Dramaturgy and Grantwriting – Report from the Field by Melanie Guthrey, ‘09

DSC_1615Melanie Grace Guthrey is the Operations Manager at PMG Arts Management in Durham, NC. She is a former Executive Director for Etowah Arts Commission in Etowah, TN and was a development intern with Boston Playwrights’ Theater and the Provincetown Tennessee Williams Theater Festival. She has a certificate in nonprofit leadership from the United Way Center for Nonprofits in Chattanooga, TN.


I may not be a dramaturg, but dramaturgy taught me the skills I need to be successful at one of the most challenging aspects of funding the arts: grantwriting. Without studying dramaturgy under Magda Romanska, I would not have been able to achieve a 43% increase in grant funding at Etowah Arts, among other victories on this boring paperwork side of the performing arts.

Dramaturgy is relevant for so many career paths in theater. Today I am going to outline three reasons I believe dramaturgy is an ideal course of study if you expect to write grants, manage contracts, or submit complicated applications:

  1. You learn to think differently: Grants are strange creatures. Not because they are hard or extensive. Most have shockingly short applications. The trouble with grantwriting is that the grantors only want to know exactly what they ask about. Throughout education we are taught to first infer intent and then to address that intent with both answers and explanations. But grantors don’t do this. They have no hidden motive or meaning.

Dramaturgy trains a grantwriter to deal with this difference in perspective. When examining a script dramaturgs have to switch focus between the viewpoints of the playwright, the director, the actors, the characters, the context, et cetera. While this can seem opposed to the straight-forward nature of grants, it actually teaches a writer to step back from their personal preconceptions and look for direct answers.

  1. You have to communicate effectively: Dramaturgs have the exacting task of learning a HUGE amount of information, only to condense it down for artists and audience to understand. Weeks or months of research condensed into on a couple of pages…or a paragraph. It takes a special hand to understand which facts are the most important and a talented writer to convey so much in such a small space.

How many other courses of study teach you to summarize an entire organization’s mission, history, and goals into a single paragraph? Not many. But plenty of grants and applications expect just that.

  1. You don’t mind asking for help: I was surprised to discover how collaborative grant and other applications are. Completing these successfully requires reaching out to other people for guidance – grantors, administrators, finance representatives… Theatre generally fosters a strong sense of collaboration. But I believe dramaturgy, which demands that your personal perspective take a backseat to production needs, instills a special sense humility and willingness to fully understand guidelines.

This list may be short, but it could be much longer: learning to research, giving presentations, understanding the big picture of a theatrical show… The uses go on and on. I truly cannot imagine better preparation for dealing with the reality of grants, contracts, and applications than dramaturgy.

Yes, I have taken classes in grantwriting. However great, they can only teach tips and tricks. The foundation for success with applications requires training and hands-on experience with the skills above. And no one can learn to summarize overnight. For that, dramaturgy is the perfect place to be.