Thursday, September 07, 2006

Playwrighting Development

I posted the following on a Playwrighting Message Group yesterday. It is just some of my feelings about playwrighting groups, readings and development.

I guess I would preface it all by saying that I am never quite sure of the value of writing groups, but I think that support is always necessary. The greatest writers in history, (indeed the greatest artists in general,) usually belonged to a group of fellow artists, or had the support of sponsors.

Read the letters of famous writers and you will find them floating their story ideas, stressing over a certain passage, or seeking plain, honest, emotional support.

There is of course the anecdote about David Mamet and Harold Pinter. Mamet, seeking some professional feedback, sent Pinter a copy of a play he had written. After reading the play, Pinter sent Mamet a note that read, "The only thing it is lacking is production." That play was Glengarry Glen Ross. (I have no idea about the veracity of that story, but I have heard it so often that it is now officially a Does-it-really-matter-if-it-is-truism.)

The discussion on the playwrights message board evolved from discussing the Hedy Weiss affair to talking about the general process of development and feedback. Here is part of my response (slightly altered):

I have attended play reading feedback gatherings in the past. I found the process enormously helpful for my own work, and for some of the other playwrights who were receiving feedback.

This type of developmental process is extremely helpful, but I find it usually falls short in one area...Major Structural Problems. There is just not enough time to do complete readings of full length plays of all the members. What IS read is sometimes the first act, or a couple of scenes, or as one manager of a play developement group has said, a bunch of ten minute plays.

When full-lengths ARE read there is either a tentativeness in feedback, or gushing praise, or a blunt dismissal form somebody, ("I just didn't like it!") which seems to shock the audience. This atmosphere, (which I find prevents truly useful developmental feedback,) usually derives from the necessary respect given to the writer for having spent all that time to bring a full length play to the table.

After they have labored so much, oh how hard it is to tell somebody that the play needs to shave off 45 minutes. Or that the two and half-hour play only has enough content for twenty minutes. Or that the subplot or minor theme is infinitely more interesting than the major characters or ideas. Or that the they should just shave off the first 25 minutes, because the play only gets interesting when Joan and Joe find out that they are working on the same project. Or, (and this is the hardest one of all,) that the play ENDS where it should probably BEGIN!!

Even more insidious are the smaller structural problems that are allowed a free pass in this atmosphere as well, and this is a shame because they are usually things that seem to need only a minimal amount of work.
I have followed several productions in Boston, both large and small, through readings and right onto mainstage productions. In more cases than not, the structural problems that were there in the beginning, were also there at the premiere. And guess what? They were pointed out in the reviews of the play! Sometimes in several reviews the same problems were pointed out. Sometimes by the audience at intermission and while filing out of the theatre.

Now, sometimes these minor structural problems were mentioned in the actual feedback of the first readings, and sometimes they were muttered, under breaths as the audience waited in the lobby for the next reading.

And these are all just problems for traditional playwrighting development. In addition, it seems to me, we need an entirely new division to help more avante garde writers; those who are looking to emulate the directions of Howard Barker, Erik Ehn, and Sarah Kane. I think that most playwrighting forums and feedback groups I have attended seem to be very unwelcoming and unpatient with these types of works. (Though this is a reflection of how the audience would react also.)

13P is a collective of playwrights in New York City that has a motto: "We don't develop plays, we do them." I have produced my own work extensively as well, and yes, it is true, there is nothing like the lessons learned from putting a production up in front of an live audience, or from receiving negative critical reviews. I have learned much over the years from this method, but, (as I think somebody else pointed out,) this is an expensive and physiologically draining way to gather these lessons. The one clear advantage one comes away with is this: After these years of experience, I know how to mount a production. I know how to get my work up. I know how to market it. I know how to do a press release. I know the names of lighting and sound people. I know much money I need to rent a space. I know the application deadlines for the BCA and Fringe Festivals, and other spaces. I know many actors and playwrights. I am by no means an expert at production, but I know that if I write a play I think is worthy of production I know how to do it.

What I am most interested in now is how to gain valuable feedback, and how to pay forward my own experiences.

Here is my modest proposal: Why not, instead of reading ten minute plays, maybe have a session where 5 or 6 playwrights "pitch," their full length outlines. (Please don't get angry at me for using a Hollywood term. Anybody who knows me or my work knows that I am not a conventianal or commercial playwright.)

Basically, a playwright would stand in front of the group and "tell the play" to the group just as it would unfold before an audience: Scene by Scene, or event by event, etc. Perhaps there would be a little dialogue allowed, but mainly we just want to know what happens onstage. The playwright would spend no more than ten minutes doing this. No explanation of themes or what they are trying to do. Then, the group would ask questions or give feedback. (Having been involved in this type of process recently, I firmly believe that it helps to clarify structural problems, and saves time on full length readings.)

Now, here is the harsh part.The next step: the group would make a decision on which plays they would like to hear in a full reading. It may be all the plays, it may be some, it may be none. Bad feelings? Maybe. But not if people can explain why.

(A Caveat: I said before, the more avante garde the work gets, the more openminded the group HAS to be. )

Sorry for the long post, but these are my thoughts.

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