Dramaturgy: Helping Writers Find the Thread of a New Work

This blog is a part of The Directory of Contemporary Musical Theatre Writers, found online at www.contemporarymusicaltheatre.com

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For many who read this blog, it will not come as a surprise that writing an original musical is hard. Actually, that’s a huge understatement. Navigating the thorny path of creating original characters with some sort of enthralling dramatic arc and, oh, eventually getting them to sing is analogous to the herding a gaggle of Siamese cats. No matter how clear a writer’s vision, we need someone on our side, acting as a sounding board, asking us the right questions and keeping our characters (and our entire show) on track.

What does a dramaturg do exactly? A lot, in fact. The Literary Managers & Dramaturgs of America defines the dramaturg’s role in this way:

In the ecology of theatre-making, dramaturgs and literary managers forge a critical link between artists and institutions, and institutions and their communities. They work with their other artistic collaborators to hone their vision, focus their goals and find outlets for their creative work on new and classical plays and dance pieces.

Dramaturgs and literary managers serve the field as experts on our dramatic past and as advocates for writers of today and the important work of the future. 

There isn’t one good definition of what a dramaturg (or literary manager – sometimes the titles are used interchangeably) does because there are so many things they do to help birth successful productions of both classical and contemporary works.

Here’s a short list of activities in which a dramaturg may be involved:

  • Read and evaluate incoming scripts
  • Negotiate with agents
  • Commission new work
  • Help plan a theatre season
  • Work closely with the writer and the director to make sure the production honors the playwright’s vision in the development of new works
  • Help the writer reshape their work by clarifying the world of the show and each of the characters’ journeys
  • Provide the cast and creative team with important background information, including historical research and, in some cases, adapt the script when the work has previously been produced on stage
  • Secure permissions of copyrighted material
  • Help marketers and developers find a way to sell the show
  • Engage the audience around the themes of the production

I recommend you read this short online article posted on theatrebayarea.org, which gives a concise outline of the work dramaturgs do with insights from the artists themselves.

Some theatres are able to afford to keep a dramaturg or literary manager on staff, giving them the benefit of having someone to share insights on their season’s plays or musicals. Some dramaturgs work freelance while, in other instances, their role is fulfilled, as best as possible, by a director or producer.

For over eight years, I’ve had the great pleasure of working with director Laura Josepher on several projects: my two one-act plays BAIT n’ SWISH, then with collaborator Tom Gualtieri on our musical FALLING TO EARTH and now with our new show, I’M AFRAID, YOU’RE AFRAID: 448 THINGS TO FEAR AND WHY. Laura is a gifted director who puts everyone at ease while operating under the radar, thoughtfully shaping a work with what appears to be slight of hand.

Her keen eye has made her a valuable asset to us as a director and as a dramaturg.

Laura and I just finished a four-week workshop at Marymount Manhattan College, which gave a cast of twenty students the opportunity of working with four outstanding musical theatre writers to develop new musical theatre “shorts” inspired by articles from the Weddings/Celebrations section of the New York Times (you can read more about the workshop here). I asked her to share her thoughts on dramaturgy and how it goes hand-in-hand with directing.

Laura Josepher
Laura Josepher

Developing new works is one of my favorite things to do as a director. I really enjoy being able to collaborate with writers and help them shape their work. 

All shows have their challenges, but musicals can be especially tricky because of their extra moving parts. I like to think of each show as its own kind of puzzle, or a connect-the-dots picture — you have to make sure each scene and each song belongs next to the piece before it and after it. If not, you have to figure out what’s missing. Sometimes it’s obvious. Sometimes – not so much. But that’s the challenge. And in a great, safe rehearsal environment, those ideas can come from many sources – the writer, the director or the actors.

While working on VOW I was lucky enough to get to collaborate with four talented writers: Sara Wordsworth & Russell Kaplan, Will Reynolds and Clay Zambo. Their musical “shorts” had to pack in a lot of character development in limited amount of pages. So when I first read through the scripts I asked myself, “Is it clear what each character wants and why?” “Am I missing any critical information?” “What does the audience need to know?” I am not a writer, so if I think something is missing, I do not try to tell them what to write. Instead, I like to ask questions. 

I reached out to the writers involved in our Marymount workshop to get their thoughts on the difference a dramaturg made on their piece. Here’s what they had to say…

Sara Wordsworth
Sara Wordsworth

“Having a dramaturg is a gift! Sometimes you can only go so far in solitude at your computer. A dramaturg can step in and throw open the curtains on a stuffy room, letting in a crack of sunlight that helps to inspire and shape new work. When writing VOW, it was so fabulous to have the keen eyes and observations of David & Laura, who were in the room each day and therefore invested in even the teeniest of changes that would help the piece grow. It takes a village to create new work, and I’m so grateful dramaturgs have been a part of mine.” – Sara Wordsworth

clay2011“The best dramaturg is, it seems to me, something of a cross between a best friend and a therapist for your writing — someone who will look with unblinking and nonjudgmental eyes at what is on the page, provide observations, and ask tough questions. This is not someone who will “fix” what is “wrong,” but who provides patient support along the way to solving the writing’s puzzles for yourself. 

In the case of BLUE APRON and TRANSIT OF VENUS, the beginnings and endings were easy — but the messy middles of both plays were where our team’s questions and observations were invaluable, and the resulting scenes are, to me, the most satisfying in each piece.” – Clay Zambo

Will Reynolds
Will Reynolds

There is nothing I like better in the new works process than a smart actor asking smart questions. In the song “Wake Me Up,” from THE WHOLE WORLD IS WATCHING, I changed the tenses in the second chorus to “you WOKE me up” for the sake of emotional forward motion. However, some times one step forward is two steps back, as the actor expressed how it was then difficult to inhabit the first verse (“wake me up”), if he the later acknowledges that he HAS indeed been woken up (by the tense change in the second verse – “you woke me up”.)  I was looking at the big picture of the song, and missed my own logic error, even though it was staring me in the face once it was pointed out. A very simple fix made everything line up, and rather than wait for the run thru where I finally hear the issue, a short dramaturgical conversation led by a smart actor got the revision in much faster.  – Will Reynolds

Laura and I consider ourselves very fortunate to have worked with these writers in developing new musical “shorts” while giving college students the opportunity to see how musicals are developed. We expect they now have an even better sense of the importance of a dramaturg as they interact with the writers and get a fuller understanding of their process.

Our hats are off to dramaturgs, who provide audiences a proper context for classical productions and writers with an invaluable perspective on their work. Their craftsmanship, usually unseen, is very often the reason the puzzle pieces of a show fit together so well.

If you’re interested in finding out more about becoming a dramaturg, the following colleges and universities have recognized programs:

Carnegie Mellon University BA in Dramaturgy

Columbia University offers an MFA in Dramaturgy and Theater Studies.

Cornell University offers an MA and a PhD in Theatre Arts.

Florida State University offers an MA, MS, and Phd in Theatre Arts, Dramatic Criticism, Theatre History, Dramaturgy.

Harvard University/ American Repertory Theatre offers an MFA in Dramaturgy.

Hunter College offers an MA Concentration in Dramaturgy.

Ohio State University offers an MA and PhD Dramaturgy, Dramatic Literature, Dramatic Criticism, Theatre History.

San Diego State University offers an MA in Theatre Arts with dramaturgical options.

University of Massachusetts at Amherst offers an MFA in Dramaturgy.

Yale University offers an MFA and DFA in Dramaturgy and Dramatic Criticism.

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