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3 1 What the #$%@ Is a Dramaturg? Dramaturge. And what does that mean? Having the word is very useful; it’s pregnant with associations and I’m obliged to whoever coined it. But—! —John Brunner, The Dramaturges of Yan audience member: What did you, as dramaturg, actually do for this production ? What appeared on stage that is a result of what you did? mark bly: I can’t point to anything specifically, but if you took a knife to that play, it would bleed me. —Overheard by the author, 23 August 2007, Arena Stage talkback Mark Bly, former chair of the Dramaturgy and Playwriting Program at Yale University and currently senior dramaturg at Houston’s Alley Theatre, comes as close as anyone ever has to explaining the function of the dramaturg1 in modern theater practice. Dramaturgy is a term that refers to both the aesthetic architecture of a piece of dramatic literature (its structure, themes, goals, and conventions) and the practical philosophy of theater practice employed to create a full performance. Together, dramaturgy is the very blood coursing through the veins of any theatrical production. In practice, dramaturgy refers to the accumulated techniques that all theatrical artists employ to do three things: 1. Determine what the aesthetic architecture of a piece of dramatic literature actually is (analysis) 2. Discover everything needed to transform that inert script into a living piece of theater (research) 3. Apply that knowledge in a way that makes sense to a living audience at this time in this place (practical application) Chemers Pt1-Ch1.indd 3 2/9/10 7:35:08 AM PHILOSOPHY 4 Of course, no play gets produced without these three elements; directors, designers , actors, and production teams all do these for every show. There is no theatrical production without dramaturgy. None. Zero. Zip. Nada. The question is merely how it gets done, and by whom. Asking Questions The question that forms the title of this chapter is one that dramaturgs get asked all the time. I asked it myself for the first time in 1990, when director Oliver Gerlund invited me to act as dramaturg for a production of Czech playwright Václav Havel’s political comedy Largo Desolato. Thanks to Gerlund’s willingness to incorporate me into the process, I had a really terrific time, and it opened a whole new door for me in the theater—one that unites my passions for script analysis, historical research, theoretical exploration, dramatic literature, and the magic of live theater. Now, two decades later, I find I have done a lot of it, but I still get asked this question almost every day, and almost every day I also ask it of myself. In John Brunner’s 1972 pulp science-fiction fairy tale The Dramaturges of Yan, quoted above, the fate of an entire planet rides on the answer, but for most of us, the question begins a discussion of the centrality and necessity of dramaturgy to the creation of every kind of theatrical production. Now, of course, there is no production without lighting design, either. Even a production held outside in daylight needs a practical theory about how the natural light will be employed—someone has to be thinking about that. And although one may be able to mount an installation without any visible humans, generally in theater we like to see actors on stage as well. And then, of course, one needs a costume designer. Even if it’s only T-shirts and jeans, such a “nondesign ” has an effect on the audience, and someone needs to be thinking about that, too. The space in which the actors will perform requires someone who knows how to think about scenic design. And a sound designer would also be nice. And a fight master, a choreographer, a technical director, a stage manager, and a production team are all probably going to be required and some frontof -house staff as well, and someone to lead the whole project with a directorial vision, and perhaps someone could write a beautiful, moving script. Do we need any of these people to do theater? British director Peter Brook famously wrote that all theater strictly needs is an empty space, and someone walking across it could be engaging in an act of theater. But such ascetic performances are rare; most performances require considerably more. Bly, in his 1996 essay “Bristling with Multiple Possibilities,” ponders the existence of a dramaturg: Chemers Pt1-Ch1.indd 4 2/9/10 7:35...


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