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Dramaturgical Analysis of Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette

Introduction to Theatre and Dance Studies

Written by Agata Kok

Hannah Gadsby is a world class award-winning Australian comedian, a self-proclaimed “funny person”.[1] She created Nannette,[2] a stand-up comedy show, partly as a response to the public debate in Australia before the law was changed to allow sames-ex marriage, and also after her diagnosis of ADHD and autism, although they are not explicitly mentioned in the show. The 2018 performance of Nanette at the Sydney Opera House was recorded and released as a Netflix special. The performance explores topics such as homophobia, xenophobia, sexism, and gendered violence by encompassing social commentary, elements of evocative speech and Gadsby’s personal anecdotes. This paper analyses how, through breaking and deconstructing the conventions of stand-up comedy, Gadsby invites the audience to notice and reconsider their seemingly self-evident ways of looking, in a way that brings awareness to the struggles of marginalized individuals and communities, as well as the discourse surrounding these struggles.

The analysis focuses on fragments of the performance and their function in construction of the overall meaning. It aims to follow the relational model of dramaturgical analysis proposed by Liesebeth Groot Nibbelink and Sigrid Merx.[3] In their approach, the authors distinguish three planes of dramaturgy: composition, spectator and context, which are said to “continuously inflect and interfere with each other.”[4] Groot Nibbelink and Merx state that due to the interdependence of these components, they should be analysed in relation to one another.[5] The focus of this analysis is placed on the construction of two of such relationships, namely spectatorship and statement. Spectatorship is regarded as a relationship between the composition of the performance and the way in which it establishes a position for the spectator through theatrical means. The statement, on the other hand, is expressed through contextualization of the performance’s composition through positioning the performance in relation to the real world. Groot Nibbelink and Merx state that a performance “affirms, questions, or criticizes that world, or maybe proposes an alternative,”[6] by not only exploring how the performance thematically relates to and references a social context, but also investigating how the artistic context, such as in this case the choice of a stand-up genre, may reveal particular perspectives and propositions.

Nannette is analysed with references and use of concepts from dramaturgical and performance studies, as well as feminist theory. Many of these concepts, as further explained, draw from Bertolt Brecht’s idea of epic theatre, which is determined by its social function. It aims to invite the audience to critically approach the issue presented on stage and consequently lead to social intervention. For the spectator to be able to critically approach the situation, they have to be able to consciously distance themselves from the events and the characters, which is achieved by exposing the theatrical mechanisms behind the performance.[7] Although the concept of epic theatre itself may not be applicable to Gadsby’s performance, it establishes a theoretical framework in which other concepts are positioned.

By positioning her performance in the conventions of a stand-up show, Gadsby is able to balance between absorption and theatricality to invite the audience to question their approach to comedy, especially when it concerns serious, sensitive topics and is performed by marginalized individuals. Theatricality is here understood, following Maaike Bleeker, as the communicative effect that emerges when a situation is perceived as staged.[8] Bleeker further argues that theatricality can be used to undermine seemingly self-evident modes of looking by bringing attention to the implied perspective imposed on the audience.[9] Absorption, on the other hand, is distinguished by drawing the spectator into the world on stage by adhering to their expectations and thus erasing the traces of mediation.[10] Gadsby addresses the audience directly and breaks the fourth wall, while repeatedly emphasizing that what they are witnessing is a performance. Although these elements are often used to evoke moments of theatricality by bringing awareness to the staged character of the situation, in this case they are used to introduce the spectators to the conventions of a stand-up show[11] and to raise the audience’s expectations regarding its aim and the performer’s position, which essentially boils down to making the audience laugh. Moreover, according to Oliver Double, stand-up comedy is often distinguished from acting by its apparent lack of characterization – the comedian appearing onstage apparently as him or herself.[12] Therefore, the evoked conventions of stand-up comedy invite the audience to believe that, as a performer, Gadsby is ‘authentic’ throughout the show, especially when presenting personal anecdotes. This authenticity is only highlighted through her ‘momentary characterization’[13] as she steps in and out of roles and comments upon them while enacting the scenes from personal stories that she initially uses as setups for the joke.[14]

Having established the conventions of stand-up comedy, as well as audience’s expectations implied within them, the analysis moves on to explore how Gadsby deconstructs these conventions, exposing the seemingly self-evident mechanisms behind them and inviting the audience to consider their implications. This duality is reflected in the symmetrical structure of the performance, with the first half being partly used to establish assumed events from Gadsby’s life as joke setups, and then revisiting and deconstructing them in the second half, with the aim of regaining agency over the way she tells her story (and the way marginalized stories, in general, are told).

First, Gadsby acknowledges the audience’s expectations and how they constitute her assumed position as not only an entertainer, but also in regard to other parts of her identity, such as being a lesbian. She stages the assumed real-life encounters during which her presentation was questioned because it did not meet the others’ expectations, bringing to light more or less implied assumptions and stereotypes present in society, including the restrictions surrounding the ‘acceptable’ forms of self-expression for marginalized people and the tension between the ‘need’ to represent a community while ‘staying true to oneself. By doing so, she evokes a moment of theatricality, as she invites the audience to notice such seemingly self-evident assumptions in their own points of view in the real world. This invitation to consider perspectives different from one’s own is emphasized by her use of the strategy of reversal.[15] She first establishes and brings the audience’s attention to the way men approach women, especially lesbians, in situations when they do not conform to their expectations, telling them to ‘learn to take a joke’ and implying that their problem lays in lack of intercourse with a man. Gadsby proceeds to reverse this dominant narrative by suggesting an alternative, analogical situation, where she would be the one offering such ‘advice’ to men. Staging in this case allows to consider and examine the power imbalance which leads to one of these scenarios being fairly often encountered in the real world, while the other seems absurd and abstract, despite representing essentially the same situation, differing only by the reversal of gender roles. Interestingly, reversing the narrative creates an effect of absorption, which allows the ‘targeted’ part of the audience (‘straight white men’) to experience Gadsby’s perspective almost directly. Yet, as she reminds them, “This is theatre, fellas. I’ve given you an hour, a taste. I have lived a life.”[16] Therefore, Gadsby emphasizes the staged character of a situation, pointing out the inherent differences distinguishing it from the real world.

Gadsby continues to present how shifting the discourse influences the reception of a story, questioning the implications of the use of comedy to tell marginalized stories. She goes back to her first stand-up show, explaining how it was more conforming to the audience’s expectations of the show by a lesbian comedian, “classic new gay comic 101.”[17] One of the central parts that she references is the story of how she was approached by a man at a bus stop for ‘flirting’ with his girlfriend, that she used as a joke in that set. As she revisits the story, she, in a way, steps out of her stand-up persona, providing a sort of ‘meta-commentary’ on the show[18] by deconstructing the very basic element of comedy, a joke. Gatsby defines the joke as essentially consisting of a setup, which builds up tension, and a punchline, which releases that tension, leading to laughter. She acknowledges her agency as a performer to control the tension and its diffusion and points out the implied ‘responsibility’ and limitation when linked with the audience’s expectations, saying “But in order to balance the tension in the room with that story, I couldn’t tell that story as it actually happened.”[19] By revealing that she did not tell the whole story, she invites the audience to question her ‘authenticity’ as a comedian[20] and points to the inherent performativity of her onstage presence as well as her everyday existence connected to the societal norms and expectations concerning various parts of her identity and presentation. The idea of performativity of social identity and gender is here based on Judith Butler’s essay “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory”.[21] Butler argues that gender and identity is socially constructed through a series of performative acts, and that, as gender is socially and historically regulated, it is also oppressive: “indeed, those who fail to do their gender right are regularly punished.”[22] Gadsby’s own story seems to support this claim, as she discloses the ‘ending’ of the aforementioned anecdote, when the man returns after realising that she is a lesbian and beats her up. Gadsby comments: “If I’d been feminine, that would not have happened. I am incorrectly female. I am incorrect, and that is a punishable offense.”[23] By bringing up a sensitive subject and refusing to talk about it lightly, Gadsby turns away from the fundamental feature of stand-up, instead inviting the audience to take on her perspective, depriving them of the possibility to further distance themselves from the struggles of marginalized people.

By establishing and then returning to certain points from a different perspective, Gadsby not only invites the audience to question their assumptions or approaches, but also brings to light their internalized bias by challenging the audience to question their initial reactions. Gadsby claims that laughter, in response to trauma, is only sufficient to a certain extent, and may actually have an opposite effect, explaining that “punch lines need trauma, because punch lines need tension, and tension feeds trauma.”[24] Therefore, she questions the validity of comedy in regard to marginalized stories, which are often punctuated by trauma. She once again points to societal norms and expectations, showing how, as a marginalized person, the only way she could “seek permission to speak”[25] was through self-deprecating comedy, and how she does not want to do that anymore for the sake of herself and anyone who identifies with her. She points out the double standards perpetuating the norms of comedy: “People feel safer when men do the angry comedy. They’re the kings of the genre. When I do it, I’m a miserable lesbian, ruining all the fun and the banter. When men do it, heroes of free speech.”[26]

Gadsby exposes how these differences are socially constructed and reinforced throughout history, pointing to the persistence of the male gaze in art and society. The understanding and application of the concept of gendered gaze is based on the chapter “Looking/watching/spectating” from Kim Solga’s Theatre & Feminism.[27] Solga cites Laura Mulvey’s distinction between ‘active/male’ and ‘passive/female’ ways of looking, arguing that “the determining male gaze projects its phantasy onto the female figure which is styled accordingly”, in a way that positions women as simultaneously looked at and displayed, so that they imply ‘to-be-looked-at-ness’.[28]Mulvey’s “male gaze” is not regarded as a physical feature of an individual man, but rather a mode of looking, which positions man as seeing and woman as being seen.[29] Gadsby draws from her background in art history to provide examples of art and discourse surrounding it that dismisses the woman’s perspective in favour of man’s. Elin Diamond proposes tactics of counteracting “the male gaze” through “gestic feminist criticism” which suggests a practice where feminist performers do not simply reflect the male gaze, but repurpose it in a way that leads to its disablement.[30] Using Brecht’s ‘dialectical’ dramaturgy as a model for feminist theatre theory, Diamond argues for a practice of staging women’s experiences that may allow the contradictions shaping those experiences to become visible.[31]The symmetrical, recurring construction of Gadsby’s performance allows her to stage her experience and, precisely due to its staged character, moderate the contexts and perspectives through which it is approached, evoking a moment of theatricality. At the same time, the situations can be contextualised and acknowledged as re-enactments of real, personal events, which allows Gadsby to regain agency over her story. Furthermore, the complexities of Gadsby’s experience and its repercussions are presented in a nuanced way that does not simply reflect the privilege experienced by men. Although Gadsby believes she has a right to be angry, she also realizes that she does not have a right to spread this anger, and thus she would rather dismiss comedy altogether than perform angry comedy. Therefore, she does not want to be treated and judged in a way men are, despite recognizing the benefits of such an option. Instead, she proposes a mode of dealing with trauma through sharing and retelling stories in a way that allows the marginalized communities to be heard and, at the same time, enables others to take on their perspective and consequently re-evaluate their approaches as individuals and as a society, in accordance with the feminist claim that ‘the personal is political’, which partly suggests that subjective experience is not only structured by existing political arrangements, but effects and structures those arrangements in turn.[32]

Throughout her set, Hannah Gadsby introduces a set of binaries or dichotomies strongly rooted in the society: the polarization between men and women, laughter and anger, tension and its release as well as being ‘normal’ or ‘different,’ which seem to be reflected in the show symmetrical structure. Through Nanette, Gadsby negotiates a place for herself apart from these binaries, implying a potential alternative, a ‘third’ option that would allow shifting the discourse over the stories like hers in a way that focuses on connection and humanity rather than reputation and differences. By deconstructing comedy, she invites the audience to question their seemingly self-evident points of view, leading to re-assessment and examination of the validity of social norms and their implications. Finally, Gatsby questions comedy as a way of telling stories based on trauma, arguing that the way of telling stories, both of marginalized people and people in power, should be reshaped to focus on humanity and connection, rather than the need to evoke reaction whether in form of laughter or anger. In the end, it is hard to assess whether her performance can still be regarded as stand-up comedy. Nonetheless, through the use of the conventions of a stand-up show Hannah Gadsby reappropriates the genre that used to constrain her agency over her story and uses it to share her experience in a way that brings awareness to the struggles of marginalized individuals and communities, as well as the discourse surrounding these struggles.


Bleeker Maaike. “Limited Visibility.” Thamyris/Intersecting, no. 23 (2011): 143-159.

Brecht, Bertolt. “The Street Scene.” In Brecht on Theatre, edited by John Willet, 121–28. London: Eyre Methuen, 1974.

Butler, Judith. “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory.” Theatre Journal 40, no. 4 (December 1988): 519–31.

Double, Oliver. “Characterization in Stand-up Comedy: From Ted Ray to Billy Connolly, via Bertolt Brecht.” New Theatre Quarterly 16, no. 4 (November 2000): 315–23.

Gadsby, Hannah. Nanette. Netflix, 2018. 69 min.

Nibbelink, Liesbeth Groot and Merx, Sigrid. “Dramaturgical Analysis: A Relational Approach.” FORUM+ 28. no. 3 (2020): 5

Solga, Kim. “Looking/Watching/Spectating.” In Theatre & Feminism, 16–33. London: Palgrave, 2016.

Zijp, Dick. “Re-Thinking Dutch Cabaret: Micha Wertheim’s Deconstruction of the Dutch Cabaret Tradition.” In: “Re-Thinking Dutch Cabaret: The Conservative Implications of Humour in the Dutch Cabaret Tradition.” MA Thesis. University of Amsterdam, 2014: 1-22.

[1] Hannah Gadsby, “About,”2021, [2] Nanette, Hannah Gadsby (Netflix, 2018), 69 min, [3] This explanation of Groot Nibbelink & Merx model of dramaturgical analysis has been partially taken from my previous dramaturgical analysis. [4] Liesbeth Groot Nibbelink and Sigrid Merx, “Dramaturgical Analysis: A Relational Approach,” FORUM+ 28, no. 3 (2020): 7. [5] Nibbelink and Merx, “Dramaturgical Analysis: A Relational Approach,” 7-8. [6] Nibbelink and Merx, “Dramaturgical Analysis: A Relational Approach,” 9. [7] Bertolt Brecht, “The Street Scene,” in Brecht on Theatre, ed. John Willet (London: Eyre Methuen, 1974), 121 -124. [8] Maaike Bleeker, “Limited Visibility,” Thamyris/Intersecting, no. 23 (2011): 149. [9] Bleeker, “Limited Visibility,” 149. [10] Nibbelink and Merx, “Dramaturgical Analysis: A Relational Approach,” 9. [11] Dick Zijp, “Re-Thinking Dutch Cabaret: Micha Wertheim’s Deconstruction of the Dutch Cabaret Tradition” in: “Re- Thinking Dutch Cabaret: The Conservative Implications of Humour in the Dutch Cabaret Tradition,” MA Thesis. University of Amsterdam, 2014: 12. [12] Oliver Double, “Characterization in Stand-up Comedy: From Ted Ray to Billy Connolly, via Bertolt Brecht,” New Theatre Quarterly 16, no. 4 (November 2000): 315, [13] Double, “Characterization in Stand-up Comedy,” 315. [14] Zijp, “Re-Thinking Dutch Cabaret,” 7. [15] Bleeker, “Limited Visibility,” 152-153. [16] Nanette, 65:45 [17] Nanette, 9:43 [18] Double, “Characterization in Stand-up Comedy,” 321-322. [19] Nanette, 59:15 [20] Zijp, “Re-Thinking Dutch Cabaret,” 12-13. [21] Judith Butler, “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory,” Theatre Journal 40, no. 4 (December 1988): 519–31. [22] Butler, “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution,” 522.