Guide to Theater Dramaturgy

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Introduction to Dramaturgy

Dramaturgy refers to the theory and practice of dramatic composition and theatrical representation. The word originated from the Greek word “dran” meaning “to do” or “to act”.

The role of a dramaturg is to enhance the theatrical experience for everyone involved - actors, directors, designers, technicians, and audience members. Dramaturgs provide contextual research and analysis to assist in understanding the world of the play and illuminate its relevance.

Dramaturgy as a distinct profession began in Continental European theaters in the late 18th century. In Germany and other parts of Europe, dramaturgs held prestigious positions managing theater companies’ artistic and literary operations.The role expanded through the 20th century to encompass production dramaturgy.

In the United States, literary managers were the precursor to today’s dramaturgs. In the 1960s and 70s, dramaturgy began to take hold in America. Regional theaters were the first to regularly employ dramaturgs. Dramaturgy is now commonplace across all types and sizes of theater companies.

Dramaturg's Relationship with Director

The dramaturg has an important collaborative relationship with the director. Their role is to advise the director on themes, historical context, production history, and other insights from their research and analysis of the text

The dramaturg provides research materials to the director including relevant articles, books, images, and other references to inform the director's understanding and vision for the production. They may collaborate on script analysis, identifying key themes, motifs, and character arcs.

One of the dramaturg's main responsibilities is helping the director formulate an overall vision and concept for the production. They serve as a sounding board and discuss ideas, creative choices, and practical considerations. The dramaturg aims to find connections and meaning from their research to inspire the director's creative process.

The relationship requires close collaboration, an open exchange of ideas, and a shared commitment to create a meaningful production. Both the director and dramaturg bring their own expertise, and by working together they can achieve a rich, multilayered vision for the play.

Dramaturg's Relationship with Playwright

The relationship between a dramaturg and playwright is a vital collaborative partnership throughout the development of a new play. Dramaturgs provide constructive feedback and an outside perspective as the playwright brings their creative vision to life.

Dramaturgs aim to help the playwright refine the practical elements of their work like dramatic structure, story, and character arcs. However, the playwright remains the ultimate creative authority over their original script. The dramaturg's role is guiding, not prescriptive. As Jesse Weaver discussed at the 2021 ISTR Conference, dramaturgs must balance robust dramaturgical analysis with respecting the playwright's artistic goals.

When giving notes, the dramaturg should clarify their intentions, listen carefully to the playwright's instincts, and focus on constructive observations rather than judgements. The dramaturg can point out issues and patterns they notice, while still allowing the playwright room to solve problems in their own way. Dramaturgs provide an outside eye to help the playwright see the script clearly and realize their vision, a collaborative back-and-forth essential for developing impactful new work.

Storytelling in drama and theatre

Dramaturg's Relationship with Actors

A dramaturg plays a key role in supporting actors' understanding and interpretation of the text. Their expertise helps provide context that brings characters and relationships to life.

The dramaturg serves as an acting resource, answering questions about the text, subtext, context, and motivations to help actors make informed choices. As an expert on the world of the play, the dramaturg provides insights into the circumstances, backgrounds, and psychology of the characters.

Through table reads and rehearsals, the dramaturg partners with the director to ensure the actors grasp the full meaning and nuances of the script. They explain unfamiliar terms, customs, or references from the playwright's time period. This contextual knowledge allows the actor to imbue their performance with authenticity and connect their acting choices to the overall vision.

By illuminating subtext and revealing the "iceberg" beneath the lines, the dramaturg assists actors in making discoveries that heighten the stakes and deepen the meaning. Their specialized knowledge helps unlock character relationships and motivations. The dramaturg empowers actors to make bold, specific choices that bring the playwright's words to vivid life onstage.

Dramaturgical Research

Dramaturgical research is a core responsibility of the dramaturg, providing essential background and context for a theatrical production. As described by the Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas (LMDA), dramaturgical research is comprised of three key areas:

Contextual and Historical Research

This involves thoroughly researching the world of the play and the circumstances surrounding its creation. What literary, social, political, and cultural factors influenced the playwright? What events or ideas inspired the play? Providing this contextual framework allows the production team to better understand the playwright's vision and intent.  

For example, a dramaturg working on a production of Shakespeare's Richard III would research the War of the Roses and the rise and fall of the historical Richard III. This background informs creative choices around characterization and theme.

Goffman's dramaturgical approach in theater
Goffman's dramaturgical approach is a metaphorical technique used to explain how an individual presents an idealised rather than authentic version of themselves.

Thematic Research

The dramaturg explores the play's central themes, motifs, symbols, and philosophical questions. What topics or issues does the playwright grapple with? How do certain symbols or metaphors illuminate meaning? Thematic research helps unify creative choices and storytelling around core ideas.

For a production of Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun, the dramaturg would likely research themes related to socioeconomic inequality, discrimination, assimilation, identity, and the American Dream.

Production Research

Dramaturgs research past productions of the play, exploring others' creative choices around casting, design, staging, music, and more. This helps inform the current production, while allowing the team to build on or depart from tradition.

For a new adaptation of A Midsummer Night's Dream, production research could cover past set designs, musical selections, doubling of roles, and diverse approaches to fantastical elements.

Comprehensive dramaturgical research provides invaluable insights that shape every phase of production, from early concept meetings through opening night. By thoroughly investigating context, meaning, and tradition, the dramaturg empowers the entire team to boldly reimagine great dramatic works.

Text Analysis

Text analysis is a critical part of the dramaturg's job. Dramaturgs closely read and analyze the script to uncover deeper meanings and understand the world of the play. This involves identifying key facts, events, language, imagery, and symbols that reveal character, relationships, themes, and more.

Close reading allows dramaturgs to draw connections between various textual elements and understand how they work together. For example, repeated imagery or metaphors may represent a theme, or the timeline of events can reveal character motivations. Looking at the specifics of word choice and phrasing can also shed light on a character's emotional state.

In addition to close reading, dramaturgs research context about the playwright, time period, and relevant social/historical circumstances. This background information helps inform text analysis. Comparing drafts and revisions also shows how the play evolved over time.

Thorough text analysis equips the dramaturg to have insightful conversations with the director, actors, designers, and others. It also allows them to prepare illuminating program notes, lobby displays, and other materials that engage audiences in the deeper substance of the play.

Audience Engagement

A key responsibility of the dramaturg is engaging the audience beyond the performances themselves to enhance their understanding and appreciation of the work. There are various strategies dramaturgs employ for audience engagement:

  • Lobby displays: Dramaturgs often curate lobby displays featuring production photos, articles, artifacts, and other materials to provide context, background, and insight into the world of the play. These immersive exhibits allow audiences to learn more about the play before taking their seats.
  • Program notes: Dramaturgs write program notes summarizing the relevant historical background, intended themes, creative process, and other details to prep the audience. Dramaturgs aim to provide just enough context to enrich the viewing experience without overwhelming or spoiling.
  • Talkbacks: Hosting talkbacks allows the creative team and cast to directly engage with the audience, answering questions and providing behind-the-scenes insights. Dramaturgs will often moderate and provide their own unique perspective.
  • Workshops: Some dramaturgs develop companion workshops or immersive experiences to enhance the audience's understanding of the complex topics and social issues explored in the play. These workshops create space for meaningful dialogue and collective sensemaking.

The dramaturg's core task is illuminating the world of the play for the cast, creative team, and most importantly, the audience. Through displays, notes, discussions, and workshops, dramaturgs shape the overall audience experience surrounding the performances. Their audience engagement enriches appreciation for the deeper meaning and social relevancy of the work.

Season Planning

Season planning is a critical role of the dramaturg. The dramaturg is often responsible for identifying programming needs and gaps in a theater's season and making recommendations to fill those gaps (The Role of the Dramaturg - Yellowbrick). This may involve researching potential titles or themes, analyzing budgets and resources, and assessing options to create a balanced and cohesive season.

Key aspects of season planning include:

  • Researching trends, themes, and genres missing from current programming. This helps identify potential holes in season offerings.
  • Conducting literary research and reading widely to generate recommendations for new works or adaptations. Extensive reading and staying current is crucial (Dramaturgy Handbook for Emerson, pg 10).
  • Considering budget, casting needs, designer resources, and other logistics when assessing options. The dramaturg must determine what is feasible.
  • Creating a selection process and timeline to review options, make recommendations, and decide on a final season. This structured approach results in thoughtful choices.
  • Maintaining connections with writers, agents, and publishers to stay abreast of new work. Ongoing relationship building informs options.
  • Forecasting and acquiring rights early. Advance planning prevents scramble for rights late in the process (What is a Dramaturg, Anyway?).
  • Providing dramaturgical support for chosen productions including research, program notes, and more. Planning continues year-round.

In essence, the dramaturg facilitates season planning through in-depth literary management. This long term planning and knowledge enables a theater to present the most meaningful, relevant, and cohesive programming.

New Play Development

Dramaturgs play a critical role in the development of new plays, providing dramaturgical support throughout the creative process.

  • Developmental dramaturgy involves closely reading drafts of the script, providing feedback and analysis focused on helping the playwright refine the work. Dramaturgs look at both macro elements like structure, plot, character development as well as micro elements like dialogue, stage directions, imagery.
  • Dramaturgs guide the new play through various developmental stages, from initial drafts and workshops to staged readings. Their feedback and collaboration helps the playwright shape the script and realize their vision.
  • Structural analysis is a key part of new play dramaturgy. Dramaturgs analyze the storyline, acts, scenes, character arcs, and other structural elements. They provide constructive feedback to strengthen the dramatic structure.
  • Dramaturgs read multiple drafts of a developing play, providing notes and suggestions each time. This iterative refinement allows the playwright to improve the script through successive revisions.  
  • Staged readings are an important developmental step, where the play is performed for an audience. Dramaturgs collaborate on these readings, helping prepare scripts, gathering actors, and soliciting audience feedback.
Planes of dramaturgy in theater
Planes of dramaturgy

Production Dramaturgy

Production dramaturgy involves supporting the director, designers, and actors throughout the rehearsal process and run of a show. The dramaturg's duties during this phase may include:

  • Creating a rehearsal schedule and tracking props, costumes, sound, and set needs. This helps keep everything organized as the production comes together.
  • Attending rehearsals and tech rehearsals. The dramaturg is there as an active observer, taking notes and providing feedback when requested by the director.
  • Researching questions that come up in rehearsal about the text, characters, context, or other issues. The dramaturg acts as an informational resource for the whole team.
  • Facilitating table reads and table work sessions to analyze the script. This collaborative analysis helps build a shared understanding among the creative team.
  • Providing context notes in the program to enlighten audiences about the world of the play.
  • Leading backstage tours, give preshow lectures, or organize post-show discussions to enrich the audience experience.
  • Continuing to support the show throughout the run with actor notes or replacement support if needed.

The dramaturg is there to serve the production every step of the way ( Their research and analysis helps deepen understanding while their organization and communication skills keep the process running smoothly. Production dramaturgy requires being actively engaged in the rehearsal room and theater to support the collaborative creative process.

Educational Outreach

Educational outreach is an important part of a dramaturg's role in connecting the theater with the surrounding community. Dramaturgs often create supplementary educational materials and activities to make productions more accessible and meaningful for student audiences (Dramaturgy 101 - Illuminating the world of the play).

Some key aspects of educational outreach include:

Study Guides for Students

  • Creating study guides with background information, discussion questions, and classroom activities related to the themes and content of a production. This helps prepare students to engage with the play.

Pre- and Post-Show Discussions

  • Facilitating discussions before and after the show connects the production to the curriculum and allows students to process the performance.

Connecting Shows to School Curriculum

  • Dramaturgs research how productions relate to academic standards and subjects to integrate the play into lesson plans. Making cross-curricular connections shows the relevance of theater arts.

By generating supplementary materials and activities tied to state learning standards, the dramaturg makes the theater more accessible as a vital educational resource. Thoughtful educational outreach enriches the student audience experience.

Budgeting and Contracts

The dramaturg typically has main responsibility for creating and managing the dramaturgy budget for a production or theatre season. This involves determining costs for research materials, travel, script licenses, and other expenses related to the dramaturgical process. The dramaturg may also negotiate contracts and payment for freelance dramaturgs or researchers brought onto a project [].  

When creating the budget, the dramaturg forecasts expenses and communicates these costs to theatre leadership and producers. They track spending throughout the production process to ensure the dramaturgy remains within budget. If cuts need to be made, the dramaturg determines the most strategic reductions to proposed expenses [].

For shows with union actors, the dramaturg manages contracts, payments, and administrative requirements set by the union. They negotiate terms for any freelance or guest artists as needed. The dramaturg handles payment for rights, licensing fees, and royalties on commissioned or adapted works. They maintain thorough records and ensure contractual obligations are fulfilled.

Strong financial management skills allow the dramaturg to maximize resources. They enable creative dramaturgical choices through careful planning and forecasting. A comprehensive dramaturgy budget accounts for all potential expenses and contractual needs. With this budget framework in place, the production can proceed smoothly.

Collaborating with Designers

Dramaturgs play a key role in collaborating with designers during the production process. This involves providing research, context, and insights to help inform design choices. As the resident expert on the world of the play, the dramaturg offers perspectives to lighting, set, costume and other designers so their work supports and enhances the overall vision (Gancher and Mezzocchi, 2023).

Some key aspects of collaborating with designers include:

  • Sharing relevant images, artifacts, and cultural references to inspire design choices that align with the world of the play. This provides helpful context beyond just the script.
  • Connecting metaphorical meanings, symbols, themes to potential visual representations through design. Dramaturgs can elucidate how design choices can help reinforce and communicate deeper meanings.
  • Providing historical research for accurate period details to inform costumes, sets, props and other elements. The dramaturg is a resource to ensure historical accuracy.
  • Explaining relevant cultural contexts, customs, and traditions that could impact design choices and interpretations.
  • Serving as a bridge between the literary and visual aspects of the production. Dramaturgs help synthesize how design conveys the essence of the text.
  • Ensuring design elements align with the overall vision of the production as discussed with the director. The dramaturg keeps the collaborative process tied to a cohesive vision.

By providing research and insights that connect design choices to meaning, dramaturgs enable the entire production team to create a unified experience that brings the world of the play to life. Their collaboration ensures the design supports the narrative, symbols, and themes to maximize the impact on the audience.

Adaptation and Translation

Dramaturgs play a critical role in adapted works and translations. They conduct extensive research on the production history and critical reception of the adapted work or original text. This provides essential context for the creative team on how the work has been interpreted and received in prior incarnations.

For translations, dramaturgs advise on translation choices and faithfulness to the original text. They may compare multiple published translations, consult linguists, and work closely with the translator to preserve meaning. Dramaturgs consider the nuances of language and cultural references that may not translate literally.

Throughout the adaptation or translation process, the dramaturg serves as an advocate for maintaining the essence and spirit of the source material. They balance this obligation with the creative needs of the production. Dramaturgs aim to honor the original while allowing space for reinterpretation and experimentation. Their guidance helps the team thoughtfully navigate these complex tensions. For translation of supertitles there is Captitles.

Preserving Legacy

The role of the dramaturg includes the important task of documenting and preserving a theatre's legacy. This involves carefully archiving materials from productions and maintaining records of the organization's history (American Theatre Archive Project).

The dramaturg often takes the lead in preserving programs, posters, photos, scripts, videos, and other artifacts from productions. They may also conduct oral histories by interviewing artists involved in major productions. Maintaining detailed production archives allows the theatre's history to be passed down and studied by future generations.

In terms of organizational history, the dramaturg helps compile records of seasons, personnel, finances, policies, and other important documents. These materials allow the theatre to have an institutional memory and track its artistic evolution over decades. The dramaturg stewards the theatre's legacy by making sure these organizational records are protected and accessible.

Thoughtful documentation and archiving requires actively collecting materials during a production and storing them properly for long-term preservation. It also involves making records readily available for research and future productions. By preserving legacy in this manner, the dramaturg honors the theatre's past while enriching its future.

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