Faith Glendenning is a second year Dramaturgy student at DePaul University. She has served as Assistant Dramaturg for The Theatre School’s production of Cabaret directed by Barry Brunetti. Faith is currently serving as the dramaturg for the graduate director’s series on the show, Death and the Maiden.
What is dramaturgy anyway? Seems ironic that I would even be asking this question when I have decided to devote four years of my life studying this practice. But as soon as I begin to think that I am getting a grasp on the answer someone asks me, “so what does a dramaturg do?” I get ready to enthusiastically plunge into the answer, but quickly realize I am now back at square one. This is because I cannot grasp the right words to convey how amazing this art form is. I always find this situation extremely frustrating. Why is this profession so hard to explain?
Anyone who decides to pursue dramaturgy will experience this inquiry more than once. A big part of this problem lies in the fact that the answer is broad and it is different for every dramaturg. At The Theatre School, we are all encouraged to develop our own aesthetic. I have just embarked on this exciting journey of discovery. About three weeks ago I was assigned to my first head dramaturgical assignment. I was paired with a MFA I director, Marc Pinate, in my dramaturgy class and was selected to dramaturg his production of Ariel Dorfman’s play Death and the Maiden. This play is placed in a country recovering from a military dictatorship and follows the story of Paulina, a woman who was taken and tortured by the past regime and is now seeking justice.
How does one being to dramaturg this show? Well, I decided to start simple with the title. What does Death and the Maiden mean? I discovered that this renaissance theme was inspired by the myth of Persephone, the goddess abducted by Hades and forced to become the queen of the Underworld. I decided to take this information and use a version of this myth as a medium to analyze the play. By looking at the play through this lens I allowed to see the plot and characters in a different light.
After completing this analysis and other research including torture and the history of Pinochet’s Chile, I had to present the actor packet to the cast. I had a unique opportunity in this production because the director allotted about three hours to dramaturgy during our first rehearsal. I was able to cover everything in my actor packet and showed a short clip on the United States involvement with Pinochet’s Chile. Marc, the director of this production, also showed clips covering the stories of two different torture survivors. Throughout this entire presentation the actors were asked to engage in our material by responding to questions about how the material made them feel or enlightened them.
It was great to be able to devote that much time to dramaturgy but the true beauty of this rehearsal surfaced after the read through of the show. Realization finally struck me. This epiphany did not come from observing the actors, but instead from an understanding within myself. After presenting the dramaturgical material in sequence and then discussing our thoughts about it, the material was fully planted in my head like a seed. After reading the play out loud with the cast it began to bloom. The play seemed completely different. The characters’ objectives became much more clear and the story materialized off the page. It wasn’t simply a playwright’s vision, but instead a story about real people. I wanted to shout at the top of my lungs, “you see dramaturgy IS important!”
This one experience enlightened me as a young dramaturg, and I am looking forward to see the other discoveries I learn further into this rehearsal process. However, the lesson I pulled away from this early occurrence is that the definition of dramaturgy is beyond language and is instead about action. In other words, it is difficult to say what dramaturgy is, so it is crucial to show the importance of dramaturgy through your work. How are we going to do this? Well, I believe this to be the great challenge of our art. We have to strive to have directors, producers, and theatre companies notice our actions and realize the importance of our practice. Are you ready for this challenge? I know I am.