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The Invisible Work of the Dramaturg

An introduction to dramaturgy


Published: 29 Dec 2021

Time taken : >15mins

Chances are, even if you’re a seasoned performance-goer, you may have come across a role in production credits that is unfamiliar – the dramaturg. You may watch the performance and puzzle over what a dramaturg does for it, and perhaps even, what dramaturgy is.

Simply put, dramaturgy is the structure and composition of a piece of performance. Sankar Venketaswaran, an Indian theatre director and alumnus of the Intercultural Theatre Institute, once likened dramaturgy to architecture.

 “[Dramaturgy is like] what holds a building together – the steel and concrete,” Venketaswaran said on a 2016 dramaturgy panel in Singapore.

You don’t see that. You see the facade, but deep in the building is the structure which holds the load, the weight, distributes it and [helps the building] stay stable.

The dramaturg, and dramaturgy for that matter, may be cryptic concepts, even to those working in the Singapore arts scene. But in recent years, the veil has been quietly but steadily lifting on the enigmatic figure of the dramaturg.

A brief history

Dramaturgy also refers to the study of putting together a performance. It’s far from a modern concept, but just how old it is up for debate.

Gotthold Ephraim Lessing is often cited as the forefather of modern dramaturgical scholarship. Lessing was an 18th-century German dramatist who was the world’s first resident dramaturg at the Hamburg National Theater from 1767 to 1769. He penned a set of essays called Hamburgische Dramaturgie based on his experience dramaturging the theatre’s plays and programming.

The history of dramaturgy may also be traced much further back, perhaps to the time of the Ancient Greek philosophers who mused about drama, or even venerable writings such as the Natyasastra, a Sanskrit manual on dramatic arts, estimated to have been written as far back as 500BC.

In Singapore, the proliferation of dramaturgy has been much more recent. Dramaturg Robin Loon points to the late 2000s as an important moment for dramaturgy and dramaturgs in the local performing arts scene. Loon, who also teaches Theatre Studies at the National University of Singapore, specifically cites the involvement of dramaturgs in two developmental platforms at the 2007 Singapore Arts Festival.

The first platform, Forward Moves, was for young choreographers to develop original work, receiving assistance from Tang Fu Kuen, who works as a dramaturg, but is also a curator and producer. The second platform, Full Frontal, was for young directors. The participating directors received dramaturgical support from Loon himself, as well as Kok Heng Leun, who is better known as a theatre director but has served as a dramaturg on theatre works such as Margaret Leng Tan’s Dragon Ladies Don’t Weep at Esplanade’s The Studios 2021 season. 

Margaret Leng Tan’s Dragon Ladies Don’t Weep. Dramaturgical support by Kok Heng Leun.

According to Loon, the presence of dramaturgs at a national platform was influential in promoting the role in performance-making in Singapore.

Even more recently, in 2016, Lim How Ngean founded the Asian Dramaturgs’ Network (ADN) in 2016. Lim is a dance dramaturg who has worked on dance performances at the Singapore Arts Festival and Esplanade.

“The idea is to have a network where we openly share and exchange knowledge,” Lim said during a 2018 presentation about his vision for ADN. “Dramaturgy is messy, and there must be a way that we can talk about it in its many forms, disciplines and arguments.”

Working with local theatre development space Centre 42, ADN has regularly gathered dramaturgs and artists from around the world in local and overseas conferences to discuss dramaturgical thought and practice. ADN and Centre 42 have also worked to elevate the profile of dramaturgy in Singapore by organising dramaturgy development programmes for young performance-makers.

At the helm of ADN, Lim is joined by fellow co-directors Loon and Charlene Rajendran. Rajendran teaches theatre at the National Institute of Education and has been a dramaturg on several performance projects, including those produced by local theatre companies The Necessary Stage and Drama Box. 

From left to right, Lim How Ngean, Charlene Rajendran and Robin Loon at the ADN Satellite Symposium, 2018, Yokohama. Image courtesy of Centre 42.

But what does a dramaturg do? The role of dramaturg is an enigmatic one, even to some local performance-makers.

A researcher and sounding board

Loon recalled a conversation he had with a then-up and coming theatre director about the dramaturg in the early 2000s. 

“I do my own dramaturgy, why do I need a dramaturg?” the director had asked. And it is a valid question to entertain.

Other roles in a typical theatre production such as, but not limited, to the playwright, director and producer, already perform dramaturgical functions, in that their work inherently involves piecing together a performance. To hire a person dedicated to the work of dramaturgy is not absolutely necessary, especially when production budgets are tight.

But having a dramaturg could be beneficial, and understanding what they can offer may shed light on these benefits.

A dramaturg may work directly with a playwright as they create the script. In the United States, dramaturgs are sometimes called literary managers, which hints at their role in the development of dramatic texts. And if we broaden our definition of scripts to include movement, then a dramaturg may even assist choreographers in creating dance works. In this capacity, a dramaturg may support the creation of work with research, for example, on history for a period piece, or on the source text for adaptations. 

More importantly, a dramaturg can be first source of feedback that a performance-maker may receive on their early drafts.

Rajendran worked with theatre-maker Kaylene Tan on the script for In the Silence of Your Heart, presented in as part of the Esplanade’s The Studios 2018 season. In the Silence of Your Heart is a theatrical experience accompanied by in-ear audio narration. Audiences listen to the story of a man from Sarawak who is trapped in his body after suffering a stroke.

In the Silence of Your Heart. Dramaturgical support by Charlene Rajendran.

“I started off by responding to just the script,” Rajendran recalled. “I had an initial meeting with Kaylene where she talked about her idea. And then she went away and worked on it. She later sent me a version of the text for me to comment on. And then she’d work on it some more. That’s how we worked, initially.”

Once the script is ready for production, a dramaturg may also be present through the process of bringing it to life onstage.

The rigour of creative development

There are no hard-and-fast rules to how a dramaturg operates in a production context. Some may limit their involvement to contributing notes to the programme booklet for audiences to better understand the performance. Others may closely follow the development journey of the performance, perhaps even supporting the director by being an additional pair of eyes on the work.

Rajendran was present when Tan, who also directed the production, worked with the actors to develop a set of movement vocabulary based on the script. 

Of the experience, Rajendran shared, “I sat and watched a lot of the improvisations. I was present, watching, and providing another layer of response. What did you think about this? Did you notice that difference? Kaylene and the actors wanted responses to particular things, like what’s happening to the voice at a particular instance.”

“I’m not providing the actual improvisation,” Rajendran clarified. “I’m just a watcher, listener and responder. I’m just sitting there trying to observe with the lens of knowing what this project is about and, what it’s trying to do, and how these improvisations were helping or not, towards that.”

A dramaturg can be a useful addition to any performing arts production, but it is important to reiterate that, depending on the performance-maker’s needs, a dramaturg is not always essential. 

While a dramaturg’s presence may strengthen the rigour of creative development, their presence is not a guarantee of the work’s success onstage. Lim highlighted a disturbing trend where dramaturgs are increasingly becoming a mandatory requirement in some commissioned and grant-supported performance works in Asia.

“Dramaturgs are not doctors,” Lim empathically wrote in a 2020 post for dramaturgy.co.uk. “We do not ‘fix,’ we do not ‘treat,’ we do not ‘prescribe,’ […] we do not speedily ‘repair’.”

“The dramaturg is not an instrument that one can use to sharpen and strengthen the show’s success. Dramaturgy is also not to be seen as an instrumental means to successful performances and shows."

“Dramaturgy is vital to a performance project because of the criticality it brings to the project.”

Unseen hands

Performance-makers in Singapore are increasingly conscious of dramaturgy and what dramaturgs can bring to the table. Yet, while audiences may notice more and more local performances have a dramaturg involved, they still won’t be able to see the dramaturg’s work.

“Our work, by definition, is invisible,” Loon said. 

The work of the playwright, director, designers – you’ll see all of that onstage. But if the dramaturg is successful, you don’t, or at least you shouldn’t, see the dramaturgy onstage.

It can sound disheartening to have one’s work indiscernible, and perhaps even unappreciated, by audiences. But to Loon, the invisibility in the work of the dramaturg can also be incredibly freeing.

“Dramaturgs are insider-outsiders, attached to but not directly involved with the creation process. There is less responsibility for the show’s success.”

“And that’s what makes it the most fun role to be in.”

Contributed by:

Daniel Teo

Daniel Teo is a freelance writer and aspiring dramaturg. He is the dramaturg of Being: 息在 by 微 Wei Collective presented at the M1 Singapore Fringe Festival 2022. He is also a co-editor of the Asian Dramaturgs’ Network e-publication ADN Re/View. Previously, Daniel worked at Centre 42, a theatre development centre, as a researcher, archivist and documenter.

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