The Youngest People in the Room
Dramaturgy in Undergraduate Theatre Programs
Talking about revisiting her 1998 play How I Learned to Drive for its 2012 revival, Paula Vogel said: “I actually functioned more as a dramaturg,” because, she joked, “I was the oldest person in the room.” On the one hand, Vogel’s comment suggests that the dramaturg is the person who knows the play better than anyone else. On the other hand, the figure of “the oldest person in the room” implies that in addition to being an expert researcher, the dramaturg exercises a quiet authority, a gravity that can come only with experience. As a dramaturgy professor in a BA Theatre program, Vogel’s comment begs two questions: “Can we teach an undergraduate student to be ‘the oldest person in the room’—expert, wise, unflappable?” and “Do we need to?”
As I design dramaturgy opportunities for students at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte—a small department of about 80 majors in a state university of 22,000 undergraduates—I realize that I cannot train an undergraduate to be an all-knowing sage, but that I can teach the skills required to fulfill the production role. Two textbooks have been instrumental in shaping the curriculum for our department’s required dramaturgy course: Michael Mark Chemers’s Ghost Light: an Introductory Handbook for Dramaturgy is an indispensable introduction to theory and practice; Scott Irelan, Anne Fletcher, and Julie Felise Dubiner’s The Process of Dramaturgy: a Handbook prepares students to think like dramaturgs no matter their roles on particular productions.
Still, taking on the role of production dramaturg with a faculty or guest director can be daunting for a student who has taken only one course in the practice. Students might know how to conduct research, write program notes, and host a talkback, but they still struggle with authority. One of my mentors, John K. Wilson, provides a useful way to frame the research role for students: Think of research as water. Some dramaturgs go to the well, fill their buckets, and then carry the filled-up buckets to rehearsal, where they encourage everyone to drink. Don’t haul that water to rehearsal, John says. Instead, go to the well, drink the water. Then bring yourself to rehearsal.
The research is not the value you bring, you are the value you bring.…Only you can have the responses you have, and only you can reflect these back to the director in the way you do. Just your being in the room affects what happens on stage.
John’s thought provides a way to think about research, but it also offers a way to think of the dramaturg. “But once I bring myself to rehearsal,” thinks the young dramaturg, “what if I fail? What if someone stumps me? What if I don’t know how a late nineteenth-century Russian family would have eaten pierogie [as a big pie, by the way], or the year the Berlin Wall went up ?” To this, I offer that Wikipedia is only one five-minute break away, and that the actors will probably beat you to it. “But,” the student dramaturg might be thinking, “what if everyone thinks I’m just sitting around? The actors are rehearsing, the stage managers are taking notes. What do I do?” Of course, what you do in rehearsal could form the stuff of a completely separate essay (or you could just consult Ghost Light, Chapter 6, “Why This Play Now?”), but the short answer is this: you attend rehearsal. You ask questions. You watch what the director is doing, you analyze how the director is making meaning with bodies and sound and space and words. Before the rehearsal begins, ask the director if there is anything in particular to watch for today. Then watch for it. Here I build on John’s idea: the research is not the value you bring, you are the value you bring. Your questions, responses, and yes, even research, are valuable because they are the product of your deep investment in the production at hand. Only you can have the responses you have, and only you can reflect these back to the director in the way you do. Just your being in the room affects what happens on stage.
Apart from dramaturging mainstage productions, UNC Charlotte undergraduates have incorporated dramaturgy into their independently produced projects. Students, for example, produce one or two 24-hour play festivals each year: the students meet at 8 p.m. on a Friday, write plays overnight, rehearse them on Saturday morning, tech them in the afternoon, and perform them—designed and memorized—at 8 p.m. Saturday night. These are popular, low stakes events that allow students to take risks. Such “risk-taking” used to result in an uneven batch of plays; strapped for time, playwrights gravitated to television and movie plots, and to the worst of those genres’ ubiquitous tropes—revenge stories, gang violence, drug dealing. Peer dramaturgs have transformed 24/7 into an edgy night of plays you can still invite your family to attend. Dramaturgs not only stay up all night to respond to playwrights’ works-in-progress, they introduce rules that are fun rather than restrictive like, “All curse words must be substituted with the name of a bird.” (My favorite curse phrase is now forever “What the hummingbird?!”) At our school, new play dramaturgs train other new play dramaturgs. The practice has become a tradition and a point of pride.
Shaping student dramaturgs into “the oldest people in the room” is one strategy for incorporating dramaturgy into a BA program. Another way is to decentralize the role altogether. This involves transforming the “oldest person in room” into a pack of critically-engaged young people who are all—as Irelan, Fletcher and Dubiner would have it—committing “acts of dramaturgy.”
By breaking up the dramaturg role into a set of research-driven tasks, students engage in collaborative and singly-authored projects that give them room to fail and try again.
At UNC Charlotte, all Dramaturgy students— about twenty per semester—participate in a dramaturgy team for a theatre department production. By breaking up the dramaturg role into a set of research-driven tasks, students engage in collaborative and singly-authored projects that give them room to fail and try again. For example, for our current production of the 1977 Heiner Müller play, Hamletmachine, a deconstruction of Shakespeare’s Hamlet filled with allusions to European history and literature spanning 400 years, students are:
- Annotating the script. Annotating this script has been a fruitful research project for our students, a help to the production team and cast, and a primer for audience members who want to know more about the historical references embedded in the text.
- Using a unique hashtag, in this case, #hamletmachineUNCC, we:
These online spaces engage a variety of audiences—the cast and crew, the theatre department, our university community, and the community of Charlotte, North Carolina. Dramaturgy team members post interviews with cast members and designers, essays that situate the play in its historical moment, and photo essays that record tasks in rehearsal. Less formal posts include photos of students building the set in a practicum class, or a favorite line from the script. In the process, our class is archiving the production for posterity as it markets it to our audiences. Moreover, the multiple tasks students complete ask them to think about a range of audiences: Is this idea a 140-character tweet, best illustrated as a picture, or more suited to an in-depth blog-post essay? Is this essay designed to get people excited about the show, or for students in other academic majors to connect the play to their own studies?
Over the past several years, dramaturgy has seeped into the fabric of our department. Not every show has a production dramaturg, but every production has dramaturgy. It is certainly possible to train students to take on the intellectually and creatively rigorous role of production dramaturg. But there are also many ways to practice dramaturgy without being, as Vogel suggests, “the oldest person in the room.” Whether an undergraduate is assigned to a full production dramaturgy role, or whether that student is engaged in guiding peers’ or department work, for students who are encountering dramaturgy for the first time, any training requires creating the same kind of laboratory spaces we create for student actors and designers. To our students, dramaturgy is “business as usual,” thanks in part to the variety of ways one can practice the craft.