What Is a Dramaturg?

Over the years of my theatrical career, I have been listed in programs as a director, stage manager, associate producer, and various characters. But as I sat in the front row of Labyrinth's Bank Street Theater the other night, I was reading a program in which I am listed as "dramaturg." Several years ago I couldn't tell you what that word meant, and as I write this Microsoft Word has underlined it with a red squiggly line. Despite Word's harsh judgment, and my own former ignorance, a dramaturg is an important member of the theatrical equation, and one that is too rarely discussed.

When Cusi Cram asked me if I would consider dramaturging her show Radiance, which just opened on Friday, I had to first ask what she meant by dramaturg. You see, one of the problems with defining this term is that there seem to be as many ways to answer that question as there are dramaturgs and projects that utilize one.

My own concept of the role has been heavily influenced by the wonderful work I have seen some talented dramaturgs do, both inside and outside of the theater. I think of them every time I answer the question, "what exactly is a dramaturg?" (and, believe it or not, I get asked that question a lot). And so, immediately after deciding that I would write something about dramaturgy, I resolved to ask some of these individuals to share their own answers to someone on the street asking them the above question. Here's what three of my dramaturg colleagues had to say:

Helen Jaksch, currently pursuing her MFA in Dramaturgy and Dramatic Criticism at Yale School of Drama --

"Mark Bly says that a dramaturg questions. My professor Catherine Sheehy says, among other things, that a dramaturg is an in-house critic that is friendly to the production. Dramaturgy is generous honesty, rigorous curiosity, and passion for thoughtful theatre and theatre-making. Most importantly, though, dramaturgy is not extraneous to a creative process. It is essential."

Shane Breaux, resident dramaturg at NY Shakespeare Exchange --

"Dramaturgs are a special breed of artist who must handle multiple tasks at once. We are text analyzers; we are researchers; we are objective observers; we are expert question askers; we are a resource for the director and playwright and actors and designers, and we are creative diplomats who liaise with those involved. Generally, dramaturgs serve, as I learned from my dramaturgy mentor Lynn M. Thomson, as the memory of the process of theater making -- whatever that process may be -- and as Lynn has said, everything is process."

Maria Mytilinaki, currently pursuing her Ph.D. in theater at CUNY, The Graduate Center --

"The dramaturg is a critical thinker that provides literary, cultural and artistic insight before, during, and sometimes after the creation of a piece. Sometimes the role of the dramaturg involves serving as a form of translator, diplomat, or simply buffer between two artistic egos: that of the playwright and that of the director. And like translators, sometimes dramaturgs are treated with suspicion from both sides."

I would argue that the unique skill set of these individuals is obvious even in the ways in which they chose to answer the question. Though I believe their insightful words stand alone, I would like to direct your attention to the fact that all three responses discuss both technical and personal aspects of dramaturgy. The best dramaturgs I know bridge the gap between technical knowledge and a communicative artistic spirit while adapting to the unique needs of each production, director, and playwright.

They are just one of the plethora of theatrical personnel (like fight choreographers, stage managers, and even directors) whose best work blends into a final production rather than standing out from it. My hope is that the next time you see someone listed in the program as a dramaturg, you'll have some sense of what that person might have done for that production. For my part, I've added the word "dramaturg" to my Microsoft Word dictionary, which is another step in the right direction.