WHAT IS DRAMATURGY?


“A Dramaturg might help select a season at Lincoln Center, write a program note for a production of Misalliance, collaborate with a director on a new approach to Midsummer Night’s Dream, work with a playwright such as Tony Kushner on the germination and creation of a new play, lead an after-show discussion at the Goodman Theatre, fill a wall with images for an acting ensemble, or prepare a new translation of a play by Marivaux. She or he might work at a regional theatre in Washington D.C., in a midwestern high school, or with a dance company in Germany. Even some filmmakers and puppeteers have employed their expertise. Students study for the position in graduate programs at Yale, SUNY-Stony Brook, and many other schools. (More than forty theatre departments offer degrees, programs, or coursework in dramaturgy.) Others might step into the field from a background in journalism or Asian studies. At an increasing rate, dramaturgy is becoming part of theatre education at all levels from the introductory survey course to the graduate seminar.”

– Jonas, Susan and Proehl, Geoff. Preface to Dramaturgy in American Theatre: A Source Book. Orlando: Harcourt Brace College Publishers, 1997.

“If you consult a dictionary, the meaning of the word ‘dramaturgy’ you find there is ‘the craft or the techniques of dramatic composition considered collectively,’ and a ‘dramaturg’ is defined simply as ‘a dramatist or playwright.’ Now we know that a playwright is a ‘maker’ or ‘worker’ of plays, not merely a writer of them (as a shipwright is a maker of ships and a wainwright a maker of wagons). This meaning of ‘playwright’ is reinforced by the Greek work dramaturgy (and its back formation dramaturg), which is made up of the root for “action or doing” (drame) and the suffix for ‘process or working’ (-urgy). Here we may helpfully think of the words ‘metallurgy’ – the working of metal – and ‘thaumaturgy’ – the working of miracles.

– Cardullo, Bert. What is Dramaturgy? New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 2005. p. 3.

“Broadly speaking, the dramaturg’s duties are (1) to select and prepare play-texts for performance; (2) to advise directors and actors; and (3) to educate the audience. To fulfill these duties, dramaturgs serve as script readers, translators, theatre historians, play adaptors or even playwrights, directorial assistants or sometimes apprentice directors, critics of works-in-progress and talent scouts.”

– Cardullo, Bert. What is Dramaturgy? New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 2005. pp 3–4.

“After selecting a play for production in collaboration with his theatre’s artistic director, the resident dramaturg prepares the text for performance by translating or editing it, researching the play’s production history if it has one, and collaborating with its director on textual interpretation. If a play is new and the playwright is present at rehearsals, the dramaturg discusses cuts, rewrites, and the reordering of scenes with the author. Dramaturgical preparation of a classic need not be entirely different from collaboration on a new play. Research into the production history, textual variants, and sociopolitical background of a classic can increase the accuracy with which a past playwright’s language, stage conventions, and world view are realized onstage, if the director wants his work to be true to the original text. However, an old text can also be turned into a ‘new’ one – that is, invested with a contemporaneity of language (through a new translation or adaptation), a topical ‘concept’ (more on this later) and/or a novel staging.

Dramaturgs assist as well in the casting of the play, and during rehearsals they offer in-house criticism of productions-in-progress for the benefit of cast, director and dramatist. To inform the director, the cast and the audience about a play’s past history and its current importance, dramaturgs assemble ‘protocols’ (or casebooks consisting of written and found materials toward a theatrical production), prepare program notes, lead post-production discussions, write study guides for schools and groups, lecture in the community as well as the academy, and publish scholarly essays and books. Through collaboration with a resident dramaturg/in-house critic, then, the director is able to integrate textual and acting criticism, performance theory, and historical research into a production beforeit opens, instead of simply receiving post-mortems afterwards from journalists and avid theatergoers.

– Cardullo, Bert. What is Dramaturgy? New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 2005. p. 4.

“Dramaturgy is a vital idea. Its general definition encompasses almost the whole of theatrical activity, but in the context of what dramaturgs do, dramaturgy is a comprehensive exploration of the context in which the play resides. The dramaturg is the resident expert on the physical, social, political, and economic milieus in which the action takes place, the psychological underpinnings of the characters, the various metaphorical expressions in the play of thematic concerns; as well as on the technical consideration of the play as a piece of writing: structure, rhythm, flow, even individual word choices.

There are different sort of dramaturgs, with varying responsibilities, though few dramaturgs are of a pure type; most overlap categories. The institutional dramaturgs help find and select plays to be produced, while the education dramaturg prepares activities and materials for school group and leads audience discussions.

–  Terry McCabe. Mis-Directing the Play: An Argument Against Contemporary Theatre. p. 64.

Dramaturgy and Liberal Arts

“Although the best means to provide a liberal arts education has always been and should always be a matter for heated debate, the assumption of its value remains an article of faith in higher education. In the main, we continue to agree that the best preparation for all pursuits – personal and professional – is well-rounded education that introduces students to a variety of disciplines and fosters familiarity with a broad canon of ideas and contexts, as well as critical and associative thinking. The foundation we help lay is like an exercise program meant to get the mind in shape for life-long learning. Liberals arts pedagogy teaches curiosity, the delight of learning for its own sake, the ability to recognize and desire to seize the infinite opportunities to pursue knowledge. Our aspiration is to have our students graduate with the realization of how much more there is to know and how capable they are of learning….[The] trend toward specialization is relatively recent in the scheme of theatre history. One need only think of Sophocles, Moliere, and Shakespeare to remember that it was expected that they combine abilities in acting, writing, directing, dramaturgy, producing, and public relations. Even now, unable to find their niche in the extant theater world, artists such as Spalding Grey, John Leguizamo, Anna Deavere Smith, and Claudia Schear have become viable by adding to their performance skills other skills in playwriting, dramaturgy, directing, and producing. These solo performance artists have refined the mainstream by becoming ‘people of the theater.’ Their routes suggest a new feasible model for empowerment through multidisciplinary training, the centerpiece of which is dramaturgy.For the best of reasons and the worst – progressive and financial considerations – interdisciplinary learning is the wave of the future. In this, theater can look to its most ancient traditions to find its path to the forefront. And at the zenith of its already interdisciplinary nature is dramaturgy.”

– Jonas, Susan and Proehl, Geoff. Preface to Dramaturgy in American Theatre: A Source Book. Orlando: Harcourt Brace College Publishers, 1997. 

Institutional Dramaturgy

The main role of the institutional dramaturg is to read and evaluate new scripts for possible production. The resident dramaturg works closely with the artistic director (and in many instances, he/she is the artistic director of the theatre) designing the season, and evaluating any potential new scripts as to their suitability for performance in the particular venue.

“John Lahr, not the theatre critic for The New Yorker, reports that his job at the Guthrie in the 1950s and early 1960s was primarily to bring new plays to the theatre and do the program notes. Later, however, when he was literary manager under Jules Irving at Lincoln Venter, he did what he calls the ‘more satisfactory work’ of collaborating with directors in rehearsal, writing lyrics for new songs in some plays, adapting such classics as Moliere’s The Misanthrope, and performing general advisory work, in addition to writing program notes and bringing new plays like Pinter’s Landscape and Silence to the theatre.”

– Cardullo, Bert. What is Dramaturgy? New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 2005. p. 5.

“Not only do the plays have to be selected, but they have to be selected to suit the character of the particular company, providing a fair share of good parts for all the principal actors. . . . The working out of the very complex casting rosters in companies that may be playing in two different houses at the same time, while often keeping a road company touring in neighboring, smaller cities, demands great ingenuity in adjusting the repertoire, planning rehearsals for understudies, etc. . . . [In the dramaturgy department also] the repertoire is carefully planned to provide a balanced diet [of classics and new plays, both foreign and domestic] for the requirements of the public of the city served by the theatre in question.”

– Martin Esslin, in Cardullo, Bert. What is Dramaturgy? New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 2005. p. 5.

Resident Dramaturg/Literary Manager – Responsibilities:

  1. Perform all duties of the production dramaturg as needed or as outlined in job description.
  2. Serve as Literary Manager if outlined in job description (these two jobs are often combined). The Literary Manager has the following tasks:
    1. Read and report on all scripts submitted by playwrights.
    2. Make recommendations of scripts to the artistic director for production.
    3. If the company has a play development program, the Literary Manager will oversee this program, including workshops, public readings, and any other form of support for the playwright’s process in developing a new script.
    4. Season planning.
  3. Provide supervision of the public assertion as it reflects the theatre’s repertoire and aesthetics, making sure it is within the institution’s goal, vision, and approach.
  4. If the institution has no mission statement, create one that encompasses the direction and voice important to the theatre. Be sure that all productions fulfill the mission statement.
  5. Aid in season planning based on the institution’s goals, visions, and mission statement.
  6. Plan and execute any form of audience outreach necessary. Participate in all post-play discussions.
  7. Write any grants when necessary.
  8. Advise the marketing team.
  9. Work with the education staff        .
  10. Provide input on press releases.

“The responsibilities of dramaturg vary from one theater company to the next, but they typically include the hiring of actors, the development of a season of plays with a sense of the coherence among them, the assistance with and editing of new plays by resident or guest playwrights, the creation of programs or accompanying educational services, and even helping the director with rehearsals, and serving as elucidator of history or spokesperson for deceased or otherwise absent playwrights.”

“The dramaturg locates and translates worthy scripts from other languages, writes articles and makes media appearances promoting shows and community programs, and helps develop original scripts.

Despite intimate connection with all aspects of play selection, production, and performance, the dramaturg remains independent, keeping a critical eye on the company’s creative activities, working to improve and maintain high quality.”

– Wikipedia

Production Dramaturgy

Most large theatres in the U.S. have a resident dramaturg, who works closely with the directors on each production. The role of the production dramaturg is to serve the director with pre-production research on the playwright and the historical context of the story. The dramaturg prepares reading and visual materials for the actors and assists them with any research related to their roles. Sometimes the dramaturg prepares a display with various images that he or she and the director have agreed to share with the actors. During the rehearsal process, drawing on his or her in-depth knowledge of the script, the dramaturg ensures the integrity of the production, providing production notes that help to facilitate the director’s artistic vision. The dramaturg also writes program notes and often leads post-show discussions. The production dramaturg is integral to the artistic process and receives full credit for his or her contribution as a collaborator (program bio, academic credit, etc.). Since the primary role of the dramaturg is to serve the director, the extent of the dramaturg’s responsibilities depends on the individual director’s needs and can vary for each production. The following guidelines outline the typical range of dramaturgical responsibilities.

PRE-REHEARSAL:

  1. Dramaturg works closely with the Director and Playwright.
  2. Prepares texts as needed. This includes the following:
    1. Translating as needed.
    2. Revising/ editing scripts as needed.
    3. Adapting non-theatrical text into a script if needed.
  3. Does all research for the production. This can include the following:
    1. Making a vocabulary list, including definitions of any ambiguous phrases, societal/time period references.
    2. Finding character name meanings. If they are historical or real people, researching them as well.
    3. Researching any previous productions of the play, including reviews, criticism, and theory of the performances.
    4. If it is a new play, and the playwright will not be involved in the rehearsal process, compiling a list of questions to ask the playwright either in person or in writing.
    5. Creating a timeline of important events of the time period of the setting of the play, and the time when the play was written (if different).
    6. Compiling images or any other type of appropriate structural analysis for the play.
    7. Writing or finding an appropriate biography of the playwright.
    8. Compiling any sensory media which could help define the world of the play (i.e., photographs, music, smells, artwork)       
  4. Creating packets for the cast and production company including:
    1. All research information.
    2. A reference page (including online references that would be easy for the cast/crew to access).
    3. Custom charts or graphs, which illustrate the progression of action, the activity of individual characters, the events of the play, and any other elements of action for the play.
  5. Preparing and presenting a short but lively presentation for the cast and crew.
  6. Being prepared to answer any and all questions that might arise.

DRAMATURG’S PROTOCOL is “a five-part pre-production study of a play – together with a glossary of the text, for the information of the director and possibly the rest of the company. The parts consist of (a) the historical, cultural, and social background of the play; (b) relevant biographical information concerning the playwright, plus a history of the writing of the play and an assessment of its place in the author’s oeuvre; (c) a critical and production history of the play, including a report on the textual problems (if any) of the original and an assessment of the major translations (if the play was written in a language other than English); (d) a comprehensive critical analysis of the play, including the dramaturg’s suggestions for a directorial-design concept for a new production; and (e) a comprehensive bibliography of materials on the play: editions, essays, articles, reviews, interviews, recordings, films, video tapes, etc.”

– Cardullo, Bert. What is Dramaturgy? New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 2005. p. 14.

DURING REHEARSAL:

  1. The Dramaturg attends at least one third of production rehearsals.
    1. Attends the first read-through and as many run-throughs as possible.
  2. Sits next to the Director and is prepared to ask and answer any questions.
  3. Observes the rehearsals, being certain to notice character and world of the play consistency.
  4. Writes and revises program notes.
  5. Plans lobby displays.
  6. Prepares for audience outreach, if necessary.
  7. Takes notes as needed.
  8. Is prepared to answer any and all questions that might arise.

POST-REHEARSAL AND DURING PRODUCTION:

  1. Plans and executes audience talkback sessions.
  2. Is prepared to answer any and all questions that might arise.

American and European Dramaturgy

IN EUROPE:

“In Germany, Eastern Europe, Scandinavia and the Netherlands dramaturgs and literary managers are a lynchpin of mainstream, state-funded theatre, and have been officially employed for well over two centuries. Playreaders, advisers on the repertoire and textural, critical and practical experts working in partnerships with directors and/or writers are accepted as an integral part of theatre-making.”

– Luckhurst, Mary. Dramaturgy: A Revolution in Theatre. Cambridge U. Press, 2006, 1.

“[In Europe], the dramaturg’s position has frequently been a transitional phase of his life in the theatre; a young playwright or critic often served as dramaturg while writing essays and plays less remunerative than script reading and rehearsal watching. Perhaps, then, the dramaturg’s work should be regarded not as an end in itself but as part of a collaborative creation, and a source of training for future play directors, artistic directors, playwrights, and critics.”

– Cardullo, Bert. What is Dramaturgy? New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 2005, 8.

IN AMERICA:

“Advances in American theory and practice since the 1960 mean that dramaturgy and literary management are now embedded both in subsidized theatre and as recognized disciplines in academic curriculum.”

– Luckhurst, Mary. Dramaturgy: A Revolution in Theatre. Cambridge U. Press, 2006, 1.

“[In America], the profession itself is only as old – or as young – as the regional theatre movement, some thirty years. . . . At first, dramaturgs and literary managers were culled from scholars and critics, but as the profession took root, and the dramaturg became a familiar presence in the rehearsal hall, training programs evolved that groomed professionals in the history, theory, criticism and practice of theatre. . . . Dramaturgs assisted artistic directors in selecting plays for the season, drawing from their extensive knowledge of international plays, and ability to commission or render lively American translations. Directors, who now often had the overwhelming task of mounting four-hour Shakespearean tragedy in three and a half weeks of rehearsal, often working with strangers in an unfamiliar town, now had the support of dramaturgs, who provided research, constructive criticism, and collaboration.”

– Jonas, Susan and Proehl, Geoff. Preface to Dramaturgy in American Theatre: A Source Book. Orlando: Harcourt Brace College Publishers, 1997.

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