What is dramaturgy, you ask? (Or you do not ask because you don’t even know how to pronounce dramaturgy!)

One of the most fascinating, and mysterious, jobs in theatre is that of the dramaturg. Tasked with understanding the story and all of its many components, a dramaturg can be crucial when developing a script and preparing it for the stage. Dramaturgs typically work with playwrights, directors, designers, actors, and/or producing theatre companies.

In this article, we’re demystifying dramaturgy. We’ll take a look at the craft itself, how dramaturgs chart their career, and what skills lend themselves to the role.


The basic definition of dramaturgy is “the art or technique of dramatic composition or theatrical representation.” It comes from the Greek word dramatourgía, meaning “a dramatic composition” or “action of a play.” In essence, dramaturgy is the practice of understanding the structure, context, characters, language, and themes of a play. It can also apply to opera and film.

What does the dramaturg do?

● Analyze play scripts and librettos
● Perform research about a variety of story elements
● Consult the playwright on a script’s form and structure
● Support the development of a new script, revival, or adaptation
● Advise the director, designers, production team, and actors
● Write educational or supplementary content for audiences
● Maintain knowledge of a show’s production history and author(s)
● Consult outside subject matter experts if the material calls for it
● Consider how the production will connect with today’s audiences

The role of a dramaturg can vary from production to production. Some dramaturgs work as freelancers and independent contractors, and some work in a theatre company’s literary department. This makes dramaturgy one of the most flexible careers in theatre.

Despite this range of tasks and functions, every dramaturg has the same basic objective. Catherine Sheehy, Chair of Dramaturgy & Dramatic Criticism at David Geffen School of Drama at Yale University, describes it in a video: “It is the dramaturgy which connects that work to its maker, its audience, and its cultural context. And it is the dramaturgy which connects all of those three to each other.”


A dramaturg’s in-depth research informs and enhances the world of the story. That might include analyzing the time period of the play’s setting.

For example, August Wilson’s Century Cycle includes a series of ten plays that represent the Black American experience in each decade of the 20th century. A dramaturg would perform research on the time period’s major news items and events, details about typical daily life in a certain region, social dynamics between different groups of people, artistic and cultural movements, and other factors that influenced the lives of Black Americans as they’re relevant to the characters. In doing so, a dramaturg provides key insights about historical accuracy.

A dramaturg can also provide a look at a show’s production history, source material and origins, context around the material, and information about subjects in the story.

With The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, for example, a dramaturg would research all of these areas. The play is based on a best-selling novel by Mark Haddon. Its world premiere production earned the show a reputation for its sophisticated technology and physical movement—an artistic and intentional choice made by the director and production team. There are also important interpretations of the show’s protagonist, Christopher. He has unique sensory challenges that are integral to his character development and the choices he makes.

In these scenarios, the dramaturg’s work can inform how a director approaches the material, how actors bring the characters to life, how designers envision sets and costumes, and how a theatre might supplement the production through educational materials and audience engagement opportunities. They might also consult with experts who already have a deep well of information about show-specific subjects, characters, and themes.


The scope of dramaturgical work for any given production depends on the needs of the artists and the theatre who is producing their work. Primarily, a dramaturg is there to support the playwright and their story with research, leaving creative decisions to the artists.

In an insightful interview with MusicalWriters.com, dramaturg/writer/scholar/creative executive Ken Cerniglia describes the basics of dramaturgy and his experience as full-time dramaturg and literary manager with Disney Theatrical Productions. His biography says that during his 16 years in this role, he “developed over 70 titles for Broadway, touring, international, and licensed productions, including The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Freaky Friday, Aladdin, Newsies, The Little Mermaid, High School Musical, and Tarzan.”

He says in the interview, “[P]art of my job is to bring relevant historical facts into the creative discussion to enable informed decisions. You can’t take artistic license if you don’t even know what you’re departing from in the first place, and more importantly, why. At the same time, if you’re rigid about historical and scientific accuracy, you risk being boring.”

Cerniglia then explains how his dramaturgy helped Disney bring the theatrical adaptation of the 1992 movie musical Newsies to Broadway. He performed research about the actual 1899 New York City Newsboys Strike, and how historical figures like publisher Joseph Pultizer (the musical’s villain) played a role in it. His research provided important context that helped the creative team make some changes from the source material that enhanced the story but still maintained historical accuracy.

He describes, “The musical’s book writer, Harvey Fierstein, also invented the character of Katherine, which was the name of Pulitzer’s oldest daughter, but Fierstein made her a reporter—a young career woman—and a love interest. This choice provided our 21st-century musical with an appealing female lead and juicy second-act plot complications. Although not historical, Katherine Plumber was historically plausible; our research into journalist Nellie Bly, who was famous decades before 1899, helped inform the development of the character.”


Dramaturgy is an ideal area of expertise for those who are passionate about theatre and gravitate to roles off stage. It’s essential to have general knowledge of the theatrical art form and its history. It’s also important to know how a play comes to life and who’s responsible for what during production.

Dramaturgs who excel in their field commonly have the following characteristics:

● They love to read, write, and research new topics.
● They have a strong grasp of literary analysis, including narrative structure, character development, symbolism, and language.
● They work well both independently and collaboratively.
● They’re detail-oriented and keep their work organized and clear.
● They’re sensitive to and respectful of the creative process.
● They’re observant, curious, and open-minded.
● They consider how art, in all its forms, relates to larger social and cultural contexts.

Does this sound like you? If so, the field of dramaturgy might be calling!

Natalie Clare is a regular contributor to Dramatics. She’s a freelance writer who specializes in arts and culture, and is based in Cincinnati, Ohio. Visit her work at nataliecwrites.com.

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