The Dramaturg: Help or Hindrance?

Back Stage, September 27-October 3, 2002, pp. 30-33

By Dan Friedman

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   Dramaturgy remains a phantom profession.  Although it’s been nearly 30 years since the dramaturg was introduced to America, her/his function is still a mystery to many American theatre artists.  A fixture in European, particularly German, theatre, the dramaturg remains on the fringe of the U.S. theatre world, often viewed with suspicion by both the playwright and director, who see no need for a meddlesome scholar straddling the border region between script and performance.  
   Yet the dramaturg’s influence continues to spread and the status of the profession continues to rise.  Ben Cameron, executive director of the Theatre Communications Group (TCG), reports that more theatres around the country now have dramaturgs than not.  “Even many theatres with annual budgets below $500,000 have salaried lines for resident dramaturgs,” he noted.  Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas (LMDA), the field’s professional organization founded in 1985, currently has 700 members.  
   Artistic directors at LORT theatres around the country are increasingly relying on dramaturgs both to research and contextualize classic productions and to develop and nurture new playwrights.  John Dias, associate producer at the Joseph Papp Public Theater/New York Shakespeare Festival, said that both kinds of dramaturgical work “are essential to what the Public is.”  Irene Lewis, artistic director of Baltimore’s Center Stage, said of her three-person dramaturgical staff:  “They are my brain trust.  They bring an intellectual rigor to our work that’s helpful to me and therefore to the final product.  I see them as indispensable.”
   In addition, dramaturgs have been moving into other influential jobs in the theatre.  Dias was a dramaturg at both the Hartford Stage Company and the Public before becoming its associate producer.  Cameron worked as dramaturg at the Indiana Repertory Theatre before moving on to the National Endowment for the Arts and then becoming executive director of TCG.  Barry Edelstein, artistic director of New York’s Classic Stage Company, was a dramaturg at the Public.  Susan Jonas, who has worked extensively as a freelance dramaturg and co-edited Dramaturgy in American Theatre, the most influential book in the field, is an arts analyst with the New York State Council on the Arts.  Jack Viertel, creative director at Jujamcyn Theaters Corp., who helped bring, among many others, The Producers and Smokey Joe’s Café to Broadway, was the dramaturg at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles before making his move to the Great White Way in 1987.
   This is not to say that everything is coming up roses either within the profession or in its relationship to others in the American theatre.  Lingering questions remain about the nature of the dramaturg’s work, with job descriptions varying widely from theatre to theatre and even production to production.  The legal tussle in 1997 between dramaturg Lynn M. Thompson and the estate of Jonathon Larson over the extent of her contribution to the development of Rent and what compensation, if any, she deserved was settled out-of-court, but has left the playwright-dramaturg relationship more unsettled than ever.  Many dramaturgs continue to feel under-compensated and under-appreciated and there is a considerable concern within the profession that as theatres struggle with recession budgets, the American theatre’s most recent arrival may become the first to feel the sting of the budget-cutting ax.
 

Where They Come From

   The dramaturg emerged in the highly subsidized municipal and state theatres of the German-speaking world and spread through much of Central and Eastern Europe, where theatres are similarly organized.  In Germany, there is a network of some 200 government-funded theatres with large permanent ensembles (whose actors get paid whether they are performing at the moment or not) presenting several plays in repertory.  These theatres have centuries-long histories in their cities and perform for audiences for whom theatergoing and knowledge of the theatre is a deep-rooted tradition and a status symbol.
   Working with these ensembles and interacting with this public are well-staffed dramaturgical departments with clearly defined tasks.  They read all incoming scripts, report on them, and file them.  The chief dramaturg, in consultation with the artistic director, selects plays for production.  Dramaturgs work on finding talented new playwrights, adapting and cutting scripts, and revising translations.  They also write scholarly essays for the theatre program and produce the theatre’s public relations materials.
   “In Europe, dramaturges are gods,” said Arthur Holberg, literary director at the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge.  “In Germany and Russia, they virtually run the theatres.”  Edelstein added that in Europe, “The chief dramaturg is often an elder statesman of the theatre.  He tends to outlast various artistic regimes and becomes the artistic and literary conscience of the theatre.”
   The American theatre model is, of course, very different.  There may be no business like show business, but it’s still a business.  For much of the first 200 years of our history, virtually all plays were produced commercially and, for the most part, one at a time.  They were put up as quickly and cheaply as possible and the artistic team, including the cast, broke up and dispersed to the four winds at the end of each production.   Within the system there was no place for a resident scholar.  The closest thing to a dramaturg was the script doctor – often a playwright, director, or producer – brought in during the rehearsal or tryout period to fix up a script that wasn’t working.
    The dramaturg in America only appeared once the non-profit regional theatre movement had been established.  “Regional theatres were established with two missions – honoring the classics and developing new American playwrights,” noted Viertel.  “Dramaturgs help with both these goals.”  It was a natural – and fundable – match.
    “The Ford Foundation led the way.  Other foundations and, eventually, the NEA built on what they had started,” sad James Leverett, chair of the dramaturgy and dramatic criticism program at the Yale School of Drama.  “They were interested in finding dramaturgs on the European model.”
    The first known use of the term dramaturg in connection to the American theatre appeared in the annual report of the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in 1968, which had begun assigning people to perform dramaturgical functions at its annual playwrights conference.  At about the same time, Robert Brustein, who became dean of the Yale School of Drama in 1966, introduced a dramaturgy program there.  “Ours is the oldest dramaturgy program in the United States and had a lot to do with founding the profession here,” said Leverett.  IN 1979, TCG held the first national meeting of dramaturgs and literary managers; 16 people attended.  Leverett estimated that at the time, the entire field numbered less than 40.
    It has grown steadily since then, with many of the profession’s leaders emerging from Yale.  The other major center of dramaturgical training has bee the University of Iowa and, more recently, the American Repertory Theatre Institute for Advanced Theatre Training at Harvard.  At the same time, the number of theatre departments offering courses in dramaturgy has increased exponentially.  “Schools continue to add classes in dramaturgy.  It has become an established part of theatre education in America,” said Professor Geoff Proehl of the University of Puget Sound, who, along with the NYSCA’s Jonas and Michael Lupu, senior dramaturg at the Guthrie Theater, put together Dramaturgy in American Theater, the first American dramaturgy textbook.
    Not all dramaturges, however, come out of dramaturgical programs.  Proehl, for example, has a Ph.D. in directing and dramatic criticism from Stanford University.  Holberg has a doctorate in comparative literature from Harvard.  Joe Martin, who is the artistic director of the Open Theatre/DC and has worked as a dramaturg for a number of Washington-area theatres, has a similar degree form the University of British Columbia.  Thompson was a director before she was a dramaturg.  Viertel moved into dramaturgy after five years as a theatre reviewer for the now defunct Los Angeles Herald Examiner.
    The European connection also remains active.  Michael Lupu at the Guthrie worked as a dramaturg in his native Romania.  André Lepecki, who teaches dramaturgy in the Department of Performing Arts at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, started his career dramaturging dance performances back home in Portugal.  The Canadian-born Martin had his first professional dramaturgical gigs in the U.S. after spending some years in Scandinavia translating Norwegian and Swedish playwrights.
 

What They Do

       “I gently, and sometimes not so gently, pull the sleeves of the playwrights and directors,” said Lupu, who has been at the Guthrie for 21 years, the last seven years as senior dramaturg.  “I don’t claim that I know better, but that I can help artists see what they are doing better.”
       While Lupu’s modest metaphor is certainly not inaccurate, it hardly hints at the breadth and depth of his work.  In addition to sitting in on virtually every rehearsal, he does extensive research and decision-making when it comes to the Guthrie’s famed classical productions.  Relative to this season’s Comedy of Errors, for example, he noted that there were 16 spots in the script where different editors of Shakespeare’s work disagreed about the text.  It was Lupu’s job to research those differenced and make recommendations about which version of the lines go with.  He also oversees the creation of study guides that provide in-depth information on each play, which are posted on the Guthrie’s website and distributed in hard-copy form to school groups coming to the theatre.
       Since the Guthrie made the decision to showcase new works as well as the classics – this season will include two world premieres, Arthur Miller’s Resurrection Blues and Good Boys by Jane Martin – it has brought on Michael Dixon, formerly of the Actors Theatre of Louisville, as literary manager.  While many theatres use the terms “dramaturg” and “literary manager” interchangeably, at the Guthrie, Dixon now specializes in new play development and Lupu in research.   Their staff includes a librarian to keep track of scripts and two literary associates.
       As is evident from the addition of Dixon at the Guthrie, theatres have, to the extent that their incomes have allowed, developed dramaturgical departments shaped by their missions.  At the Public in New York, for example, there are three dramaturges: one for Shakespeare, one for musicals, and one for new plays.  When Dias came to the Public with George C. Wolfe nearly a decade ago, he was originally the Shakespeare dramaturg and, in the capacity, set up a Shakespeare lab to train actors in performing the Bard, a program that’s still in place.  After he became the head of the literary department, his attention became more focused on what the Public is best known for – the development of new plays. 
       At the Classic Stage Company, where the emphasis is obviously on the classics, the dramaturg’s role is primarily that of a researcher.  “The director is in rehearsal eight hours a day and often questions come up with require research,” noted Edelstein.  “The director has to do a thousand other things, so it’s helpful to have someone who the director can trust and who has research skills to answer the questions.”
       Baltimore’s Center Stage – which this season will produce six plays ranging from Schiller’s Mary Stuart to the world premieres of Intimate Apparel by Lynn Nottage and No Foreigners Beyond This Point by Warren Leight – has one of the most respected dramaturgical departments in the country.  Center Stage’s three dramaturgs – Charlotte Stoudt, James Magruder, and Rhonda Robbins – are involved in an unusually wide range of activities.  They are aided, in part, by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, which provided Center Stage with the nation’s first-ever endowment for dramaturgy – a $1 million challenge grant.  
       On the first day of rehearsal at Center Stage, every actor is given a packet prepared by the dramaturgical staff containing history and analysis of the play.  A dramaturg sits in on the first reading and thereafter is given a list of questions from the actors and the director after each rehearsal, which she or he works to answer by the beginning of the next rehearsal.  The dramaturg doesn’t return to rehearsal until the first run-through, but thereafter attends all run-throughs and previews, working with the director to fine-tune the production.
       However, that’s just the beginning.  Center Stage’s dramaturgical team works closely with Artistic Director Irene Lewis in selecting the season.  They take the lead in seeking out new playwrights and looking to initiate co-productions with other theatres.  They attend board meetings, travel frequently to speak at fundraisers, give presentations at pre-show dinners of subscribers, and write most of the public relations material and grant applications emanating from the theatre.  For a while, Center Stage even had a “Dramaturg’s Hot Line”; audience members could call with questions and complaints and talk to one of the dramaturgs.
       “They’re really in the body politic of this theatre and this city,” said Lewis of her staff.  “You need curious, questioning people to keep an institution vital and that’s what dramaturgs can provide.”
 

Works and Plays Well With Others

   As with all theatre work, collaboration is at the heart of what the dramaturg does, but it’s collaboration of a very particular kind.  “Good dramaturgs work from within a production.  They don’t try to impose how they would do it,” explained Lewis.  The dramaturg’s work is essentially supportive; she or he is there to help others achieve their artistic vision.
   “Being a dramaturg requires you to sit back and look at the bigger picture, to listen more intensely, to see systems and processes at work,” explained Cameron.  “It’s helping a creative artist to inhabit their own skin boldly.”
   That is not an easy task, nor is it for everybody.
   “When you’re a dramaturg, you have to give up ego; you’re there to serve other people,” said Holberg.  “When the show opens, no one will know what your contribution was.  It’s got to be a selfless act of giving.”  Both he and Lepecki compared dramaturgical work to women’s work in the larger society.  “The dramaturg is in the female position in the theatre,” said NYU’s Lepecki.  “The dramaturg is invisible, does the dirty work, the maintenance work, supports everyone else, is underpaid, and, in the end, is asked: ‘What do you do?’”
   “It’s a peculiar way of thinking,” mused Jonas.  “The dramaturg doesn’t focus on what she or he wants or even on what she or he knows; the dramaturg has to think about context and about relationships.”
   Finding ways to integrate the dramaturg’s knowledge into the creative process takes sophisticated social skills that allow the dramaturg to navigate through the stormy waters of what is often a very competitive and ego-driven environment.  When the first wave of American dramaturgs reached the theatres two decades ago, they were not particularly good at it.
   “Some of the language used back then was problematic; I used it myself,” said the Yale-trained Cameron.  “We called ourselves ‘in-house critics.’  That can set up an adversarial relationship and sometimes did.  We called ourselves ‘ the conscience of theatre.’  That was heard as: ‘Directors don’t have a conscience of their own.’  Dramaturgs have had to learn how to talk with creative artists.  ‘Your role is a metaphor for global oppression.’  That may be true, but it’s not how you can talk to an actor.”
   Those working in the field today have, for the most part, learned those skills.  “Dramaturgs can be generous almost to a fault,” said Proehl.  “They dwell in the tension between listening and talking.  They work to maintain the delicate balance between staying silent and entering a conversation.  A competitive attitude is not conducive to that activity.”
   When competitiveness comes into play, it can lead to bad working relationships.  “The good dramaturg asks questions.  The bad dramaturg tells you how to rewrite your play,” observed Jeff Sweet, whose musical, I Sent a Letter to My Love, written with Melissa Manchester, is currently playing a the North Shore Music Theatre.  Sweet has worked both sides of the line, as playwright and dramaturg.  He recalled one dramaturg who restructured a script of his without talking to him.  “I said to her, ‘You have told me how to rewrite my play.  I will now tell you how to do your job – not like this.’”
   Directors who have worked with supportive dramaturgs tend to want to keep working with them.  “What little does exist in terms of dramaturgical work in this country has grown out of relationships based on trust, many of which go back to their student days,” observed Jonathon Kalb, chair of the Department of Theatre at Hunter College of the City University of New York, himself a graduate of the dramaturgy program at Yale.
   Zeljko Djukich, artistic director of The Utopian Theatre Asylum in Chicago, who always worked with dramaturgs in his native Yugoslavia, missed them when he came to the United States 10 years ago.  “In the United States, even if the theatre I’m working with doesn’t have a dramaturg, I tend to invent one,” he said.  “I find a person who thinks critically and ask them to dialogue with me the process.  It makes the production much more open than if you try to do it all by yourself.”
 

Whose Play Is It Anyway?

    While dramaturgy is generally accepted and even embraced by directors around the country, playwrights are a bit more ambiguous.  It is still not uncommon to find playwrights who relate to the dramaturg or literary manager as the evil gatekeeper working to keep their script off the boards or stuck forever in development hell.
    “Essentially, a dramaturg is there to assist in structuring and editing.  But those are skills both the director and the writer should possess.  Why do you need a third person complicating the process of collaboration?” asked a playwright working in musical theatre who asked to remain anonymous.  “And the minute a dramaturg writes a single word, he/she ceases to be a dramaturg.  If a writer decides she wants a co-author, then she should be the one to choose that collaborator, not have one foisted upon her.
    “As Rose says in ‘Gypsy’, “Everybody in show business listens to everybody.’  Playwrights are inevitably buried in an avalanche of dramaturgical advice from a wide array of sources, including some they’ve deliberately sought out because they trust those particular sources.  Inserting an anointed professional advice-giver into the mix is redundant.”
    Playwright-lyricist Gretchen Cryer, best known for “I’m Getting My Act Together and Taking It on the Road,” has never worked with a dramaturg and has no intention of starting.  “When it comes to new work, I don’t know why dramaturgs are in the picture at all,” she said.  “I don’t think Arthur Miller had a dramaturg.  I don’t think Tennessee Williams had a dramaturg.  If things keep going the way they are, plays will end up being written by committee and we’ll lose the individual voice of the playwright.”
    “The most misunderstood part of our work is our relationship with the playwright,” said Michele Volansky, president of LMDA, founder of the literary department at Steppenwolf Theatre Company, and currently dramaturg at the Philadelphia Theatre Company.  “In fact, dramaturgs and literary managers are huge advocates for new plays and new playwrights.”
    “Certainly many of our members do use dramaturgs, but some do not,” said Christopher Wilson, executive director of The Dramatists Guild.  “There’s a division of opinion about their value.”
    Tensions between the two professions flared in 1997 when Thompson sued the estate of Jonathon Larson for title page dramaturgical credit, as well as $40 million, essentially seeking 16% of the royalties for Rent, for which she claimed she had written 9% of the lyrics and 48% of the libretto.
    Thompson, founder of the dramaturgy department at the Philadelphia Theatre Company and initiator of LMDA’s script exchange program through which dramaturgs, had been hired by the New York Theatre Workshop to help Larson rework Rent.  She was paid $2,000 for her collaboration, which went on mostly at Larson’s apartment between May and October of 1995.
    When the case went public, many playwrights came out passionately against Thompson as a usurper, a few, including Tony Kushner, supported her.
    The Dramatists Guild backed the Larson estate.  “We felt she was using her position and prestige as a dramaturg to leverage herself to authorship.  We were concerned about that as a precedent,” said Wilson.  “That doesn’t mean that a dramaturg couldn’t or shouldn’t be a co-author, if everyone agrees in advance that that’s what’s going on.  But that was not what happened in this case.”
    Eventually, the case was settled out of court and the terms were undisclosed.
    “Lynn Thompson did the ultimate dramaturgical intervention.  She took a play that had been work shopped for years and helped to rewrite it so that it worked, and she got absolutely nothing for her efforts,” said Jonas.  “It gives me little reason to believe that dramaturgy will have a future in this country.”
       Thompson herself sees the case as a small part of a big process.  “As a dramaturg, I always look to history,” she said.  “History shows that there isn’t a field in the theatre that hasn’t had to fight for recognition and compensation.  It’s an organic, normal, necessary stage of growth.  The Rent case just happened to accelerate the process.”
    She pointed out that when Actors’ Equity Association was organized nearly a century ago, one Broadway producer said that unionization of actors was the worst catastrophe since the closing of the theatres in ancient Greece.  “Agnes de Mille was paid a flat $5,000 for choreographing Oklahoma! with no subsidiary rights.  That’s all she ever made from that show,” said Thompson.  “She went on to become a major organizer of the Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers.”  Thompson added that she was confident that someday there would be a Tony for best dramaturgy.
    Sweet believes that the Thompson case was far from unique.  “It continues to go on all the time, blurring the line between playwright and dramaturgy,” he said.  “It’s an ongoing problem that I’ve encountered a number of times.”
    “Most changes in a script are said in the contract to belong to the author.  The question becomes: ‘Is the dramaturg an author?’” said Robert Freedman of the Robert Freedman Dramatic Agency Inc.  “The dramaturg is paid by the theatre to help put the play in ‘better’ shape, but that is not the same as being the playwright.”
    Volansky said that the Thompson case “created a realization that there is still a huge mountain of misunderstanding about what dramaturgs do.  But it did create a conversation about how people work in the theatre, which was extremely helpful.”  She said the big lesson for dramaturgs is that it’s important to define in advance your role in each particular project.  “I used to say, ‘Okay, I’m the dramaturg.  Let’s go!’”  she said, “Now I ask, ‘What are the parameters of this relationship?’”
    A New York playwrights’ agent, who asked that his name not be used, said that playwrights and their agents were also being more cautious:  “As agents, we’re now very careful that contractually our clients are protected from this sort of thing.”
    It’s no surprise that the Thompson case occurred on the shifting border between the nonprofit and the commercial theatres.  Money talks, and as Volanksy pointed out, regional theatres, particularly those known for the development of new work, are increasingly courted by commercial producers, who provide “enhancements” in exchange for rights to bring successful productions to New York.  “In this environment, the dramaturg’s work is beginning to impact on the commercial theatre,” she said.  “It’s therefore particularly important to go into projects with clarity.  We all need to know what the deal is.”
    That there might be a direct role for dramaturgs in the American commercial theatre seems unlikely to most.  Viertel, however, points out that what he does as creative producer at Jujamcyn is not all that different from what he did as a dramaturg.  “I read a lot of plays, do relationship building with playwrights, and I’m the producer who has the relationship with the creative team.  I spend more time discussing the production with the director and designers than I do interfacing with financial or management people,” he said.
    It is interesting to speculate about whether the new corporate model of play production as exemplified by Disney, in which productions are cultivated and developed over a period of years, may be more hospitable to dramaturgs than the free-enterprise, show-by-show approach that is traditional on Broadway.  Such speculation, however, is of far less concern to most dramaturgs and teachers of dramaturgy than the immediate future of dramaturgy in the country’s regional theatres.
 

Mix and Match

    Kalb, who teaches a course in dramaturgy at Hunter, is pessimistic.  While agreeing that there are far more people with the job title of literary manager or dramaturg than there were when he graduated form Yale’s program 17 years ago, Kalb argued that you had to look further than titles to get an accurate read on the state of the profession.  “What we have are big titles with small salaries,” he said.  “Literary managers are busy with the grunt work of reading unsolicited manuscripts.  Many ‘dramaturgs,’ if you scratch the surface, aren’t doing dramaturgical work at all.”
    Jonas agreed.  “The literary manager’s job has been utterly degraded to the tracking of hundreds of scripts.  Very little experience or skill is needed to fill out little slips of paper about the scripts.”  She pointed out that in her capacity as an arts analyst for NYSCA, she reviews the budgets of hundreds of theatres.  “In theatre after theatre you see huge marketing salaries, while dramaturgs and literary managers are getting $2,000 to $5,000; that’s not a salary, that’s a gesture.  They are accepting these crumbs in exchange for a prestigious title.”  She also said that as theatres feel the economic crunch, dramaturgs and literary managers are being treated as the most expendable members of the theatre.
       Cameron has a different take on the situation.  “When dramaturgs were starting out [in America], you were lucky to get an occasional gig.  There’s far more work and far more stability now,” he said.  “The financial crunch is real and downsizing theatres have to make difficult decisions about what is essential to their mission.  It’s not a denigration of the profession if a theatre decides that dramaturgy is not part of their core focus.  Around the country, I’m seeing cuts in design staff, cut in assistants, and casts being downsized.  Tough decisions are being made, but dramaturgs are not being singled out.”
    Faced with an apparent shrinking of an already small job market, Jonas called on dramaturgs to be more inventive and entrepreneurial.  “They have to stop waiting for institutions to validate them and think of themselves as entrepreneurs,” she said.
    Joe Martin is a good example of such an entrepreneurial dramaturg.  After spending two years in Scandinavia on a grant translating plays, he moved to Washington, D.C., where he has some friends in the theatre, and organized five area theatres to produce a Strindberg Festival using his translations, with him acting as dramaturg on every production and directing one himself.  “It was a chance to realize a vision, which dramaturgs usually don’t get to do,” he recalled.  Settled in Washington and having established a reputation with the Strindberg Festival, Martin works as a freelance dramaturg for a number of D.C. theatres.
    He is quick to point out, however, that he also teaches drama at Catholic University of America.  “A lot of people who work as dramaturgs do a lot of mixing and matching,” he said.  “Where their money is coming from and the dramaturgical projects they are working on are not necessarily the same.”
    Pointing out that Yale’s dramaturgy program gives students experience in teaching as well as writing and editing for Theater Magazine, Leveret made much the same point:  “Dramaturgs need to be fast and flexible on their feet.  They have the training to place themselves in a multitude of positions in the theatre.”
    “I can’t see that a dramaturg can expect to be employed more regularly than any other theatre professional.  How many members of Equity are employed at any given time?”  pointed out Thompson.  “But the profession if here to stay.  The dramaturg has come about because of an urgent need in American Theatre, the need to introduce a more expansive use of history and context, just as in our society as a whole there’s increasing interest in history and context.  Where there’s a need there will be growth.  There’s been massive change for the better over the last five years.  We’re a very young profession and we’re here to stay.”