I’m Gonna Give You A Dramaturgy! Or, What the F*@k is Dramaturgy?

If you didn’t figure it out from this post of mine, I’m a dramaturg. But there’s very little discussion of what that actually means on this blog, or mostly anywhere. If you google it, you get a lot of dense, academic answers that fail to actually explain in any practical terms what a dramaturg does. When I was first introduced to the term at a high school drama conference, my classmates and I had the same confused response, thinking it was just a funny word that meant so many things it ultimately meant nothing. It became an inside joke as we turned it into a nonsense euphemism and would tell each other “I’m gonna give you a dramaturgy!” Now, though, I know what it means, and I’m here to explain and to debunk some misconceptions.

Dramaturgy [dram-uh-tur-jee] n. The craft or the techniques of dramatic composition. (Dictionary.com)

Gotthold Ephraim Lessing is considered the first dramaturg.

Gotthold Ephraim Lessing is considered the first dramaturg.

If dramaturgy is the study of the craft of playwriting, then the dramaturg’s job is to put this study into practice by working with the text of a script. I view the practice of dramaturgy as an umbrella term that encompasses several different but related jobs that often overlap and change depending on specific circumstances. That’s the main reason for all the confusion surrounding dramaturgy – there’s no easily digestible job description for family members to understand what weird thing it is their kid wants to do.

Separate from working on productions, literary management falls under the umbrella of dramaturgical work. For those who don’t know, most non-profit theatre companies have a literary staff who solicit new script submissions that they read and evaluate, working with the artistic director to decide what to produce. Rarely (though more and more frequently of late), a theatre will have a resident dramaturg to work on the productions the literary staff chooses.

Much of the work a literary staff does after the season is programmed – whether or not they have a resident dramaturg who handles this work personally – is communicate about the shows to audiences. They may write a program note or create lobby displays to highlight important themes and historical elements from a show that the production emphasizes, or conduct post-show talkbacks and other events that allow the audience and production team to interact.

A dramaturg at work. (Via Playwriting Australia)

A dramaturg at work. (Via Playwriting Australia)

The most academic and traditional way a dramaturg works on a production is as a researcher. A dramaturg might, for example, bring in research on 1890s British social norms and styles of dress for a production of The Importance of Being Earnest; in this case, the dramaturg wants to ensure that the actors’ accents are correct, that the costumes, props, and set are historically accurate, etc. This absolutely applies to both existing and new scripts – Kait Kerrigan and Brian Lowdermilk’s new musical Republic is set in 1970s Northern Ireland, and I’m sure dramaturgical research is informing their writing.

Some new scripts, though, are set in the present and don’t require that kind of rigorous academic research. Do they still use dramaturgs? Yes! New play dramaturgy is a different branch of the field where you work with the writer to develop the script to make it production-ready. This brings us to our first misconception:

Dramaturgs are the same thing as script doctors

Absolutely and unequivocally no. I don’t care what Smash told you. Script doctoring is more akin to ghostwriting. True, the skills necessary for playwriting and working as a dramaturg do overlap, but not all dramaturgs are playwrights and vice versa. Similarly, dramaturgs are not copyeditors. When working with a playwright on a new script, we usually aren’t going through it line by line with a red pen and making edits. New play dramaturgy is more holistic, looking at the play’s overall structure. Bringing me to my next point…

Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark supposedly had a script doctor. But they didn’t have a dramaturg, and see where that led?

Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark supposedly had a script doctor. But they didn’t have a dramaturg, and see where that led?

All dramaturgs do is look for problems

Also not true! This one mostly applies to new play dramaturgy, where the dramaturg is working with the playwright to develop the script. And this particular misconception upsets me because of how often I hear it. Like every other member of a production’s creative team, we only have the best interest of the show at heart. We wouldn’t be working on a script if we hated it and intended to rip it apart. We’re working on it because we see something of value in it and we want to help the playwright realize their vision to its fullest potential! So enough with the cynicism, writers!

Dramaturgs are superfluous members of the creative team

I mean, to each his own I guess, but I think we’re pretty useful to have around! Directors and writers are viewing dramaturgs as necessary more and more frequently. The trajectory of dramaturgy has mimicked directing; a few hundred years ago (think Shakespeare’s time and a little while after), there were no directors. Someone in a role similar to that of a stage manager also doled out blocking and other “director” information, but slowly directing became its own thing. Dramaturgy is following a similar path, where previously, directors often brought production research to their actors and helped writers with script development.

Dramaturgs are just huge nerds

Yes, this one is true.

Do you have any other questions about dramaturgy? Leave them in the comments!

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