In the broadest sense, my lofty role at the theater where I serve as resident dramaturg is to protect the integrity of the art form. But day-to-day, I do research and read A LOT of plays. I’m also very involved with season planning, casting, production design conferences, and I develop and curate all the humanities events that surround the work we produce.
In the end, what a dramaturg does is greatly defined by the particular interests and strengths of the person in the job. I concern myself with making sure free-wheeling directors don’t “rewrite” the plays we’ve signed a licensing agreement to produce “as written.” And the vast majority don’t. But here I take my job especially seriously, probably because I’m a playwright.
Aside from trying to ask directors intelligent questions that don’t begin with “Why…?” (my sister the psychologist taught me that even gently posed “why?” questions tend to put folks on the defensive), there’s little to nothing I can do to keep directors—smart ones and otherwise—from cutting or adjusting, say, Shakespeare to shorten running time, address anachronisms and/or to fit a directorial concept. Cutting (oftentimes mutilating) Shakespeare’s texts has of course been a longstanding and common practice in the theatre. Don’t get me wrong. An urtext production of most any Shakespeare play would be, to say the least, taxing to a modern-day audience raised on and addicted to half-hour sitcoms and one-hour dramas (even binge-watching is a controlled intake). In its original form, Hamlet clocks in at 4024 lines. It takes one hour to speak 1000 lines of Shakespeare. You do the math.
But since the 1990s, we’ve been in a “director’s theatre” and sometimes a director’s “bold” interpretation of even a living playwright’s text can morph into invention, the subtle rewriting, re-intentioning of the playwright’s work. Yes, I step in when I see unwarranted and unapproved changes being made to or wrought upon a licensed script. This is where my devotion to “the text” drives some I’ve worked with a bit crazy. But if it were a play I’d written I would hope there’d be someone in the room—if not the director—protecting my words, my dramatic and theatrical intentions. As I tell any cast at a first reading of a play of mine, “All I ask is that you say the words as I’ve written them. The line may not always be right, but it’s not on the page by mistake.”
If you’re a playwright thinking about taking on the role of a dramaturg, consider it carefully. I don’t have to tell the playwrights reading these words that getting produced is maddeningly difficult. And so, of course, to a playwright, becoming a dramaturg at a theater can seem like a foot in the back door: access to artistic and associate artistic directors, guest directors, agents, people who might read, love, develop and produce your work. But the truth is the theater that can afford a resident dramaturg (a luxury beyond most theaters’ means) is probably also getting a literary manager and maybe even a de facto associate artistic director out of that one body and brain. It’s a lot of work—and it can be wonderful work—but it’s not the work of a playwright. And slowly, over time, a playwright who is a dramaturg at a professional theater can begin to have a lot in common with the painter who works as a security guard at an art gallery.
But another thing is important and true: working in a theater can be a vital and rich training experience for any playwright. If a theater is a marvelous imagination/dream machine (and it is!), then playwrights craft the fuel that feeds and ignites its engines. Getting under the hood of a car will not teach you how to drive a car. But getting under the hood, if you will, of a theater can teach a young-in-the-craft playwright more than a valuable thing or two: how scripts actually come to life in that lit end of the room; what the empty space dares and demands of those who dare write to fill it; that bicycles and open umbrellas have simple majesty upon the stage; that audiences give up part of their lives to see our work, so make it worthy; and in the right moment, in the right scene, sometimes something simple simply stated is all we need.
Glossary of Terms
Dramaturg: a person who practices the art of thinking about theatre.
Playwright: a person who practices the art of making shit up.