Merriam-Webster defines dramaturgy as the art or technique of dramatic composition and theatrical representation, but that gives little indication as to what a dramaturg actually does. In American theater the job description is often very loosely defined, but generally refers to the member of the company in charge of historical research.
The dramaturg—sometimes referred to as the literary manager—is a resident employee of a theater company and works in support of the director, cast, and crew in a number of capacities. At the core of this person’s responsibilities is research into the themes, language, history, and criticism of a play and the period in which it takes place. The dramaturg gathers pertinent information on specifics such as the political climate of Denmark during the historical period of Hamlet, or the influences of Greek mythology surrounding Euripedes’ character Medea. He or she will supply references for period clothing and architectural style, and interpret the contextual meaning of colloquial language. This information, along with a host of other relevant material, is combined into bound references available to the cast and crew.
Theatrical production companies also rely on a dramaturg to review submissions of new plays and to help select shows to be performed as part of a cohesive production season. In this respect, the dramaturg acts similar to an acquisitions editor at a publishing house; this person reads the script several times to identify a strong voice and clear themes, and determine whether or not the show is appropriate for his or her company. When accepting a new script from a playwright, the dramaturg will make suggestions for editing and rewrites and act as a liaison between the writer and director. When the company selects a published piece from a deceased author, it is the dramaturg’s responsibility to act as an interpreter for the playwright’s intended voice. He or she must serve as the resident expert—and educate him or herself accordingly—on all referential and contextual information concerning a play.
Skills & Education
A liberal arts education is the best foundation for a career as a dramaturg. A bachelor’s degree is required, but a master’s degree is typically preferred. Majors in an area of literature or theater study are preferred. Graduate programs in dramaturgy and dramatic criticism are offered at some universities, including the Yale School of Drama. Coursework should be supplemented with classes in history, world culture, sociology, anthropology, art, linguistics, and one or more foreign languages. Dramaturgs are the scholars of the theatrical community, so a love of research and investigation is necessary. Also important is an understanding of how to interact with actors, directors, and designers, as well as a firm knowledge of the stage production process. Some acting or directing experience is beneficial, but not required.
What to Expect
This is the perfect profession for a theater-loving bookworm who dreads the spotlight, but longs to stretch creative muscles. Much of your time will be spent in quiet study in the library or navigating Internet archives, so patience and a healthy attention span are helpful. The role of dramaturg is considered a senior-level position with a great deal of executive input and decision-making power, and is a full-time position with a theatrical production company. As such, considerable experience in professional theater is required to reach this benchmark in your career. In addition to formal education, you can look to start your journey as an assistant director or assistant artistic director. Other related positions that can be a gateway to a position as a dramaturg include assistant company manager or resident stage manager.
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