What is a dramaturg? Even people who work in the theatre industry can have trouble coming up with a job description for this incredibly valuable yet elusive position. And that’s because dramaturgs can fulfill several different kinds of roles depending on the needs of the writer, the production, or the institution that employs them.
Sometimes dramaturgs are hired by a production to research the world of the show, aiding the creative team and performers with understanding the time period, language or historical references in a script. For example, if you are working on the musical, Something Rotten, the dramaturg might research London, England in the 1590’s and provide information about The Renaissance, William Shakespeare, illustrations of the dress of the time, and research some of the archaic language used in the show.
Dramaturgs may also be hired directly by a writer to work with them one-on-one on the development of a new work. In this capacity, the dramaturg may start by asking the writer questions to help clarify the story the writer is trying to tell. In this way, the dramaturg acts as more of an advisor. This relationship may be short-lived or it may continue over the course of many years as the show moves from staged readings to a full production.
Dramaturgs can help with everything from clarifying the story arc, to identifying gaps, to making sure any change that the writer makes in one part of the story carries throughout the piece. By acting as an outside eye they are able to view the script objectively without any preconceived notions about the story and characters. They do this by reading through the script multiple times and making notes.
Dramaturgs may start their work with a writer by asking questions, for example, “Why did your protagonist make this choice?” This will cause the writer to have to explain their choices and decide if the way the dramaturg responded to the character or plot development is the way they want an audience to hear it. If not, they may decide to make changes. Making changes to the script should always be the writer’s choice. The dramaturg does not make changes to a script for the writer.
A dramaturg’s allegiance is always with the writer first. Dramaturg Anika Chapin, who is currently Director of Artistic Development at Virginia’s Signature Theater calls the dramaturg the “protector of the text,” whose job it is to always honor the story that the writer is trying to tell. Although a dramaturg may be a writer, they are not involved with making any changes themselves. The dramaturg’s job is to ensure that the writer stays true to their vision and help them tell the story in the best way they can.
Sometimes, the dramaturg’s alliance with a writer may be complicated if the dramaturg finds themselves on the staff of an institution such as a regional theatre. In this case, even though their job is to help find and develop scripts with the intention of developing them for production, the dramaturg must always stay loyal to the writer and the text first.
When working with a writer, a dramaturg must first create a working relationship. No two writers have the same process or respond to feedback in the same way. So, in addition to being able to identify potential issues in a text or new work, it is essential that the dramaturg have good communication skills and learn how to give feedback in a way that a writer will be able to absorb. Some writers will be able to take constructive criticism better than others, and in order for a dramaturg to do their job effectively, they must learn how to speak to each writer/deviser individually.
Sometimes a dramaturg will act as a bridge between a creative team member – for example the director, choreographer, or music director – and the writer(s). If a scene or song is not working, the dramaturg may be able to act as a conduit for helping possible changes get made. This could even extend to input on such things as costume and scenic design since the dramaturg will often be involved in researching these areas.
There is no union for dramaturgs, though there is a member organization called the Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas. Dramaturgs may find work through organizations of writers, or through institutions such as regional theaters. If dramaturgy sounds like it might be for you, you can study it at several colleges and universities, which offer BFAs in Dramaturgy.
The role of dramaturg can vary widely from project to project. They are a key player in the development of new work as well as helping revisit and reimagine works from the past.