Behind the Scenes with a Dramaturg

Photo courtesy of  KVC Photography

Jane Barnette, the assistant professor of theatre history, script analysis, and dramaturgy at KU, has been a very important partner in shaping Billy Elliot, but most people have never heard of the job she does. For Billy Elliot, Jane is a production dramaturg, which means she helps the audience access the musical. “I’m there to help provide the facts and figures behind the artistic vision,” Jane summarized. She closes the gap between what the audience and cast know about the source of the play and the director’s vision of the play.

While the audience will wait to see Jane’s work until they read their programs and look around the lobby on the day of the performance, Jane interacted with the cast from the first rehearsal. The cast was surprised to find out how much Billy was really paying for ballet class. Jane emphasized, “One of the first things I think about from an acting perspective is, ‘what does money mean?’ ‘how is money different?’ That was something that blew my mind when I was a graduate student even. I didn’t quite understand the importance of inflation. You need to be able to translate it so that the actors get what it means in terms of the money they have in their pocket or don’t have in their pocket, so they understand what those stakes are.” This helped the cast conceptualize the resources Billy needed to get to his audition compared to the amount of money the miners were scrounging up daily for basic necessities. The scenes became more urgent when the actors understood the discrepancy between what they had and what they needed.

In other situations, Jane has different roles as a dramaturg. Sometimes she works on new play development where she helps the playwright develop accurate social, historical, and political contexts within the script. Her specialty is adaptation dramaturgy, where she connects the audience’s background with literature, mythology, or fairy tales to the way those stories are being presented on stage. “The range of dramaturgy activities goes from serving the playwright and the source to serving the audience,” Jane explained. Dramaturgy is useful spanning the entire course of play development.

The director of Billy Elliot, Elizabeth Sullivan, elaborated on the benefits of working with a dramaturg. “She contextualizes everything including the cast members, my vision, and the mining strike history as one person. Dramaturgs are useful especially for a show like Billy Elliot because it is really based on history and based on real people. To bring that to life, we need her to offer a realistic view of the mining strike from 1984-85 and the practical things that came out of it.”

While dramaturgy is incredibly important for this production and many others, Jane discovered dramaturgy while working on a PhD in theatre history. “When I figured it out I was so mad that I had not known about it earlier because it combined everything that I loved. I want to be part of the making of the theatre, but I’m a scholar, I have those sort of skills to offer.” Excited to combine her passions, Jane now is paying it forward by teaching dramaturgy courses at KU to graduate students in hopes they will learn about dramaturgy sooner.

She shared that the most interesting aspect of researching Billy Elliot is seeing just how relevant it is today. “You’ve got the clash of the governmental conservative viewpoint coming face to face with unions, so from a political point of view it’s hard not to draw parallels.” Another parallel Jane drew between Billy Elliot and the world comes from something her mentor always told her. “You can’t kill art. You can’t kill the spirit of art. You can take away the funding, which Lord knows they certainly do, but you can’t take away the desire to make art. That’s what we see in Billy Elliot. We see the irrepressible joy that dancing brings him.”

Jane has been vital to the production of Billy Elliot by making connections that enhance the big picture of the story. By relating the details in the script to the details the audience and cast understand of their own lives, the story shared in Billy Elliot comes into focus.