1. What is a dramaturg?

Hello. This is the first of my attempts at getting down some of my thoughts on dramaturgy. As this is a blog I have tried to write reasonably freely without too much editing or dramaturgy, to avoid it becoming an essay. I am sure it will be clumsy. It is also by no means exhaustive. It is mostly useful for me, to help clarify what I think about what I do. I hope also, in writing it down, someone else my find some clarity in what they are trying to do. 

The dramaturg seems to be the most esoteric of all the jobs in theatre, that I have experience of. There are styles of directing, styles of writing, styles of acting, stage management, producing, etc. But each of them seems to have a spectrum of behaviour and expectations. No two directors are the same but they all fall within a certain set of expectations. Some buck certain trends but by and large we know what a director is. And each director will tend to behave similarly for each project they do – again – by and large. And the same goes for a writer and all the others. A spectrum of expectations and behaviours which the word conjures. The dramaturg – at least in the UK – has no such firm connotations. Ask one person what a dramaturg is and, well, firstly they might not even have an answer. Another might roll their eyes and say something about being an appalling flow blocker, a stimy to the creative process. Another may claim it is the beating heart of theatre itself. And so on. For each person, a very different definition. Perhaps this is because it is a reasonably recent addition to the bestiary of UK theatre and we are still working it out. Whatever the reason is, I have found a stunning lack of clarity about what a dramaturg is. This could be because the process may define the person in this case. I find myself being a very different person in each process I am in, depending on the output or form of the project, the needs of the creatives involved, the timeline etc etc, etc. To paraphrase Stephen Fry: ‘we are not nouns, we are verbs’. So to try and find some clarity on the topic, for myself and anyone else who wants to read, what follows is an attempt to understand the verb, and not the noun.

I find myself ‘dramaturging’, if that is even the verb, most effectively when I don’t seek answers but questions. Most can read Stephen Jeffreys’s Playwriting: Structure, Character, How and What to Write and apply the excellent nuggets of wisdom from it to a play. Most can read Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With A Thousand Faces or John Yorke’s Into The Woods and see how the hero/ine’s journey might help create the cathartic moment for an audience, if it is catharsis we are looking for. That’s not dramaturgy. I mean that’s not all of dramaturgy. And it’s not what makes dramaturgy special. Most theatre types are capable of providing that kind of sounding board to a writer if they need it. Some writers do it themselves as part of their process, especially if they have read David Edgar’s thoughts on Monday thinking vs Tuesday thinking. So I don’t think that’s what dramaturgy is good for. Good dramaturgy, to me, is the rope around Odysseus (or Turner for that matter) lashing him to the mast so the crew isn’t dragged to the rocks by the sirens. Good dramaturgy is not simply getting inside the head of the writer, the director or the artistic director. Not just about digging out the mathematics of the thing. Although that is a big part of it – perhaps we could call that the craft of dramaturgy. 

Good dramaturgy – the art of it – is about climbing inside the heart and soul of the creative or organisation, using whatever tools you need; scalpel, pickaxe, crowbar, feather duster, glass of wine, coffee or a well framed series of difficult and revealing questions. Good dramaturgy – to borrow an image from the phenomenal Nina Steiger – is about finding the fire in the room, whether the creative wants to feel it or not, finding ways to sit the creative closer to it, sometimes closer than they feel comfortable, sometimes holding their feet to it. Drilling down into the messy realms around why they need to tell this story. Sometimes it might need heating up from a want to a need. And that is a hard journey to go on, on one’s own. Good dramaturgy is about revealing the distance between the output and the intent and developing methods to bring them closer together. Good dramaturgy draws out the, sometimes latent, purpose; the beating heart of the place and people, what they stand for, what hill they will die on. Draw it out and show it in its bleeding, messy juiciness back to its creators. “Why this heart?” “Why this way, this structure?” “How does that reach your aim better than this structure?” “Why here, why now, why you, why us?” “Is this, truly, the heart we need? Is this the heart we are aiming for?” “How close are we to achieving it? “So how can we get closer?” “Who is this for? Do they need it or want it?”

Being a skilled dramaturg requires a real flexibility and sensitivity. Insensitive, clumsy or lazy dramaturgy is certain to do more harm than good. I know that from experience. When the craft of dramaturgy crushes the heart of the piece out of it; removing all that is unique about it. But considered, sensitive and diligent dramaturgy can be gold dust to a creative endeavour. What works for one institution/director/writer is almost certainly not going to be what works for another. Hell, what works for one piece is probably not what is going to work for another by the same writer. The same can be said of every element of theatre making, of course, from Stage and Costume Design to Acting, to writing to producing to the technical jobs. No process is a fix all.  And that is not even taking into account the big personalities found in the arts. So the good dramaturg must also be able to ask themselves difficult questions. They must first ask themselves why they are in the room, what does this room/piece/person/company need, are they the person to fill that, and if not, who is? First work out whatkind of dramaturgy is needed. Some creatives and places need drawing out, inspiring, empowering. Some need an extra pair of eyes on craft. Some need someone who can spot the next narrative steps, the development of the theme. Some need soothing, encouragement, bolstering. Some need a researcher, a context giver. Some simply need a mirror – someone to look with fresh eyes, to receive and reflect what is there. And some need challenging – a person to stand up for the audience, what is missing, or something unfairly forgotten. Which in a realm of big personalities can be a daunting process. But often the most valuable. So the skill of the dramaturg lies in the flexibility of their approach and their ability to metamorphose into the kind of dramaturg that is needed at this time.

“Does that mean you have no opinions or your own taste?” 

Quite the opposite. I enjoy some plays more than others of course. I treasure all creative output that is honest, worked hard at and cared about by its creator. But theatre that excites me most is ultimately either lifting those who need lifting or gut punching those who need that. Making visible the ignored and discomforting the comfortable. Theatre that excites me often plays with the expectations of form somehow, whether that be subtly subverting the 3 or 5 Act structure to provoke an audience to examine what kind of stories they listen to, or completely eviscerating the rulebook. Theatre that excites me has a raw, undefinable quality that is unique to this piece and this writer. To question and to challenge, to provoke, to empower and to take space. Theatre that excites me most has an eternal quality, even in the most contemporary of work, a reach into the ancient and fundamental parts of us. If the theatre isn’t trying to do some of the above I find it hard to connect to it. It is important to be honest with myself and others about my – admittedly reasonably catholic – taste. Being honest about my bias helps to have a weather-eye on not letting them run rough-shod over the creative impulse of another. I will also probably always try to dig out those things from the writers and directors I work with to increase the impact of even the most personal work.

In closing. I often hear “do we really need dramaturgs? If writers and directors are good enough dramaturgs just get in the way”. I often wonder how many great theatre and opera there would be in the world if there were more people looking to dig out what someone had in them rather than make them marketable. How many extraordinary voices there would be if instead of making the writer feel like they had to stifle part of their voice they were made to feel that scared part was the worthy of shouting about? How many would we have if instead of worrying about what their play should be people focussed on what this play could be? To dramaturg, at its best, is to listen; to put oneself inside the imagination of another; to throw one’s weight behind another’s vision; to empower the most delicate, vulnerable and scared parts of that person to stand boldly; to look and learn before leaping; to constantly reflect on and challenge one’s own perspective; and to do everything possible to ensure the work of our theatre is as vital and transformative as possible. That, to me, is the verb: to dramaturg.

At the time of writing I know of at least two other areas I would like to create a blog on. One being Performance as Myth and the other being The Tension Between Consistency and the Raw Human. And one more on a Writer’s Dramaturg vs a Director’s Dramaturg. I know, I know, I said two areas…I said I wouldn’t edit too much…Oh, and The Difference Between Dramaturgy and Script Development…and Dramaturgy in Music….I’ll stop now.

And, for anyone still reading, a short, non-exhaustive list of cited and influential texts with links to ethical book seller attached (not plays – that would take too long):

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