History and Dramaturgy

William R. Childs
Professor of History Emeritus


For many of my 28 years at The Ohio State University, I was able to wed my academic interests in "History" with my attraction to the theatre. In addition to teaching a History course on "Hollywood and History," I worked with theatre artists at CATCO on five play productions that included a heavy "historical" context to them. All five of them involved Geoffrey Nelson (Founding Artistic Director of CATCO) as director.

Three of those were new works:

1892, a history of Columbus in 1892 conceived by Nelson (1992);

You're My Boy, written by Herb Brown (2005); and,

Pierce to the Soul, written by Chiquita Mullins Lee (2010).

Two of them premiered elsewhere: The Grapes of Wrath (2001) and The Complete History of America, Abridged (2007).

The web sites for three of the five productions are featured here with the intention of indicating how History and Dramaturgy work together.

Dramaturgy is a term that describes numerous theatrical tasks that fall along a spectrum from simply presenting "educational background" material in a production's program to hosting a post-performance "talk-back" to gathering lots of information for the director, actors, and designers to assisting the director during rehearsal to "literary dramaturgy" in which the dramaturg acts as a literary editor to the playwright. Dramaturgy in American Theater: A Source Book, edited by Susan S. Jonas, Geoffrey S. Proehl, and Michael Lupu, is a fine place to begin reading about dramaturgy.

For CATCO's production of Frank Galati's adaptation of The Grapes of Wrath, I created the web site included here. All of the actors and designers had access to the web site, as did the general public after the show opened. I attended about 90 percent of the rehearsals, answering questions and helping others conduct research about the novel and the historical context behind the play. In addition, I learned much about the 1930s from the other artists, especially costume designer Cindy Turnbull of Denison University.

Herb Brown's You're My Boy was a collaborative effort in which the director, actors, and dramaturg worked with the playwright to rewrite each scene, sometimes multiple times. CATCO was fortunate to have several grants that enabled the director, actors, and dramaturg to be so involved in the creative process.

The web site for Complete History is a little different. The script is a humorous mangling of history from the 15th century to the present, from the perspective of the United States. I decided to investigate almost every historical assertion that the creators made. As with the best humor, there was a grain of truth in each joke.

For more information:

Check the OSU Department of History website http://theatre.osu.edu/ for faculty and courses that focus on dramaturgy.

In addition to Dramaturgy in American Theater noted above, see this web site:
Literary Managers & Dramaturgs of the Americas: http://www.lmda.org/