So What Exactly is a Dramaturg?

Anthony J. Piccione

That is a question that is frequently asked by many people who aren’t generally involved in theatre, and even by some people who are. In recent years, the involvement of a dramaturg has become far more common in theaters across the world.

Yet as it is still a relatively new role in theatre, it also remains a fairly vague and unspecified one for some people. It wasn’t until I had the experience of being a dramaturg recently in an experimental theatre production at the college I go to that I learned more about what responsibilities come with this position. To many people who have never been in this position – especially those who might be considered “outsiders” in the theatre community – it might still be a foreign concept. To anyone who is involved in theatre, I know it is especially worth knowing more about, as dramaturgs are becoming more and more prominent in the industry.

So for those who may still be less familiar with this role in theatre, here is a bit of background information on the responsibilities that come with being a dramaturg in a full-scale theatrical production.

(I should note early on that some choose to write “dramaturge” rather than “dramaturg”, but as far as I know, there is no debate in the theatre community over whether or not the different ways of spelling it imply different meanings.)

According to the LMDA (Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas), the definition of what it means to be a dramaturg is to perform tasks such as “help develop the mission”, “help plan the season” and “help look for scripts”. In the case of new plays that are being produced, dramaturgy could also potentially involve being able to “read and evaluate new scripts”, “negotiate with agents”, “prepare adaptations and translations” and ultimately “help bring new plays into full production”.

So going off of this, it would seem that the dramaturg would be the expert of the literary aspect of theatre – or as those of us who actually work in theatre know it as: drama – who works primarily on the script and making sure it is ready to be used for the production. However, in the case of many productions, the dramaturg is also known to do a great deal of historical research, either to help the production team – namely the director – or for the sake of themselves having a better understanding of the script as they are analyzing it. Knowing this, it would seem that the definition of what it means to be a dramaturg (or at least, a good dramaturg) is a bit broader than that.

There has been a bit of debate about the specifics of what role the dramaturg should play in the production process, despite this fairly broad definition I’ve presented here in this article with some help from LMDA. I’ve even heard of some people in theatre who have questioned whether this is much of a necessary role in the industry. This sentiment is perhaps best reflected in this brilliant cartoon that was featured awhile back in the New Yorker.

Personally, as someone who had the experience of being the dramaturg is a production earlier this year, I would argue that the dramaturg is not always a necessary role. However, it certainly could be helpful to have one involved in specific productions. For example, if it is a newer or less well-known play, then a dramaturg could be helpful in making sure a show’s first production reaches its full potential. It also is worth thinking about the historical and literary knowledge of the rest of the production team – particularly when it comes to who is sitting in the director’s chair – when determining whether or not a dramaturg is needed to help improve the quality of a production.

So the dramaturg is still a new – and not always well-defined – position in theatre, and it can be especially helpful to have one for certain productions. Nonetheless, whether you think it is a necessary role or not, hopefully this article gives you a somewhat better idea of what it means to be a dramaturg. That way, if you ever encounter one in rehearsal – or ever decide to become one yourself, as I did this past spring – you’ll have a much better understanding of why you may, after all, “really need the dramaturg”.