My Experiences as an Undergraduate Dramaturg

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  • Freddie Miller

I’ll be honest.

I had no clue what the heck a dramaturg actually was until I started my first year of undergrad. The closest I had ever gotten to an answer was from that episode of SMASH (remember that show?) where Julia Houston (played by Debra Messing) is assigned a dramaturg named Peter to help her fix the horrendous book for Bombshell. The dramaturg (played by Daniel Sunjata) was described as a “script doctor” and was incredibly invasive on Julia’s process, arguing with her every step of the way.

That was my one and only exposure with the world of dramaturgy. I thought that the job consisted of only advising writers with the creation of their new work. As with so many things, SMASH couldn’t have been farther from the reality.

And if I’m being even more honest, what a dramaturg does seems to confuse people even in the theatre community, so SMASH perpetuating stereotypes certainly didn’t help the matter.

It’s not just putting together a lobby display or writing program notes. That confusion from my collaborators has led to a confusion on my end of things. I served as the dramaturg on two productions in my first year of undergrad and both times, I found myself constantly scratching my head and looking to my advisor for advice.

So, what is a dramaturg? Well, for starters: dramaturgy is simply the “theory and practice of dramatic composition”. We think, write, and talk critically about drama. It’s our job to make sure that the production is serving the playwright’s work in the best way possible. It’s also our job to make sure that audience members have everything that they need in order to receive the best theatrical experience possible.

There’s a lot of research that goes into the role of a dramaturg. I have been fortunate enough to have worked on productions that are so rooted in their historical context that there is already a wealth of information out there to be found. For example, I recently served as the dramaturg for Penn State’s production of To Kill a Mockingbird, adapted by Christopher Sergel.

Per the director’s request, a lot of my research was focused on the Jim Crow Laws in the South as well as Harper Lee’s life. Lee gave so much of her personal life to the writing of To Kill a Mockingbird, basing characters and events off of her own experiences growing up in Monroeville, Alabama. I curated this information into a presentation for our first day of rehearsal and presented my findings.

It’s important to note that the research that I did was not intended to replace the personal research that the cast members and production team members did on their own. In my opinion, the dramaturg is supposed to supplement and “fill in the gaps” that research. The dramaturg is a resource aid in the rehearsal room and throughout the process.

To be perfectly honest, it’s a resource that not many take advantage of. I’m not sure if it’s because they don’t realize we’re there or they don’t understand the significance of what we do. Dramaturgy is still a relatively new field in itself, but the core of what we do has always been a thing. It’s just been split up between multiple different roles.

To reiterate, the role of the dramaturg is not to just put up lobby displays (which believe it or not, have been the source of many nervous breakdowns) or to write program notes. It certainly can and has been; but there is so much more that a dramaturg can do. Because dramaturgy is such uncharted territory, there is so much room for growth (and failure).

My first go-around as a dramaturg last fall ended with a plan to create a huge, elaborate display for a production of Polaroid Stories by Naomi Iizuka. The plan involved combining research about Greek mythology, the headshots of the actors, and a lot of cardboard. As we got closer and closer to the production, the dramaturgy team realized that it was such a huge task that we were undertaking. So the lobby display was a no-go.

For Caroline, or Change, per my director’s request, I curated a “wall of inspiration” that featured articles about 1963, Louisiana, Tony Kushner’s childhood, and the Civil Rights movement. The final product was entire section of the rehearsal room covered from head to toe with pictures and articles. I took sections of the wall and placed them on poster boards for the lobby once we moved into the theater.

The response received from the lobby display was minimal; those who loved lobby displays “loved it” and those who didn’t merely walked past it on their way into the theater. And that is quite alright with me. The thing that I’ve realized about being a dramaturg is that it is largely thankless work and that you rarely receive recognition for the hours of work and research you undertake.

A few years ago, immature me would have been incredibly irritated with the lack of attention surrounding my work. But now, I’m more than okay with sticking behind in the shadows away from the spotlight. I receive gratification from just being in the room and seeing everything come together. Knowing that I played even just a small role in a production is all the reward that I could ever receive.

For To Kill a Mockingbird, I was lucky enough to be involved with the production from the very beginning. I was able to be a resource for the actors and production team members as they dug into the material. I curated a blog with my findings that was then used as promotional material for the show; these blog posts then informed a “digital lobby display” that I created. Gone were the days of crying over poster boards being ruined due to the unpredictable weather in State College; I created an entire slideshow that played in the lobby during performances.

In the slideshow, I pulled quotes from To Kill a Mockingbird, dubbing them “Lessons from Atticus”. I created hashtags for audience members to share their experiences with Harper Lee’s novel on Twitter and other social media platforms. We even hosted a marathon reading of the novel at a local bookstore downtown that was extremely well received by the community. I found myself getting more and more excited about the production because others were getting excited.

Perhaps the most exciting (and rewarding) dramaturgy experience I had during my freshman year was working on the #HereToo Project. Created by Tectonic Theatre Company members Barbara Pitts-McAdams and Jimmy Maize, #HereToo is a devised theatre piece in response to the gun violence facing our country today. Generating material from student activists across the country, #HereToo is shaping up to be an extremely powerful piece (Tectonic Theatre Company, for anyone who might not be aware, is the group that created The Laramie Project).

I was so fortunate to work with Barb this past January when she visited Penn State and led a week long workshop in Moment Work (Tectonic’s method of devising theatre). I was able to write and deliver my own monologue about my decision to not participate in my school’s walkout (I graduated in 2018, just months after the Parkland shooting happened); I was able to be a voice for those who wanted to be activists, but still had some reservations.

I will acknowledge that I was extremely privileged in my first year of undergrad to have had so many opportunities. From assistant directing to dramaturgy to even understudying a few roles in To Kill a Mockingbird, I certainly was able to add a few credits to my resume. The BA in Theatre Studies at Penn State allows for these opportunities (and that’s exactly why I would recommend it to anyone with an interest in directing, dramaturgy, or playwriting).

What I learned in my first year paved the way for me to construct my own devised piece this summer at Keystone Theatrics (located in Boiling Springs, PA at the historic Allenberry Playhouse). The piece, entitled Ghost Light, will be devised entirely from material generated by local high school students about their experiences in their high school theatre programs. The goal is to promote arts advocacy in our schools and to encourage local school boards to continue supporting these programs.

In the midst of planning for Ghost Light, I’m also in the middle of research for Penn State’s upcoming productions of A Little Night Music and Angels in America. I’ve become a regular at my hometown’s library, frequently visiting to check out books and conduct research.

The role of the dramaturg is not an easy one; you have to be disciplined, savvy, and creative. Thankfully, most theatre people already are all three of those. If you’ve ever been interested in working as a dramaturg, I can guarantee you that it can be one of the most rewarding jobs that theatre can provide.

As my professor puts it, a dramaturg goes out and fills up the bucket of water at the pump and returns to the rehearsal room so others may drink from it. What a beautiful metaphor for what us dramaturg’s do.