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Friday, February 23, 2018

Best Advice I Ever Received About Playwriting: Learn How to Do Everything

Seems like a simple concept, and yet many playwrights continue to keep themselves away from the rest of the profession. I've heard them say things like “The more time I spend learning X, the less time I have for writing,” or “I'm not a set designer/director/actor, I'm a playwright. I need to concentrate on my writing,” or “I really can't afford the time.”
I do realize that we are squeezed for time; many of us work two jobs, have families, and whatever time we have for writing is precious. I'm semiretired and have more time than I’ve ever had to spill words all over a page. But when I worked full time I forced myself to get up earlier, trek to the coffee shop, invigorate my blood with fresh ground Costa Rican, and pretend I was on the fast track to a Tony.
We do what we can do in this profession. To take a note from the revered actor, William Shatner, I encourage playwrights everywhere to seek out new life and new civilizations within the trade. To boldly go into every part of the theatre, and learn about what happens after you set down the words that the rest of the profession hangs on.
Because, yes, without those words, there'd be little to do. But in my experience, writing in a vacuum has serious inherent liability. You’ve heard the chestnut warnings: never require the use of a whirling helicopter in a community theatre version of The Entire Vietnam War in Four and-a-Half Minutes. Never insist on 30 tuxedos and an orchestra for the closing number of your ten-minute play, My Cat Has a Cyst.
By spending time learning the crafts and working as a director, dramaturg, stage manager, artistic director, literary manager, and designer of sets, lighting, costumes, and sound, I’ve learned these playwriting lessons—the hard way. Extrapolate as needed:
  • Expecting an actor to learn perfect Russian pronunciation to deliver the line “Umyay kahpusty bolshiah kahrona” (“My broccoli has a big head”) may not work out as you expect;
  • Medieval dresses that hang to the ground (they ALL did) will cause your actor to go face first into the scenery if you require her to cross the stage at a run;
  • Never give a legally-blind person a real sword;
  • Attempting to punctuate a scene where two actors are debating work ethics while playing a game of racquetball with ball-bouncing sound effects will (a) create 30 sound cues, (b) cause the actors to lose their places at least once, (c) make the stage manager call down Biblical plagues on your head, and, most importantly, (d) annoy the hell out of the audience with repeated “thwop-ke-whops”;
  • And speaking of stage managers, NEVER, EVER give them a task they have to spend inordinate amounts of time trying to accomplish to make your vision happen. They are your allies, your best friends, and the lifeline to a successful production. I'd rather have multiple root canals than a pissed-off SM;
  • A reference to a recent historical event that has nothing to do with the setting, time, or theme of the play destroys the linear flow of a play;
  • Asking for repeated “specials,” lighting cues that require rewiring, cue creations, and time spent in the flies may be technical overkill for a small, budget-bereft production;
  • Asking for a set with the technical complexity of The Price or American Buffalo (both heavily laden with stage crap) may take your play out of production consideration. Theatre companies are (almost) all destitute. Asking for things above the average third-grader's school lunch budget may well get you a “Thanks, but we had 12 million submissions” email. My own preference, learned by trial and lots of errors: You can do (almost) anything with a black-box stage and minimal set pieces. And it's way cheaper.
Everything you do in theatre other than plying your trade as a scribe will benefit your writing. You are not just writing to create a world, you are writing to make that world credible and as easy to produce as possible. You are not alone in this work, not one bit. When you take the time to work with others and learn from their expertise, they will teach you how to be a better and more successful (produced) playwright.