What is a Dramaturg? Our Town's Anna Jennings Explains

Brian Robin
 | Apr 25, 2022
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Anna Jennings

Anna Jennings

Kwana Martinez had questions. The actor playing Mrs. Gibbs in SCR’s Our Town wanted to know how travel abroad was advertised and secured. She also wanted to know what languages were taught in turn-of-the-20th century schools, what childbirth/folk remedies/medical practices were like and French Canadian/Caribbean immigration patterns to New England in 1901.

As the saying goes, there is an app for that. Her name is Anna Jennings. And she turned the information around to Martinez in a few hours.

SCR’s Artistic Coordinator, Jennings is the dramaturg for Our Town, Thornton Wilder’s American classic set in the fictional hamlet of Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire beginning in 1901. She is the “app,” the all-sources resource for helping transform actors and audiences back to turn-of-the-20th century New England.

A dramaturg’s job is to provide context, structure and expertise on the social, political, physical, economic and technical environment of a play’s setting. Consider them part librarian, part historian, part linguist, part Googlemeister, and keeper of all knowledge. A dramaturg serves as a source of knowledge to help the director and actors accurately capture a period of time.

“Dramaturgy is always difficult to define. Whenever anyone asks, ‘What is dramaturgy?’ I tell them there’s so many different versions of this,” Jennings said. “That’s why it’s hard (to define). Our Town is set-text dramaturgy. It’s the most straightforward and the easiest way to define it is that a dramaturg, researches, and helps throughout the entire process as a resource to the artists. At a certain point, I look at the work from an audience perspective.”

If you need to know how much $350 in 1901 dollars equates to in 2022, Jennings has that for you ($11,838.40, if you’re curious). If you need to know what Dr. Gibbs would be reading and how he would read it: candlelight or an oil lamp—as a recent question from a rehearsal posed—you ask Jennings.

If you need to know the context of a word from 121 years ago, you ask Jennings. For example, Emily Webb has a line in the play referring to “this terrible moonlight.”

“The use of the word ‘terrible’ here, that’s not how we use the word anymore,” Jennings said. “I looked it up in the American Heritage Dictionary and found a definition that shows it doesn’t always mean ‘bad.’ Sometimes, it means ‘great and overwhelming.’ So, I shared that with everyone.

“Sometimes when you’re reading through for the first time, you don’t catch the little things. That’s what the actors do for you. As a dramaturg, you’re approaching the whole of it. The actors are approaching it through tunnelvision. They’re great at catching things.”

And Jennings, who is making her SCR dramaturgical debut on Our Town, is great at finding things. Because director Beth Lopes is approaching the play in a historically accurate fashion, Jennings created a 98-page “protocol” that included Wilder’s biography, Our Town’s production history (openings, revivals, radio and TV adaptations), reviews, a glossary of terms used at that time, research images, a historical timeline (which was 20 pages alone), the historical, social and cultural environment of 1901 New England, character analyses, a summary of the play’s major themes/ideas, a critical history consisting of relevant scholarly items and—something Jennings took great pride including—complimentary texts, primarily Spoon River Anthology, by Edgar Lee Masters.

Including Masters’ 1915 collection of short poems that captures the lives, losses and manner of deaths in the fictional Illinois town of Spoon River illustrates Jennings’ attention to detail. She immediately saw the connection between Grover’s Corners and Spoon River, so into the protocol it went.

Along with the protocol, Jennings created 14-page individual packets for each actor: a slimmed-down version of the protocol that included a glossary, a pop-culture chart for 1900, pictures of flowers mentioned in the play and excerpts from Spoon River Anthology she felt were relevant.

“The nice thing about this kind of dramaturgy is it’s very much like collecting articles and skimming them,” she said. “I’m like a magpie getting all this stuff. I put all that’s interesting into a binder. Some of it won’t be used, but some of it will. …

“It’s a very flexible thing what you put into it. It’s up to you to determine what will be useful to the artists.”

Jennings, who has an MFA in dramaturgy from the University of Arizona, clearly enjoys the challenge of dramaturgy for a play performed thousands of times in hundreds of venues since its 1938 debut.

“The dramaturg is kind of like being there with the artist to figure out what kind of story they want to tell. It’s understanding what their goal is and then helping them get to that,” she said. “ … I like the flexibility and the variety of ways you can apply it.”

See Our Town on the Segerstrom Stage May 7-June 4.

Learn more and buy tickets to Our Town.