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…
A production that needs a dramaturg needs a new director. Or probably doesn’t have access to the world wide web.
— Guy Sanville (@guyrsanville) September 9, 2012
…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.