The original meaning of a dramaturg, or dramaturge, is "playwright." But in the 18th century, German playwright, librarian and critic Gotthold Ephraim Lessing laid out new standards for the principles of drama with his book, "Hamburg Dramaturgy," and inspired a new profession in the world of theater.
Lessing is considered the father of the modern-day dramaturg, according to Liz Engelman, the President of the Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas (LMDA).
She says a good dramaturg can be many things, depending on the production, but his or her main job is to help a director to make the best out of a play.
"The joke is the dramaturg doesn't prescribe, but the dramaturg asks questions. So you don't say, 'Your play sucks!' You say, 'Why does your play suck?' Then it's up to them to figure out why," laughs Engelman.
Usually, the dramaturg says it a little bit more gently than that. Dramaturgs work with directors, and in the case of new works, with playwrights, to help guide the play to the stage. They are an extra set of educated eyes and ears.
Dramaturgs from all over North America will gather in the Twin Cities for their annual conference. They'll see new work, meet local playwrights and make connections with the Twin Cities theater scene. Engelman lives here; she says the Twin Cities area is an ideal setting for the event.
"I don't know if it's really true, but we claim that there are more dramaturgs here per capita than anywhere in the U.S. -- more than two hands, I'd say," estimates Engelman.
In other words, there are about 10.
Another of those 10 local dramaturgs is Sarah Gioia. When explaining what she does, she tends to use the comparison of an editor working with a novelist.
"Because for some reason editors are much more familiar -- probably because they've heard the word!" Gioia laughs.
This week, Gioia's working with director Peter Rothstein as they put together the first dramatic reading and singing of "Passage of Dreams," by writer Katie Baldwin and composer Jeff Tang.
Gioia says if she does her job right, she's dissolving any potential tension between the director and the playwright, while helping them to make the best artistic decisions for the play. And for that reason, she thinks dramaturgs have a valuable role in theater.
Even with so few dramaturgs in town, Gioia says many are having a hard time finding work. The dramaturg is often the first to be cut if the budget is tight. The director takes on the extra work, or it's doled out to the other staff.
Even Michael Lupu, the senior dramaturg for the Guthrie Theater, doubts the validity of his job.
"It is so integrated and invisible, cannot be heard or seen, that it doesn't matter," says Lupu. "We are auxiliary, and we should admit that!"
Lupu says there are plenty of great productions that happened without the help of a dramaturg, and plenty of awful plays that did have dramaturgs. He says what's nice about being a dramaturg is that even if the play fails, no one blames him. However if the play is a success, he doesn't get much credit either.
Lupu will certainly get some credit this weekend; he's receiving the Lessing Award for lifetime achievement in dramaturgy at the LMDA conference.