My name is Taylor, and I am a theatre junkie. The only thing I find more enjoyable than writing an analysis of some theatre history topic or performance theory concept, is doing the countless hours of research beforehand. I plan on being a student for the rest of my life while constantly searching for jobs that will pay me to sit and compile massive heaps of research related to absurdly specific topics. You can only imagine my enthusiasm when I was finally enlightened to the fact that there is actually a specific role in a theatre’s production team responsible for these very duties: the dramaturg.
A drama-what? (Don’t worry, I had the same reaction the first time I heard the word as well, and it took some serious focus to teach my brain to consistently pronounce it properly.) If you look up dramaturgy on Wikipedia or the Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas (LMDA) website, you will learn that a dramaturg is a sort of historian/researcher who helps all those involved with a production, from the creative ensemble to the audience, understand the greater context in which a performance occurs. Therefore, you might say one of my jobs as dramaturg for Cygnet’s production of August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean is to figure out how best to explain why we’re producing it in the first place.
When I asked Cygnet Theatre’s Artistic Director Sean Murray this very question, he responded with, “Gem is about owning one’s destiny, accepting responsibility for the world in which they find themselves, facing one’s self on a deep level to forgive in order to move on, and connecting with one’s past as a means of building the present towards the future that provides.” My knee-jerk-reaction to this sounded something like, “Great, thanks!” as I silently wondered how this abstract idea was an answer to WHY we’re producing it.
Then I came across this great article inspired by remarks from Howard Shalwitz, the Artistic Director at Wolly Mammoth Theatre Company. The article shares Shalwitz’s reasons as to why exactly theatre makes us better, and upon reaching reason number seven, something clicked in my head. As he puts it, theatre “influences the way we think and feel about our own lives and encourages us to take a hard look at ourselves, our values, and our behavior.” In retrospect, as I sit here typing this I can’t help but think, “well DUH, Taylor. Sean couldn’t have been clearer.”
Despite the specificity of the play- its setting in Philadelphia, 1904 and the circumstances of the characters just after the emancipation proclamation- it maintains a universal theme that everyone can relate to. Like Citizen Barlow and Solly Two Kings and countless other African Americans who changed their names to reflect their ownership of their new-found freedom, we are in charge of our own destiny. By listening to different sides of the story, we empathize with the struggles of our fellow human beings (whatever their views may be), and are forced to reflect on our own behaviors and beliefs. Thus, it’s not just the characters in Gem who are owning their own destinies; it’s the audience members, too. And that, my friends, is why I’m a theatre junkie/dramaturg.
Dramaturg, Gem of the Ocean