Dramaturgy, or the art of thinking theatre by Pablo Ley

The title of this article could, in fact, be a valid definition for the complex concept of dramaturgy. But, if in fact we want to understand its meaning, we must first define, with complete precision, each of the words that make up this statement. If not, it will be difficult to grasp its true, deeper, meaning.


We will start, therefore, with the word art, which is necessary to understand in the creative sense of course, but first we should understand it in the craft or technical sense. It is (as the dictionary puts it) a skill, an expertise that is acquired through experience, observation, study and, above all, practice. Art is, in fact, the practice of a creative expertise that has become a habit, intuition, certainty. 


The word thinking should be understood in the broadest sense, in other words, conceiving, judging, inferring, inventing, sensing, summarizing, conceptualizing, symbolizing, using metaphors… Thinking is, definitively, the extremely complex process through which an explosion of mental activity is triggered that allows us to imagine the world, predict our actions, see into the future, invent an afterlife beyond our current reality (as a religion or as fiction, it doesn’t matter either way).


The word theatre, lastly, is certainly the most difficult to define, if only for the diversity of arts and ways of thinking that come together here. Theatre is a collective art that involves playwrights (as dramatic authors, in this case), directors, actors, set designers, lighting designers, musicians, costume designers and a long list of professions that includes everyone from the programmers, producers or publicists, to the technicians and lighting technicians, as well as anyone who directly or indirectly participates in the performing arts, for example the theatre critic at the very end of the chain. To complicate matters further, let us not forget that the performing arts has that unusual quality of taking place live, with the simultaneous presence of the performers and the audience.


What is Dramaturgy for?


“The meaning is actually the essence, the basic structure of natural forms. Colors, sequences, smells, rhythms or irregularities of form or behavior, all contain information. Virtually any phenomenon can be 'read' and classified as a statement. It sends signals of danger or an appeal, the presence or absence of food; it can be directed towards certain significant structures or in the opposite direction. Living beings, unlike elementary units, offer a wide range of articulations: postures, gestures, colorings, hues, secretions, and facial expressions. Separately or together, all this conveys a message, a unit or group of units of targeted information.


Life unfolds through a relentless network of signals. Surviving involves receiving a sufficient number of signals, choosing from the random flow that are literally vital for the individual and his or her species, and decode the relevant signals with enough speed and accuracy. The organism that fails to do so –either because their receptors are blocked or ‘read’ something wrong- is doomed to perish."


George Steiner: Extraterritorial. Ediciones Siruela, Madrid, 2002.

This is dramaturgy. Ultimately, dramaturgy is all the ideas, as random and peripheral as they may seem, which when expressed by any participants contribute to solving the stage equation from the beginning of the creative process to the final presentation in front of an audience. All of the specifications there take place on stage –the actors’ words, actions, facial expressions, objects, colors, light intensity, sound environment, rhythm, songs, volume and tone of voice, etc.—are the result of this constant, cumulative, torrential reflection that is called dramaturgy.


Despite all of this, there is a much easier way to define the word dramaturgy if we take a look at its etymology. Dramaturgy, on one hand, comes from the word δρᾶμα –drama– which refers to representation or performance, and which has its origin in the verb δραο –drao–, which means “I do, I act”; on the other hand, the word dramaturgy is created with the suffix, -urgia-, which comes from ἔργον –ergon–, which means “work” or “composition.”


Dramaturgy, therefore, would be the composition of dramatic works, or, put even more simply, the making of theatre. So there we have it: the craft of making theatre.


Pablo Ley