What The Heck Is A Dramaturg?

Three Examples of a Dramaturg’s Work in Theatre

Rebecca enters, SR, with a large binder &
copious volumes of books.

Rebecca
Hi, my name is Rebecca, and I’m a dramaturg.
(beat)
A dramaturg….
(beat)
I’m this theatre’s Hufflepuff.

#1huff

Dramaturgs are the intellectual catch-all of the theatre world. A dramaturg often works on a project-by-project basis with playwrights, theatre and opera companies, festivals, and new work development.

3 Ways Dramaturgs Work With Theatres and Operas:

1. Dramaturg As Researcher

Have you ever watched a production and thought to yourself, I wonder how the playwright/director/actor knew so much about turtles on the Galapagos Islands?

There’s a significant chance the production and creative team worked with a dramaturg. A dramaturg often  researches various topics in a production, taking copious notes and collecting various source materials. This collection of information is then shared, starting with the production team, which then applies it to various parts of a production.

If the paint crew has questions about the coloring of a Galapagos turtle’s eyes, the dramaturg would find proper photo and art documentation to assist. When a director wants their actors to walk like a turtle in a scene, the dramaturg would find video clips and turtle stats to share with the director before rehearsals.

The dramaturg, as researcher, is a finder.

2. Dramaturgs As Editors

When working with playwrights on new play development, dramaturgs work as continuity editors. Where a dramaturg may do research for a playwright and assist with the flow of a play, they are NOT a co-playwright. In new play development, a dramaturg’s job is to work as an editor for the new work.

For example, in the first draft of a play, the playwright writes that the main character always wears a white shirt when on stage. After multiple drafts, rewrites, and trial and error, the play now contains a scene where the main character’s favorite shirt is bleached by accident in the wash by a visiting relative. The dramaturg would make a note to the writer that the color of the shirt shouldn’t be white since bleach wouldn’t harm it. While this does assist with the progression of the play and a critical visual moment in the production, the dramaturg does not change the shirt color in the text. The playwright must make the conscious choice to take this note and choose to apply it or not.

3. Dramaturgs as Mechanics

Maintaining a similar vision can be very tricky in a production, especially large scaled productions. One person’s idea of a particular setting can be dramatically different than another person’s. A strong dramaturg can help eradicate the chaos that occurs when many people work on a project together.

In this example, let’s think of a dramaturg as a mechanic. If we view a play or opera as a really impressive locomotive, the dramaturg is person who walks through each wagon unnoticed and fully aware. The dramaturg helps create a line of communication and continuity between the conductor which carries all the way back to the baggage handler working in the caboose and back again, connecting with the ticket puncher, coal shovelers, and passengers along the way. The dramaturg never tells any of these individuals how to handle their job or what to do but instead keeps communication and new developments shared while everyone is busy focusing on their direct task. This communication allows each department of a production  to work near full capacity without stopping to continuously check-in.

A Dramaturg’s Insight:

Modern-day dramaturgy origins are credited to German philosopher, playwright, and critic Gotthold Ephraim Lessing. More on him at a later date.

Questions about Dramaturgy? We’d love to hear from you! Leave a reply below…

Written by Rebecca Quirk

Rebecca Quirk is a dramaturg, full-time nerd, and obsessed with random trivia. She has her MFA from the Playwright's Lab at Hollins University. "Did you know hedgehogs float?"

2 Comments

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  1. Hi Rebecca,

    Your career as a dramaturg sounds fascinating, how did you get involved with it? Was it something you always wanted to do, or did you sort of evolve from other experience into that position?

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