My Dramaturgical Secrets

09.14.12 | 14 Comments

CATEGORIES directors, dramaturgy, ideas, new play development, playwrights, rabble rousing, technical work, the process

Every time someone asks me to explain what I do I get flummoxed. Though I could probably avoid the word, I feel obligated to inform them that I am a dramaturg. The desire for avoidance and obligation are somewhat related. I know that mentioning the word “dramaturg” will lead to a confusing conversation. But I feel the need to spread the word, to keep it from being misunderstood.

I am a dramaturg. I know that I have that specific blend of perception and rationality analysis mixed with a pinch of pot stirring and a whole heaping mess of collaborative skills. I always have had. I was born this way. Storytelling was less about making up stories and more about figuring out how to make stories more effective. When on occasion I reread books I read as a young person, I find myself confused. I remember the story as being more than the words on the page. My imaginative world adjusted, shaped and colored what I read. When I grew up I wanted to be an artist but more than that, I wanted to be surrounded by artists. I rarely wanted to be a primary creator; instead I wanted a job that would push other artists to their artistic limits.

I have a secret; I’ve started to doubt that dramaturgy is a job.

I hadn’t heard of dramaturgy until I held the title. I was instructed to help with research but I offered much more to the room. And in my first production as a “dramaturg” I could see in conversations with the director, actors, playwright and designers that I had a place in that room. I also could see that though I can write a program note, design a informative display for the audience and do research, that is no where near the full thrust of the job I was doing. I knew that my work directly had an impact on the success of the production and I saw my desire for a life as an artist surrounded by artists was coming true.

After nearly a decade with the title – including three years and thousands of dollars spent on an MFA. I have to say: it doesn’t fit. The thing I relished about my MFA was being pushed to look beyond the title and embrace skills. (Shout out to dramaturg-concept-benders Christian Parker and Gideon Lester!)

When Guy Sanville tweeted…

…I was disturbed. Not because he felt that the “dramaturg” wasn’t necessary. But because he doesn’t understand the concept of what it is we with this special skill do.

Theatre is a multi-dimensional medium spun together to look like a singular entity. A dramaturg acts like a prism splitting the production into its spectral elements. The skill a dramaturg hones is the ability to refocus once again and using their perception, rationality, ability to collaborate and to cause friction, they help shine light on what is and what is not. Their presence in the room allows all artists there to see past their own eyes and frequently egos. The dramaturg is there to make sure the work of theatre achieves more than the sum of its parts.

Here is why I think that “dramaturg” is not a job:

• Because nine out of ten people (who have heard of the term) equate a dramaturg with a researcher.

• Because the other one person is a dramaturg.

• And that person, who is a dramaturg, is probably professionally something else.

Because here’s another secret (though you may already know this one): dramaturgy is a craft. But it’s not an exclusive one.

In truth, we dramaturgs are producers, artists, writers, editors, curators, entrepreneurs, designers, scholars, educators and personal trainers. More than anything we are collaborators. Even more than that, we are facilitators.

But there is still the obligation to say the word even though I know it’s not reflective of my title. I am obligated because there is a struggle in the theatre-world between those who practice dramaturgy and those who don’t believe we should exist or that our work has value. In other words those people who have an inaccurate definition of dramaturgy.

One last secret: Guy is right. If his conception of a dramaturg is someone who can do historical research (World Wide Web? What is this 1995?), then maybe a new director is needed. A talented director prepares months in advance, if they want to approach a play, they had better understand it. In other words, they use their dramaturgical skills.

So, go ahead, scrap the Dramaturg. Or, come to the realization that if the play has any sense of artistic integrity, if it is able to connect with an audience, there probably already is a dramaturg in the room.

And if you want to hire me, you can call me whatever you want.

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Hannah Hessel

Hannah Hessel is the Audience Enrichment Manager at The Shakespeare Theatre, OpenForum Coordinator/Ensemble Member/Sometimes Dramaturg at Forum Theatre and Founder of and Personal Trainer at The Project Gym.

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  • “I wanted a job that would push other artists to their artistic limits.” Perhaps that is the definition of a dramaturg and its never been described in that way to me…but if that is the definition, “Somone who pushes other artists to their artistic limits” I can totally get behind that…because there is no job description I have seen that includes that. And that is the job I want as well.

  • I really appreciate this article! I think you hit the nail on the head when you said that dramaturgs are faciliators and collaborators. I think anyone whose ever asked themselves “can I be a dramaturg?” has realized how interdisciplinary and multi-faceted that role is– and how that role can be manifested in so many different ways. It’s beyond a job description and more a way of thinking/seeing/working/being, am I think your article captures that beautifully.

  • Richard Rose – Barter Theatre

    Hannah, thanks for a concise view of what we always believed the purpose
    of a Dramaturg to be. Yes, a new title is definitely needed to
    encompass all of the skills combined in this important collaborative
    role in developing new and enhancing existing works.

  • Oh lordy. Can we just agree from the outset that like all things, this is merely *one* idea about a whole field of practice? I have to say that after about 15 years of being a practicing dramaturg, I’ve done it all kinds of ways. Sometimes that’s my title, sometimes it’s not. I agree that lots of great dramaturgy is done by those who don’t necessarily wear that hat — I teach dramaturgy to dozens of student per year based in this exact philosophy. That said, the ability to have a person in the process who has as their central responsibility the care and feeding of the dramaturgical viewpoint is incredibly valuable. Yes, lots of other theatre artists can (and should!) master these skills, but there’s a difference between someone who is doing it as a sideline to something else, and someone for whom it’s the whole enchilada.

    I also want to say — very loudly — that dramaturgs are (or can be, if they choose to be) generative artists. We are not just midwives and facilitators and diplomats. As much as I enjoy midwifery, that’s not the whole of my practice. I’m not here to “help” or “fix” or “inform.” I’m here, standing on equal ground with my directing, designing, writing, and acting collaborators, making something new and, we all hope, worthy of an audience’s time.

    • Illana, I am with you all the way. This is where *I* am in thinking about my job these days. By no means do I expect everyone to agree with me. I love that dramaturgy means so many things to so many people. As I said in my note below, I think what I’m looking for is a way of clarifying what happens in a rehearsal room when someone says “dramaturg.” Like you I have been a generative artist, like you I believe when I am in a rehearsal room I am not there to support anyone except for the production. Thanks again for your comments, I have the feeling we are closer in thought than it may seem.

      • I totally get that — and we do agree about many things.

        However, I deeply believe in advocacy for the Job Itself, and its importance in the ecology of the American theatre. I believe we’re better as a national community of artists when people wear the dramaturg hat (I would say the same of stage managers, casting directors, name-you-flavor-of-designer, solo artists, puppeteers, etc), which is why I felt compelled to toss in my $.02.
        As always, glad for the conversation!

    • I love this: “I’m here, standing on equal ground with my directing, designing, writing, and acting collaborators, making something new and, we all hope, worthy of an audience’s time.” I’m sure you’ve dealt with the kind of comments/assumptions about dramaturgy that complelled Hannah to write this article…do you have any suggestions on how to “stan[d] on equal ground” while these comments/assumptions are floating around in (at least a few) corners of the contemporary American Theatre scene?

    • Deidra Aubrey Gwyther

      Well said.

  • Nichole

    While you are correct that dramaturgy is a craft and not many people earn a living doing it, it is indeed a job. You can’t expect after a MFA and three years of work that you know the entire field and experience of the craft. There are many supportive, loving and paying theatres and theatre/dance/opera artists out here who love and respect dramaturgs. I hope you get to work with some of them.

    • Thanks, Nichole for your comments. I just want to clarify, I was working in the field for years prior to my MFA so I am by no means new to dramaturgy and I have explored the position from many angles – though by no means from every angle.
      There are many folks supportive both financially and emotionally of dramaturgs, I have worked with many of them. What I am trying to express though is that the term has been maligned and I think those of us who work in this field need to be clear about what it is we do. My personal opinion is that the job title (in the rehearsal room) needs to be clarified in order to keep the field of dramaturgy as diverse as it is.

  • Hannah,

    I appreciate your piece and all the responses it has generated. I wonder whether the distinction hinges on the baggage we carry to the word “job” in relationship to theater-making. When something is a “job” it carries all kinds of functionary practices, tasks and mostly dictated outside the person carrying them out. (This is a HUGE generalization that comes with all kind of middle-class perspectives about mental & physical labor, but bear with me.) “Career” is posited differently. A career is a calling. You are one among many practitioners and form a community with a particular skill set but that set isn’t static (in other words, learned and programmed to be done ad infinitum). When you have a career, you are feeding and being fed by other professionals, innovations in your field, and new challenges (either discovered or created). You are also valued as an integral part of whatever ‘making’ or ‘doing’ that comprise your field. In this context: theater.

    When dramaturgy is a job it is something that everyone involved in a production can/should be doing. No argument there. When dramaturgy is a career it is something that in its widest, most rigorous application can *only* be done by someone committed and trained in its multiple skill sets. Just like a designer, actor, director. People can “design” a show but does that action along make them a designer? I’d argue no. It’s a way of engaging the theatrical process that is very specific, rigorous, and imaginative in a particular way that makes someone a designer.

    There have been projects where I’ve had this maybe small and personal distinction written into the program. Some pieces say “dramaturgy” then list my name. Others say “dramaturg”. When I am given full and equal stake and stand as an artist, I am the dramaturg. When my job is limited to research and I exist on the periphery, I do dramaturgy.

  • Michael Chemers

    Hannah – thanks for as eloquent as any response to this question. I tried to address this as well in my book, but reading your blog made me so angry (at Mr. Sanville and his ilk) that I realized that after twenty years of making a pretty good living doing this thing that no one seems to think is worth paying anyone to do, I’m at the point where I’m just goddam sick of people making these kinds of shortsighted, pig-ignorant remarks. There were no directors before 1850- Shakespeare got along pretty well without one, maybe we can too. Think of the money we’d save on prima-donna bullshit shovels. Scenic and lighting design as discrete positions are less than 200 years old as well. Professional dramaturgy goes back to 1767. Everyone knows that American theatre is not at its highest point right now – elsewhere in the world, like in the extremely exciting theaters of Eastern Europe and Latin America, a director won’t take a dump without calling his dramaturg first. The only person who is absolutely indispensable is the actor, but I think we work better when we have a team of highly-trained, highly-committed specialists working to enrich and enhance each other’s products. On a personal note I think when you find someone working hard to help you fulfill your artistic vision you might be better served by trying to support that person, rather than trying to undermine them, or someone just might take some time to wonder if YOUR job is really worth doing. In the meantime, I guess I’m doing pretty well at this without Guy Sanville’s approbation, so I guess he can pretty much go right ahead and screw himself. Yours with respect, -Michael Chemers, author of GHOST LIGHT: AN INTRODUCTORY HANDBOOK FOR DRAMATURGY, which is selling quite well, thank you.

  • Tammy

    My directing mentor, Will Frears, had a GREAT definition of a Dramaturg – it’s the person who tends to the internal logic of a piece of theater. Sometimes, that means working with the playwright to tease out loose ends and tighten up story. Sometimes, it means supporting a director’s concept with research and finding ways to present the context of a play to performers/designers. Often it means supporting the whole team and keeping a mostly-impartial eye on the mechanics of storytelling, and then doing whatever is needed to make sure these things all come together in a cohesive whole (your point about “pushing artists to the limit).

    I LOVE this definition – it hits both the research side and the creative, in-the-room Jill-of-All-Trades side of dramaturgy. I wish more people thought of it this way (good collaborators always do).