Wrighting drama

With the holidays come invitations holiday parties, and with parties come the questions of “So what do you do?”

Depending on who I’m talking to, I’ll tell them how I pay my bills — “I drive a food truck” — how I want to pay my bills — “I’m a writer” — or what I’m actually working on right now — “I’m interning at Book-It as a dramaturg.”

The first two answers are pretty easy for people to digest. The third . . . not so much. Non-theatre people have never heard of a dramaturg. And plenty of theatre people aren’t clear on what, exactly, a dramaturg is or does. Many artists haven’t ever worked with one.

As a result, I’ve spent seven years assuring people that dramaturgy is not a word I made up on the spot and trying to explain what it is we do, with varying levels of success.

DAMMIT GRIFF I thought I told you to stop making up animalsMost theatrical professions have fairly self-explanatory titles. Actors act. Directors direct. Costume designers design costumes, and playwrights write plays. Dramaturgy is less easily tautologized.

“So what does a dramaturg do?”

I tell people, you know what metallurgy is? So a metallurgist shapes metal — a dramaturg shapes drama.* (This is a great metaphor because it makes me sound like a welder, or a blacksmith, even though it’s been a few years since I did any welding.**)

“But what does a dramaturg do?”

I tell people, well, my advisor used to say that a dramaturg is the person you call when your play is stalled, so they can pop the hood and look at the inner workings and say “Well here’s your problem.” (This is a great metaphor because it makes us sound like we can fix cars.***)

“You got a degree in this?”

I tell people, yeah, it was kind of like the English degree of the theatre department. (This is a terrible metaphor because it makes it sound like we only deal with text, when we deal with every aspect of the play, from text to performance to design.****)

“But what does a dramaturg actually do?

I tell people, oh, I wrote the program note and the lobby displays — I tell them that dramaturgs provide context, first to the actors and director and designers, then to the audience, giving them a way to understand and dig into the play. This is true, but incomplete.

We provide support. We’re more Willow than Buffy, more Monkey than Tripitaka, more Ami Mizuno than Usagi Tsukino, more Oracle than Batman. We’re Watsons — we may not all be luminous (although many of us are), but we are conductors of light. We ask questions all day long, stimulating thought and vision, forcing artists to justify their choices, or helping them explain them.

We aren’t one thing, is the problem. We take the shape of the container provided. We’re fluid, like a liquid or gas. Playwrights need one thing from us, and directors need another — and different directors need different things. I’ve spent hours with actors doing character development; I’ve become a temporary expert on mid-20th century architecture, bubonic plauge, Belize, and exchange and inflation rates from the 1500s to yesterday; I’ve argued for images and against them; I’ve asked dumb questions and smart questions of writers until their plot made sense; I’ve sat in the crappiest seat in the house and checked sightlines; I’ve gotten drunk and passionately (if slurrily) explained to bar crowds why Shakespeare is important. And I know other dramaturgs approach the process in entirely different ways. And it’s all dramaturgy.

Sarah Ruhl wrote:

The very best of you are midwives, therapists, magicians, mothers, Rabbinical scholars, Socratic interlocutors, comrades-in-arm, comedians, and friends. I wish there was a better name for what you do than dramaturgs.

I like “dramaturg,” though. I like being a collection of metaphors.

And I never lack for holiday party conversation.

*I tell people “metallurgy” and “dramaturgy” come from the same source, even though I don’t have a credible source to back that up. Confidently stating facts that help you tell a powerful story even when you’re only 90% sure they’re right is also dramaturgy.

**It’s true, though, that like blacksmiths, fairies find dramaturgs both fascinating and inimical. We can shoe unicorns. Fact.

***I can’t speak for all dramaturgs, but I cannot fix cars. I can’t even remember how to jump start a car. I do like getting my hands dirty, though.

****It does, however, explain why I work in food service.

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