As my experience as a playwright expands, I find myself focusing on process. My year begins with Labor Day and that feeling of a fresh start that comes with the final summer holiday. You can feel the first fingers of fall in the morning. The holidays loom. I pull out my sweaters to see what has survived the hot weather. I’m sure this feeling of renewal goes all the way back to grade school when I’d get a new pair of shoes and box of crayons. Fall feels fresh to me, so I’ll usually spend Labor Day Weekend doing nothing more than sketches. I’ll do as many outlines, dialogue fragments, and character descriptions I can think of. Then over the next few weeks I’ll see what I can flesh out. An idea may take hold and I’m able to churn out rough first draft. During this time I’ll usually get two or three finished ten-minute pieces to carry me into the new year. Then when New Year’s Day arrives I sit down and review all of the raw material I’ve generated and commit to one piece for development into a finished full-length piece. Once I’ve committed, I’m committed to completion. I’d say that’s my biggest rule. Everything I commit to complete must be completed, regardless of how I feel about the quality of the work. Because there’s always a period when I think the material is trash. But when I’m finished, I usually feel like I’ve got something stage worthy.
Every piece takes a different route to completion. I’ve tried to develop a formula, steps I take with every piece to use my time more efficiently, and I can’t do it. There’s an idea that says, “Every play teaches you how to write that play.” It’s true. One piece may be a complete work of fiction that requires me to sit in front of a computer from the first page of the first draft through the marketing package. Another will require several months of research before I even begin to think about the story. Every single play has been different. I’ve had ten-minute pieces that I’ve finished in two drafts. Other ten-minute pieces have had ten drafts. And there’s not even any common element that makes the pieces with more drafts more successful than the ones with fewer. My full-length pieces will go through between five and twelve drafts. But over the years, I have identified a few constant steps.
1. Depersonalizing the story. The foundation of every play I write is personal. That said, I’m a very private person, so probably in the second draft I start to find elements that are changed to heighten dramatic or comedic impact and divorce the story from me. During this step I’ll also challenge the genders of the characters that are telling the story, analyzing how the drama is colored if certain characters are male or female. Gay or straight. I’ll take a look at the ages and maybe play with those. Identifying the race of the characters will happen very late in the process. I only commit to each element when I know how it helps tell the story. If the character detail is not a vital element to the story, I may make a choice but note that a director is able to make other choices that are equally valid. Oftentimes I simply won’t make that choice, such as saying the age, gender, or race of a character may add nuance to the story but does not fundamentally change the message. Then when I’ve made some decisions, I’ll print up what I’ve got. It can be anywhere from ten to forty pages.
2. The next phase consists of sitting down with the printout and making detailed notes in the margins and the backs of the pages. I’ll use three different colored pens. Red is for any and all questions that come up. “What would happen if…” And themes. Sometimes I’ll use a highlighter on the themes. I use blue ink for answers to those questions, when I have them. I’ll also make notes on structural changes. All infrastructure information is in blue ink. And I’ll use black ink for dialogue and dialogue changes. I will write out whole scenes by hand, many of which will never be used but I write them because they help me understand the characters’ needs, motivations, and relationships. My goal is to generate enough information so that all of the white space on this first draft is filled with handwriting.
3. Then I’ll sit down with this draft and all my notes, and open a new file in Word to begin telling the story again from blank screen to END OF PLAY. Whole sections may simply be retyped, but by sitting down and retyping everything from scratch, I find better rhythms in speech, character nuances, and plot holes. There’ve been times when I’ve made changes directly in the previous draft file, but that process is never as satisfying.
4. I’ll repeat steps two and three as necessary.
5. But the critical pivot point that comes with all my writing happens in the draft when I realize I’m not writing to demonstrate how much I know about the characters and story, but when I’m writing so that the audience will understand and feel for the characters and story. Once I realize that I’ve made the shift from “needing to tell the story,” to “needing the story to be heard,” I know I’m probably one or two drafts away from completion.
Because response, much less a positive response is so rare for a playwright, I’ve found that what is really most important is enjoying the process of creation. Sometimes the process is all there is. Lucky for me, I love it.