(From August 6, 2012)
So. Playwriting. What a freakin' mess some days.
It's not the writing that does you in. It's the rewriting. Or the reluctance to rewrite. Two ways to drive yourself mad.
Every dramatic scribe wants to hear the same thing when they ask a friend/colleague to read the latest masterpiece: unequivocal praise. That's what I want: Endless phrases extolling my unfathomable genius, my psychic understanding of the human condition, my uncanny ability to capture the essence of the human condition and reveal the deepest, most vulnerable parts of the soft white underbelly, leaving behind me a wake of permanently changed, highly moved, forever enlightened humans.
I dunno about you, but that doesn't happen to me too often. Usually it's a litany of:
“I didn't like [the character]. I just didn't. You should change him.”
“I don't understand why she did that.”
“It's too long.”
“It's too short.”
or my favorite:
“You need zombies to eat his brains out. Or space aliens to take over the government. That would be so cool!!!”
And again I ask myself... what did I do to deserve this?
And yes, out of every ten comments, maybe, what? two? are appropriate as to what the piece might need, or close to. Maybe. Sad, I know, but, as that piano guy from the 80s said, that's just the way it is. Some things will never change.
Which means more work. Which means thinking about this damn play all over again. Which means deciding if you actually really wanna accept the criticism and rewrite. And if so, how much of a rewrite?
Recently I was presented with a play in which the ending seemed formulaic...typical...expected... unsurprising... without any special resonance. Certainly not very dramatic and nothing new was brought to light. An interesting lead-in with likable characters that suggested the usual expected reveal, which I hoped would not follow and of course, did follow obediently. Criticism from myself and others was consistent and then I saw it... the playwright immediately walled up. The smile was there, but the eyes and the facial muscles said “Nope. I like it the way it is. I'm not changing it because this is the way I want it.”
I am the first one to say that the playwright has the right to do whatever he or she wishes with his or her piece. That's sacrosanct. But... why? Why submit it for critique in the first place? Just to garner praise? Bullshit. The reason we submit to our peers is (and should be) solely... here, write this down: the integrity of the piece. It's the play that has to stand all by itself. No playwright can run around explaining its purpose to every audience. That's sheer folly. This particular playwright wrote a piece that was unexceptional and predictable. No great sin. It was certainly better than many other efforts I've been subjected to. Plays that made little sense. Plays that had zero characterization. Plays that were so... what? Avant garde? Experimental? That they challenged the laws of physics with their affectatious self-importance and stupefying lack of logic? This new piece was not crap by any means, but it also wasn't anything that stood out of the crowd, either. If that's all this playwright wanted, he succeeded. Hey, mazel tov. But (if I have anything to say about it) it's not going in my next playfest. I want – and I assume the audience does, too – plays that challenge, stir, surprise, change one. That's what I and most people pay their hard-earned shekels for: a new, worthy experience.
Rewriting is as much a part of playwriting as the original first draft. More, actually. Cuz it usually lasts a lot longer. Hell... some plays take years to rewrite. They don’t just fall into place. They're like...kids. They take time, indulgence, emotional growth, instinct, and humongous shitloads of patience. And, despite best efforts, one makes a bunch of embarrassing mistakes. Plays are not inanimate beings. You have to listen to what THEY want, not just toss in what you want to put in them. You can't crowbar in a line, speech, scene, or ending and have it all work out. It will turn out false. And falsity destroys plays. Listen to it... the play will tell you what it needs.
“I fixed it! I changed the ending!” Great. Terrific. Not really. These are words I personally dread. Does your new ending now match the rest of the work? That is, does your new catastrophe/denouement accurately reflect the progression of the sequential elements that came before it? Is it seamless? Is it a logical, inevitable summation of the conflict that preceded it? See... the problem is... once you change one thing, you have to go back and make sure the rest of it jibes. Chances are you may have engineered a character change that now has insufficient justification. Or maybe accelerated the reveal or revelation, having effected a result that should have taken six (or sixty) more pages. The pieces do not exist by themselves... they live and breathe and depend on every other part of the work.
This IS rocket science. No, screw that. Rocket science is simpler. This is like psychology. Mumbo-jumbo. No way to quantify it. No way besides gut knowledge to know if it's true. It is NOT easy. It is not about the glory of Jane Schmane, playwright. Screw that too. It is about the work and ONLY the work. Fergodssakes. If it was easy, every clown would be doing it. (Okay, somedays it does seem like every clown is doing it. I recently opened up a book of “The Best Short Plays of [YEAR]” and was so aghast with the ineptitude of the first selection that I almost pooed myself in disbelief. Holy shit what a terrible waste of ink, paper, and consciousness. Nothing new, but that was the least of its self-inflicted death blows. Not a shred of revelatory truth or insight. Just tricks. Dramatic gags. Devices without real humanity to drive them. Crap any fool could learn in playwriting school. Flummery. Should have been a tv script.)
The deal is that every time you sentence yourself to creating a script, you are in it for the long haul. And most times the haul isn't really all that long, especially with the recent obsession for the 10-minute play. But you have to commit and you have to leave your ego on the porch. The word is “playwright”; the “wright” signifies someone who practices a craft, who is constantly engaged in a process of perfection-seeking that does not end. A friend of mine, a respected and talented playwright, once answered the question, “When is a play finished?” with “When you begin the next one.” Then she added, “Except that you usually go back to it some time later and fix the boo-boos you didn't know about till you wrote the one following.”