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Sparking Dramaturgy

A Budding Look at a Confusing Profession

I am a junior at Louisiana State University, I am a theatre studies major, and I am a young dramaturg. One year ago, none of those statements were true, yet today I consider them to be the foundation of my identity as an artist. I began as a music major with no foresight concerning my career. Yet with the very first theatrical performance I attended, Stick Fly by Lydia R. Diamond, I saw a future for myself. I saw the production three times in one week. I was enamored with it. I produced a thirteen-page rambling mess of an essay about how the show functioned as a whole. This isn’t normal for a music major. Something was not adding up.

When this type of thing happens, a boy like me calls his mother. After what seemed like the longest phone conversation I had ever held, she had convinced me to follow this new path. She told me to stop acting so scared when she knew, deep down, I had discovered something interesting about myself.

I changed my major to theatre studies that week.

Soon, I was swimming in a copy Backwards & Forwards I scored off an English major, random volumes of Theatre Journal I could find in the library, and the little bit of the Hamburg Dramaturgy I could find in English and understand. I started talking to graduate students, pestering my professors, and even crashed a few graduate seminars to see if I could figure out what I was looking for. I hung around the theatre history PhD student office and listened into them talking—sometimes griping—about what they were reading. Yes, I went full creeper. But from that, I learned how to ask better questions, how to approach new texts, and how to define a weird new word: dramaturgy. I finally knew what to call this work I was interested in, and knew what I was supposed to do. Determined to find an identifier, I flung myself in the dramaturgy chair and stood on it. However, there was an immovable roadblock in my studies. There is no dramaturgy or literature/criticism concentration at LSU.


I learned how to ask better questions, how to approach new texts, and how to define a weird new word: dramaturgy. I finally knew what to call this work I was interested in, and knew what I was supposed to do.


Without a prescribed path, I performed and designed work in the LSU theatre department all the while reading The Process of Dramaturgy and Ghostlight when I went home after rehearsals. After a semester of growing pains and experimentation with different roles in the theatre, there came an opening in the dramaturgy sphere at LSU. In the fall of my sophomore year, all of the current PhD students were moving from coursework to dissertation writing and all of the new PhD students were busy trying to acclimate to the humidity and ever-changing Louisiana weather. In this perfect gap, I slipped in and snatched the opportunity to dramaturg a Swine Palace production. This was a huge deal because it is the professional theatre connected to LSU, and the last undergrad to obtain this type of position is my current mentor, Neal Hebert. But, dear God, I had no idea what I was doing. My work was a whole lot of googling and poor explanations. With no degree program in this field, I also had no designated mentor. Without guidance, I succumbed to the idea that there was a reason PhDs were the only students allowed to do this work. The production came and went, leaving me in the whirlwind of dust feeling no more accomplished than when I started. I recognized my lack of purpose stemmed from a lack of significant communication with the creative team. I also noticed that I was not the only undergrad who was hitting this wall.

Dramaturg Alexander leads a talkback discussion for the LSU Lab Season production of Dream Walker.

No one was holding any meaningful conversations concerning choices made by LSU Lab Season—the series of shows frequently dedicated to undergraduate directing and performance—student directors and designers, and that this lack of communication was detrimental to these endeavors. I asked upperclassmen working on these shows who did the script analysis work on productions; the most common answer was, “No one in particular. We all do a little.” There was no designated person whose function was to understand the world of the play, to speak up for the playwright and her intent, to argue for the sanctity of the script. That work struck me as vital. Every conversation I had about student theatre I would pull back to this lack of focus on the text. The text must be the crux of all discussion and choices in the theatre. This realization is certainly not a new one, but it was startlingly new to me. This idea sparked a revelation. As a seventeen-year-old, honest, lucid moments are few and far between. I thought, “I could do this. I could do this and be happy. I could do this, and still do theatre.” From then on, I have made it a point to understand any script I am working on, in any position, with attention to detail. I became a dramaturg.

Now, a year later, my dramaturgical toolbox is overflowing compared to where it used to be, but I know that I still have a long way to go. When I am in theatre history or script analysis lectures, I light up. Something connects inside of me and drama starts to make a shocking amount of sense. My friends tell me that even when I am an actor or a sound designer, I operate as a dramaturg. Dramaturgy permeates every facet of my theatrical life, and I think I am better for it. If you experience this and your school does not have a dramaturgy concentration as well, start talking to anyone and everyone. Go on Tumblr and message people who tag themselves as dramaturgs about their work, ask your literature and history professors for extra criticism on your writing, and when your school announces their season, email every director and ask if you can work on the production. Cast out lines and never stop. If you get a flutter in your chest—the same when talking about the function of drama or the happy idea in a play—thinking about these tasks, you’re one of us: the young, confused, ambitious dramaturgs.

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This was wonderful to read. Your experience trying to find your way to dramaturgy mirrors my own when navigating the "how to" of getting a PhD. Sometimes you have all the steps laid out, and sometimes you have to figure it out. i wish I had started as early as you in Dramaturgy. Keep at it, Alexander!

When I was getting my undergraduate degree in Theatre Studies I was the only serious lit/theory/crit concentrator at LSU; I split my time between upper division theatre courses with the theatre history faculty, courses in philosophy (primarily history and continental, although I did do a small amount of analytic philosophy), and WGS courses with a theatre slant. The key ingredient to my success, though, was buy-in from faculty members in the philosophy and theatre departments as well as my department's graduate students as mentors.

I've found that honest feedback and criticism has helped me just as much as the books I read. But by far the best thing you can do is find someone who can give you feedback on your writing - give him or her final cut, don't argue with a single edit he or she makes, and just do whatever that person tells you to do. That transformation for me didn't happen until I was writing my MA, and I wish I'd been in a place to receive that mentoring when I was an undergraduate.

I'm sorry that happened. I am glad you reposted. I will give you my personal definition of what a "dramaturg" is. However, I invite anyone else who sees this thread to add their own definitions since it is such a heavily debated and overall nebulous concept.

An individual who analyzes dramatic texts and the text's position as a cultural/historical/theatrical body. The acts of the dramaturg are called "dramaturgy”.
Example in Conversation:
A: Could we have an original Macintosh computer on the set? I think it would be a great comment on the momentum of technology and its beginnings.
B: Are you sure that it would fit historically? When were Macintosh computers released and when did they become cheap/popular enough to have in the family home?
A: I am not sure, let's ask the dramaturg

So many of us have shared your experience of creating systems of investigation where none existed. Thank you for this, Alexander, and congratulations.

This particular role of the dramaturg is key to the accuracy of theatre and provides the first information that has the potential to grasp the audience's attention; indeed, dramaturgy excites you and allows you to express yourself. Very proud, Alexander.

Thank you very much! I am hoping that I will look back at this article and the work I have done this past year to think, "my dramaturgical toolbox is overflowing," all over again. Of course, in thinking that I will look back at this article with the same blushing embarrassment you look at cute school pictures from elementary school. It is a weird path.

This is completely relatable! I learned about the existence of dramaturgy in high school and jumped into it knowing close to nothing. I'm currently the only student at Northwestern State really interested, and finding the resources on my own to understanding it all has been a challenge, but it's also been entirely rewarding and eye opening!

I appreciate this conversation about the profession outside of 'being on stage' it is vital for artists to be fully invested in the creative field and to be articulate about process beyond the term 'like' or 'don't like'. You are on your way Mr. Adams!

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