What Does a Dramaturg Do? by Natalie Gilmore

Original article in Portland Center Stage blog

JAW is one of my favorite times of year at PCS. We have this whole in-flux of artists in a concentrated period of time working in every nook and cranny of the building. The copy machine ka-chunks through the day spitting out fresh pages. Actors pace the sidewalk in front of the Armory  reading lines in animated, hushed tones. Stage managers stride though the kitchen calling “five minutes!” and everyone  scurries back into their respective rehearsal rooms.

And tucked in a corner, often with brows furrowed in deep, concentrated conversation, are the playwright and the dramaturg.  Now we always have gaggles of actors and stage managers and directors working on plays around here. That’s nothing unusual. But having playwrights and dramaturges in residence is unique to JAW. Since the whole point of JAW is to serve the creation of the new play, dramaturges add a very necessary component to the mix.

So what exactly is a dramaturg? This is kind of a tough question. Every theater artist describes this job in a different way. I asked Braden Abraham, dramaturg for The Body of an American and The Huntsmen, how he would describe his role in the JAW workshop process. “In this type of process the playwright and the director chart the course.  I’m the co-pilot.  They drive. I study the map and maybe describe the scenery,” said Braden.

While the play is in rehearsal, Braden is listening intently while the actors read the play aloud. “There are four sort of pillars that I’m thinking about while I’m listening to the play,” he explains.

  1. Structure – the bones of the play; the shape; the beginning, middle, end; the dramatic arc of it.
  2. Style – the flesh; the way we identify what we are watching; the sound of the language; the writer’s voice.
  3. Clarity – the effectiveness of communication; what the play is trying to express and how effective the writing is in its chosen way of expressing it;  the play’s emotional potency;  Its effectiveness in building suspense,  accessibility, force, efficiency, depth.
  4. Meaning –  what I take away from experiencing it; the vapor trail or what feeling lingers after it’s over;  the spark that connects old ideas and new;  the new perspective.

Finally, I asked Braden what he likes most about working on new plays. He replied, “A lot of discoveries happen.  I love that.  Maybe the most exciting thing is that a new play, one that is truly original, is always a little strange to us, and therefore our journey is more about discovery than approval.  It’s thrilling and a little scary to be at the beginning of something.”