Behind The Scene: The Role Of The Dramaturg At OSF

Mar 1, 2018

Either you are early for the theatre performance or you have time during the intermission, and decide not to switch on your cell phone for those all-important calls which have come in during the past hour, and you find yourself, instead, reading the Playbill.

Alan Armstrong
Credit Photo Courtesy of Oregon Shakespeare Festival

For the most part, the Playbill makes sense. You know what the actors and musicians do – they have been onstage in front of you. And you have a fair idea of other roles, like director, designer, composer, stage manager etc. But ‘dramaturg’? What does a dramaturg do (and how do you even pronounce the word?

I decided to find the answers to these questions, gentle readers, by talking to my good friend, Alan Armstrong, who just happens to be a dramaturg with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, working principally on productions of Shakespeare plays. 

The word itself used to mean ‘playwright’; variations of the word can be found in French and in German: in the former, it has a final ‘e’ and rhymes with ‘urge’; in the latter, it has no final ‘e’, and it rhymes with ‘iceberg’. In the US, the German style of pronunciation is favoured.

One dictionary defines the role as ‘dramatic adviser, script editor’, and Alan was able to confirm these as two of the principal tasks which he performs. Typically, he will meet with the director well ahead of the production (often a year in advance) to establish the script, looking at different texts of the play (Quartos and Folio), and confirming where cuts need to be made. I was surprised to discover that some 20% of the original text is cut, with the aim of making the storyline clear. Even if there is just one definitive text of the play, work on cuts still takes place.

The next job is to annotate the agreed text for the actors, consulting every available edition of the play, and attempting to anticipate the answers to possible questions they may have – even before rehearsals have begun. 

In the case of production of Shakespeare plays, there is little danger of upsetting the playwright, but with a new play, the playwright might well be in the room.

This early work takes place before the play has been cast, and so revisions need to be made to take account of doubling of roles, and of changes in gender.

For the latter, this will involve more than simple changes in pronouns. For example, in Henry IV Part Two, there is, at one point, a joke about the son of Mistress Quickly looking like the Lord Chief Justice: with a woman playing the Lord Chief Justice, the line had to be cut.

The dramaturg will also look for anachronisms, and for terms which no longer makes sense to a contemporary audience. For some dramaturgs, that is the end of the process: they are researchers and have no involvement in rehearsals. At OSF, however, the role of the dramaturgs is more extensive: in rehearsals, they play the role of innocent audience members and try to make sure that the exposition of the text is as clear as possible. This involves close (and diplomatic) collaboration not only with the director, but also with the designer and the voice and text director: the clarity of storytelling can be enhanced or impeded by pronunciation, blocking, gesture and even costume. 

The dramaturg will prepare a version of the script with the text on the right hand page, and explanatory notes on the left. These are not the academic notes to be found in a scholarly edition of the play, but aids to understanding for the cast, and the cast are encouraged to read them! Indeed one experienced dramaturg has the catch-phrase when a question is asked: “Look to the left!” – the answer to the question may well be in the notes. 

I was interested also in the role of the dramaturg with respect to new plays, and especially plays receiving their first production. In the case of production of Shakespeare plays, there is little danger of upsetting the playwright, but with a new play, the playwright might well be in the room. In a sense, the job of the dramaturg here is to act as if the play is still in the process being written, attention to storytelling is even more crucial, especially in how the narrative draws to a close – finding the right ending for new plays is notoriously difficult (for me, this applies to new novels too!) Often, this process will start early, with workshops of the new play at the Black Swan Lab, where the dramaturg will be invited to give input.

OSF has recently embarked on the Play on! project, in which writers take the plays of Shakespeare and, preserving the plot and setting, update the language to make it more accessible to a twenty-first century audience. The plays in this series all have dramaturgs, there, as with productions of Shakespeare’s originals, to ensure the clarity of the narrative. Alan Armstrong has already worked on the Play on! version of Pericles, which was commissioned in 2015, when Shakespeare’s own play was in repertory at OSF. Thus it was possible to start with a reading of the new play by the OSF cast of the original. Alan’s feeling is that the task of updating the language was less charged in the case of Pericles than it would be for some other plays. Pericles has multiple authors, is not well regarded by scholars and critics, and is less well known. The Play on! versions of popular plays are likely to prove more controversial.

My final question to Alan was whether it was compulsory for each production to have a dramaturg. Was there a Union rule from Equity? I was surprised to learn that, it was not compulsory, and it was increasingly rare. Many professional theatre companies try to save money by dispensing with the role. Guest directors are sometimes unused to having a dramaturg, but it is a point of pride at OSF to continue to provide that support to its productions.

Geoff Ridden has taught in universities in Africa, Europe and North America. Since moving to Ashland in 2008, he has become a familiar figure on radio, in the theatre, in the lecture hall and on the concert stage. He is artistic director of the Classic Readings Theatre Company and has a particular interest in adaptations of the plays of Shakespeare. Email classicrereadings@gmail.com