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Shirley Fishman, dramaturg at the La Jolla Playhouse, and one of the best in the business, describes her tasks.

"I was doing it before I ever knew what it was. I was part of a New York company doing a new play. One day, the playwright asked what I liked about it and didn't. So I told him. Next day, he revised several pages - based on what I pointed out! 'What you said made sense,' he explained. So I began giving notes to him and the director: 'This part isn't clear'; 'Why would the woman do that?' They weren't formal notes, usually questions I wanted to ask."

When she graduated from Hunter College, Fishman won the annual Dramaturgy Award. Her reply, "so that's what that is!"

For classic plays, she provides background research: "books, movies, articles, an info-packet for the cast, and sometimes line-by-line interpretation." For a new play, along with intensive research of the subject and themes, she works with the playwright and director, asking basic questions: "Is this scene clear?" "Does the story hit its marks?"

"In effect, a dramaturg represents the play in the room. But you are not a creator and must be sensitive to the creative process. If actors have questions, I always defer to the director."

The exchanges often involve what Fishman calls "the dramaturg's dance." She has to know "when to move in, when to move back, when to be patient, when to insist."

The dance is actually several since she works with different creative processes at the same time: not just the playwright's but also the director's and the cast's.

Fishman also leads pre- and post-show discussions. "It helps that, with a new work, like our Page to Stage series, everyone involved becomes a dramaturg. Even the audience helps develop a new play with its feedback. All are midwives.

"I've heard it said the dramaturg does whatever the production needs. And that sometimes it doesn't need you. But even if not needed you still continue to work, to advocate for the play.

"I'm the ombudsman."

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