An Interview with Resident Dramaturg Dr. Karin Waidley
TW: Discussion of School Shootings.
Dramaturgy is a common buzz word in current performing arts spheres. Dramatic criticism has existed since the days of Aristotle, as we see with his famous Poetics, yet dramaturgy as we know it today was “born in the 18th-century” (Gibson). In an article for TheatreMania, Emily Gibson, expresses that although dramaturgy has been utilized closely within the theater communities, specifically in the American theater scene, for many years, most people are still unaware of its existence. This was the basis of my desire to sit down with Dr. Karin Waidley, a lecturer and Resident Dramaturg in the Department of Theatre and Drama, to demystify Dramaturgy.
The big question I had walking into my interview with Dr. Waidley, and the one which I most often hear from friends and colleagues, is “What is Dramaturgy?” It is a term we often hear thrown around in performance spaces, yet a concrete definition of the study, or practitioner’s role, is rarely shared.
The etymology of the term comes from Latin roots meaning “worker of something, building blocks,” but the actual basic definition, according to Dr. Waidley, is working to understand the building blocks of dramatic literature. “Dramaturgs are excavators…we go and sort of sift through what’s out there and try [to] figure out — [similar to] what [contemporary American playwright] Suzan-Lori Parks said [on playwriting]— finding the bones and listening to the bones sing.” Dramaturgs think about what in research is valuable, which can therefore inform how we communicate stories in an ethical and equitable way.
Dramaturgy can be separated into two “worlds.” The first, assisting the creative team in building the world of the play/playwright. The second is working to answer the question of why this play right now. It’s “a process of cultivating an experience for an audience,” working on both the inward facing experience and its external translation. With this comes the consideration of how to bring the internal life and goals of the play outward, benefiting the audience and communities the work speaks to. As Dr. Waidley outlines, “what we do is ultimately meant for the public consumption, we’re in the performing arts, right?” It’s about connecting with different communities and finding the most effective ways to achieve that.
Dr. Waidley is no stranger to the arts, both on and off the stage. “She has been an artist/scholar/teacher for over two decades” and most recently was a Fulbright Scholar in Kenya, exploring theater for development and working with survivors of gender-based violence. Graduating with a PhD in Theater, she spent her early career exploring the intersections between theater and social justice in Colorado. As the social fabric of society began to shift, so did her work, and after the devastating tragedy at Columbine High School, Dr. Waidley focused on how theater can work as a tool to prevent youth violence. Currently, Dr. Waidley has taken on the role of Resident Dramaturg for the University of Michigan’s 10-Show University Production Season; a position that is not for the faint of heart. She describes her approach to the work as a more “holistic” process, aided by her background in “trauma informed practices,” helping her approach and navigate material which may have challenging content for both the performers and audience members.
When examining further dramaturgy’s relationship with wellness, Dr. Waidley suggests that over recent years she has seen “more of what I would call dramaturging a culture of care.” There are 3 “legs of a stool” in theatrical performance that all work in conversation together: intimacy direction, cultural sensitivity, and dramaturgy. Including the work of a dramaturg in productions allows for period informed intimacy direction and cultural awareness, which aid in creating safer spaces for both the performers and audience experience. This also provides students with the ability to advocate for their needs, vocalizing boundaries and finding ways to work around personal needs in communication with what the story requires. In terms of cultural awareness, dramaturgy “can also work to do better and harm less.” Specifically in relation to DEI initiatives and concerns and issues at the academic and professional level, dramaturgy helps push the needle forward toward an overall “culture of care.”
The “culture of care” instituted by dramaturgical work, became apparent to me in a recent University Production titled Bonnets: (How Ladies of Good Breeding are Induced to Murder). Two days before opening night of the production, the tragic shooting at Michigan State took place. In the wake of this event, considering the fear and pain it evoked within our University of Michigan community, there were many questions circling as to how or if we would continue with the show. Dr. Waidley proceeded to lead the charge in providing safe spaces for the cast and crew, hold community hours to discuss the show, recent events, or even just share how they are personally feeling. Additionally, a pre-show announcement was added to relay trigger warnings to the audience and the post-show discussion focused on the depiction of violence and its intersections with race, feminism, and the current social landscape.
The inclusion of dramaturgy in the theatrical process has also had great impact inside the rehearsal room, providing another set of eyes for oversight and feedback on each production. As Dr. Waidley suggests, dramaturgs give “another set of eyes” to a production, helping to consider if everyone is “in the same play.” This aids overall cohesion and translatability of a story to the audience, aiding in that outward facing arm of dramaturgy. Educationally, the inclusion of dramaturgs in theater productions at the University of Michigan has also given the Bachelor of Theatre Arts students a place to be an artist in the room, an opportunity which hasn’t always existed. Prior to recent years, the program did not offer extensive training or mentorship in the field of dramaturgy. Additionally, BTA students were not typically allowed to audition for or work on University Productions within the rehearsal rooms outside of stage management roles. Dr. Waidley’s joining the faculty has allowed for an additional area of interest to be explored and provided students with a new resource to continue the aforementioned culture of care.
Looking into the future, Dr. Waidley hopes that the inclusion of dramaturgical work will allow the University to continue moving away from white centered decisions, providing the ability to explore a wider and more diverse range of stories. As a student, I’ve witnessed this shift over the last two years and, with the recent announcement of the 2023-2024 Theatre and Drama Season, believe the growth Dr. Waidley mentioned is coming to fruition.
Gibson, Emily Anne. “A History of Dramaturgy.” TheaterMania, 28 Mar. 2023,
“Karin Waidley.” University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance, 19 Oct. 2022,
A huge shout out and thank you to Dr. Karin Waidley for sitting down and talking with me. Please check out her work because she is fabulous!