Why do some productions hire a dramaturg? We find out how such professionals contribute to the theatre scene.
BY DAPHNE ONG
Published on 11 April 2016
BY DAPHNE ONG
Involved in research, developing scripts or analysing texts, the role of the multi-tasking dramaturg remains a mystery to many theatre-goers. In fact, the word itself is unfamiliar to most. What does a ‘dramaturg’ actually do? And how does his or her work enhance a production? Still not quite ubiquitous in the performance scene, dramaturgy is often fraught with misconceptions.
Founding director of the Asian Dramaturgs’ Network (ADN) Dr Lim How Ngean, explains, “The most common misconception is that the dramaturg is seen as someone taking over the artistic materialisation, or usurping the artistic work of the creator and telling the director or choreographer what to do.” Most tellingly, the question that academic, playwright and dramaturg Dr Robin Loon keeps hearing is, “Why do you need a dramaturg? A director already does what a dramaturg does.”
The perception of the dramaturg as someone unnecessary at best and overbearing at worst is a pervasive one, but nothing could be further from the truth.
“How does the dramaturg contribute to performance-making?” asks Dr Lim. “By being there to facilitate, support and even service the creation process in tandem with the director or choreographer. The dramaturg can simply be the researcher, the artistic support, or sounding board to the director or choreographer.”
A dramaturg is essentially a script doctor,” says Dr Loon. “They can help research and critique, and sometimes edit a script with the imagined production vision in mind, but not be expected to write or rewrite it.”
The most common role of the dramaturg is that of research, especially preliminary and continuing research into the subject, themes and issues in a performance. Dr Lim likens it to being the “first informed audience” who comments on the performance during the rehearsal process.
Dramaturgs are still not the mainstay in performances, especially in smaller theatre and dance companies who struggle to manage the plethora of production costs. However, awareness and engagement of dramaturgy are on the rise.
DOCTOR IN THE HOUSE Theatre stalwart Dr Robin Loon likens the role of the dramaturg to that of a script doctor.
Dr Lim also explains the increasing need for dramaturgs. “As contemporary performance becomes more sophisticated and complex, the performance-maker has to deal with a lot more aspects and perspectives in their performance-making process. Sometimes engaging a dramaturg assists in getting a sense of the big picture, allowing the performance-maker to focus on the details without losing sight of the performance in its entirety. We cannot discount research and intellectual rigour in performance-making.”
If dramaturgy sounds right up your alley, you’re in luck. Many universities, particularly in Europe and the US, offer dramaturgy courses up to the doctorate level. In Singapore and the Asia Pacific, there are some dramaturgical courses at the tertiary level as well.
However, the groundwork for developing as a dramaturg starts simply: watch more performances — as many as you can manage, in fact. “You hone your critical observation and analytical skills as you watch and experience different performances, both good and bad,” says Dr Lim.
“You see the good ones because they give you a broad spectrum of what are considered engaging performances. The bad performances are fantastic lessons in what not to do and how one can improve them. In addition, the patience to sit quietly and observe rehearsals, to ask questions, to be curious, to engage in discussions with the performance-maker is just as important.”
Propsective dramaturgs can also get a head start at Centre 42’s Dramaturgy Apprenticeship Programme under its Garage initiative. Headed by Dr Loon, The Garage is a programme that develops a group of fresh theatre graduates or practitioners wanting a mid-career switch or to add dramaturgy to their skill set. Currently grooming its first batch of four, the programme comprises both a theory component and professional attachments.
Another exciting first is the Asian Dramaturgs’ Network Inaugural Symposium, spearheaded by Dr Lim. As a dramaturg, performance-maker and dance researcher, Dr Lim started the ADN as he wanted to get to know other dramaturgs and find out more about dramaturgy practices in the region.
Taking place this month, the symposium will see dramaturgs from around Asia and beyond gathering to share their practices and approaches to dramaturgy. The event also provides opportunities for dramaturgs to network with peers from around the region. Mutual education and professionalising the role of the dramaturg are also on the agenda.
So ultimately, what are the hopes for dramaturgy in the future of performance-making?
“More rigorous performances!” says Dr Lim. “It can also provide myriad ways to foster more collaborative strategies in dealing with how we create performances, as well as how we negotiate and navigate interrelationships between all the artists involved in a particular performance.”
On Dr Loon’s wish list: “That it gains professional and artistic recognition and that it is no longer misused and misrepresented.”
UPPING THE GAME Dr Lim How Ngean, founding director of the Asian Dramaturgs’ Network, hopes to increase the awareness and engagement of dramaturgs.