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? What is a dramaturg, and how do you know if you are one?

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.”


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, Graham breaks down the dramaturgical process into four 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.

Think critically about text
Thinking critically means knowing where to find answers to the questions you have asked. For textual questions, that means going through the script and sifting through denotations and connotations of certain words, reading scholarly material about plays and their histories, or looking to print and web sources to better understand the playwright’s life. For creative questions, it may require speaking one-on-one with designers, directors, and actors about their process, their understanding of the text, and perspectives you can offer based on your experience and research.

Examine the context
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. If you are setting a production of Romeo and Juliet in modern times with the concept that the feuding families represent divergent political factions, you will have many contexts to consider. You’ll need to understand Shakespeare’s original text, the language and culture surrounding his authorship, and the play’s meaning. You’ll need to examine your play’s context. Are you using real political parties? Is the production set in the United States? Who belongs to which party, and what in the text supports those decisions? Dramaturgs sometimes assist the production team through a workshop with actors to make sure they can embody these ideas. Finally, the context of the audience’s world must be considered. Dramaturgs research what’s happening in politics now and whether plot points in this version of Romeo and Juliet occurred in reality.

Make connections
No play exists in a vacuum. When conceiving work, directors often ask, “Why do this play now?” Dramaturgs expand this question by making connections to audiences and the larger community. Going back to our Romeo and Juliet example, is there an issue in your community that resonates with the play? Is there something you could pair with the play to help audiences apply it in their lives, such as a preshow lecture on the political system? What questions could you ask the audience after the show to get them thinking about their own applications of its story? Dramaturgs may 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.

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.

New York-based Stairwell Theater set its 2018 production of Romeo and Juliet with opposing basketball teams.
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’ve always been a voracious reader, and you’ve devoured books from every genre and every period, from ancient poetry to graphic novels. You like to read, and you like to do it quickly.

You are interested in everything.
Are you always declaring a new favorite subject? Do you have a tough time deciding what to have for dinner, or which holiday is your favorite? Do you feel your taste is always changing in television shows or dress styles? While this can feel frustrating, it’s a wonderful dramaturgical skill. The ability to immerse yourself in a single universe for an entire production period ― then pick up and move to another ― is crucial for dramaturgs.

You are an ardent fact checker.
Are you the friend always pulling out your phone during a film to check things such as “Did they have telephones in the American West during the battle of the Alamo?” or “Did this film come out before or after the Civil Rights Movement?” If you can’t let go of the idea that someone wore a costume in a non-period fabric or a biopic left out what you find most interesting about the subject, you are already thinking dramaturgically. Consider what you may have done differently and consider why the filmmakers made the choices they did.

Janet McTeer in Bernhardt/Hamlet
Dramaturgs can help actors and directors understand the context for real-life characters, such as Janet McTeer’s role as famed actress Sarah Bernhardt in Bernhardt/Hamlet. Photo by Joan Marcus.

You always know how something should have ended.
Dramaturgs know dramatic structure inside and out. If you find yourself explaining the ending of a show or movie to your friends, you may already have a knack for this work. Plot holes, character inconsistencies, and lack of clarity in storytelling bother you more than anything, and you can tell when a film or play’s pacing is too quick, too slow, or just right.

“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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