I had a disheartening conversation with a colleague who recently took an undergraduate dramaturgy class. She seems to have been turned off by it, and from what she tells me about how the course explained the role of the dramaturg I don’t blame her. The dramaturg’s job, according to her teacher, is to ensure that plays from the past are presented in the manner they were originally produced. To do this, the dramaturg must drown herself in the history of the play and the contextual environment of the playwright and then present these findings to the director. And that’s it. You are basically the director’s personal librarian.
I get bored fairly quickly, and if this were all dramaturgy was then this site would not exist because I would not be a dramaturg and I would probably feel the same way one of this class’s guest lecturers felt: dramaturgs should not exist because they are simply doing the work lazy directors should be doing themselves. Fortunately dramaturgy is a) much more captivating than what my colleague’s professor would have you believe, b) much more interactive than this definition suggests, and c) subsequently much more challenging than simply regurgitating historical data. Mark Bly writes “there is tremendous variety in the way production dramaturgy is conceive and practiced” which I am finding more and more true as I work on two very different productions simultaneously.
My colleague’s professor also begins from the assumption that there is a right way to produce a play. And this cannot be true. The playwright wrote her play in her time for her specific audience, and the world has changed in ways that she could never imagine. I don’t believe in timelessness, but I do believe in translation and interpretation and the repetition of history. For these reasons plays from centuries ago still resonate: not because the playwright knew what we in 2008 would be like, but because we share similarities with her audience. In a sense, we are the timeless element. And from this perspective, the playwright’s intentions are far less interesting and pertinent than the audience’s reception.
* Footnote: I love and admire librarians.