What’s a dramaturg anyway?

What is a dramaturg? What is dramaturgy? This is the central question that I came to Columbia to figure out, along with about 5 other people each year. Sometimes I start to think it sounds more like a question on Jeopardy than the subject of an MFA. Just as obscure, nearly as insignificant. Maybe more. As an oft-forgotten member of the theatrical world, a dramaturg can easily be labeled as the most obscure concentration of one of the most marginalized careers in the U.S. It’s right up there with underwater basket weaving in its viability as a profession. I’m sure we all make our parents proud…

Which is why I get just a bit annoyed when a sophisticated European dramaturg walks into one of our classrooms and says, “Let me tell you what it’s like in my country.”

From De Veenfabriek's production of "Kokoschka Live!"

Paul Slangen, a Dutch dramaturg and head of De Veenfabriek, a groundbreaking ensemble theater company in Leiden, Holland, said exactly that as he began his presentation at the School of Theatre on Wednesday, October 19th. And yes, he told us all about the joys of government funding for the arts in his socially democratic nation. But also, in an incredibly dynamic and humorous way, managed to sum up his culture and society through a lens that allowed us to actually understand what his theater company is and why their work exists. This, my friends, is dramaturgy at its best.

I have had professors tell me that dramaturgy is the intersection point between theater and the rest of the world. Sounds cool, right? But what do we do, exactly, in order to be that?!? Well, the answer is, of course, no one thing. But Slangen gave me a pretty good idea of how I and many of my colleagues could keep busy for most of our professional lives.

Slangen’s company, De Veenfabriek, is a music theater company, which believes in equal collaboration between musicians and theater artists to create a performance work. Compared to the American theatre world, that’s already a bit radical. In the great American tradition of Musical Theater, the book writer, composer, and lyricist all have distinct roles that come together to create a completed work. But it is rare for any one of these people to comment on the work holistically, leaving that primarily to the director. And musical theater is traditionally one of the most collaborative theatrical endeavors in the US.

But interdisciplinary collaboration is just the beginning for Slangen. De Veenfabriek’s work is site specific, which means they rarely perform in actual theaters. Instead, they travel throughout the northern Dutch countryside, performing for people who do not normally go to the theatre and, if not for companies like this one, have very little access to the arts. As one of the pioneers of site specific performance around the world, De Veenfabriek has performed in old factories, greenhouses, and other industrial spaces that have often been abandoned. Sometimes they even refurbish the space that they are performing in and leave behind a theater for the community and other touring companies to use.

So as a dramaturg, Slangen is responsible for creating his own company, pioneering an exciting new style of theater, performing it in places where theatre has never been done before and leaving a newly created theater in its wake, in a unique style of community service and activism. Fellow Columbia dramaturgs, I think we’ve got our work cut out for us.

One of the most fascinating projects De Veenfabriek has been able to pull off is a site specific performance inside a retail superstore located in one of the biggest malls in Holland. Not only were they able to perform while the store was open during regular business hours, but the store actually paid for additional security so that the audience could stay 45 minutes past the store’s closing time to watch the conclusion of the piece. As someone who has produced site specific theatre here in the US, this seems like a nearly impossible achievement.

Oh, and what was the piece about, you ask? Why, it was all about the obsessive detachment of consumerism. A pastiche of scenes featuring nameless people all attempting to create their own perfect reality. In the middle of a mall. Meanwhile, we have authorities losing their minds over some folks talking about politics and the economy in the middle of Zuccotti park.

So as far as I can tell, it’s up to dramaturgs to figure out what theatre has the potential to be, and then do our best to nudge the work in that direction. Rather than the most obscure aspect of the theatrical profession, perhaps I would do better to call us the trendsetters. Originators of ideas. Maybe even pioneers in the field.

Of course, when asked what a dramaturg’s job is, Slangen has it most eloquently encapsulated. “It is the dramaturg’s job to imagine a play that he could never direct or write, and then find the people who can bring that story to life,” he bestows on us. Sounds like a pretty great job to me.

– Meropi Peponides, Theatre MFA ’13

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