Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

07 December 2012

On Dramaturgy

Recently, a student of a friend and colleague of mine emailed me to ask me (in my role as a working dramaturge) some questions about dramaturgy. I know this will not be to all of my readers' tastes, but I thought her questions were interesting, and we all know how difficult it is to explain what exactly a dramaturge does. When ever anyone talks to me about dramaturgy, I find myself invariably asking but what is dramaturgy? Here are my answers. Take them for what you will.

1. I know that dramaturgs often help in script-selection, clarifying confusion amongst the cast, and sometimes even writing plays.  That said, when a production is in progress, what do you do from day to day? When sitting in on a rehearsal, what jobs are you expected to perform?

The answer to this question depends on what I am working on.

Answer A: when I'm working on a new play, I am constantly making suggestions about ways a scene would work better, different orders for scenes, and structural issues like that. I often am in constant communication with the playwright, telling her what I think a certain scene does for her play dramaturgically. It often happens that a playwright needs to cut time from a show; in those cases I can usually advise what can easily be cut or combined in order to trim the running time.

Answer B: when I'm working on a very old play like one from the 17th or 18th century, I often do just as much (and very similar) work, except that my primary communication is with the director instead of the playwright. Often a director has cut the text very heavily and so it is my job to make sure that the play still makes sense, to offer alternative cuts, sometimes rewrite entire scenes. I once did a production of She Stoops to Conquer where the director had cut the entire explanation for a character's arrival. We rehearsed this way for weeks and then a week before the show opened he decided it didn't make any sense. But he didn't want to add back in the entire sequence we needed. I took the original sequence, trimmed it so that included just enough lines to explain the character's entrance, and then tacked it on to a different scene. A dramaturge can be really useful for these kinds of things.

Answer C: When I am working on a relatively recent but not new show (say Rent or Big River) often I am only asked to do research as the cast or director or costumer need it. To me this work is really tedious and only rarely fun. I often have to work really hard to make these projects enjoyable for myself, but I usually do! Most of the time, I feel like these shows need very little work from a dramaturge. I usually don't visit rehearsals for these very often after the read-through. What they tend to need the most is pronunciation help or explaining particularly difficult lines or references. For Rent I made a long glossary of the words in the show. For Big River I re-read Huckleberry Finn so that I'd get all the references in the musical. I ended up being helpful on both shows, but much less helpful than I would be with a much older or much newer show.

2. Conversely, what sort of non-daily duties are you expected to complete? Do you create programs? Display cases? Little paper hats for the cast to wear at fancy dress parties?

With all of the shows I work on, I am generally designated as "the smart person in the room" about the show. This means that I write program notes, collaborate with marketing on advertising copy, go to public interviews about the show, proof-read the program, attend production meetings so that I can answer costume/prop questions, etc. If I ever had to make a display case I would probably ask why a designer wasn't doing it, since I have few design abilities. For me, though, all of this outside work is really fun. I love giving interviews or blogging. I see this as creating an atmosphere in which more people can understand and enjoy more things about the show. An example: here's a blog post that explains to audience members why a production of Macbeth on which I recently worked was so heavily adapted, and here's a kind of promotional item related to Big River. These kinds of things are designed simply to enhance the experience of the show for those who read this kind of stuff (more people than you'd think – mostly older audience members). They can give more access to more people about the nuances and fabulous hidden gems in a production.

3. I have read that sometimes there is contention between directors, designers, and dramaturgs, sometimes coming from resentment over the chain of command and people’s ideas being ignored because of it. Is this true? How do you handle it?

Any dramaturge who is having tension or feeling resentment is not doing her job correctly. There are not right ways of looking at a text or right ways of performing a text. Directors and designers are trying things and it is a dramaturge's job to make those attempts smarter, better, and clearer. But fundamentally a dramaturge is working for those people and their artistic (not academic) visions. I have never felt tension like this on a piece on which I've worked. The show is not the dramaturge's show. The dramaturge works for the company, primarily the director. It is not my job to be irritated that the director didn't take my suggestion (however intelligent they might be). My advice to anyone feeling annoyed or ignored is that a dramaturge ought to know her place. The hierarchy is set. This can be freeing and wonderful – at least it is for me.

4. I have also read that sometimes dramaturgs get into the field expecting to transition away from it at some point and move into directing or writing. Did you get into dramaturgy with the expectation of doing it for the rest of your life? Do you find it to be fulfilling?

Well, I am not primarily a dramaturge, although it is my primary artistic outlet at this point. I can't imagine that dramaturgy is anyone's primary work at this point in United States theatre history. Most dramaturges are academics or critics, as well, and many are directors and playwrights. I work mainly as an academic and do dramaturgy work as I want to – when projects arise in which I am interested or when playwrights ask me to work with them on a new production. One cannot really have a career in dramaturgy, though. Very few theatres are paying full-time dramaturges. You have to do other things, as well. (Most actors do other work in addition to their theatre work, too. As do directors, designers, and stage managers just beginning their careers.)

5. As part of my project, I am serving as dramaturg for my college’s production of Lysistrata. Unfortunately, I have not felt needed by the production team. Do you have any tips on what I can do to be useful?

I do have some tips. Go to rehearsals. Go to all of them. And listen carefully. See what the actors need help with. Many of them will not know specific Greek references. Look them up for them and pass them to them quietly. My advice is to try to help as quietly as possible, drawing as little attention to yourself as possible. Can you see that the director is struggling with interpreting a specific section? Find a different translation for him or her and see if that makes it any easier.
Often when I am not needed or don't feel needed I check out. This is okay too. But remember that often directors and designers don't know how to use a dramaturge. You have to demonstrate your own usefulness: not by telling them you are useful, but by being useful and getting them information that they need.

6. I am interested in studying dramaturgy in the future, but am planning on taking some time off before applying to graduate school. Do you have any tips on what types of programs I should apply to in this time? Any specific groups you want to name drop?

Others will disagree with me, but I say: do not get an MFA in dramaturgy. Don't do it. Instead, intern as a literary manager or a dramaturge in as many places as possible. I would also recommend choosing to get an MA in theatre instead of getting an MFA in dramaturgy. As I noted, there are no full-time dramaturgy jobs out there. They simply don't exist. So that means that schools that are producing MFAs in dramaturgy are producing people who actually cannot get jobs. Almost every MFA in dramaturgy I know has gone on to get a PhD, but if you're gonna do that, then an MFA in dramaturgy is not the best prep for a PhD: an MA is the best prep for a PhD. I hope this doesn't sound too dour, but instead of going to school, if you want to work in dramaturgy, start working for theatres.

7. A recurring theme that I come across in my research is that there seems to be some contention over what exactly a dramaturg does or what dramaturgy is. Dramaturgs working with different companies may perform different tasks and may have differing philosophies on the job. To you, what is dramaturgy?

First off, dramaturgy is a word I most commonly use to describe how a play works: the play's dramaturgy – its structure, its genre, its formal elements, etc. These are the way the play is made. I also use the word to describe how certain writers make plays: I might say Euripides's dramaturgy, for example, or Ibsen's dramaturgy. I note this because I think dramaturgy describes how people make plays. (The word dramaturge in French means playwright.) So when I think of what I do as a dramaturge, I think of myself as the person who understands how the play works. When I work on a show, I make sure that I know how the thing ticks. Many of my directors have described me as the "defender of the text", and I like this description, as well. If we think of dramaturgy in this fashion, it means something like the person who knows the most about the text of the play and can help it be as clear as possible. Often, of course, I change a lot of words. I did a production of Hamlet set in the American Civil War: we changed all sorts of words so that the play fit in our new setting. Truthfully, this is not defending the text, though, right? This is more like helping the director make the text make more sense for his vision.

When I work on a show I want to be the smartest person in the room so that I can be the most helpful to the largest number of people. This means that I want to know all the answers. The way I do this is by making sure I've asked all the questions. When I go through a play like Macbeth I highlight every line I don't understand and make sure I do understand it before we rehearse it. When I go through a play like Rent I try to imagine every single question an actor could possibly ask. (When was AZT on the market? What is Bustelo? How far is Santa Fe from the Lower East Side of Manhattan? What on earth is a yellow rental truck packed with fertilizer and fuel oil??)

When I work on a new play, I try to get into the playwright's head. What does his/her play have to say? What are the questions his/her play might provoke in an audience? What kinds of feelings does it provoke in me? Most importantly: what other plays does this new play remind me of?

8. Would you eat green eggs and ham?

As a treat, my dad often added food coloring to our scrambled eggs on Saturdays. Green was a favorite option of me and my siblings. Green eggs and ham are delicious!