What is Dramaturgy: About the Field and Its History

I have mentions all over my website about being a dramaturg, but it occurred to me, how many of my visitors/readers really know what a dramaturg is/does? I would hope that since you’re on a theatre website you have a little bit of an idea, but let’s take that small idea and grow it a bit. Merriam-Webster defines dramaturgy as, “the art or technique of dramatic composition and theatrical representation.” What I always tell people I do as a dramaturg is work as the audience’s advocate. A dramaturg facilitates discussions between the director and actors, director and playwright, director and designers, audience and production, and any other combination of theatre makers that you can imagine.

What does this look like? In different productions that I have worked on I have attended rehearsal and production meetings, compiled actor’s packets with information about the history of and research regarding the show, designed and put up lobby displays, written playbill notes, led pre-production seminars/forums and post-show discussions, and read so many scripts whether that means different translations/adaptations of established scripts or new drafts of new works. But where did dramaturgy come from? Does it kind of seem like it appeared out of thin air one day and now theatres are talking about hiring a dramaturg for their productions? I mean, that’s maybe a little true, but not really.

The earliest known examples of literary theory are Aristotle’s Poetics (Greece) in 335 BCE and the Natya Shastra (India) in approximately 200 BCE. However, it wasn’t until the mid-1700s that German dramatist Gotthold Ephraim Lessing coined the term “dramaturgie” or dramaturgy. If you think back to any theatrical history classes you have taken, dramaturgs have always been (as Lin-Manuel Miranda puts it) in the room where it happens. They go by many names: script reader, consultant, collaborator, historian, researcher, etc. If you have ever seen anyone referred to in one of these ways (or other related ways) they are playing a tiny part in the role of a dramaturg. Always remember, that a dramaturg is much more than each of those things on their own.

Just in the last 20-30 years dramaturgy has become more widely known and used and dramaturgs have become a valuable part of the production process and new play development process. While I love production dramaturgy, my heart lies with new works. One thing that I love to do is work one-on-one with playwrights to help them in the process of writing new scripts. I will never pass up the opportunity to work with a playwright on a new work. Many universities still don’t have dramaturgy programs at all or are still working on developing their programs. I had the opportunity to attend Brigham Young University and learn under Shelley Graham who worked to make sure that dramaturgs were never forgotten in the production process.

As you begin work on your next production (COVID-safe or post-COVID) or begin writing the next Pulitzer winning play, don’t forget to hire a dramaturg. All we really want to do is help. We will not direct your play, nor will we write it. Dramaturgs are all different depending on who you hire and where they learned how to be a dramaturg. We can usually be whoever you need us to be for your project.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: