How a Dramaturg Can Help the Development of Your New Play
I’m a playwright. I know the story I want to tell, and if I’m any good, I can tell it effectively.
Well, not exactly. I am a playwright. And I am an effective storyteller. But even the best among us often needs an outside perspective, a critical eye and ear, an advocate for the work. When I play that role, I am a dramaturg.
What does a new play dramaturg do? It depends on what the play and the playwright needs. Recently, I worked with a playwright who knew the story she wanted to tell, but her draft was unwieldy, and I helped her wrangle it into submission by helping her determine which characters were most important (and which had to walk the plank) and how to effectively develop her theme within the narrative. We worked for about six months, meeting regularly as she re-wrote. Each time she emailed me a draft, I read it and wrote comments, and then we met at a coffee shop to discuss next steps. After six months, I directed a reading of her play so she could hear actors read it aloud and get feedback from an audience. All of these steps were in service to the work.
I like to think of myself as a midwife in the birth of a new play. It’s not my child. We share no genetic material. I don’t even care that much who the child grows up to be. But I care deeply about helping the mother- or father-to-be get the damn baby out!
As a new play dramaturg, I help you labor with tasks regarding character and plot development, imagery, pacing, tone, structure, dramatic conflict, language, etc. I’m not a playwriting teacher, per se, but you will learn to be a better writer through the process of developing your play. For example, in a recent project, the playwright had written a naturalistic story about her family growing up in East LA in the 1950s, and in the play, the mother character told her children a myth derived from their Aztec heritage. In this case, I worked with the writer on developing this “nested story” in a way that it would resonate with and reinforce the characters in her primary story.
Our process will start with my asking you a lot of questions about your play and your goals for the work. What do you care about? What do you want to say? How do you want your play to make me as an audience member feel? I will continue to ask questions throughout the dramaturgical consultation, and I will listen deeply to your answers, using them as a guide, to determine a mutually agreeable process to move forward to develop the work.
Every writer has a different process. You may want me to read your draft only once and offer critical commentary via email. You may want to get together to “think aloud” as a means to better understand your play. If you want to have a reading to hear your work aloud, I can help you make that happen. I will not force you into any particular dramaturgical process; I simply want to help you deliver a healthy baby. (No promises the process will be pain-free, however.)
I won’t write your play for you, but I may make suggestions in keeping with your goals and the internal logic of the play. I will offer honest feedback, as well as encouragement. I will do my best to help you see the strengths and weaknesses of your work, and suggest possible paths to improvement, deepening, and heightening your work. I will occasionally throw in my two cents with regard to the practicality of staging your work in today’s theatrical climate.
Think of a dramaturg as a fellow traveler on the journey of new play development who can accompany you on your way through the dark woods that all of us face as part of the creative process. At the very least, you won’t be alone.