Emily Ernst is a BFA Dramaturgy major in the Carnegie Mellon School of Drama. She is originally from Cleveland, OH, and has a passion for new play development, writing, and crossword puzzles.
What is dramaturgy?
Have you ever looked up a theme from a Molière play, or have you ever “translated” Shakespeare into modern English? Have you ever written a play and then asked someone their opinion of the structure? Have you ever had a classroom discussion about A Raisin in the Sun or another play? That’s dramaturgy. Dramaturgy is often an idea that floats in the heads of a production team, but dramaturgy rarely gets a definition. Despite this lack of description, most theater makers and theater studiers in all disciplines will do some sort of dramaturgical research while reading or doing a production of a play.
Dramaturgy is the study and development of dramatic literature. There are typically two types of dramaturgy: new play dramaturgy and production dramaturgy.
New play dramaturgy is the development of a play that a playwright is working on, sometimes starting at the very beginning of an idea. Often a playwright-dramaturg team will create a list of goals for the play. These goals can range from clarifying the plot to completely adding a new character. New play dramaturgs and their playwrights then talk through all of the options for where the play could go, and the dramaturg acts as a sounding board based on their knowledge of dramatic structure and of the topic of the play. When a playwright feels stuck on how to subtly create a theme or how to craft dialogue between two characters that are arguing, a dramaturg can help describe how an audience may experience a play for the first time, and offer feedback to help a playwright explore the different paths a play could take. Dramaturgs help to track the changes from draft to draft, making sure that a playwright’s updates are included and that the playwright’s goals are being met by the end of the process. Ultimately, the goal is not to make the playwright write the play that the dramaturg would write, but to help the playwright write the play that they want to write.
Production dramaturgy is providing context to a play that has already been published or produced. This is the more common type of dramaturgy, which is often the form done in a classroom setting. For example, John Millington Synge’s 1907 play The Playboy of the Western World has an unfamiliar syntax and many words that the average modern American wouldn’t know. So, the dramaturg’s job is to find what a “loy” is and then convey that information to the director and actors, so they can best show to the audience that a “loy” is a shovel. Production dramaturgs also make supplemental materials for the audience, like writing the note in the program or creating a display in the lobby to provide context to the play’s setting, time, or language that will bring the audience into the world of the play.
An educator that brings the world of a play into a classroom is a dramaturg, because of the analytical evaluation that happens through a classroom’s discussion. This is not unlike a post-show talkback, which are often led by a dramaturg. Any analysis of a play’s themes, structures, character arcs, or other features is a dramaturgical analysis. These basic dramaturgical skills are already in many educators’ toolboxes (analysis, research, and a passion for history and literature), and dramaturgy is already alive in English, history, and theater classes. Encouraging students to embrace dramaturgy in the classroom helps them to dive deeply into the play to find the things they like, while also finding they things that could be improved upon.