Introduction to… Dramaturgy

What is dramaturgy and what is a dramaturg(e)? As a discipline that has become increasingly visible, discussed and scrutinised in theatre (including dance) over recent years, it still sometimes seems shrouded in confusion.  Few people agree on how it’s pronounced, whether or not to put an ‘e’ on the end, or even if it is important!

Dramaturgy is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “the theory and practice of dramatic composition”, and by Wikipedia as “the study of dramatic composition and the representation of the main elements of drama on the stage”. These definitions assume that there are recognised theories of dramatic composition (which of course there are), but in the current climate where increasing numbers of theatre makers are working outside of traditional conventions, a more useful definition might simply be “the organisation of elements in time and space”.

These are subtle distinctions but they do point to the possibility of different approaches depending on the type of work that is being made, in particular the relative importance given to the elements (eg. text, staging, performance, sound, audience etc) within different genres of theatre. The OED and Wikipedia definitions imply the importance of adhering to (or at least acknowledging a basis in) scholarly / literary tradition. The third implies equal weight can and / or should be given to all relevant elements of the composition; a more contemporary approach that is inclusive of a diversity of compositional methods. (I have even known the term be applied to painting and music.)

The literary tradition of dramaturgy stems from ancient Greek drama, and Aristotle’s Poetics, in which he argued that specific elements placed in a particular order are essential to create dramatic tragedy and the emotional catharsis that this generates in the audience. Many theatrical movers and shakers have since challenged this notion and created new dramaturgies – Artaud, Brecht, Grotowski through to Pina Bausch and Forced Entertainment to name a few – to the extent that nowadays there are very few traditional rules that have not been broken at some point. For the contemporary theatre maker dramaturgy is about how meaning is constructed via the choices made in assembling everything.

Dramaturgical decisions often arise from asking questions of the work you want to make. They start from the big questions: What do you want to say? What do you want your audience to experience? Elinor Fuch’s ‘Visit to a small planet: some questions to ask a play’ is a seminal essay on contemporary theatre dramaturgy that most playwrights and directors will be familiar with. Another useful list of questions for playwrights was compiled by Simon Stephens with members of the Royal Exchange’s writers’ group. They range from big considerations such as…

•    What is the relationship between the narrative (the whole story of the lives of my characters) and the plot (the bits of that narrative I have chosen to stage for dramatic effect)?
•    What period of history is the play set in? When, within that history are the scenes set? What time of day are the scenes set?
•    How do I use images to juxtapose with language over time in order to affect my audience and to explore my ideas or ask the questions I want to ask?

Through to small(er) but important details such as

•    Do the characters use idiom and colloquialism?
•    In what register are they talking? (We talk differently to a 5 year old than we do to a 55 year old)

The full list is appended to this newsletter. It’s also freely available online.

As a play goes into rehearsal and production the other elements – for example, movement, lighting, staging, sound – become the focus of the dramaturgy. In other forms of theatre that do not arise from a pre-written text - such as dance, physical theatre, devised theatre, these other elements are equally important as conveyors of meaning, and subject to the same level of scrutiny.
The other consideration that has become increasingly important in contemporary theatre is how the audience are treated, for example …

•    is the fourth wall intact or removed?
•    are the audience immersed, active or ‘passive’ (I put this in parenthesis because I question the notion that just because the audience is seated in the dark they are passive)
•    how many people can / should see the show at any one time?
•    can they ‘act’ upon the action in any way?

A dramaturg then, is someone who takes an overview of, scrutinises, or assists in, making these choices. So why don’t more productions employ a dramaturg (or dramaturges)? It’s partly to do with the history of British theatre as a writer’s medium, and the resulting scepticism (within some quarters of ‘literary’ theatre) towards the idea that a dramaturg should be necessary. Although responsibility for the dramaturgy within ‘literary’ theatre rests primarily with the writer and director, this form of theatre does also sometimes employ dramaturges.

The function is also increasingly seen within dance and more contemporary forms of theatre and performance where there may not even be a writer & director.  Here responsibility for the dramaturgy may sit with many or few people within a production, although it may be that nobody is actually called the ‘dramaturg’. Where a dramaturg as a discrete function may be useful is as an outside eye – someone not involved in the core creative process who can bring a fresh and independent perspective, ask challenging questions, and bring an intellectual rigour, without having any personal investment in whether their questions and concerns are addressed: for this reason sometimes the dramaturg has been nicknamed the ‘midwife’ of the work. My experience of working as a dramaturg is that it’s a bit like being a therapist - to both the work and the artist/s: you care about them, you bring some specialist knowledge to the process, but you do not impose your own solutions rather you try to help them find their own.

So while the dramaturgy is crucial, not all productions need a dramaturg. 


Further articles on dramaturgy:

Professional network of UK-based dramaturgs (loads of useful info such as reading lists, where to study dramaturgy):

South East Dance’s dance & dramaturgy project:

Key texts on dramaturgy:
•    Poetics, Aristotle (the ‘founding text’ of literary dramaturgy)
•    Dramaturgy and Performance (pub. Palgrave) Dr Cathy Turner and Synne Behrndt (an overview of contemporary dramaturgy)