What is a dramaturge? You may have seen this word in a theater program, or heard it bandied about in casual conversation. If you are like me, you did not know what people were talking about, but nodded your head knowingly and pretended you did. But what is dramaturgy, really, and what does a dramaturge do? I decided to find out.
Simply put, the dramaturge is an advocate for the work itself. This can take many forms: researcher, textual interpreter, curator of a company’s season. In traditional theater, this person ensures that the director, production people, and company adhere to the spirit of the playwright and make informed, appropriate choices about how to interpret and present the work.
The art of dramaturgy was developed in Germany in the 18th century by Gotthold Lessing, who set the tone for the role with the Hamburg Repertory Company. Lessing was a supporter and advocate but also a goad and a critic, seeking to elevate the status quo of German theater to something remarkable and unique.
Berthold Brecht and Kenneth Tynan are two theater giants who helped define the role of the dramaturge during the 20th century. But in a city with a performance scene as vibrant and experimental as Philadelphia’s, I thought I’d ask a couple dramaturges here to tell me about the roles they play.
According to Anna Drozdowski, who works in production management and planning and makes creative work under Ladybird, “Dramaturgy, for movement-based original work, is a place of heightened perspective that (in best case) prevents the project from being myopic in scope and simultaneously allows the group to be reflective of the moving parts. Ideally, I am a useful, helpful instigator.” She adds, “But I think that the work of dramaturgy—of questioning, researching and making a process visible—is done by many people on a project and often by the creators in the absence of someone with this official title.”
“I like to say that the dramaturg is to the text as the director is to the actors,” posits Rebecca Ennen, dramaturg for Shakespeare in Clark Park‘s Comedy of Errors and Pig Iron Theatre Company‘s Isabella and Love Unpunished. “I get close with the words and ideas of the playwright. Throughout the rehearsal process I advocate for a full exposition of the text’s richness, and dig into the play—and related research, thematic, historical, literary, or whatever—to unearth themes for the production. It’s a give-and-take: supporting the text, demanding flexibility and depth from it, as a director would with actors. This is very different with, for example, Shakespeare and a new experimental dance-theater piece—one has years of productions, and piles of words, and the other has never been made before and might have no words at all. Still, in both cases I’m thinking about what the production says or is as a whole and how an audience will understand it.”
So, at a Philadelphia Live Arts Festival or Philly Fringe production, tip your dramaturge. It was the dramaturge that made a list of all the funny words and told the actors what they meant; researched the production history of the work; put together a packet of helpful material to get everybody oriented; and ensured the continuity and coherence of this staging. And, as with most things Fringe, the rules are still being written. The dramaturges of today’s visionary new work are just getting started.