Thursday, May 6, 2010

It's a collaborative art, right?

I'm going to broach a subject that has triggered many a *ahem* "heated debate" with myself and my writer friends. (Hi, Ken!) I write myself, but I can't really bring myself to call myself a "writer." It seems presumptuous.

Although, with a 10-minute play going up this Summer, and a comic book in production as I type, I guess maybe I might be earning that right.

But I digress...

Let me start by saying I have nothing but the highest respect for playwrights, and the craft of writing. I believe the script must be honored, and that, while changes always happen (I doubt any performance of any play has ever been without at least a bit of paraphrasing), no director or actor should ever take it upon themselves to "improve" dialogue. The script is the script.

However, a key skill every playwright should learn is to let go of their work. A script, by it's very nature, is an incomplete work. Now, I know my writer friends are bristling at that, but really...

Think about it.

Why are you writing a play, as opposed to a novel, or, God help us, a "reading play?" (I have no idea how anybody ever thought that was a good idea..."I want to write a novel, but I don't want to get into heavy descriptions...hey!") You're writing something that, inherently, is to be interpreted by others. You may have all sorts of ideas about how a scene might play out, but, at the end of the day, the director and the actors are going to make their choices, choices that may, or may not, be different from what you envisioned.

That's not wrong. In fact, I'd argue it's the whole point of doing any drama, theatre, film, whathaveyou. It's multiple ideas becoming one.

Hell, even my comic book script. I hand it over to Zach B, the artist I'm working with, and he can come up with things that are quite different from the layout I had in my head while scripting. So far, it's always been better. I accept that, that's the process.

I have to be honest. I'm torn about the value of having a playwright in rehearsals on a regular basis. I love working on new plays, and I love working with playwrights, but there also comes a point when the script becomes a blueprint for the show the director and actors are trying to build. The script is always important, always, but, the show, as the audience sees it, the script, as interpreted by others, is the finished work. Some playwrights can roll very well in that situation, and some can't.

I put it this way...

When you're toiling away on the computer, or typewriter, or legal pads, or whatever you use, you're alone. You are left to your own devices to create your story and your dialogue. There's no director or actor hovering over you commenting or questioning the choices you make. That's your time to work your material to what you want it to be. Choose the words and events to try to make your story, and the emotions you are trying to reach, clear.

Director, designers and actors, rightly, have no place in that process. It's a place from which a writer can create without having to answer to anyone. Vastly important, and it's all within our writer's control.

On the opposite end, when you enter rehearsals, especially later rehearsals, that's the production team's time to play with the material you've given them. It's their time to make that story, and those emotions, clear. Yet, I have seen playwrights repeatedly intrude into that process, and attempt to extend their control of the final product in such a way that has lessened, or even negated, the views of the production team.

I can also wholeheartedly say I've also worked with playwrights who have been completely comfortable, even excited, when productions have moved in directions they never imagined. I like to call it the excitement of the human element, the electricity of collaboration, the merging of ideas that takes words on a page and transforms them into "real" people and situations.

Between these two is the development process, when the entire team sits in a room together and talks about, and works, the script, the story, the intent, the ideas, and how all of those elements can be most clearly, and dramatically, presented. It's probably the most important part of the process of working on any new play, but damn, if it doesn't get the short end of the stick a lot of the time. I don't know how many times I've watched plays that were nowhere near ready (including my own) left in a state of "good enough," because development wasn't made a priority from day one.

You need to take time in development, you need to be open in development, and you need to be patient in development. Honesty is hard, especially when your creation, your baby, on the playwright's side, and your emotional investment in the characters and situations, on the production side, are in play. No one likes to hear that something they're invested in might not work the way they think it will, or how they think it does. No one likes to hear that.

But it's those honest discussions that make a good, or even great, play. It all comes back to collaboration, choosing the people to be in the room who can and will provide good, honest feedback, and listening to what they have to say. Sometimes you don't want to hear that scene doesn't work, or that the second act meanders and lacks dramatic thrust. Likewise, and actor doesn't want to hear that the choices they are putting forth, the (sometimes deeply) personal things they are lending to this creation, aren't working. No director wants to hear that the staging they've brought into play has just muddled the concept.

Looking back over what I've written, I'm probably coming off very harsh on the playwright end, here. Not really my intention, it's just on my mind lately. I know, from experience, there are many directors, actors, designers, whathaveyou, equally guilty of being oblivious, or even intruding, into the work of other members of their team. Collaboration has to mean everybody.

Risk is the cornerstone of our business, and the entire team has to be willing to make strong choices, and be absolutely wrong. The collaboration is how we all come together to help each other, and that means challenging each other, to find the choices that are absolutely right.

Then, of course, previews, and the public....

However, if your development process is strong, the team can handle anything that comes out of that stressful process with aplomb. If you make a core of honesty, teamwork, and a healthy respect for the things that everyone brings to the table, the norm, then bringing the team back into the room together after that first preview can be very powerful. Last-minute changes are going to be obvious and can be about the audience experience, rather than wrestling with problems that have been festering since day one.


  1. I want to be a devil's advocate here, because I think a playwright should be able to expect, at least with a first production, an honest attempt by directors and designers to realize the playwright's vision of their play. But in the cases where I've worked with playwrights on a first production, those playwrights were insufferable and didn't add anything to the process. I chalked it up to them being bad playwrights who did not play well with others. But maybe I'm wrong...

  2. The thing to understand- for actors and directors- is this: The writer invented the basic version of everything you end up doing. Every idea you have- actor, director, costumer, etc, occurred after exposure to what the writer put together. He or she is the primary creator- whether it's that annoying bastard in the front row during rehearsals or the long dead Lion of Literature, moldering away somewhere under the soil of Old Blighty.
    Which often seems to be something that the other creatives in this collaboration refuse to acknowledge. Which drives us ink stained wretches to drink and kick puppies. Seriously. Well... not about the puppies. I myself slice up tarts and whores. But you get the idea.
    We work ourselves blind in our writing caves, trying to carve a story out of solid air. Then we give it to a director and actors and so on... and we expect them to try and tell THAT story.
    The same story we were trying to tell.
    And a lot of directors and actors seem to want to tell another story entirely. Let me be clear. Plays are collaborative and a good writer not only understands this, but welcomes it. Welcomes what fresh eyes and judgment can bring to the story. The enhancements that come when someone else thinks about things. But not all directors and actors are trying to help the story.
    Some are trying to help themselves. Which is a different thing entirely. Wanting to put their stamp on things, their mark on things. Not their job. And not something any writer should tolerate.
    It comes down to collaboration. And from the writer side of things- a lot of what we see being done is sure as shit not collaboration, but bowdlerization. It's people making changes that don't HELP. It's people ignoring your input or making changes that go counter to what should be our mutual story's intent. And no matter how talented the director or actor, there is no justification for that kind of bullshit.

  3. Just a thought, and I could be way, waaaay off base, but it seems that playwrights are the only real writers that don't have to deal with an editor or producer or real involved in the actual writing process collaborator. They are, for the most part, left alone to their devices.

    I've dabbled in writing and I've been very active it comic illustration and I've found that I'm always much more productive with someone there to bounce ideas off of and also to edit my thoughts when I start getting "creative". A better product almost always emerges.

    Wouldn't the input of the people involved in the performance part of the play benefit the play itself in most cases?

  4. Of course in a perfect world, you would have collaborators - writer, director most importantly, but also actors and designers who all mesh together to bring their talents to a production that everyone is happy with. In a less than perfect world... look at all the writers who have become directors.

    There are even some people who would just rather work by themselves.

  5. Hear, hear, Mark. Well spoke.

    The beauty of the Theatre is that is by nature, collaboration. A collaboration of not only ideas, but of skill sets ranging from writing and designing and acting to sewing, construction, and even welding. None of it is sacrosanct, and to treat it as such is foolish, and it will inevitably lead to an unsuccessful production.

    Or at least to people who will never work with you again.

    Playwrights can create great stories, but they aren’t always the best storytellers. (Relax - I said aren’t always...) What’s the line Mark? “You can write this shit, but you sure can’t say it.”?