By Matthew Munroe
Dramaturgy is a hard career to define, and one that not many people have heard of, yet it is vitally important to the theatre. This week I sat down with Sarah Campbell to discuss what exactly being IU Theatre’s summer dramaturg entails.
Sarah is a fourth-year Ph.D. student in the Theatre, Drama, and Contemporary Dance Department studying Theatre History, Theory and Literature, focusing on indigenous Maya-language theatre in Mexico. Before coming to IU she earned a B.A. in theatre from the University of Kentucky in Lexington and an M.A. from the University of Nebraska, Omaha.
When I asked Sarah how she defines dramaturgy, the first thing she told me was, “It’s difficult because it comprises so many different aspects.” And it’s true. Just talking with her about what she is doing for the two upcoming productions, she has a long list of tasks: creating a packet of contextual information for actors to reference, writing program notes for the audience, creating a lobby display about the shows that the audience can peruse before the show, and watching rehearsals to give feedback to the directors, to name just a few.
According to Sarah, the foremost aspect of being a dramaturg is research. Indeed, providing contextual information for actors or writing a program note not only requires defining obscure references in the script and describing the cultural norms of the period, but also detailing the production history of the play itself, which in the case of a play like A Midsummer Night’s Dream spans four centuries.
As an example, Sarah mentioned how the play’s mortal rulers, Theseus and Hippolyta, are often played by the same actors who play the fairy rulers, Oberon and Titania, and indeed they are in IU Summer Theatre’s production. This practice was popularized in modern times by Peter Brook’s Royal Shakespeare Company production in 1970. According to the RSC’s webpage, Brook used this doubling to imply that “the Fairy King and Queen were the alter egos of the mortal rulers…suggest[ing] that the conflicts and erotic adventures of the nocturnal wood were the uncontrollable eruption of subconscious fears and desires.” While this character doubling has become standard practice for the simple reason it keeps the cast size down, it is helpful for actors and directors to understand where the practice comes from and the thematic implications that such a doubling carries.
Beyond this in-depth research into the play and its world, Sarah’s other main job as a dramaturg is to be, in her words, a “surrogate for the audience.” She reads the script and watches rehearsals with an objective eye, to see which parts of the play work and which still need clarification. Her work in this capacity is especially useful for Sense and Sensibility. In fact, director Dale McFadden asked her not to read the novel (something a dramaturg would normally do) to balance his perspective and focus on the play as a piece of theatre, not as an adaptation, so he could then figure out how to make the play accessible to as many people as possible.
Of course Sarah still had to research the historical context of the play, including the societal rules of early 1800s England and the play’s references to Romantic poets. I asked her how she could watch with unbiased eyes having done all this research, and she made the excellent point that “It’s important to know more because then you can figure out what things people are probably not going to know.”
Dramaturgy in a professional theatre company can include many other tasks, particularly when a dramaturg is not just working on one (or two) production(s) at a time, as Sarah is doing. As professional dramaturg Anne Cattaneo defines it in her essay in Dramaturgy in American Theatre: A Source Book, “The primary job of a theater’s production dramaturg is to focus his or her energies…on long-range research and development and on artistic planning.” This means that the dramaturg works with the artistic director to schedule a season of plays that fits the theatre’s artistic mission. This requires an intimate knowledge of both theatre history and current theatrical practice in order to create a season that might include a wide range of theatre, from re-imaginings of classical works to the development of new works by emerging playwrights. And, of course, once a season is chosen, dramaturgs often work on each individual show, fulfilling many of the same roles that Sarah is occupying this summer at IU Summer Theatre.
What it boils down to is that dramaturgy is a behind-the-scenes job. In many ways, dramaturgs are a show’s, or an entire theater’s, encyclopedia. As Sarah describes, “They can serve as a go-between between individual members of design teams, between a playwright and a director, between a director and the audience and actors and the audience, etc.” to make sure everyone arrives at the final production on the same page. Dramaturgs are the people who make sure everything makes sense and fit together, a job that encompasses tasks so many and varied that it defies definition.