On Dramaturgy and the Dramaturg

Feature in Issue 9-4 | Winter 1997

What is a dramaturg? John Keefe goes in search of some definitions and discovers that the answer is all but clear.

‘Dramaturg’ is equal to dramatist; thus dramaturgy is the dramatic work of the writer.
‘Dramaturgy’ is the dramatic text plus the writing process found within it.
‘Dramaturgy’ is the study and application of theatre science.
‘Dramaturg’ is the equivalent of the literary reader, editor or manager of a theatre
or company who is responsible for the development of the dramatic text before and during production.
‘Dramaturg’ has the same definition as above, but also with responsibility for researching the background to the play for production plus the gathering of material for the programme.
‘Dramaturgy’ is that which concerns the text of the performance.
‘Visual Dramaturgy’ is when all the means of expression have an equal status (Amtzen).
‘Dramaturgy’ is the science and knowledge of theatre/drama/performance and the application of that science to both the dramatic text and the performance text before and during production of the performance. So the Dramaturg is one who performs this role as a collaborator with the writer/director/scenographer/performer(s).

As you can see, when I consider the question ‘what is the dramaturg?’, the answer is anything but clear! It seems to depend on who you ask and which theatre culture one is asking about. I have heard academics refer to a writer’s ‘dramaturgy’ seeming to mean the second definition listed above. I have very often come across writers and directors using the terms ‘dramaturg’ and ‘literary reader/manager/editor’ interchangeably which, whilst the most common definition, is a usage which is confusing, too narrow, and ignores developments in performance practice and theory. Whilst possessing validity, such narrow definitions, by default, still give priority to the word and to the dramatic text in contemporary theatre. Whilst the status of the word and the dramatic text in mime, physical and visual performance are contentious issues, I see no reason to allow an important concept to be used in ways which perpetuate this dominance and which are inappropriate to many forms and much practice found within contemporary performance.

Thus the dramaturg should be concerned with the whole of the process and the performance text that results from it. Clearly I would align myself with the last definition outlined above. I would argue that renewal and deepening of key concepts is thus demanded; that the performance text includes the dramatic text but is not solely this. Rather it is like the parts of a musical score; each element of the performance has its own line which continually interacts with every other. The performance text may be a piece of ‘total theatre’ or (more usually) may not when the interaction is biased or only serves one element, but every production is a performance text by intention or default. The dramaturg can take the responsibility of maintaining a concern for these things as an underpinning for the ongoing, practical task of creating and presenting the production. Looking with knowledge means a continual interrogation of the work, a process of deconstructing to open up the work for the collaborators. Thus one dramaturgical methodology may be set out as in the model below.

What I am suggesting is that, rather than be restricted to narrow definitions of the terms; mime, physical and visual performance need to return to first principles, re-examine the key concepts and apply these to their own work in practice. The notions of interrogation and de-/re-construction apply to all practice. To varying degrees any performer or director can be their own ‘native dramaturg’ if so wished; any true ensemble will enable members to perform the role for each other and the production. But I would argue that the dramaturg takes on this role most effectively if they have a distinct responsibility within the collaboration. For me it is a role that is sadly lacking within UK practice with a subsequent effect on the range and quality of work. There have been instances of partially applied or approximations of the role (with subsequent partial success/failure) and the Royal National Theatre is exploring the larger role of the dramaturg but such development is rare. I feel that there is a rich debate to be had here but it is a debate that cannot be restricted to discussion only, it is a debate that must also be held on the rehearsal floor as part of the development of practice and thus becomes part of the working process.

Otherwise theatre science will remain within the academic, research world rather than be part of the world of practice.

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Issue 9-4
p. 17