Talking Dramaturgy with “Burn Notice” Writer Daniel Tuch

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burn-notice-final-seasonDespite some of the recent mainstream news coverage and the inclusion of one on the TV show Smash, dramaturgy remains a starkly obscure profession. Many theater artists assume dramaturgy is a rarified skill; people who use it are rarer still. However, dramaturgs are not unicorns: theater artists use dramaturgical skills every time they create. Nor is dramaturgy some act separate from the creation of a performance. Every design element is crucial to the creation of an effective performance, even if no one person has the title of “designer.” So In the same way that every production requires, for example, lighting design, every production requires some dramaturgy. As Michael Chemers, who founded the dramaturgy program at Carnegie Mellon, wrote in his Ghost Light: An Introductory Handbook for Dramaturgy, “Even a production held outside in daylight needs a practical theory about how the natural light will be employed.” Just because nobody has the title doesn’t mean the work isn’t getting done.

The same principle applies, believe it or not, to film and TV — and writer Daniel Tuch, who recently worked on Burn Notice, which ran on the USA network for seven seasons, ending last fall. I recently caught up with him as we talked about the secret world of dramaturgy in TV and film.

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Writer and 10,000 watt smile owner Daniel Tuch.
Writer and 10,000-watt-smile owner Daniel Tuch.

Have you ever met someone with the title “Dramaturg” in the TV/film world? If not, is there a comparable title?
No, I’ve never heard of a “television dramaturg.” That doesn’t meant they don’t exist, but never on a show I’ve worked for. The closest thing I can think of is that some shows have dedicated researchers or research consultants. But often a show’s “writers’ assistant” — an assistant that serves the entire writing staff — will serve as an unofficial dramaturg. Other times, the responsibility of the dramaturg falls on the writer and the on-set producers. It’s up to the writer to do the research necessary for their own script; and it’s up to the set designer to do their own homework, and same with wardrobe, and so forth.

Is “dramaturg” linked to specific tasks, or just considered part of the writing process?
I can’t speak for film, but in TV, dramaturgy is a term that’s hardly used, if ever. Although it does happen in some form or another as part of the process.

What is your experience with dramaturgy?
I personally can’t write without doing a fair amount of research first. Whether I decide to stay true to it is hit or miss, but it’s much easier to write about something you feel you know really well. Also, if I’m going to take my audience to a different world, I want to teach them as much as I can about that world as possible.

Turns out you can fly in 11th century Britain.  If you break both your legs.
Turns out you can fly in 11th century Britain. If you break your legs.

Do historical, cultural, and artistic analysis impact the creation of a script?
Sure, depending on the script. I mean, history, culture and art impact our existence. It would be difficult to separate that from your writing. As a writer, history and culture often serve as inspiration. On a show like Burn Notice, sometimes we’ll come up with storylines based off historical anecdotes. For example, my last episode was based off an attempted assassination in Amman, Jordan, in 1997.

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Do writers often employ or consult a dramaturg when developing a script?
It’s not uncommon to hire a research consultant, especially on a show that uses a lot of insider knowledge. On Burn Notice, we worked with professionals in the intelligence community as well as law enforcement, demolitions and medicine. Medical shows will hire medical consultants, cops shows will hire cops as law-enforcement consultants, a law show will hire a lawyer as a consultant.

In your work, would you find a dramaturg useful or superfluous? Why or why not?
I’m not sure. The way TV is being made is constantly changing and evolving. The right kind of a show might absolutely benefit from that added role. I personally really enjoy research and learning about the world of a script, so I may not be too excited to use one.

Do you see dramaturgy as a separate discipline or inseparable from nearly every act of performative creation — production, writing, directing, PR? Why or why not?
I think some aspect of dramaturgy is vital to every aspect of a production. As a writer, I find it essential. I think if you’re really passionate about the story you’re telling, you’re going to want to learn as much about the world you’re portraying as possible, whether you’re in set dec [decoration], writing, directing or costumes.

In the theatre, dramaturgs are often thought of as the playwright’s advocate, whether that’s true in practice or not. Is this also true for screenwriters? It seems the tradition of producer-driven projects and studio purchase-power might change where a dramaturg might sit in the circle of collaboration — or the ladder of power.
In terms of research consultants, I believe a good consultant will do their best to fit the research to the writing. A good consultant will try and work with the script. Even if it means getting creative with the historical possibilities. For example, if I wanted to have a character fly in the 14th century, a lazy consultant might tell me that this is stupid, that the Wright brothers wouldn’t make a man fly until 1903. A more creative consultant might say that according to William of Malmesbury’s book, Gesta regum Anglorun (History of English Kings), a monk by the name of Eilmer flew more than 600 feet using a pair of homemade wings in 1010. Sure, he broke his legs and the experiment was probably never repeated, but it’s possible that someone else would have tried it 300 years later. This is a creative industry and we all need to be creative with our solutions. Our job is to tell a story that an audience can identify with, and dramaturgical research aids in the suspension of disbelief and authenticity. Together, the writer and dramaturg or consultant should be able to find an entertaining balance between fact and fiction.

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Dillon Slagle
Dillon Slagle works in New York as a dramaturg and biological anthropologist. His experiences range from dramaturgy for puppet performances exploring the nature and formation of mono-theism with Kevin Augustine, to excavating pre-Greek burial sites in Menorca, Spain. In both anthropology and dramaturgy, Dillon believes in rigorous research, cultural awareness, and creative approaches to the process. Dillon is constantly searching for new, engaging, and relevant work. He is a member of LMDA, Dramaturg for the Carroll Simmons Performance Collective, and the Literary Manager for the Creation & Completion Project. Check out his Web site, Dramaturgy Tea, and find him on Twitter and Facebook.