Defining what a dramaturg does in one tidy sentence is hard to do. The dictionary says a dramaturg is someone who specializes in dramaturgy. Here’s a link to Dramaturgy 101 that will help you if you want more detail. Or you can simply read on and let Ken Cerniglia give you his definition of what he does as a dramaturg.

How do YOU describe what a dramaturg does when people aren’t familiar with your work?

I often use the analogy of a book editor working closely with an author. The author’s name appears on the book’s cover, but the work of the editor permeates the manuscript. The editor and author collaborated on draft after draft to create the final book.

In theatre, a dramaturg and playwright collaborate. The dramaturg nurtures and supports the playwright’s voice with well-timed feedback on structure, content, context, and audience expectations. Like an editor, a dramaturg also works with other departments (marketing, production, audience engagement, etc.) to make sure they understand the work and represent it well in their efforts.

A good dramaturg’s work is rarely recognized by the audience. My greatest reward is knowing that I helped my colleagues unlock the full potential of their work.

What personality traits and/or skills are well-suited to becoming a dramaturg?

Curiosity, empathy, listening, humility, timing. Given my training in theatre history, structural analysis, and dramatic criticism, some might think I judge the work, like a theatre critic might. So, I frequently remind my collaborators—playwright, director, producer, designer, etc.—that I’m just the “suggester” and they are the deciders! My job is to identify possibilities, to ask timely and helpful questions to spark the creative process and excite and enable my collaborators.

What show, experience, or person (or all three) helped you know that this is the work you love doing and that you’re so well-suited to do?

Smiling white male with dark hair in gray suit with white shirt and blue backgroundIn high school and college, I focused on performance, as many young theatre folks do. I also dabbled in directing and producing—none of which I liked enough to train in further for a career. Being an endlessly curious nerd, in grad school I studied theatre history and dramatic criticism to eventually become a college professor.

Spoiler alert! I never became a professor because in my first dramaturgy class something clicked. I discovered I could apply my love of history, philosophy, analysis, and criticism to the making of theatre. That artistic specialty had a name: dramaturgy. And it called me, loudly.

I soon landed a literary internship at D.C.’s Arena Stage and was production dramaturg for two mainstage productions: Eugene O’Neill’s A Touch of the Poet, directed by Michael Kahn, and Jon Klein’s new play Dimly Perceived Threats to the System. Despite my intern status, these generous veteran theatre-makers treated me like a professional and expected professional work. As they validated my contributions to their work, my spine straightened and my career as a dramaturg was born!

What do you wish you’d known or done when you were a student or just beginning that would’ve helped you?

I wish I’d recognized my vocation in college, or even high school, and begun my dramaturgical practice then. Each book I read, each play I see, each production I work on, is another notch in my dramaturgical understanding. I’m now 25 years in, and still feel I have so much to learn. A five-year head start would have been amazing!

Today there are scores of books on dramaturgy and tons of online resources available to potential dramaturgs—none of which existed during my youth (in the previous century!), making the field relatively inaccessible or rarified then. All that has changed. Dramaturgy for everyone!

What haven’t we asked you about that you’d like to share?

If you’re the kind of kid—young or old—who loves theatre but can’t help asking the relentless “why” questions, chances are you’re a dramaturg! We welcome you to our vibrant, diverse, and generous dramaturgical fold. 

Ken Cerniglia is a veteran dramaturg, writer, creative consultant, and organizational leader. His dramaturgy includes the Broadway hits Hadestown and Peter and the Starcatcher. During his 16 years at Disney Theatrical Group, he developed more than 70 titles for Broadway, touring, international, and licensed productions, including The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Freaky Friday, Aladdin, and many more. Ken is currently writing three new musicals and dramaturging another dozen projects. He is immediate past president of Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas and holds a Ph.D. in theatre history and criticism from the University of Washington.

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