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The terms “dramaturge”, “dramaturg“, and “dramaturgy” derive from the Greek words “drama”, meaning “action” or “deed”, and “ergon”, meaning “work”. Together, they essentially denote the “work of drama”.
While the contemporary understanding of these terms has evolved over centuries, their roots can be traced back to Ancient Greece. The word “dramaturgy” originally referred to the structure and mechanics of a dramatic work, akin to the concept of the “craft of theatre”.
The term “dramaturg”, understood in the modern theatrical context, primarily originates from German theatre practice. Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, a German writer and critic, is often considered the first modern dramaturg due to his work at the Hamburg National Theatre in the late 18th century. Lessing’s series of essays, “Hamburg Dramaturgy”, is a seminal work in which he critiqued the performances at the theatre and articulated a clear, reasoned vision for the theatre of his time.
His role at the Hamburg National Theatre was not just as a critic but also as an advisor on repertoire, a mediator between playwrights and the theatre, and as a theoretician articulating the principles of drama. As such, his work set the foundation for the future understanding of “dramaturgy” as both a practical and theoretical endeavour within the theatrical process.
In contemporary theatre, “dramaturgy” refers to the study and practice of dramatic composition and the representation of the main elements of drama on the stage. It encompasses the structure of a play, the narrative arc, character development, and the broader thematic, social, and political contexts in which a performance exists. It is both the theory of dramatic composition and the practical exploration of how that composition plays out in performance.
While “dramaturg” is the more commonly used term, especially in the U.S. and parts of Europe, “dramaturge” is sometimes employed interchangeably. However, in certain contexts, especially in French theatre, “dramaturge” sometimes specifically refers to a playwright.
Different Interpretations and Duties of a Dramaturg
Historical Development The term “dramaturg” originates from the German theatre tradition. Gotthold Ephraim Lessing is often credited with shaping the modern conception of the role in the 18th century at the Hamburg National Theatre.
Textual Analysis Study scripts for thematic, structural, and historical accuracy.
Production Research Provide the director and the team with historical, social, and cultural context for plays, especially when dealing with classical or lesser-known works.
Script Development Assist playwrights in the process of creating or adapting a play.
Public Engagement Write programme notes, hold post-show discussions, and create educational materials for the audience.
Historical Development The dramaturg’s role in North America began to be recognised in the latter half of the 20th century, influenced by European practices but tailored to the American theatrical context.
New Play Development Work closely with playwrights in workshops, fostering the creation of original works.
Literary Management Serve in theatres as literary managers, reading and evaluating scripts for potential production.
Outreach Engage with the audience through lectures, discussions, and articles to bridge the gap between the production and the public.
Advisory Role Provide advice on casting, design, and other production aspect
Historical Development The dramaturgical role in Latin America has evolved inpolitical, social, and cultural upheavals, often blending the lines between playwriting, directing, and dramaturgy.
Political and Social Commentary Advise on productions that tackle societal issues, ensuring accuracy and sensitivity.
Collaborative Creation: Work in ensemble settings, co-creating plays and performances with directors, actors, and writers.
Cultural Preservation Advise on integrating indigenous traditions and stories into contemporary theatre.
Public Engagement: Facilitate community involvement in theatre-making, reflecting the region’s emphasis on theatre as a tool for social change.
Historical Development The function of the dramaturg in the United Kingdom has taken a distinct trajectory compared to its continental European origins. While the specific title of ‘dramaturg’ was not initially widespread in the UK, many of its duties were carried out by literary managers, directors, or playwrights. It is only in recent decades that the role of the dramaturg has become more defined and recognised within British theatre.
New Play Development Like their counterparts in other parts of the world, UK dramaturgs are heavily involved in developing new plays. They provide feedback on drafts, collaborate closely with playwrights, and participate in rehearsals to help shape the final piece.
Literary Management At many UK theatres, especially larger institutions, dramaturgs or literary managers are responsible for reading and assessing scripts submitted for potential production. They may also be involved in commissioning new works or supporting playwrights through theatre-affiliated programs.
Research and Advisory Dramaturgs in the UK offer deep textual analysis and historical research to support productions. This role is particularly crucial when dealing with classic plays, adaptations, or plays set in specific historical or cultural contexts. They provide background information to ensure a theatrical production is coherent, relevant, and accurate.
Collaborative Creation As the UK theatre scene has evolved, so has the collaborative or devised theatre process. Dramaturgs in this setting contribute by shaping narrative structures, refining thematic elements, and ensuring cohesion throughout the devised piece.
Public Engagement British dramaturgs often take on the responsibility of bridging the gap between the production and the audience. This might involve writing programme notes, engaging in pre- or post-show talks, or contributing to educational outreach programs associated with a production.
Interdisciplinary Collaboration With the growth of multimedia and cross-disciplinary works in contemporary UK theatre, dramaturgs might also collaborate with artists from other fields, such as dance, visual arts, or digital media, ensuring that a piece’s narrative or thematic elements are coherently integrated across different mediums.
Historical Development The dramaturg’s role in Australia has evolved alongside the nation’s rich theatrical history, integrating influences from British and European theatre traditions while also seeking to reflect Australia’s unique cultural and geographic identity.
The growth of the dramaturg’s role can be linked to the surge in independent theatre companies in the late 20th century, as well as the broader movement towards new Australian plays that reflect the country’s diverse voices.
New Play Development As in other parts of the world, dramaturgs in Australia play a crucial role in the development of new works. They collaborate closely with playwrights, offering feedback, facilitating workshops, and sometimes participating in residency programs dedicated to new play development.
Cultural Sensitivity and Representation Given Australia’s colonial history and the diverse Indigenous cultures that precede and persist alongside it, dramaturgs often serve a critical role in ensuring cultural sensitivity, especially when productions deal with Indigenous themes, characters, or stories.
Research and Contextualisation Australian dramaturgs provide essential historical, cultural, and sociopolitical context, especially for plays that tackle local issues or histories. This research ensures that the production team deeply understands the material, leading to more informed and nuanced performances.
Collaborative Creation Much of Australian theatre is devised collaboratively, especially in the independent scene. Dramaturgs in this context might work as part of an ensemble, helping to shape and refine the narrative structure of a piece as it emerges.
Engagement and Outreach As in other regions, Australian dramaturgs might also be involved in audience engagement, writing program notes, facilitating post-show discussions, and participating in public lectures or panels.