Twenty-three years after the Yale School of Drama broke new ground and began conferring MFA degrees in dramaturgy—a distinctly European discipline that has insinuated itself into our nation’s theatre network under a variety of titles—a crucial question remains: Is dramaturgy a viable career? Today a number of schools have followed Yale’s lead; over 40 colleges and universities offer courses in dramaturgy. With so many graduates schooled in the art, one would think the battles for this often misunderstood field are over, but they are greater today than ever before.
As American Theatre conducted interviews with dramaturgs from around the country, a few things became clear. First, one need not have a degree in dramaturgy to function as a dramaturg; theatre criticism and playwriting degrees often suffice. Second, as eager as many theatres are to have a dramaturg on staff, there are an increasing number of examples of theatres hiring individuals with no training for the position. Third, unlike other theatre professionals, dramaturgs (often hired as literary managers) are regularly required to execute a number of internal jobs at the expense of true dramaturgy.
These various responsibilities in education, literary management, marketing and publications detract and distract from the artistic duties most dramaturgs train for. And yet these positions often open doors for aspiring dramaturgs, reflecting what dramaturg Michael Kinghorn notes in his responses to American Theatre‘s questions: “My training seems to have been developed for a theatre that doesn’t exist in this country anymore (if it ever did).”
These additional “duties” provoked the Literary Managers and Dramaturgs Association to form an advocacy group geared toward helping theatres understand and fairly compensate dramaturgs and toward exploring the varied duties dramaturgs often have. Dr. Lynn M. Thomson headed the panel and shared the findings with American Theatre.
Dramaturgs may have had inauspicious beginnings in this country—as play doctors or “surrogate playwrights” rewriting texts, or as company-hired critics attempting to prevent bad reviews. When playwrights rebelled and the “pans” still came, the so-called dramaturg was shunned. James Magruder’s commentary illuminates the struggle dramaturgs continue to face as they “fight for a place at the rehearsal table.”
The proliferation of academic programs provokes another question: Since most theatres can support only one person devoted to new-play development, what will all these graduates do? A partial answer comes from dramaturgs who’ve chosen less traditional paths—working in film, in television or outside the entertainment industry entirely.
Such a discussion would be incomplete without a survey of college and university programs offering graduate degrees in the field. Our partial sampler focuses on nine schools. For information on others—including Brandeis University, California Institute of the Arts, Roosevelt University, Sarah Lawrence and Towson University—see this issue’s Advertising Index (page 110).
The questions we asked are listed below. I answered them myself, for in addition to my work as at American Theatre, I am a freelance dramaturg who studied at Yale.
What attracted you to your school?
The practical, hands-on experience combined with academics.
Which elements of your dramaturgical training have proved useful in your career, and which have not?
Being thrown into production dramaturgy without a net in the infamous first-year-collaboration class project, called the 50, was incredibly useful. I will never forget the confusion of that time, and the memory provides order to my current projects. I do wish we’d had better guidance on how to negotiate the producer/producing organization vs. writer situation.
Did your training include classes or experiences that explored the challenges in working with writers? Directors? Actors? Designers?
Most of our work was production based and included collaborating with everyone.
Have you had a dramaturgical mentor? Internship?
I did not have a traditional internship, although I did work with Steve Lawson at the Williamstown Theatre Festival and became very good at editing the bios of celebrities into 50 words or fewer—and getting the famous people to approve them. (Think that’s easy? Try doing it.) As for a mentor, I learned quite a lot from director Tazewell Thompson. He provided me with the support dramaturgs often do not get.
Are there new developments in the field you wished new dramaturgs were being trained to deal with?
I wish new dramaturgs were better versed in balancing the tasks at hand: publishing, design, creating study guides, etc. Also, I hope programs continue to attract individuals with degrees and interests outside theatre—I believe this creates a better dramaturg.
What helped most when trying to translate your dramaturgical skills to potential employers outside the theatrical profession?
I once worked as an associate producer for a jazz and culture-magazine program produced by Cleveland’s National Public Radio station, WCPN. I told them that dramaturgs know how to ask questions and shape ideas without masking the individual’s original intent. It didn’t matter that I didn’t know anything about radio; they wanted someone who could write, organize and get to the heart of the matter. Dramaturgs do that.
What could institutions do to better prepare students for the alternatives to “institutional dramaturgy”?
Encourage internships and placements during the students’ tenure. The management students at Yale, for example, spend terms away “in the field.”
The 6 responses that follow are fashioned from dramaturgs’ answers to these questions. The magazine includes 23 other responses detailing dramaturgy training in the country.
MICHAEL BIGELOW DIXON is the associate artistic director of Kentucky’s Actors Theatre of Louisville. He holds both an MFA in Playwriting and an LDA in Playwriting and Dramatic Literature from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
My training as a dramaturg has taken place entirely on the job. My ongoing conversation with former ATL producing director Jon Jory allowed a continuing exploration of theory and practice, so that our uses of dramaturgy in season-planning and production could be described as a fluid series of experiments and reflections, as well as the gradual accumulation of strategies and ideas—all of which were directed at informing the art, artists and audiences in order to enrich the experience for all.
Originating projects that are unique to a theatre, its artists and its audiences is a way of working in which dramaturgs are under-utilized in the American theatre. Student dramaturgs, therefore, should be originating projects for other artists and then producing those projects. They should act, direct, design, write and adapt in many productions in order to understand what is useful in the process of creation and revision. Most of all, dramaturgs need to dream about what’s possible—about what could electrify the space between audiences and artists—and then bring the hope and fervor of those dreams into the American theatre.
TORI HARING-SMITH is the executive director of the Thomas J. Watson Foundation and an associate professor of English and Theatre at Brown University. She is a former dramaturg of Rhode Island’s Trinity Repertory Company. She holds a Ph.D. and an M.A. in English from the University of Illinois.
The most useful activities I encountered during my dramaturgical training were seeing lots of theatre, working with good directors and designers who showed me how theatre “works,” extensive library training (gained mostly through writing a dissertation) and many years of teaching, through which you learn to work with all kinds of different people on a common problem. The biggest challenge seems to be learning to use the Internet and its resources intelligently. Also, we need to find a way to share information on popular shows more effectively.
MARTHA HOSTETTER is a staff writer at H.W. Wilson and holds an MFA in Dramaturgy and Dramatic Criticism from Yale University.
I work as a writer, occasionally about the arts but—sadly—rarely about theatre. The Yale program had intensive critical-writing workshops in which our work was read aloud—it was sort of trial by fire and definitely made me a better writer and critical thinker. A lot of the rest of what I learned seems anecdotal, but good to know, nonetheless.
I’m not really interested in production dramaturgy as a career. But whenever I’m on job interviews it’s fun to say that once you’ve been a “theatre person” you know how to work collaboratively and under a great deal of pressure. It’s probably true.
LAURA C. KELLEY is the assistant editor at Dramatics magazine and Teaching Theatre Journal, published by the Educational Theatre Association. She holds an MFA in Dramaturgy from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.
Although I don’t function as a production dramaturg now, the insight gained from working on numerous productions during grad school continues to serve me. One of the most valuable lessons, I learned as I trekked throughout the university library during grad school was that I didn’t have to know all of the answers; instead, I had to know where to find them.
I have not had a mentor in dramaturgy. At school we were let loose in a sandbox with other grad students plus undergrad actors, with little guidance or feedback until after the run of a show. The opportunity to make it up as we went along was good in some ways, but hindsight can be frustrating. Although I didn’t have a formal internship, I learned a great deal from taking practical dramaturgy classes in multicultural issues from Roberta Uno, the artistic director of New World Theater.
MERVIN P. ANTONIO is the literary manager for New York’s Public Theater. He has a B.S. in journalism from the University of Illinois.
Everything I learned “in training” was and continues to be useful. Every failed collaboration, for instance, is still useful because you can always learn from them and move forward.
I’ve been fortunate to have worked in institutions that had dramaturgs with extremely generous spirits. Virginia Smith, of the defunct Body Politic Theater in Chicago, taught me how to appreciate playwriting as literature. While at Seattle Rep, Mark Bly taught me a lot about the nuts and bolts of literary management, and, more importantly, how to think as a dramaturg. I put all that to good use at Arena Stage, where Laurence Maslon provided me with ample hands-on production dramaturgy experience and a comfortable environment from which to learn, fail and succeed. He also taught me how to write for and about the theatre. And finally, from George C. Wolfe I learned how to feed, believe and trust the artistic spirit.
BEN CAMERON is the executive director of Theatre Communications Group. He holds an MFA in Dramaturgy and Dramatic Criticism from Yale University.
When I attended Yale, the curriculum centered mostly on critical theory and theatre history. Many of my classmates have made successful careers in theatre-either as dramaturgs (John Glore at the Mark Taper Forum, Janice Paran at the McCarter Theatre), artistic directors (Rick Davis of Theatre for the First Ammendment) or critics (Alisa Solomon of the Village Voice), in addition to the many who are now notable professors and lecturers.
For my own part, I seemed singularly incapable of being hired as a dramaturg. The one career that most utilized my dramaturgical training was my career in philanthropy. As a dramaturg, I was taught to analyze, to question. I was encouraged to develop a strong aesthetic sense but at the same time to be open to the vision of others. I also learned to respond in writing quickly, specifically and (often) voluminously. These are, in short, among the very capacities that make a good grants officer in a foundation. I may not have been a great, or even a good, dramaturg; I was, however, a damned good program officer.