Professions and Education

Broker between two stools – what does a dramaturge really do?

John von Düffel; photo: Katja SonnenbergThe dramaturge John von Düffel writes about his job, which exists only in Germany.

“What does a dramaturge really do?” This is one of the most frequently asked questions by non-German theatre-makers when it comes to describing a job that does not exist abroad. “The profession of the dramaturge is so important that it doesn’t exist outside Germany”, one of my former intendants was in the habit of saying. That does not sound very flattering, but makes amply clear that the dramaturge is almost something like a national figure, a rare flower of the German theatre scene – and, beyond this, unknown in many countries.

The reputation of the dramaturge is correspondingly ambivalent. While drama studies seminars and adult education centres like to call him “the literary conscience of a production” and so treat him as the champion of Lessing, Goethe and Schiller, mocking tongues call him a “swollen head” and a windbag. Theatre people like to relate the down-to-earth remark of a Bavarian folk actor who put a dramaturge in his place with these words: “Drama tua dua mia nix, dann tua i dia a nix” (Dramaturge, you don’t do anything to me and I won’t do anything to you”).

But what does a dramaturge actually do? It is the most frequently asked question of my more than twenty years of professional life, and nobody really knows how to answer it, neither abroad nor among audiences in Germany nor even among theatre people. The intendant, the director and the actor, with all of whom the dramaturge has to do every day, know pretty well what the dramaturge actually should do – namely, exactly what he does not do. But what in fact he really does, nobody knows, not even the dramaturge himself.

Organizer, explainer, mediator

Dramaturge at the Deutsches Theater Berlin; photo: Iko Freese / drama-berlin.deNaturally, the work of the dramaturge sometimes becomes visible: when an announcement needs to be made (bad news!), it is mainly the dramaturge who steps before the curtain; when an audience discussion needs to be moderated (mediation), a play introduced or a matinée is desired (explanation), the public hour of the dramaturge strikes; and when a name is misspelled in the programme, then too it was the dramaturge.

Yet these visible activities are really only the smallest part of his work. Most of his time the dramaturge spends in talks, meetings, telephone calls and with e-mails – everything that goes under the name of “organizing”. He attends rehearsals so that afterwards he can again have talks, meetings and telephone calls. Occasionally, he travels, looks at productions, actors and plays – and sometimes he even finds time for reading. But does all this constitute actually doing something?

Adviser, broker, and yet always the second man or woman

Dramaturge at the Deutsches Theater Berlin; photo: Iko Freese / drama-berlin.deThe question could of course be turned around: Is there anything the dramaturge doesn’t do? And the answer is: yes. He makes no decisions, absolutely none. The work of the dramaturge is advisory, preparatory, mediating. In this way he influences the programme planning of the theatre as a whole (repertoire dramaturgy) and the development of the generally five productions that he supervises per season (production dramaturgy), but he makes none of the decisions about them. He is the perpetual second man or second woman – beside or behind the intendant or the director. To this extent, dramaturge is not only professions but also a destiny. A formative one. For the dramaturge moves in the direct wake of the leading figures of intendant and director and this makes him or her now a tragically misunderstood, now a scheming, whispering figure. Especially because the two decisions-makers, to whom he reports and whom he supplies, stand to each other in a relation of mutual tension. What the intendant wants and what the director wants are often two different things: the one represents the overall interests of the house, the other the artistic egotism of the production, and where the director tends to expand his access to resources, the intendant must counteract him and set bounds. Smack in the middle is the dramaturge, who, like a bad lawyer, represents both parties simultaneously, negotiating compromises. In this respect the dramaturge is not only the second man or woman, but also the servant of two masters, who instead of “doing” something runs back and forth, tacking and manoeuvring. If malicious observers assign the dramaturge to the species of spineless and invertebrate animals, this is basically because of the deforming powers to which he is exposed as advisor of two decision-makers with contrary interests. This is commonly called “divided loyalties”. The dramaturge calls it everyday life.

Similar fronts form when a crisis occurs in a production and there is increasingly disagreement between the ensemble and the director: then both parties like to appeal to the dramaturge as the first instance and to instrumentalize him for their own purposes. The same applies when faith in the text dwindles and the production increasingly conspires against the play. Then again the dramaturge is called in to mediate between the theatre-makers and the text or the author (if alive). In short, the dramaturge’s real place of work is between two stools – no joke! – and most dramaturges are born under the sign of Libra.

So seen, the question about what a dramaturge really does is quite easy to answer: he does everything he can to broker between intendant and director, director and ensemble, production and author, theatre and audience. How he accomplishes the sometimes impossible is left up to him. There is no recipe for this, especially as the dramaturge has no real decision-making power – except in one very personal question: what his love of theatre and its crisis and conflict-ridden creation will make him put with.

John von Düffel
Playwright, novelist and dramaturge, the author was from 2000 to 2009 dramaturge at the Thalia Theater. Since the 2009/2010 season, he has been dramaturge at the Deutsches Theater in Berlin.

Translation: Jonathan Uhlaner
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Internet-Redaktion
December 2013

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