A dramaturg is one of those jobs in the theater world that many people don’t quite understand yet that are vital to a show’s success.
The dramaturg works with the playwright and creative team to support a show’s development by asking key questions, starting conversations, researching, providing context, and helping the artists as they work together to bring the book to life.
Still, dramaturgs remain some of the unsung heroes of the theatric process.
Ken Cerniglia, a veteran dramaturg and writer, dramaturged the innovative Broadway hits Hadestown and Peter and the Starcatcher, as well as countless tours and productions rooted here in DC.
He likes to compare the dramaturg to a book editor or film editor—someone who works with the creators to try to deliver the best possible product in respect to text, context, and structure of meaning.
“In the theater, that has to do with bringing theater history to their knowledge of dramatic literature: what’s our genre, what are we trying to achieve?” he explains.
In the case of Hadestown, which deals with popular myths, folk music, and Americana, Cerniglia looks at how the text of the show fits within the context of this history and culture.
“Part of my role as a dramaturg is to just ask those questions and understand the big ideas that each of these characters represents,” Cerniglia said. “Asking about structures of meaning and structures of character arcs and how we can get really clear on what’s happening.”
His advice led to changes in lyrics, story, and the framing of different characters.
Most dramaturgs have some combination of a theater studies background. Cerniglia, who went to Catholic University to get a master’s degree in theater history, also has a Ph.D. in theater history and criticism from the University of Washington.
His first professional gig was as a literary intern at DC’s Arena Stage, where in 1997 he served as dramaturg for A Touch of the Poet, directed by Michael Kahn, and then got to dramaturg a new play by Jon Klein called Dimly Perceived Threats of the System, directed by Doug Wager.
“I got to work with two prominent directors who took me seriously as a dramaturg, and for each of the shows I did different research and prep work,” Cerniglia said. “For the Eugene O’Neill show, I did historical research and was an extra set of eyes and ears in the room when Michael was staging. With the new play, I got to offer some feedback and have conversations about structures and meaning as he was writing it. That led to changes and rewrites.”
Cerniglia soon became part of the trade organization Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas and used one of his connections to become resident dramaturg and literary manager for Disney Theatrical Productions.
Over 16 years working with Disney, Cerniglia helped develop more than 70 titles for the stage, including The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Freaky Friday, Aladdin, Newsies, The Little Mermaid, High School Musical, and Tarzan.
That afforded him the opportunity to work with some of the most notable actors, composers, directors, and writers around, including Tom Kitt, Phil Collins, Alan Menken, Casey Nicholaw, Stephen Schwartz, and many, many others.
It was during this time that he worked on Disney’s first play, Peter and the Starcatcher, and that led him to get a call about Hadestown. He met with the creators and producers, and having studied Greek drama in school, Cerniglia was well informed and was offered the gig on a freelance basis.
In the year leading up to the show’s first run at the New York City Theatre Workshop, Cerniglia was asked to come aboard full-time as it went on its commercial path to Canada, London, and eventually Broadway.
“I’ve been with it ever since, and it’s been a fantastic ride,” he said. “Some of what I brought to the show were some structural questions. One of the first things I asked was about what characters change from the beginning of the story until the end, and which ones stay constant.”
For example, Hermes, the narrator, as well as the Fates, were considered more constant, while the two sets of lovers—Orpheus and Eurydice, and Hades and Persephone—all go on journeys that see them change.
“I try to put myself in the audience’s seat and ask myself, ‘What do they need to know?’” he said. “There were some things that were originally taken for granted about Orpheus and Eurydice when we started, but we found out that not everyone knows this story so we needed to tell the myth from scratch to welcome the audience to the story.”
Since Cerniglia’s job as a dramaturg is mostly about developing a show, once opening night comes, there’s not a lot to do. However, because the show is now on tour, with an adjusted set, he came back to rehearsals and helped the new cast find their way with the roles, answering any questions along the way.
The national tour of Hadestown is currently playing at the Kennedy Center through Halloween. Cerniglia is no stranger to the DC theater, as he has also been a force at the Kennedy Center, working as a dramaturg and advisor for the New Visions/New Voices festival since 2012 and as the dramaturg on its productions of OLIVÉRio: A Brazilian Twist and Bud, Not Buddy.
Looking ahead, Cerniglia has some exciting projects on deck. He recently conceived and developed Marvel Spotlight, a collection of one-act plays with teenage superhero protagonists who tackle real-world problems in a diverse society, and he’s writing and looking for new dramaturg prospects.
“It’s exciting as I look for new opportunities,” he said. “I’m also getting to the stage in my career where it’s time to give back, so I’m doing some mentoring of other dramaturgs and being an advocate for the field, since it’s lesser-known than some of its sister specialties. I’m looking forward to what’s ahead in this post-pandemic theater world.”
View the Hadestown digital program here.
Kennedy Center’s COVID Safety Plan is here.
In ‘Hadestown’ at Kennedy Center, a wildly exciting theatrical carnival (review by Jordan Wright)
Explosively beautiful ‘Hadestown’ gets down at Kennedy Center (column by Sophia Howes)