I've been recently considering sending one of my plays into one of those "new play development" programs, namely that offered by The Lark Play Development Center. (Does anyone know of it?)
I was wondering what all of you think of this idea of sending a play in to be worked on in collaboration with actors, directors, and others involved in the creative process of crafting a play. I've heard both sides of it, such as Albee harshly criticizing the idea, and yet others laud it.
What's your opinion?
Last edited on Tue Aug 3rd, 2010 11:43 pm by RTurco
My personal view when this was written has not changed. However, as everybody knows, we each have to find for ourselves what works best for our individual temperaments.
ON PLAY DEVELOPMENT AND WORKSHOPPING
A Personal Journey
Recently I was asked why I had an aversion to open readings, workshopping and undergoing the developmental process that has served American Theatre so well for decades. After some thought, it occurred to me that formalized play development may have served American Theatre well, but certainly not this playwright. The undeniable truth is: This playwright has parchment-thin skin and needed to find another way to approach the developmental process. It would need to be internal.
Firstly, I would never presume to assert that my way of thinking in regards to anything in this rant is the right way of thinking. I only know what works for me—me and me alone. As a playwright I have found that structured play development and workshopping goes against my general good feelings. To object to anything in this rant would be tantamount to objecting to my nature. I’m dwelling, but I don’t know how to make this more clearly: This is my personal journey and should not in any way be confused with “advice.”
I do not gladly suffer open readings of my work where feedback is invited by the general public. These are quite dreadful affairs, in which casual spectators and weekend scriveners participate, yet aren’t invested enough to deserve any say-so. By that I mean: Financial or personal stake one entity has in an asset, security, or transaction, or an interest in which there is a fixed right to present or future enjoyment and that can be conveyed to another. I do no less than a dozen rewrites (or tweakings), most often more, before deciding the piece is finished—‘though it is never finished, really.
My first play, Flowers Out Of Season, underwent extensive workshopping at the now defunct Circle Repertory Company in NYC. The process was in several steps over a two year period. At first there was a reading of the script attended by the actors and playwrights associated with the Rep. I could not attend that one, so an audio recording along with pages of notes were mailed to me. I took every word to heart. Remember, this was my first play. So, I rewrote to please and re-submitted the script.
Nearly a year later I was invited to attend a workshop to work on my play for possible inclusion in the following season. Paul Zindel would also be attending to workshop his new play, Amulets Against the Dragon Forces. There was only one spot open in the next season. You can well imagine my excitement and my dread. He was Paul Zindel, author of one of the most beautiful plays in American Theatre and I wasn’t even Edward Crosby Wells yet—just Edd Wells. I had recently directed that beautiful play in a community theatre in southern New Mexico, The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds. I knew I didn’t have a chance of obtaining that slot, but when all else fails Hope remains. My play underwent many more changes, had a staged reading and caused somewhat of a riot. Half loved it and half, it seemed, hated it vehemently—and me along with it. After I was convinced that it was no good or, at best, of little consequence I returned home with tail between legs, as it were, and a very different script. Months later I learned that the open spot was filled by Paul Zindel. I wanted to hate him, but I couldn’t. Marigolds is just so damn personal and beautiful. I could not help but respect its author.
Fast forward twenty years. Flowers opened in Chicago and during the dreaded talkback after the show, I was asked about what I was thinking during the writing process. I said something stupid like, “I don’t remember. It felt like I was channeling it.” Well, I wasn’t channeling it and the reason I didn’t remember hit me in the face like that proverbial ton of bricks. It wasn’t my play. It was created by others because I did not trust my instincts.
I, most generally, approach the play script as dramatic literature first and then as a performance piece—contrary to popular dramaturgical thinking and to the majority (if not all) of contemporary playwrights.
About a dozen years ago I had several plays published and licensed through a company in Dallas. When they went bankrupt and the rights returned to me, you cannot imagine how happy I was. I could rewrite (or tweak) each of them several more times with the benefit of years of new experience and personal growth. That is what I consider "development:" Discovering the best within, by and for myself—developing the playwright. To quote Arthur Miller “I think it's a mistake to ever look for hope outside of one's self.” Playwright, develop thy self!
The artist as painter comes to mind. He or she finishes the canvas and it is done. Only the heart, mind and soul of the artist went into the work. No group thinking was involved. One hand held the brush. You like it, you buy it—or you don't. That's my attitude, only I'm so much less arrogant than expressing that point of view would lead most to believe. I am humbled by my Muse. I am grateful for what talent I have been given; it is a priceless gift. When all is said and done, when one watches or reads an ECW play one can be sure every word of it was written and intended by the playwright. If you think it is bad, it is my bad. If you think it is good, it is my good.
As Robert Patrick, author of Kennedy’s Children which earned Shirley Knight a Tony award, wrote me in an email, "I listen only to the actors. If they have trouble saying or understanding a line, I assume it ain't written fluently or clearly enough. Other than that I have never found anyone else's aesthetic opinion of my unproduced work to be of any interest whatsoever. I find it interesting that as far as I know, playwriting is the only art in which total outsiders feel competent to criticize. Imagine asking a panel to suggest changes in a collage, a chorale, or a mobile."
When I travel to different cities to work on first productions, I work extremely hard with the casts and directors. I listen and I'm ruthless with my work. I am my harshest critic and will do whatever it takes to make it work. It is there, in that communal and collective experience, I succumb to anything close to developing my work. Still, I must “feel” that it works.
"Developing" and "workshopping," from my point of view, reduces the potential of Art to the lowest denominator of commerce—as if commerce was a valid reason for a life's work. “Don't be seduced into thinking that,” quoting Arthur Miller, “that which does not make a profit is without value.”
When I speak to an audience through my work, I have something to say, something to express, something I want them to feel. I have tremendous respect for an audience and I would not want to confuse them with the voices of others. When some do not understand a metaphor, a shift in time or place or a theatrical device that I may have employed, it is the responsibility of the audience to find and create an understanding. The inquisitive mind finds joy in the process. It is, for me, to cheat an audience if I were to explain it all away.
Work that does not create questions, that is non-problematic, that answers all possible confusions and hands us a smooth and linear play on a platter was most likely "developed." That is, of course, not a bad thing. Oftentimes it is to be desired. I can only speak from my own approach to the process of crafting a play.
“I think in this country,” quoting A.R. Gurney, “we're committed to developing plays, and many plays I've seen have been rewritten too much. The scenes are tight, the play ends at the right time, you know exactly what the scene is about, but it seems flat; you can almost see that too many hands have been on the play. The individual voice is gone.”
I do agree that a mediocre play in the hands of a committee can be made into a seeming masterpiece or a cash cow and its “author” into the next cause celeb. I have put “author” in quotations because I feel the playwright no longer truly owns the piece—not like a painter owns the work on the canvas or a composer owns the symphony. Art should be the expression of the soul of the artist and not the product of collective surgery.
On the subject of new play development Edward Albee said in a September 1994 interview for American Theatre: "It is to de-ball the plays; to castrate them; to smooth down all the rough edges so they can't cut, can't hurt. It's to make them commercially tolerable to a smug audience. It's not to make plays any better. Most playwrights who write a good play write it from the beginning."
I'm "old school" in the way I approach playwriting. And, as I stated earlier, it seems to be contrary to the mainstream. I do not seek to convert others to my way of thinking, but rather to confirm like-thinking in others—to let you know you are not the only one. My life's goal is not to see everything I write produced, but to see that everything I write is intended—and that it is an expression of my Being.
I am glad to see such a speedy reply as I respect your view and the views of others on this Forum. It would seem to me that I too agree, to a certain degree, with Albee's notion that development workshops can "deball" a play. I too am also wary of too many hands touching and changing and altering my piece, thereby muddling my original ideas and intentions. Nonetheless, I think I'll give it a go. I have never had the experience of such a developmental program; what have I to lose? Having said that, on entering such a program, I will keep in mind that I must be firm in my stance and not give into the every whim of my collaborators. Being a young and fairly inexperienced playwright, I fear that I may tend to do so. I do not believe that I am obligated to bend in such a way or make any unwanted changes; become a sort of "yes man". We'll see where it goes and how it impacts the piece.
By the way, I read some of your memoir. Very evocative. I'm also interested in a play you wrote, "The Moon Away". I'll get to reading it one of these days.
Thank you again for the helpful, in-depth, and speedy response.
Keep a copy of your play as written hidden away. Go through the process which will be very beneficial in helping the piece have more commercial appeal. That cannot hurt. In fact, until you develop your own wings, it cannot not help. So do it. My above rant is not really directed to the first time writer, anyway. There is a lot one can learn from a developmental process. I have written 14 or 15 full-lengths and dozens of one-act and 10-minute plays. So I'm pretty set in my ways and could probably teach those who develop at developmental center a thing or two, or possibly something new. I don't consciously set out to write for the commercial theatre. I set out to write the best I know, to write for entertaining an audience and of course to entertain myself. But, in your case, starting out, go for it. You've nothing to lose and everything to gain. Remember, you still have your original script hidden away. My first stuff was so bad you cannot imagine. I have destroyed it all to create the illusion, if only in my mind, that I never was as naive and ignorant as I was; as we all must be at one time. It took many years and many nurturing and caring people to help me, to guide me and to teach me how to listen and hear with a playwright's ear, and to learn how to write and to become the arrogant bitch I am today. :0
I agree with Edd. I have given up on communal play writing. We have an active play writing group and many actors who love to read new works. I have taken plays to the group and what I get is every writers opinion of what play I should have written. Comments, in general, were not helpful: "You can do better than this." "I hate her (Beth), I hate her, I hate her!" "It needs to be funnier" and so on. Before you think it is the group's fault, I need to mention that most of the members feel they get great help and support from the group.
My latest effort ended up being a waste of time - I was going in circles trying to make the play all things to all people. I looked at the tenth or eleventh revision and realized that it was no longer the play I wanted to write.
After a while, I got so (unreasonably) defensive that all I was doing was trying to justify what I had written. In the end my feelings were hurt and I gave up on the play. In a childish fit, I also gave up on the play writing group. Thinking back on the two years that have passed since I left the group, I have come to the conclusion that I didn't get much help or inspiration from the group.
I also agree with Edd that the playwright is the best person to critique their work. When I see my play in rehearsals (not usually in readings though), I can tell what works and what doesn't work. I can see the places where the director is taking the play in a direction I didn't intend. I can make the necessary changes without losing my vision of the play.
I have read that there are two kinds of writers: Those who feel that whatever they write is not good enough and those who feel every word is just perfect and no change is ever necessary. Unfortunately, I am in the second group.
Last edited on Wed Aug 4th, 2010 04:00 pm by Doug B
First off: edd's "The Moon Away" is brilliant and a must read.
Second: do the development thing if you can, but as edd says keep the original. The reason you do the development thing is you will meet people. Which is really what it is all about. If they don't know you exist...well, they don't know you exist. Some people will be wonderful some will be useless. You will learn to know the difference.
Third: Pay attention to everything edd has written...if it is right for you. (As he has written the same disclaimer in his wonderful essay.)
There have been many good threads about this topic on the Forum. If you search you will find them. I am kind of written out on them.
But briefly: Listen to everything. Write everything down. Say "Thank You" equally to all. Never ask a question in a group, because like a swarm of bees they will strike at the nearest thing - YOU! Never defend anything you have written. Listen to what is said, not how it is said.
Most writing happens in the privacy of your own "room."
Read this essay by Michael Ventura: "The Talent of the Room." Best brief essay about writing I have ever read.
You can find some wonderful people at these things.
But, you will also find many what I call "Pompousites" at these things. Doesn't mean they don't know what they are talking about, it just means they are...well Pompousites. They can be rude, nasty, full of attitude, etc., but sometimes they have a gem for you. You don't have to like someone to get good information. And then there are just the assholes. But even an asshole can have a gem once in awhile.
If you find people who are interested in YOUR writing of YOUR play that is the best. The only person in charge of your play is YOU.