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On Teaching Dramaturgy

Dramaturgy is, among other things, the subtle art of mediating between the discoveries of theatrical practice and the provocations of dramatic theory. Working in whatever modes are appropriate, in close collaboration with other theatre artists, the dramaturg’s goal is to ensure that the theatre integrates its body, its mind, and its spirit into an energetic, multivalent whole.

General Approaches

Dramaturgy has so many facets, so many definitions, so many visions, tasks, approaches, and uses, that only a consciously eclectic approach to teaching the subject makes sense to me.
As a profession, dramaturgy in North America is still in its infancy; as a function, it is as old as theatre itself. How can one codify it in a coherent form for university students?

Based on my more than thirty-five years of practical experience as a literary manager, dramaturg, playwright, translator, teacher, and producer, I believe that the form must be open-ended and wary of “rules.” A process that works for one situation may not be at all useful for another, and teaching dramaturgs how to know the difference is both difficult and necessary.

We dramaturgs work in and for the theatre, a place of history, mystery, surprise, and many different notions of what a play is, or can be. We are both inside the creative process and outside it, aware of the sociopolitical context of a production but not necessarily devoted to making that context explicitly manifest. “Texts” come in many simultaneous languages, including but not limited to words.

The qualities I try to elicit from those young dramaturgs that I have taught or mentored include the following: imagination, practicality, resourcefulness, common sense, flexibility, honesty, diversity, warm skepticism, a sense of humor, gentleness with self and other artists, and endless curiosity about scripts, writers, production approaches, and the like. Looking at the various journeys taken by plays from idea to page to stage (in whatever order applies to a specific case), both in the past and in the present, requires all these traits and more. Whether dealing with a brand-new play or a well-known classic, I expect students to learn how to deconstruct (i.e., read) a script in a variety of ways, how to discuss its structure, its style, its energy, its music, and its meaning(s) with such collaborators as the playwright, the director, and the designers. Actors get a pre-rehearsal “actor packet,” whose contents may or may not be discussed in the rehearsals themselves, depending on the length and density of the rehearsal period.

Evolving appropriate protocols for discussion with all the artists is a key element. I ask students to investigate both standard and nonstandard sources of information and to choose those that seem most useful for the particular show. Which values of a particular script should be emphasized, since the idea of doing a “definitive” production of anything is suspect? Which story does the artistic team want to tell, and to whom? As Eric Bentley once pointed out, “Origin is not essence,” and yet a play’s origins have useful facts to tell us. Moreover, reconstruction is as important as deconstruction, if not more so.

Dramaturgy has so many facets, so many definitions, so many visions, tasks, approaches, and uses, that only a consciously eclectic approach to teaching the subject makes sense to me.

New Play Dramaturgy

This is a challenging area. A lot depends on when the dramaturg enters the creative process, whether it’s at the concept stage, after one or two drafts, or later. What is the ideal relationship between dramaturg and playwright? How does that compare to the actual relationship: are they strangers, friends, classmates?

I believe that a dramaturg needs to become very familiar with the text, in whatever draft, before talking with the playwright, and even then, the dramaturg has to be careful not to usurp the playwright’s prerogatives. This is not easy when the artists are of different generations and/or in a hierarchical relationship in an academic community. Here is where a faculty supervisor needs to shepherd the dramaturg, but with as light a touch as possible.

The politics of new play dramaturgy are fascinating and complex. My general approach is to remind dramaturgs and others that the best person to revise a script is the playwright, but that a good dramaturg asks incisive and provocative questions—without providing answers. If a playwright requests the dramaturg’s answers, that changes things, but it must be the playwright’s uncoerced choice to do so.

If the script has never been produced, many dramaturgs may be involved as the play moves through the various stages of development. There is, as we know, a real danger of scripts being “developed to death,” or made “safe” for subscribers, or twisted into a shape that is totally accessible in a staged reading.

Readings are not an art form any more than playscripts are; they are only a means to an end: production. Here be dragons. “Helping” the playwright explain everything can rob the play of its mystery and its original energy. Trying to get the playwright to stay within the bounds of a genre, rather than transcending it or even trashing it, is bad dramaturgy. Jon Jory has a name for dramaturgs who, consciously or unconsciously, try to tame the often idiosyncratic choices of a playwright, to make a script safe for an audience, or to fit comfortably within a standard play form. He calls them “Peoriaturgs.” I’m with him.

Good dramaturgy asks the playwright to share only as much of his or her internal process as he or she is comfortable sharing at any given time (it may change in either direction during the process). The supportive dramaturg listens, responds to revisions openly, talking about the theatrical consequences of artistic choices rather than the political appropriateness or morality of them, and s/he may articulate for the director, producer, and others those things that the playwright cannot articulate. As Jonathan Miller put it, there are “depth charges” in plays which need to remain beneath the surface or forfeit their explosivity. It is a dramaturg’s duty to see where the play’s integrity lies and to work hard to keep that integrity intact. I believe, and I would like students to believe, that a dramaturg should only opine upon a text when it is mutually understood and agreed that the final say will be the playwright’s. In such a circumstance, I have found, playwrights tend to be far less defensive and much more open to suggestion. Of course, in the case of collectively created work, the given circumstances are different, but the level of respect (not reverence) for the text ought to remain the same.

I encourage students to talk with the playwright about images (not symbols!) that have inspired the events of a play, the “back story” when there is one, the fusion of memory, dreams, and imagination that compose most plays. What if the playwright could have any actor s/he wanted? Who would those actors be? What emotions would s/he want them to generate? What responses would s/he like an audience to have? Who makes up the ideal audience for this particular piece? Note, however, that a good dramaturg would resist the notion of having to tailor a play to fit an existing audience’s presumed taste. If you’re going to challenge an audience, tell them so, but don’t apologize for challenging them. That’s why they’re there, whether they know it or not.
I also suggest that dramaturgs can help playwrights avoid the pernicious idea of writing for “the market.” Doing so is a great way to dwindle a script into an imitation of the last “successful” play. A playwright’s reach should exceed her grasp, or what’s a theatre for?

Production Dramaturgy

Whether the script is brand new or a familiar classic, the dramaturg’s job here depends greatly on the relationship, and the chemistry, between the dramaturg and the director. I teach dramaturgs that every theatre is different. Some use dramaturgs primarily as script screeners, writers and editors of programs, curators of lobby displays, and so on, and a dramaturg must master these skills. But they are peripheral to the real dramaturgical work that takes place prior to and within rehearsals.

I suspect that many theatres are uncomfortable with having dramaturgs in rehearsal, but presence is the only way for a dramaturg to acquire and retain credibility with the company of a particular production. You cannot come into a run-through with a yellow pad and be taken seriously unless you’ve been part of the process from early on. Besides, many artistic decisions are made early on. Some are conscious; some are not. With a dramaturg on hand, such decisions can be thoroughly discussed while there is still time to modify them if necessary. The knowledgeable and sensitive dramaturg is as much a resource for a director and a designer as s/he is for a playwright.

At the same time, attendance at every rehearsal, for the entire call, is not necessary. Although the appropriate amount of “being in the room” can be discussed with the director, it cannot be subject to the director’s whim, any more than a playwright’s presence can. Research into prior critical commentary, previous productions, staging choices, pictorial evidence, and script variations are also part of the dramaturg’s duties. Which translation of Tartuffe shall we use? More importantly, why are we doing the play here, now? What questions are raised by the text, by the production history of that text, by the context in which we are producing the play? How should we talk about the project among ourselves? With the press? With the public? What unique perspectives do we bring to the project? Does it make a difference, and if so, what is the difference, between costuming a Shakespeare play in pumpkin pants and clothing the actors in hoodies and jeans? What are the “outward signs of inward grace” in this theatre, here, now? What ideas about the play does the audience already have? Do we want to reinforce them or subvert them or both? Why? And so on.

More practically, I teach dramaturgs how to give notes to a director, when to do so, how often to give the same note, and when to shut up and let the process work. One does not want to be a doormat; one does not want to be a nag. One should offer to buy the beer when a good post-rehearsal conversation is needed. Answers to questions may evolve as the production evolves; some bright ideas lose their luster over a rehearsal period, while other ideas come into focus as time goes by. It takes time to learn all this, and to get it right. Remembering patience—and apology when necessary—is helpful. For budding dramaturgs, there is no substitute for practical experience on productions, but that experience must be guided and supervised by an appropriate person. Sometimes theory (and yes, theory must be studied) precedes practice; sometimes practice precedes theory. Sometimes it’s just one damn thing after another.

Ultimately, the blend of skills, intelligence, time, and sheer good luck that make up successful dramaturgy defies codification. But then, that is also true for other creative workers in the theatre. Nevertheless, it’s in our nature as dramaturgs to keep trying.



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So--in your opinion, if a production needs a dramaturg, the director isn't doing their job fully and should be replaced? I think that a lot of people share this opinion and I'm puzzled as to why. I'd love for you to elaborate on this if you don't mind.

I think dramaturgy is an ethic, a philosophy , a way of being in the world. Practice listening for learning's sake , not so you can get your brilliant response in. Practice kindness and caring and openness to new ideas . Be a polymath, learn about everything but theatre (that can come last.)

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