Given that I’m now in the midst of the second production on which I formally occupied the position of “dramaturg,” I couldn’t help but laugh with recognition at a particular exchange I heard during a recent reading of satirical masterwork The Thanksgiving Play, which I attended at Thinking Cap Theatre.
LOGAN: You and Jaxton will still be credited as actors and collaborators. Caden will have an added credit of dramaturg.
(Caden inhales sharply, instantly emotional.)
CADEN: Dramaturg? The holy grail of American theater titles.
ALICIA: What is that?
CADEN: No one knows.
While most people I encounter in my theatre bubble are at least vaguely familiar with the term, it is indeed rare to come across a layperson who does not require further explanation when I attempt to describe myself as a dramaturg. And, even within said bubble, the role can remain rather opaque, perhaps in part because the work of a “dramaturg” is far less specific and visible than the work of actors onstage for all to see, or even the work of most other behind-the-scenes theatre artists. You can see a set piece and easily recognize that somebody must’ve crafted it; but how would a typical audience member know, for example, that an actor, director, or designer’s choice had been influenced by some key piece of information a dramaturg had made known?
However, one of many ways that the practice of dramaturgy has been broadly defined is as the practice of “adapting a story to actable form.” In a sense, this encompasses both new play dramaturgy, in which dramaturgs work with a playwright to help shape and refine a work in progress, and production dramaturgy, in which a dramaturg helps provide context to an existing play through research into its historical or cultural background and the preparation of materials that provide artists and/or audience members with further insight into its text.
In social settings, I usually just end up simplifying my explanation and saying I’m “in charge of research and stuff,” but have also at least once publicly defined my role as “researching stuff and pretending I know what I’m talking about.” And though that felt appropriate at the time, it is beginning to feel less so as I realize that somebody capable of producing a six page overview of or several coherent thousand-plus word blog posts about a given piece of theatre probably knows at least, like, something.
Because dramaturgy tends to stay so under the radar, it also seems to be more something that theatre artists “fall into,” as opposed to actively pursue. And such it was with I: partially because addiction was at the center of the play Water By the Spoonful and I’d already developed a pretty significant amount of expertise on that particular topic due to my then-current day job writing for a rehab center, the idea came about that I should spearhead an informational blog series in conjunction with the production. Subsequently, I was given the title of dramaturg after I expressed interest in becoming more involved in the rehearsal process.
And though it’s probably only in jest that said title would ever be referred to as a “holy grail,” the truth is, I was glad to have snagged it. “Dramaturg” had an aura of authority and officiality that seemed to set it apart from being a mere “blogger” or even a “documentarian,” seeming to connote a sense of academic sophistication my bookworm of a self couldn’t help but covet.
Practically, too, having a formal title—even such an inscrutable one—with which I could describe how I was involved with a particular production was a useful way to describe my investment to whoever I was attempting to convince to come. And, especially now that I’m occupying the position for a second time and for a play that I had a less obvious pre-existing synergy with than was the case with Water By The Spoonful, I’m beginning to realize that this mysterious role of dramaturg is one to which I seem remarkably well-suited.
For one thing, as an undisputed introvert, I find it quite convenient that most of the work of a dramaturg involves solitary writing and research as opposed to anxiety-inducing interaction. However, because this writing and research is connected to a tangible theatre project and the many people affected by it, dramaturgy often feels more meaningful and socially satisfying than the writing and research I do when chasing agendas that are mine alone.
Another perk: while I believe that dramaturgy can be tremendously enriching, it is admittedly not “essential” to a play’s production the way that most other theatre elements are—which in turn makes it a heck of a lot less stressful. And because nobody is quite sure where the duties of a dramaturg ought to begin or end, anything that I do contribute is looked upon as a helpful bonus rather than measured against some pre-existing standard. There are no rules to break or expectations to fall short of; and thus dramaturgs seem never to make enemies, invoking only gratitude when they briefly emerge from their ivory towers with whatever morsels of wisdom they’ve yet unearthed.
Not that I take this nebulousness as license to do the bare minimum; if anything, I more often find the lack of real parameters leading me to go borderline-overboard in my efforts because of my need to prove, both to myself and to others involved with the production, that I’m actually doing my share.
Furthermore; I tend to have so much fun getting lost in the abysses of information that I refer to as “research wormholes” that I’m not so sure I could’ve stopped myself from going overboard anyway! While my tendency towards all-consuming obsession can definitely have its downsides when it comes to being a functional or balanced human being, it aligns almost perfectly with the need to wade through near-infinite stretches of internet when trying to parse out a play!
Finally, the practice of dramaturgy does at least a little to address my continual questioning of how I can morally justify devoting myself to the arguably elitist art form of theatre as opposed to trying to solve more pressing societal problems. This is because, while I wouldn’t be so pretentious as to say that I’m responsible for some grand social good, I do think that some of the positive messaging I’ve been able to incorporate into my dramaturgical blog posts is at the very least good to have out there.
For example, this piece, part of my work on New City Players’ upcoming production of It’s A Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play, uses the familiar story of George Bailey to help illustrate a variety of key points regarding suicide prevention. Similarly, this one, part of my Water By the Spoonful endeavor, introduces readers to data supporting the use of harm reduction techniques that can help protect active substance users, and both include information that could potentially be life-saving in the right hands at the right time.
Some of my other WBTS pieces (of which there were 11 total—told you I tend to go a little overboard!) dig into the oft-misunderstood individual and societal “whys” behind the complex disorder of addiction, and use the experiences of both the play’s characters and local community members to attempt to humanize its sufferers.
In considering, again, the definition of dramaturgy I mentioned earlier, I am also struck by how much the word “actable” (capable of being performed successfully) resembles the word “actionable” (able to be done or acted on; having practical value). At least ideally, I believe that the best theatre should not exist in a vacuum, or solely to entertain, but should connect to some higher ideology, which I suppose is probably the reason that NCP’s mission of creating community through transformative theatre resonated with me so much in the first place. As incredible as it is to be able to tell a beautiful story onstage, it’s also important to give those who hear that story the tools to take its insights beyond the theatre. By articulating and adding context to those insights, the work of a dramaturg can help provide such tools, and thus to pave the way for acting to inspire action.
So, while I have not given up on one day being able to complete a successful enough full-length script that I feel justified in calling myself a “playwright,” I’m more than happy to meander until then as a humble dramaturg, free to bumble along peacefully in the research weeds. With that said, I hope you’ll be able to join me in celebrating my latest adventure in dramaturgy at our opening weekend of It’s A Wonderful Life, which I’ll also be working front of house for at a few performances if you want to discuss any of this IRL.
Ilana Jael earned her MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Sarah Lawrence College and a BA in Writing and Psychology from Florida Atlantic University’s Wilkes Honors College. She also served as co-founder of the student theatre troupe “Theatre in the Raw.” She has been dabbling in both playwriting and acting since high school. A few favorite roles include Rebel in Columbinus (Bob Carter’s Actor’s Rep), The Fearful One in The Cave (G-Star School of The Arts), and Amanda in The Glass Menagerie (Theatre In The Raw). Her one-act plays Goodbye, Karma’s A Bitch, Certainly Not About Him, and Open Heart have also been previously performed at Actor’s Rep and/or at Florida Atlantic University. More recently, Ilana appeared in and created the original musical ZeeZou’s Stardust Extravaganza with Area Stage’s Miami Queer Theatre Collective. Her short plays have been produced virtually by New City Players, Theatre Lab, and Femuscripts. She is also a current company member of New City Players, and you can check out her theatre blog at ilanaintheatreland.com!