Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Production Dramaturgy: What's a Dramaturg Do?

A red stage curtain drapes over an empty stage where it's written, "Insert Dramaturg."
What does a dramaturg do?

A production dramaturg is a consultant and an advocate for the playwright's intentions. But what does a dramaturg do?

According to the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, the definition of dramaturgy is "The art of the theater, especially the writing of plays."

That's a very simplistic definition for a very broad term, and it sounds an awful lot like what a playwright does. No wonder the term, thereby the purpose and function, is misunderstood by theatre professionals all over the world. "What in the world does a dramaturg do?" they ask. "Why should we hire one?" Saying that a dramaturg "does dramaturgy" or "the art of the theatre" is more than just a little vague.  It's a lot vague.


So What Does a Dramaturg Do?

Dramaturgs can be hired by theatres or directors as freelance production dramaturgs. They can be hired by theatres as literary managers, outreach coordinators, education supervisors and artistic directors. Playwrights can hire dramaturgs to act as script consultants and editors. Dramaturgy can be general and academic, the study of theatre history, or dramaturgy can be related to a specific production. Dramaturgy related to a specific production of a play, either new or old, is called production dramaturgy.


What are the Skills a Production Dramaturg Should Have?

Production dramaturgy seems to be the most cryptic function a dramaturg performs. The job description of a production dramaturg can be defined as follows: A production dramaturg is a consultant and an advocate for the playwright's intentions. His or her skill set should include
  • Historical and cultural knowledge
  • Efficient research and writing skills
  • Patient and objective observation skills
  • Playwriting experience
  • Structural analysis skills
  • Assertive and tactful communication skills
  • An ability to work in collaboration with others


What Does a Production Dramaturg Do?

There is no step-by-step method that all dramaturgs use, just as there is no step-by-step method that all actors or designers use. There are only abilities, expectations, and understandings. Dramaturgs do their best to give production teams the information they need while not becoming exhaustive with too much information or too many observations. The key is to know the script and to analyze what the audience will need to know, or will need to be told through production choices, in order to fully appreciate the work of the playwright and production team.

Basic information dramaturgs should gather varies depending on the play and the requests of the director. However, a step-by-step method always begins by looking something like the following two lists.

A Dramaturg's Pre-Rehearsal Tasks

  • Make a vocabulary list and define any ambiguous phrases or allusions.
  • Find character name meanings and research historical or real people.
  • Read reviews and pertinent criticism and theory of previous performances.
  • When possible and appropriate, communicate with the playwright.
  • Put together a timeline of important events related to the setting of the play.
  • Put together a timeline of important events related to the period when the play was written.
  • Make a list of images and complete an appropriate structural analysis.
  • Make translations.
  • Write or find an appropriate playwright biography.
  • Find sensory media, artifacts or objects that help define the world of the play.
  • Prepare packets of information, online reference pages, and a presentation for the cast and crew.
  • Be prepared to answer any and all questions.


A Dramaturg's Rehearsal and Production Tasks

  • Sit near the director to answer and ask questions.
  • Observe character and "world of play" consistency.
  • Write and revise program notes.
  • Plan lobby displays.
  • Prepare audience outreach information or handouts.
  • Take notes.
  • Plan and execute talkback sessions.
  • Be prepared to answer any and all questions.

Again, not all dramaturgs work this way. More may be asked of the dramaturg by the cast and crew per production, and less may be needed. A dramaturg must always consider the needs of the specific cast, crew, director, theatre, or audience for each and every production and dramaturgical task.

Did you find this essay helpful?  Do you have additional questions?  Please feel free to leave a comment or question.  I like them.

Want to read more about theatre?  Try 
Ancient Greek Theatre: Origins of the Term Deus Ex Machina.

Copyright Amy Lynn Hess.  Please contact for permission to reuse.

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