The Role of the Dramaturg

I talked to a number of Dramaturgs and Literary Managers (mainly UK based for this blog post) in order to better understand their role and how they both support a writer during the playwriting process, and the production as a whole.

Thierry Poquet - Director & Dramaturg - Working on the production 'Archipelago'
Thierry Poquet - Director & Dramaturg - Working on the production 'Archipelago'

This is a question that comes up fairly often when working with writers - what does a dramaturg do?

(Comments from contributors were anonymised, they all worked at a senior level in the UK. I'll talk to European Dramaturgs in a following post.)

I use the terms Dramaturg and Literary Manager interchangeably as it is the dramaturgical aspects of the Literary Manager role that I was most interested in. They are, in practice however, different:

"The principle role of the literary manager is championship of writers and plays within or between organisations (while seeking broader cultural expression of questions that demand to be asked and which have not yet found a voice). The principal role of the dramaturg is to support the writer in going with strength to places they have not been before."  (Contributor LMD1)

A Dramaturg/Literary Manager has a number of further roles in the theatre making process. In the UK:

  • They act as an in-house critic of work they are considering doing in a theatre, as well as the work that is in progress.
  • They are involved in reading script submissions and evaluating them.
  • They give notes on the work of writers and how to develop a piece.
  • They are sometimes one of the originating artist themselves on a project. (More prevalent on the Continent).

They also at times extend the role to include:

  • Research of various aspects of the play.
  • Being a sounding board for the director as well as being a presence during rehearsals.
  • Writing programmes and introductions to playscripts.
  • They explore the intertextuality of a script – its references to other works of literature or art.
  • They interrogate the work in a wider context. Why do this play now? What is it really about? They are a 'friendly critic'.
  • They are involved in Educational outreach.
  • Interfacing with Academia – they are aware of the dramatic canon of plays and modes of analysis.

Bert Cardullo’s book ‘On Dramaturgy’ has an exhaustive list at the start of it of all the tasks a dramaturg does. The breadth of the job and the fact that writers encounter various and different aspects of the role, (depending on who they are working with), often leads to confusion about what a dramaturg does. Working with a European dramaturg and say, a UK Literary Manager, can be quite different experiences for a writer.

Contributor LMD2 describes the role of the dramaturg in this sense as follows:

 “As a dramaturg I work with playwrights, directors, performers, musicians (and sometimes designers or dancers) to create and shape new works: being both an inside and an outside ‘eye’ and ‘ear’ for creative storytelling, structure and content. I feed in an extensive knowledge of world theatre and other art forms that may help and enrich the artist's creative development, and give constructive feedback to the artists as the work develops in workshop or rehearsals. Overall my role is to try and help the work created realise its full potential for audiences and the artists involved.” (LMD2).

I think it's good as a writer to understand the dramaturg's role well. I certainly wish I had had a better understanding on it much earlier. It would have saved everyone a lot of grief, no doubt.

Anyway, I am coming at it from the perspective of a writer and would love to hear from Dramaturgs/Literary managers on how they see their role, how they support writers and a production, and also - things writers can do to help the process and make the best of this often amazing creative relationship.

Four publications I have found helpful are :

1986. Ed. Bly, Mark (Ed.) 1986.  Yale Theatre Magazine - Dramaturgy Edition. New Haven. Theater/Yale School of Drama and Duke University Press.You can get back issues here - https://theatermagazine.org

Cardullo, Bert (1995), What is Dramaturgy? New York: P. Lang. (This is hard to find to buy, but a good University Library should have it.) Here is a link to it on Google Books.

Romanska, Magda (editor). (2016), The Routledge Companion to Dramaturgy. London: Routledge. (paid link)

And Mary Luckhurst's book : "Dramaturgy: A Revolution in Theatre" (Cambridge Studies in Modern Theatre). (paid link)

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