“What exactly is a dramaturg?” This is a question I am asked fairly regularly by family back home or by friends kind enough to take a vested interest — the same friends who are willing to admit that they don’t know the difference between a viola and a violin. If you belong to a theatre or music community, you might roll your eyes at my desire to defend these obscure artistic underdogs, particularly those of you who seem to have a perpetual viola roast at the ready, which I begrudgingly admit can really be quite clever. Unlike the viola, however, what strikes me about the field of dramaturgy is that even dramaturgs themselves struggle to offer the concise job descriptions that other members of the theatre community can. When I am inevitably waiting in line at Durfee’s, chatting up a passing acquaintance, I always face the question of what I’m “up to.” So? What is a student dramaturg ever “up to?” What does a dramaturg “do?” Taking a deep breath, I attempt to explain that dramaturgy is both theoretical and pragmatic, can involve commissioning, revising and guiding new plays, or the exploring of well-worn texts, it is research, literary management — ”
I struggle to explain until the woman at the cash register yells, “next in line, please!” Having babbled what I consider to be yet another failed explanation, I fear I may never have another opportunity to express to this person what this fascination of mine really means, both definitionally and personally. All they’re left with is the vague concept that a dramaturg is a theatre person that isn’t an actor or a director or a playwright. This happens again and again.
I begin to wonder, though, why this inability to offer a sales pitch of my passion bothers me — in other words, what can I really expect from so brief an interaction? Should I choose to brand myself as something less sprawling and undefined when talking to someone who is not a “theatre person?” No, surely not, doing so would only perpetuate the simplistic labelling I am trying to resist in the first place. Instead, perhaps, I and others should re-examine what it means to foster a campus culture in which we actively learn about the myriad of ways that our peers contribute to art, deliberately avoiding the easy answers. In other words, we should probe the lives of unfamiliar artists, rather than defining them by widely recognized titles. Let’s seek the titles we don’t recognize, let’s look for the underdogs.
In my opinion, the “underdogs” are the backbone of any piece of living art. What often distinguishes them is a genuine concern for a final product, but often, a final product that will bring them little recognition. This is not meant to suggest that the underdogs are meek and subservient — in fact, they are quite the reverse. Those “behind the scenes” in a theatre, a gallery or a magazine, will speak with unmitigated passion when you ask them about what they do. Consider, however, how often you ask them — or think about them. Do you know who the treasurer of your local arts organization is, or the name of the person who can be counted on to salvage a costume torn along its seam 10 minutes before a performance?
In reality, it can sound idealistic to ask a population of frenzied peers with bursting calendars to invest that scare resource — time — into something unpredictable. It is laudable but often untenable to attend events you wouldn’t expect yourself to attend and really finding out who is involved. However, engaging in art on campus can be as simple as a question to a writer, “Who would you turn to to edit your work? Or asking a painter the hypothetical, “If you were given the chance for your art to be in an exhibition, who would you choose to curate it?” Ultimately, asking any artist, “Who helps you?” can open up doors for discovery, through which we can find the artists behind the scenes. Perhaps the “devil is in the details,” but the dramaturgy is in the details, too. At the end of the day, we owe it to ourselves to explore those details and embrace our creative community at Yale in all of its multifaceted beauty.
Sarah Valeika is a first year in Saybrook College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.