Dramaturgy and New Play Development
An excerpt from the essay "Master Class: Dramaturgy and New Play Development" by Andrea Romaldi, Director of the Playwriting Program at the National Theatre School of Canada. Drawing primarily from her experience as a working dramaturge, Romaldi attempts to answer what dramaturgy is.
Andrea Romaldi, Director of the Playwriting Program, in conversation with one of her students, Cole Haley (Playwriting 1, Elliston, NF)
For fifteen years, I worked in new play development. Ten of those years were spent as Literary Manager at Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre—a leader in the development of new Canadian plays— where I practised dramaturgy every day. This is a luxury in my field and it served me well, exposing me to a variety of dramaturgical visions, processes, and practices.
This post is an excerpt from the essay “Master Class: Dramaturgy and New Play Development” recently published in The Directors Lab edited by Evan Tsitsias. (It is available here from Playwrights Canada Press). The essay draws primarily from my experience as a working dramaturge and was informed by my contributions as a panellist to Directors Lab North and the questions asked by its participants. As such, it speaks to the relationship between playwright, dramaturge, and director, and it is intended to offer guidance to directors engaged in new play development and/or the premiere of a new play. In sharing my insights, I hope others can make use of them to support the creation of their own unique theatre.
What Is Dramaturgy?
Dramaturges are frequently asked, “What is dramaturgy?” and I would be remiss not to attempt an answer. However, just as each director, playwright, actor, and designer would define their role and practice differently, so would each dramaturge. In reading my response below I encourage you to add to it whatever you already know of dramaturgy. In my theatre community, I have sometimes observed a tendency to parse definitions, conventions, approaches, theories, and styles, and to split them along certain aesthetic lines. My approach has always been more of an additive one: I try to layer whatever new theory, thought, or tool I encounter into my practice in the hope of making it richer, deeper, and more versatile in its application.
I work in new play dramaturgy, which is distinct from production dramaturgy. My understanding and experience of the latter are relatively limited. Production dramaturges tend to work on plays that have been previously produced, often, but not always, historical plays or plays set in a time or place less than familiar to those working on it. They frequently engage in historical research and bring relevant materials into the design and rehearsal process to support the creative team and cast in their interpretation and performance of the play. When a classical text needs to be edited for a specific production, a production dramaturge will often work with the director to reshape the play in support of the directorial vision.
In new play dramaturgy, a dramaturge’s role is to help a playwright or group of theatre creators identify and address the gaps between what they want their play to communicate to an audience and what the play actually communicates. When a person (or group of people) create new work, they experience two major hurdles. The first is that they possess a glut of information. They know much more than any reader or audience member about their play, its world, its characters, and its artistic aims. A dramaturge helps to ensure that such relevant information—basic facts of the play’s world—reaches the audience instead of remaining only in the creators’ minds. A dramaturge might ask: What is happening? Why? How do I know that? What do I need to know about this world and these characters in order to follow the story, in order to emotionally invest in the play? The second problem play creators face is a lack of information. Like most of us, they are frequently unaware of their own subconscious drives in creating art. In following the emotional life of the play, a dramaturge can often point to clues in the text that hint at a playwright’s deeper obsession, the moral or metaphysical question lying unacknowledged in the heart of the writing. In pursuing both lines of questioning, a dramaturge can help a playwright realize their vision of their play.
Andrea Romaldi, Director of the Playwriting Program at the National Theatre School of Canada.
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