“Dramaturg” is a noun, it’s a position, the office in charge of dramaturgy. But how do you articulate the job of a dramaturg; what is the verb form? Dramaturging? Do the dramaturgy? Dramaturgical efforts?
“I’m the dramaturg” seems to do the least violence to the language, so I stick with it, even if it tastes of the insipid, uninspired motions people assume I go through when I say I spend my days in libraries and researching things online for fun
and profit. It seems to me people do think it’s terribly boring and that I must hate all the effort it takes to research a subject, read up on a writer, study the material referenced in a given work. Not even remotely. I love plowing through information and digging up whatever exists as a first hand source and taking a look at other creative works that touch on the same themes….
A quick scan of online definitions of the work of the dramaturg leaves me a little cold. Adaptations of plays…yes, sometimes. Curating contextual information (or even writing it myself) to go into programs, yeah that happens too. But what I’ve done the most and that I’m repeatedly asked to do is look stuff up. Suss out esoteric information regarding this occurrence or that event, answering hypothetical questions with real world information. What is the process volunteer rescue units in mountainous areas go through to train for evacuating injured persons from the wilderness? How do cognitive behavior therapists approach autism patients? What is the neuroscience of memory and memory loss? How do the Berbers of northern Algeria bury their dead and think on them afterword?
I don’t get to do it very often, but I really love getting to dig into theatrical forms and philosophies. This is because the task that I serve is to support the director’s concept by fleshing as much of the context of the play as possible. There are always elements and approaches to the material that aren’t entirely obvious in the text, especially if it comes to us from another part of the world, and from another era. It’s kind of adapting, but more like, it’s bringing in the information that will bring the play and the director’s vision to something like a unified state where both are the stronger for it. And so looking at who was influencing whom when the playwright took quill in hand sheds light on the dynamics of the sort of theatre he was originally anticipating.
Also, I suppose I should admit, while I’m a general nerd and love learning pretty much all I can about anything it wasn’t an accident that my degree is in theatre. It’s the subject I love best. That’s all.
Everything may and likely will go into dramaturgy. Shapes and forms of the things that people do reach me from such a variety of directions that I wouldn’t dare think that any particular subject or bit of arcana could never be put on stage. Not necessarily for the task as dramaturg, but just in a conversation with a director a while ago I recalled a photography spread from the 90s that shared themes with a play we’re about start working on. I’ve cited plots from comic books, themes from anime, rock songs, religious rituals, sports superstitions, and American communist rhetoric. Oh, and Monty Python, but that’s not really a stretch if you think about it.
One of my new favorite discoveries is the dramaturg column at Bitter-Lemons.com. In that article he gives a playful look at instances of theatricality that blow right past most people.
The more specific we are in the theatre the more like we are to match the semiotics deep within the minds of our audience. And specificity is aided by knowing what the hell you’re talking about. We strive for that as a measure of telling the truth.
It doesn’t do any good to put on a show that is wholly alienating because it wasn’t adapted to anything the audience will actually relate to, much in the same way it wouldn’t do much good to put on a play entirely in Russian for an audience of English speakers. In the first place, the people working on the play have to understand the material they’re working with – and understand as a unit, as led by the director. And in the second, if the audience does not resonate with the show in some way (typically by empathizing with the characters, though with the surreal plays we do at SOSE we’re often focused elsewhere) then we’re just wasting everyone’s time.
A lady turning into an almond, crows stealing an old woman’s shoe, a child of conflagration igniting a slaughterhouse… evocative, sure. But we’re not in it just to paint one picture. The more we have on hand to express the nature of the pituitary gland, memory loss and the exploitation of labor, the more we can tell a story that might not be forgotten five minutes after final bows. Like seeing a tree that reminds you of a song, or driving down a highway and remembering a conversation, I work to support the task of all storytelling that brings unconnected, even absurd practices and ideas together inside the same thought. But what do you call that?