One of my favorite things to do in life is to tell people what I do. You know, that classic conversation when you meet someone new and basic information is shared: name, where you’re from and, of course, what you do. I try and be all nonchalant, but in reality I’m waiting for a very specific moment, one that brings some sort of odd joy to my life.
“So, what do you do?”
“I’m a dramaturg.”
Usually at this moment, he starts nodding his head. Then there is a pause, a slight twitch of the head as what I said processes, a confused look crosses the face, and, then, as he does a double take, the moment happens:
Now, I don’t blame most people for never having heard the word. It is a little obscure, German in origin (in case you were wondering), and defines a field within the theatre that is pretty small—and many would argue, a field that the theatre world doesn’t always understand. But that’s a whole other conversation.
So, why do I describe it here, potentially robbing myself of countless of these moments? Well, since my adventures as the “Veteran Newbie”—as I have been so dubbed—will be done through a dramaturgical lens (sounds fancy, doesn’t it?), I figured it would be best to explain what a dramaturg does.
Plus, I promised in my first post, so it seemed like a good idea.
What is a dramaturg? (And that’s pronounced with a hard “g” at the end). Unfortunately, there’s not a de facto answer, but I have definitely come up with my own explanations. The most basic answer—and I mean down to the very foundation of the word—is this: I question.
“What in the world does that mean?” you ask in a great, dramaturgical way. (Good job).
Here’s the longer answer:
As a dramaturg, I have a lot of functions. With new plays, I work with playwrights in developing the script. It is my job to know what it is that the playwright is trying to do, and to help her do it. Which means, I ask a lot of questions. “What was your intention here?” “Do you mean for this character to come off this way?” “This is the message that I am receiving, are you OK with that?” “How do you feel about the way this scene transitions into the next?” And on, and on, and on. Basically I’m like that pesky significant other that wants you to explain every thought, intention, word and action that you’re having. I do this so that the playwright has a sounding board, someone to help her make sure that things make sense, that points are connecting, and (most importantly) that her original intent in writing the play does not get lost in the shuffle.
Part of this process (and I do this part with new and established plays) is making sure that I know the world being created by the play inside and out. If it’s historically based, I research everything about that time period. If it’s set within a different culture and country, I get to know everything about them. If it’s dealing with specific issues, problems, politics, etc., then… yup, you guessed it. I become a walking encyclopedia about the subject, which means that I’m really good at Trivial Pursuit and Jeopardy-esque games. Once I have all the information swimming around in my head, then I get to ask the question, “What is important?” In other words, what does the playwright need to know in order to write her play? What does the director need to know? The designers? The actors? While I might find the knowledge of how you get a bronco to buck fascinating, does my designer for Oklahoma! need to know that piece of information? Probably not. But the actor playing Curly does (true story). The information gets funneled down and disseminated in a way that, hopefully, allows every member of the production to enhance and enrich the work that they are already doing.
Now once we’re in rehearsal, the job description gets a little vague. Often I work as another set of eyes for the director, making sure that the production being created on stage adheres to both the director’s intent and the playwright’s. If the playwright is in the room, I get to be a reminder of her original idea. When the playwright is not in the room or is, well, dead, then I get to be the voice of the playwright. However, perhaps most importantly, I am in the rehearsal room to be a sort of documenter of the process. This part allows me to do one of my favorite parts of my job: working with the audience.
Since I am normally with the production from the moment the script is selected (as one of my roles when I work at a theatre institution is to help choose which plays we will do that season), through the preparation, rehearsals, technical rehearsals, previews and opening, I usually have a unique understanding of the journey and process of the play. As the dramaturg, I get to be a sort of bridge between the process and the audience, allowing them a chance to more fully understand what it is they are seeing on stage. Again, this involves a lot of questions. The main question is, what does the audience actually need/want to know? Working with the audience can be anything from writing program notes or study guides, moderating post show discussions, organizing events surrounding the show, and much much more. When I worked at Arena Stage in Washington, DC, I ran a website dedicated to all that “behind the scenes” information—a site we paralleled to the extra features on a DVD. All the information you could possibly want to know both about the world of the play and the way that it was created. (Check it out, it’s kind of awesome.) Similar to working in the rehearsal room, I have to question all the information I make available, making sure that it not only truly supports the vision of the play but that it is actually helpful and/or interesting information that will enhance and enrich the audience’s interaction with production.
I could talk all day about that last part, but I shall endeavor to contain myself.
So, that, in a very long nutshell, is the work of dramaturg, or at least some of the main aspects. It is this questioning spirit that will be guiding my adventures of a veteran newbie—both my own questions and the questions that people have for me. (The comment section is always open!) In the few short weeks that I’ve been back in Utah, the conversations I’ve had, the theatre I’ve seen, and the
gossip news I’ve heard, already has all sorts of questions percolating in my brain. Now it’s time to see where those questions lead.