Joining the Asolo Repertory Theatre in August 2017, Paul Adolphsen adopted the weighty title of “Dramaturg & Literary Manager”—more than a mouthful and as much to decipher for the uninitiated. SRQ sat down to find out what the word dramaturg means, and why a Seattle boy had to first cross the country (college in Amhertst, MA), and then the world (teaching on a Fulbright Scholarship in South Africa) to discover the “magic” of theater. 

What is the role of a dramaturg?  Paul Adolphsen That last weird ‘turg’ part comes from a Greek word meaning ‘work,’ and ‘drama’ comes from the Greek word meaning ‘action.’ So dramaturgy is looking at the way that the pieces of theater actually do their work. And dramaturgs are people who study that and apply that knowledge to the way that theater does its work both on the page—how do they structure stories—but then also how does it do its work in performance and in collaboration with a live audience.

And what does that mean? We do a lot of season planning. I read all the scripts that are submitted to the theater for consideration. I also focus on contextualizing the plays for our actors and our directors, creating dramaturgy packets—packets of information that help to deepen their understanding of the play, the kind of questions it raises—and I also take that and apply that to our audience, and coordinate and facilitate all of our public programming. I would say a big word is context.

Are we talking more historical context or theatrical context? That really depends on the production and it depends on the director. And it depends on the play. The work that I do is often about historical context and about answering those questions that the play poses and that actors might have, in order to really get us to a clear understanding of what the story is. Like for our production of Evita this Fall. There was a lot of research that went into ‘What is Peronism? How is it being articulated—or not—in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s play?’ 

What intrigued you particularly about South African theater? I read a play by Athol Fugard, who is probably the most well known playwright from South Africa, called Master Harold and the Boys and was immediately taken with it. It was a play that was able to speak so directly to its political movement, but did so in a way that opened up discussion and opened up dialogue and didn’t close down possibilities. A play that’s deeply personal that also can be applied to many different situations. At that point in my life, in my career, I had not really encountered plays that did that, that were so directly tied to their political context and speaking to it so eloquently. 

How did that experience change your greater understanding of theater? There’s a fascinating theatrical culture there. You have very interesting intersections of European styles of theater and kind of the European avant-garde of the mid-twentieth century. You’re mixing that with the indigenous ways of telling stories and understanding the world. And there are eleven official languages in South Africa. So one thing that really drew me as an American dramaturg, who is all about the text, was learning from South African theater-makers whose first point of contact or entry into a story is oftentimes not words, but the universal language of the body.

Asolo Repertory Theatre, through the American Character Project and beyond, has never been afraid to address a hot button topic or a contentious issue. What do you see as the role of theater in social commentary? Roe by Lisa Loomer—that’s a perfect example of the way that theater can spark a dialogue and can take advantage of the liveness of the art form. Audiences may come in with an expectation, but this play is staging both sides of the debate, and actually using the stuff of the theater, direct address, to make a connection with an audience. Our art form is an art form that really has, at its base, empathy, which is something we are in desperate need of cultivating in ourselves today. And going to see and witness theater requires you to sit with other points of view. It requires you to consider the other in a new way. And all of that happens in an immediate way because there are bodies in front of you and you are not alone at home, in front of a screen. You are with other people who are experiencing this surreal event. We are seeking those events, that can crystallize the arguments, the debates and possibilities of our time. But do so in a way that is generous and open.