A dramaturg (pronounced “dram-uh-turj”) does all sorts of work in all sorts of theaters. They might be asked to do anything from choosing plays for a theatrical season to creating an informative lobby display to help audiences have a deeper understanding of the topics addressed in a production.
In some organizations, a dramaturg acts as a kind of literary manager, reading and considering new plays or translations for production. This can be as simple as reading existing work that might fit with the goals of the theater, or it can be more complex and involve soliciting work from new playwrights or fostering existing partnerships with more established writers. A dramaturg may even work on a translation themselves.
In other instances, a dramaturg is more of a head researcher, preparing information that will help the director, designers and performers create a more nuanced production. This kind of work involves a lot of research before rehearsals ever begin in addition to regular visits to rehearsals to answer questions and offer guidance.
While the exact duties vary from theater to theater — and even from show to show — the dramaturg is generally responsible for facilitating a well-rounded theatrical experience for the artists involved and for the audiences who attend.
Ideally, dramaturgs will be part of the production process from season selection to audience talkbacks. Theaters savvy enough to include a dramaturg on their staff usually ask a her to focus on three main areas — script development, production support and audience education. They'll help with script development or translation, casting, rehearsals and show running.
Some theaters will ask a dramaturg to adjust their focus depending on the needs of a show or a season. If a theatre is trying to curate a season that focuses on under-represented writers or on very specific themes, a dramaturg may spend more time on literary management. If a theatre is producing work that focuses on a particular period in history, the dramaturg may turn their focus toward offering supporting information that allows artists and audiences to prepare for the experience of a story about that era.
The dramaturg’s note is more than just something to read as you pass the time waiting for the curtain to go up at your favorite theater. As part of their role educating audiences, dramaturgs will often include a note in the playbill given out as patrons enter the theatre. The note will offer additional context about the production. Sometimes, this is supplemental information about how a new script or translation came about. In other cases, a dramaturg will use their note to share historical background about the topics addressed in the play. Taking a moment to read this important bit of the program — even after the play is over — can increase the impact and understanding a play has on an audience member.
Dramaturgs and dramaturgy weren’t really a part of American theatre until the 1960s, but the practice was invented by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing all the way back in the 18th Century. Lessing worked at The Theater of Hamburg in a position he described as “dramatic judge.” Over the course of several years, Lessing wrote a series of critical essays called "Hamburg Dramaturgy."
In the mid-20th Century, the practice of dramaturgy starting taking hold in the U.S. At that time, dramaturgs functioned mostly as literary managers. They weren’t really part of the production process at all until the late 1970s and early 1980s when dramaturgs Anne Cattaneo at the Phoenix Theatre and Mark Bly at the Guthrie Theatre pioneered the practice of coming into the rehearsal process, sharing their knowledge with the production team and working closely with the director to create a robust theatrical experience for everyone.
Now, it’s quite usual to find dramaturgs involved in all stages of the production process. Not every theatre company employs dramaturgs, but the practice is becoming more common as organizations discover how much value these specialists add.
If your goal is to become a professional dramaturg, you should consider getting a specialized degree. Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas (LMDA) lists 75 programs that are available to students who want to pursue the study of dramaturgy. The techniques and practices taught in each of those programs will vary a bit, but some of the main skills you’ll learn as you dive into the world are dramaturgy are research, literary management strategies and (ideally) collaboration. The first two skills are fairly self-explanatory, but the need for collaborative skills is especially important if someone wants to be successful as a dramaturg. Dramaturgs work closely with so many members of the production team that it’s vital to establish trust and rapport.
A great question without a great answer! Smaller theaters have smaller budgets. If they hire a dramaturg at all, the pay tends to be more of a token than a living wage. Larger regional and academic theaters have started hiring dramaturgs more regularly, and many of those positions — especially in academia — are full time with benefits. If you’re just starting out, it might be worth it to dive into a bit of work with a small company as you hone your skills, but the power is in your hands to make that choice. As with any job, it’s vital that you decide what your priorities are and ask to be compensated appropriately.
Leslie W. Price is a theatre artist, educator, and writer living in the San Francisco Bay Area. Find her on LinkedIn or visit her portfolio.