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The Play without the Wright?

March 18, 2011

Okay, I know, everyone says “you couldn’t do theatre without [insert your field].”  But, when it gets down to basics, we need: first and foremost, a script.  The good thing is that there are many, many fabulous scripts out there that continue to be produced, and will be for all of eternity.  But, it is so important to keep producing new plays, because these are the running commentaries of our time.  New plays sing the voices of a generation.  Not to mention – one of the easiest ways to get an audience into your theatre is to say they are watching “the premiere.”  Something new is exciting, yet to be judged by the “jaded” New Yorker – and believe me, they come running to be the first one to praise or slam a new piece.  Exciting… and terrifying.

First productions are a crucial part of the writing process.  Yes, I said “first production” preceding the completion of the “writing process.”  A true writer can always add to or edit their work.  J.M. Barrie, a personal favorite of mine, made tweaks to “Peter Pan” as a play well after it’s 1,000th performance.  It is so important to see if the dialogue, stage directions, and subtext read to an audience once the play is finally on its feet.

I have fallen into a beloved habit of working mostly with new work (be it my own, or from a Stage Manager’s perspective).  I’ll tell you: the most successful plays come from having the playwright in rehearsal, with proper rehearsal etiquette.  Yes, it may work on paper, when you have a copy in front of you, but many times drafts fall flat when they are on their feet because it’s not natural, it doesn’t create an interesting stage picture, or a million other reasons.   If, as a playwright, you refuse to be in rehearsals until tech (you know, the fun part for you when there are many people pulling their hair out trying to get what you wrote to come to life), but at tech it is too late.  In rehearsal, an actor will improvise a line that ends up getting added into the script.  Stage Direction moments get adjusted because “yeah, that stage direction doesn’t really work there.”  You don’t get this luxury in drafts, or reading circles, or even in staged readings.  Once an actor has props and a set to go with the dialogue, you may realize that he/she needs more dialogue because it takes more than 4 lines to chop an onion.  Or you didn’t account for the necessary quick change the actor must make.

My point?  Sit in on rehearsals for your first (or second or third if they’ll let you) productions.  Don’t be afraid to adjust the script, and listen to the frustration of the actors and director (if they are all having trouble with a singular moment… maybe the fault lies in vague writing).  It’s okay to change things, it’s preferable to change things, in the rehearsal room.  Don’t wait until after the first preview when no one was getting your jokes.

photo credit

Just remember a playwright’s place in rehearsals:

The Playwright’s Proper Rehearsal Etiquette

1.  Do not interrupt rehearsal.  If you have a line change, an idea, or a question, sidebar with the director a moment and if the change is approved (don’t forget this step:) give the change to Stage Management so that everyone’s on the same page.

2. Do not blame the actors, the designers, and the director for the reason your play does not work.  A well-written play will still come across with the most amateur team.  Take a look at your writing before you point fingers.

3. A 15 location show is so Arthur Miller.  Contemporary shows get produced because they are written to be producible.  The days of the lights going blue while the crew changes the scene every 20 minutes are over.  If you see the set designer’s struggles in rehearsal, go back and look at your script to see which scenes could possibly take place in the same location.

4. Remember that the director, design team, and actors are not privy to the inner workings of your imagination.  Plays are left to interpretation, that’s the nature of the beast.  Do your job, write the dialogue and the stage directions (and don’t be afraid to insist the stage directions be adhered to – it’s the first production and probably the only time you’ll get this luxury).  Don’t try to design the set, direct, or cast the show, you’ll be pleasantly surprised when you see what people present you with.

5. If you write an autobiographical work, remove yourself from it as much as you can.  I don’t recommend writing truly autobiographical plays, as they tend to be painful to watch and the events will never be able to recreate themselves the way you remember them.

Happy Writing…

2 Comments leave one →
  1. March 19, 2011 10:14 am

    Awesome post, Practical Artist! My favorite parts of the writing process are the rewrites. It’s like figuring out a puzzle with your creative team and where the playwright gets to become a collaborator. Although it can be hard to “kill your babies”, my motto has always been “everything for the good of the show.” Do you have a motto to write by as well?

  2. practicalartist permalink
    March 19, 2011 11:24 am

    “Save it for the novel” is my favorite critique I’ve received when falling into my common mistake of over-writing. But my personal motto is, “if I can’t answer an actor question, the character isn’t written clearly.” Actors approach a script from the tunnel vision of their character, and if the actor can approach a character with ease, then the character is well written.

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