Response Online


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Word Play What's in a Word

We don’t know about you, but we love to learn about words – their meanings, their origins, how to use them in conversation. In each issue of Response, we ask a campus expert to explore a word related to the magazine’s theme. This time, an SPU theatre scholar introduces the word “dramaturg.”

By Andrew Ryder, Associate Professor of Theatre

A dramaturg is:

a. One who writes program notes for plays.
b. One who researches obscure terms and events.
c. One who reads new plays.
d. One who engages in dramaturgy.
e. All of the above.

Dramaturgs are regularly asked what they do. Each has a different answer, some of which may appear above. What all of these potential definitions have in common is action. That foundational dramaturg, Aristotle, in his Poetics, wrote that tragedy’s “objects of imitation are men in action,” showing “characters as living and moving before us.” Most importantly, “without action there cannot be a tragedy.”

OK, so what? Everyone involved in theatre is focused on action, right? We do call it “acting,” don’t we? So the real question is, “What does a dramaturg do?” (I always imagine that question sung to Lerner and Loewe’s “What Do the Simple Folk Do?” from the musical Camelot, for some reason.)

Here are some verbs that may describe the responsibility of the dramaturg: researching, studying, summarizing, focusing, articulating, writing, and communicating. A dramaturg might mentor a playwright through the process of developing a new play, or a dramaturg might provide a collection of relevant background research on the historical and social context of the world of the play. For the SPU Theatre Department, a student dramaturg is most likely to prepare a notebook filled with background research for the director, designers, and actors, and to write a program note.

But a dramaturg’s most important action is to ask questions: about what happens, about the background of the play, about specific words. As a play takes shape, from selecting a script, through auditions, rehearsals, and on to the closing performance, a dramaturg keeps asking questions that focus the production team’s attention on what happens in the play, as well as how and why it happens for this particular production.

So the best definition is “e,” along with “f”: One who asks questions about action in the theatre.