« Rick Warren To Deliver The Invocation at Obama's Inauguration? | Main | Huzzah! »

December 19, 2008

Comments

Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Joshua James

My understanding, according to the lit people I know, is that no one can force an author to make any change they don't wish to ... the editoral process goes forth, and things get corrected, but once the author makes a decision, that's it ... now, if the book doesn't sell, then that will often have a direct effect on whether or not the publisher will continue their relationship with the author ... some authors work closely with editors, others do not ... so I don't think it's standard, it really depends on who and what and all that.

Just my experience.

Laura

I'm not so sure that it's as collaborative as you think Isaac. I don't know of anyone who hands a book into a publisher with the idea that the an editor will "collaborate" in that way. Maybe someone out there has that type of relationship... If a publisher wants changes, it's up to the author if she consents. If she doesn't, she quits the relationship.

In history, I recall that Thomas Wolfe had a very different relationship with his editor. I've heard that it is recognized that Wolfe's work has been LARGELY edited. That's what I remember...

But publishing groups are filled with writers gnashing their teeth about changes their editors want to make... I don't know of any writers who expect large changes. Small... Maybe. But not large.

Parabasis

L,

That sounds like its *worse* in the publishing world than in theatre, rather than better. Maybe dramaturgs should just demand changes and then writers can either pull their scripts or not. At least it'll be more straightforward...

Duncan

Interviewer: Back in the sixties you started Playwrights Sixty-Six, where you worked with up-and-coming playwrights.

Albee: We did the first productions of an awful lot of young playwrights including Terrence McNally, Lanford Wilson, Sam Shepard, LeRoi Jones, Adrienne Kennedy, and on and on and on. But one thing we did not do is "workshop". We assumed that these plays were just fine as they were; we liked their rough edges. Most "workshopping" rounds the rough edges of plays so they can't stick into anybody's mind. It rounds the edges and shaves them down and makes them accessible and acceptable. Plays are meant to be tough and jagged and wrong-headed and angry and all the things that "workshopping" all too often destroys. So we didn't workshop plays. We took angry, tough, imperfect plays, and we put them on the stage, and everybody had a good time.

Interviewer: Have directors become too collaborative in that process, do you think, over the years?

Albee: Let's put it this way: as a metaphor or a simile, whichever you like, for a play let us take a string quartet composed by a composer. Let's go back to Beethoven's time, okay? Nobody workshops a string quartet. The first violinist doesn't get together with the second violinist and say, "You know, the composer wrote a C-sharp there; we don't like that, do we? Let's make that into an F." Everybody - directors and actors and producers and dramaturgs and theatre owners and theatre managers - feels that a play is there to be collaborated upon. A play is a work of art, for Christ's sake! You shouldn't do a play that needs to be collaborated upon; you should do a play that you respect and want to do its total virtue. The idea of directors feeling that they are creative artists rather than interpretive artists, and of actors feeling that they are creative artists rather than interpretive artists, is so much bullshit. And it's done serious damage to our theatre.

- Interview with Edward Albee in The Playwright's Art: Conversations with Contemporary American Dramatists

...as a playwright myself, I certainly agree with Albee's sentiments, though if someone feels strongly that something in my play needs to be changed, it's usually because they didn't understand my intent, possibly because I haven't communicated something effectively. So I listen to and consider all criticism and suggestions, and sometimes ignore them and sometimes take advice.

Laura

Isaac,

I don't know why it doesn't weird me out like playwright/director changes. I guess the publishing process feels cleaner to me. It never seemed clean in dramatic writing. Changes were requested because of perceived audience needs/desires.

I remember one change that I made to one of my plays after talking to a director. No problem there - or should I say no agenda on anyone's part. It was an edit to clarify a moment.

When my editor approaches me with changes to text, I usually know it's necessary to make the text clearer. But it's rare for someone to say "I don't like that point there. Can you change it?" Some of the notes I've gotten as a playwright have included things like, "I don't think the audience will accept a character that is gay and black. So pick one or the other." That's a very different note (and highly offensive, in my opinion.)

99

I talked about this over at my place a bit, but you've got a great point there, Isaac: it would be cleaner if we got the suggestions and were free to take them or leave them. "Cleaner" or "clearer" rarely seems to be the standard that the work is judged by; it's "producible" or "more acceptable to our audience." Director notes are usually more focused on the play, but notes from the staff aren't. And that's lovely for Albee to talk about the halycon days and works of art and such, but down here with us mortals, it ain't like that anymore.

Joshua James

It also goes without saying that quite often plays are changed and rewritten without the permission and / or knowledge of the playwright ... this happens all the time (and often to established playwrights) ... and has happened to me more than a few times.

I can't see that an editor / publisher would ever publish an author's book without getting the author to sign off on it ... the author has to agree to any changes before then.

In theatre, sometimes we don't know until we show up for opening ... not with everyone, everywhere, but it happens often enough that people are casual rather than being outraged.

herxanthikles

A quibble: Albee's string quartet analogy doesn't hold because musicians often collaborate with composers on new pieces. Sometimes a composer will write something that sounds nice in their head but doesn't actually work on the instrument and the musician will have to work with the composer to figure out something more idiomatic. In fact, I have heard of a certain Very Famous Singer drastically rewriting with his/her coach an aria by a Very Famous Composer--the aria has since become sort of a standard in its rewritten form.

It's a difficult thing to calibrate in all fields--you have to be really sure that the thing that is making you uncomfortable isn't actually the the thing that is really interesting. On the other hand, creative types have used this idea to defend the thing that is, in fact, really awful. Caution.

Joshua James

I posted this on my blog, but I think it's relevant given the topic ... Todd Alcott (former playwright and now screenwriter) has been doing an analysis of The Dark Knight on his blog ... after it was done, he shared this post-script:

"In August, I had a meeting with a producer who has had some experience producing Batman movies. The Dark Knight was still the number one movie in theaters that day, and conversation naturally turned to it.

ME: So -- The Dark Knight.
PRODUCER: I know.
ME: Right?
PRODUCER: I know. It's amazing. I know.
ME: So. You tell me. You make this kind of movie. You tell me. How?
PRODUCER: How what?
ME: How does a movie like that get made? In this environment, where anything complicated or challenging or pessimistic or visionary get ironed out to appeal to the broadest possible market, how does a movie like that get made? That's an expensive movie with a lot of moving parts -- the producers, the cast, the special effects, the location shooting -- how does a picture like that get made, and end up that good?
PRODUCER: Because Christopher Nolan gets no notes.
(pause)
ME: What do you mean?
PRODUCER: I mean, the studio gives him no notes. None. Zero.
ME: The director gets no notes?
PRODUCER: None.
ME: So, you're telling me, Christopher Nolan and his brother write the script --
PRODUCER: And then they shoot it. And the studio gives them no notes. They've given them the project, they trust their vision, and they let them shoot it the way they want. And that's how a movie like that gets made."

Jason Grote

What I want to know is when these conversations are happening. Perhaps much of it is implied, but I have never, in my short career, heard it expressed like so: "make these changes and we'll produce your play."

Most literary managers and dramaturgs working for theaters large and small will swear up and down that they would never try to get a playwright to change anything. My response to that is a sort of joke about the Stasi in old East Germany: "of course you can write whatever you want, comrade, but we hope that you will consider our way." So maybe it's an implied contract. But really, I haven't ever had it expressed to me that way. It might have something to do with my actual work, but generally people know what they're getting when they get me. The only instance where I've had a larger theater get involved in dramaturgy to any serious degree was at Woolly Mammoth, but (1) they were already committed to producing the play by then, and (2) a lot of that was just about Howard Shalwitz' love of the process -- he always took no for an answer, as long as I listened to him and took him seriously (and I did indeed seriously consider everything he said, and often went along with his suggestions).

One thing I've found, though -- smaller theaters tend to be much more aggressive in these matters than larger theaters, at least in my limited experience (there are some exceptions, of course, most notably Soho Rep).

I suppose that if/when a playwright reaches the point where s/he is a draw by name alone (like Albee or Paula Vogel, or to a lesser extent Nelson himself), this can present a problem -- theaters want to program "the new ____ play" but then are so incredibly risk-averse that they try to mess with it ad infinitum.

I think it goes something like this: first, (1) new playwrights get ignored, until some place or places (in my case Soho Rep, The O'Neill, the Denver Center, New Dramatists) take a chance on them. Then, (2) they're "hot," and all the same theaters that previously ignored them want a piece of them, though not all of those theaters want to actually produce their work -- they just want to claim responsibility for helping create the artist. Then (3) they're "mid-career," which is good in some ways (they tend to get more productions) and bad in others (they no longer have the flush of the new discovery, they're exhausted and burnt out and not doing their best work). Then, (4) if they haven't vanished into the maw of Hollywood or some other, better career, they get critically panned for a while and then eventually reach a point where they become an "eminence" and can pass off whatever garbage they want and critics will be deferential because god knows they've suffered enough. And audiences will still come because the writer is famous.

At least that's what it's like now. By the time I'm an old fart theater will either be radically different or almost totally gone, maybe integrated into the academy, or consisting only of Broadway and community theaters doing amateur productions of stuff on Broadway. Or, more optimistically, the current system will collapse and then the art form will enjoy a kind of renaissance, either because it's been freed from the pressures of the market or because it's been forced to merge with other, more popular live art forms, or both.

I'm somewhere in a mid-to-late stage of period (2). It's interesting and kind of revolting how people who ignored me and/or treated me like crap as recently as three years ago are all up on my bozack these days, just in time for me to no longer care all that much.

Jason Grote

What I want to know is when these conversations are happening. Perhaps much of it is implied, but I have never, in my short career, heard it expressed like so: "make these changes and we'll produce your play."

Most literary managers and dramaturgs working for theaters large and small will swear up and down that they would never try to get a playwright to change anything. My response to that is a sort of joke about the Stasi in old East Germany: "of course you can write whatever you want, comrade, but we hope that you will consider our way." So maybe it's an implied contract. But really, I haven't ever had it expressed to me that way. It might have something to do with my actual work, but generally people know what they're getting when they get me. The only instance where I've had a larger theater get involved in dramaturgy to any serious degree was at Woolly Mammoth, but (1) they were already committed to producing the play by then, and (2) a lot of that was just about Howard Shalwitz' love of the process -- he always took no for an answer, as long as I listened to him and took him seriously (and I did indeed seriously consider everything he said, and often went along with his suggestions).

One thing I've found, though -- smaller theaters tend to be much more aggressive in these matters than larger theaters, at least in my limited experience (there are some exceptions, of course, most notably Soho Rep).

I suppose that if/when a playwright reaches the point where s/he is a draw by name alone (like Albee or Paula Vogel, or to a lesser extent Nelson himself), this can present a problem -- theaters want to program "the new ____ play" but then are so incredibly risk-averse that they try to mess with it ad infinitum.

I think it goes something like this: first, (1) new playwrights get ignored, until some place or places (in my case Soho Rep, The O'Neill, the Denver Center, New Dramatists) take a chance on them. Then, (2) they're "hot," and all the same theaters that previously ignored them want a piece of them, though not all of those theaters want to actually produce their work -- they just want to claim responsibility for helping create the artist. Then (3) they're "mid-career," which is good in some ways (they tend to get more productions) and bad in others (they no longer have the flush of the new discovery, they're exhausted and burnt out and not doing their best work). Then, (4) if they haven't vanished into the maw of Hollywood or some other, better career, they get critically panned for a while and then eventually reach a point where they become an "eminence" and can pass off whatever garbage they want and critics will be deferential because god knows they've suffered enough. And audiences will still come because the writer is famous.

At least that's what it's like now. By the time I'm an old fart theater will either be radically different or almost totally gone, maybe integrated into the academy, or consisting only of Broadway and community theaters doing amateur productions of stuff on Broadway. Or, more optimistically, the current system will collapse and then the art form will enjoy a kind of renaissance, either because it's been freed from the pressures of the market or because it's been forced to merge with other, more popular live art forms, or both.

I'm somewhere in a mid-to-late stage of period (2). It's interesting and kind of revolting how people who ignored me and/or treated me like crap as recently as three years ago are all up on my bozack these days, just in time for me to no longer care all that much.

Jason Grote

Sorry for the double-post -- Isaac, feel free to delete whichever one you like less.

Ken

Perhaps theaters should not pick plays that they think "need some work," and only commit to plays that they think are good to go (not including the inevitable discoveries that come from rehearsals via director/cast/designers). Which is better for playwrights? On the one hand, if the theaters aren't too picky, and will take on a new play that still needs some development (however you want to define that), the chances increase of you, the playwright, seeing your work put up (but in what form?). On the other hand, if theaters are going to be strictly "hands-off" and only take on plays that they don't think need any dramaturgical work, then how many of our plays would actually be chosen? For those of us who are chronically underproduced, it's hard to battle people who have reams of "notes," if these same people are the only ones who have expressed any committment to producing our play(s).

Parabasis

"On the other hand, if theaters are going to be strictly "hands-off" and only take on plays that they don't think need any dramaturgical work, then how many of our plays would actually be chosen?"

Almost none. I think the Woolly model of committing to producing a play and doing what development is necessary on the way to producing it is the way to go. A remember a staff member there saying a few years back they ceased doing workshops of plays that they weren't committed to producing (like announced parts of the season etc.). Seems the right way to go to me.

Ken

Yes, Isaac, I agree that the only tolerable option is that a theater not undertake any development until they're serious about producing the work. Then, you just have to hope you're working with a company who seems to truly have the best interests of the play at heart. Woolly Mammoth has an excellent reputation as a "writer's theater," so I tend to think they are going to be helpful collaborators.

99

With all due respect to Mr. Grote, those kinds of conversations (though rarely as blunt as "if you make these changes, we'll produce your play") are taking place, especially at smaller and mid-size theatres. It does often live more in your Stasi-style conversation: "We love your work, we really like this play, let's do a reading." Then after the reading, you sit down with the A.D. or the literary manager and you have a notes session. You get your notes and make another date for a meeting or a reading or a workshop. And so on and so forth. It's never (or rarely) as crass, but that's the subtext. Maybe these are just "bad" theatres, or theatres you never want to work. But they're out there. I know because I've sat on both sides of the table for them.

The Wooly Mammoth way sounds much, much better, but it really appears to be an outlier.

ellen

i think we're shying away from the main problem here, which is that nearly all the money (from foundations etc) dedicated to new play production goes to theatres, not artists. so the theatres call all the shots (and sometimes they're sensible, sometimes not, but they're always trying to choose and shape work according to their taste, and their notions of what they can produce). what we need, really, is an institution that gives production money directly to playwrights, based only on some judgment of the quality of the script, and not on questions of how costly it might be to produce, what the audience might be, how it woudl fit in a season, whether it's a politically opportune choice for the theatre, etc. imagine what it would be like to shop your play around with 10 or 20k in production funding already attached. suddenly there's a negotiation, a matching, between writers and theatres, rather than the open field for polite bullying that exists right now...

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Working...
Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been saved. Comments are moderated and will not appear until approved by the author. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.

Working...

Post a comment

Comments are moderated, and will not appear until the author has approved them.

Your Information

(Name and email address are required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)

My Photo
Blog powered by Typepad

# of Visitors Since 11/22/05


  • eXTReMe Tracker