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“What Exactly Does a Dramaturg Do?”
September 25, 2012 11:21 AM   Subscribe


 
A dramaturg broke my heart once.

I don't want to talk about it.
posted by Egg Shen at 11:29 AM on September 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


Apparently, posts a single link with no commentary to a "wannabe LA actors" blog.
posted by Sphinx at 11:30 AM on September 25, 2012 [3 favorites]


Let's start with an easier question: how do you pronounce dramaturg? And why isn't there an 'e' on the end?
posted by facetious at 11:31 AM on September 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


how do you pronounce dramaturg?

Rhymes with "Edie McClurg".
posted by Egg Shen at 11:32 AM on September 25, 2012


Here's another one.
posted by DMelanogaster at 11:33 AM on September 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


Of course, this is not a perfect analogy

No. No it is not.
posted by yoink at 11:33 AM on September 25, 2012 [2 favorites]


"Thaumaturgy (from the Greek words θαῦμα thaûma, meaning "miracle" or "marvel" and ἔργον érgon, meaning "work") is the capability of a saint to work miracles."

I assume "dramaturg" is a portmanteau of this. And thusly I ignore it! I have had enough of such just-clever-enough titles. Judging by the drawn-out description, it seems like half the job of a dramaturg is to explain their significance.
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 11:40 AM on September 25, 2012 [2 favorites]


Compose dyads made up of a cat and a mouse.
posted by DU at 11:45 AM on September 25, 2012


Dramaturgs sneak into your house at night and loosen the quick-releases on your bike wheels.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 11:49 AM on September 25, 2012


Acting!
posted by Kabanos at 11:56 AM on September 25, 2012


I'd like to think that the rallying cry for the scriptwriting team for Top Gun was

"I feel the urge. The urge for dramaturge!"
posted by George_Spiggott at 11:57 AM on September 25, 2012


ObSF: John Brunner, The Dramaturges of Yan.
posted by Chrysostom at 11:58 AM on September 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


I dated a dramaturg for years. As best as I could tell, dramaturgs seem to spend a lot of time explaining what a dramaturg does.
posted by bicyclefish at 12:01 PM on September 25, 2012 [6 favorites]


Dramaturge does Gangnam Style.
posted by stormpooper at 12:05 PM on September 25, 2012


Well, I guess I'm the first person to come in on behalf of dramaturgs - partly because I've been one.

A simpler explanation is: we're a sort of "editor" of the theater world, especially in new productions. Since theater is so collaborative, it's really easy for a playwright to get all carried away and put some things in just for the sake of spectacle. We're the ones who sit there in the brainstorming sessions, when the playwright is saying "so I've got this new scene with a storm at sea here" and the lighting guy is saying "ooh, I've got a light effect that would look cool there" and the set guy is saying "and we could make the set do this and this and turn it into a ship" and the sound guy is saying "I've got some special effects CDs that would be awesome," and we come in and say "yeah, that all sounds cool, but isn't that going to upstage the fight with Grendel you've got, like, one scene later?" [I actually really did do just that for a play a friend was writing once.]

We also sometimes help actors with their research, helping them look up information about their characters and the time period in which they are operating - this can be relevant in a lot of unusual ways (I had to tell two actors, who were playing teammates on the US ping pong team during the 1970 friendship tour of China, not to "high-five" each other in one scene because people didn't do that until the 1990's). I've also had to try to explain the theology of New England Puritan Calvinism to a team of actors who were in a new play someone wrote based on a Hawthorne short story, and have been the go-to person for actors who asked questions like "what did women think of politics in 1910" to "did guys in 1880 wear their beards this way".

Or sometimes we'll work with the artistic director who wants to have some kind of Theme for the company's season ("So, I want to do something this season where all the shows are about Identity. Any ideas?"); we'll brainstorm the concept ("When you say 'identity', that's kind of a broad concept, so what do you mean?") and sometimes can help suggest specific shows ("so if we're talking political identity, The Octoroon could be an interesting choice....").

It's kind of an egg-heady thing, dealing with some deep nuts-and-bolts stuff behind the scenes in theater. Really cool, though, and you learn the weirdest shit.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:07 PM on September 25, 2012 [17 favorites]


Caveat, though - my position was largely more "volunteer" than professional; I did this for a company I worked with largely because I was interested in looking stuff up and could do the research legwork, and because I also have a somewhat literary background. I was self-taught in this, definitely.

There's not as much of a dramaturgy role in the US as there is in Europe, partly because actors and directors are often encouraged to do their own research. But you'll often find a person calling themselves the "literary manager" - that's very close to a dramaturg. The literary manager focuses more on the "helping the head of the company pick the plays we do each season" end of things; the dramaturg is actually more on the "now that we've picked the plays, helping the director/playwright by advising on a literary perspective" end of things.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:11 PM on September 25, 2012


If you were to ask my lady, the answer would be, "flush a lot of college money down the toilet."
posted by MiltonRandKalman at 12:13 PM on September 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


I don't know, but an actor friend of mine once described an enjoyable performance as making him "Drama Turgid," so there's that.
posted by Panjandrum at 12:18 PM on September 25, 2012


What's that job where folks snark on jobs they've never heard of?
posted by xingcat at 12:19 PM on September 25, 2012 [5 favorites]


Apparently, dramaturgs use really tiny type on their websites.
posted by Thorzdad at 12:25 PM on September 25, 2012


Fancy name for director's research assistant.
posted by Mental Wimp at 12:26 PM on September 25, 2012 [2 favorites]


Fancy name for director's research assistant.

Not the director's, no.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:29 PM on September 25, 2012


Good dramaturgy is difficult, and it's also absolutely essential. My favorite example of exceptional dramaturgy is a production I was involved with recently in Chicago. It was called "Chalk and Saltwater: The Ladder Project" and it involved an amazing amount of research into the history and production of a play called "The Ladder". Some words from our dramaturg Evan Hanover:

Good research starts with good questions.

May 22, 2010, I was working with John Pierson on "Crisis: A Musical Game Show", when he asked, out of the blue, "Can you find me a play that was a huge failure between 1910 and 1929?" "Sure," I thought, "Why not?" I had become accustomed to obscure requests. I wasn't certain why John asked for this, but I had a hunch of what we expected to find. In our minds was a real-life model for "The Producers", a "Springtime For Hitler" that fulfilled its promise by translating a terrible script into the briefest of Broadway runs. If we were super-fortunate, I might actually find one that opened and closed in the same night, doors shuttered against a storm of critical vitriol. Oh, it would be a train wreck. Turned out, I couldn't have been more wrong.

I poked around a bit the next day, but really couldn't find anything with a superlatively short run. I did, however, find a small mention of a play, funded by an "angel" who had put up a huge sum of his own money to keep it running. What's more, it starred Antoinette Perry who had a little award named after her, The Tonys. It seemed promising... and then it ground to a halt. The Ladder was so without merit, apparently, that it had never been published. No one had it. Universities, the New York Public Library, the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian, all of the institutions that are supposed to be the archivists for our culture and not one turned up so much of a trace of the script. One last shot remained. I found that a small book had been written about the backer of the play, Edgar B. Davis, concerning another one of his artistic ventures. I bought the book and, more importantly, contacted the author. William Reaves, it turned out, happened to have a photocopy of the play in his files. And sure he'd go to Kinko's to make a copy to send to me. This was the first of many instances when we relied on the kindness (and wisdom) of strangers.


The resulting journey took Evan, John, and their collaborators across the country in search of the full story behind "The Ladder". They consulted a number of primary sources, got in contact with the descendants of people like Antoinette Perry and Brock Pemberton, and saved the only known extant copy of the play from crumbling to dust in a basement. They delved into the life of the author, an eccentric capitalist named Edgar B. Davis. This rather unique piece of American theater history would have been lost to time if not for the dedicated dramaturgical work and research of someone who took the time to care.

This example is somewhat superlative, granted, but hopefully it gives you a better idea of how amazingly cool dramaturgy can be.

More information here if you're interested.
posted by lholladay at 12:32 PM on September 25, 2012 [9 favorites]


What's that job where folks snark on jobs they've never heard of?

There was a Law & Order: Criminal Intent episode in which this was a key point of the plot.

(That plus the all-knowing Goren subtly snarking on how an Ivy League graduate pronounced the word.)
posted by fuse theorem at 12:34 PM on September 25, 2012


One last shot remained. I found that a small book had been written about the backer of the play, Edgar B. Davis, concerning another one of his artistic ventures. I bought the book and, more importantly, contacted the author. William Reaves, it turned out, happened to have a photocopy of the play in his files. And sure he'd go to Kinko's to make a copy to send to me.

*grins* I actually once tracked down a 1911 playwright's last living relative in order to get his permission to have the Lincoln Center public library make a copy of the microfilm of a particular script for us. Turned out the guy was a retired history professor in Atlanta who, when I told him the play in question, was just silent for a few seconds and said "Okay, I know he wrote plays, but I never heard of that one." Nice guy, though - he gave me the name of yet another play from 1910 that he liked, I tracked that down later, and we did that play too.

(Lest anyone get too excited, though, the playwright in question was William De Mille - Cecil's brother, Agnes's father. Worth the effort - the play itself got some good reviews of the "why hasn't anyone done this play in 92 years"> variety.)
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:47 PM on September 25, 2012


Wouldn't it be the job of the directory to do all this work?
posted by zorro astor at 1:01 PM on September 25, 2012


Empress, your description was far more inlightening than the link. Thanks.
posted by Jehan at 1:02 PM on September 25, 2012


Oh, one correction, the original author of "The Ladder" was J. Frank Davis, a childhood friend of Edgar B. Davis. (No blood relation.)
posted by lholladay at 1:20 PM on September 25, 2012


Wouldn't it be the job of the director to do all this work?

Some directors like to do that. But it's not really their job as such.

(gears up for "theater 101" speak, apologies if this comes across simplistic to some) The director's job is to take a script and decide "here is what I want to do with this script this time." Hamlet has been done a whole ton of different ways; but the productions are not all carbon-copies of each other, because each director puts his or her own spin on it each time. Some productions are more traditional, some are more contemporary, some are wacked-out arty. And that is due to the director of each production sitting down and thinking "here is what I think this particular story means, here is how I want to interpret it, and here is how I am going to make that particular interpretation come across to the audience."

Now, some directors do indeed do that research on their own; but often, there is a hell of a lot more on their plate when it comes to answering the question "how do I bring about this interpretation of the script" aside from just the historical/literary perspective -- things like casting, set design, costume design, lighting, and other production elements. And yeah, that all is stuff the director has to think about and make decisions about (case in point - remember the modern-day film version of Hamlet from 2000? It'd have looked stupid if someone had put them all in tights and codpieces, right?). So sometimes there's a dramaturg on hand to provide perspective about that one angle of the production.

In fact, let's use that 2000 Hamlet as the example. Say that we were doing it as a play instead of a film. It'd be the director's job to say "So, I'd love to set Hamlet in the year 2000 instead. Y'all help me brainstorm here about how to make that happen." In that case:

* It'd be the costume guy's job to suggest a particular clothing designer's "look" as best for the play (i.e., "I think Armani would be a little too fancy, what we want is something a little more Michael Kors-y because they tend to be more stark and bleak").

* The lighting guy would be coming up with ideas about the overall tone of the light ("colder colored lights, to make it look more computer-screen-y") as well as what they usually do in different scenes. The sound guy may start looking for industrial music that Hamlet may be into, and the set guy may start designing a set with a lot of chrome in it.

* The dramaturg, though, would be there to point out things like "well, we obviously can't have Hamlet be the Prince of Denmark if you want to set this in 21st-Century USA. So rather than having him be the prince of Denmark, have him be heir to a CEO. Do you need me to look into the laws about corporate inheritance or anything like that?..."

It's like: the director is the president, and the lighting designer, set designer, costume designer, and dramaturg are all his cabinet. And then there's the stage manager who's like the chief of staff (but that's a WHOLE other FPP). Some directors like to be more hands-on in doing the research about all these different elements, just like there are presidents who like to really analyze all their briefings and do follow-up reading about them; and, there are presidents who rely on their cabinet members' own work, just like there are directors who prefer the extra help.

your description was far more inlightening than the link. Thanks.

Thank you!

I actually had to have it explained to me once upon a time; I just volunteered for two random and to-my-mind unconnected tasks at a theater company ten years ago, and it took them a couple days to realize that "hey, if you're doing both of these things, this makes you our dramaturg," and my reaction honestly was, "there's a name for this?" They had to explain it to ME!
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:22 PM on September 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


i had a shakespeare professor in college who was also a dramaturg. he was actually a great professor. but when he told us he was also a dramaturg, i heard it as "drama turd" and i thought "wow, someone actually PAYS him to be a drama turd?? you can have a job just being a drama turd?"

which is kind of what a dramaturg is.
posted by millipede at 1:32 PM on September 25, 2012


I used to carry heavy things for a hip, edgy, cool theater in downtown Big Apple (Soho!) back in the early 90's. This theater was so cool they staged their performances in an old garage! Fun setting up in that joint! The floors all sloped towards the drain: everything was about shims. Anyway, this was where I ran into my first (two because this place was so preposterously hip they actually had two) dramaturgs. These two people were so ridiculously smart that having them both in the room at the same time instantly raised the IQ of everyone else to above average. No-one really knew what they did but fuck were they bright, you could just see the smarts shinning off them. Ask them a question, any question ('Where did Ron hide the gels?' or 'Is Kate going to be late again? Did she call?' or even 'Well, what do you think Liz wants? Regular or extra sugar?') and the answer they gave, invariably, was clever, insightful, full of history of the theater, New York history generally, what Adorno would have done, what Grotowski would have wanted, how it would sound in a different language, why modernists are cute - throw a stick at anything you can think and they probably hit it.

But your question was never actually answered, not really. Thus you asked only if you had time to kill and were sure you weren't going to get chewed out by Clay for slacking off. Fascinating people.
posted by From Bklyn at 1:49 PM on September 25, 2012


As I see it, the dramaturg represents two things in the theatre. On the one hand, they represent the integrity of the dramatic work to the director and production staff. This means things like keeping anachronisms out, working in the piece's history and authorial intent vis a vis directorial fiat. With new works this may also be done with the playwright. Sometimes that also means "preparing the script," if there are multiple variations (as in say Shakespeare). On the other hand, they represent the interests of the audience and provide that perspective to the production team.

I've been credited as a dramaturg a few times, in amateur productions (of the musical Chess, specifically). It was mostly a consulting role, attending production meetings, preparing the script (an intricate thing to do with Chess) and attending rehearsals. It's really interesting, but at the same time you REALLY have to know your stuff.
posted by graymouser at 2:08 PM on September 25, 2012 [2 favorites]


(I had to tell two actors, who were playing teammates on the US ping pong team during the 1970 friendship tour of China, not to "high-five" each other in one scene because people didn't do that until the 1990's)

I call shenanigans. I count 3 distinct high fives in the volleyball scene from "Top Gun", and Wikipedia says it has been in the OED since 1980 or 81: source. What was your determination for this?
posted by starvingartist at 3:01 PM on September 25, 2012


I assume "dramaturg" is a portmanteau of this. And thusly I ignore it! I have had enough of such just-clever-enough titles. Judging by the drawn-out description, it seems like half the job of a dramaturg is to explain their significance.


I think it's a little unfair to call it a "portmanteau" when it is a real ancient Greek word.
posted by grobstein at 3:09 PM on September 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


I count 3 distinct high fives in the volleyball scene from "Top Gun" , and Wikipedia says it has been in the OED since 1980 or 81: source. What was your determination for this?

My own faulty memory when typing the comment in this thread (I only knew that it wasn't 1970, but couldn't remember when it was when i was typing in this thread, so I pulled "1990"out of my ass).
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:11 PM on September 25, 2012


So, research, perform as a sort of copyeditor for the production, senior adviser, concierge/major domo, or Radar O'Reilly with a Ph.D. in Theatre. I worked with a dramaturge once; she seemed to add bits of stuff more than anything else, so perhaps she wasn't a great example.
posted by theora55 at 4:37 PM on September 25, 2012


(I had to tell two actors, who were playing teammates on the US ping pong team during the 1970 friendship tour of China, not to "high-five" each other in one scene because people didn't do that until the 1990's)

I call shenanigans. I count 3 distinct high fives in the volleyball scene from "Top Gun", and Wikipedia says it has been in the OED since 1980 or 81: source. What was your determination for this?



Um...yeah. Watch some NBA from the 1970s.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 4:52 PM on September 25, 2012


On the origin of the high five:

Um...yeah. Watch some NBA from the 1970s.

The LATE 1970's, maybe. According to Wikipedia:

"There are many origin stories of the high five, but the two best documented candidates are Dusty Baker and Glenn Burke of the Los Angeles Dodgers baseball team on Oct. 2, 1977, and Wiley Brown and Derek Smith of the Louisville Cardinals basketball team during the 1978-1979 season."

The point being, it was in the late '70's that you started seeing high-fives on basketball courts, as opposed to on ping-pong courts in 1971, when the play we were doing was taking place.

And then today when I was typing my explanation of "we had to tell the people didn't do high-fives until....." and I couldn't remember the date when it began, only that it was later than 1971. So I pulled 1990 out of my ass.

And now that that's settled, we return to "what a dramaturg does." And actually, this thorough tracing of the history behind the high-five, and the source of the comment, and the gentle redirect back to the topic is a fairly good demonstration.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 5:36 PM on September 25, 2012 [2 favorites]


It has always fascinated me that film doesn't have this, and made me sort of suspicious of the theatre that they seem to need it. Then again, when you do a new production of an old play, you don't need a writer to re-adapt it. So maybe that's where the dramaturg comes in?

In my flippant and not at all enlightened opinion, the only reason for there to be a dramaturg on an original play is if you have some grant money you need to use up, or something. Or maybe if you have a very over-eager volunteer.

Are they unionized? Do all plays have to have a dramaturg, even if they have a perfectly good living playwright there to tell them whether to high-five or not? And why isn't the director doing that, anyway? Sure, it's not the director's job to know the history of the high five, but the 'five either works or it doesn't, you know? And surely if the director doesn't know what works, he's not doing his job.
posted by Sara C. at 8:23 PM on September 25, 2012


Are they unionized? Do all plays have to have a dramaturg, even if they have a perfectly good living playwright there to tell them whether to high-five or not? And why isn't the director doing that, anyway? Sure, it's not the director's job to know the history of the high five, but the 'five either works or it doesn't, you know? And surely if the director doesn't know what works, he's not doing his job.

The Dramaturgs I've met I've thought of as being like tenured professors, but without the tenure. They're there, someone knows why if it's not obvious and there's a good chance they wrote some books.
posted by From Bklyn at 10:24 PM on September 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


Then again, when you do a new production of an old play, you don't need a writer to re-adapt it. So maybe that's where the dramaturg comes in?

That's one reason to have a dramaturg. As I mentioned, there are two things that the dramaturg represents: on the one hand, they are the advocate for the work being performed. On the other, they are the representative of the audience to the production staff.

So a dramaturg looks at several things for the production staff: the text of the play itself, the production history, the characters, setting and context of the play. It's the dramaturg's responsibility to the integrity of the theatrical piece that is being done here. In a play like Hamlet, the dramaturg may actually prepare the script from multiple variants that exist. They may also write some of the production materials, such as a note on the play's history for the playbill, and give written reports to the production staff.

In my flippant and not at all enlightened opinion, the only reason for there to be a dramaturg on an original play is if you have some grant money you need to use up, or something. Or maybe if you have a very over-eager volunteer.

Again, the dramaturg also represents the audience. A playwright doesn't. No one in the production staff does. So the dramaturg in an original production may act as more of a "script consultant" than as a historian and advocate for the work as they would with a new production of an existing play. They are concerned with the work being basically sound in its construction and offering a perspective from outside the creative staff. They'd likely read the script and give advice, and then attend rehearsals and give feedback as an audience stand-in.

Having an advocate for the audience before the play is actually finished seems to me to have fairly obvious advantages. Having an extra viewpoint allows the creative team to refine its work and present a better final product.
posted by graymouser at 2:42 AM on September 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


It has always fascinated me that film doesn't have this, and made me sort of suspicious of the theatre that they seem to need it.

They.....may? It just happens WAY before shooting starts, when the screenwriter is still working on the script. Mind you, I'm basing my knowledge of film production on my reading the production diary Emma Thompson kept during the production of Sense and Sensibility, but I do remember her talking about an early production meeting where it was her and a whole tableful of people sitting and talking about the script; you had a guy giving the money perspective, other people giving their perspectives, and there was one person on hand who was giving more of a "here's what the audience would and wouldn't understand" perspective. (Actually, they were more explaining things to some of the suits in the room; one of the studio execs read the script and asked "I don't get what the big deal was about trying to get married to have money, why don't Eleanor and Marianne just get jobs?") So there may be a similar role, they're just called by a different name and they do their thing well before the shooting starts.

Are they unionized? Do all plays have to have a dramaturg, even if they have a perfectly good living playwright there to tell them whether to high-five or not?

Not all plays do. And whether or not they do have one or not doesn't depend on whether it's a new play or not -- there's a dramaturg if the director thinks they need one, pretty much. Some are more comfortable without; some appreciate the extra set of eyes.

And why isn't the director doing that, anyway? Sure, it's not the director's job to know the history of the high five, but the 'five either works or it doesn't, you know? And surely if the director doesn't know what works, he's not doing his job.

Okay, let me REALLY get detailed about how it works.

In the rehearsal, yes, it usually is the director's job to tell an actor "hey, that high five you guys tried in that scene this one time we rehearsed it isn't working." And indeed, in the rehearsal where that happened, the director did happen to just know "they didn't do high-fives in 1971," so he did say that. If he hadn't happened to know that offhand -- and it would be understandable if he didn't, because that is a very minor trivial point that not everyone would catch - he may not have said that.

If there had been a dramaturg in the room in that case, though, then it would be their job to say to the director, "just so you know, they didn't do high-fives in 1971." Now -- the director may consider going ahead with having the cast do a high-five after all "because who in the audience is really going to know that." And the dramaturg's job, in that instance, would be to consider "would the audience indeed be likely to know that? Are there going to be people in the audience being all, 'wait, they didn't do high-fives in 1971' and it would distract them from the show?" And they may decide "eh, it probably isn't a big deal" and they'd go ahead and do it. Or, the dramaturg may decide "acutally, yeah, it looks too contemporary" and would recommend doing without it. The director, though, still has final say.

Now - that is a VERY, VERY detailed case study, and is NOT meant to give the impression that every single little actor choice and decision is scrutinized to that exacting a level of detail. In reality, the conversation would be something like this -

During a break:

"Hey director, just so you know, they didn't do high-fives in 1971."
"Oh, really? I didn't know that, Dramaturg; do you think that'd be a problem if they did?"
"hmm....y'know, actually, nah, I think we'll be fine."
"Okay, cool. But good to know, thanks."

It's also possible the conversation would go something like this:

"Hey director, they didn't do high-fives in 1971."
"I didn't know that, dramaturg. Interesting."
"But you'd probably be fine if they did it."
"...Nah, I think I'll have them stop just in case. Because of reasons."

Or, the conversation may go somethng like this:

"Hey, director, they didn't do high-fives in 1971."
"I knew that, dramaturg. But I don't think the audience is gonna care."

Or:

"Hey, director, they didn't do high-fives in 1971."
"I knew that, dramaturg. But I think the contemporary gesture will unite the audience with the cast in a dramatic instinctive way at a key moment in the play and..."

Or any one of a number of ways.

If it helps, think of the dramaturg as a sort of human encyclopedia/literary professor, and it's up to the director whether or not they want to look something up or not. A dramaturg can speak up if someone tries to do something really wrong ("why don't the two main characters in Sense and Sensibility just get jobs"), but the director has final say over what happens on stage in that production.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:02 AM on September 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


Oh, also, the playwright isn't usually in all the rehearsals for a new play. Partly because the director has to be the leader of the pack, and having the playwright on hand would kind of diffuse the leadership a bit; and partly because sometimes playwrights get a little bit like Gollum when it comes to what they've written ("nooooo you must say the line like this because that is how I always pictured it in my head! My words! My preciousssss!") and that also confuses things.

Which brings up a good point that sometimes another thing that the dramaturg ends up doing is playing mediator between the director and the playwright, if need be (between "but I always pictured Sid climbing up the lamppost like this!" and "we looked at it in rehearsal and it looks stupid for Sid to do that"; sometimes it helps the playwright get "I get that you want Sid to do something dashing and romantic in that scene, but a big physical action would upstage that confession he makes to Griselda one scene later; perhaps we can re-think that scene and come up with something else for Sid").

Look, I know it sounds like we're moving the goalposts here when it comes to "what does a dramaturg do", and I realize this probably is very frustrating for people trying to get a clear answer of "but what is the job description". But theater can be pretty loosey-goosey in terms of what exactly people do, because everyone has a very distinct personality and a very distinct way of working, and part of every production is a bit of a learning curve when everyone is feeling out how to work together and how they do their job this time. Some directors prefer a more hands-on dramaturg, some prefer that they not be thus. Sometimes dramaturgs are at most of the rehearsals, sometimes they just check in now and then and then have a couple meetings with the director after the rehearsals where they give their advice. And sometimes they're not even there because the director prefers not to have one.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:14 AM on September 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


It's the dramaturg's responsibility to the integrity of the theatrical piece that is being done here.

Yeah, this is the part that I don't understand. How is that not the director's job?

They are concerned with the work being basically sound in its construction and offering a perspective from outside the creative staff.

Again, how is this not the director's job?

I know I'm coming at this from the world of film and television, and that there are some things that are just different between the three mediums. (And, in fact, in TV, this job is somewhat done in certain cases, where it's usually called a "consultant".)

But it still doesn't make much sense to me.

They.....may?

Trust me, they don't.

It just happens WAY before shooting starts, when the screenwriter is still working on the script.

That would be a researcher or a consultant, not a dramaturg. And that person's only job would be to do specific research or give specific advice based on the needs of that particular script, in cases where there would be a need for it. In other cases, this sort of thing might be done by a writer's assistant, among many other mostly administrative tasks, but would ultimately rest with the screenwriter.

...the production diary Emma Thompson kept during the production of Sense and Sensibility, but I do remember her talking about an early production meeting ... and there was one person on hand who was giving more of a "here's what the audience would and wouldn't understand" perspective.

That's something that ultimately should reside with the screenwriter, and it's sort of odd that in this case it didn't. I don't know if the studio didn't trust Thompson's adaptation of the novel very much, or if she's misremembering or somewhat distorting how film production works for ease of reading by civilians. For example, the person doing this might have been a producer, or really just anyone in the room who has actually read the book and is getting the studio execs up to speed. Though I'm not clear on why that wouldn't have been Thompson, as the writer. Because on every other movie I've ever heard of, questions about things like "why would so and so do X?" or "will the audience understand Y?" ultimately rest with the writer.

Damn, I really want to read Emma Thompson's production diary from Sense and Sensibility...
posted by Sara C. at 6:29 AM on September 26, 2012


Oh, also, the playwright isn't usually in all the rehearsals for a new play.

Ah, OK. This I understand. Thank you. That actually clarifies a lot.

In my head, I picture the playwright being there.

The funny thing is that I know playwrights, and it's never occurred to me to notice whether and how often they attend rehearsal. And then in my mind where I assume that the playwright always attends rehearsal, I guess I sort of imagined it being like the screenwriter on a TV set, where they're really just there to answer all these specifically dramaturg-ish questions that arise.

Screenwriters are almost never on movie sets, and there is no dramaturg and I guess nobody cares.
posted by Sara C. at 6:33 AM on September 26, 2012


>It's the dramaturg's responsibility to the integrity of the theatrical piece that is being done here.

Yeah, this is the part that I don't understand. How is that not the director's job?


It's the director's job to interpret the script and present that in their own unique way. The dramaturg is an extra pair of eyes to a) help the director with that if they need it as a resource and to keep them honest, or b) to make sure the director doesn't spin out of control into "Hey, I know, what if we have it so the entire show takes place inside King Lear's brain, only literally, so when one character or another character dies it's like Lear had a stroke and so after that he's walking with a limp or slurring his speech, and we can make everyone dress in these weird tendrilly things so they look like they're neurons, and...."

That would be a researcher or a consultant, not a dramaturg. And that person's only job would be to do specific research or give specific advice based on the needs of that particular script, in cases where there would be a need for it.

And that's why I said "the job probably has a different name in film/TV".
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:34 AM on September 26, 2012


No, in film and TV, except for in a few very specific cases (like maybe Peggy Noonan on The West Wing), this job simply doesn't exist. The person doing the research part is a low-level admin hired by the week to accomplish specific research tasks.

They're not making sure the director doesn't "spin out of control", they're just saying "here's an interesting New Yorker article about nightclubs in the 70's that supports the fact that our characters are doing coke in the bathroom."
posted by Sara C. at 6:47 AM on September 26, 2012


Ah, OK. This I understand. Thank you. That actually clarifies a lot. In my head, I picture the playwright being there.

I think this was the crux of the disconnect, is you're thinking the playwright is always there and they're not.

And:

They're not making sure the director doesn't "spin out of control", they're just saying "here's an interesting New Yorker article about nightclubs in the 70's that supports the fact that our characters are doing coke in the bathroom."

Okay, but that's film/TV. This is theater. If theater were filmed, it'd be film, just like if my aunt had balls she'd be my uncle.

But I think we got it.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:05 AM on September 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


Hi. I have hijacked my SO's account (after years as a lurker) because I am that rare thing: a professional working dramaturg (you can spell it with an -e, I don't). I make my living as a freelance dramaturg, I am hired by various theatre companies, directors, and playwrights.

EmpressCallipygos is pretty spot on about the myriad of duties I fulfill that fall under the umbrella of dramaturgy. And bicyclefish is right that we spend a lot of time explaining what we do to others--even within the theatre community. Because here's the thing: like a lot of other jobs out there in the universe, this one is largely defined by the people who perform it, the people who hire them, and the project itself.

So, here's how I see it, and why a dramaturg is, I believe, an incredibly useful tool for anyone who can afford to pay one.

1) A good editor is worth their weight in gold. A dramaturg can be an editor for a new play (the text) and for a production--asking questions, making sure internal logic is consistent and the world makes sense, pushing for further development of an idea, making sure the structure is sound, etc. This means involves intense communication skills--knowing when to advocate for something and when to accept what's happening and move on. When done right, you've managed to get everyone to do their best work and think its their own idea.

2) At some point, everyone (with the exception of the playwright) has to move past the text. When the writer isn't in the room, my job is to try to help solve problems that come up in the rehearsal room using text--alternate readings of certain lines, keeping the rest of the play in my head to see if there are answers elsewhere in the story. A lighting designer thinks about how to solve problems through light, a costume designer through costume, and a dramaturg through text. A director is keeping all of this stuff in mind and therefore can't afford to be a specialist. A dramaturg is a text specialist.

3) Playwrights and directors don't always know what's good about what they've done, and it's extremely difficult to see things how other people who aren't in your head see them. We call this second eyes, and it's fundamentally important. With the playwright, sometimes its about helping them sift through which problems are theirs to solve and which should be solved by a production--a very tricky thing in a collaborative environment. Often my job is more about telling writers it's ok to stop revising rather than continuing a list of problems.

4) Audience engagement. Dramaturgs generate most of the written material seen by audiences, lead audience talk-backs, and curate guest speakers and other similar types of events to enrich the audience experience.

5) Yes we do research. But we also keep track of the research being done by others to make sure everyone's on the same page, especially important when actors go off and find some less than reliable resources on their own. Often this is the least important of my duties and is primarily used as a tool to gain the trust of my collaborators by demonstrating that I understand their vision and can contribute to it.

There is a kind of dramaturg (particularly in NYC) who function more as producers: finding new playwrights and advocating for them, linking writers with directors and organizations.

We don't have a union, we have an association: LMDA (Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas). If you're interested, check us out. We are grossly underpaid, we're working on trying to standardize payment for the increasing number of freelancers. Previously, most dramaturgs were on staff in theatres, but as the financial crisis has taken its toll, a lot of institutions have dropped this position.
posted by workingdankoch at 11:31 PM on September 26, 2012 [3 favorites]


Also just to add: often when I've encountered directors who don't have a use for a dramaturg, it's because they've had a bad experience with a bad dramaturg and written off the whole profession. It's the kind of position that is too often given to eager volunteers (sorry Sara C.) who don't know what they are doing and either end up as just a research mule (in which case, sure, anyone can do that) or have trouble letting go of their own ideas about what a production "should be." This has actually been a huge problem for me as I often have to win back trust for the profession even before I can work on someone trusting me.

(apologies for minor grammatical typos, I started early this morning by giving a 2.5 hour dramaturgical presentation, then another hour long one twice in a row on a different play, and ended the day in tech and a dress rehearsal for a third play before sitting with the director for an hour going over notes).
posted by workingdankoch at 11:41 PM on September 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


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