Dramaturgs are beleaguered. They are bashed, silenced; they are badly paid. And still, they persevere. They are bashed by the very people they have sacrificed their own family lives to defend! Playwrights! Already in these pages I’ve called them nuns. I’ve accused them of sharpening pencils too sharply.
Let me honor you, dramaturgs. Let me shower you with love. Playwrights need you. Desperately. We need you to sit next to us at the first rehearsal when we feel like we are being flayed open and exposed. We need you to sit next to us at the first dress rehearsal and tell us that it’s worth saving even though we feel worthless and doomed. We need you to sit next to us during the first preview and give us two or three notes that are easily accomplished when we want to leave the theater forever and take up marine biology or nursing or any profession that doesn’t involve public humiliation. We need you to be nice to us when the director, or artistic director, or the audience is being mean to us. We need you to deflect strange questions during audience talk-backs and remind audience members that they are most helpful when they describe their own experience rather than trying to fix the play.
Or perhaps we need you to excuse playwrights from coming to talkbacks; dramaturgs are better able to answer questions at talkbacks and then gently relate the audience response to the playwright who might be hiding upstate or incapacitated in the nearest bathroom. We need you to be publicly articulate about our plays when we feel dumb about them, so we can do the more private, blunted and blind task of writing. We need you to be as articulate about unconventional structure as you are about conventional structure. We need you to fight the mania for clarity and help create a mania for beauty instead. We need you to ask: is the play too clear? Is it predictable? Is this play big enough? Is it about something that matters?
Conversely: is this play small enough? And if the play’s subject matter is the size of a button, is it written with enough love and formal precision that the button matters? We need you to remind audiences that plays are irreducible in meaning, the way that poetry is. To remind audiences that theater is an emotional, bodily, and irreducible experience. We need you to fight for plays at the theater where you work and in the broader culture. We need you to ask us hard questions. We need you to remind us of our own integrity. We need you to remind us to make hard cuts and not fall in love with our own language when our plays are too long. We need you to drink with us if we are drinkers after a horrible first preview and not drink with us if we are abstainers. You might also train as an actor, or a director, or a set designer, because we need you to understand each element fully. We occasionally need you to leave the profession and become critics, because you truly love the theater, have critical and insightful minds, and would write about new plays with love and understanding.
I love you, dramaturgs. The very best of you are midwives, therapists, magicians, mothers, Rabbinical scholars, Socratic interlocutors, comrades-in-arm, comedians, and friends. I wish there was a better name for what you do than dramaturgs.
The above is an excerpt from Sarah Ruhl’s “100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write: On Umbrellas and Sword Fights, Parades and Dogs, Fire Alarms, Children, and Theater.”
To explore more from Sarah Ruhl, click here.