Open letter to a high school student: a career in dramaturgy

I am a student at Crystal Lake South High School, and I am doing a career research project about dramaturgy. I was hoping I could ask you some questions about your career, and get some insight into being a dramaturg. Thank you for your time.

How Competitive is your field?

Well, that is a difficult question to answer for a couple reasons. A) Is there any field that is not competitive right now with the current economic turmoil and hyperbolic unemployment rates? I feel like I would have quite a bit of trouble getting any job right now if I were not in the very fortunate position of having one already. B) The “field” of dramaturgy has many permutations: there are a number of different jobs that all fall under the title of dramaturg, and there are a plethora of jobs that employ dramaturgical skills that are not normally considered jobs-in-dramaturgy.
Theaters sometimes (but not always) have resident dramaturgs who are responsible for a number of things: preparing research for the artistic team and cast of a show, attending rehearsals, organizing and leading events surrounding the production of the show. As part of the artistic team, they also help the artistic director choose a season. Sometimes, they spearhead new play development and work directly with playwrights; this depends on whether or not a theater also has a literary manager. A literary manager, by distinction (though this distinction is malleable and often useless), primarily reads scripts that are sent to a theater by playwrights and agents and makes decisions on whether the plays should proceed to the artistic director’s usually-overflowing desk for him/her to read. But moving outside of resident dramaturgy, often theaters will bring dramaturgs on for a single show. Their relationship, in this case, is much more one with the director rather than the theater. Likewise, sometimes playwrights will seek out freelance dramaturgs to work one-on-one on a script.
Sticking with this very basic understanding of dramaturgy, it is, like all artistically oriented theater professions, extremely competitive, maybe even the most competitive of all as dramaturgs are a bit of a luxury: it is very difficult to make theater without actors, designers, and a director, but many productions do without having someone in the room with the title “dramaturg.”

Do you make a living solely in theatre, or do you have a job on the side?

Well, yes and yes. But I should preface my answer by saying that, while I consider myself a dramaturg, my title at American Conservatory Theater is not “dramaturg” but rather “publications and literary associate.” Much of what I do I consider to be dramaturgical: reading scripts, assessing scripts, researching productions, creating writings that contextualize our productions, etc. But we have a resident dramaturg, and I am not he.

But, yes, I do support myself primarily though my employment in one specific theater, and I supplement that income by working (for considerably less money) with other theaters on various projects. When I was freelancing in Chicago, I dramaturged with some off-loop companies for free while supporting myself working non-dramaturgical odd-jobs at Goodman Theater.

How are you contracted?

I am not exactly sure what you mean. At my main job, I have a boring, ordinary contract that spells out the annual salary and the benefits. When I was working as a freelance dramaturg in Chicago, I didn’t charge anything so I didn’t use contracts: they trusted that I would show up, and I trusted that they would let me in the room. The paying gigs I have had over the last couple years have been reading scripts for a few different theaters, and they either paid by the script or by the festival. There was also one very random, very unique job in which I was hired to dramaturg/ghostwrite a play for a non-profit organization. That actually fell apart because neither one of us really knew how to create a contract for such a weird project, and miscommunication over ownership eventually led to me walking away. But there are some organizations that help dramaturgs and playwrights negotiate contracts. Be sure to check out LMDA.org

I am going to open this discussion up to the readers of my blog. Hopefully they will have other insights to add.

Best,
Dan

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One thought on “Open letter to a high school student: a career in dramaturgy

  1. The field is extremely competitive and glutted with applicants. There are a lot of MFA programs turning out a lot of qualified dramaturgs for very few jobs. I’m located in New York, and its dismaying to see how much work professionals are expected to do for free as part of dues-paying and resume building. Also, I think that getting in on productions (as opposed to working as a literary manager) requires a lot of networking. I haven’t quite gotten the hang of that yet. One of the reasons I chose dramaturgy is that I’m a more reserved person, and I think that doing the level of networking which is required will be a challenge.

    I have an MFA, and have returned to graduate school for an MA and hopefully PhD because I want to be qualified to teach at the college level. Dramaturgy alone is a difficult career to build. I think now that if I had a chance to go back, I would have skipped the MFA and gone for an MA with extensive internships in literary offices. It would have provided similar training, more connections, and gotten me further along in my academic education than my very practical MFA did.

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