Career Spotlight: Dramaturg

Dramaturgy is the study of how plays work – but what training is available for would-be dramaturgs and how do you get into the field?
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Image: Red Stitch’s upcoming production Desert, 6:29pm. Photo credit: Rob Blackburn Photography and Work Art Life Studios. 

While the roles of playwright, director and other theatre-makers are clear and specific, the dramaturg’s role is less clearly defined. Even theatre insiders can sometimes be unclear about precisely what the dramaturg’s ‘dark art’ entails.

‘Dramaturgy, essentially, is the study of how plays work,’ explained Mark Pritchard, Resident Dramaturg at Melbourne’s Malthouse Theatre Company.

‘We can unpack each of those three words endlessly. By “plays” we might mean Theatre, Drama, Live Art, public spectacles or ritual acts. We might mean playing games, we might mean telling stories … By “how” we’re thinking about their structure, their raw ingredients, their anatomy, their alchemy, their mechanics, their mysteries, their contexts, their processes, their practicalities, their histories, their possibilities.

‘By “work” we’re talking about what they do, what they strive for, what they accidentally create, what they serve, what they conjure, what they ask and what they reveal.

‘And to study it is to step back, to reflect, to research, to imagine, to provoke, to analyse and hypothesise – to have your cake and think about it too,’ Prichard explained.

Jennifer Medway, currently transitioning between a full time role as Resident Dramaturg at Australian Theatre for Young People (ATYP) to a part-time role as Literary Associate at Melbourne Theatre Company, said she thinks about dramaturgy ‘as the interrelation between the elements within a dramatic work that combine to communicate meaning.’

‘I see the role of the dramaturg as someone who looks at how all these elements are creating meaning and works collaboratively to make sure this meaning is as clear and effective as possible for an audience. I think dramaturgs can ask the questions around how this meaning interacts with the world we live in and whether it is something that will grow and challenge us or whether it will marginalise, exclude and stunt us. I think dramaturgs can strive to push us towards the former,’ Medway said.

Becoming a dramaturg

Iain Sinclair is the Resident Dramaturg at Playwriting Australia. He started in the field as a director and Artistic Director of a theatre company dedicated to new work, but transitioned into dramaturgy when it became clear that the development process for new plays needed closer attention.

‘It was clear that we needed to use a careful and specific methodology to get the plays we were working on to a performance standard. Some writers thrived under the ad hoc “into the crucible” environment of getting a new play up while others really suffered. I started looking into the existing methods being used in Australia and then further afield to the US, Canada and UK. I then attended the Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas Conference in Chicago and talked with Mark Bligh about the emergence of best practise models in professional dramaturgy – and my lifetime course of study began,’ said Sinclair.

Tom Healey, Associate Dramaturge at Red Stitch Actors’ Theatre, made his way into dramaturgy via acting.

‘I started as an actor and, like most actors, I found myself early on in my career working on a lot of new writing. I’m not sure how deliberate that was on my part but I have always regarded new work as the most important thing we can do as artists. Our job is to articulate the culture we were raised in, that we live in and that we are responsible for,’ he said.

‘There is a reason to do the classics because they articulate global and historical experience, but where we are, what we care about and what is happening on our doorstep is our responsibility. We voted Pauline Hanson in, now we need to deal with her nauseous racism and why, as a culture we continue to allow her a voice. That’s today’s flash-point. Indigenous Rights, Refugees, Marriage Equality, Climate Change and all the rest of the shit-storms must be spoken of, dreamt about, criticised and digested. This is the work of art.’

Medway was always interested in dramaturgy but said she didn’t really know fully what it was or how to even begin doing it.

‘I trained as an actor and classical singer and as I begun to realise that I wasn’t suited to either, this third option became more and more interesting. I remember speaking to my friend after a failed audition in the UK about how I had always been interested in it but wasn’t sure I was smart enough because I wasn’t an academic nor could I speak another language. She told me that those things weren’t at all key to being a dramaturg and I should try and intern with Playwriting Australia to learn more about it. From here I was lucky to have some extraordinary mentors who encouraged me and gave me opportunities to grow. The more I learnt about it, the more I loved it and I knew it was for me,’ she told ArtsHub.

Pritchard similarly came to dramaturgy via other elements of the performing arts: ‘I’ve always been interested in dramaturgy in the broadest sense – the exploration of how plays work. As a student actor I became fascinated with what stories we tell, how we tell them, and why we tell them. As an emerging director I found myself working with writers and working with them on story and structure, trying to understand how their plays work and how to interpret their dramaturgy on the stage. As I started collaborating with different artists and making work outside of theatre spaces, the question of how theatre works became more complicated, and for me more fascinating.

‘In retrospect, dramaturgy is definitely my instinctive line of enquiry, but it’s such a nebulous job title, and so situational as to what it means in practice. It wasn’t actually until I started working at Malthouse that I regularly called myself a dramaturg,’ he said.

Formal training vs on the job experience

The theatrical landscape has changed significantly since the 1990s, when the lack of formal dramaturgical training forced Sinclair to study overseas. There are now a number of options for theatre-makers wishing to engage more formally with dramaturgy as a practice.

‘Playwriting Australia has a fantastic internship program for entry level professionals (and highly invaluable training in non-invasive, non-taste based new wave dramaturgy) and there is a new course at VCA,’ said Sinclair.

‘The key thing is to teach yourself the underlying principles of story structure, to develop a positive methodology in critical response theory (and process) and to learn how to differentiate taste from craft. Jorge Luis Borges said that story is “fire plus algebra”; I find it helpful to think of the dramaturg as the advocate of the algebra side of things. Learning on the job is fundamental: every playwright is different, every development room is different but there are essential irreducible components to successful storytelling that can elevate a good work into a great work,’ he said.

Pritchard notes the importance of understanding theatre before you can work successfully as a dramaturg: ‘Dramaturgy sits at the intersection between theory and practice, so you really need to get a good grounding in both, and to foster for yourself a robust conversation between the two. You have to see a lot of theatre and make a lot of theatre before you really know anything about theatre, and I’ve learned the most out of doing it and then reflecting on its dramaturgy as I went.

‘I think in terms of training dramaturgs, and specifically for dramaturgs working with writers, we are really just at the beginning of working out how to do that practically. The VCA is doing some really exciting work in this field, but I definitely think there’s space for it to grow, for the actual practice of being a dramaturg to be explored, documented, and taught,’ he continued. 

‘That said, I’ve appreciated the chance to really find my own way as a dramaturg, through trial and error, through sitting in different rooms and working out how I want to do it. Making theatre in this country is so exciting – there are so many different dramaturgies we can draw on, so much possibility to challenge tradition. There is no rulebook.’

Healey stressed the importance of the connection between actor and audience as the best grounding for the would-be dramaturg.

‘My personal feeling (probably in some ways because it’s my experience) is that nothing replaces solid actor-training for preparation for both directing and dramaturgy. There’ll be some academics that shoot me down over this, but if you don’t understand acting deeply you don’t understand theatre. End of the day it’s the actor and the audience and what transpires between those two poles that makes the whole thing work. So my advice? You want to be dramaturg, learn to act. Then you will understand the true and fundamental mechanics of theatre,’ he said.

‘Then, after that, read and read and read. See work, see more work, see much more work. Never forget that it is not an academic process, even though formal academic training can be enormously useful to it … It’s intuitive and it demands an experiential approach.’

A day in the life

For Sinclair, a typical day as Resident Dramaturg at Playwriting Australia – even when temporarily working overseas, as he is currently – involves, ‘Reading, reading and more reading. I typically read two to three plays a day. I spend a lot of time on the phone and in cafes asking hundreds of open questions.

‘As an example while I’m over here directing a new Australian play in LA, I am also in conversation with four playwrights back home. Some real examples of questions from today include: “What kind of atmosphere are you aiming for in this scene?”, “did you want the play to evolve into a revenge fantasy?”, “have you considered helping the audience understand the ontological framework you have set up here?”, “you seem to be using a conventional voyage return quest narrative in this draft, is that conscious or accidental? Would you consider a different narrative framework for a story like this? What if the cause and effect mechanism is alinear and emotional rather than linear and rational?”. “What rhythmic effect are you aiming for in this scene? Was it a conscious choice?”’

Pritchard’s description of a typical day at the Malthouse is not dissimilar.

‘I’m in the office full time working on a wide range of projects, so every day is packed and totally different. My job involves script reading, script development, sourcing artists and projects, managing our commissions and new writing programs, and helping develop the program,’ he said.

‘I provide dramaturgical support across the company’s activities, so there’s always something that challenges this idea of a typical working day. I’m reading drafts of new plays, reading existing work, doing background research on projects, reporting on scripts or preparing feedback. There are lots of meetings with artists, mostly writers, discussing what they’re making with us or what they’re working on outside of here. I’m working with a lot of new writers at the moment, so these conversations can be really different, expansive and surprising.

‘We’ve got two new resident writers in the building, so we’re talking a lot about ideas, possibilities and process, trying to see and read as widely as possibly, and find their own dramaturgy among it all. I run a lot of workshops – sometimes half-day sessions unpacking a new project with a writer, working through their concept and initial sketches of ideas, exploring where it might go. Other weeks I’ll be working more intensively on a project – running a week’s creative development, or supporting a writer as we move into rehearsal.

‘In the evenings I’m seeing a lot of work – there is so much work out there, and it’s my job to be across all the new voices, and the breadth of work happening in this city,’ Pritchard said.

Healey laughs at the question when asked to describe a typical working day as a dramaturg.

‘It’s actually an impossible question to answer if you’re being truthful, just because it changes so much,’ he explained. 

As Pritchard and Sinclair have already outlined a fairly typical day-in-the-life of a dramaturg working for a company, Healey nonetheless attempts to speaks to the freelance dramaturg’s experience.

‘If you’re freelance the list of jobs doesn’t change so much, but your permission to acquit those responsibilities is complicated. Has so-and-so spoken to blah-blah? We don’t know because so-and-so is off working on a telly job and blah-blah couldn’t come in because they’re still on the phone to Centrelink (they’re here, but they can’t talk because they’re in the phone queue, have been for two hours and if they hang up they’ll lose their place and that can’t happen because they’re about to be cut off),’ he said

It’s akin to shooting arrows into the dark, Healey continued. ‘Everyone is either a) too busy, b) doing their day job, c) nuts and considering a career change or – most grievously – d) not that great at their job, in that you-pay-peanuts-you-get-monkeys scenario.

‘Independent theatre is so hard – because if you can do the work you end up doing way too much in compensation for those who are either a) unavailable – someone has to pick up the kids, b) burnt out (so many) or c) incompetent – and yes you could sack them but, there’s no money you see so, for those skills in high demand (and we are not talking dramaturgs here) it’s a terrible problem – why would they work for nothing (albeit interesting nothing) when they could earn $600+ for a call up the road with the majors? This is, for everyone involved, exhausting, often demoralising, but also – sometimes – incredibly creative,’ Healey said.

Highlights and lowlights

Every career has its ups and downs, and dramaturgy is no different.

Medway considers her career lowlights to be ‘moments in the past where I didn’t listen well enough before speaking, didn’t ask the right questions or asked questions when I could have been quiet.’

‘There will always be things you wish you did better and hopefully it’s that reflection that allows you to grow,’ she said.

‘A real highlight for me has been working with the team at ATYP and getting to meet so many amazing emerging playwrights from around the country. I’m thrilled to be starting a new chapter now with MTC, particularly because of the Next Stage Writers’ Program. To get to work with a company that’s so invested in new Australian work and committed to nurturing playwrights over many years is really exciting and I think a game changer for theatre in Australia.’

Healey is equally positive about his role at Red Stitch. ‘I have had the privilege of working with so many amazing and gifted artists in my journey so far as a dramaturg. Every experience, and I’m absolutely serious here, has taught me something huge and profound,’ he said.

‘Lowlights – well, yes there have been a few and I’m not naming any names but I have let people down much more than I have meant to. I’ve learned now not to over-promise – it’s an enormous skill for a dramaturg to acquire. I need to learn to be tougher, or perhaps more direct might be a better way of putting it.’

Healey is currently working on Morgan Rose’s new play Desert 6:29 with director Brigid Balodis at Red Stitch. ‘It’s rare to have the warm fuzzies as much as we’re having as a team. We are warm and we are fuzzy because Morgan is brilliant, rigorous and open,’ he said.

Such openness is key to the team having a positive experience on the work, Healey continued. ‘No-one is “defending” their work. All that bullshit war language is out of the room and everything is up for grabs. Very satisfying.’

Reflecting on his career to date, Sinclair notes that quality playwrights will want to start working with you once you develop a reputation as a non-intrusive dramaturg.

‘My dramaturgy training has created the opportunity to champion new works and often career launching plays,’ he said. ‘A real highlight for me was working as dramaturg and director on The Seed by Kate Mulvany, a play that had been deconstructed filleted, stripped of all its magic and then rejected by an unskilled company dramaturg. Kate and I re-assembled and repaired its dramaturgical integrity until all of the magic flowed back in. A monologue that she was advised to cut is now one of the most used audition monologues in the country. Dramaturgy is almost never about chopping and filleting.’

So you want to be a dramaturg?

When asked for advice for would-be and emerging dramaturgs, Medway said: ‘I’d say to an aspiring dramaturg to value all the experiences you have and learn from them, particularly in wider life. Be interested in people and the world around you, allowing thought from science, politics and history as well as art to influence and inspire you. Be genuinely curious and be kind.’ 

Pritchard said: ‘Get out there and start working with people whose voices you want to see on stage. Find value in helping other artists render their own vision in their own way. Practice deep listening, practice reading between the lines, reading widely and curiously. Take worthy risks, and lots of them. Ask hard and valuable questions. Make sure your follow projects through to the end.

He continued: ‘Pick the projects that genuinely make you want to get out of bed, and the ones that will keep you up at night. That said, get more sleep and take care of yourself, as it’s your fresh eyes and clarity of mind that your team relies on. Learn when to stick your neck out, and when to pull your head right in. That balance of bravery, humility, and commitment to finishing the job is key.’

Having already recommended acting training, Healey also advises that would-be dramaturgs read everything, from Greek classics to contemporary works. He adds: ‘Don’t just read plays, read great literature from all cultures. History. Understand the linkages of history – how did Western culture move from paganism to Christianity (and what happened to Judaism on the way?). Don’t be dumb, and more importantly don’t act dumb. Learn, be proud, learn more. Don’t learn from Wikipedia. Don’t do it unless you care like crazy about it because otherwise it will eat you up. Love academia, but don’t be seduced by its bullshit – take a leaf from its own book and challenge it. Get political – art means nothing without political energy. Have great sex: all art is based on passion.’

Sinclair’s advice also begins with reading. ‘Read The Poetics by Aristotle, read Ikhernofret, read The Presentation of Everyday Life by Irving Goffman, read How Plays Work by David Edgar, read The 36 Dramatic Situations by George Polti, read Story by Robert McKee, Ghost Light by Michael Chemers, read Critical Response Process by Liz Lerman (and more). Study the classic plays and compare them with successful new ones. Understand the fundamental difference between craft and taste. Keep reading and watching until your awareness of meta structure in writing for the stage becomes your primary natural habit then learn to be impartial and eloquent when advocating for it.

‘Approach gifted new playwrights and work alongside them. Fertilise soil rather than fix or correct. Find as many avenues as possible to empower the playwright you are working with to write the play they want to write rather than the one you want them to write. Remember that your job is to create the most fertile environment possible for a playwright’s inspiration to take seed, grow and evolve. Soon enough your name will be attached to a significant piece of dramatic writing and your career will begin,’ he continued.

‘A lot of substandard dramaturgs are actually directors and playwrights who mistakenly believe that all you need to do is read a play and have an opinion. If you develop an awareness of story craft that is comprehensive and beyond mere taste then you will become an invaluable asset to any good playwright looking for an ally and an advocate for their new born dramatic ideas,’ Sinclair concluded.

Previous articles in this series:

Career spotlight: Choreographer 
Career spotlight: Curator 
Career spotlight: Arts publicist
Career spotlight: Collection manager
Career spotlight: Registrar
Career spotlight: Art therapist
 Career spotlight: Burlesque performer 
Career spotlight: Conservator 
Career spotlight: Contemporary jeweller
Career spotlight: Costume designer 
Career spotlight: Floral artist
Career spotlight: Playwright
Career Spotlight: Puppeteer
Career spotlight: Set Designer
Career spotlight: Stage manager

Richard Watts is ArtsHub's National Performing Arts Editor; he also presents the weekly program SmartArts on Three Triple R FM, and serves as the Chair of La Mama Theatre's volunteer Committee of Management. Richard is a life member of the Melbourne Queer Film Festival, and was awarded the status of Melbourne Fringe Living Legend in 2017. In 2020 he was awarded the Sidney Myer Performing Arts Awards' Facilitator's Prize. Most recently, Richard was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Green Room Awards Association in June 2021. Follow him on Twitter: @richardthewatts