A Theater Nerd’s Love Letter to Dramaturgs
By Amanda Finn
Photo Credit: Graphic by Andrea Klohn.
This letter has been ruminating for a while because it never felt quite right. But after chatting with a local dramaturg/critic/oral historian [check out my interview with Yasmin here] I finally felt compelled to let this letter see the light of day.
To put it plainly, the work of the dramaturg is ridiculously misunderstood. Contrary to what their capabilities can lead you to believe, dramaturgs aren’t “experts” or the be all and end all of the brains behind any given production. But that doesn’t stop me from being in constant awe of their intellect and insight.
When given the opportunity, I’m almost always more drawn to the dramaturgs in the room than anyone else. They’re clever, intuitive and wholly brilliant. It’s no surprise that they’re often forgotten or misunderstood by the general or even arts going public. They do so much work and are not part of the curtain call at the end of the show. You might not ever see them unless you seek them out.
But you see their work.
The Theatre Development Fund (TDF) describes the complicated nature of the dramaturg best:
“So, how do you define a term for—or create a job description of—work that shifts dramatically depending on the needs of a production? As a collective group, even dramaturgs wrestle to create an ideal definition.
You could go to the LMDA (Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas) website and find your closest “outed” dramaturg and ask them what they do. Then find another one, since the answers will invariably be similar but different. Some dramaturgs “specialize.” For example, some will say they are “classical,” “contemporary,” “new play,” or “musical” dramaturgs. Some dramaturgs work specifically in the worlds of opera, dance, and even film and television. There are many who do all of the above. But whether you are a freelance dramaturg working with a group of artists on a single project, a frequent collaborator of a playwright or director, or a resident dramaturg at a theatre, odds are there are a number of similarities. You probably love to research unfamiliar worlds, you have a strong sense of inner logic in stories and when it’s gone awry, you have a passion for advocacy for artists, and you keep an awareness of the future audience alive in the room....
Dramaturgs work with various aspects of the production of a work, including crafting educational materials, creating marketing copy, facilitating conversations amongst the artistic team, and running a post-show discussion. If you need it done for a production, a dramaturg can do it!”
I feel lucky to live in a city like Chicago, which has theater companies that strive to utilize dramaturgs in all of their talented glory. Like TimeLine whose lobby displays never cease to amaze me. It’s that level of dedication to the craft of theater from page to stage that makes dramaturgs so fascinating to me.
I mentioned this to Yasmin this week and have said the same to my student mentees, friends or colleagues, but I love talking with dramaturgs. They may not consider themselves the point people for all things theater, but they’ll give the biggest theater crony a run for their money. It takes a special kind of devotion to deep dive into the world of theater. Depending on the production’s needs they may spend more time with the text than even some of the actors do.
That is love.
A willingness to spend an inordinate amount of time in the world of a play ensures that the audience gets exactly what they need from the show. What could be a more artistically selfless act?
So for all of the dramaturgs past, present and future who spend countless hours discovering the intricacies of a show in ways that we can never truly understand, for all of those whose best work may go largely unnoticed or misunderstood, and for all those who have struggled to make peace with a problematic work, I thank you.
This love letter and my deep admiration are yours.