between of foreignness. The play is a collection of five different stories of people who are displaced and misplaced or are foreign to where they are. It is a huge project to explain, but these people and their histories include refugee stories, migrant stories, or just studying abroad stories. The time range spans from the 19th century to today and the geographical area is very global. We have stories in Germany. We have stories in the states or stories in China and Japan. 


What do you want people to know about you as a person?


SY: I would say that I am a greedy woman. I always want more. I'm trying to be happy with wanting to be a part of everything I guess. And I do want to see more greedy, elegant women out there in the field who dare to just be greedy.