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Teaching Dramaturgy as a Creative Practice 

In the fall of 2019, I was a theatre minor in crisis. It was the start of my senior year of college, meaning that I was quickly running out of time to complete the practicum credit that would allow me to graduate with a theatre minor. At the time, I was an actor and anthropology major who was slowly realizing that I couldn’t see myself pursuing acting long-term. I was also a theatre lover who finally had to accept the fact that I was not good at stagecraft and had no desire to work long hours at the light or sound boards. This was also around the time that I began to panic about life after college. What career could I possibly make out of anthropology and theatre?

In the midst of a caffeine-induced night of googling possible theatre careers, I discovered dramaturgy. I had briefly encountered dramaturgy work in collegiate theatre productions before, but I had no real understanding of what dramaturgy was and what a dramaturg did other than providing brief snippets of historical context. I went to one of my theatre mentors to see what would be required of me if I chose to do a dramaturgy practicum and walked away with my first role as a dramaturg. I was told that as a dramaturg, my job would be to become an expert on the time period of the show and become a master at Google. Whenever someone on the team had a question, it was my job to give them an answer. I was expected to observe rehearsals and be the person on call, should anyone on the creative team need help with a component of their own research.

This reinforced the idea that while dramaturgs occasionally employed creative thinking, the main role of a dramaturg was the role of an academic and a researcher, not as a creative.

My first work as a dramaturg was a college production of Kate Hamill’s Sense and Sensibility. I primarily worked independently from the rest of the production. I would show up to production meetings with new information on the time period, the production history, and—most notably—the language of hand fans. The dramaturgical information that I shared drastically changed the usage of props in the production, as well as the function of the set. I showed up to a few rehearsals, hastily installed a lobby display full of notes on Jane Austen and her influence in the literary world, and then my work was done. By the end of the production, I saw my dramaturgical notes make it onto the stage and was extremely grateful that none of my work was corrected when the Jane Austen Society of North America came to see the production after their annual conference convened in my small college town. But I was also left with a strange feeling. One of the professors working on the production told me that I was not a part of the creative team, nor was I a part of the production and technical team, despite providing information that influenced the final product that was seen on stage from both a creative and technical perspective. This reinforced the idea that while dramaturgs occasionally employed creative thinking, the main role of a dramaturg was the role of an academic and a researcher, not as a creative.

My first work as a dramaturg was nothing exceptional, but it made me fall in love nonetheless. Thus, just one year later, I entered University of Houston’s MA in Theatre Studies program, which had a heavy focus on dramaturgy. In my graduate program, dramaturgy was again taught as more of an academic practice. My program focused on US-based dramaturgy practices, and leaned into teaching that the dramaturg was a researcher that worked in both production and new works spaces, but functioned mainly as a sounding board for people on creative teams. I was not taught that dramaturgy itself was a creative practice, only that a dramaturg could help the creative practice of others.

Two people pose in graduation attire.

Jessica Elaine Ellison and cohort member Luke Evans graduating from University of Houston’s MA in Theatre Studies program in 2022.

According to my program, the main role of a dramaturg was threefold: to provide the historical and social context that helped inform the world of the play, to be available to answer any questions about subject material related to the play, and—when asked—to advise the director on the overall effectiveness of certain dramatic choices in relation to the dramaturgy of the play. Additionally, when working on university productions as a lead dramaturg, my role included leading talkbacks and creating lobby displays. While I enjoyed this work, I began to wonder about how my work as a dramaturg could change if I leaned into creating a fully-formed creative practice out of dramaturgy. How might talkbacks become less stagnant? And how might lobby displays expand and become more fully integrated into a production? During my time in undergrad and in my time as a graduate student, I was always expected to incorporate these elements into my role as a dramaturg, but I was never taught about the goals of a lobby display. I was never taught how to effectively collaborate with a director and a production team to even install a lobby display. In this time of questioning, I was curious about what the effects of teaching dramaturgs to be creatives could have on educational spaces. In many professional spaces, dramaturgs have been embraced as artists with a creative practice, which has allowed the role of the professional dramaturg to expand and has led to industry-wide innovation—as seen in the work of dramaturgs Anna D. Novak and Katy Rubin, Sulu Leonimm, and Liz Morgan, as well as many, many others. How, then, may more dramaturgical training programs expand and innovate by embracing the dramaturg as a creative?

I wanted to create a dramaturgical experience that was more akin to a highly curated and immersive experience.

As I continued on in my graduate program, I learned more about how to craft the perfect dramaturgy packet and how to master the art of the talkback. My love for dramaturgy grew deeper, and about halfway through my program I began to accept work as a freelance dramaturg, which continued post-graduation and into present day. In my freelance work, I began to crave more than providing research and the occasional talkback. I wanted to be able to provide a fully immersive dramaturgical experience, a full experience with a lobby display that incorporated art and sonic experiences. I wanted to create a dramaturgical experience that was more akin to a highly curated and immersive experience that incorporated aspects of visual and media art to more deeply tell the story of a production for both the internal team and the external audience. However, I quickly realized that despite a total of six years of theatrical training, I had no idea how to create something of this kind. So I started a journey outside of my educational and collegiate training to try to incorporate multidisciplinary artistic practices into my practice as a dramaturg. Rather than chasing the academic practice that I was so used to, I began to explore dramaturgy as a creative practice.

Because my background was primarily research-based, I didn’t know where to start in terms of where to learn of other artistic and creative practices. Since I considered dramaturgy to be a creative practice, I began to apply to various interdisciplinary artist residencies and artist training programs. While I was at a disadvantage because of my lack of a concrete visual arts background, the most common feedback that I got along with rejection notices was that the panelists and adjudicators understood why I was applying but did not see where a more creative-based approach could be incorporated into work as a dramaturg. As I got more rejection notices, I began to grow a bit frustrated. To me the answer was clear: if the playwright is an artist and creative, the dramaturg that collaborated on script consultations must also be considered an artist and creative. If the directing team, production team, and actors are considered artists, the dramaturg who shares the rehearsal room and helps inform stylistic decisions should also be an artist. In my experience, alienating the dramaturg from the title of artist and from the title of creative limits the potential of the dramaturgy.

If the directing team, production team, and actors are considered artists, the dramaturg who shares the rehearsal room and helps inform stylistic decisions should also be an artist.

Finally, after many rejections, I was selected to join the Artist INC Houston program in 2023. Artist INC is a development program for artists of all disciplines to strengthen their practice and enhance their entrepreneurial skills, and it was the first program that I encountered that considered my dramaturgy to be an artistic practice. In working alongside painters, collage artists, sculpture artists, dancers, and musicians, I began to create more helpful and collaborative connections and learned tools that would allow me to better implement many of the artistic ideas that I wished to explore through dramaturgy. After working with so many artists, I now understood how an actual art piece gets conceived, built, and installed. And the entrepreneurial skills that I gained helped me to better pitch the idea of an artistic dramaturg to theatre companies—though it has still been a challenge to get some folks to fully embrace the idea of the dramaturg as a creative. It was here that I finally learned to bridge the gap between the academic and the creative and fully promote both as two sides to the same coin.

When I dream big about what an expansion of the dramaturg’s role looks like within educational programs, it includes a collegiate literary department, an expanded timeline, and a role that is more fully incorporated into all aspects of a theatrical production. In my experience in graduate school and as a freelance dramaturg, I have only ever worked on an extremely tight production timeline. At most I’ve had three months to prepare dramaturgical materials, and at least I have had two weeks to prepare materials. This amount of time limits the quality and quantity of possible work. If educational programs incorporated student dramaturgs into the operating timeline of their season, budding dramaturgs could more easily gain insight into season planning­—a learning opportunity that would be beneficial for any student interested in pursuing a career in literary management. From a freelance dramaturg perspective, if a theatre does not have a literary department or an on-staff dramaturg, integrating a freelance dramaturg earlier on in the production process can allow for more streamlined and extensive collaboration.

A group of people pose in front of a large projector screen

Artist INC Houston 2023 Cohort. Photo by Jeremy Kabala.

I’m inspired by playwright and dramaturg Erika Dickerson-Despenza’s installation of a salt-rimmed wound at the Public Theater. This installation was created as a complementary piece to Dickerson-Despenza’s shadow/land and featured a community altar, books, music, maps, poems, photographs, and interactive exhibits that tie into the play. With ample time and with full support from the production, dramaturgs could adapt the idea presented by Dickerson-Despenza and reimagine lobby displays into carefully designed artistic installations, allowing for audiences to both see the creativity that is required for dramaturgy and engage with productions in multiple ways.

As part of my thoughts on embracing dramaturgy as both an academic and a creative practice, I’d like to offer a few approaches to incorporating creative practices and teachings within collegiate spaces.

  1. Teach students about lobby displays. Whenever I encountered dramaturgy in an academic environment, I was always expected to build out some sort of lobby display. But at no point in time was I ever given access to tools to help create these lobby displays, nor was I given any kind of training on what makes a successful lobby display. If students are provided with more resources and more training specifically dedicated to lobby displays, they can increase their knowledge base, be able to add a specialized skill to their resume or portfolio, and practice collaboration with various members of a production team.
  2. Create required cross-disciplinary courses. So many of us theatre people get trapped in a theatre bubble. I don’t think I ever realized how much overlap there was between theatre and other performing and visual arts practices until I began taking arts administration classes. Departments catering to all artistic disciplines should encourage and require cross-disciplinary courses that teach the practice of an additional art discipline to encourage students to think of ways to expand their own practice and to learn how other practices influence their own and vice versa. As the theatre of the twenty-first century becomes increasingly multi-disciplinary, having dramaturgs well-versed in multiple artforms can only be a benefit.
  3. Make time and space for students to explore. At times, it felt as though both of my dramaturgy programs became stuck in the idea of traditional dramaturgy. Both as an undergraduate and as a graduate, my work as a dramaturg was complete the packet, put something in the lobby, host a talkback, and repeat. There was not much space to explore outside of that cycle. As a dramaturg I was also not given as much time to produce a final product as other members of the team. If dramaturgs work on a schedule that does not limits or rush their work and instead allows ample time to fully explore what could be done with the dramaturgy of a production, the possibilities could be endless.

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Thank you for this piece! I'm so happy to see others thinking about how to expand the role of dramaturgs to support artists and audiences to have deeper connections to the work. Excited to follow your career and where this works leads!