Iowa Alumni Magazine | December 2007 | Features

To Be or Not To Be ... a Dramaturg

By Tina Owen
Without much credit or fanfare, these little-known experts play a crucial role in the theater.


Enshrined in glossy black-and-white photos, student actors beam down from the foyer walls of the UI's David Thayer Theatre. During intermission of a performance this past October, theater-goers admire the glamorous headshots of thespians appearing in the UI's production of A Perfect Wedding.

Thanks to such posters, audience members recognize the actors who grace the stage in the UI theatre arts department's presentations. They probably know the names of directors. They're also aware that lighting technicians, costume designers, stagehands, and other behind-the-scenes workers all make critical contributions to staging a drama or comedy.

Most won't have a clue that John Baker exists, though — or that they should really give him some credit for the performance they've just enjoyed.

For the record, Baker is a dramaturg.

A what?

Baker's used to that kind of reaction. By his own admission, dramaturgy is "a kind of bizarre profession." "For a while," he notes ruefully, "even my parents thought it was 'dramaturd' with a 'd' at the end."

The UI is one of the few schools in the country to offer training in this mysterious art. Its well-regarded M.F.A. program accepts a total of just three or four participants, who work to help shepherd plays through all stages of production. Earlier this year, Baker's work on one of those plays earned him the 2007 National Student Dramaturgy Award.

So what exactly does he do? That's difficult to explain. Some experts liken the role of a dramaturg to a play's interpreter, or a "best friend" looking out for its interests. The Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas organization says that dramaturgs "contextualize the world of a play; establish connections among the text, actors, and audience; offer opportunities for playwrights; generate projects and programs; and create conversations about plays in their communities."

Even Baker, who is passionate about his work in an endearingly intense way, struggles to find the right words to express what he does. He frowns over the hot cocoa he's just ordered at a downtown Iowa City coffee shop, staring into the creamy, frothy mess as if it holds all his secrets. Eventually, he produces a definition he can live with: "therapist."

Broadly speaking, Baker's work falls into two main areas: "therapy" and research. For the therapeutic aspects, Baker uses his expertise in literature and the dramatic arts to help playwrights solve problems in their work. From his objective perspective and with the benefit of his English degree from Boston University and his dramaturgical training from Iowa, he can point out that the action may stall mid-scene or when a dramatic monologue loses steam.

In the role that he calls "the guy with the library card," Baker mines libraries, the Internet, and other resources in search of essential background information about plays' subject matter or settings. Such contextual research adds depth and polish to a production.

Dramaturgy covers much more than what takes place in a script or on a stage. To work effectively, Baker has to understand a playwright's character, creative processes, and motivation. Like any therapist, he achieves that by being a very good listener and an astute reader of people.

Typically, Baker starts by reading a script, analyzing its structure, plot, action, characters, rhythm, and dramatic tension. Then he'll meet with the playwright for the first of many sessions that resemble a strange hybrid of psychotherapy and dramatic criticism. "Dramaturgs don't necessarily know all the answers [about why a play may not be working or how to fix it]," he says, "but we can push the playwright to find those answers."

In lieu of a therapist's couch, Baker often opts for the relaxing ambience of local bars. To help break the ice at the beginning of a new working relationship, Baker takes a playwright out for a beer, heading downtown to The Sanctuary if they're feeling swanky or to George's if they're in the mood for grittier surroundings. After some small talk to break the ice, they'll start to discuss the play. That's when a dramaturg steps onto precarious ground. Many playwrights put their heart and soul — to say nothing of their personal lives — into their work.

Robert Blacker, a former visiting faculty member in the UI Playwrights Workshop and former artistic director of the Sundance Theatre Lab, says, "John is extremely sensitive. A dramaturg has to be able to make a comment that doesn't create a barrier by criticizing the piece. It's very easy to say something that blocks the writer."

In some ways, the relationship between dramaturg and playwright is similar to that of editor and writer. Good editors support writers and offer a useful perspective to help them create their best work. The difference, as Baker points out, is that he doesn't want playwrights to feel that he's "sitting there with a red editing pencil, striking out the parts of the script that are WRONG!!!"

Unlike an editor, a dramaturg can't demand rewrites or throw out editorial directives. Instead, Baker quietly offers suggestions and constructive criticism. Working on the play Pigheart, for which he won his award, Baker realized that the production felt claustrophobic and myopic. Set in Palestine and exploring the identities of two gay Americans — enormous themes that offered countless dramatic possibilities — the play restricted all the action to one small room. Baker remembers that playwright Sam Hunter, 07MFA, felt frustrated with the overall action of the play, but couldn't find a solution.

PHOTOS: ADPRO Design As a dramaturg, John baker offers an audience-eye view that benefits playwrights, actors, directors, set designers, and other members of a theatrical production.

Enter the dramaturg with a useful proposition. What would happen, wondered Baker, if the characters left their apartment to give the audience a glimpse into the wider world in which they lived and suffered?

Baker first offered that feedback during one of the early versions of the script. It was the right question, but Hunter wasn't ready to hear it until the fourth or fifth draft. With dramaturgy, as with acting, timing is everything.

Pigheart also made good use of Baker's research skills. He gave cast members a binder full of photographs of the West Bank to help them visualize the play's setting, excerpts from the Book of Genesis to provide a connection to the religious history of the landscape, and, to illuminate the characters' identity crisis, articles from a gay and lesbian news magazine and, the website maintained by notorious anti-gay crusader Fred Phelps.

For other productions, Baker has uncovered little-known facts about Hindi poetry, Chinese erotica, South African music, the work of pre-Kinsey sexual researchers, and botanical discoveries made during the Lewis and Clark expedition.

Even once a play is in rehearsal, a dramaturg continues to offer feedback and ideas to the actors, directors, and set and costume designers. A flaw that isn't noticeable during drafts of the script or the initial read-through may suddenly leap out when a play is "on its feet" with actors moving around the stage.

One of the greatest influences on a dramaturg's approach and research is whether the play is written by a living author. Classical works by dead playwrights often require more research to help cast members understand the context and nuances of the politics, society, and language of an earlier age.

"Good playwrights, actors, or directors do their own research," says Baker, "but talking to a dramaturg about it matters."

As for new works, Baker calls them "a tremendous undertaking" and admits he once found them quite scary. Apart from having to dance delicately around a playwright's ego, dramaturgs can't look back at previous productions for guidance or inspiration.

Given the fact that he's so involved with every aspect of a production, it's only natural that Baker becomes attached to a play. "I feel like it's partly mine, even though I know I really have no ownership of the play or the production," he says. "I've been part of the process, but ultimately it's the playwright's play. Still, you want some kind of byline or recognition, some thanks for your help."

Such recognition tends to appear tucked away in the preface of a play, where a playwright thanks everyone — from spouses to secretaries — who offered support and guidance. A dramaturg's influence on a play is usually subtle rather than obvious. Few dramaturgs make headlines, or even much money. One notable but rare exception is Lynn Thompson, who worked on the hit musical Rent and later successfully sued for a share of the royalties and credit.

An article on the website called Thompson "the Rosa Parks of the theater industry." Baker has no plans to follow in her footsteps. "When you see the play get better, that's when you know you've made a difference," he says. "You were part of that change, whether or not the audience appreciates it."

As he finished up his M.F.A. at the UI earlier this month, Baker was eager to start his new job as assistant literary manager at the prestigious Eugene O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford, Connecticut. Dramaturgs often find that their skills and talents cross over into the field of literary management. More and more theater companies around the country are hiring full-time literary managers who, in addition to working as dramaturgs for individual shows, also solicit new work from playwrights and help assemble a theater's season.

Some dramaturgs have gone on to head theater companies as artistic directors, while others find their niche in television shows and movies. Baker isn't seduced by the bright lights of Hollywood. "It doesn't bother me that I'm not the center of attention," he says. "I prefer it that way."

On that note, Baker drains his cup of cocoa and picks up the satchel that contains the well-thumbed copy of his latest script. As he leaves the coffee house to go and work his theatrical magic, no one seems to give the dramaturg a second glance.