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[on play writing classes] [giving directors notes] [style:naturalism] [phone conversations] [tape effects] [characters] [agents] [strategies] [publish?] [pauses] [best playwrights—actors?] [naive art] [about the music]

[read my blog - Stories are Our Best Revenge] [STOP da music]


what is this?
Most of these are replies bob posted to questions on USENET theater news groups. That’s right—hopeless noodling, more to give you an idea how he works/thinks... if that interests you...

why do you care?
Well, you might possibly get (1) inspired, (2) an idea, (3) a chuckle.


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.

  1. If the new scene 2 has the same stuff going on as the last one, the whole scene’s got to go. The scene I read appeared to show an appalling lack faith in your audience – but really it was probably just a lack of faith in yourself, so you’re forgiven. 
  2. If the characters’ world isn’t so different from ours, skip all exposition. Don’t even have one moment of someone recounting something from the past unless that information is being used in the present. Don’t have a single line there for gratuitous purposes. None of your puns where someone fucking breaks plates just so they can later talk tectonics. Someone has to cut their foot on the plates and that cut foot has to interfere with something critical later (which is what you did to fix that). Peppered throughout this draft, people were saying things without a character-driven reason for saying them. Entire pages needed to be crossed out – they were well written but totally unnecessary because they were providing detail about the past, which we could have figured out if the people would stop talking and start doing something.
  3. Keep an eagle eye out department – we often admit to ourselves in the writing when we have characters say things like “I know / that,” “as you know,” “I keep asking myself,” or “I told you before,” “you told me this.” Or when the same information is repeated twice – bad enough it came once as exposition, then it has to be repeated again, to another character who needs to hear the news too. If that’s “needs” to happen usually the scene started in the wrong place. Start right after the news was related, the audience will know exactly – oldest trick in the book but still frequently used and never sounds stale.
  4. Avoid starting your café scenes at “hello, I’m me, you’re you.” Start ten minutes into that scene, after some ridiculously funny, shameful or horrible thing was said. Then you won’t fall into the exposition trap. All you have to do is have one moment where it’s clear this is their first time meeting, and then all the knowingness about each other MUST be because he told her just then, no? So we get to skip the exposition.
  5. Grill sessions of three pages where two characters do question and answer format, that’s what scene 2 felt like. Don’t pause the play to feed the audience information. In the type of play you’re writing, which is either realism or magic realism, you have to resist all temptation to talk to the audience. If it were a musical, or Epic, you could get away with a few breakouts.
  6. Focus on voice. All we know of these guys is what they do and their sounds or silence. Everything else is submerged or silhouetted. Get a map of the US and put a star with a character’s name next to where each one was born. Make a grid with all characters’ names on it up the left and across the top and write a few words about how each character should talk to and act against their counterparts, or include a few sample lines. Hang those up above your writing table. I use these tools – and I invented them, they don’t come from a book.
  7. When reading a play it’s as if I am going to direct it. Am fairly ruthless with most plays and usually feel bad about it only after closing night. Say to yourself, “would I tolerate this from a play I was watching?” It’s a maddeningly simple question, but really ask it anyway. Even the exposition in scene 1 of my play is going to go, it’s nothing but scaffolding. And this is an alien world to which the audience needs orienting. 
  8. I directed a 15 minute play last year and cut a page out of it and the playwright agreed to it (it took less than 5 minutes to convince him). What does that mean? That I am an asshole? (Yeah, probably) Or that the play was 10% too long? (Yeah, probably) As it was, the playwright so shackled the play (one of the characters was paralyzed and the other forced to spend the whole scene washing him) that the play felt like static talking anyway. I realized after a week of performances — there are never enough rehearsals in these no-money NYC showcase code shows, professional actors can't afford to waste their time rehearsing a fifteen-minute play when they can get paying work — it felt totally like my fault, I should have worked harder to open the play up with the playwright. But the playwright was actually trying to distance himself from the play, it was about a very painful experience he'd just gone through (I admonish you, go through serious therapy and wait 20 years before trying to write about your own pain!). The fragment we held was merely notes, a sketch, and the play hadn't even been born.
  9. Write scenes with only stage directions and no dialogue to counter the scenes where nobody does anything but talk for 5 pages.

Top 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 don’t 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 writer’s personal aesthetic is harmonious with the student writer’s 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.

Here’s an idea. Since nearly every great playwright in history was an autodidact, why not follow this simple approach?

  1. Study a unit of acting and one of the supporting theatre crafts--e.g., directing, tech or stage management. Put your whole heart into it.
  2. Take a 1-2 semester History of the Theatre class. One that uses Nagel or another foundational text as its basis.
  3. Volunteer to work on a bunch of shows, the more pro quality the better (it’s really OK if all you do is run the sound board). This will really get you knowing the business and the craft of putting on plays. If you are willing to do relatively crappy work for free, even the best off-off-b’way houses will snap you up like a sugar beet. Be ubiquitous on the set, always helpful and attentive. A real gold piece. Listen to every word the actors and director say. Write them down. Eat, breathe, drink theatre.
  4. All this time read as many plays as you possibly can get your hands on.

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 bond—nay, even a love—for 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 don’t 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 didn’t 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.


Top giving notes to a potential director

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).Top


Top style: naturalism & unnaturalism

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 [1]:

  1. As a movement in literature (Emile Zola) [2]
  2. On to high theater through the influence of Ibsen
  3. To France (the Theatre Libre of Andre Antoine)
  4. Chekhov got it from Zola, Ibsen, and Antoine.
  5. The Moscow Art Theatre got it from Chekhov (and here were finally in the 20th century).

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 [3], 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 Newton’s 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 (don’t 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.

  • Literature bloomed—James Joyce, T.S. Eliot and William Faulkner wrote episodic works that slipped in and out of multiple points of view and narrative styles. In parallel:
  • Jazz busted out and evolved weedlike—an episodic music style that combined African rhythms with Western instrumentation and whose forms are based on musical virtuosity and improvisation
  • Painting and sculpture fractured—because photography had become a commodity, the role of recorder had now passed from human hand to technology. So artists imported African art forms and began to wander into total abstraction. Look at the multiple points of view in Duchamps Nude Descending a Stair (the same body pixellated across different moments in the act of walking downstairs) and the face morphing in Picasso’s TheYoung Girls of Avignon (multiple sources of not only light, but form).
  • Cinema emerged—and permitted the tightest control of point-of-view.

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) significant—its openness, it’s 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).


[1]You’re free to dispute the exact order.

[2]Acceptable to state that high theater was perceived as a branch of literature in the 19th century? Of course, there are exceptions to everything...

[3]Or at least a change back to an older mind that doesn’t refuse to see things that don’t fit a rigid logic model?Top


Top Phone conversations

Is it cliché to have a short monologue play where the actor is speaking on the phone?

Playwrights will probably always find a fresh way to “do phone.” And of course don’t forget that there are many other ways to communicate today; email etc and all involve people telecommunicating. 

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. 

Interesting fact: Listening to a real phone conversation, you really can tell 80% of the time what the other side is saying.Top


Top 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.


Top laboriously constructed characters

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 use—write a personal history for each character, have each character’s 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 tricks—go from bottom up—try 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 ’em—build 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. It’s time to whip those random thoughts into shape. Dust off the jackboots and parade the camp of structure.

Point is, without both sets of chops, you’re missing something. Structure has its place as does blather. Bit of the director’s eye, actor’s ear, stage manager’s nose...Top


Top do i need an agent?

Well?

Re: using agents to place scripts. It jest don’t happen very often. Most of my scripts get produced when one of two things happens:

  • Someone I know or someone who knows someone I know is reading for their season.
  • I put it on myself—either a reading or a full production.

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 haven’t yet seen a production of note, so no publication deals... And agents get sick of you when you don’t 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 it’s written on toilet paper” as my old agent used to say. If you’re 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 Albee’s first production came when he was 30. I’ve been writing for 27 years... about twelve productions (and still a few unproduced scripts) and still no “hits.” Haven’t even made back what it’s 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 don’t 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.)

If you have theater groups nearby and you’re not doing anything theatrical, try to get involved with one or more of them. It’s best to develop scripts with a cast handy.Top


Top strategies for getting produced

I’ve been a playwright for three years (never been produced). I can’t get Literary Managers to read my scripts. How do my scripts get produced if LMs won’t 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 this—hearing your play read by other people, strangers even.

I liked it so much I started a little lab... maybe you heard of it? It’s 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, it’s well worth the effort.

An interesting by-product of lab work is that it often leads to readings—or 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. I’ve been writing plays since I was 11 (has it really been 28 years?) and have had a few produced, produced a few myself. I’ve tried all these methods. It’s 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.

Best of luck to you! Top


Top publish first, or produce first?

I think play publication is a big, big thing that needs more discussion and brainstorming in the field. How about it, folks? What’s to be done? (linda eisenstein)

I admit to being a do-it-yourselfer. I believe in these plays of mine; if I can’t 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 couldn’t 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 you’ll 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, it’s unlikely they will understand the unique poetry of the stage, especially when translated to print (experience: most non-theater people I know aren’t comfortable reading scripts).

I think the theory goes that for large publishers, there’s 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 trends—Broadway-produced and Pulitzer-winning playwrights.

And French and Dramatic Publishing—two biggies—make 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 don’t flog ’em too hard because they don’t really pay the bills. The arty plays are prestige, the musicals and comedies are the bread and butter (if it weren’t 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 they’ll catch the next ANGELS. There’s the occasional success story with certain play titles, but it seems for the most part that you’re 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 doesn’t look that way.

Meanwhile, get your stuff produced. Produce it yourself if you have to. Join a play development group. You’ll 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 writer’s 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). Top


Top pause abuse

The Pause is an interesting playwriting convention - in my opinion, very overused and abused.

Well, that’s like saying the rest is over-used in music. Playscripts represent events that occur over time, just as sheet music does. (Don’t jump on me—it’s an imperfect correlation). Even the most complex tune has rests in it.

It’s another color on our palette. Some use it more explicitly—Pinter, Mamet. Others use it less, or practically never—Shaw.

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!).

Most of us try to augment the Pause with poetic stage directions. To various effect.Top


Top do actors make the best playwrights?

A friend of mine who’s read hundreds of bad scripts now claims that only actors know how to write plays. Is her claim true?

Argh. My answer won’t be popular.

On this point, recently read & recommend Jeff Sweet’s The Dramatist’s 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 own—it’s not fair!!”) I’ll posit a question: Would you write a physics textbook without knowing what a neutron was [1]?

Many people try to write plays without knowing what they are. It’s unarguable that before you try to author for a medium, you must know the medium. And it’s not enough to read plays—though you certainly must.

All right, perhaps you do not need to act. Perhaps you are instead a brilliant Stage Manager. That’s still going to equip you better for being a playwright than will, say, insurance underwriting .

You must experience—first-hand—the process of rehearsal (don’t 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 [2]. You must know drama’s strengths and limitations [3].

Now back to work on scene 13..


[1] OK, clumsy analogy, sorry...

[2] 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.

[3] 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.”Top


Top but what about the untrained artist?

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 there—a Henri Rousseau or Grandma Moses of the theater, if you will—who could by sheer force of will invent a new theatrical language. More power to ’em.

Wake me up when he/she shows up... Top


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