When I was finishing up my Master's degree in Literautre, History and Criticsm of the Theater at UW Madison, way back in 1995, well meaning friends often asked what one would do with such a specialized and obscure degree. I answered confidently that I would be well qualified to be a theater critic. Or a dramaturg.
And "dramaturg" is such a weird and ugly word that most of the time they would twist their faces into a sad smile and wish me well. The conversation shifted quickly to my student loan debt and any actual plans I had for paying jobs after graduation.
And a short 23 years later, here we are. I am, in fact, a drama critic. And now I'm ready to hang out my shingle out as dramaturg. And people still squirm, uncomfortable at the sound of the word.
What's a dramaturg to do?
Well, first let's define it and then maybe we can come up with a more sonorous synonym. A dramaturg is the advocate for a play as it goes from draft, to reading, to workshop to production. It's sort of a one person search engine for both the playwright and the director. When there are questions about the characters, themes, time period, political situation . . . even what kind of gas station was around in 1930s Kansas, those questions are normally referred to a dramaturg.
Also, if there are questions about the pace or arc of the play, motivations, changes in scenes or line, they typically go through the dramaturg, and then back to the playwright. If the director wants to set the play in a disco in the 1970s, the dramaturg might also do historical research to inform the design team and the cast.
Before a play goes into production, a dramaturg is the private audience, critic, and cheerleader for the play. Dramaturgs typically work closely with writers to fine tune their scripts making sure that the text is clear and impactful. That the story is told in a compelling way. That the plot holes are filled in, objectives are clear and urgent, and that every line works as hard as it can. Ideally dramaturgs work with playwrights over several drafts of a play, ask questions for the writer to consider, and point out any problems to be resolved.
In my experience, the dramaturg cares as much about the success of the play as the writer does, even though their roles in bringing it to life are very different. Sometimes the dramaturg is referred to as the "midwife" of a new play, but I'm not crazy about that imagery. And while babies are brought into the world in a pretty standard way, plays are not. Every writer has a different process and every script has different timetables and needs.
Whatever you call it, I'd like to formally announce that my editing pen is at the ready and my writer/producer/marketer/critic/audience member/theater-lover's eye is set. I'd love to work with you or the playwright in your life on ushering new work onto new stages, and moving good scripts to great ones. Please reach out if you have any questions, or if you'd like to work togehter.
"Usher," maybe instead of dramaturg? "Mistress of the revels?" That sounds nice. . .