|play writing in the 00s|
[on play writing classes] [giving directors notes] [style:naturalism] [phone conversations] [tape effects] [characters] [agents] [strategies] [publish?] [pauses] [best playwrightsactors?] [naive art] [about the music]
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why do you care?
Notes to a playwright
These are actual dramaturgical notes I recently gave one of the playwrights with whom I work.
The points below will no doubt annoy you because they are deceptively obvious play writing text kinds of things, but I’m going to say them anyway, because you still need to hear them.
hey bob jude, are there any good play writing classes around?
Well, I hope this is helpful.
I never took a play writing class and dont feel that classes benefit beginning writers. And the many people I know who do/did take classes usually don’t finish work in them. I have a good friend who has been in [famous playwright name omitted] class for 2 years and still hasn't finished the play he started working on in NY Play Development; in fact he tore his script up in self-disgust and may never write again.
My perhaps jaded perception of my amigos collective experiences is that most teachers tend to force a particular aesthetic on a writer and that this forcing principle only works if the established writers personal aesthetic is harmonious with the student writers potential aesthetic. So if you can find a playwright who already writes the way you want to write, and they happen to be teaching a class, that would be the way to go. But remember that you as a beginning writer are fragile and need to preserve your inner desire to write at all costs. Teachers tend to be a dicey proposition and each one has their own risks.
Heres an idea. Since nearly every great playwright in history was an autodidact, why not follow this simple approach?
Lather, rinse and repeat for, say, one to two years.
That will make you sensitive to the unique tones and language of the theatre, give you a foundation in its rich history and a full understanding of its business and practice. And you will develop a strong emotional bondnay, even a lovefor these people who give their lives to a marginalized art form. The great director Richard Schechner compared theatre to the String Quartet; a minority art form. And he should know.
Meanwhile, as you progress through steps 1-4 above, you should also work specifically to hone your craft as a writer.
First, stop watching TV. Throw your TV set out. This advice comes from my good friend Linda Eisenstein and she knows what she is talking about. Not only is TV a big waste of writing time, it also teaches ways to tell stories that just plain dont work on stage.
Next, go out and buy a great play crafting text, such as The Dramatist’s Toolkit by Jeffrey Sweet or The Art of Dramatic Writing by Lajos Egri. Write a ten-minute scene for two actors. Re-read The Dramatist’s Toolkit. Call up some actor friends (yeah, you met them at the theatre where you volunteered in step 3 above), buy them dinner, and have them read the scene to you aloud. Cold. Apologize. They will sympathize. Listen carefully to how it sounds. Ask them to give you notes. Now go home and re-write that scene. Tear our everything that didnt work. Leave in what did work. Be ruthless. Invite two other actors to come and read the new scene. Repeat, rewrite. Throw the scene away.
Write two or three more ten-minute scenes, with at least 2-3 rewrite cycles apiece.
Now tackle a one-act, with the same reading practice. Keep it up.
Keep in touch. Best to you in your play writing career.
Is it appropriate to write a “Note to the Director” offering a few things that he/she may wish to consider?Even framed as you state, I don’t think this information will be helpful and may actually harm your play’s chances of being selected. Mostly because these types of notes are not typically found in play scripts.
Generally we playwrights have to act as if we know nothing about directing plays and take a backseat to directors. Anything we do to indicate we want to take an active hand in the process of directing the play communicates one thing really—that we can’t let go and just be produced.
Also remember your audience for submissions is generally First Reader or at best Literary Manager/Dramaturg and not the person who will direct your play. Even if you plan to submit the script directly to directors who are friends or even friends-of-friends, these people will have their own ideas from reading your script.
If the script does not imply or state what you are trying to suggest right in the text—and I don’t mean working notes into the text, but actually having the text (plot, scene, context, character arcs) itself suggest it—extra notes etc. will not help you.
In the Buffoon Piece, I include some notes at the start of the script, but these are basically historical notes to set the play into context. The notes do not imply in any way that they are advice to the director or other people, but simply there to provide a historical setting for the play. Many people are not well informed about the political and social state of Italy in 1936 and so I provide that background because I simply couldn't find a way to put it in the text itself without coming over as hopelessly Brechtian.
Exception: If the play has had a fairly high-class staging and you want to provide some of the information from the staging (e.g., if the play was done to good notes with a minimal set, tell how minimal the set was and it will help sell your play, if the play itself is great of course).
Is Realism the most important artistic movement in the twentieth century?
Actually, Realism (Naturalism) came to Europe in the 19th century in something like this order :
Here comes the curve ball. Perhaps whats significant about 20th century theater is whats significant about all 20th-century art forms. Perhaps what makes it significant is: it reflects a change in thinking , similar to what happened in Physics.
Physicists at the turn of the century inherited a two-hundred year old system based on the limited observations and measurements that could be made in Newtons day. The means of observing and measuring were constantly improving, and a lot of the tenets of classical physics were starting to contradict the observable phenomena.
It was time for a New Physics, which would corroborate the experiments they were conducting (especially those of Maxwell and Michaelson-Morley). All they needed was a single, superior model on which to base it.
Central was the question what is matter? Luckily, there was only a Tao of possibilities: matter was made of either particles or waves. Some findings suggested particles. Others, waves. Scientists argued back and forth. There was a lot of near-religious dogma. Almost jokingly, a few scientists broke off and started talking about wavicles.
A few years passed. Then Niels Bohr and team proposed the Copenhagen model, which suggested that perhaps matter was composed of both particles and waves (dont believe they actually said wavicles).
Instead of letting the data be limited by a single point-of-view, the scientists were allowing a dual model. This dual model, though paradoxical, kept them from excluding experimental data that contradicted either point of view.
Similar changes transformed all the arts.
In theater, this began happening before the turn of the century with Alfred Jarry (Ubu the King, theater as childish prank; forms shattered lovingly) then with Meyerhold in Russia and Weimar Germany in the twenties where the Cabaret culture invaded the palace of high art and produced Klabund, Brecht, Wedekind, Feuchtwanger.
In some senses this is a standard argument. All Twentieth-century art forms have undergone a change in allowable paradigms. Theater is no exception. What makes it significant is what makes everything about this century (as it slams shut) significantits openness, its allowance of free-flowing narrative and quick context-shifts needed for an age where communication becomes more and more instantaneous (witness how you receive this dinky essay).
Youre free to dispute the exact order.
Acceptable to state that high theater was perceived as a branch of literature in the 19th century? Of course, there are exceptions to everything...
Is it cliché to have a short monologue
play where the actor is speaking on the phone?
The thing is, I don’t think you can call these monologues. They are actually harder to write well because they are dialogues where you only hear one side of the dialogue. What’s tired and old are what my colleague Nate Kanfer calls “Charlie Brown parent dialogue,” communications where the invisible person’s words are repeated verbatim (after the way Charlie and his pals used to speak to the ubiquitous invisible adults on their show). In this type of clumsy phone conversation, we “hear” both sides of the conversation (“What mom? You want me to walk Snoopy? Rats!”). It comes off as quite unrealistic. Possibly it might have camp appeal.
How does one make a one-sided phone conversation brilliant? Practice what makes any two-person scene brilliant. Have clearcut agendas for both the “visible” and “invisible” sides. Create a real sounding character voice and allow for real listening to the other. The added challenge is making the other side clear without spelling it out.
Can a live performer interact effectively with a “canned” performance?
Well, tape can be used effectively and affectively in theatre. I have seen it done and more than as window-dressing. The dynamics of audience interpretation of the performance has a lot to do with context.
So one live actor’s affect in response to a second, canned actor on tape to can change the way the audience perceives the performance of the taped actor too.
It’s kind of like the experiments the Soviet filmmakers did with a piece of static film while they began to lay the groundwork on the theory of montage... they took a film clip of Mozukhin, a famous pre-revolutionary actor, and juxtaposed it with shots of children playing (which made the shot of Mozukhin look “nostalgic”) and a plate of hot food (which made the same shot of Mozukhin look “hungry”), etc.
Sure, yeah, my example was from film, but the idea of context and juxtaposition affects any time-based art form. In a play, beats follow each other in sequence and the sequence of beats is just as important as each beat’s content.
Here’s an example: A good friend and fellow playwright, Karl Greenberg, authored a piece where a neurotic character reacts to a canned shrink on tape; as the piece progresses, the canned shrink’s own responses gradually shift from what the audience would expect in a tape (naming specifics a generalized tape wouldn’t know—the color of the characters clothing, etc.) and thus provide a surprise element. It was hilarious. This same technique, violating the expectations of tape, has been done well in other pieces as well.
But even if the taped voice is supposed to be live... e.g., someone on the phone, I think it can be effectively contextualized into performance. Don't limit yourself with expected boundaries. Anything can be done on stage, it’s all how you set it up.
do you laboriously construct your characters, write personal histories, etc., or just write the damned scenes and figure out the history stuff later?
The operative word here is laborious. If you think something is laborious, you might be less inclined to do it.
Two things are true: (1) Character creation is necessary. (2) The traditional top-down method requires just the kind of forethought that can stifle creativity for some.
By top-down method, I mean the one that many teachers tell us to usewrite a personal history for each character, have each characters actions derive from that history.
But the rational top-down method is a way to define your characters, not the way. If it feels tedious, whip out another bag of tricksgo from bottom uptry to think of all the things your character needs to do to move the action of the play forward. Then determine where a character who would do those things came from and what would make them be that way.
And then sometimes you mix embuild a bit from the bottom... good place to start, a stream of blathering consciousness, wrap a towel around your head, get your crystals or wind chimes out or whatever, let your voice become a smoky Gloria Swanson growl, let characters channel through you... based on someone you saw on the train, at the beach, library, on line at Wal-Mart (eurgh)... maybe your parents, your best friend when you were four (hmmm... where is old Neil anyway?), your first love... or last...
Then get structured. Anal, even. Its time to whip those random thoughts into shape. Dust off the jackboots and parade the camp of structure.
Re: using agents to place scripts. It jest dont happen very often. Most of my scripts get produced when one of two things happens:
What can an agent do? Oh, a little of this, a little of that... Mostly arranging a publishing deal once the script gets some sort of production. In my case, my scripts havent yet seen a production of note, so no publication deals... And agents get sick of you when you dont make them any money... 15% of a $200 royalty check is pretty scanty pickings.
But it depends on who you are of course... Neil Simon can sell a new script even if its written on toilet paper as my old agent used to say. If youre unproduced, you have to get produced to get people interested in producing you. You may even have to mount your own production.
If this sounds like it takes too long, maybe playwriting is not for you. Edward Albees first production came when he was 30. Ive been writing for 27 years... about twelve productions (and still a few unproduced scripts) and still no hits. Havent even made back what its cost (technical writing is a great solace to many playwrights and their landlords).
Many playwrights are actors or directors. I am both. Even if you dont consider yourself one of either of those, recommended you get involved somewhere in the theater... (sorry... I know nothing about you and am going out on a limb making assumptions about what you do and your background.)
Ive been a playwright for three years (never been produced). I cant get Literary Managers to read my scripts. How do my scripts get produced if LMs wont read them?
You might start out with a playwriting lab. For awhile I worked with the 78th Street Theater Lab, and found it helped to get the creative juices flowing, as well as providing valuable feedback to help me refine the work. Nothing helps so much as thishearing your play read by other people, strangers even.
I liked it so much I started a little lab... maybe you heard of it? Its called NY Play Development (NYPD).
Naturally, this leads to comments (notes) as well. For these to truly work, you must select a group of people you trust. You might have to go through several lab situations before you find one with people in it with whom you click. But in my opinion, its well worth the effort.
An interesting by-product of lab work is that it often leads to readingsor even productions!with the company that sponsors the labs. (logical, since the reason why some companies start labs is to get a handle on new work for them to produce). At minimum, it exposes you to other theater artists, you might start a permanent working relationship one or more of them.
Other opportunities include self-production (not the easiest thing in the world, but nothing impresses professionals so much as actually seeing your work produced).
Like many playwrights the bug bit early. Ive been writing plays since I was 11 (has it really been 28 years?) and have had a few produced, produced a few myself. Ive tried all these methods. Its a cliché, but stick with it. To be a playwright, you must become a master of the long haul. Think driving a truck, with no amphetamines handy.
I think play publication is a big, big thing that needs more discussion and brainstorming in the field. How about it, folks? Whats to be done? (linda eisenstein)
I admit to being a do-it-yourselfer. I believe in these plays of mine; if I cant find someone else who believes as strongly, tend to give up and try to do them myself. Guess that makes me a control freak. So please take that knowledge into account...
I couldnt agree more that if a playwright gets published, it enhances her chance of being produced. I have some experience of being anthologized now, as the very talented Ms. Eisenstein has also been... and that concept is mom, apple pie and the New York Yankees (or the Cleveland Browns).
Everybody knows the statistic that the average American reads fewer than 1 book/year. Most of the books read are novels and nonfiction. If youll forgive the simile, plays are like sheet music. You have to know how to read them to get any profit out of them. And since most Americans seem unfamiliar with theater, its unlikely they will understand the unique poetry of the stage, especially when translated to print (experience: most non-theater people I know arent comfortable reading scripts).
I think the theory goes that for large publishers, theres no large market to justify mass publication of unproduced playscripts... and large publishers care about large profits, so they chase large markets. So play series by large book-oriented publishers follow the trendsBroadway-produced and Pulitzer-winning playwrights.
And French and Dramatic Publishingtwo biggiesmake biggest royalties/sell most scripts, for school and amateur productions. What do schools and amateurs want? Classic comedies (Noel Coward, etc.) and musicals. The drama publishers DO print the artier plays in limited runs, give them space in their catalogs, but dont flog em too hard because they dont really pay the bills. The arty plays are prestige, the musicals and comedies are the bread and butter (if it werent for the concept of prestige, few art plays would see publication).
The smaller publishers either rely on matching grants and government bucks (fast drying up) or simply publish, starve and hold off the creditors, praying that theyll catch the next ANGELS. Theres the occasional success story with certain play titles, but it seems for the most part that youre only as successful as your last success.
Is this depressing? Maybe. It seems that for an unproduced playwright there are few avenues. I wish I were wrong on this one, really I do. But it doesnt look that way.
Meanwhile, get your stuff produced. Produce it yourself if you have to. Join a play development group. Youll learn a lot. Your writing will change and improve.
Theatre takes a huge investment of love, time, money; in exchange it offers unique rewards. Nowhere else in the performing arts does a writers vision get so much respect.
And if you really want to be published, you can also do that yourself. I recommend you read How to be Happily Published, available in most bookstores, which has a lot of info on self-publishing (not to be confused with vanity publishing--with self-publishing, you actually try to market your stuff, not stuff it away on a shelf and give it to your friends).
The Pause is an interesting playwriting convention - in my opinion, very overused and abused.
Well, thats like saying the rest is over-used in music. Playscripts represent events that occur over time, just as sheet music does. (Dont jump on meits an imperfect correlation). Even the most complex tune has rests in it.
Its another color on our palette. Some use it more explicitlyPinter, Mamet. Others use it less, or practically neverShaw.
It would be nice if one of us would begin the evolution of a better means to suggest all the thousands of nuances of performance (easier to learn than Labanotation!).
A friend of mine whos read hundreds of bad scripts now claims that only actors know how to write plays. Is her claim true?
Argh. My answer wont be popular.
On this point, recently read & recommend Jeff Sweets The Dramatists Toolkit to all prospective playwrights. Had good stuff in it even for a jaded old guy like me. Mr. Sweet (himself a frequent poster to USENET) says the most successful playwrights tend to be actors. My personal experience largely supports this claim.
If you find this chauvinistic, (Hey! Looks like theater folk pick from their ownits not fair!!) Ill posit a question: Would you write a physics textbook without knowing what a neutron was ?
Many people try to write plays without knowing what they are. Its unarguable that before you try to author for a medium, you must know the medium. And its not enough to read playsthough you certainly must.
All right, perhaps you do not need to act. Perhaps you are instead a brilliant Stage Manager. Thats still going to equip you better for being a playwright than will, say, insurance underwriting .
You must experiencefirst-handthe process of rehearsal (dont just watch... participate!); see how good actors bring life to a part and how they keep it alive over a long run; see how intelligent designers create a mise en scene. You must understand what draws people to the art and what holds them there . You must know dramas strengths and limitations .
Now back to work on scene 13..
 OK, clumsy analogy, sorry...
 Yes, what holds them... because theater is an addiction, a virus, a meme; for most of us it pays almost no money yet we come back again to live for the next season.
 As director, have read playscripts from very intelligent writers that contain cinematic scene changes every 1/2 page, have central cast of 14 characters with 25 more characters appearing in only one scene each and sighed, thinking But this is a film. Not just a film. A BIG film.
I will always keep an open eye for that individual who will write a play for the heck of it. His/her lack of theatre experience, of conformity (if you will), might give way to something absolutely new and refreshing.
Think you could be right. There could be a fauve madperson out therea Henri Rousseau or Grandma Moses of the theater, if you willwho could by sheer force of will invent a new theatrical language. More power to em.
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