FORUM: Dramaturg—What’s That?posted on May 20th, 2010 by Kelly Karcher
“So, what’s a dramaturg?”
I’ve lost count of how many times people have asked me that question over the past couple years. Actually, the comedians in my life tend to ask about being a “dramaturd” just as often. And I don’t blame them—to be honest, I’m still trying to figure out the answer myself.
I usually answer the age-old question with the vague but typical response, “Oh, you know, someone who does a lot of the historical and background research for the show, making sure it’s accurate to the time period, that kind of thing…”
Now, after reflecting on my first couple years of production dramaturgy experience, I think I’m starting to formulate a more complete definition. I’ve now officially dramaturged two MSU student productions: Crazy for You in the fall of 2008 and As You Like It this past fall. The vast difference between the various job “responsibilities” both entailed has taught me countless lessons about the field of dramaturgy—in particular, its wide range.
Crazy for You started out from a somewhat product-oriented point of view—I was brought on board to write a comprehensive study guide that would be disseminated both to local schools and to the cast, creative team, and audience. So, the initial focus of the project was on community outreach and educational programming. Although this did of course cross over into working with the cast, I came to the process by means of the study guide.
That process informed the focus of the research—I started by looking at the show’s source material, where it came from, how it was put together—rather than focusing on the characters and their world within the show. That part came later, gearing further research toward the questions raised by the cast throughout the process.
As You Like It was a vastly different experience—there was no need for a study guide because there probably already are a billion perfectly adequate guides for the show floating around the internet. My focus here was on the actors and the director, the process of creating the show, from the very beginning. I spent many more hours actually in rehearsal, and my attitude toward the process became sort of a “how can I be useful, and what’s next?” type of outlook. So, my role in the process took on many different aspects.
By its nature, As You Like It required a lot of text work, from basic translation and explanation of Shakespeare’s beautiful but complicated language, to posing and answering more-complex questions raised by the text. I also worked on the more traditional dramaturgical task of bringing the “world of the play” to the actors through posters and a PowerPoint, as well as providing resources to cast members, working with music, and sending feedback to the director.
In its multifaceted quality, this process resembled more what I had done the previous summer, as a dramaturgy intern for Shakespeare Santa Cruz, where my tasks included everything from looking up the sounds a wombat makes, to YouTube-ing aboriginal dancing (and eventually acting as unofficial dance captain), to compiling song lyrics, to just acting as a general sounding board.
What’s most interesting for me to see now, looking back, is the way in which my dramaturgical experiences have made their way into all of my work, including the shows I’ve performed in. This semester, I had the good fortune of working on a Shakespeare production outside of school—I played Queen Elizabeth (and a handful of other roles) in MSU alum Artem Yatsunov’s adaptation of Richard III at Alliance Repertory Theatre. My background in dramaturgy inevitably fueled my personal study of the time period and characters from my first reading of the play. I did what I could to demystify the historical background for myself and the rest of the cast, and I worked with another actor to create a family tree for audience members’ reference during the show—but in this instance, though I was using essentially the same process I had used as a dramaturg in the past, my research took on a slightly different focus: the dramaturgy of a particular character. Instead of the usual general look at the context of the play and its setting, I instead honed in on my one main character—what was her history? Who were the other people in the play to her?
Which brings me back to the initial question: what exactly is dramaturgy? The specific duties change so often based on the particular show, cast, and director; while the “role of the dramaturg” does often seem to end up becoming a list of odd jobs, it all comes from a spirit of questioning. For me, that’s dramaturgy in a nutshell: it’s about the process of raising questions given a particular script and going out to find the answers—whether for myself, a cast, or community and whether it be scouting out a YouTube video of aboriginal dancing, watching a run of a show and sharing thoughts with the director, or simply hitting the history books.
Kelly Karcher is a recent MSU graduate with a B.F.A. in Musical Theatre. An actor and dramaturg currently based in New Jersey, she can be seen this summer performing in Oklahoma! with Ocean City Theatre Company.