The ABCs of Dramaturgy

This past week, I finished reading Dramaturgy in the Making by Katalin Trenscenyi. In a word, it was: delicious. It asked and answered theoretical questions, provided helpful quotes, context, and examples, and helped me re-realize why I love dramaturgy so much. Trenscenyi calls the dramaturg more than just the “in-house critic”, a term which sounds way too uppity. I’ve never been referred to as that, but I’ve been “the guy who writes the program notes,” “the guy who talks to us about stuff,” “the guy who makes the packets,” and “…him, whoever he is. But I am so much more. Here’s just twenty-six roles a dramaturg plays, one for each letter of the alphabet. I’m not all of these for every single show, but that doesn’t mean I couldn’t be. Sometimes I’m just one or two; sometimes I’m all that and even more. So, buckle up, because you’re about to find out that a dramaturg is…

  • An advocate. Make sure no actors, characters, playwrights, directors, or animals are harmed during the making of this production. Speak up for the absent playwright, the overworked director, the actor who isn’t understanding what he’s talking about. Don’t let it go if it means that much to the production. Be a helpful reminder of who we are, why we are here, and what we are here to accomplish.
  • A builder. “why do you build me up, build me up, buttercup baby…” Just had to add that. The dramaturg is not necessarily the builder of the sets or the costumes, but helps to build the world of the play and keep it from crashing down. Even the campiest of plays and musicals need to have atmosphere, or else there’d be no room to breathe the erstwhile stale air.
  • A curator. Lobby displays are some of my favorite things to work on. It keeps my mind and body occupied and out of trouble at times, and usually they come out looking pretty darn impressive. My first foray into lobby installation was in high school, when I took photos of the cast during rehearsals and hung them on the walls of the lobby. For the next show, I took headshots of the six principal actors and put them on easels outside the theatre (I wanted to do everyone in the show, but that was around twenty people and we didn’t have nearly enough time or easels). My high school principal told me that he felt like he was in a professional theatre. My favorites have been the coffin I wrote an entry about awhile back and the time I transformed the lobby of the Merkaz into an all-American high school, complete with lockers, flags, and bulletin boards.
  • developer. Not only do we build, but we help to make sure all the pieces fit together, and that they go as far as they can to reflect the best work of the director, cast, and crew. It’s important to mind boundaries and not overstep them, but sometimes providing some helpful research, whether it’s sharing pictures of your great-grandmother’s gravestone (which got rebuilt as Fruma-Sarah’s grave in Fiddler on the Roof!) or giving advice on how to be a cheerleader (which I wanted to be in college, but…no, it did not happen). If there’s an idea, we can make it work and see it through.
  • An extra pair of hands. It helps to be handy, partially so you can prove to whomever thinks you’re a drama-nerd or a drama-turd that you’re actually a valuable member of the team. I’ve re-upholstered chairs, sewn costumes, hung lights, swept the floor, and once caught a stage manager who was twice my size when she was walking backwards and fell off the edge of the stage.
  • A fact-checker. Carcanet is a necklace, and it sounds like “carson-net.” She is reading in Yiddish, so she’d be turning the pages of the book in the opposite direction. In Dresden, bottle caps were manufactured differently than anywhere else in Germany. These are all things I have looked up, double-checked, and have ultimately enhanced the show.
  • A guide. I’m Jacob, and I’ll be your docent for this process we call the theatre. I write guides and I act as a guide, telling you helpful hints and places to go to get that perfect Snapchat angle. Welcome to your world, actors, directors, stage crew…enjoy it and treat it well.
  • A Houdini. Dramaturgs make the magic happen. My most badass dramaturg story is one for another time, but I’ve managed to whip up some pretty fancy Harry Potter-esque delights with limited time and resources. Getting a program insert typed and printed, helping an actor have a golden moment of awesome that impresses the pants off the director, transform the lobby into another country.
  • An interpreter. This is sometimes tricky, but a dramaturg who is effective is one who can communicate. Between the playwright and the cast, the script and the director, any sort of combination. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, but usually it’s a Bundt cake or a candelabra or the meaning of life. It’s also important that interpretation be known as something that’s not just the opinion of one person, but is something that is agreed upon in the production – not always the dramaturg’s decision, but the actors or director. And if it works, if it doesn’t, it’s not necessarily right or wrong – it’s just an interpretation.
  • A jewel miner. Help find the hidden gems, whether it’s a joke in the script that keeps getting glossed over (such as the Ireland joke in The Comedy of Errors that I attempted to parlay into the rest of the production by sewing a flag of Ireland onto the lower back of Nell’s jacket, which exactly one audience member noticed, on the last night, yelling out, “SHE’S GOT AN IRISH FLAG ON HER BUTT!”) or pointing out a special moment (two actors having particularly good chemistry, or something that someone ad-libs that makes the scene better).
  • A knife. Not the murderous butler, but someone who’s not afraid to give the script a big old chop. See “peacemaker” for the full story.
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  • A mapmaker. Sometimes you get to make and show the cast a literal map, like of the Federated States of Micronesia or the migration patterns of 16th century spice traders, or a royal family tree, but other times, it’s helping the director map out scenes so that they are cohesive, kind of like a storyboarder. The atlas is your friend because many a time will come when a city, country, or building will come up and no one else in the room has any context.
  • A navigator. Whether it’s through the murky waters of the River Nile or the depths of The Iceman Cometh, being the guy or girl with the compass to get everyone through not necessarily as the leader, but the right-hand, the first mate, seeing that nothing is going off the rails – that’s the person everyone wants on their side. Getting out of dangerous territory should be a prerequisite for the job. Only the strong survive.
  • An observer. Silence can be your friend. Just being a set of eyes in the room to oversee things can keep people in line, especially if you have a notebook (not a laptop, something with paper) and write as if you’re giving a grade. You can treat certain parts of the rehearsal as just a break from speaking, or thinking, and just watch.
  • A peacemaker. Sometimes a production can be like a bad family dinner, or a session of the United Nations. People don’t always see eye to eye on everything, and if there is an opportunity to make it better for everyone, and no one’s doing anything, just take the initiative. The worst that could happen is you could get told to mind your own business. One of my (less successful) attempts was on a production that was just too damn long. I was friends with the lead, and there was so much dialogue and extra scenes added into the script that when he and I read through it at my place before a rehearsal, him reading his lines and me reading everyone else’s, it took three hours. And that wasn’t even including set changes, or any stage directions. He begged me to say something to the director because there was no way he was able to memorize it all, or have the stamina to perform for that long every night. We went to rehearsal together, and took the director aside beforehand. I told the director what we did, and that there needed to be cuts for the sake of the cast’s sanity, because it was a long, melodramatic show. Being the impetuous jackass that he was, he said “it’s too late in the process, I would need to have the specifics.” I pulled out my script, handed it to him, and said, “Cuts are marked in green.” He took it and pretty much ignored it and continue to BS me about “I need to have something else to put onstage in its place” (no, you really don’t) and he started the rehearsal without us coming to a conclusion, but at least I tried. The show went on, nothing was changed, they managed to get it to run under three painful hours each night, and the cast and crew bonded over how much they hated the experience, and their self-obsessed director.
  • A questioner. Ask, ask, ask! Questions of the script, questions of yourselves, questions about the questions. If nobody has any questions, create some, and challenge people. Theatre is living and breathing; if you don’t question it, you won’t get any answers. And speaking of answers…
  • A respondent. Answering questions is important too, no matter how big or small. When I was working on Fiddler on the Roof, the actress playing Golde asked me to watch her as she lit the candles and sang the Sabbath Prayer in said scene, and tell her if she was doing anything wrong. It looked great, so I made sure to tell her just that. If it wasn’t, I would have been honest about that.
  • A supporter. The director’s not getting the actors to focus. The actress can’t remember her lines. The lighting designer keeps missing a cue. There’s a last minute casting change, medical emergency, or lack of money to fix something. It’s not necessarily the dramaturg’s job to be the fairy godmother and fix every damn thing, but just being a supportive presence can really make a difference, especially in a high-pressure environment where people often come off harsher than they mean to, or something just doesn’t fit quite right. One of my proudest moments was when I was both acting/dramaturging for a show, and one of the actresses was clearly frustrated about something, and taking it out on everyone around her. During a lapse in action, I took her outside, and just asked her what the hell was going on, because something was definitely amiss. She didn’t know what to say at first, but then I reminded her that we need her to make the show what it is, and we are all here for her, myself included. Then, it all came out in a flood of sobs; some personal stuff was going on, one of our cast mates was giving her a hard time, and her wig was extremely itchy. I had a pen and paper with me and wrote down the show-related things that we could try to fix, and slipped it to the director. Her attitude improved substantially – she got a new wig, and I think the problem with her and the other actor get resolved. Either way, she made sure to thank me before we went home for the evening.
  • A translator. Whether it’s between two different languages, or within a language (see: Shakespeare), translation is a necessary skill to have. If the actors have no clue what they’re talking about, neither will anyone else. And there’s the subject of cultural translation too. I’ve translated two scripts between languages (Hebrew-English, Slovak-English). Both are pretty shitty. But one day, I’ll go back to them, make some edits and cuts, and see how I can fill them out to the extent of the original – not just in words but in meaning.
  • An upside-down, inside-out…person. Look at all the angles from the space, back to front, top to bottom. Be a potential audience member who’s just excited to be here, not just an “in-house critic.” See more at “x-ray technician.”
  • A volunteer. Understaffed can be the name of the game in the theatre. In addition to being an extra pair of hands, I’ve been a ticket taker, a rehearsal room wrangler, a space booker, someone to run down the street to pick up last-minute light bulbs for two that burnt out just that afternoon. Most of these things are easy, and it can earn you extra points with the group as a whole, or someone who might not have liked you before.
  • writer. In many theatres, the dramaturg’s job is to write the program note. Sounds easy, but you don’t just want to write any program note. If given the chance to communicate with the audience via the program, you should take the time to make something that will keep the conversation going after the audience leaves the theatre. I’ve seen everything from maps to quizzes to word searches, and I make every opportunity count. Once, I was listening to a song on the car radio that had nothing to do with the show when inspiration struck me, and I wrote down something that really impressed the director despite it being about comparing Desiree Armfeldt to Lady Gaga. For The Great American Trailer Park Musical, I got to write a fake newsletter with in-jokes from the show; it was funny, and if you paid attention to what you were watching, it was even funnier.
  • An x-ray technician. Sometimes you need to look at the negatives. I’m not talking about something bad, I’m talking about what’s not there. Sure, the usual goal is to tighten the play, but if there’s something about the show that’s stuck inside and needs to be extracted. For example, I was dramaturging a play for the Baltimore Playwrights Festival. The protagonist was a mother dealing with her son, a soldier returned from Iraq in a severe state of trauma. Spoiler alert – the play ends with the stage going black, and it’s implied that the son killed himself. I watched it during dress rehearsal, and the last thing we heard was the mother screaming, and then the lights came up on her as she recited her final monologue. After one of the final dress rehearsals, I went up to the playwright and director, and said “you know…you just spent two hours building Rosie up as this strong, bold woman, and I couldn’t believe she just went out with a screech like that. I felt like I knew her, and that it was something she wouldn’t do. I actually lost all my respect for her at that moment.” There was a moment of silence, and the director and playwright looked at each other curiously. At the following night’s rehearsal, when that moment came, instead of screaming, we heard the mother pleading, “Just wait for me, son, mama’s coming…I’ll be there soon…just a little longer…mama’s coming…” Then, a moment of complete silence and darkness before the lights came up on Rosie’s final monologue. I was stunned almost to the point of tears…I felt like the character was Sisyphus, attempting his final push on the boulder before it rolled down the mountain and crushed him. Intense stuff.
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  • zebra. Because why be a human when you could be a zebra.

This is one of the longest and most insightful posts I’ve ever written.

God bless us, every one.

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2 thoughts on “The ABCs of Dramaturgy

  1. Pingback: Wanna Meet Up? – aishwaryasivakumar

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