"Probably if you asked 50 different dramaturgs, you'd get 50 different answers," says Sobel, now associate artistic director of the Arden, where he has lived, again, with Superior Donuts for several months - this time at the helm, as director.
As dramaturg, he says, he was a sounding board. "Because the role can be so undefined, it allows a lot of latitude for doing it well and a lot of latitude for doing it badly."
A dramaturg can be partly literary manager, someone who reads scripts and finds plays that will work for a particular company. Or he or she might be a theater artist who helps a playwright stay on track in the development of a script. A dramaturg could be a go-between who tries to understand a new play's essence - the backstory, the context of the time, the story on stage - as playwright and director tough it out creatively. Or he could write program notes for the audience, or provide the historical context of a play or musical to the cast - down to, say, the way a word was spoken 300 years ago and whether it makes any sense to say it that way today. A dramaturg might arrange audience talk-backs after a show.
At its touchiest, the job can involve being the person who says to a director: Tell me what you're trying to accomplish and I'll tell you if that's what I see. Dramaturgs are, in that sense, first responders - mouthpieces for an audience not yet there.
Dramaturgs generally perform a mix of these tasks - depending on what a theater company, director, or playwright may want. Their jobs originated as theatrical literary managers only a half-century ago, with few duties. Before regional theater began to boom in the 1970s, no one was normally asked to help a writer, director, or cast to, for lack of a better phrase, realize itself.
Cited as coming to English from German, where it came from Greek, the word itself is confounding - spelled dramaturg (pronounced DRA-ma-tergh with a hard "g") in the United States and dramaturge (DRA-ma-turj) elsewhere. Dramaturgs do dramaturgy, always with a soft g, and in U.S. theater jargon, the noun has verbed itself: "Who will dramaturg this play for us?"
"My job is to make a play more accessible to all the people who come in contact with it. That starts with the cast and director and moves to the audience," says Elizabeth Pool, resident dramaturg at People's Light & Theatre Company in Malvern, where she works on everything from holiday pantos to the company's forthcoming production of Ibsen's The Master Builder.
Pool - like many dramaturgs - says one of her primary methods of working with directors is to "ask questions about what I see." To provide the cast with a context, many dramaturgs do what Pool has just done for The Master Builder - compile packets about the play and its setting: the late 1800s, European culture at the time, Ibsen's period of heavy symbolism.
For Cassy Pressimone Beckowski, a freelance dramaturg who worked on the current Theatre Exile production of The Lieutenant of Inishmore, research brought forth a sizable binder of facts about the Irish underground, including articles, an annotated text of the play, even reviews of other productions.
Then, through rehearsals, "I'm looking for what do I think audience members will have a question about, or what isn't clear to me, or what's working really well. Or are there things in the script I need to help actors understand so they can piece the character together in a way that makes sense to them."
All this help could be seen as meddling, especially if you're a director or, for a new script, a playwright. "Honestly, I think I've been lucky," says Peter Reynolds, the artistic director of Center City's Mauckingbird Theatre and head of the musical theater program at Temple, where Sobel is also a faculty member. Reynolds has never had a bad experience with the dramaturgs he's hired. "I think they're amazing benefits to a production. I just really like having them in the room."
That is not a unaninous feeling. "I find it to be an unnecessary expense," says Bernard Havard, artistic director of the Walnut Street Theatre. "The people I hire to direct are knowledgable in terms of the work they're doing. They do their own research - I demand that of them, the same way I'm doing my own research right now on God of Carnage, which I'm going to be directing" next season.
Havard has worked with a dramaturg, years ago in Canada, who was "like the conscience of the organization. They are not unlike the relationship between the fool and King Lear - the fool in the sense that Shakespeare meant him: He or she should not be afraid to say things to the artistic director that the artistic director might find difficult to hear. I personally don't need it - I am my own fool, but in the Shakespearean sense."
Even though Sobel was the Broadway dramaturg for Superior Donuts, as the director here, he has none. "The challenge for me was to not replicate what we did in New York," he says, "but not to dismiss it, either."
Sobel grew up on Long Island, the middle of three brothers, with a journalist father and a mother who taught first grade. He was an English major and theater minor at the University of Pennsylvania, held a series of apprenticeships on stages including Villanova and the Delaware Theatre Company, and ended up teaching in Chicago and working for about a decade at Steppenwolf, one of the nation's leading theaters.
He came to Philadelphia two years ago when his wife, Judith Levine, a sociologist, was offered a position at Temple University. The time was right; the Arden had an opening, and so did Temple's theater department. The couple live with their 7-year-old daughter in Bala Cynwyd.
Of his work with playwright Letts on the two Broadway shows, Sobel describes his role as a dramaturg succinctly: "Tracy was the slugger. I was just the batting coach."
Contact staff writer Howard Shapiro at 215-854-5727 or email@example.com. See SOBEL on D4