Are you a playwright or other generative artist who is considering working with a dramaturg, but questioning how to start? Here’s one possible starting point!
When I was asked to talk about the development of new theatrical work via collaboration with a dramaturg, I did what I do when I’m developing new theatrical work dramaturgically… I took my cues from the brilliant folks making the work! In this case, I asked some of my favorite generative artists what they want to know.
Many of the subsequent conversations hovered around how and when to work with a dramaturg. The role of a new work dramaturg is a highly customizable one that shifts from dramaturg to dramaturg, and from project to project. What’s reflected here is only my take, shaped by many experiences working at an institutional theatre as well as freelancing.
First off, want to demystify “dramaturgy”? Fellow dramaturgs Jeremy Stoller, Molly Marinik, and I co-founded Beehive Dramaturgy Studio to help do that. Beehive collectively defines dramaturgy as an exploration of the world of the play—both the text itself and how the text engages with the world in which we live (whereby “text” means whatever mode of storytelling is being used—language, movement, etc.).
Since each piece of theater is unique, the role of a dramaturg is further defined on a project-by-project basis. Each process requires a customized approach that begins with a deep understanding of the play and of the generative artist’s goals. I’m so grateful for what has been amassed by traditional dramaturgical studies, Aristotle, Joseph Campbell’s “hero’s journey,” the Liz Lerman method (a favorite of mine), etc. But particularly in thinking about how to best support work that functions separately from Eurocentric perspectives and the male gaze, I’m curious about additional ways to build a theatrical piece, other systems of logic, the queering of experience, and how to shape the visceral arc of a story. These can be built from scratch by knowing the history and intentionally proceeding differently with the tools we have.
Generally, dramaturgs ask key questions, start conversations, research, provide context, and sharpen intent. Working with a dramaturg may bring up conversations with character maps, timelines, Post-It sequencing, big-picture structural questions, analysis of theatrical devices, world rules, logic policing, etc. For guiding principles that could steer your dramaturgical process, examples of what specifically a dramaturg can do, and varying definitions of “dramaturgy” by a handful of active dramaturgs, click around on our website at www.BeehiveDramaturgy.com.
When should I start working with a dramaturg?
So you want a smart-sounding board, a storytelling collaborator, the perspective of someone who knows your goals yet will continually re-calibrate as you make new discoveries, in order to make it stronger and stronger? Sounds like you want to work with a dramaturg!
Dramaturgs can come on board at many different points in the process– perhaps to help flesh out a conceptual premise, to weigh in on an outline or treatment, to respond with questions after reading a first draft, to join in as the dedicated person keeping an eye on core storytelling needs as a production begins, etc. I tend to prefer being brought onboard once there is some sort of draft in place so that I can start exploring how the execution is serving the premise.
But are you at the right point in your process to start working with a dramaturg? Are you ready to invite someone new into the process? You may feel extremely vulnerable in allowing someone in, which is why you want to find someone appropriately sensitive to how you want to set the tone to talk about your work. Because at the end of the day, it is truly always your work.
How do I find the right dramaturg for me?
A feeling of emotional safety when talking about your work is important. Dramaturgical approach, past experience, and a generally shared perspective on the work are also elements to consider. If you like talking to this person about your work, I often suggest having a conversation (perhaps a phone meeting) to ask how they initially approach new work and what they’ve worked on in the past (and you may want to then more specifically ask if they’ve worked on the type of work that you’re developing).
(A more practical answer to this is that there are lots of great dramaturgs! Beehive is one place you could start. We have bios and testimonials for each of ours, plus we’re also happy to help folks find dramaturgs who aren’t part of Beehive.)
How might the process of working with a dramaturg begin?
From my end of it, when I’m having this conversation with someone new to me, I want to soak in as much from the generative artist about inspiration, concept, goals, and concerns. If I’m naturally aligning with much of that and excited about working on the piece, that feels like a good fit! Then I want to start figuring out what the main goals are– whether that’s toward an upcoming reading, a submission deadline, or something else. A loose timeline should emerge as well, which is helpful in guiding the pacing of the conversation.
Personally, I then start the process by saying what I love about the piece, and what I find most resonant. Because that’s why I chose to work on it! This naturally segues into continued excitement via a ton of questions about the work– both the birds-eye-view questions and the nitty-gritty– as I organically also get to know the artist as a person and learn how they respond to what I pose about their work. The approach I take after the beginning steps depends on what feels most productive for the artist– that could mean continued questions, suggestions of scenes or elements to look at that respond to what they’re grappling with most, tough questions to ask in order to honor a full exploration of what’s at hand, pointing out two or more places in the storytelling that could be connected more (or be differentiated more), etc. Rooting the conversation in questions is always part of my approach (since it’s always the generative artists who have the “answers” anyway), as is avoiding prescriptive feedback unless explicitly asked for by the generative artist.
How should I receive and process my dramaturg’s thoughts?
It’s always your play, first and foremost! Ideally, whatever the dramaturg presents to you creates a prism of ways to further explore your piece. You receive these thoughts, and then it’s up to you regarding what you want to work into your piece, discuss further, or simply not use.
I am a big proponent of generative artists always knowing that any feedback they receive (whether from a dramaturg, director, actor, designer, producer, audience member, etc.) should be taken with a grain of salt. That doesn’t mean they should be ignored– as long as the piece is created for humans, anyone’s response is of interest! But, you may need to translate these responses, particularly if that respondent is not aware of your goals and/or not someone who uses your storytelling devices the way you do.
For example, if someone expresses confusion about something in the fourth scene, what that may really be telling you is that the questions you have about the dispensation of information in the second scene lead-up could use a look. Or, if six people are telling you how to “fix” that third scene in a particular way, it may not mean huge rewrites– it might just be how everyone is communicating to you that their eye was drawn to something unintended that is distracting and maybe just needs to be taken out so as to not beg the question.
Hopefully, your dramaturg does get to know your goals and how you’re building the piece– and therefore can translate their thoughts (and translate others’) as they relate to your goals. Divergent opinions absolutely may and likely will happen between with your dramaturg– these can be helpful! But if you’re not on the same planet of discussion, the opinions may be too far away for it to be a helpful path to go down. Collaborating is an act of trust after all.
How do I know if the collaboration with my dramaturg was successful?
There’s no black-or-white answer to this. That said, if you feel that the conversations you had with your dramaturg deepened your exploration of the piece, that feels like a successful collaboration. If you want to work with that person again, that feels like a successful collaboration. If your audience is now following storytelling threads that they weren’t before (whether or not they can identify why), that feels like a successful collaboration. And hopefully, your work is closer to your vision than before.
Natasha Sinha is a producer and dramaturg, focusing on new plays and new musical work. She is the Associate Director of LCT3/Lincoln Center Theater which exclusively produces premieres (including Disgraced by Ayad Akhtar, Dave Malloy’s Preludes, War by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, Martyna Majok’s queens, and Antoinette Nwandu’s Pass Over). Natasha is a co-founder of Beehive Dramaturgy Studio, which works with individual generative artists as well as organizations such as Page 73, Musical Theatre Factory, Astoria Performing Arts Center, and New York Musical Theatre Festival. Prior to joining LCT3, she was the Associate Producer at Barrington Stage Company. Natasha is on the Advisory Boards of Musical Theatre Factory and SPACE on Ryder Farm. She has served as a judge on award committees, taught classes, and curated events focused on inclusivity.