Ode to the Dramaturg

13101009_10207998584233835_595778256_nGraphic by Adam Elliott

By Danielle Szabo, Editor-in-Chief

“I’m the dramaturg for this production.”

“Did you just say “drama TURD”?

“No, dramaturG… It’s German.”

“But what do you do?”

“Basically, I’m there for the playwright and the director. Especially if the director’s vision starts to disagree with the text of the play, I’m there to help. I also help with a lot of the research into the world of the play. It honestly depends on the production.”

“Uh huh… okay.”

This isn’t just a conversation I’ve had multiple times with my parents and other non-theatrical family members, I’ve had it with Theatre School students and other theatre people as well. The word “dramaturg” brings with it mystery and misconceptions to those who haven’t had the chance to formally study dramaturgy.

The definition offered above is just one of many that I have come across either in dramaturgy classes or from fellow classmates.

I’ve heard, “The dramaturg is the best friend of the playwright and the director. And they’re there if those two get in a fight.”

Yasmin Mitchel, a BFA2/3 Dramaturgy/Criticism major, says, “[A dramaturg is] the director’s consultant, the actor’s confidant, and the playwright’s advocate.”

Mark Bly, resident dramaturg at The Acting Company in New York, describes a dramaturg as one who questions.

I’m not sure if these definitions clear things up, but at the most basic level, a production dramaturg becomes invested in the playwright’s text and the director’s vision. The relationship between these two things changes from production to production thus causing the dramaturg’s role to change drastically with each new creative endeavor.

Many TTS students cannot accurately describe what a dramaturg does and this may add to the struggle some of our Dramaturgy/Criticism majors have when learning their role in theatre in a production practice. I have even worked on productions where the director isn’t quite sure what do with the dramaturg. In all fairness, TTS’s hefty production schedule can make it difficult for every student to be fully committed to every member of every production practice — especially with advisors and assistants. However, if another member of the production isn’t quite sure where the dramaturg stands as a member of the creative team, they won’t know how to reach out to the dramaturg and open a new avenue of collaboration. This also works vice versa on the dramaturg’s end.

I talked to many of TTS’s Dramaturgy/Criticism majors about their processes navigating their changing identities and how they stay engaged with the director and actors throughout the process. I found, that most of all, the majors showed creativity and excitement in the creation of actor packets and actor activities.

For Translation of Likes, JD Garrastegui and I made this Facebook-like Tumblr page. The dramaturgy team for Crime and Punishment, Trisha Mahoney, Yasmin Mitchel, and Mariah Schultz, turned the actor packet into a murder mystery that the team had to solve. Lauren Quinlan assigned the God’s Ear cast an activity where they created a playlist for their characters. Kaysie Bekkela, along with her assistant Abbie O’Donnell, made a “turgy of the day” Facebook page. Bekkela is also working on The Women Eat Chocolate with Margaret Baughman and they gave their actors a school workbook to help them get in the mindset of playing middle-schoolers.

While all of the dramaturgs are developing creative and innovative ways to amp up research and table work during the beginning of the rehearsal, many felt that their engagement with the company began to wane after the first week.

One of the important roles of the dramaturg is being the objective, audience-oriented eye during runs of the show later in the process. If dramaturgs were to attend all rehearsals than they could lose this objectivity. Nevertheless, this comes at a price, as dramaturgs start to lose contact and closeness with the actors, the creative team, and sometimes even the director. One dramaturg described it as being lonely. They still had plenty of work — more questions to research, a talk back to prepare for, a program note to write, etc. However, they may not see the actors or creative team for weeks and feel like strangers upon stepping back into the rehearsal room.

When we reflect on our beginnings in theatre, many of us started as actors or as a part of the technical crew. Involvement in a rehearsal process meant that we were close to everyone involved. It could be considered a wonderful three-month family. Interestingly enough, in our rehearsal processes today, some dramaturgs, myself included, are learning that we may have to sacrifice this closeness in the professional world.

When any artist in any capacity moves from theatre as a hobby to theatre as a job, it can be strenuous, nerve-wracking, and even disheartening. I talked to Maren Robinson, resident dramaturg at Timeline Theatre and ensemble member at Lifeline Theater, about how the emerging dramaturg professional can look forward to the world outside school: “The biggest difference for a dramaturg leaving TTS and working professionally is that you have to find your way to being an equal partner in the room. School is structured so that some people have the power to give you grades and feedback.” Personally, I have found it intimidating working under big name directors and being able to have a strong connection with them in order to properly collaborate. This will hopefully get easier as I move from student to professional.

Part of the learning curve at TTS, in any major, is knowing when to speak out, reach out, and collaborate. Mariah Schultz, BFA2 Dramaturgy/Criticism, potently describes this process in her article “Finding My Voice as a Dramaturg.” Robinson offers this bit of advice: “Each production will be different and you need to be a respectful collaborator. However, just as importantly you need to figure out how to have your voice in the room and know when to speak up rather than waiting for someone to tell you it is okay. No one is waiting to call on you to hear what you think and this is what you have been training to do.”

Dramaturgs are also malleable and must change their identity vastly to fit the production. “Dramaturgs are almost like the Mary Poppins of the theatre, there to provide a service when needed but they leave when they are needed somewhere else,” aptly expresses Schultz. Robinson had these words of wisdom to add: “Rehearsal is the place to be incorporating anything that will make the performance richer. That said, I may have pots of knowledge stored up and if I know some fascinating bit of information but it doesn’t help the play, I keep it to myself. I don’t need to share every scrap of knowledge I may have. A lot of being a good dramaturg is learning to edit yourself, your materials and just do what is necessary for a good production.”

Even when working with a team who completely understands them, a dramaturg is sometimes still unrewarded. They produce an invisible product. Most of the work in theatre can be clearly pinpointed on stage by the spectator, but dramaturgy is rarely visible (lobby displays, talkbacks, and program notes being the obvious exceptions). Dramaturgs jump from production to production, being versatile and collaborative as possible, but the average theatre-goer will never truly know the function of the “dramaturd.”

It is up to theatre community to understand and appreciate every member of a production. We truly survive and thrive off the connections we make with our three-month family, not the accolades we receive from the audience.

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