Jan 7, 2008
reprinted with permission
When I read the recent Playwrights Horizons mailing promising Ruhl's new play, I was surprised to discover some entertaining and enlightening articles. Here is one by Adam Greenfield about dramaturgy. Not a Four-Letter Word It never fails. You drop the word in conversation, perhaps at a dinner party, and eyes begin to glaze over. Whether you’re surrounded by dearest friends, closest family, or even your most sinister rivals, nothing can so reliably promise a blank stare in return as the mere mention of this word. Which is totally understandable: 1) In the greater context, it’s a relatively new word; 2) Nobody knows what it means, except the people who do it; 3) Even the people who do do it have a hard time explaining what it is, exactly, that they do do; 4) Its combination of consonants and vowels simply do not fall prettily upon the ears. I fear, even, that once you come upon this word in print after this sentence, you’ll grow immediately bored, roll your eyes, and turn the page to read about subscriber perks. “Dramaturgy.” (Still there?) I decided to spend my column-inches in our newsletter this month writing about this word in the attempt to identify, specify and de-mystify the many meanings it has. Perhaps, if I do this right, the word won’t evoke so much awkwardness; perhaps I’ll be more suave when the subject arises; perhaps my parents, who still tell their friends that I’m an actor, will get what I do. We know, of course, that the “wright” (as opposed to the “write”) that we see at the end of the word “playwright” suggests that this artist is not simply a writer of plays, but a “maker” or a “worker” of plays, just as a wainwright is a maker of wagons and a wheelwright is a maker of wheels. Similarly, the word “dramaturgy,” comprised of the Greek root drame (“play, action, or deed”) and the suffix -urgy, (“process, or working”) reflects an active process, the examination of what makes the gears of a play move, just as metallurgy is the working of metals and thaumaturgy is the working of miracles. A dramaturg strives to understand the building blocks of storytelling and performance, seeing deep into the soul of a play, discovering the tectonic plates a writer has arranged to make a story unfold, and to make sure the story, the storytellers, and the spectators are all aligned so that the live theatrical event works. The birth of the capital-D Dramaturg as a job title came when Gotthold Lessing was hired by Germany’s Hamburg Repertory in 1767. A playwright and theatre critic, Lessing’s careful evaluation and advocacy of new writers led to the development of a new repertory of German works. He became a kind of resident moralizer for the theatre, seeking a theater climate freed from commercial pressures, striving to continuously challenge an audience who was at first resistant to the growing German Romantic movement of the time. Quickly, the Dramaturg was established in all of Germany’s major repertory companies. In time it took hold in European theaters, but it wasn’t until the 1960’s that this position emerged in America. So, in the spectrum of theater’s history, this job is quite new. Time is sure to bring a continued evolution of this job; consider how much the role of Director has evolved since it became prevalent in nineteenth century. Today’s dramaturg is constantly being defined and redefined, both in the context of a production and a theater company’s day-to-day operations. At his or her core, a dramaturg seeks to ensure that the stories selected for the stage in a given season are being told as effectively, according to the playwrights’ intents, as possible. The greatest ally, one hopes, of Playwright, Director, and Producer, a dramaturg is a shape-shifter, keeping a watchful eye on how the story lands on an audience. But every play operates according to its own unique system of rules, and every project evolves according to its own unique process, so the dramaturg is forced to be enormously flexible, changing the manner in which he or she works according to the varying dictates of each day. Perhaps this is the reason a dramaturg’s role in the process is so hard to pin down. Any dramaturg will have coined a different metaphor for their role in rehearsals. Depending on the play’s needs, you’re asked to be an atlas, a glossary, a muse, a mediator, an editor, a biographer, an historian, a therapist, a fascist dictator, a court jester, a philosopher, a watchdog. But working on productions is really just one part of the job. A dramaturg also acts as a sort of in-house critic for a theater company, keeping an eye on a theater’s artistic mission, holding its actions up against its stated purpose. In many theaters, “Literary Manager” is synonymous with “Dramaturg” because the act of tracking new plays and writers is a dramaturgical function. Working with marketing and development departments, a dramaturg will also help to make sure that a play or production is being accurately represented and contextualized to its patrons, funders, and audiences. (If Long Day’s Journey Into Night, for example, is being billed as “a family comedy,” we’ll step in.) I write this from the Southwest corner of the Playwrights Horizons offices here on the third floor of 416 W. 42nd Street, where the winsome Christie Evangelisto and myself collaboratively head the dramaturgical goings-on of the theater. While Christie focuses on musical theater and I focus on non-musicals, she and I take turns working on productions, and we’re blessed with a staff of dramaturgically-minded cohorts. Steven Levenson (Literary Assistant), Elliot B. Quick (Literary Resident), and Katie Courtien (Musical Theatre Resident) are all a terrific support staff with a keen ear for dramatic storytelling, and under the leadership of head honcho Tim Sanford, the six-member Literary Department is dramaturgical dream-team. Together, we’re busy reading and advocating new stories and new writers, supporting the development of new voices, and helping to ensure our programming remains aligned with Playwrights Horizons’ mission to promote American playwriting. We’re just sorry that we killed the dinner party.