Dramaturgs: What are they and how they improve the show. We know that actors act. Directors direct. Writers write. These theatrical careers have clear, defined responsibilities. Even those least interested in theatre can name a handful of famous actors, directors, and writers. But who was the dramaturg of your favorite play or musical? How many notable dramaturgs can you name? 

One of the most difficult tasks a dramaturg can perform is defining dramaturgy. Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas, a group that represents hundreds of dramaturgs in North America and elsewhere, describes the role as someone whose job is to “contextualize the world of a play; establish connections among the text, actors, and audience; offer opportunities for playwrights; generate projects and programs; and create conversations about plays in their communities.”

Dramaturgs operate as the “Swiss Army knives” of their production team, using whatever skill set is required to get the job done. If weaving together a production through textual analysis, research skills, and workshopping sounds like your cup of tea, dramaturgy might be right for you.


The responsibilities of a dramaturg are so vast and varied that their roles often differ substantially from production to production. “The greatest thing a dramaturg gets to do is be an expert in the world of the play,” said Shelley Graham, instructor of dramaturgy at Brigham Young University. Dramaturgs do this on new plays by working with directors, actors, and playwrights to hatch their combined vision. They also work on new productions of established plays, advocating for the text and applying it to reimagined concepts. While this may seem daunting, especially for larger works, we can break down the dramaturgical process into a couple of key steps.

Be curious and ask questions

Curiosity is one of a dramaturg’s most crucial traits. Sometimes, both with new plays and familiar ones, asking the right questions can make or break a production. Dramaturgs ask, “What are the rules of the world? What are the relationships between characters? How does time work in the world of this play?” As the source of limitless questions, dramaturgs allow playwrights, directors, designers, and actors to expand their understanding of the script and create a world that is cohesive and accessible. Dramaturgs must then think critically to know where to find answers to the questions they ask, whether that means digging into a script, researching a play’s history, or speaking with designers and directors about their processes and perspectives on the text.

Examine the context and make connections

No play exists without context. There is the context of the original play, the context of the setting, and the context of the contemporary world in which the audience lives.  When conceiving work, directors often ask, “Why do this play now?” Dramaturgs expand this question by making connections to audiences and the larger community. Dramaturgs may also help create articles or activities in the show program or set up a display in the lobby to introduce audiences to the themes of the world created onstage.


New York-based Stairwell Theater set its 2018 production of Romeo and Juliet with opposing basketball teams. Photo by Sam Gibbs.


According to Julie McIsaac, resident dramaturg at the Canadian Opera Company, “If you find people are often asking you what you think, and with this, you find yourself recognizing patterns, drawing connections, and asking further questions that open up the conversation, you might be a dramaturg.”

Dramaturgs come from all backgrounds and specialties, and they often find themselves becoming career multihyphenates. It is not uncommon for a dramaturg to act, write, direct, or design. The following traits are vital to those considering dramaturgy as a career.

  • You love to read.
  • You are interested in everything.
  • You are an ardent fact checker.

“I find myself thinking about the Heraclitus quote: ‘No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river, and he’s not the same man,’” McIsaac said. “What I love most about dramaturgy is that every project is different and, therefore, asks new and different things of me, which means my process and artistry are ever-evolving. Lifelong learning in a creative environment: What a gift!” 

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