Every year I have a personal goal to finish a full-length piece by Labor Day. And by “finish,” I mean to have a play ready for a developmental workshop/reading and contests.
At some point during the process I will sit down with a few playwrighting theory books to gain some perspective and inspiration. In March I made my routine pilgrimage to The Drama Bookstore in New York to see what the latest and greatest might be and I picked up a copy of Fifty Playwrights on their Craft. These were interviews conducted with fifty playwrights by Caroline Jester and Caridad Svich. Some of the playwrights I recognize, but most I do not. I can recommend the book.
And before I get started here, I’m going to warn you that artists of any kind who pontificate on their art and process make me itch. With that said, I’m also aware that there is some value to it. For the playwright, if no one else. So with that in mind, and because I have absolutely no idea for blog content, I’m taking it upon myself to answer the three basic questions asked in the book. God help us all.
What is a playwright?
A playwright is one who tells a story that largely relies upon dialog or the spoken word to tell the story. The playwright’s words will form the architecture of the finished piece and it is the prime responsibility of the playwright to provide a kernel of inspiration for other artists to make contributions to the final collaboration, which generally will include a public audience, hopefully one filled with full-price ticket buyers.
To my unsophisticated eye, just as in American society, there seems to be an ever-widening gulf between commercial theatre and (for lack of a better term) artistic theatre. Commercial theatre increasingly has all of the financial and technical resources in the world to mask a multitude of shortcomings in a production, and artistic theatre hopefully has an abundance of creativity to disguise the shoestring budgets. Of course, language has historically been the basis for live theatre, but technology is quickly becoming essential, even in the barest of bones productions. More on that below.
As a playwright however I still root for the strong scripts, and as a theatregoer, I am forever hungry for a production that does the language justice, technology be damned. In my work, that’s what I strive for, although I will admit that in a few of my pieces there are some technological suggestions I’d miss should the play be produced without them.
Does the audience influence your writing?
Yes. A thousand times yes. I’m suspicious of a playwright who does not admit to this, and there are quite a few. It is super-duper rare for a playwright to be so enlightened that they can deliver a “message” and have an audience accept it, full stop. Not even Shakespeare (still the gold standard of playwrighting as far as I’m concerned) wrote without an eye to the audience – for purposes of a strong box office, if nothing else.
But more importantly, live theatre is a conversation, begun by the playwright, facilitated by a director and design team, delivered by a cast and responded to by an audience. Good theatre is not a lecture. I believe if you're uninterested in an audience response, it's best to just write a blog.
That’s not to say that I write seeking an audience’s agreement, no matter how much I want (hope/pray/beg) for their attention. And beware the theatre artist of any stripe who claims to be unneedful of approval. First and foremost, a playwright’s responsibility is to entertain. From that, hopefully enough revenue can be generated to support a company for a respectable run. Any moralizing, instructing, soul-reflection a playwright can inspire in a production is gravy. And any self-revelation for self-revelation's sake is violently unwanted. If there is any therapeutic value to theatre, it is a byproduct. Therapy is therapy. Theatre is theatre, and the only intersection between the two is a matter of four letters. A playwright should never sit down with the primary purpose to educate an audience. The size of an audience that wants to be educated in a dark theatre can come and leave in the same car, and that car will be inevitably driven by the playwright’s mother.
How do playwrighting and the playwright fit into the digital age of storytelling?
My ethos of playwrighting has always been intimacy, immediacy, specificity. While there is room for technology in live theatre, technology cannot supplant the human element. Even a puppet show is only effective if it is appealing to our humanity.
I have dabbled in the digital theatrical arts. I produced two collections of radio plays just before everyone and their dogs started having their own podcasts. And during the pandemic, I produced a Zoom film of one of those plays. I’m quite proud of all the work that went into these projects, but they’ve done nothing to win my heart away from the live performance.
My absolute favorite moment in a theatre-creating process is the designer run. Even in that rough state of rehearsal furniture and dropped lines, that run always feels like the most pure. The invited audience of invited designers and close friends are there purely and exclusively for the production. Their attention alerts the company to what is working, and what is not. The actors are at their most relaxed and their most focused. It’s that run that tells you if all the work will add up to something. Unfinished? Absolutely. But for me epically more satisfying.