Illuminating the world of the play
By Amy Steele
I vividly remember when I first learned about dramaturgy. A friend of mine who is primarily a lighting designer was dramaturging a production of Dancing at Lughnasa. As she described her process, I was completely absorbed. She studied the play from a literary and performance standpoint, but she also went beyond that and investigated the social, political, cultural, and historical contexts of the play’s world. Through her multidimensional understanding of the dramatic material, she was able to help me appreciate how truly rich the play was.
Inspired by this experience, I began my own investigation of dramaturgy, quickly recognizing it was an ideal match for my personality. In addition to reading and writing, I revel in the scavenger-hunt quality of research and applying newfound connections to a project. Above all, I love to share what I learn with others (I was a high school theatre and English teacher at the time), which is one of the dramaturg’s main duties. I soon decided to return to graduate school to study dramaturgy in more depth and am now a professional dramaturg. I’ve since worked with many high school and college student-dramaturgs and have been delighted by their enthusiasm. Once young theatre artists are exposed to this work, they soon realize just how appealing and indispensable it can be.
What exactly is a dramaturg?
Summarizing what a dramaturg does in one tidy sentence is challenging. Some dramaturgs say they are literary and historical consultants who work with directors, designers, and actors to make an artistic vision a reality. Others reply that they are scholars who apply their research to make the world of a play come alive. Then there are dramaturgs who collaborate with playwrights to help shape new scripts and stories as well as advocate for playwrights’ intentions during the rehearsal process. Dramaturg and professor Geoffrey Proehl uses the phrases “historical, critical, literary, and philosophical consciousness,” “watchdog,” “audience’s surrogate,” “designated readers,” “keeper of the text,” “word person,” and “diplomat or mediator” to describe dramaturgs.
When Mark Bly, senior dramaturg at the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., is asked for a description of what he does, he generally answers, “I question.” (Both of these definitions and more are found in Dramaturgy in American Theater: A Sourcebook, listed with other resources in a sidebar on page xx). As varied as these answers are, each is absolutely accurate. The common connection is that a dramaturg learns as much as she can about a play’s context—or its world—and its text. As my mentor in graduate school wisely told me, “What a dramaturg does often depends on the situation she’s in, but she’s always a fundamental member of a production team.” (On a side note, “dramaturg” is pronounced with a hard “g,” and it is not spelled with an “e” on the end. “Dramaturge,” pronounced with a soft “g,” is French for “a writer or adaptor of plays.”)
Despite the multiplicity of the dramaturg’s duties, many tasks—particularly of production research—are relatively consistent. Each time I prepare materials for a production, I follow a specific procedure, or research and play analysis guide, that my mentor passed down to me. Since then, I’ve made my own additions to the outline, and I’m sure some students with whom I’ve worked have made their own adjustments. Having a specific series of steps is a useful and flexible framework for beginning dramaturgs, particularly for high school students, because it helps to make production dramaturgy a tangible, definable set of actions. In this article, I’m going to focus on production dramaturgy, or dramaturgy that is specific to a production of a play that has already been produced and is usually published. In new play dramaturgy, a dramaturg helps a playwright develop a new work, which often follows a different process.
Meet with the director
Before I begin the actual dramaturgy process, which is outlined below, I always meet with the play’s director to discuss my ideas, thoughts, and questions about the play and a research game plan. As with other members of the production team, the dramaturg answers to the director and works the closest with her. Because the director may have a particular take on the play and its world, it is important for the dramaturg to support and illuminate this vision through his research and other participation in the rehearsal process. Meeting with the director prior to the research process helps guide the dramaturg’s pre-production preparation.
What follows are the tasks I complete for pre-rehearsal work. Please note that these steps are in no specific order. Also, keep in mind that a dramaturg does not have to complete every task each time he works on a play. The play will dictate which areas he needs to study and which he does not. In regard to your students, encourage them to find their own hook into the play—something that really interests or speaks to them—and begin research with that subject.
Do initial readings
Script analysis is an ongoing process for a dramaturg, and finding a method that best suits an individual’s style and the play’s needs is key. I’ve found it helpful to break down my initial analysis into three phases: after the first reading, I jot down my gut reaction to the play; following the second and subsequent close readings, I note the play’s structure and style, its prevailing mood and tone, and the story’s ambiguities and complexities. Finally, I make a list of topics to research (these usually deal with setting details and other world-of-the-play issues). If a student dramaturg needs an introduction to formal script analysis, Backwards and Forwards: A Technical Manual for Reading Plays by David Ball is a popular resource that provides a succinct and effective text analysis method.
Create a text glossary
I compile the following into a glossary: words or foreign phrases that require definition and/or pronunciation clarification; references and allusions that need to be explained (such as mythological, literary, historical, biblical, music, and pop culture references); unique social customs that require elaboration; and titles and character names that need to be analyzed. This is frequently one of the first tasks I complete because it’s often a springboard into other areas of research.
Research the playwright’s background
Although a playwright’s life does not necessarily inform her work, it’s important to know pertinent autobiographical information that does shape or influence the play. For instance, I’m in the process of conducting research for The Crucible and After the Fall by Arthur Miller, which were both influenced by Miller’s reaction to and experience with the House Un-American Activities Committee’s (HUAC) search for communists in America. Knowing how HUAC personally affected Miller is integral to understanding both plays. Playwright biographies, autobiographies, journals, letters, documentaries, and interviews are useful sources for such material and often provide dramaturgs with interesting tidbits and anecdotes about a play’s inspiration, formation, and production history.
Being familiar with the playwright’s body of work can come in handy as well. Sometimes a play may have been inspired or influenced by another of the playwright’s works. Understanding the connections, or possibly lack of connections, among a playwright’s writing reveals much about her work.
Research the background of the play
A dramaturg should determine three basic things about a script: its source material; what adaptations have been done of the original play; and as much as possible about the play’s setting and historical period.
If a play evolved from a particular source, it’s usually enlightening to read that material. For example, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum was inspired by three comedies by the ancient Roman playwright Plautus. Reading these plays reveals just how much Larry Gelbart and Burt Shevelove, the book’s authors, are paying homage to Plautus in their musical comedy. And it’s interesting to learn that the roots of low comedy date back to ancient Rome.
Often more than one version of a play exists. If that’s the case, the dramaturg should become familiar with the various adaptations, learn why the differences came to be, and decide which edition is the most effective. Particularly if a play is in the public domain, studying script versions allows the dramaturg to suggest which text a production team should use or what revisions should be made. This comparison process also applies to translations and adaptations since the quality among these may vary.
Describing the historical period in which a play is set and communicating the pertinent societal concerns of people living in that era and location are also among the dramaturg’s responsibilities. This information provides the actors and others on the production team with a context for the world of the play. (More on this later.)
Study the play’s production history
Knowing when and where a play was first produced and the critical and popular reception it received is informative. Then repeat the process for other major productions or revivals. Critics’ reviews may also include interesting play analyses and point to some possible difficulties in the script. During this time, it is enlightening to read noteworthy academic essays, books, and articles that have been written about the play or playwright as well, keeping an eye out for what sheds light on the text and world of the play and provides interpretation possibilities. I’ve found that collecting production photos and design sketches from previous productions is also helpful to see how other artists have interpreted the play.
Review other materials that reflect the world of the play
Other resources that can help to convey information about the play’s context include:
- Art, music, and popular culture of the play’s time period. For example, while working on Black Coffee by Agatha Christie, it was useful to investigate the popular music and dances the younger generation of the 1930s enjoyed because the character Barbara, a young independent woman, continually surprises her old-school Aunt Caroline with her bright lipstick and “vulgar songs.” Knowing what dances and music were popular during that period helped the actor playing Barbara develop her character.
- Timelines. These are a compact way to share historical information.
The work of a playwright’s contemporaries. Who else was writing when the playwright wrote the play, and what were they writing, creating, and composing?
- Other artists that influenced the playwright. When I was preparing dramaturgy for an Alley Theatre production of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, I learned that Albee was inspired by the James Thurber short story “The Breaking Up of the Winships” and Thurber’s cartoons. I included the short story and some cartoons that reminded me of George and Martha’s relationship in my research materials.
- Music and visual images that evoke the play’s mood, tone, or theme (see the “world-of-the-play presentations” section for an example).
- Video references. Documentaries, cinematic adaptations of the play, and other films that suggest the play’s world are beneficial.
- Maps and photographs of the play’s geographic setting. While working on the Alley’s Stones in His Pockets by Marie Jones, I gathered numerous photos of County Kerry, Ireland, the setting for the play. Although County Kerry’s lush landscape was important to the story, the play was set on bare stage, encouraging the actors to conjure up their green surroundings. The photographs aided the actors’ imaginations, and they were in turn able to communicate the beauty to the audience.
- Magazines and newspapers from the time period in which the play is set. Frame 312 by Keith Reddin is set in the present day and the time of President Kennedy’s death. The protagonist is personally affected by the tragedy and the Zapruder film that recorded the assassination, so I brought the issue of Life that published stills of the Zapruder film to rehearsal. I also shared other primary magazine and newspaper sources to illustrate the country’s reaction to the event. A DVD recording of the Zapruder film was useful, too. And while working on a production of Hart and Kaufman’s You Can’t Take It With You, a play focusing on one family during the Depression, I shared New York Times and other news and magazine photos and stories from that period with the director and cast to show the contrast of the joy in the Sycamores’ home to the general mood in the country. That the Sycamores were able to enjoy their lives during such economic hardship reveals a great deal about their family relationship and individual spirits.
- Children’s books. These often convey background information in a well-researched, concise, and attractive manner. While investigating resources for The General from America by Richard Nelson, a play in which Benedict Arnold is the main character, I found many well-written books that succinctly summarized the events of the American Revolution and described daily life in colonial America. I’ve also found children’s books about Shakespeare’s world and plays to be constructive while dramaturging the bard’s work.
Organize your research for presentation
So what does a dramaturg do with all of this information? First, it must be organized in an easy-to-access manner. I like to compile my materials into a production notebook that divides up the steps of the research that’s been done. I store information that can’t fit into the notebook into a box or crate that is clearly labeled with the production’s title. Once that’s done, the dramaturg chooses the most significant and useful material to share with the director, cast, and others who might find it informative, such as designers and, in the professional theatre, education and community outreach staff to help them develop study guides.
It’s important to remember that although a dramaturg may find all of the material interesting, the rest of the production team may not be able to use it all. Don’t overwhelm them with too much stuff; instead, distill the research into a concise, readable format and then compile it into packets to distribute either prior to or during the first rehearsal. Before assembling the packets or giving any materials to the actors, however, it’s a good idea to ask the director if he approves of the information it will contain. Sometimes directors are selective about the research presented to actors and therefore prefer things to be filtered through them first.
While distilling materials, remember that directors will most likely want research that details the play’s text and context, provides information about its production history, and communicates the playwright’s intentions; actors look for material to aid them in better understanding their characters and the world in which they live; and designers may request additional references to supplement their own research. I also find it helpful to post visual images in the rehearsal hall (see the “bulletin board” activity below) and to build some sort of reference library for the cast.
A question I’m frequently asked is how often the dramaturg has to be in rehearsal. Although the time commitment should be negotiated with the director, it’s wise to attend all table work sessions and to be present while the director and actors are investigating textual issues. In professional productions, often the dramaturg will present her research packet at the first rehearsal and then participate in script discussion for the next few days. I take copious notes during this period to not only remind me what ideas, thoughts, and questions the cast and director have, but also to archive the process in case any of the information is needed for future projects or productions.
Once the director begins to block the play, it’s usually not necessary for the dramaturg to be at each rehearsal. Coming in two to three times a week at that point to observe the production’s progress and to see if any questions or issues have arisen is appropriate. During this time, I ask questions. For example: Is the production keeping in line with the vision that the director and I discussed during our first meeting? If not, why and how has it changed? Is the production staying true to the playwright’s intentions? Is the story clear? If I have notes to give about any of these issues, I discreetly take them during rehearsal and then share them with the director once rehearsal is over. Again, it’s important to discuss with the director prior to the rehearsal period if she would like such notes and how she would like the dramaturg to share them with her. I’ve worked with directors who like to have one-on-one discussions with me after rehearsal, whereas others have preferred me to e-mail my notes.
At the end of the rehearsal process, dramaturgs attend run-throughs, dress rehearsals, and previews to see how the whole production is coming together—technical cues and costumes will have been added at this point—and to ensure that everything will make sense to the audience. In this regard, the dramaturg is acting as an “in-house critic,” getting a feel for how the public will respond to the production. If anything might be unclear to the audience, dramaturgs should notify the director of these concerns and offer possible solutions.
Dramaturgy activities for the classroom
Most of what I’ve discussed are steps that occur in a professional theatre setting, but they’re as just applicable in an educational theatre environment. In a moment I’ll touch on some things you and your students can do during the production process. First, let’s consider some things you can do in the classroom.
Assign the entire class a play to read, and then break them into dramaturgy teams. Each team is responsible for completing one assignment in the dramturgy process. Once the team has completed its work, the members should compile their information into a packet that can be shared with the entire class. Encourage students to summarize and paraphrase written material in their own words rather than simply copying information from books or printing it off the internet. It’s important for dramaturgs to have solid writing skills and to present their research in an attractive and professional manner. Teams should then share their packets with the entire class in an oral presentation. They can get as creative with this as they’d like, but the goal of this part of the activity is to work on verbally communicating what they’ve learned. Dramaturgs spend a lot of time talking about their knowledge and ideas; therefore, good communication skills are a must.
After each group has presented its materials, organize them into one final production notebook that may be used for other class projects or as a resource for the play if it is ever produced at the school. Indeed, doing this project for a play that is going to be presented during the school year would be especially meaningful.
An advanced version of this activity would be to assign each team to read separate plays that vary in style and period and then require individual team members to complete one step of the research needed. Each team, therefore, would create an entire packet of the research needed for its assigned play. Once the teams finish their project, the class would have multiple completed play packets to review, allowing students to see how each team interpreted the tasks and how their processes differed depending on what type of play was researched.
Dramaturgy bulletin boards
This activity can be done as an extension of the dramaturgy teams activity, on its own, or as part of a play rehearsal. Assign individuals or teams a play to read and research according to the dramaturgy procedure I’ve outlined. Instead of gathering information into a production notebook, however, students will present their research in a visual manner, either through decorating a bulletin board in the classroom or rehearsal hall, developing a power-point presentation, creating a website, or utilizing some other visual medium. To finish the project, students have to present their bulletin boards to the class, explaining how the elements reflect the world of the play. This activity encourages students to see their plays and research visually, helping them understand how painting, photography, sculpture, maps, book illustrations, cartoons, advertisements, magazine and newspaper spreads, production photos, design sketches, film and dance clips, etc. can convey the play’s world.
Miscellaneous classroom dramaturgy activities
Dramaturgical skills are applicable to all areas of theatre, and can also be used in script analysis, playwriting, scene work, and design assignments. Because dramaturgy is so multifaceted, I would advise doing a dramaturgy unit early in the school year to help students learn how to effectively read, respond to, and investigate plays.
Although the above classroom activities are certainly applicable to the rehearsal process, here are some dramaturgy activities specific to preparing a play for production.
A dramaturgy project I’ve found particularly effective for an educational theatre production is a world-of-the-play presentation during the first rehearsal. The presentation provides the dramaturg with the opportunity to immerse the cast in the play’s context. An element of the presentation may include bringing in food from the play’s time period and/or setting that somehow symbolically represents characters or issues in the play. Playing music and displaying artwork and other pictorial materials that evoke the play’s mood and style is also fun. Once the actors have a had a chance to soak up the aural and visual imagery and snack on the food, the dramaturg should explain why she chose each component, and then review the research packet she’s compiled. This presentation is an instructive and creative way to prepare for the first play reading, and it generates enlightened discussion.
I did this type of presentation when I dramaturged Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet) by Ann-Marie MacDonald in graduate school. The play is a postmodern romp through the subconscious of Constance, a nerdy, lovesick doctoral student who is writing her dissertation about how Othello and Romeo and Juliet are actually comedies but that the fools in each story, which would turn these popular tragedies into comedies, have somehow gotten lost. Constance ends up getting sucked into the worlds of Othello and Romeo and Juliet to search for the fools. Her journey through these worlds not only helps her dissertation, but it also encourages her to discover her own inner strength, attractiveness, and confidence.
As the cast entered the rehearsal hall for the first Desdemona rehearsal, I had a Moby CD playing that included songs that melded music from different genres and time periods together to create a new, unique sound. Since the play’s style used the same blending technique, I thought Moby’s music was an apt connection. I had also set out photos of Louise Nevelson sculptures, artwork that was an inspiration not only for me, but for the set designer and director as well. Nevelson’s work is a mix of organization and chaos that reminded me of Constance’s personality and life. Finally, I provided the cast with food that would have been eaten in the worlds of Romeo and Juliet and Othello (fruits, cheeses, and breads), the candy Smarties and Nerds since Constance is a tightly wound academic at the beginning of her journey, and Wheaties “Breakfast of Champions” to show that Constance is strengthened by the end of her experience. As the cast and director snacked on the food, I explained the elements of my presentation and then shared the research packet I compiled. It was a wonderful way to begin the rehearsal process.
Audience study guides
Preparing study guides for student audiences is a common practice in the regional theatre. For a high school play, why not develop study guides for students, teachers, and other staff not involved in the production? Distribute them to English classes and other subject areas and leave copies in the main office for visitors to read. Make them available to audience members to read before or after the production by placing them in the theatre lobby. Guides often include the same type of information a dramaturg provides to the cast, with the addition of material that introduces audiences to the play’s context and illustrates major themes; pre- and post-performance discussion questions are also great to add. Remember that numerous copies of the study guides will have to be made, so keep your design simple.
Program notes, pre-performance discussions, and lobby displays
Educating the playgoing community beyond providing study guides is another valuable dramaturgical duty. Student dramaturgs can write notes for the program to give audiences pertinent background knowledge about the play and/or organize pre-performance discussions with audience members to verbally present them with information that will help them better understand the play they are about to see (we call these “Informances” at the Alley). If they’re adventurous, student dramaturgs may even organize and moderate a post-show talkback during which audience members may ask the cast, director, and dramaturg questions about the production. Lobby displays that include attractive and educational materials for the audience to peruse before the show and during intermission may also be created by the dramaturg (materials from the bulletin board project could be used for this).
Although not an exhaustive list of dramaturgical duties, the process and activities I’ve outlined are a good introduction to the work involved prior to mounting a production. Once they’ve been exposed to these assorted skills and recognize just how integral dramaturgy is in making the world of a play come to life, students will be ready to flex their knowledge and imagination for the next project.
Here’s a list of websites, books, and organizations that are useful to dramaturgs.
- Arts Journal. This online digest offers a comprehensive reference for current events in all art areas; updates can be sent via a daily e-mail. (www.artsjournal.com)
- Arts Lynx International Theatre Resources. An online resource that includes an array of timelines, dictionaries, miscellaneous theatre links, and other research tools. (www.artslynx.org/theatre/drama.htm)
- Dramaturgy Bibliography. Compiled for a university theatre course, this site has a comprehensive annotated bibliography with sources useful to the dramaturg.
- Dramaturgy in American Theater: A Source Book, edited by Susan Jonas, Geoffrey S. Proehl, and Michael Lupu (first edition), Wadworth Publishing, 1996. A thorough collection of essays about the art of dramaturgy, this book is a must-read for serious dramaturgs.
- History of the Theatre by Oscar G. Brockett with Franklin J. Hildy (ninth edition), Allyn and Bacon, 2003. A significant overview of theatre history.
- Lexis/Nexis Academic. This database found in research libraries contains an extensive newspaper and legal archive.
- Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas. This dedicated group provides a supportive network for dramaturgs. An LMDA student membership is also very affordable. The website includes many resources and links to other reliable dramaturgy websites.
- MLA Bibliography. A thorough bibliographic database found in most libraries.
Theatre Communications Group. TCG is an advocacy group for the professional not-for-profit American theatre that publishes American Theatre magazine, among other useful resources.
Amy Steele is the resident dramaturg at the Alley Theatre in Houston, and a member of the Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas.