AN EXPLANATION OF THE FINER WORKINGS OF THE DRAMATURG by Nadia Townsend
A short explanation of the finer workings of the dramaturg in film and TV.
When I work as a dramaturg on films often no one really knows what I’m doing there. They see me following the director around, whispering in his or her ear, speaking intently with the actors and maybe liaising with other departments putting in requests here and there.
After a few days of this mysterious behavior I will often have some one sidle up to me and sheepishly ask, ‘so is it drama… turrrr…’ a slightly confused upward fading inflection, and I finish the word for them, ‘turg’.
I then explain, ‘With a hard g…..’ They look at me blankly.
‘I know I say, it sounds like turd, dramaturd’. They may smile but mostly remain confused.
So I continue, ‘or you could say turge with a soft g…’. At this point I might get a non-committal lift of an eyebrow.
So I joke, ‘you could call me a drama turkey if it helps’. I push the gag, ‘or a drama twerky’, and I give a little shake. They look at me blankly. A moment.
Then they finally ask, ‘so what is it that you actually do? You’re like an acting coach or something right?’ At this point I steady myself for a well rehearsed and much tried explanation of my work as a dramaturg most certainly NOT to be confused with the work of an acting coach.
Dramaturgy (with a soft g) is the art of dramatic composition.
Traditionally the dramaturg works in the theatre and it’s more of a research or literary role, working closely with the text and its rightful execution.
Film and TV dramaturgy is pretty uncommon, particularly in America and Australia. The only other film dramaturg’s I know of in Australia are Nico Lathouris (Wild Side, Heartbreak High, Yolngu boy Boy) and Sapidah Kian (who worked with me on Brawl).
The film dramaturg is viewed with suspicion because ‘directors know how to direct and actors don’t want to be told how to act’. So just to clarify, the Dramaturg neither directs nor teaches acting.
When I work as a dramaturg I work with the director for the story in the same manner say that the focus puller would work with the Director of Photography.
I neither choose shots nor decide what is the most important thing to look at in the story but rather do what I can to make sure that when they need to capture something for the story it is in focus.
I interrogate the story, design a program for the rehearsal period and engage a methodology that will assist and support the story in every facet possible. Whilst working predominantly with the performers the dramaturg also liaises with all departments as a guardian of the story say, while the director is the keeper of the vision, if you like that kind of terminology.
Often in film all the departments and players work in isolation and the only time they come together is on set, once on set there is the overwhelming presence of the ticking clock, under this kind of time/money pressure the intricate nature of negotiating an understanding of story is pushed to the side and every one does what they have to do to get thru and make sure they come out okay and perhaps amongst all this there are moments of meeting on common ground and magical happenings where the planets align and we are all united for a small moment in the story we are telling. Or we just shoot cutaways and hold steadfast in the knowledge that we ‘cast right’ and we can ‘fix it in post’.
The dramaturg’s job is to make sure that as many people as possible are as united as possible in an understanding of story before they step on set so that the production can in fact, save time, therefore money and all the individuals are given time and space to speak their truth whilst finding common ground and get the best job done in time and under budget.
Okay, so this is point at which I get real passionate about making sure the person who sheepishly inquired gets the point…. They attempt to back away slowly. I hold their gaze, they ain’t going anywhere till they get the point I’m trying to make.
I can’t help it. I often have well versed industry people give me their highly ill informed opinion of why they don’t want an acting coach on set…’ dramaturg’ I correct them. ‘same thing’, they say. Hold my tongue, I do.
Image by Matthew Beecher