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Wednesday, September 12, 2018

How much control is too much? How much control is not enough?

There's an ongoing discussion (started around Euripides' time, I think) about how far playwrights should go to protect the intent, the mode of expression, the overall tone, the biology of the being – the essential, unique identity that communicates the play's intent..
Unlike movies, where the final presentation is set in digital stone--static, unchangeable, and repeated exactly the same with every viewing--every individual production (indeed, every performance of every production) of The Play I Took Fifty Years to Write will undoubtedly be different. And while this allows flexibility and creative input from the artistic and technical collaborators involved, to uniquely flavor each performance, it also opens the door for individual professionals to alter and even destroy a play's original intention.
Some playwrights are famous for demanding strict adherence to their specific ideas of how a script should be cast, directed, and performed, insisting that every production remain as close to the playwright's personal vision as possible. And in all fairness, playwrights have that right. The play is theirs, and they can be as prescriptive as they like. The play is an entity that represents themselves as artists, and any egregious variations in such representation will mislead audiences as to what the playwright meant to offer the world.
And while some playwrights have made news by exercising strict control over their work, I believe that in most cases their “interference” is not about hyper-control. Yes, there have been productions where a particular piece was so altered through direction and/or actor choice that it becomes almost unrecognizable. It's happened to lots of us. A few years back one of my monologues was presented at a community theatre. What was originally intended as a tender, confessional moment became a threatening, macabre date gone wrong. How did this happen? Performance interpretation without playwright guidance.
It proved to be an invaluable lesson to me about how differently my words can be interpreted, and thus, how much more thoughtful I must be when I finalize those words within the context of the whole piece. Did the director and actor do the piece as I intended? Hell, no. They simply worked with the words they had been given and presented a reality that, while making perfect sense to them, I had never considered.
Was there any harm done? Nope, none at all. The world moved on with nary a ripple in the zeitgeist.
But this experience made me think about how widely my words could be interpreted. (And no, I am not referring to the myriad and innumerable productions of Hamlet Out West/in Space/in a Zoo/in a Brothel/with Zombies.) Without explicit playwright guidance to a certain character's proclivities, limitations, or critical actions, how many possible doors of interpretation might be opened with my use of, say, this particular word choice? Or this sentence? (Or this syllable, even?) What Pandora's Box might I inadvertently open if I employ the use of, say, slang? Every word choice should be a clue to a certain character. And, since in most cases the playwright is nowhere near the rehearsal room, it's possible for directors and players to stray from the playwright's intention.
As a director, actor, dramaturg, and sometime designer as well as a playwright, I have always strived to be as open as possible to interpretative variations. To me, theatre is a room with an always-open door where anyone with a desire and passion can enter and play. Theatre does not look at who you are, nor does it restrict; it is the ultimate playground for any and all to have the chance to exercise their visions and creativity.
And yet casting and directorial choices do affect the production. Change the chemistry, and you change the result. A recent play of mine included a married couple, one man, one woman. Why this choice? No reason other than I am a straight white male and my play did not call for the couple to be anything other than straight. Initially, I thought, making them anything but a straight couple would have been disingenuous. I felt that if I were going to include a gay couple, that particular choice should be relevant to the theme of the play.* In this production, the director found a perfect female actor to play opposite the female lead. The chemistry was so good between the two actors that he asked for permission to cast them as a lesbian couple. 
My entire concern was about the dynamics and tension between the couple, not their genders or sexual orientation. I agreed with the casting change. Ultimately this proved to be without a doubt the correct decision. The two particular actors embodied everything I could have wished for in their onstage relationship: love, truthfulness, strength, and dedication. It was clearly the best actor combination I could have wished for. And I was happy to be able to be a part of the discussion. But I was part of that decision, which is what's important here.
But what if I hadn't been? What if the production company was in West Noodle, AK, and I was on the Riviera drinking away my royalties for The Play I Took Fifty Years to Write? What responsibilities do I have, as a playwright, to ensure that my work is handled with proper creative judgment? I loathe the idea of flooding my work with caveats and prescriptive stage directions, attempting to force directors and actors to do it “this way and only this way.” I cherish freedom and variation, yet how can I as a playwright ensure that the original intent and purpose are maintained?
Guidelines. No director will be able to read your mind to determine your preferences. It's up to playwrights to include, either in the character descriptions or notes, whatever they think is of critical importance to keep the play on its best track. The inclusion of playwright's notes, perhaps such as “X remains calm until the last scene,” “Y exhibits no verbal hesitations whatsoever before page 32,” “Character B is an African American lesbian and should be played by an African American female,” can guide the production team toward performing the work as closely as possible to what the playwright intended.
Playwrights are not prescient. It's hard to envision the many interpretative choices a production will surface. This is why I wholeheartedly recommend a workshop process. With a good team of actors and a capable dramaturg/director, nearly every play will undergo a series of readings and examinations that will most likely bring out possible interpretive pitfalls.
Can one make a play actor- and director-proof? Probably not. But a playwright can take steps to reduce possible future instances of “What were they thinking?” It's part of the job to journey with the play beyond the initial creative phase and into the second part of the process: giving it over to new participants, and therefore new viewpoints. This is an excellent way for a playwright to learn about other possible pitfalls lying in wait within the script.

*Oddly enough, the choice to make the couple gay was welcomed by several same-sex couples who thanked me for (inadvertently) "normalizing" the characters' marital status.

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