[As threatened in the previous post, this is the not-really-a-follow-up to an idea already touched on.]
I always know it’s out there . . . lurking . . . waiting . . . with a sly Cheshire grin on its face, frolicsome malice in its heart . . . and the certainty of inevitability that one of the wide-eyed, unsuspecting neophytes in the room will undoubtedly speak the magic words that summon it, giving it free and full rein in the classroom.
And after that . . . pfffft . . . all bets are off.
The question always comes, no way of getting around it. It’s usually asked with an edge of suspicion, as if the questioner somehow knows as he or she is in the process of asking, the act of bringing the heretofore nascent concept to vocalized center stage, of saying in effect “Holy shit, look at the elephant in this room,” that the answer will be somewhat, nay much less than satisfying. It’s like asking the IRS “How much do I owe you…??”
The question, simply put is this:
“So how do I know when my play is done?”
Believe it or not, I don’t have an immediately acceptable answer for that one yet. I mean I have an answer but it’s (when considering the audience) pretty lame and kinda pretentious.
My first instinct is to say “Never.” But that’s ridiculous. Not ridiculous because it’s inconceivable that something might never reach perfection (it’s not), but because I can’t look at a classroom full of playwright wannabes and hit them with that. It’s not really fair.
Age (hopefully) brings experience and experience changes perception. Maybe the play I wrote fifteen years ago looks a bit dated, trite, or (god forbid) naïve. I may see things in last year’s award winner that are now so obvious as to be worth a forehead-smack. I may decide that the character of the lover needs further development so as to become more real, less of a literary tool, less purely functionary, and become truly flesh, raising the emotional level of act five, scene twelve.
Let me backtrack a bit. First of all, I think, there are stages to “done.” There is the “First Done,” when you have managed to string a somewhat credible thread all the way through your latest creation and all of the basic pieces are in more or less proper order. You have a beginning, obstacles, and an end. This is known in the business as a “first draft.”
(FYI…? Nobody sees my first drafts. Nobody. You can try to bribe me, get me drunk, or descend upon me the latest in physical torture, or tie me down and play an endless loop of REO Speedwagon’s greatest hits, but it ain’t ever gonna happen.)
“First Done” is only a mile marker that signifies that the basic skeleton is now assembled. “First Done” goes on (in my case, after several more drafts) to “Second Done.” This is the stage where actual human eyes are allowed to traverse the pages. Actually his means just my wife, Maura. She reads it, edits it, and hands it back, dripping with red like a recently dispatched horny teenager from “Friday the 13th Part 42.” I then incorporate all (or nearly all) of her editorial notes, occasionally rejecting what I consider to be character-necessary exceptions: word choices that either maintain or augment a syllable-based tempo or accentuate a certain personal trait (for example “Whazzup?” for “What’s up?”). For me, word choices are my anal-retentive excursion into micro-managing. Syllables count. Juxtaposition of sentence structures make a world of difference. I am painting a canvas with a series of interlocking syllables. It is a magic spell that only works when the right sequence of properly chosen words is found.
“Third Done.” This is where I open it up to my initial workshop group of actors and director. Workshop process occurs, which leads to, yep, “Fourth Done.” Now it’s ready for a staged reading.
And on and on. I mention this process simply because there are playwrights out there who will say that a play is done when it’s been produced. Or when it’s been read and corrected. Or when the playwright has had enough. Some playwrights workshop once, others twice (or more), others eschew the entire process, believing that allowing others to effect changes on or in one’s script violates the playwright’s creative boundaries. Everyone is different.
I totally believe in workshopping. Workshopping is the process by which the kinks and road bumps in the script are revealed to me. Nothing works as well as hearing a good actor, doing the best job they can, demonstrate that a line is complete shit.
(But, you ask, as a professional playwright, shouldn’t I be able to find these blemishes on my own? Honestly . . . ? By the time I get to this stage, I am so deep within the forest I don’t see it any more. I am looking at individual trees. You’d be amazed at what I can miss. More on this in some other rant.)
But when I have a group of eager-beavers in Beginning Playwriting, almost certainly their overarching concern is Writing Their Play. And this means Finishing Their Play. So, when the question is asked and the monster is summoned, I waver between the rambling semi-rant just proffered and an answer I find almost impossible to improve on, yet know will just make the situation worse.
What I usually say is this: “Knowing when the Truth of the script is fulfilled.”
And without exception the room goes dead. You could hear a pin fart in the silence. And it’s fairly obvious how lame the answer is because of the WTF? looks I get. In my defense, the answer I gave is, according to me, the best and most truthful answer possible. You stop when you know it’s right, right?
But many neophyte playwrights don’t have any way to gauge when the “truth of the script blah blah blah.” To them, just finishing writing the damn thing is being done—they don’t get that “First Done” is not the end of their trials; it’s only the first rest point. And this is where the fun of the thing may start to disappear… when the real work comes in.
But the real work . . . that is what will separate the genuine playwrights from the non. Many of the former will understand that a script is a growing thing and that evolution is inevitable. You don’t finish raising a kid when you send him to kindergarten. Yes, it’s the same thing, except in playwriting the meltdowns are on your side.
But what if there were a way to accurately gauge the moment when the play’s Maximum Truth Level (MTL) has been reached? When everything that should be included in it has been and all the words interact to form a Perfect Creation? When there is literally no more you can do to bring “’My First Orgasm,’ a Play in Sixteen Acts” to perfect fruition?
What we need is the equivalent of a little pop-up timer like they have in Thanksgiving turkeys; as soon as the play’s emotional resonance has reached its peak, just past pink, but still moist, the timer shoots out its little rod to let us know to take it out of the creative oven. This will signify the moment when “sphagnum” becomes “magnum,” as in opus.
And yet, even that may still be just a stop gap. What’s “done” now may not be “done” in five years. Like it or not, you change, and your perceptions change, and that means the way you look at a work you’ve produced changes.
I did a small survey of some professional and semi-professional playwright acquaintances on this question and the answer fifty percent of the time to the question, “When is a play done?” were variations on the word “never.” Other responses included:
“When you start the next one”;
“When I go back and read them and feel like I'm reading a play that was written by somebody else”;
“You don't finish a script, you abandon it.”
I used the analogy of raising kid earlier. Don’t scoff, dammit; I meant it and it’s valid. Like a kid, you create it, you birth it, you raise it, you tweak it, you stop it from doing stupid things, you get its hair cut when it can no longer see through the bangs, you try to lessen to hysterical melodrama, you clean up the spills, you feed it love, honesty, and attention. And you pray like hell you’re not fucking it up.
And, like a kid, it always remains one, even after a third production, a first mortgage, idiot directors mangling it, spouses that aren’t good for it, and even though it never calls except on birthdays and holidays, it’s still your creation. You started it and you’re responsible for it. Kids are NEVER done.