"If You Took a Knife to the Play, It would Bleed Me"

This is how one dramaturg, Mark Bly, described the relationship of dramaturgy to theater. But this week, as we recover from last week’s deconstruction of the canon, we are looking for slightly less violent definitions. Indeed, three dramaturgs came to us bearing gifts of knowledge on Monday evening — and a definition was born! 

What is dramaturgy, we asked? Our wise teachers responded in a range of ways, but all three agreed with Rebecca Kastelman’s suggestion that dramaturgs have a special relationship with the repertoire, despite their constantly-shifting roles in the production process.

Debra Caplan described her own experience of helping Target Margin Theater Company develop unusual material for theater — traditional Yiddish stories. The theater’s unique method of devising, “a mashup of graduate seminar and avant-garde experiment,” meant that “the production was essentially a dramaturgy packet transformed onto the stage.”  Dramaturgy, Debra suggested, is a type of community-oriented scholarly practice, a form of public scholarship or public humanities.

Magda Romanska described the dramaturg’s circulation between cultures, genres, and stage languages. Mobile, an “in-between figure,” the dramaturg seems to have access to the newest innovations of the theater. Magda reported on two trends in contemporary opera, the decline of the Met, which performs an increasingly conservative repertoire on an unsustainable budget, and the rise of an opera she has called “post-operetic,” which is experimenting with new aesthetic forms and — importantly — spaces. Indeed Magda argued that repertoire and genre are inherently tied to space. As a postoperetic dramaturg, Magda wears many hats. That night, in her capacity as catalyst for innovative theater, Magda introduced a virtual space for theatrical experiment: Operedia, The Institute for Transmedia Performance.

Heather Nathans offered an account of dramaturgy’s relationship to history. As dramaturg for an exhibit at the American Jewish Historical Society, Heather was charged with enlivening a set of Jewish turn-of-the-century plays. She walked us through her artistic choices: if we think of “history as lace,” then our role as dramaturgs is to find “knots of dramatic encounter” and allow the audience to connect to that encounter.

“A figure who cultivates multiple fluencies” according to Rebecca, the dramaturg “puts the repertoire on the move,” linking cultures and people. But this role as intermediary brings instability, too. Will the dramaturg will survive in the era of declining arts budgets and conservative repertoires? Heather and Debra lamented the difficulty of making dramaturgy count as professional labor. Magda, on the other hand, offered suggested that we might in fact see the rise of the dramaturg alongside the increasing diversity of society. As we debated the dramaturg’s relationship to institutions and institutionalization, again the figure of the curator loomed in our midst. Several people likened the dramaturg’s roles in the production process to forms of cultural curation. Others reflected on dramaturgy’s pedagogical function.

As we continued discussing on Tuesday Debra underscored the importance of systems thinking and network analysis to dramaturgy. She demonstrated a data visualization of relationships between actors of the interwar Yiddish art theater movement, all associated with the Vilna Troupe.

By documenting these relationships we can begin to see the integral roles played by agents thought to be marginal to artistic processes, Debra suggested. But this digital humanities approach is not free of bias; the alternative canon, the alternative hierarchy of meaning created by data visualization is useful as a corrective rather than a substitute for traditional scholarship. 

 

 

See also: Ania Aizman