Book by Denniston

What is Musical Theatre Dramaturgy?

I like to think of dramaturgy a something between therapy and life coaching for your show. It's that little bit of support that can make all the difference.

A dramaturge (British English, because the word entered British English from the French) or dramaturg (American English, because the word entered American English form the German) is someone who works with writers, coaxing, tickling and teasing them into writing the best show they are capable of writing, and achieving what they set out to achieve. A good dramaturge will have a sound understanding of story structure, scene structure, song placement, and all the elements of story telling through words, music and dance. A good dramaturge never imposes her or his own ideas, but helps the writers find for themselves the best possible way of telling their story.

A dramaturge may be brought in at any stage of the process. Sometimes a writer I've worked with in the past will come to see me saying, "I've had an idea for a show - is this crazy?" and I'll spend half an hour asking her or him questions, to help the writer express what's exciting about the idea and what's scary about it. By the time we've done that the writer will have a much clearer idea about whether this is a project that's right for her or him to pursue.

Or perhaps a writing team has written part of a show and they're stuck. They need some feedback and objective advice to help them find their sense of direction again so they can take to project to the next level.

Maybe a show is in rehearsal - or even previews - and something isn't working, so it's time to bring in a fresh pair of eyes.

Or sometimes a project has got stuck because the creative team have different ideas about the direction in which it needs to be going, and there's a danger of the core relationships breaking down. Then the dramaturge, like a couples therapist, can help everyone find their common ground again, so they can all agree on a plan that's in the best interests of the show and find a resolution that works for everyone.

A dramaturge might be brought on board by the writing team or by the producer. As with an agent, who can help keep the relationship between a producer and an artist good by dealing with any difficult issues that arise, a dramaturge can help enormously in making sure that the producer gets a show they want to produce, and the writers have written something of which they can feel proud.

A dramaturge is not
a) a collaborator
b) a book doctor

a) a collaborator
A collaborator is part of the writing team, and is involved in decisions about what goes into a show and what doesn't. A dramaturge may make suggestions, but it is up to the writing team to decide whether to take up those suggestions, or any part of them, and then what to do with them. If at any point a dramaturge is invited to add words to a page or notes to a score then a line has been crossed. There's nothing wrong with crossing lines as long as everyone agrees to it, but everyone needs to know that's what has happened and be happy with it. If that does happen, draw up a new collaborators' agreement to reflect the new situation, and get on with writing your show. If that's not what you want then stop straight away and make sure everyone understands exactly what the relationship is going to be in future.

b) a book doctor
A book doctor is someone hired by a producer to fix a problem with a show when it seems that the writing team aren't able or willing to do it themselves. Unlike a dramaturge, a book doctor will either rewrite parts of the show or tell the team how to rewrite it. Once a common presence in the Musical Theatre world, book doctors are now rare, because under most circumstances it is inappropriate for anyone to tell the writers what to write, or to rewrite their work. (It is certainly never appropriate without their consent!)

Why do I need a dramaturge when I already have a director on board?

Directors - as well as actors, producers, musical directors, and other members of the team - will often give writers feedback and advice, and this can, of course, be enormously beneficial to the writing team and to the development of the show. Some directors have all the skills needed by a good dramaturge. So why bother with another person on the team to do something the director might already be doing anyway?

No matter how well intentioned and supportive everyone on the team may be, there is a danger of conflict of interest. Eager writers may feel obliged to make a change the director suggests because they feel the director has more power than they do, even though they believe that the particular change isn't the right thing for the show. If the director makes suggestions and the writers resist there can be a dangerous breakdown in what needs to be a supportive relationship on both sides. The same can happen if the writers want to make changes and the director resists.

Every project is different and every creative team is different, so every production will need a different approach. Sometimes - perhaps more often than one would guess - the end result will be better if a dramaturge is in place to support everyone on the team, easing the flow of communication and maintaining good relationships on all sides. This allows the writers to write, the director to direct, everyone to feel that their contributions have been heard and respected, and the experience to be a much happier one all round.

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