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.

a women in a bed on stage
Jamie Gonzalez, one of several Ophelias in UNC Charlotte's 2016 production of Hamletmachine. Photo by Daniel Coston.

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 [1961]?” 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.

performers on stage
Hamlet and the Chorus of Dead Ophelias in UNC Charlotte's 2016 production of Hamletmachine. Photo by Daniel Coston.

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.

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Seems like all the duties of the Dramaturg are really things the director and playwright does. Why, when most theaters have a thin budget to operate under, would they spend money on a Dramaturg? The money is better spent either a) Paying the playwright more, or b) Using the money to host the playwright during rehearsals. Also, wouldn't the Dramaturgy student be better served majoring in directing or playwriting? He or she would use the same skills but in a more active and (in theory) self-supporting way.

In our BA program, students don't major in a particular area; instead, they take a range of classes in performance, design & technology, and theatre studies. And although some students in our department focus on dramaturgy, all students are required to take one dramaturgy course, the way any program might require an acting class or a class in stagecraft. We see that incorporating dramaturgy into our department has made our rehearsal processes more thoughtful, and has asked us to engage audiences more fully. These are great outcomes, especially in a university setting.

As for pay structures at professional theatres, I agree that playwrights - like all artists - should be paid fairly for their work. As for the dramaturg's necessity, I often think of how directors are a very recent development in theatre history. They became important because they were needed (for a variety of reasons). When I look at the ways that theatre is being done now, I see a similar potential trajectory for the dramaturg as an artist who will become increasingly "essential."

I often feel conflicted when I hear undergrads say they're earning the BA (or something equivalent) in Dramaturgy, simply because dramaturgy is probably the vein of theatre with the least opportunities available in terms of employment (more so than acting, playwriting, directing, and designing). While ALL theatre practitioners could surely benefit from learning dramaturgy, it seems problematic to have 18-22 year-old's pursue this course of study if they are unaware of how insanely limited the job market is. Thinking practically -- in a field so competitive, why would one hire a dramaturg out of undergrad when there are a number of ready, willing, and seasoned 'turgs out there already fighting for underpaid positions? Theatre is hard y'all. I'm really not trying to sound like the ultimate cynic (I love, revere, and perform dramaturgy myself - and SOMETIMES get paid for it), but theatre degrees cost a lot of money, and I am very skeptical that dramaturgy alone would ever be able to pay back those student loans. Grad school is a different story - it costs less, people have actually worked in the field, etc. I definitely believe ALL theatre undergrads should study dramaturgy -- it will make you better at your art no matter who you are. But is there a quick fix for being too green? I don't think so. There is no substitute for experience, seeing years of professional theatre, and taking the time to get a true grasp on the theatre landscape (old and new) at large. Meant with love, not malice.

Our goal is not to train professional dramaturgs, although we offer a strong starting point. Our program is a vibrant, generalist BA program, and we design meaningful experiences for students to pursue whatever theatre practice they want to explore. This is why we teach and practice dramaturgy in a variety of ways that call on varying levels of interest and experience. Of course there is no "quick fix" for being green, no substitute for the cumulative effect of theatre experience and world experience on a person's value as a dramaturg. For me, what makes dramaturgy unique among theatre practices is that it often calls on "experience" as a quality a person possesses. Understanding how to put that expectation into perspective can help the newer dramaturg become a more effective collaborator. Some students will go on to take roles as dramaturgs. Still more will practice dramaturgy as they work with peers to create new work. But as you point out, everyone can benefit from dramaturgy skills no matter which theatre practice they go on to pursue.

Like Travis, I'm also an Emerson student, although in my case I'm a graduate student. The graduate program at Emerson is in Theatre Education, so my training there is primarily directed toward preparing to work with High Schoolers in a comprehensive way -- directing, teaching acting, dramatic lit, etc, as well as courses in pedagogy -- but I've also started to develop a practice as a dramaturg over the past few months and into the summer on a project with a small ensemble in my community in Western Mass. In the Fall I'll be the dramaturg on one of the EmersonStage shows back in Boston. It's an unusual situation because I will, actually, be "the oldest person in the room" at EmersonStage rehearsals other than the director (we're about the same age) but in terms of my education as a dramaturg, I'm at an undergraduate level. This article is incredibly helpful (as are all the dramaturgy articles on Howlround, really). Thank you for writing and sharing it. I'd also like to share the thought that when I have some say in a High School curriculum, I think I'll add a dramaturgy course. Older teens are perfectly capable of learning the fundamentals, and I think that there are many students for whom dramaturgy is more developmentally and intellectually appropriate than any other role in a rehearsal process -- a way to sit and watch outside the spotlight and be an expert authority at the same time.

I agree with you completely. And this fall I will be teaching my first dramaturgy workshop to high school and middle school students. I think students no mater their level of experience can benefit from a couple of key things - 1. how to do research that is sound and helpful, and 2. how to market the play to an audience by marketing the play's ideas. Perhaps I will share how it goes - I'm really looking forward to it!

As someone who studies and writes about post-show discussions, I'm curious to know how you train your dramaturgs to facilitate talkbacks. One of the things I ran into was a dearth of training in this area so would LOVE to hear more about your process!

First they read about it in their textbook. Chapter 9 of GHOST LIGHT has a comprehensive section on talkbacks. (Students who have graduated tell me that they go back to this chapter section when preparing to do a talkback.) For new works - usually their peers' plays - I train them to keep the focus on the play and the playwright. But coming up with a list of questions ahead of time is key for both kinds of talks, new works and scholarly talks. For scholar talks, students read a published article written by our guest scholar, or if none is available, we request a research statement. Preparing for the talkback involves coming up with about 7 questions that we share with the guest ahead of time. From there, it's about having a few phrases at the ready to steer the conversation in a productive direction if things get off track.

I'm an undergrad dramaturgy student at Emerson College and I did my first real solo dramaturgical work this year. Your post responds so wonderfully to my monologue I had throughout the process, "what is my role here MAKING this...DOING something...and why am I reading books and books and books"

Thank you

I notice the same thing in my student dramaturgs. It's a sort of anxiety we have as theatre people, right? We are suspicious of those who seem not to be doing anything! In reality, when you're doing it right, just listening in rehearsal takes great mental--if invisible--effort. Documented research (books and books and books, as you say) is a way for people to see your work. Listening and responding thoughtfully is your real value, though.