Texas Tech University

The Digital Dramaturg

Calan Welder

October 26, 2020

The art of dramaturgy has long assisted theatre artists with their task of mounting productions for an eager audience. As formats and genres have changed, the dramaturg has stood as a critical guide navigating uncharted territory. Perhaps at no time before today has the theatre experienced such a major shift in delivery format, and consequently the dramaturg has never been more essential.

As the Texas Tech School of Theatre and Dance 2020-2021 season moves into a virtual format, dramaturgs have been an invaluable asset to the production team. While some texts transition more easily than others, each play has its own unique set of challenges that dramaturgs are set to tackle.

HewlettDramaturg for Brad Birch's new adaptation of An Enemy of the People, Bradley Hewlett says he was in a unique position to begin working on the transition the moment it was announced. "We were fortunate that we had done a lot of the [dramaturgical] work ahead of time," he says, "so we could really pay attention to the transition when it came." Communicating with Birch through his agent, Hewlett was fortunate that the playwright was infinitely accommodating to the production team. With carte blanche to digitize the performance, Hewlett and director Dr. Bill Gelber were in a position to activate their full dramatic arsenal to adapt the adaptation for virtual performance.

Digital viewings opened a new avenue for delivering the intentionally redacted text. "We can use redaction in a fun way that translates to virtual performance really well. There's something outside, in the moment, that influences the way we interpret the feed," Hewlett says. The fractured audience relationship to itself is also both a challenge and an asset for Hewlett, who says that reframing the production has been an opportunity to highlight the play's topical elements, zeroing in on current events. What happens when legitimate concerns are weighted on both sides, when neither solution is an option? An Enemy of the People's digital performance using digital tools to comment on a world of digital distribution forges a natural partnership between drama and electronic delivery.

Sarah JohnsonQuestions of space and depth also arise from the change to an online format. Assistant professor of dramaturgy Dr. Sarah Johnson, who has previously published research implementing technology into the performance space, has observed the breadth of opportunities when operating in the digital sphere. Collaborating with associate director Jesse Jou on Real's original play The Blue Flower, Johnson describes the flattening of space as the biggest limitation on live performance.

"It can drastically change the way we do theatre," she says. "I think audiences and creators are figuring it out together, and that's exciting."

Part of engaging with changing modality and script changes has been emphasizing the collaborative process of mounting a production. Working together to create the illusion of space is a hurdle to be sure, but one that the The Blue Flower team has addressed and overcome. By situating the audience and performers in space via slide shows and a dollhouse model of the original set, the production team invites participants into an imagined world that expands beyond the frame.

The imagined world is not limited merely to production. During rehearsals for The Blue Flower, Johnson discovered that the chat function in the Zoom platform served almost as a second rehearsal space. Actors are free to log their thoughts and reactions in the chat in a way that does not disturb the action "on stage." In this way, the free, collaborative flow of ideas is uninhibited by the constraints of the traditional rehearsal hall.

Dr. Johnson and Mr. Hewlett both comment that changes in format have their own benefits and drawbacks. What is most important is discovering ways to adapt, as the theatre has always done. The power of embodied space can still be harnessed virtually. By taking the opportunity of unfamiliarity to grow as artists, undaunted School of Theatre and Dance artists continue to make discoveries while reminding us that personal connection is still possible in an impersonal world.