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Playwriting Process

October 19th, 2007 Leave a comment Go to comments

As I mentioned in my recent posts, I was given a gracious opportunity by Jonah Knight to speak on his program Theatrically Speaking–for which I am grateful. The topic I discussed was playwriting process and I looked over the breadth of my experience, which has moved from a formal pursuit of the “well-made” play; into the fearful vagaries of just letting images and ideas swell up from the unconscious and surround a set of characters or actions or spaces. In doing the podcast I found that I was hedging against a diatribe and I still feel somewhat that I should avoid doing so outright. However, the more I think about the subject of playwriting process and the more I look at what others say about it, the more I’m convinced that I have moved onto a solid path: one that will guide my future steps. I have just picked up the book Playwriting in Process: Thinking and Working Theatrically, and I have a feeling that I will very much enjoy it. The author, Michael Wright promises a litany of exercises to explore the various aspects of playwriting, and, as I’m always anxious to explore, I will take them up and later comment on them: including which I have found effective, not so much, and, of course, what they did for my awareness and experience of process. Wright’s introduction is very encouraging to my mind. He begins by stating that,

“…this book does not follow any kind of formulaic approach to the making of a play. It’s my belief that formulas impose an inhibitive sense of style and limited theatrical thinking on a writer.”

This is far better articulated than what I managed in my podcast, where I resorted to strange metaphors and comments to the effect that making plays is not like making cakes: that is, there’s no recipe that you can follow: a dash of tension here, and teaspoon of spectacle there: here 3 cups of exposition. Now, I don’t want to imply that just anyone can make a cake either…there is art to most everything that is done conscientiously, tirelessly over time, and well. In my podcast I say that this approach to writing,

“tended to produce plays or create plays that often seemed to be very similar to one another, not necessarily in their content, but in the way that they moved and in their rhythm and in the way that they felt…”

And I think Wright’s diagnosis of the problem is accurate: namely, that there is “an inhibitive sense of style and limited theatrical thinking…” and, perhaps, I was inhibited and limited in the same way all the time, so that my plays were constricted and lacking always in the same way…thus giving them the same feeling or quality that I describe above.

Wright later states that, “Playwriting is an art even though we refer to it as a craft; the latter implies that playwrights simply become apprenticed and five years later have achieved playwright status.” Despite the truth of his comment, I have to state that I would love to be apprenticed to a master playwright and spend five years in such a manner as, say, a printmaker would have in 1778, or a shipwright or whatever. I think there is great value in such an arrangement and I wholly believe that the knowledge of the tools and the forms and constructions, etc., would be invaluable. This is not to say, as Wright justly points out, that having done this one would achieve ‘playwright status.’ But, one would go a long way toward it. I believe, still, with growing certainty, that dropping inhibitions and exploring the different components in a free form of writing would be necessary to making that jump to the status of a successful playwright–and I don’t mean commercially, but personally and artistically: that is, satisfying yourself, exploring yourself, and at the same time creating meanings that truly connect with others and add value to their understanding of both themselves and the world we all live in–limited as my Western perspective on that would be.

Wright writes (I have to say that again and again) that,

“Watching master playwrights struggle with their latest plays would be a great training ground. We could learn by watching how they make decisions about plot, which structure to place the plot in, how late to get into the action of the play, and how much needs to be known about their characters.”

Interestingly enough, I have a book entitled “From Ibsen’s Workshop” which takes the approach of gathering up all known copies of his notes and drafts and then assimilating them and then comparing them with the final versions of the play–so that you can see, for instance, how Nora changes in earlier versions to the final version of A Doll’s House. (It also provides the interesting note that in Germany whoever staged the play forced Ibsen to change the ending so that Nora didn’t leave, saying, instead, something to the effect, “Oh, I could never leave my children.” and then collapsing at the door to their room. I think whatever that line is would make a great title for a play for any of adamant feminist writers out there who want to poke fun at this pathetic alteration of Ibsen’s play in Germany.) But, I digress.

I think one of Wright’s excellent insights is when he comments that,

“Human nature is to copy what we don’t know how to do, and so a student ends up putting together a Xerox of what the sample looks like. But were does the student go from there?”

Wright says this in the context of introducing his exercises and how he uses them. However, for those playwrights out there who have self-taught themselves from books (as I started) and found themselves mimicking the structures and designs of other playwrights, I think there will be general agreement that this leads directly to a very difficult period of adjustment when one must learn to think for oneself–as one eventually must if one is to truly be an artist. That is, there is a sense of dependency that is fostered and one must refer to other plays as guides or reference books–like learning php or css. “How did he do that again? Hmmm. Let me look.” Instead of just taking the proverbial bull by the horns and saying “damn it all, I’ll figure it out myself.” That step took me a while and I think that relying on a manner of creating plays that focuses on structure and building and proper arrangement of pieces for an effect leads to a manner of play creation that fosters this approach to writing. Wright goes on to say that “there is no longer any meaningful single definition of play that applies across the spectrum of what’s being created around the world, beyond saying that a play is a (largely) live event that takes place in a space that all involved have agreed is a “stage.” And that further,

“there is little reason to believe that theatre will retreat to the well-made play or to some rigid Aristotelian framework. Theatre is far more likely to continue its expansive form, subject matter, language, use of space, and so on. In fact, it will continue to embrace its eclectic heritage from the experiments of the twentieth century.”

By both accident and guidance from my professor/mentor Mike Geither I have found my way to this path, this “eclectic heritage.” And for that I am glad and hopeful for the more deeply meaningful and personal playwriting that it has engendered in me.

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