Hello. I’m Dylan. I’m new here.
Okay then, enough chit-chat. Let’s get started:
I’m of the opinion that, right now, the most commonly understood fact about dramaturgy and dramaturgs is that no one understands what dramaturgy is or what dramaturgs do. And this haziness also applies to the dramaturgs themselves, who spend as much time haggling over the specifics of their job description as they do anything else. Now don’t worry. I’m not going to bore you with my own, custom-made definition. For our purposes, the only thing you need to know is that, by and large, dramaturgy is a luxury item in theater, the equivalent of power windows in your car. Yes, they are nice to have but you can just spend the five seconds cranking the handle and rolling the windows down yourself. Everything a dramaturg does is something that a director or a writer or an actor or a designer can do and very often will do without recognizing that they have unwittingly stepped into the role of dramaturg. Dramaturgs do research for a play. Ah but see there’s this moderately reliable thing now called Wikipedia that can handle that rather efficiently. Dramaturgs write program notes and give post-show talks. Yes well, any eloquent and well-informed member of your production team can handle that. But, but dramaturgs advise. They advise goddamnit. Uh-huh. It’s just that if there’s one thing theater is never short on, it’s people willing to give you their advice.
By now you have hopefully read my bio (if not, please do. I’m very impressive) and you know that I am in fact a dramaturg. And here I am belittling my own profession. Which means I am bitter (yes, definitely). But also I have a greater point which I will steer the boat towards now. The point is that dramaturgs are consequently forced to spend a great deal of time trying to carve out little, niche jobs for themselves in order to reassert their own relevancy in theater. I myself have been doing this for a number of years (hence the bitterness). And one of the “jobs” that is available is reading scripts. Most theaters get unsolicited scripts sent to them in some form by aspiring writers. And the bigger theaters have entire departments devoted to dealing with new scripts, helmed by literary managers, which is just what dramaturgs call themselves when they are working in an administrative setting as opposed to a production setting. And these literary managers have no interest in reading the vast majority of the scripts they get. This is because the vast majority of scripts are terrible. Sorry. That’s just the way writing works. But not only is there that slim chance of a diamond in the rough, theaters also have to give off the appearance of caring about these scripts to donors, and grant-givers, and agents. So someone has got to read them. That someone is me. I read them and I write up a little synopsis and a little evaluation and I give them a little grade. Sometimes it’s on a numerical scale. Sometimes, it’s pass/fail. It’s pretty much like the book reports you did when you were in elementary school.
I have been doing this regularly for several years for many of the larger theaters in Southern California. This means I have read literally hundreds and hundreds (if not thousands) of terrible scripts and a smattering of good ones too. And while this is frequently painful, it has also given me a unique perspective on the directions and trends that the playwriting community and, by extension, all of theater is going towards and will go towards in the future. Ironically, this is why dramaturgy really exists. It exists to offer that wide perspective, to step away from all the tiny beats and objectives and operatives and cues and look at things from afar. Dramaturgs try to offer context and it’s only when you stand back and do something crazy like read everything that the great, unwashed masses are sending out that this context can become clear. When you think about it, that’s all that research and program notes and post-show talkbacks are. It’s all just formalized, packaged context. This is also why I have hopped aboard the good ship Bitter Lemons; to talk about playwriting from this macro vantage point.
So that’s my pitch, guys. I’ll come at you once a week or so with the things I’ve seen, the things I’ve noticed and the things annoying the piss out of me as I wade through the deep and murky waters of the world’s next, great plays.
About the Author: Dylan Southard is the co-Artistic Director of needtheater and previously served as their resident dramaturg and literary manager. Production dramaturgy credits for needtheater include: Fatboy, Mercury Fur, Scarcity, tempOdyssey, and The Web. He also directed needtheater's world premiere production of Guided Consideration of a Lamentable Deed. He is the resident dramaturg for The Robey Theatre Company at the Los Angeles Theater Center, where he runs the advanced playwrights lab and helps to oversee new play development. He is also an associate artist with the international, new script development group LoNyLa, and works as a script consultant for theaters, including The Center Theatre Group, The Geffen Playhouse, The Theatre @ Boston Court, and Native Voices at the Autry. He trained for two years under a dramaturgy fellowship at Centerstage in Baltimore and is a graduate of Wesleyan University.