None other than our esteemed editor Colin Mitchell weighed in this week on the subject of dramaturgy. Believe me, any time that dramaturgy is mentioned anywhere without someone making the “dramaturd” joke, it is a win. But if you’ll permit me a little point-counterpoint, I will say that before we start giving dramaturgy jobs away to disenfranchised critics, perhaps we can give some dramaturgy jobs to, you know, dramaturgs. I have enough trouble finding work as is without the market flooding.
Colin’s piece however did get me thinking about the relationship that exists between critics and dramaturgs and, more specifically, my gripes with the state of theater criticism. I alluded to it last week when I mentioned how theater reviews basically serve one purpose at this point. Provided that the review is positive (or even if it is negative for interesting reasons), it’s a good marketing tool. This is why the group most outraged (perhaps the only group outraged) about the steady whittling down of the world’s theater critics are the theater-makers. We are perpetually ravenous for attention and critics are some of the last outsiders willing to give it to us and encourage others to do the same.
In his piece, Colin suggests that both dramaturgs and critics “plumb the psyche of hidden metaphors in plays that sometimes even the writers haven’t considered.” I think this statement is about three-quarters right. This is definitely what dramaturgs do (or try to do) and it is what critics should be trying to do. But I can’t remember the last time I read a theater review that plumbed the depths of anything other than the critic’s thesaurus. As a case study, let’s look at last week’s “Critique of the Week,” a review of South Coast Rep’s production of Molly Smith Metzler’s Elemeno Pea by Bob Verini of Variety. Watch as I criticize the criticism:
By my count, fully two-thirds of the review is given over to a synopsis (paragraphs 2-5). Verini does sprinkle in a few carefully chosen adjectives to suggest his attitude towards the story but this still only amounts to a subjective description of the events and characters. There’s no analysis. He never addresses the play’s themes head-on—the very thing that the “psyche of hidden metaphors” reveals to us—nor does he consider what the play’s ability or inability to make these themes resonate says about the world from which it sprang. For instance, Verini writes at one point, “There’s enough twitting of the dopey wealthy to satisfy any number of the 99%…” We can infer then that the play is critical of the wealthy, and we know that this country is currently engaged in a very real class warfare that’s often manifested in criticism of the wealthy. So why doesn’t Metzler’s version of it engage us? What is the discrepancy between her criticisms and ours? And what does this say about how we truly feel about the wealthy? Verini doesn’t offer us this. He instead moves from his artfully written summary to praising the director for ensuring that the actors were loud enough.
The writer Chuck Klosterman once said in describing his own ambivalence towards film criticism, “…I’ve never quite understood why anyone would want to be informed about the supposed value of a film before they actually experience it…I prefer reading film reviews of movies I’ve already seen; I’m always more interested in seeing if what I philosophically absorbed from a motion picture was conventional or atypical.” The key phrase here is, “what I philosophically absorbed…” Whatever it is that you philosophically absorbed, that is the theme of the work, the psyche of it, the feeling that sticks with you days and weeks after you’ve seen it and long forgotten if the light design was good or bad. The “conventional or atypical” question that Klosterman wants answered speaks to our need for contextualization, an understanding of what our feelings about the play says about us as individuals and as a culture. This is what dramaturgs offer to a production team and what critics can offer to that production’s audience. Once critics remember this, perhaps they will find new jobs. And then they won’t have to take ours.
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.