If I may, I’d like to appropriate a line that Mr. Mugatu says in the movie Zoolander: “Dramaturgs are sooooo hot right now.” It’s true! Mr. Mugatu needs runway models and playwrights and directors need dramaturgs! That’s the modern-day consensus, anyway, which is how I ended up dramaturging a Fringe Festival show this summer. But what exactly does a dramaturg do?
Michael Feingold, a dramaturg and the theater critic for the Village Voice, was kind enough to define it for me. In an e-mail interview, he explained: “‘Dramaturgy’ means the workings of drama, or knowing how drama works. In French, ‘dramaturge’ means a playwright—a person who knows how to ‘work’ plays, like an ironwright or a wheelwright.
“In practice, it means the person who sits there with the playwright or the translator…and makes sure there is nothing wrong with the text, or with the way the director and actors are interpreting the text.
“Of course, in the theater, everything is always wrong all the time. So dramaturgs have their work cut out for them. They rarely get any credit, but they mostly escape blame because nobody outside the theater understands what the hell it is they do. When I see the plays [that] most [dramaturgs] allow their artistic directors to produce, I don't know what the hell it is they do, either. I believe most of them have no idea what they're supposed to be doing.”
I could almost hear his exasperated sigh emanate from my computer screen.
There you have it, folks. According to Mr. Feingold, dramaturgs don’t know why they exist. On the other hand, no one really knows why anything exists (that’s why we have cults), so let’s get on with it.
Let me give you an example of a professional dramaturg in action. A couple years ago, I was sitting in on a blocking rehearsal at the Guthrie Theater when one of the actors came across a word she didn’t know. “What does that mean?” she asked, scrutinizing her script. The other actors shrugged. The director scratched his head. The dramaturg promptly looked it up online and printed out the definition, along with relevant photos. The assistant stage manager taped them to the rehearsal room wall. During the break, everyone wandered over to the wall and read the info. You could see little light bulbs going off over their heads. That, my friends, was an act of dramaturgy.
In November, my friend Johannah Maynard asked me to act in her Fringe show. I couldn’t do it because I was going to be out of town for most of July. I offered to dramaturg instead, operating on the belief (à la Feingold) that when things got tough (as they inevitably do about a week before opening), it wouldn’t be my problem. Sounded like a good compromise to me.
Now, my background is in performance. Dramaturging requires me to use a different part of my brain. When I’m in acting or directing mode, I think visually, kinetically. I try to imagine staging and movement and what bodies look like and how they interact. It’s right brain stuff. When I’m in dramaturgy mode, I find myself buried in books or slumped over my laptop, studiously taking notes, printing information for the actors and production team. Picture undergrad nights in the basement of your college library looking up obscure facts. Left brain stuff. Dorky stuff. I love it.
The show—Flee This Place—is a highly physical movement-theater piece about the intersecting lives of Antigone and Medea in the afterlife. Johannah and I decided that my main job, since I was going to be MIA during the entire rehearsal process, would be to help her write and shape the script.
The first draft was radically different from the draft we had at the end of June. Johannah’s original script was written in verse, with much of the dialogue, strophes, antistrophes, and monologues lifted from translations of the Greek plays. Because she wanted her show to explore/re-imagine the women’s emotional struggles, and also because the music she’d chosen at that point was contemporary (Antony and the Johnsons), I suggested that she scrap the use of verse and start again, this time using her own words.
I helped her extrapolate the themes and suggested ways to incorporate them, textually as well as visually. The more challenging dramaturgical and structural question was how to connect the stories of Antigone and Medea that, in the Sophocles- and Euripides-authored plays, have nothing to do with one another. But the characters are related thematically—we just needed to get them in the same room.
Another obstacle we faced—and I think most directors find this to be a challenge when doing Greek plays—is what to do with the role of the Chorus. In ancient Greek theater, the Chorus served as the moral backbone of the drama, the wise ones who articulated the folly of tragic heroes in beautifully poetic language and songs. I think it’s fair to say that that doesn’t make much sense to a modern audience. We’re used to non-stop action.
Johannah and I batted ideas around for weeks. Was the Chorus (played in our show by one actor) a man from 2006 who walks into some sort of time warp and thus gains outsider access to Hades? Where does play take place, anyway? Is it a dream? Is it real? What’s the Chorus’ relationship to the audience? Will the other characters interact with him? How do get him onstage? How do we get him offstage? At one point, we considered cutting the character out, which we ultimately couldn’t do because the actor playing him was flying in from New York and had already bought his ticket. Besides, what’s a Greek drama without its Chorus? We realized that the Chorus wasn’t the problem: our script was.
It was at this point in the rehearsal process that I skipped town. “I’m sure you and your actors will figure this out,” I told Johannah before leaving for New York. I meant it, too. The play didn’t need me—or anyone, for that matter—to “fix” it. That’s what rehearsal is for.
Dramaturgs are more like editors. We offer an outside eye with a slightly different perspective, we say what we think, and the director can take what she likes and disregard the rest. Are dramaturgs a luxury? I don’t think so, but we’re certainly not a necessity. In order to put on a play, you only need to have two things: actors and an audience to watch them. No dramaturgs need apply.
The Minnesota Fringe Festival runs August 3-13. See the Festival website for details.