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Dramaturg Judith Rosen can tell you what that is

The most common question dramaturgs get after introducing themselves is, “What’s a dramaturg?”

Judith Rosen earned a degree from Harvard in history and literature and a doctorate from the University of California-Berkeley in British Victorian literature. Following graduation, she taught at UCLA and accepted speaking engagements at many universities across the country.

It wasn’t until after she moved to the Rogue Valley 19 years ago that she encountered dramaturgy as a profession.

“I didn’t know what dramaturgy was,” she said. “I don’t think most people do.”

The closest she’d come before the move was doing some preperformance talks at A Noise Within theater in Los Angeles with theater artistic teams.

“I enjoyed the conversations the combined perspectives enabled, so after I arrived here, I contacted Lue Douthit at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.”

Douthit was OSF’s director of literary development and dramaturgy.

“She brought me on to help with their production of ‘The Diary of Anne Frank’ and work with the education department. And that’s how things began.”

OK, but what is a dramaturg?

Rosen says the role can shift significantly depending on whether the play is in process or has been previously produced.

“It also varies according to the needs of the playwright or director,” Rosen said. “But at its most basic, the dramaturg’s role is to ask questions and answer them.”

Rather than helping a playwright develop a new work, Rosen has worked primarily as a production dramaturg. Although that can involve working with the playwright, most of the collaboration is with the director, production personnel and actors.

Her process usually begins by meeting the director well in advance of rehearsals.

“I need to understand how she sees the play and its world as well as her aims for the production,” Rosen said. “Next, I read the play closely multiple times. I note its structure, tone, ambiguities, issues and complexities. My work will support the director’s specific vision, but I am also an advocate for the text and for the playwright.”

If the play is especially long, the director may want cuts.

“I try to find ones that best preserve the play’s structure, pace and character development,” she said.

If the play has multiple editions, Rosen may work with the director to choose the one that suits her project best.

“For example, the original version of ‘The Diary of Anne Frank’ minimized the Jewishness of its characters for a ‘mainstream’ audience and placed their suffering in a Christian interpretive frame. We chose the 1997 revised edition, which restores the characters’ cultural specificity and the explicit anti-Semitism that brought about their deaths.”

She also prepares a dramaturgical packet for the actors, director and artistic team that gives them insight into the characters, the stakes of the action, and the world of the play.

“This might include a glossary of unfamiliar terms or images and references the play text draws on; social customs and hierarchies that structure characters’ interactions; tunes characters whistle as they enter; notable events occurring at the time; or what kind of dinner they’d be sitting down to share.”

Rosen is also present in the rehearsal room, although the frequency may vary according to the director’s comfort level.

“I prefer to be there for all table work and when script issues are discussed,” Rosen said. “After that, I check in a few times a week to see how things are progressing. I take notes and share them with the director up through final dress.”

She says the relationship works best when directors understand that dramaturgs aren’t trying to tread on their turf and dramaturgs understand that the director’s vision and decisions are primary.

She also might prepare audience study guides or displays, write program notes, and lead pre- and post-performance discussions.

One of the most rewarding moments she’s had working on a play came during a production of Clifford Odets’ “Paradise Lost.” An actor playing a factory worker asked her what his work conditions would have been like.

“I did some digging and was able to tell him the kind of stool he would have perched on and for how many hours at a time, the movements he would have repeated over and over, the chemicals he would have inhaled.

“When he next appeared at rehearsal, his appearance had radically changed. His body now bore the history of his exploitation: stooped, aching, short of breath. It gave weight to the few lines he spoke, and powerfully and effectively supported the purpose of the scenes he was in.”

Rosen grew up in rural Storrs, Connecticut. Both her parents were Shakespeare professors and her mother was a writer, so plays and poetry and language were a big part of her growing up.

She moved to Ashland in 2001, having finally decided to leave academia. Her sister, Susan, had moved here after stepping away from her own career in theater and film, and they started writing movie scripts together.

“That proved a wonderful transition from academic-speak and taught me a lot about stories and their structure,” Rosen said.

“We acquired an agent and some intermittent interest. But life took a very different direction when Susan decided to turn her dedication to reshaping our county’s response to sexual assault into a full-fledged nonprofit, Jackson County Sexual Assault Response Team.”

Rosen signed on to write the grants, which she continues doing to this day. But she also has stayed involved in the arts. Recently, she did research for a playwright working on a new project. She serves on the board of the Ashland New Plays Festival. She has written for OSF and other arts organizations. And, until the pandemic, acted in various productions at Rogue Valley theaters.

She misses the “liveness” of theater.

“I’ve seen some excellent acting on Zoom, but it’s not the same,” she said. “The performance may be wonderful, but it’s frozen in its moment. And it can’t react to different combinations of people watching.

“Above all, I miss those rare, electric moments when you sit in an audience and feel people around you focusing, breathing a moment in and, at the same time, giving something back.”

Reach Ashland writer Jim Flint at jimflint.ashland@yahoo.com.

Judith Rosen