So what is a dramaturg and do you even need one?

Next time you’re at some fancy-schmancy dinner party and someone asks you what you do for a living, just for laughs, say that you are a dramaturg.  The more socially adept in your company will nod their heads politely and feign the appearance of a passing knowledge of such a profession. They will pause for a sip of wine to give them a moment to think of something to say, then come up with a conversation-stopper comment like “Wow. That’s terrific.”

The more direct at table will drop their fork sharply and say “You’re a what?” ( just a note: make sure you accentuate the ‘g’ sound on the end of dramaturg to avoid the unfortunate scenario of people hearing drama-turd)

A dramaturg is someone who practices the art of dramaturgy. Hope that clears up the matter for you. No? Ah. If you’ve never been involved much in theatre work, odds on you aren’t familiar with this rather odd sounding word; dramaturgy.  And you’ll be little relieved to know that not even those in theatre circles agree to a uniform expression of what a dramaturg does.

First coined in about 1801, apparently by one Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, a German writer and dramatist in his cheekily titled book Hamburg Dramaturgy, the notion of dramaturgy has been smouldering away in theatre circles ever since. But what is it?

Trying to define it is akin to holding a large slippery fish you haven’t yet paid the fishmonger for, but you can’t reach into your pockets to get the money out because if you let go of the fish it’ll all go very badly. See, now, I think that analogy needs a dramaturg. Someone to rigorously question my imagery and metaphor, question my subtext and call on me to articulate the narrative truth and structure.

Others might argue, however, that a dramaturg’s only job here would be to run off and do some research on fishmongering and bring to the discussion a better depth of meaning to the character of fishmonger.  Later the same dramaturg would have a learned bit to say about fishmongers and fish in general in the program notes of the finished production known as “The Unpaid Fish Analogy”.

Others would call upon a dramaturg only to summarise the ideas, pick the meaning and reflect it back to the writer so that the writer could judge for themselves the effectiveness of the analogy.

Some fancy a dramaturg is a writer’s editor, or indeed, a writer’s right hand, in charge of actively helping me to come up with a better analogy. Some dramaturges actually contend they are co-writers.

Still others might say the dramaturg should bugger off and keep well out of it, allowing me to just come up with the right words because— after all—I am a writer and should be able to write well. Presumably.

But I’ll tell you what I know about what a dramaturge does.  Being a playwright is an odd thing. Playwrights often develop their ideas in a solitary setting. The scripts they come up with, however, are then set upon by a huge variety of other artists. The script is interpreted by the director, the actors, the designers, the lighting designers, and the producers who are selling it. This all happens even before the audience gets to see it. Man, that script better make perfect sense. It better be clear. It better work.

But so often, when you work on making something in a solitary setting, the meaning can get muddled. So often you cannot see what’s right under your nose. You’re so close to it, you don’t notice the gapping holes in the plot, the lack of story arc, the inexplicable change in story direction, the out-of-character actions, the lack of tension, the limping dialogue, the over-wrought over-written monologue, the  under-worked metaphor, the lack of action, the lack of clarity and structure.

My experience is that time and time again, dramaturges have saved my professional bacon. Dramaturg Sean Mee’s opening gambit in a dramaturgical session with me over my play Bag O’ Marbles in 1999 was simply: “Now…you do realise that your Act 1 is written in totally different form to your Act 2, right?” At that point, I had known the play for almost 8 years and so many people had read it. In all that time, no-one—not one theatre specialist— had spotted a very obvious problem; the first half of the play broke theatrical form with the second. It was a broken play. It made no theatrical sense. Sean went on to gently ask me to consider ways to re-create the second act so that essentially it read like a single play.

I went away, I re-wrote Act 2. The play went on to be chosen for the Australian National Playwright’s Conference, was picked up for co-production and touring by Queensland Theatre Company and JUTE , directed by the legendary Michael Gow, and won the New York Dramatists’ Exchange. There is not one doubt in my head that the play would never have gotten anywhere without Sean Mee working his professional trade.

That dramaturg did his job.

I could give you countless other examples of how a good dramaturg has made my life’s work and understanding of my work better.  It is a difficult job. It’s often an under-rated job. Dramaturges don’t operate on standard practice. Some dramaturges are not useful. Not every dramaturg is good for you. There is such a thing as a play being “dramaturged to death” (but only if a playwright allows it). Dramaturges are few and far between in Australia. Good ones are even fewer.

But I would say you need one. Whoever that one is. Your story will need one. I can almost guarantee it.  They are not cheap, by the way. But they earn it. They will make the difference to your writing career.

The above photo is of Peter Matheson, “Matho” to almost everyone, who is perhaps Australia’s most well known and busy theatre dramaturges. The snap was recently taken of him during a creative development at JUTE Theatre of my current theatre script “Here We All Are. Assembled”, where he was dramaturg. He’s terrific. Really.

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