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May 13, 2012

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I set myself a task during my year in Berlin to find the answer to a question that has been bothering me for a while: What Is A Dramaturg? Adding to my motivation (and time constraint) is the fact that the Master’s program in Text & Performance I’m due to begin in October offers a Dramaturgy pathway in one of the modules. I thought it would probably be wise to find out what exactly that might entail before making any rash decisions.

First I should clarify something that makes this topic even more confusing than it already is. A dramaturg will tell you that dramaturgy is not just a profession, but an inherent feature of any performance. The definition of this ‘dramaturgy of a performance’ is a whole different can of worms, and not one that I want to open right now, but we do need an idea of what it is if we’re to find out what the dramaturg’s relationship to it is, so I’ll take Tim Etchells’ definition in his article “When I say the Numbers … Some Notes on Time in Performance” – not least because it was the closest one to hand, at the back of the Theatertreffen 2012 magazine:

“A journey with picaresque structure, from a beginning to a >middle<, through anticipation and climax, finally to closure on arrival somewhere, here, a place which did not exist before.”

In other words, the story. But does this mean the dramaturg’s job is to make sure the performance stays faithful to a script? And if their main concern is the story of a performance, how are they different from a director or an assistant director? The only thing I knew for sure was that dramaturgs are a strange breed that favour some habitats over others:

Germany – Practically every theatre has at least one dramaturg. In any given theatre production you’re bound to find the dramaturg’s name listed beneath those of the director and the set designer. They have their own society. The Theatertreffen Festival hosts a dramaturgie workshop as part of its International Forum for professional theatre-makers under the age of 35, led by Jens Hillje, former Chief Dramaturg of the Schaubühne in Berlin.

UK – Drama-whatnow? Although the number of university courses specifically examining dramaturgy is slowly increasing (currently standing at around 6), few productions or venues employ someone explicitly under the title of ‘dramaturg’.

Judging by these facts, I thought my quest to find out what a dramaturg is would have a simple solution: ask a German. More fool me. According to culture journalist and theatre critic Dirk Pilz, my question is already a popular running gag in the German theatre scene.

Before losing hope I decided to take advantage of the Theatertreffen and try those young dramaturgs at the International Forum, who are holed up in Wedding at the Uferstudios throughout the festival discussing the Theatertreffen productions, each other’s projects, and the mysterious topic “At home in transit. Theatre Identity Movement”. I met with self-proclaimed dramaturgs Birgit Lindermayr (Austria), Patric Bachmann (Switzerland), Christiane Kretschmer (Germany), Eszter Biró (Romania) and Kjersti Hustvedt (Denmark), asking them to explain what they do in a way that even a clueless Engländerin like me could understand. They did so willingly and patiently, and the resulting conversation highlighted two different aspects of the dramaturg’s job:

Organisation

Including but not limited to: deciding the theatre’s programme, reading plays, meeting with artists, overseeing long-term planning, and organizing festivals and series such as post-show discussions, not to mention getting hold of the money required for all of the above.

Unless you’re a freelance dramaturg that is, in which case you’re more likely to focus only on the second aspect, namely:

Production

This has several aspects:

Eszter: “Advising the director in finding the best format for their concept.”

Which stage would suit it? Should a new (shorter, longer, updated) version of the text or script be considered? If so, the dramaturg is usually the one to do it.

Patric: “Upholding of communication within the context of a production.”

Not like an assistant director who always knows the right person to call, but in the sense of overseeing that the content of the performance is being communicated clearly.

Christiane calls this: “observing the performance’s own ‘dramaturgy’ [Confused? Try paragraph 2 again] and ensuring that it works.”

It is this observational role that Michael Pinchbeck takes as the starting point for his PhD research into the role of the dramaturg, which you can follow in the form of interviews on his blog, the aptly named Outside Eye Project. If this crash course in the basics has whetted your appetite for more in-depth musings on dramaturgy I can thoroughly recommend Pinchbeck’s impressive Dramaturgy in Dialogue series.

I, for one, am convinced there must be something to it. Alize Zandwijk’s beautifully told Joseph und seine Brüder wouldn’t have been possible without dramaturg John von Düffel, who was somehow able to condense and reshape the approximately 1,350 pages of Thomas Mann’s four-part biblical epic into less than three hours of theatre. Granted, von Düffel has the advantage of also being a writer, but he specifically describes his task in this case as a dramaturgical one (in German, here).

I’d like to end with my own highly scientific approach to dealing with this complex issue: I asked the dramaturgs at the International Forum to come up with their own definition of their job – one word at a time.

So may I now proudly present the official, conclusive, irrefutable answer straight from the horse’s mouth:

Dramaturgy – is – the – most – beautiful – activity – of – the – creative – examination – of – a – world – in – a – societal – and – artistic – context.

Got that?

Read more at the Theatertreffen Blog site.

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May 13, 2012

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