Description: Dramaturg

New Yorker cartoon circa 1990s(?).

For outside readers who might be wondering, “What’s a dramaturg and why does this person have her own blog feed for this production?”, this week’s edition of Philly.com (the digital version of The Philadelphia Inquirer) offers interviews with some Philly-area dramaturgs and directors who give their answers to such a question. The article even explores the pesky question of spelling (with “e” or not?) and pronouncing (hard “g” or soft?) the word itself.

Note that many of these folks are talking about “production dramaturgy,” which would mean work on a play that has already been developed/produced (sometimes with a very long production history) as opposed to “new play dramaturgy,” which would mean work on a play from its earliest inception usually up until/including its professional premiere.

Here are some of their responses and those of theater directors who can be welcoming or resistant to another participant in the creative team:

“My job is to make a play more accessible to all the people who come in contact with it. That starts with the cast and director and moves to the audience,” says Elizabeth Pool, resident dramaturg at People’s Light & Theatre Company in Malvern, where she works on everything from holiday pantos to the company’s forthcoming production of Ibsen’s The Master Builder.

Pool – like many dramaturgs – says one of her primary methods of working with directors is to “ask questions about what I see.” To provide the cast with a context, many dramaturgs do what Pool has just done for The Master Builder – compile packets about the play and its setting: the late 1800s, European culture at the time, Ibsen’s period of heavy symbolism.

For Cassy Pressimone Beckowski, a freelance dramaturg who worked on the current Theatre Exile production of The Lieutenant of Inishmore, research brought forth a sizable binder of facts about the Irish underground, including articles, an annotated text of the play, even reviews of other productions.

Then, through rehearsals, “I’m looking for what do I think audience members will have a question about, or what isn’t clear to me, or what’s working really well. Or are there things in the script I need to help actors understand so they can piece the character together in a way that makes sense to them.”

All this help could be seen as meddling, especially if you’re a director or, for a new script, a playwright. “Honestly, I think I’ve been lucky,” says Peter Reynolds, the artistic director of Center City’s Mauckingbird Theatre and head of the musical theater program at Temple, where [award-winning dramaturg, former head of New Play Development at Steppenwolf Ed] Sobel is also a faculty member. Reynolds has never had a bad experience with the dramaturgs he’s hired. “I think they’re amazing benefits to a production. I just really like having them in the room.”

That is not a unaninous feeling. “I find it to be an unnecessary expense,” says Bernard Havard, artistic director of the Walnut Street Theatre. “The people I hire to direct are knowledgable in terms of the work they’re doing. They do their own research – I demand that of them, the same way I’m doing my own research right now on God of Carnage, which I’m going to be directing” next season.

To the cast and crew of Laramie, I’d be interested to know your thoughts on the input of a dramaturg at the end of our production process. What more (or less) should this artist do in relationship to script selection, research, rehearsals, production reception? Does/should the role/input depend on whether a dramaturg works in service to an academic theater or a professional company?

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