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Systemic Dramaturgy

Systemic Dramaturgy

A Handbook for the Digital Age

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Michael Mark Chemers and Mike Sell


E-book (Other formats: Paperback)
17 illustrations

Theater in the Americas


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About the Book

Working theatrically with technology 
Systemic Dramaturgy offers an invigorating, practical look at the daunting cultural problems of the digital age as they relate to performance. Authors Michael Mark Chemers and Mike Sell reject the incompatibility of theatre with robots, digital media, or video games. Instead, they argue that technology is the original problem of theatre: How can we tell this story and move this audience with these tools? And if we have different tools, how can that change the stories we tell?
This volume attunes readers to “systemic dramaturgy”—the recursive elements of signification, innovation, and history that underlie all performance—arguing that theatre must be understood as a system of systems, a concatenation of people, places, things, politics, feelings, and interpretations, ideally working together to entertain and edify an audience. The authors discuss in-depth the application of time-tested dramaturgical skills to extra-theatrical endeavors, including multi-platform performance, installations, and videogames. And they identify the unique interventions that dramaturgs can and must make into these art forms.
More than any other book that has been published in the field, Systemic Dramaturgy places historical dramaturgy in conversation with technologies as old as the deus ex machina and as new as artificial intelligence. Spirited and playful in its approach, this volume collates histories, transcripts, and case studies and applies the concepts of systemic dramaturgy to works both old and avant-garde. Between chapters, Chemers and Sell talk with with some of the most forward-thinking, innovative, and creative people working in live media as they share their diverse approaches to the challenges of making performances, games, and digital media that move both heart and mind. This volume is nothing less than a guide for thinking about the future evolution of performance.


Michael Mark Chemers, professor of dramatic literature at the University of California Santa Cruz,  is the author of Ghost Light: An Introductory Handbook for Dramaturgy and Staging Stigma: A Critical Examination of the American Freak Show. He was the founding director of the bachelor of fine arts in dramaturgy at Carnegie Mellon University.

Mike Sell, professor of English at Indiana University of Pennsylvania and member of the Graduate Program in Literature and Criticism, is author of The Avant-Garde: Race Religion War and editor of Playwriting in the 1960s: Decades of American Drama, among other publications. He is the founder of the Digital Storygame Project, which supports Pennsylvania public-school teachers in the integration of digital game design and creative writing. 



“Refreshingly joyful in their embrace of the pleasures of gaming, without losing sight of the primary role of the audience and social identity, Michael Mark Chemers and Mike Sell celebrate the transferable skills of dramaturgy as well as its vital role in building empathy among spectators and consumers of digital media.”—Jane Barnette, author of Adapturgy: The Dramaturg’s Art and Theatrical Adaptation
Systemic Dramaturgy unpacks and explores the unique ways contemporary dramaturgy exists all around us. Everyone from theatre historians to video game streamers will cherish this essential guide to speaking about dramaturgy across the theatrical and virtual worlds where we all play.”—Peter Kuling, associate editor, International Journal of Performance Arts and Digital Media

“Chemers and Sell’s excellent and important new book—Systemic Dramaturgy: A Handbook for the Digital Age—speaks to anyone interested in the relationship between performance and technology. The authors argue—convincingly—that dramaturgy’s attention to the art of close reading, open-ended thinking, and artful questioning is absolutely essential to the future of theatre, new media, gaming, and digital performance. In turn, they issue two bold challenges to the field: first, for dramaturgs to readily bring their expertise in analytical thinking to ever-widening constellations (systems) of thought; second, and most importantly, for dramaturgs to apply their knowledge of history and the humanities across cultures to the transformation of fixed, oppositional binaries— machine/soul, head/heart, digital/authentic, technology/human embodiment—into dynamic, compassionate engines of play.”—Geoff Proehl, author of Toward a Dramaturgical Sensibility: Landscape and Journey with DD Kugler, Mark Lamos, and Michael Lupu