Thursday, 9 February 2012

On Dramaturgy

Agent 160 dramaturg Louise Stephens Alexander writes:

I wrote a flowery, florid and heartfelt post last week about dramaturgy. It was full of passion. It was full of metaphor. In it, the dramaturg was the test driver of the road the playwright builds through a territory of words, uncharted and unknown. There were woods. There were bends. There were possibly hobbits.

Louise Stephens Alexander

“It’s a bit… European,” Lisa said diplomatically. “But will Joe Bloggs reading the blog come away with any idea of what a dramaturg is?”

No. But then, the only thing I know for certain is, that question is asked as many times as the word "dramaturg" is used. What is one of them? What does it do? Why would you want one?


Here’s a secret: nobody actually knows. But then that’s true of all theatrical professions. Never trust anyone who loudly and authoritatively tells you exactly how it all works. 

I can tell you what I do when I’m working. I read plays, mainly. I don’t read as many as I once did, but I read up to about ten plays a month, probably averaging about seventy a year at present (as I’m not full-time). I love reading and I love reading plays. 

Why do people send me these plays? Essentially I’m being asked envisage how they will work on the stage.  How do I "know" if they will work on the stage? I see lots of plays in production, and I’ve been in a lot of rehearsal rooms with some excellent theatre artists, and over the years I’ve garnered some sort of sense of how things work or don’t in space, and perhaps why (though whether or not you agree that those sort of things can be "known" or "learnt" is up to you). 

I look at what the play is trying to achieve and I write a report – or meet the writer or meet someone from a theatre – and I tell them whether, in my opinion, the play does what it seems to want to achieve, and whether or not it makes sense in the miniature space I’ve got plotted out in my mind. I suggest what the writer might do to strengthen aspects of the play to make it the most sincere and true version of what they seem to be trying to achieve. 

Sometimes I get to go and be in a rehearsal room, and then I get really excited because you get to discuss the play, and hear it, and feel it, and speak to the writer in depth about what it is they’re trying to do and how.  You get to try things out with the writer, to see if one way or another feels more fitting.  And hopefully that also means you’ll get to see the play alive soon, on a stage.  Ooh, la la. That is, after all, what you dream of as you read every word of a script.

Yes, you’re quite right. It’s not just dramaturgs that do this sort of work. Directors and producers and actors and stage managers and office staff and students and a whole host of other people do this stuff too. But sometimes it’s quite useful to have someone who’s just trying to do that one thing, and who maybe only does that one thing, in the room. 

You have to be a bit fearless. What’s at stake is an entire world, even if it is made up of words in brand new strings and people who never actually breathed. You have to be prepared for people not to like what you might tell them. You have to put aside your own tastes, to a degree. No matter what, you have to come out of the cave with your sword in the air ready to protect the writer, and the play, with all the might you can muster, but you have to balance this with a willingness to listen to other people and to work collaboratively.  And most of all, you have to be prepared for many people, day after day, telling you they don’t believe in dramaturgs. This is really difficult because every time someone says that, a dramaturg dies. 

Anyway. That’s not all a dramaturg does. It’s not even all I do. But hopefully, Joe Bloggs, it’s given you one side of the hexadecagon. 


  1. Despite the fact that there's nothing to be added to you beautiful piece, I though there should be a Comment. And since you're not allowed to applaud on facebook, this is a Comment. Isn't it?