What’s a Dramaturg?


There’s a joke on the Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas’ Twitter feed: “A dramaturg walks into a rehearsal room and everyone turns around and says, What’s a dramaturg?”

When I was assigned this article, the pitch contained those very words. Truth be told, I felt a little smug. I’m a drama nerd; surely I know what a dramaturg is. I got this.

Turns out, I really didn’t. Turns out, after doing research for this article and interviewing dramaturgs and the theatre professionals who love them, I discovered that I may have missed my calling.  Turns out, dramaturg might be my dream job.  

Unlike Sarah Lunnie, literary manager and dramaturg at Actors Theatre, I didn’t have a professor in college who realized that the confluence of my love of theatre, research, and literary analysis made me perfectly suited for a life of dramaturgy. Luckily, Lunnie had a professor at Boston College who did just that.

“I didn’t even know the job existed at that point,” she says.

 

Amy Attaway, associate director for the Apprentice/Intern Company at Actors Theatre, says, “Dramaturgs in regional theatre do three things: They serve as production dramaturgs on the plays, they participate in choosing the plays, and they keep an eye on the institutional branding and aesthetic of the organization. Production dramaturgs are the people in the rehearsal process who do research on the details and keep an eye on the consistency and storytelling arc of the whole production.  At Actors, our literary staff spends the majority of their time on new plays, on which their role shifts: They help to shape the development of the play, track the script changes, and serve as an advocate for the playwright.”

In addition to working at Actors, Attaway is a co-artistic director and founder of Theatre [502]. Last November, she directed Marco Ramirez’s “Broadsword: A Heavy Metal Play” at the new Parkside Studio inside Iroquois Amphitheatre.  When Erin Keane heard news of the upcoming production, she told Attaway that she wanted to sign on. “I realized that while smaller companies in town seemed to have no shortage of directors, performers, stage managers, and designers, they rarely (if ever) listed a dramaturg in their programs,” said Keane. “I saw the opportunity to put two of my academic and professional specialties (rock music and theater) to work together.”

Keane started with researching and compiling the heavy metal music which is the driving force of the play. But it didn’t end with the mix cd she created for the cast.  

“Then I really went to work, researching supernatural New Jersey, underworld myths and pop music, dissonance in music, various types of musical notation, that sort of thing. I wrote a glossary of terms so we could all be on the same pop culture page.” Keane said. Attaway adds: “Erin’s keen eye and research skills helped us navigate all of that and bring it to life in the production.  Maybe the most important thing she did, though, was to guide us in the creation of the mysterious musical notation known in the play as Richie Shorthand. The props we used could have just been scribbles, and the audience would never have known.  Instead, because of Erin, we had actual tabs with a real new musical notation that she created for the world of the play.”

Amy Wegener, Literary Director and Dramaturg at Actors Theatre, used those same words to describe her job, “Dramaturgs provide pathways into the world of the play. They’re a sounding board for the writer or director, and they’re an early audience member.”  

Attaway calls the Actors Theatre literary department, “one of the best in the country.  Amy and Sarah are two of the smartest women I know, and all of us are fortunate to have their discerning eyes on our work.”

Together Attaway and Lunnie are currently working on “Oh, Gastronomy,” the Apprentice/Intern production for this season’s Humana Festival. “Oh, Gastronomy” is a multi-playwright commissioned work.  Attaway says, “[This] means Sarah’s role is even more important — we have done every step in the process together: we chose the topic, selected the playwrights, designed the workshops that gave them a springboard to their writing, and selected the pieces and shaped the play.”  

Different Humana Festival plays call upon Wegener and Lunnie to play different roles and fill different needs. “Death Tax” is a thriller by Lucas Hnath set in a familiar, contemporary world. Wegener is helping Hnath keep focused on the paths of the characters’ personal journeys. “Hour of Feeling” by Mona Mansour is a love story that takes place on the West Bank and London in 1967, so there’s cultural and historical context to research. The poetry of William Wordsworth also figures into the plot, and Lunnie is working through how the poems interact with the play.

“I’m not an expert in any of these things,” says Lunnie. “And in the short period time, I’m not going to become an authority on Wordsworth or the Middle East.” Because of this, she uses the word “nimble” to describe dramaturgs.

Nimble indeed. In addition to working with directors and playwrights, the literary department at Actors writes for the subscriber newsletters, playbills, and graphic lobby displays. They put together actors’ packets and annotated scripts; they do image research alongside the designers. They work with students during the the New Voices Festival and collaborate with the Apprentice/Intern company during the Ten Minute Plays and participate in post-show discussions and talks with donors.

And from April to October each year, one of the literary department’s main focuses is to read plays under consideration for the next season.

When asked what she’s most excited about for this year’s Humana Festival, Wegener cites the breadth and diversity of the settings and subject matters: the Middle East in the 60’s, suburban Midwest in the 80’s, “to stories that feel like they’re happening right now.”  Lunnie adds that this breadth and diversity extends to the playwrights involved in Humana: “It’s exciting to work with a range of writers at different points in their careers.”

“There are so many people in our building,” says Lunnie. “Not just artists, but visitors. There’s panel discussions, parties, lots of opportunities to be around interesting conversations.”

“Humana Festival is a particular passion of mine,” says Wegener.   She first came to Actors straight out of grad school and later left for the esteemed Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis. But she came back.  “I missed the festival,” she says.

These dramaturgs love their jobs. They speak with breathless passion. Lunnie describes dramaturgy as a “satisfying marriage… analysis and theory channeled toward storytelling.”

“Before I started at Actors Theatre, I had never worked with a dramaturg.  Now, four years later, I don’t know why I’d ever work without one! For me, having another smart person in the room, who is paying attention to the big picture of the play, is invaluable.” Said Attaway.

When I brought up the Twitter joke to Keane, she responded: “There are a lot of reasons why I think the dramaturg is a mysterious role in theater — if the dramaturg doesn’t show up, the show still gets written, blocked, lit, costumed, and performed, so what exactly do we … do?  Ultimately, I think, the dramaturg’s mission is to make her work invisible to the audience.”

Attaway agreed: “The work of a dramaturg is hard to put your finger on.  Most of their contributions are intangible and absorbed into the fabric of the play, the production, and the theatre.  In this way, it’s easy to dismiss them.  And the ribbing… well, the dramaturg is always going to be the one to insist on Oxford commas and tell you the bustle on that dress is the wrong style for the period. And you know it’s easy to hate the smartest kid in class.”

–Melissa Chipman

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