What is a Dramaturg?

I went to the LMDA (Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas) conference in July of 2016, and found most panels to be filled with the same kinds of questions.

“How do I find work?”

“How do I communicate with a playwright?”

“How do I convince people that I matter?”

“What is dramaturgy? What is a dramaturg?”

These questions are completely valid questions to be asking in an artistic world that’s of very little value in our country. But there tended to be a sense of hopelessness in the voices of young dramaturgs, particularly the disparity in reconciling the idea of being an armchair philosopher who gives actors and directors information about the script, and taking up arms as modern day activists. I found this dichotomy to be interesting (not just as a Libra woman) because if my dramaturgical research has taught me anything it’s usually that there’s less to the binaries that construct our world, and typically it’s “less to do with hate and more with love” (I mean, the blog is called Shakespeare and Me, we must get our referenced in where we can).

In my first panel, Mark Bly told a story of working with a playwright, where they would go for walks and begin by talking about anything other than the play. “Did you catch the game on Saturday?”, “Frightful weather we’re having” gradually turned to conversation around the play and then eventually, the playwright was ready to go back to writing. “You’re like a mystic,” the playwright said, “You lead me through the story, you help me fight the battles, you navigate the terrain, and then in the end, I’ve emerged in a clearing and you’re gone.”

As part of the Harry Potter generation (my personal feelings of Harry Potter aside) I had to admit I liked the idea of being a mystic. There’s very little left in our world that’s truly magical. I grew up Catholic, and it often causes me to throw up my hands and accept mystery instead of really investigating the problem (looking at you, Tessitura Network). It’s something I’m very guilty of as a person who thinks to myself (perhaps a little egotistically) “I know a lot about a lot of things, I don’t need to add this to my repertoire of knowledge”. Besides, we enjoy preserving mystery; I had fun for the ten minutes when I genuinely believed my apartment was haunted. But when we do decided to dig deeper into the mystery, we discover there was no ghost, there was only a poorly placed command hook that fell on the Christmas lights that caused the string to vibrate. But then again, theatre people love a good ghost, I’ll have more thoughts on that in a later post. All that being said, who doesn’t love digging into a good mystery?

Alright then, if I am a mystic, can I please be Gandalf? Gandalf is the ultimate dramaturg. Gandalf gets a hunch about Frodo’s ring maybe being THE RING and goes to Minas Tirith to do research, he checks in with his mentor Sauruman (which ends up being a bad idea), he joins the Council of Elrond as the only member who knows the entire history of the ring, he agrees to venture with the Fellowship into Moria where he fights the Balrog and ultimately dies, only to return to aid the Fellowship again. In the end, after many battles have been fought and won, he retires with Frodo to the Gray Havens.

For me, the idea of the mystic, Gandalf, resolves the tension between thinking and doing because it marries the two. A dramaturg is both metaphysical and physical, wherein we are responsible for the transmutation of theory into reality. Therefore, you could say that we occupy two realms, one of thought and theory, and another (perhaps a Middle-earth?) practical realm that deals in the physical materials we produce. Metaphysically; I lead people through the text, help the director craft a path to the playwright’s intention, spend a lot of time thinking “what does it mean?”. Physically, that metaphysical thought manifests in lobby displays, emails answering questions about the text, script notes, researching, program notes, and dramaturgical protocols (from the Kristin Leahey school of “why call it an actor packet if it’s not just for the actors”).

Therefore, I’m never scared that I exist too much in the realm of thought and philosophy. I’ve earned my time in the philosopher’s armchair after a long journey through the text.