Friday, June 30, 2006

Get With The Program!

Scott Walters motto: "If you like change, you are going to like irrelevance even less."

Local Playwright Geralyn Horton seems to be channelling Scott when she responds to an uppity literary manager on a playwrighting listserve:

I do often reply to Theatre mailing list posts.Today I chimed in on a discussion about the formatting of play scripts. A literary manager said to us playwrights on the list:"Frankly, I find "cute", "alternative" or "funky" formatting layout techniques in stage plays amateurish, arrogant, and patronizing---not to mention showing that the playwright doesn't take the craft of playwriting seriously....." To which I replied:"If you can afford the postage, send your funky format plays to theatres in the UK which do not share the US prejudice in favor of "professional" format. Some of the more notorious of them may even be said to have a bias towards plays that lay out the words as if they were poetry-- and an even greater bias towards scripts where the words Are poetry. When you hand over a pound or two for a photocopy of a play script in the lobby of an originating theatre in London, it is more likely to look like the MS of The Waste Land than like a product of Final Draft. I have a friend who brings back scripts by the dozen every year. Some of them don't even indicate who is speaking!

Good for her!

I would even go one further than Ms. Horton and say that theatres have more than just trouble with layout. Many playwrights complain that theatre companies have little tolerance for radical concepts and ideas. Some attribute this to the "staged reading," disease. Basically, this disease results in the symptoms of few if any staged premieres, but maybe a few festivals of staged readings, from which the ones with the best feedback may go on to be developed.

The result of this trend in "readings theatre" is that highly conceptual and non-traditional work is immediatley discarded as too difficult to get across in a staged reading. And by that there will also be no production.

This of course brings us to the great mission of 13p, whose motto is "We don't develop plays! ...We do them."


Anonymous said...

I don't find the Literary Manager's comments uppity at all. If it's their theatre, then they are free to set guidelines for submissions as they wish. A great deal of large professional theatres now take agent only submissions and that cuts down on the amount of chaff considerably... and you still get bad plays submitted even then.

It doesn't sound to me as if they are asking for things to be in Final Draft form- merely that they be neatly typed, easy to read and written in a relatively standard manner. Be as imaginative as you want on the page- but please make it so that we can picture it in our own minds without a lot of stress.

And I quite frankly agree. Having read many, many, many original plays I would tend to agree that professional playwrights are that: Professional. Suzan-Lori Parks might write the most out-there stff you ever see staged, but you can bet when George Wolfe was getting her new plays at the Public, they came in an extremely readable form- probably much like the type you're scoffing at here. Don't forget that a play is going to be read by more then a playwright. There's a director, designers, actors and most importantly a Producer who all want a clear idea of what's going on. The same goes for Guirgis, Kushner, and anyone else you can name. You can bet when Kushner hands Eustis something new it's going to look damn good.

There's more leeway in theatre for draft form then film however. It's an age old truism: You may be the greatest writer in the world, but you'll never innovate screenplay form. That's because screenplay pages are written to a specific form to reflect time passing on each page. It's so formal as almost to be like technical writing. Theatre scripts don't need to be like that- just relatively neat, clean and easy to follow.

I do agree that there are certain times and places when you throw formatting rules to the winds. And for certain types of writing, well, form and content are going to be out there. In my experience though, most writers (and I include playwrights in this generalization) who try to "break form" radically fail at it miserably and just look ridiculous or pretentious in the process- for every William Burroughs, Hunter Thompson or Kerouac in the world there are thousands of wannabes and cheap imitators who have neither their power, subversive wit, or (let's be frank here) talent.


YS said...

"Please make it so that we can picture it in our minds without a lot of stress."

I'm sorry... but which minds? and how high is each individual stress level? Too arbitrary.

Seriously though,I don't think that Ms. Horton was referring to drafts written in crayon, sent in on the side of a cardboard box.

Do you really think Susan Lori Parks is "way out there?" Kushner?Giurgis?(Three of my favorite playwrights by the way.)

If so, I understand your reaction completely.

Your last paragraph is a brilliant conundrum for the talented playwright.

"Be original and break form, but only if you're talented, and you are only talented if we deem you are talented, and by the way, don't submit anything that breaks form because we don't have time to read them because only the talented can actually pull it off, and since there is no chance that anybody we haven't heard of is talented..."

And that's why you get reader's theatre. No stress there. Everything is really easy to figure out. And everybody can go to the reading and the donors and subscribers can give good coherent feedback, and then we can screen out anything too challenging, and develop the easiest one to understand that might have a cute, underlying idea taken from a New Yorker article.

The best part about readers theatre is that the talented and untalented play on a level field.

YS said...

Before I get blasted. I would like to add that I agree 100% with you that any theatre has the absolute right to set their own guidelines. And playwrights should read those guidelines before submitting them to anybody.

I never submit to theatres. Unless it is a specifically contest for new plays, or with parameters that interest me.

Also, the technical aspects of the format are just as useful in Playwrighting as they are in screenwriting. Courier 12PT typeface dialogue pages run at a clip of about 1 Page per minute. (Of course this varies depending on how long each character speaks, and whether or not there are monologues squashed in there.

When I have run play festivals for my theatre company, I give the guidelines that plays should be submitted in Courier 12 Point. It generally helps to guage the lenghth.

For instance, if I am running a ten minute play festival, and somebody turns in a 20 Page script of regular dialogue in Courier 12, I know that it is not going to work in the format. However, I have had people turn in lengthier scripts that are filled with descriptions and actions, but would probably be able to run in about 10 minutes.

Another tip I give people for shorter plays that may by essentially monologues: Write the monologue as if it is dialogue.

In other words, write the ten minute monologue broken up into paragraphs and sentences with a spaces in between, it gives you a better idea of the running time.

I was thinking more of forms

Anonymous said...

I wasn't going to blast you. Believe me, YS, I think we want many of the same things to occur- we simply approach them in a different way.

I'm not saying "Don't ever break the rules. Don't ever, EVER even think about it." I'm simply pointing out that if one is going to submit work to a major institution... then chances are you're going to have to play by their rules for submissions.

I think I'm approaching this from a slightly different perspective; I wasn't specifically writing to adress the complaint that theatres give short shrift to playwrights that challenge convention. There's some truth to that- (especially with big regional houses) but there are also plenty off OOB companies and the like that do little but devised/sight specific/experimental work, and were I a playwright who was interested in that kind of thing, that's where I'd send my stuff. Not to the Guthrie, Huntington or Long Wharf.

I agree that in terms of writing Kushner, Gurgis et all (who I also count as favorites) aren't really all that wildly out there. Especially if you compare them to say, Sarah Kane, and perhaps that was more the type of playwright that came into question here. Parks, (who I'm frankly less enamored of) is I think more of a poet then a playwright, a sentiment I share with some of the writers on the Playgoer's blog. And Parks IS out there- anytime you've got Richard Foreman directing your work, then your connection to the avant-garde is 100% assured. Maybe I should have been talking about Schechner, Foreman and Mac Wellman instead. Again, brilliant artists/writers who break the rules and manage to get away with it.

As for your snipe at Frozen, I'm going to let that one go for the moment...

And yes, I too think that the whole "reading" system that has arisen in the American Theatre of late is a rather bogus one. In general, I think playwrights need more production and less of the rigamorale then they are getting now. It would be nice to see more simple workshop style production of pieces then the endless round of readings that we get now.