The Experiential: Dramaturgy

Often people ask about my vocation, "what do I do." Even my mother is not quite sure.

I had an occasion of realization lately, one of those perfectly tuned moments of clarity where the pattern of the weave becomes clear beyond the threads.  

The shroud of mystery comes from trying to look at the threads, the process of the journey. These are the ingredients that in sum answer the question posed. But by themselves, they are deceptive, maybe even seeming like whole answers. 

It used to be that people referred to me as a lighting designer. At the time, indeed, I was buying groceries by designing lighting. But, as I pondered how best to light an immersive studio contrived to communicate Nokia's dedication to having the best phone camera, or contemplated just the right grade of pink for the sidelight in Victor/Victoria (pink is, not funny), what I was really doing was investigating context. The context of the story.  The best way to illuminate an important piece of narrative. Just the right introduction of sparkle and seduction to cause the pang of consumer or audience want

Later, I would come to be known variously as a video designer, projection designer, or screens producer. I had moved on from designing the lighting of productions, and through occupational tidal forces, settled on creating video content and puzzling out systems to deliver it for concerts, TV shows, and the like. Again at the top, on the surface, it looked as though I was practicing that craft. And it's a deep craft. There are elements of scenic design, cinematography, lighting and technology architecture. So the misdirection is easy to understand.

However, once again what was the meat for me was the meaning: why.  Why does this arrangement of technology make me tingle in relationship to this event?  Why does this black and white video speak so perfectly to the bones of this story?  Why does this projection on the performer’s dress create a sense of longing? Context again. What motivates people? What triggers them?

With the passage of time, I was afforded more opportunities to write and direct. Now I found myself at the spear tip of selling story. The director is a fulcrum for a coherent, 'whole' assembly of many moving design parts. If I am doing my job right, I am formulating a big picture, and then successfully communicating it to a team of collaborators. This communication has to be specific and parsed to the needs of each. It's not productive for any of the team to have to try to hold the whole thing in their head. They best serve the process by trending to the micro details of their piece. Being free from macro allows them to be micro. As the creative director, it is then up to me to hold all the pieces of the puzzle, and to have a clear idea of how to assemble them.

My life's picture is richer and more complicated, because I have been applying all of these crafts in live entertainment, as well as broadcast, and in architecture. No wonder my mother is confused. 

So, my realization: What am I? I am a dramaturg.  

Ok, what the hell is a dramaturg? Microsoft Word doesn't know. It cheerfully calls me out for a misspelling. Even long experienced thespians are hazy on it. The etymology is Greek: Drama (even in Greek drama is drama), and Ergos, which means worker. Drama Worker. I work drama.

I love this definition of drama: "An exciting, emotional, or unexpected series of events or set of circumstances." This is my “work.” And that work is built of context.

In the theatre, a dramaturg's task is to provide context, perspective, and situational accuracy. If the theatre is staging a period piece, it is up to the dramaturg to impart the cultural context of the day, the details about clothing, about speech, about politics, about social mores, about behavior, and about the deeper meaning of the text. They are the academic of the work, the hub for identifying patterns, and stitching the right points of the pattern together into context.

Does it seem superfluous? I mean, it could... Certainly, most productions or projects have a director, a producer, designers, choreographers, actors, artists. Amongst such an assemblage, isn't it inevitable that a compelling, whole idea would emerge? 

The answer is yes, Many projects are produced in such a way, and some of them hit huge, really connect.  Connection: It's what defines success in experience, in moments, in messages. The dramaturg is the appointed guide. A dramaturg is passionate about the lay of the land, the season, how these things affect the people who live there. The people who live there: A dramaturg wants to know them, what motivates them, what hurts them, what they love and adore, what makes them think.  The answers to these things exist in a pattern; it's not easy to see until you understand what it looks like from 20,000'. A dramaturg is the pilot.

Culture right now is a cacophony. The signal to noise ratio makes it very difficult for any experience to stand out. And this flash flood of impressions is poisoned by what I call the 10,000 monkey effect. Many contemporary purveyors of story and brand, and entertainment, and even news have found that the easiest (and cheapest) path is to author bags full of pablum and hope that some sticks. If any is sticky, it pays for the rest. We have many choices of information and experience, but the 10,000 monkeys have made it very medium.

But not everybody wants to wade into the random stream. Thankfully, there are plenty of clients out there who are seeking a refined, targeted message or experience. What I do has value to them—a lot of value. I am an Experiential Dramaturg. And my mother still doesn't know what I do.

Bob Bonniol is a director, production designer, and contributing editor to Live Design. He is known for his implementation of extensive media and interactive features in his productions.

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