30 December 2009

Dramaturgy: The Conscience of the Theater

At a 1983 conference on dramaturgy sponsored by TCG, Robert Brustein, artistic director of the American Repertory Theater, told the assembled dramaturgs, “you help mold the esthetic of your institution, . . . you provide its intellectual identity, . . . you are its artistic conscience.” That may have been wishful thinking, given the actual condition of the dramaturgical profession in the United States today. Still a relatively new idea, American dramaturgy even now has yet to be defined in either theory or practice. At present, whatever definitions exist are ad hoc, each job-holder often writing the job description as he or she goes along. Part of the reason for the lack of consensus on what a dramaturg is stems from a similar disagreement on what one should be. If the present and future of American dramaturgy’s con­fused, however, its past’s in no doubt; in fact, that’s where the problem comes from. The concept of dramaturgy’s borrowed wholesale from the 18th-century German theater, and trying to fit it to a modern Anglo-Saxon theater’s like trying to fit Latin grammar to our Anglo-Saxon language: things keep flopping out around the edges.

That is, nonetheless, what we’re trying to do. Historic­ally, dramaturgy was invented when playwright and critic Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729-81) was appointed resident critic at the Hamburg National Theater in January 1767. While there, he wrote a series of essays on theater, published in 1769 as Hamburgische Dramaturgie or Hamburg Dramaturgy, which popularized both the word and the practice of dramaturgy. Over the ensuing 200 years, dramaturgy in Germany became an established and important theatrical function. Later German dramaturgs included writers and directors such as Ludwig Tieck (1773-1853), who helped bring German literature out of Sturm und Drang into Romanticism; Otto Brahm (1856-1912), founder of Berlin’s Freie Bühne, and Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956), who served as dramaturg for Erwin Piscator (1893-1966) before developing his own plays and productions.

(Though ‘dramaturgy’ is often used to mean ‘the craft of playwriting,’ I’ll be using it here exclusively to refer to the dramaturg’s profession. The variant spellings ‘dramaturge’ and ‘dramaturg’ are used interchangeably by many writers. The former spelling, which is French and is really a synonym for ‘dramatist,’ is less common; I’ll use the latter, German spelling, which, first, is closer in meaning to the function discussed here and, second, is the name used by the professional association, Literary Managers & Dramaturgs of the Americas. The term ‘literary manager’ and its like, though sometimes defined slightly differently from ‘dramaturg,’ will generally be used as a synonym for it here. The staffs of few theaters include both a literary manager and a dramaturg--the Guthrie’s one that has--and the work they perform frequently overlaps. Any distinction, I find, is more intellectual than real.)

In England, where the title ‘literary manager’ gained cur­rency, the job developed from a concept put down in 1904 by Harley Granville-Barker (1877-1946) and William Archer (1856-1924) in their Scheme and Estimates for a National Theatre. No one served in such a position, however, until Laurence Olivier (1907-89) hired Observer reviewer Kenneth Tynan (1927-80) as literary manager of the new National Theatre in 1963. Before that, the first known American literary manager was hired in New York. In an attempt to follow the lead of Granville-Barker and Archer, the New Theatre was constructed in 1909. In antici­pation, director Winthrop Ames (1870-1937) recruited New York Sun drama reviewer John Corbin (1870-1959) as literary manager in 1908. Corbin resigned in frustration in 1910, and the position was abol­ished. No other such position was established with any prominence for over half a century.

In 1969, two centuries after Lessing published his treatise on the subject, the Eugene O’Neill Memorial Theater Center began using professional reviewers as dramaturgs for the workshop productions of new plays during its annual playwrights’ conference, marking the start of modern American dramaturgy. In 1970, exactly 60 years after Corbin’s two-year stint at the New Theatre, Michael Feingold (b. 1945) was hired by the Yale Repertory Theatre as the second full-time dramaturg employed by a professional American theater. In 1978, the Yale School of Drama initiated the first academic program for training student dramaturgs. Since that time, a large number of resident theaters have hired dramaturgs or literary managers; some even have small staffs and internships in the field.

The impetus for such a wave of hirings was the development of the regional theater movement in the 1960s and ’70s. The movement itself began shortly after World War II to bring professional theater that wasn’t dependent on the touring hits of Broadway or the amateur productions of the local community or college theater to communities beyond the reach of New York. A resurgence of the art theater movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it’s usually dated from the estab­lishment in 1947 of Margo Jones’s Theatre ‘47 in Dallas. These theaters proliferated in the next 20 years, but few offered new plays or unconventional productions of classics. Drawing their fare primarily from the popular contemporary repertoire, with a few classics in standardized presentations, there was little need for such a creature as a dramaturg.

Most of these theaters were also dominated by directors who molded productions according to their own lights. Frequently, those “lights” were unfocused and productions were mounted with “no directorial concept, no reason for being, and no connection with the audience . . . ,” according to Peter Hay, first dramaturg at the O’Neill Playwrights Conference. Feingold, paraphrasing an unidentified artistic director, writes that “too much of the American theater has consisted of a clever director fucking around with a script, and nothing more.” In such an autocratic theater, there was no place for a dramaturg, nor would the idea have been tolerated. (Eric Bentley, ever the iconoclast, once called dramaturgs “Ph.D. gofers” and said he’d fire them one day before he removed directors.)

In the ’60s, however, an interest arose in a process-oriented theater in which all the participants had equal, or at least considerable, influence. Such developmental work peaked in the mid-1960s, most notably with the work of groups like the Living Theatre, the Open Theatre, and the Performance Group (succeeded by the long-running Wooster Group). The motivation for these companies was to form ensembles to create original theater works without pre-existing texts written by a playwright and developed by an authoritarian director. This experimental process eventually led to an interest in developing what Rosemarie K. Bank, a theater historian and critic, calls “an author-originated text, shaped and polished by a group in rehearsal . . . .”

In the regional repertory theaters, this spawned an interest in new works. In 1965, Shakespeare was the most frequently produced writer in the regional theater while most new plays were presented on Broadway as commercial enterprises. With the production in 1967 of Howard Sackler’s The Great White Hope by the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., the tide turned and the resident theaters became the dominant producers of new works. Now there was a need for someone who could work with new plays and playwrights and who could keep abreast of the material being created across the country and read all the new scripts that were being sent to these theaters. No longer an intellectual luxury, dramaturgy became a real necessity in the nation’s resident companies.

Referring to this development, Hay insists, “Dramaturgy is much more a function of the public than the private theatre.” In Hay’s terms, the private theater’s the commercial theater of Broadway and its clones: road companies, summer stock, and community theaters that cater to a box office-oriented audience. The public theater Hay means is the theater that’s not only supported by public money--local, state, and federal--but is dedicated to serving its public as a distinct community. Hand-in-hand with the increased interest in pre­senting new plays comes an interest in producing a season of plays, whether new or old, that mean something to the community from which the theater’s audience is drawn. As Hay, and many other dramaturgs, states it, questions such as “Why are we doing this play? Why this season? Why here?” need to be asked. It’s the dramaturg, perched like Jiminy Cricket on the artistic director’s shoulder, who should constantly ask the questions.

Furthermore, beyond questioning the raison d’être of an individual production, the theaters have to question their very existence. Again, Hay formulates the questions: “Why has theatre worked elsewhere or in the past? Why do our audiences come? Why does ninety to ninety-five percent of the local population stay away?” Slowly, it became apparent to artistic directors that more had to be considered than how a show’s mounted. The “why” had to be addressed, too.

Asking “why” doesn’t only mean justifying the theater’s season to the public. Drawing on the European model, a theater has an obligation to educate its audience. That means both offering a range of artistic experience to the spectators that come and attracting the ones that stay away. A dramaturg who allows her or his theater to pander to its audience fails in this responsibility. The principle function of the dramaturg then is: To suit the theater to the audience, the audience to the theater.

Before dramaturgs can pose the necessary questions, the theaters must develop artistic philosophies suited to their venues. Many theaters haven’t come to grips with this consid­eration. Not all non-profit theater is public theater in Hay’s terms. Many resident theater companies still rely on box-office appeal as the criterion for selecting plays for a season. Selling plays to a subscription audience, the administrations of these theaters put together seasons the same way a Broadway producer selects a property. Artistic interest or appropriate­ness for the community play little part in the decision. “This,” notes Hay, “goes a long way to explain why so few theatres have worked out a philosophy, or public policy, which might guide its selection of plays as well as their interpretation.”

Without such a policy, the dramaturg’s often relegated to more mundane functions, which is the situation of many working dramaturgs and literary managers. According to a survey taken in the 1981-82 season, the jobs performed by dramaturgs across the country involve play selection, casting decisions, research, directing showcases, attending out-of-town auditions, writing or translating plays, producing new play series, supervising work­shops and playreadings, editing support materials, and a number of quasi- or non-dramaturgical responsibilities such as public relations, teaching, fundraising or, even, acting. The idea of working closely with the artistic director to define and imple­ment an artistic policy for the theater wasn’t even broached, and none of the respondents indicated that this was part of their jobs. Little seems to have changed in the ensuing decades and this contributes to be the state of dramaturgical affairs that Hay calls, with more than a touch of despair, “Hamburger Dramaturgy, the fast-food, mish-mash metaphor for the American quick-fix.”

The explosion of theaters with dramaturgical staff positions is an encouragement, however. In 1979, when TCG held its first conference of literary managers and dramaturgs, only 14 people attended. At the third conference, at which Brustein made his remarks in 1983, there were over 100 participants, a 700% increase. In April 1985, a national pro­fessional association, Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of America (www.lmda.org), was established with a projected membership between 150 and 200. (LMDA is now Literary Managers & Dramaturgs of the Americas to reflect members from Canadian theaters. Its membership’s now over 500, though it should be noted that all LMDA members and conference attendees aren’t necessarily dramaturgs or literary managers.)

As the profession entered its adolescence in this country, a number of former dramaturgs became artistic directors of their own theaters. This trend included Robert Brustein of the American Repertory Theatre and Jean Passanante of the New York Theatre Workshop. At Playwrights Horizons, literary manager André Bishop became artistic director in 1977 before moving on to the Lincoln Center Theater Company in 1992; he was succeeded at Playwrights Horizons by the subsequent literary manager, Tim Sanford. Russell Vandenbroucke, long the literary manager of Los Angeles’s Mark Taper Forum, was named producing director of Northlight Theater in Skokie, Illinois, and Michael Zelanak and Rick Davis, two recent graduates of the YSD’s program in dramaturgy and criti­cism, founded Pittsburgh’s American Ibsen Theater on the belief that the dramaturg’s role is essential.

The dramaturg’s responsibilities are many, depending on the talents of the person holding the post, the needs of the theater, and the inventiveness of the artistic director. Dramaturgs can be educators, adapters, translators, historians, researchers, editors, house critics, playwright’s advocates, conduits for new scripts, play doctors, and outside observers at rehearsals ready to set the artists back on track if they get diverted. They can serve as resources for production directors and designers, even the actors, and in a different context, for the company’s artistic director. They can assist publicity directors and press reps as well. Dramaturgs help keep everyone on the same page. One dramaturg, Mark S. P. Turvin, who’s also a playwright and teacher, calls the dramaturg “the mischievous court jester” to the theater’s artistic director.

Furthermore, dramaturgs and literary managers are natural networkers, more than directors, artistic directors, and business managers are. They’re in constant and regular contact with other dramaturgs around the country and even abroad, keeping tabs on new plays (which literary managers share almost compulsively--LMDA maintains an on-line database of new titles recommended by dramaturgs to their counterparts at other companies) and writers; they travel to festivals and visit one another’s theaters as often as budgets allow. LMDA not only has an annual convention in a major North American theater center, but in cities or regions where there are several producing theaters with literary staffs, there are mini-meetings or luncheons at which dramaturgs compare notes and share discoveries. An article in the Summer 2009 LMDA Review is titled “Dramaturgs Like to Talk”; almost no other theater artists or professionals do. American theater’s not only regionalized but each region, even each company, seems walled off from its sisters--with the exception of the literary staffs. (I edited the newsletter of the American Directors Institute, an association formed so that directors and artistic directors could network in this way, but it was short-lived. Directors, it seems, just don’t like to share.) With theater in the straits it’s in now, a networker and out-reacher on staff might just be a boon.

With the increased interest in new playwriting, M. Louise McKay, a current LMDA VP, asserts, “Over the past three decades, the role of the dramaturg and literary manager has expanded in the United States and Canada . . . .” With this enlarged presence of the dramaturg on the American theater scene, what’s the future of the profession? The question cannot be answered without also predicting the future of American public theater. Certainly, more and more theaters around the country will be administered by dramaturgs either as artistic directors themselves or as part of ruling triumvirates made up of a dramaturg, an artistic director, and a managing director. As theaters become increasingly aware of their responsibility to their communities, both as respondent and as educator, the impor­tance of dramaturgs as their artistic consciences will grow. Bonnie Marranca, former literary manager at the American Place Theatre and now editor of the Performing Arts Journal, had a dream for the future of the American theater that includes “plays coming better prepared to meet their audiences, and a more enlightened repertoire.” This can only happen, Marranca asserted, “when the Literary Advisor is allowed to take his rightful place in the structure of the American theater . . . .” The complete integration of the dramaturg into the “collaborative process of the theatre” means for Arthur Ballet, former dramaturg of the Tyrone Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, that there will no longer be a “search” for a play for the season, but that the play will “‘pop out of repertoire’ in response to . . . [the dramaturg’s] awareness of the factors around us and in our theater . . . .” This awareness, according to Ballet, should “make a specific play necessary and compelling for us to present, in this theater, in this town, now.”

Possibly the most curious view of the future of dramaturgy was shared by Ballet and Martin Esslin, who was functioning as dramaturg of San Francisco’s Magic Theater when the two men attended the second TCG conference on dramaturgy and literary management in 1981. They saw an “urgent need for a collaborative relationship between theatre and television and for the dramaturg’s role in offering ideas about products that could be marketed by their theatre to TV.” This, of course, would be a special application of the idea of knowing the theater’s community and developing the theater’s audience within that community--which means reaching the vast local television audience, 90 to 95% of which, if Peter Hay’s estimate is to be credited, doesn’t attend the theater. Ballet and Esslin’s rationale was:

We have a choice either to be a warehouse developing projects that are picked off, bound and packaged by someone else or to view television as an extension of our own theater and audience. . . . Our own company . . . should produce a script and then sell it to television. It should be our product and we should control its quality and its uniquely theatrical nature. By putting our work on film and television, and by offering it to the schools as teaching devices, we get a wider distribution for our product and, ultimately, extend the theater’s audience.

The conventional wisdom has so long identified television as the natural and mortal enemy of theater, the prospect of an entente cordiale is both frightening and intriguing. By including the schools, which most resident theaters approach only timidly, Ballet and Esslin were proposing a powerful double entente.

Since the foundation of LMDA, discussions of what the professions of dramaturg and literary manager are and where they might head have been regular. Some unusual advances have been made for the professions. In one uncommon arena, with more and more opera companies using supertitles to overcome the language barrier of most operas, the task of writing and coordinating these translations has fallen on the dramaturg who specializes in opera. The field’s small at present; according to Roger Pines, dramaturg of the Dallas Opera, “only a few companies have a dramaturg on staff.” Nonetheless, according to an article by director and dramaturg Andrew Eggert in the spring 2008 issue of Opera America, opera companies are turning to freelance dramaturgs when they develop new works.

Selling your skills on the open market isn’t a new idea; neither is turning those skills into a business. Artists, however, seldom do this, least of all theater artists, actors’ production companies in the film world notwithstanding. Nevertheless, in the late 1980’s Steven J. Krementz, former literary assistant at the Philadelphia Theatre Company, formed HiText Ltd., a firm of “Theatre Arts Research Consultants.” As freelance dramaturgs, HiText did background research for non-profit theaters for a fee, digging into historical or cultural resources, past productions, and costume and set references, providing a service many theaters may not be able to afford and for which many directors may not have the time or resources. (I’m not certain this company still exists, but the concept’s still viable.)

From traditional literary management to opera supertitles to dramaturgical research firms, most dramaturgy has been text-based. John Bell, who was dramaturg of the Bread and Puppet Theater before he moved on, wrote of the “dramaturgy of image” or the “dramaturgy of performing objects.” Dramaturgs working in the “Theater of Objects,” as Bell called it, may still work with texts, but they’re texts of images, not words, focusing on what Richard Schechner calls the performance text. The late Robert Massa, in his discussion of dramaturgy in the modern theater for the Village Voice, also called for dramaturgy for the “theater of images.” Developing a competence in this field could lead to dramaturgs, such as Jonathan Marks of San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theatre and Anne Cattaneo of New York’s Lincoln Center Theater Company, who both worked with Robert Wilson, working with such movement theater people as Martha Clarke, Bill Irwin, and even dance companies. While many dramaturgs are also playwrights or critics--word people--a new dramaturgical arena’s available for those with backgrounds and sensitivity in dance, mime, choreography, and directing, the non-literary aspects of theater. “The work is similar--we’re both telling stories,” says Brian Quirt, a past president of LMDA, “but the tools that we use can be somewhat different . . .”:

Dramaturgs are different [from the other collaborators] in that their responsibility isn’t to a single aspect of the creation. Whether dealing with text on the page, a musical played at the piano or in action on the stage in front of you, the dramaturg is there to respond to the ideas that are being expressed and to help find the next step in the process.

The dramaturg, composer Jake Heggie adds, provides a different perspective on the material when he’s gotten too immersed in it to see it clearly anymore. The dramaturg, says James Leverett, professor of theater at Yale and Columbia and a dramaturg who’s worked with Philip Glass, can act as the “first audience” for a work coming into existence. Quirt, who himself has worked in both opera and dance as well as theater, points out, “The dramaturg can ask the questions that no one else has asked because they are immersed in the process in a very particular way.”

Schechner, a faculty member in the Department of Performance Studies at New York University, has for 40 years made theater that’s increasingly liberated from the bounds of the text. In an essay he called “Performaturgy,” he calls for a form of dramaturgy that “is concerned with performance possibilities more than literary history.” He explains:

It seeks specific actions that express in the most concrete way possible the intent of various scenes.

It gives directors actions that they can “quote” or use in any way they want.

The performaturg’s research focuses on production rather than interpretation. It seeks to find out how things were staged. And it seeks in non-theatrical materials specific scenographic details that might contribute to a current staging.

Since the performaturg seeks “theatrical actions,” the research Schechner needs goes beyond the “specific history of the dramatic text” and digs into “the scenic matrix out of which that text was precipitated.” Since the performaturg is looking “for scenes not scenery,” Schechner admonishes that the work must include “a social and political matrix” so that the performaturg can suggest “scenes and actions, the whole kinesthetic and aural tone of a possible production.”

These specific individuals have been working in or suggesting areas into which dramaturgy can expand by changing the way dramaturgs work. There are still underexplored venues in which traditional dramaturgy can function, such as commercial theater, particularly Broadway, and film and television. In the first case, as a few producers have discovered, staff dramaturgs or literary advisors can function in much the same way they do for non-profit theaters. (In some histories of the profession, dramaturgs are considered to have descended from the old commercial theater function of play doctor.) The advent of Jack Viertel, a former literary manager, as Creative Director at Jujamcyn Theatres, promises further expansion of the dramaturg’s expertise into this part of the American theater. (I’m not sure what Viertel’s current position is since former Jujamcyn president Rocco Landesman left in August to become NEA chairman.) As for the film industry, the same skills used for theater producers or artistic directors can be placed at the service of movie producers in search of new materials. As for television, the PBS series American Playhouse (1982-93) was a series that broadcast stage productions of America’s regional theaters, one of whose producers, Lynn Holst, was a dramaturg (New York Shakespeare Festival).

Regarding the electronic media, Peregrine Whittlesey, a former dramaturg (Goodman Theatre) who became a literary agent, states, “Theatrical talent is respected in both the television and motion picture industries, and there is a good chance in both for solid remunerative work . . .” as former literary managers Holst at PBS and Thomas McCormick, who transferred over to HBO, have demonstrated. In the same discussion in which he urged image dramaturgy, Village Voice editor and writer Massa talked of dramaturgy for television. In fact, in August 1986, at LMDA’s first annual conference, an entire panel was devoted to “Television Story Editing as Dramaturgy.”

To my knowledge, all of these last venues have been explored only a little. Certainly, with arts organizations of all kinds in financial trouble because of the economy, new jobs in the field are hard to find. Still, with the other extensions of the dramaturg or literary manager’s opportunities, they present interesting possibilities. Traditional dramaturgy’s a relatively finite field--there are only so many theaters in the country (and each season there are fewer and fewer). The explorations by members of the professions are beginning to stretch the outside of the envelope a little and provide inspiration for others to find new ways to apply their talents. Because part of the dramaturg’s skill set is to connect the theater and its artists with their spectators and community, the value of the dramaturg in increasing the company’s potential audience may prove financially beneficial.

[An early version of this essay was published in TheatreInsight (1.2 [Spring 1989]: 34-37).]


  1. Hi Rick,
    Great thoughts! May I have permission to repost?

    1. Sure, Cate. Repost away!

      As long as you give 'Rick On Theater' full and proper credit. (I'd also prefer that you not edit the article. I've had bad experiences with post-publication editors; see "The Case of the Purloined Paper," posted on 5 February 2010.)


  2. Rick, I would love to repost - but I need your last name to do so.

    1. Cate--

      Sorry, but I don't use my last name on the blog. If the title of the blog, 'Rick On Theater,' and my first name are insufficient, then you will have to forego reposting.