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“What Exactly Does a Dramaturg Do?” Dylan Southard Tells Us

Dylan Southard is the resident dramaturg and literary manager for Need Theater. Production dramaturgy credits there include: Fatboy, Mercury Fur, and Scarcity. He is also the resident dramaturg for The Robey Theatre Company at the Los Angeles Theatre Center, where he runs the advanced playwrights lab and helps to oversee new play development, including three world premieres in 2010. Additionally, he works as a script consultant for theaters throughout southern California, including The Center Theatre Group, The Geffen Playhouse, The Old Globe, and The Theatre @ Boston Court. He trained for two years under a dramaturgy fellowship at Centerstage in Baltimore and is a graduate of Wesleyan University. Dylan is the co-producer of Need Theater’s west coast premiere of tempOdyssey, written by Dan Dietz and opening April 24.  Buy tickets here.

Every dramaturg has faced the question: “What exactly is it that you do?” more times than they can count. And as a result, each of us has developed an arsenal of clever, easily digestible answers that we can tactfully deploy on those occasions where people get together and talk about their jobs. I’ve heard colleagues describe us as “resident eggheads,” “troubleshooters,” and  “information designers.” I especially like that last one because it sounds like a job in a dystopian, science-fiction novel. But while these sorts of titles might be fun to throw around, they also seem deliberately vague and they don’t get anyone any closer to actually understanding the nuts-and-bolts of what a dramaturg does.

So let’s try this instead: Let’s say you’re at one of those aforementioned occasions where people get together and make small talk. Let’s say that you’re with a group of people, listening to a friend of yours, Bob, tell a story. In this story, Bob and his girlfriend Sue are stranded after their car breaks down in the middle of the night. They are taken in by an elderly couple who initially appear odd, almost spooky in their behavior and way of life. But as the night goes on, and the group continues to interact with one another, Bob and Sue begin to see a unique kind of wisdom embodied in this couple. In doing so, they gain a new understanding of what it means to age gracefully with someone you love, thus strengthening their own relationship.

Now, you have known Bob and Sue for several years. You’ve heard this story told many times, under many different circumstances. You consequently have come to know certain things about this story. For instance, you might know that Sue’s description of the night in question is always far less dramatic than Bob’s. That she, in fact, always seems a little embarrassed when Bob launches into it. You might know too that Bob’s parents had gotten divorced only a month prior after thirty years of marriage  (a fact which Bob always omits from his narrative). Consequently, you might conclude that his anger and confusion following that event might have made him more predisposed than Sue to look for a revelatory experience with this elderly couple. And so the story becomes less about a kooky and charming encounter that Bob and Sue had and more about Bob’s desperate need to be comforted and uplifted. Because of your unique understanding of the way the story is told and the way it came to be, you can look at it from a new perspective. You can arrive at new truths about the story itself.

Next, let’s say that some tragically misguided theater company decides to make a play out of Bob’s story. If the director is trying to realize a world first created by the playwright, and the actor playing Bob is trying to totally immerse himself in the reality of that world, than your understanding of the circumstances surrounding that creation would be very helpful. Were they to come to you for consultation, then, in essence, you would be acting as that production’s dramaturg. Of course, this is not a perfect analogy, not least of all because the dramaturg does not always have the luxury of personally knowing the playwright. Our work is far more often simply very educated guesses. But the important thing to keep in mind is what you would theoretically be providing the production. You would be providing them with context.

I like the word “context” a lot when talking about dramaturgy. One of the more well-understood aspects of a dramaturg’s job is their role as researcher. Very often, a dramaturg is responsible for answering all the factual questions that come up in rehearsals and so we spend hours digging up information on a wide variety of highly specific topics. This is the part of the job spent sitting alone in libraries. My favorite example of the sort of factoids that we’re called upon to unearth comes from a production of Sweeney Todd that I worked on several years ago. As most know, Sweeney Todd is essentially the story of a two sociopaths who kill people and then bake them into pies. The question I was faced with was, “How many pies could you make out of one person?” It’s more than you would think, actually. But the point is that you are being asked to provide a context, in this case the hard-and-fast reality that exists within any fictional story. How much did a loaf of bread cost in 1887? What were the most popular British television shows of 1983? Why did they really fight the Spanish-American War? You build the world through which the original story emerged and, in doing so, you can aid those whose job it is to interpret that story.

Often, a dramaturg simply acts as an advisor to these interpreters, particularly writers and directors. This is the time where I like to imagine I’m consigliere to their Mafia don. And here again, it’s all about context. A dramaturg—unlike most of his peers in the theater world—does not have any responsibility to immerse himself emotionally or psychologically in the play. That immersion is instrumental to eventually achieving some sort of honesty and resonance in the final product, and so much of the work of actors, directors, writers and designers is about getting as close to the themes and ideas of the play as possible. They must find the ways in which the play resonates to them personally. And that closeness means an inevitable loss of objectivity. None of them would be doing their jobs if it were any other way. But a dramaturg maintains that objectivity. He remains at a distance, looking at a play in the way a doctor might look at the human body. That sort of objectivity can be crucial because it provides a new context for the play, a context born from a desire to understand the play rather than feel it.

This also comes into play during the frequent times when dramaturgs advise theaters and artistic directors on matters of season planning. In these conversations, the dramaturg once again takes the wide perspective, concerning himself with the historical and sociological context of the play, the greater story that a theater company tells with their seasons, and the roles that each play has in that story. My role in helping to choose Dan Dietz’s tempOdyssey as a production for Need Theater is a perfect example. Previous Need Theater productions, such as Phillip Ridley’s Mercury Fur and Lucy Thurber’s Scarcity, addressed themes of familial responsibility and growing up with a seriousness and weight that could be felt. tempOdyssey continues to address those themes but with a distinctly lighter touch, creating a new, wider perspective for universal ideas.

Yet despite the strong connections forged between a dramaturg and a play, dramaturgy has never been an especially visible or popular field within the world of theater. Part of this is because dramaturgy demands that its practitioners keep a certain distance from a production so as to maintain that wide perspective. We can often be found lurking in the corners of rehearsals, staring at the proceedings with a furrowed brow while scrawling notes excitedly in small, leather-bound notebooks. I’ve found that this sort of behavior is often considered either obnoxious or terrifying. But the more significant reason is that a dramaturg’s job naturally overlaps with that of the director, the actors, and the writer and this means that toes are sometimes stepped on. Directors and actors approach a play with all sorts of ideas and thoughts and so to be pointed in a direction other than the ones they have chosen can sometimes feel like an affront. Writers, having spent months or years nurturing an idea from its infancy are stunned or infuriated when you tactfully try to tell them that the idea just isn’t landing. It’s easy for a dramaturg to get pushed to the periphery in instances like these, and so this is the part of the job that requires a finely calibrated sense of diplomacy and a willingness to fight for a place around the table.

Dramaturgs rarely have any leverage in fights like these because we know, just as everyone else does, that a dramaturg is not an essential member of the production. Many fantastic plays have been written and many amazing productions have been mounted without any involvement from a dramaturg. But that does not mean that dramaturgy wasn’t an essential part of that play or production’s creation. And this is terribly important to remember when trying to understand dramaturgy: Everyone engages in dramaturgy every day of his or her life. Everyone is a dramaturg. We are all constantly contextualizing and analyzing pieces of narrative, from the TV shows we watch to the billboards we look at to the melodrama of the bickering, young couple that was played out in front of us in line at Starbucks this morning. It’s a huge part of what an actor does, to be sure. After all, if you do not understand the context of a character as he or she exists in any given story, then how can you expect to fully understand the character at all?

An actor can deliberately engage in dramaturgy in the way in which they read a script. A script can be read from many perspectives. As an actor, one will read a script with an eye towards understanding the character that he or she is playing. What are their motives? What are their intents? Why is the character saying this? Or doing that? But this actor can also take the same, wide perspective as the dramaturg by reading the play with an eye towards understanding the writer. Why did the writer choose to have my character say this? Or do that? What is the greater story that I am a part of? What are we ultimately trying to show the audience?

Leading a production team to questions like this and giving team members the tools to answer these questions are the principle responsibilities of the dramaturg. And facing questions like these is a crucial part of the success of any play. A former boss and mentor of mine describes dramaturgs as “artistic enablers,” and of all the clever, pithy, one-line definitions of a dramaturg, I think that one is the most apt. We help to enable artists to do their jobs.

  1. Cris D'Annunzio on Thursday 22, 2010

    It’s a cool job title, Dramaturg, whatever it is you do…! Looking forward to seeing TempOddysey.

  2. jovanrameau on Thursday 22, 2010

    You established for me what you do and made clear the process of your profession. I wonder how can I hire a dramatug like you to critique a one person show script.