What Exactly Is a Dramaturg?

Outside the Theatre   What Exactly Is a Dramaturg?
 
Signature’s Literary Manager and Production Dramaturg Jenna Clark Embrey “demystifies” her role and explains how she got to work at one of New York’s top theatres.
Jenna Clark Embry
Jenna Clark Embrey Marc J. Franklin

Who: Jenna Clark Embrey
Outside: The Signature Theatre

Ever wondered what, exactly, a literary manager and dramaturg does? Signature Theatre’s Literary Manager and Production Dramaturg breaks down her day-to-day—both in the rehearsal room and in the administrative office. Venus by Suzan-Lori Parks is her most recent project to open at the Manhattan theatre complex. Here, she explains how she ended up “talking about plays” professionally at one of New York City’s most well-known Off-Broadway theatres.

Jenna Clark Embrey
Jenna Clark Embrey Marc J. Franklin

What led you to this point of your career?
Like most dramaturgs and literary managers, I had a slightly circuitous route. In college I was a double major in English and Theatre, where I had a brilliant Professor of Dramatic Literature. She was an incredible teacher who talked about plays really well and made me want to continue talking about plays—so I started thinking about pursuing a career in dramaturgy. After college, I took some time off from theatre and worked at MIT doing economics for a couple of years. During that time—and seeing a particularly amazing season at A.R.T.—I found my way back to dramaturgy. After finishing my graduate degree—an MFA in dramaturgy from Harvard University—I was looking for a job in New York City and happened into a marketing role at the Signature Theatre. Eventually, I transitioned into literary management.

When you say “circuitous route”—is that quite common of literary managers or dramaturgs?
I think that every literary manager and dramaturg has had a pretty different path and we’ve all done a lot of other jobs in theatre—be it on the creative side of things or in theatre administration. The thing that I find we’re all drawn to—the common thread—is facilitating conversations about plays. Dramaturgy is a mystifying field in a lot of ways, but the core of dramaturgy—which is just talking about plays well—is present in all of the different departments in theatre administration. You’re always encountering and working with people who have those dramaturgical skills.

Part of your job at Signature is to be in the rehearsal room as the production dramaturg. How do your jobs differ—in the theatre versus in your administrative office?
The literary management and production dramaturgy parts of my job are deeply integrated. A lot of what I do in the office is researching or looking at a play within the playwright’s larger body of work—knowledge that I then bring into the rehearsal room. Specifically, in the case of Venus, I provide members of the creative team and the cast with materials that are particularly helpful to talking about the play in the context of Suzan-Lori Parks’ larger body of work. For example: I put together a research packet with some of Parks’ essays, which I think illuminated her thought process and were a kind of window into the play.

So what does a day in the rehearsal room look like for you?
The role changes drastically with each production, but with every show, I’m there to be a resource. I like to start the process with a lot of research, which is less about factual accuracy—though that’s a part of it—and more about providing a context for maintaining a “fidelity of spirit” and “clarity of thought” for the production. I think that where dramaturgy is most useful in the rehearsal room is to be a kind of generalist—someone who is observing the production both on a micro and macro level. If there’s anything in my research that can be helpful to the creative team or the cast, I’m there when they need me and I can provide that kind of objective help.

Signature Theatre is unique in the sense that all of the productions are by resident playwrights—how does that make your job different?
Our founding artistic director, James Houghton, had a saying: “At Signature we don’t make plays, we make relationships and the plays are the bi-product of those relationships.” The residencies are about developing long-term relationships with each of our playwrights, so as a dramaturg and literary manager, it’s been an amazing opportunity to get to know these writers as people. It makes it a really rewarding experience outside the rehearsal room, which then lends itself to a fruitful process in the rehearsal room.

How much of your job is staying abreast of what’s happening in other theatres in New York and around the country?
I’m constantly going to see theatre. I also like to maintain friendships and connections with other literary managers—we have a really nice, open dialogue about what shows and artists we’d recommend.

Suzan-Lori Parks’ play Venus officially opened May 15 at the Signature Theatre. Directed by Obie Award winner Lear deBessonet, the play depicts the real-life journey of Saartjie Baartman, the unfortunate star of 19th century London’s freak-show circuit. Obie Award winner Zainab Jah (Eclipsed) stars as Baartman.

Flip through photos of the production below:

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