Behind the Scenes: “Director as Dramaturg” A masterclass with Nina Lee-Aquino (The New Groundswell Festival Nightwood Theatre)

So, “what is a dramaturg” is a question I get asked a lot. It’s also a question I fumble with. Part of the problem is that there are different kinds of dramaturgs, and even within those types dramaturgs perform different roles.

Let’s start with that briefly then shall we? And I do mean briefly. I think it would be possible to write a master’s thesis on the differing roles of dramaturgy. So, for the sake of ease, what I think I got out of the class with Nina Lee-Aquino is that there are fundamentally two types of dramaturgs. And, please please feel free to chime in with comments about how misguided I am here, because really, I don’t know, this is my impression, but I am not an expert. The first kind, the kind I imagine is getting rarer and rarer in these days of diminishing budgets, is a company / production dramaturg. The second is a script dramaturg.

A company / production dramaturg works with finished scripts. They work to provide the context of the script, the time period, the social context, the place within the season. This role, as I understand it, involves a vast amount of research and works primarily with artistic directors and the directors of the productions themselves. If someone has a question about why Jane would be carrying that thing around, the dramaturg will research the historical context and find out that every young woman in the late 1800s of a certain economic level carried that that and would be shunned if they didn’t. This role is about providing tools and context to the members of the production to help them get the most from the script.

A script dramaturg is involved in the script development stage of the game. They work with the writer. Nina’s definition, which is one that I love, is “dramaturgy is the art of inspiring the playwright”. So, in the same way that a production dramaturg provides tools to the members of the production to help them get the most out of their script, the script dramaturg provides tools to the playwright to help them get the most out of themselves.

This class was about the role of what I have dubbed a script dramaturg.

The fact that I can tell you that is, in and of itself, an indication of how well this masterclass on Director as Dramaturg works. The number of times dramaturgy has been explained to me that it has gone right over my head is fairly astounding. The fact that I get it now is a testament to Nina’s passion about the topic, as well as her ability to distill the information and convey it clearly. Which is not a surprise really, because I think that ability to communicate is one that is absolutely key to the ability to be an effective dramaturg.

The class was structured as a mini-condensed dramaturg process. There was, of course, a lot of information conveyed through Nina talking to us, but we also got to try it all out. Here’s a snapshot of what the day looked like:

  • Everyone wrote a scene (two or three characters) inspired by a picture of their choosing. No editing, no crossing out and re-writing, something as raw as possible. This is what would be dramaturged throughout the class
  • We got into groups and read the scenes within our groups, the group chose from those 4 or 5 scenes which one they wanted to work with
  • Within the group roles were defined, a playwright, a director/dramaturg and actors
  • The dramaturgical process began, dramaturgs and playwrights had their “first date” where questions were asked and answered and a relationship established. Actors moved from group to group eavesdropping on these “dates”, learning about the similarities and differences of each group
  • The original group reassembles and the dramaturg leads the workshopping process of the script
  • There was a reading of all the dramaturged pieces in front of an audience (the workshop participants)

So, essentially, the whole development process condensed into seven hours.

It was a really great way to do it. It allowed people to see the process, and ask questions. The questions weren’t just for Nina as the instructor either, there were questions between workshop participants about what was working and what wasn’t.

Even for those who think they’ll never do any dramaturgy, this workshop was an amazing glimpse into the process. The day would be invaluable for playwrights, directors and dramaturgs. Basically for anyone involved in the development of a new play, a day like this one provides invaluable insights.

It’s so wonderful, and important, that there are events like the New Groundswell Festival at Nightwood Theatre to bring opportunities like this forward to the community.

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