If I had was paid by the hour for every hour of my life I have spent trying to answer the question “What is dramaturgy?” I would probably have enough to pay back my student loans by now. It is a term that seems to defy a clear definition.
Some dramaturgs seem to work in rehearsal rooms, some seem to work more closely with writers and scripts pre-rehearsal. Institutional dramaturgs will remain loyal to the productions of just one venue, whilst those on the freelance circuit are free to work for as many or few companies as their time and career permit.
In terms of the tasks that dramaturgs undertake in these scenarios, these are also hard to pin down. Katalin Trancsenyi, dramaturg and author of Dramaturgy in the Making (essential reading!) lists some specific roles, such as: “help planning the season” and “commissioning new work”, these appear to be institutional activities. However, she also lists actions. If you “Collate, cut, track, edit, rewrite, construct, arrange, etc.”, you are “doing dramaturgy”.
In short, dramatrugy encompasses a rich and varied range of practices, that are practised in varying amounts and in different scenarios by each individual. he ideas I present below aim to offer a more practical and less philosophically speculative way of considering the role.
I ask: How does an aspiring dramaturg (once you have heard enough to work out you already are one/ want to be one) build a career?considering
1: Building relationships is essential. As with nearly any role in the theatrical universe, your best chance of getting a script in your lap or being invited into a rehearsal room is to know those involved. Dramaturgy is defined by how you impact on something that is in development, whether that be a programme of work, a script or devising from scratch in the R&D stage, it is collaborative role. Keep your head up, your ears pricked and when the moment comes, show people what you can do! Then they can see for themselves that they want you on their team. See if there are any networks for dramaturgs in your area, or join director’s networks (clearly stating your intentions), and meet people that way. If you’re in the UK, the Young Vic Director’s Network is a good place to start. Read scripts. Ask questions. Get involved in conversations. Go get ’em!
Read scripts. Ask questions. Get involved in conversations. Go get ’em!
2: Diversify that skill-set. Just because the role isn’t labelled “dramaturg” doesn’t mean it isn’t dramaturgical. Get in those rehearsal rooms, read those scripts, get up in the lighting rig. Dramaturgs are the theatre’s jack-of-all trades, any skill you bring to the table with your writers and directors might play a part – you just never know when the skill, however obscure it may be, might come in useful. Remain curious, and keep learning.
3: Know who’s who: It only takes a scroll down the “about” page of a recognised dramaturg to reaffirm my 2nd point, dramaturgs aren’t ‘born’ they are made, by years in other roles wearing a variety of hats. Take a look at the CVs of dramaturgs the world over, what kind of roles got them there? Who were they working for, and with? What kind of training do they have? This information could give you ideas for the kind of direction you want to take, or potentially offer assurance if you feel your scatter-gun CV is off-track. Whilst actively stalking these individuals is definitely not encouraged, it will also help you know who to tap on the shoulder and (gently) grill at that next press night.
Know who to tap on the shoulder and (gently) grill at that next press night…
4: Recognise your contribution: You may be a dramaturg already and not even know it. Dramaturgs frequently go uncredited for the work they produce. Sometimes this is because the company don’t recognise the role of the dramaturg, and sometimes it is down to the individual themselves. Actors can be unwitting dramaturgs! Where they are credited, the part you made cannot be clearly defined. Do not be afraid to recognise, take credit for and stand up for your contribution. The voice of the dramaturg as a mediator between all the elements of the production can have a greater impact than it might appear when the titans of the directors, producers and leads are clashing heads. In an industry that is sadly ever bludgeoned with funding cuts, knowing and recognising your contribution will also help to justify your worth to the company.
5: When you get there, remember why you are there: When you finally ARE the dramaturg in the room, it is important to clarify your role in the process. Different individuals have different expectations of what a dramaturg is and what a dramaturg does! In order to get the most out of your experience in whatever it is you have decided to undertake, clarify your responsibilities as early on as possible. Will you just be involved in the script process, or in the rehearsal room too? Will you be fully immersed in the rehearsal process, or popping in from time to time? You don’t want to find yourself weeks or months into a project having used none of the actual skills you wanted to work on. Be specific! Perhaps the writer or director doesn’t know what they want from a dramaturg, in which case it is useful to be able to qualify the skills you possess and how they could be made use of. However, it is also important you make sure you don’t limit yourself and get put in a dramaturgical box by a writer or director. You don’t want to be stuck in the corner sharpening pencils. Remember, a dramaturg is a collaborator and a good dramaturg brings out the best that they can in everyone involved in the project.
Make sure you don’t limit yourself and get put in a dramaturgical box by a writer or director…
6: Dramaturg on: The more the profile of the dramaturg is raised, the more the theatre industry will prick up its ears. Part of the dramaturgical struggle is the mysticism that still lingers around the word itself. Help clarify what it is you do, or want to do, and more directors, writers and theatres will sit up and take note. Keep making good work, keep the conversation going, don’t keep yourself, your work or your process a secret and before long… they’ll wonder what they did without one!
Photo credit: Christina Bulford