On Dramaturgy

Dear Mr. M___,

Okay. I'll start by saying that I'm dreadful at keeping on top of my email, and I hope you won't hold that against me.

Secondly. I have no formal training as a dramaturg. In town, there are precious few resources available, although what little there is, is impressive. Mead Hunter runs an excellent program over at Portland Center Stage, both a playwright group and a dramaturg seminar. Unfortunately, I don't have a whole lot of information on it, but I know that it's accessible and that others have benefited tremendously from it.

I look at dramaturgy as being the director's wide-angle lens, so to speak. We provide the deep context, we give perspective on source materials, inspirations, derivations, what came before the writing of the play and what came after. A classic dramaturg, closer to the German model, views themselves as an incarnation of the playwright if the playwright is unavailable. The Royal Shakespeare Company employs legions of post-graduates whose job it is to know the differences between Gielgud's Hamlet and Olivier's Hamlet, down to the different inflections they gave to the same lines, the different buttons on their doublets.

In my view, a lot of the information a dramaturg provides isn't intended to directly inform an actor's performance; it's more useful for the director, and for the show as a whole, the better to craft a complete vision of a production with informed intentions. For example; today, this information is anachronistic, but a Jacobean audience would've been aware that St. James/Sant Iago was an important patron saint of several Catholic military orders. One of his titles, in fact, was Santiago the Moorslayer. The diabolical cunning of Iago is thus identified by Protestant rationalist thought as another incarnation of Catholic militant prejudice. That's a degree of nuance that modern productions of Othello can easily overlook, and not necessarily to their detriment. But an informed production simply has more options to play with than an ignorant one, and little factoids like the above will always start interesting conversations for actors, designers and directors struggling to find focus.

In the Portland theatre community, my experience has been that there just isn't enough time or energy to put a lot of effort into dramaturgy. There's a lot of theatre here that wants to exist in a vacuum, or that can't be bothered to do it's proper homework. A lot of theatres here assume that since they're performing modern work or devising their own pieces, the dramaturg element is unnecessary, and this is a valid decision, given the exigencies of Portland theatre these days, but I argue that dramaturgs for modern pieces are just as essential. A dramaturg provides a useful and a unified voice of opposition to a headstrong director, someone to bounce ideas off of without worrying about the power dynamic, the way an actor or stage manager would. One of the great drawbacks of our fabulous Do-It-Yourself aesthetic, is that it's rather amnesiac, and everyone ends up re-inventing the wheel a lot.

By the same token, this means that there's a lot of opportunity to provide creative insight for directors and productions that are struggling to identify the vital aspects of their work. My advice is to see as much theatre as you possibly can, identify the theatres that most resonate with you and be bold, send more emails, meet people, keep talking about work that you are passionate about.

Dramaturgy manifests in multiple ways beyond the formal position. Sometimes you're the weird actor in the ensemble who brings dozens of books. Sometimes you're the Assistant Director who photocopies the script and gives actors little secrets for their characters. Sometimes you're the house manager who knows a guy who knows a guy who knows how to tie a knot in that special way that one speech in Act 3 keeps going on and on about. Truth is, dramaturgy is a fluid discipline, and you have plenty of freedom to make of it what you want.

I hope this helps. Let me know if you have further questions.




With apologies for long silences

When I was little, I once had a dream where I was lost in a strange house with very thin walls, and dark windows that dimly let me see flickering, indefinite images in the night outside. I remember running through many rooms, and eventually running around the outside of the house, looking for anyone. I remembering feeling frightfully alone for the first time in my life.

The moon had very red, very full lips, and it was mouthing words to me that I could not hear. Surrounding houses all had walls where doors and windows should have been. The streetlamps were colder and dimmer than in real life.


I've just had a birthday; without any real sense of alarm or dismay, I'm tracking a vague, unsettled place in me that remotely feels or remembers this old dream in my waking life today. Now, I'm thoroughly engaged and up to my elbows in my world--a lover, work, some scattered projects, a life--but something most definitely does feel sequestered, held at bay somehow. I don't know what this means. I don't know if this is just ordinary birthday melancholy, or the stirrings of a familiar deeper monster, or something else altogether. We are all of us at sea, I think, and I struggle to remember that it is a minor miracle that any of us make contact with each other at all in the first place.