MFA program is known for allowing dramaturgs to collaborate directly with playwrights
Monday, April 23, 2018

The first thing Art Borreca often tells new students in the University of Iowa’s dramaturgy MFA program is to learn to explain what a dramaturg does, because they’ll be asked that a lot.

It’s certainly not a piece of advice given to every incoming UI student, but Borreca, an associate professor, co-head of the Playwrights Workshop, and head of dramaturgy, deems it necessary in the often-unknown art of dramaturgy. The term emerged in Germany in the 18th century, but the position only began to gain real traction in the United States in the mid-20th century. Still, few people outside the theater world know what dramaturgy is.

Clare Moore, a senior from Des Moines, Iowa, who is working toward a major in theater arts, a minor in political science, and a certificate in entrepreneurship, says her mother used to pronounce it five different ways.

Did you know?

German writer, philosopher, dramatist, and critic Gotthold Ephraim Lessing is considered the father of dramaturgy. His essay collection, Hamburg Dramaturgy, written in the 1760s, introduced the term and defined the field: “Dramaturgy is the concern with composition, structure, staging, and audience from literary analysis and historiography.”

“People who talked to her thought I was going to be a dermatologist,” she says.

Borreca even has trouble describing it sometimes.

“I always worry I’m leaving things out and not doing the job description justice,” Borreca says. “The short version is that the concept of dramaturgy is to bring a critic inside the process of theater to advise, give feedback, and help develop work.”

The long definition is just that: long. A dramaturg may be called upon to do a variety of things, including:

  • Work with playwrights to develop new work.
  • Read and evaluate new scripts for possible production.
  • Collaborate with directors on new interpretations of established plays.
  • Prepare texts as needed, such as translating or editing to accentuate certain themes.
  • Conduct research in order to advise directors and actors on production history; define words or explain ambiguous phrases; and provide understanding of time periods, themes, and character motivations.
  • Attend rehearsals as a “third eye” to offer feedback on what’s working and where there are opportunities for improvement.
  • Advise the marketing team and prepare program notes or essays for playbills.
  • Lead community outreach programs, such as post-production discussions.

Luke White, a first-year MFA student in dramaturgy, has a somewhat simpler definition of dramaturgy: “I like to describe it as the R&D of theater. We’re interested in the research and development of productions—whether they’re new or old scripts.”

The field of dramaturgy is growing in the U.S., and more attention is being paid to it within academia and professional organizations. It may not yet be a widely recognized term, but it’s becoming more mainstream, with Disney employing dramaturgs and dramaturgs moving from theater to producer roles in television or film.

“Our dramaturgs leave here with as good a training in the field as you can get,” Borreca says. “I would trust any of our graduates to move into any literary manager or dramaturg position in the country and fare well.”

A unique focus on new-play dramaturgy

Dramaturgs are integral to the production process from beginning to end, inspiring and influencing the decisions that go into a production. The exact roles a dramaturg plays depend on what a theater or production needs, as well as what type of dramaturgy one is practicing.

“I like to jokingly say there’s two types of dramaturgy: There’s dramaturgy with dead playwrights and dramaturgy with living playwrights,” Borreca says. “When there’s a living playwright, it’s a whole other situation because you have a script that’s developing and continually changing.”

Iowa New Play Festival

Annual weeklong festival of new work written by MFA and undergraduate playwrights. Four full productions and daily staged readings will be presented.

When: April 30 to May 5, 2018. View the full schedule of events.

Tickets: Tickets for Iowa New Play Festival productions are $5 for non-UI students and free for UI students. Staged readings and workshops are free, but seating is limited.

Thanks to its acclaimed Playwrights Workshop, the UI is best known for new-play dramaturgy. While the MFA in dramaturgy has only been offered at the UI since 1999, a dramaturgy course was taught as early as the 1970s. As the role of the dramaturg became more established in American theater, more students began to express an interest in the field.

“UI has one of few programs that allows dramaturgs to collaborate directly with playwrights,” White says. “I’ve been relishing the chance to work with the playwrights here in the development of their pieces. While there’s something delightful about going to an older text and finding new ways to interpret it, I think it’s juicier to work on a new play because the possibilities are endless.”

The focus on new plays is what made the UI the top choice for Christine Scarfuto, who received an MFA in dramaturgy in 2011 and is the literary manager and dramaturg at Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut.

“I worked with almost every playwright and director who was at Iowa during my time there,” Scarfuto says. “My experiences taught me the elusive art of how to talk to playwrights and directors, and how to be a good collaborator in the rehearsal room. That’s not something you can learn in class; you have to learn by doing. And I feel lucky I came out of school with so much hands-on experience.”

A dramaturg working alongside a playwright can help clarify their vision; refine the structure, rhythm, and flow; polish the text; and ask questions—lots of questions.

“Dramaturgs never stop asking questions,” Borreca says. “‘Why are you setting it during this time period?’ ‘How is that going to work?’ ‘What does this do to the character?’”

White says he thinks of it as helping the playwright discover their own work.

“We’re not there to write the play for them, but sometimes a comment or question we have unlocks something they’re trying to figure out or opens up a whole new world for them,” White says.

Scarfuto says she sees similarities between working as a dramaturg on a new play and an established play.

“I utilize the mindset of a new-play dramaturg even if the playwright is dead,” Scarfuto says. “I sit in rehearsal and try to see the play through the eyes of an audience member. I think about whether something is confusing and whether there is a way to tell the story more effectively and more in line with what the playwright and director envision. You can do this for a play that was written 200 years ago or one that was written yesterday.”

In a sense, the dramaturg is the advocate for the playwright, living or dead.

“Everything is done with the utmost amount of care and love for your playwright,” White says.

Flexibility and opportunities for undergrads

One of the strengths of the UI’s program is its flexibility.

“Right now, Luke White wants to learn German and translate from German,” Borreca says. “To do that, you have to carve space out in the program, and we’ve set it up so he can do that.”

The UI program also encourages dramaturgs to engage in other theater roles, such as directing, acting, and writing their own plays.

“In fact, in the application process, we like to see when people are not just focused on the literary side of things,” Borreca says. “It’s good to have people who have experience acting or directing or stage managing because you know they understand the process.”

While an MFA program, undergraduates also have options to study dramaturgy. Moore says she always wanted be involved in theater. As a first-year student, she focused on acting, but she discovered dramaturgy during her sophomore year.

“I took a script analysis class and really enjoyed digging deep in the work,” Moore says. “I realized I liked that work more than memorizing lines. It was the first time I had heard about dramaturgy, but knew I wanted to do it.”

People who pursue dramaturgy generally are interested in the historical and literary aspects of theater but also want to be engaged with the creative process. One thing dramaturgs don’t expect, however, is to become famous.

“You’re not going to get your name in lights,” White says. “Being a dramaturg requires an unabashed love for the work and not for any fame that might come with it. If that’s what you’re after, it might not be the right role for you in the theater. We’re in the shadows a bit, and that’s OK. Our goal is to see that piece of theater on stage and fully realized to its greatest potential. If that happens, it doesn’t matter if our name is known or not.”