This fall, I learned about dramaturgy for the first time by serving as a dramaturg for my college theatre department’s production of Lost Girl, written and directed by Professor Kimberly Belflower. Dramaturgs perform the research and story analysis that make a play come alive for the actors and creative team. They’re also often responsible for creating the “actor packet,” a short research document with information relevant to the play.

4 Tips for Creating a Great Actor Packet

The actors use this packet to gain more context about the themes present within the script, essentially helping build the story from the inside out! While there’s plenty to learn, here are four of my biggest lessons creating my very first actor packet.

1: Read the play.

First, sit down with the play and read it thoroughly. It helps to make note of what you notice while reading. Do certain character dynamics stand out? What themes seem particularly clear? Does the ending make sense, or is it more ambiguous? Is the style realistic or not?

Once you finish reading the play, ask yourself one key question: What information do actors need to know to tell this story well?

The answer to this question can come in the form of themes, historical context, storytelling devices, information about the play’s genre – the options are endless. You’ll research many different things while working on your actor packet, but answering this question for yourself narrows your focus.

 

2: Research the context.

Next, begin your research into the play’s context, as this often determines so much about the story from the start. Context is the particular lens through which the author, director, and/or creative team approach the material, informing how characters relate to each other and how they interact with the setting.

For example, Cabaret is a story about a passionate love affair between a British nightclub singer and an American author. However, its context is that it’s set in Berlin on the eve of the holocaust, and this affects how the actors might portray the story. Knowing details about the world the story is set in helps you understand what different characters value.

Even if the play takes place in the present, do some broad Google searches into a play’s historical setting and geographical location. What was happening in the world at the time when the play takes place? Where is the play located in the world, and how has that location been impacted by global issues?

Make a bullet-point list of the most relevant facts that actors should know. The list doesn’t have to include everything – just enough information to provide some background. At the end of the actor packet, include some links that actors can reference if they would like more information.

Think of it like drawing: by providing historical context in the actor packet, you’re outlining the sketch. Next, you’ll focus on the smaller details of the story and add some color.

3: Explore themes and genres.

In every play, the playwright wants to communicate a message about the world. They do so by exploring conflict between characters and the world around them. You can help the actors understand the themes of the story by pointing to works with similar themes. Everything you include in the actor packet helps the actors to ground themselves within the story.

adults on a stage talking with scripts in hands

For example, if the play you’re working on is a romance that ends tragically, you can provide a list of other romances that end tragically. Actors can read or watch these stories to understand the nuances of the emotions they will portray onstage. When actors understand a play’s genre, they can also work to understand what makes this particular play different from stories of the same genre. Different themes and approaches set stories apart.

While creating the actor packet for Theater Emory’s production of Lost Girl, the dramaturgy team included information about different genres: fantasy and coming-of-age. Lost Girl is inspired by the story of Peter Pan and follows Wendy Darling after she returns home from Neverland and tries to start her life again. We wanted to have a section of the actor packet that talked about tropes commonly found in both genres so they could understand how the play works with and subverts those tropes.

4: Study the characters.

Once you’ve provided research about the context, themes, and genre of the play, shift your attention to the characters. Every character pursues different goals and experiences conflict along the way, and actors seek to find out why they act the way they do. You can help them in this process by sharing research related to psychology and behavior.

For example, if a character is grieving a loss, including a scientific article about grief makes it easier for an actor to understand the character’s emotions. While working on the production of Lost Girl, which focuses on Wendy’s heartbreak after losing Peter Pan, the dramaturgy team provided research about mental health in the actor packet to contextualize why Wendy struggles to move on.

However, always be careful that the sources you include are accurate, professional, and trustworthy. If you have any questions about whether you should include a source, be sure to ask your theatre teacher. It’s best not to try to explain the characters, but to share interesting pieces of research that empower actors to draw their own conclusions.

Once you compile all your research, you’ll have a completed actor packet ready to distribute! Your research and attention to detail will help the cast and creative team see the story in a kaleidoscope of different ways.

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