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March 17, 2010


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"...our long new play development process that everyone gets so frustrated about is partially predicated on the notion that it is up to the script to fix everything. There's no assumption that a competent group of artists working with a playwright could shape and collaborate with the material in such a way that good art comes out of it, even if on the page it doesn't always look perfect."

This really hits the nail on the head.

I have been thinking a lot about this. Sometimes, something that lives fully and beautifully on the page doesn't even work as well up on it's feet. And, vice versa. The appeal of writing for the theater in the first place is, for me, the idea of not being the only creator working on a project. So the sooner we get the text working in a room, the better. I think that's the draw for a lot of writers. Besides, there is only so much a writer can do to fix the script, alone in front of her computer.


Aw, I was just writing about this:



Derrida (god I'm talking about him again ugh) refers to the playwright in the traditional structure as the dictator, in the sense that the playwright dictates the production to the actors and director and their job is to faithfully record the playwright's utterances.

The problem is partially the sanctity of the script, as it is handed down to us ever since Shakespeare -- the sense is that the director and actors are there to do nothing more than to represent the playwright's intentions and words, so the playwright has to be absolutely brilliant on their intentions and words, otherwise everyone else is going to be working to reproduce the intentions that are imperfect, and what a waste of time that would be.


When we decided to do the Blueprint Project a few years back, it was really an attempt to educate our audience as to what a director *does*. Mac Rogers came up with the idea after being invited to be a part of several one-act evenings where there was a trick (the producers gave you an opening line, or there was a prop you had to work in, or a pop culture reference.. or all three...). Mac said, "Let's give them the entire play, the whole plot, and we'll do it four times in one evening." Then, we printed the plot in the program.

It was amazing, because each writer then got to work from his or her strength, and each director got to shape the piece, focusing on using the stage space, exploring themes that mattered to them. When we were done, the feedback was all knock-out positive, with the only suggestion, repeated throughout, that we make the plot paragraph even *more* restrictive. Let the directors, actors and designers shine even more.

Our company is ridiculously tied to the importance of the text in every other circumstance, and it was exciting to move away from that for one project.

Scott Walters

Power grab! Power grab! ;-)

I felt that way about "August: Osage County," which seemed thinner and thinner the more I thought about it, but damn it was a good starting point for a production.

The problem, perhaps, is trying to parse out who did what, rather than view it holistically.


I never really understand why we need to parse it out so much, to what end. I was just talking to Matt Freeman about this the other day and he quoted the old saw about being a playwright and how, if everyone loves the play, they'll credit you, but if no one loves the play, they'll blame you. Every play changes in rehearsal, in performance, has limitations that are fixed by the actors or directors, sometimes in the actual words on the page, sometimes in the performing. We all know this, we've all gone through production, but the attitude is still it's all about the playwright. Which, I think, puts undue pressure on playwrights and adds to the frenzy for The Right Play.

Ian Thal

Seems to me that theatre people (including dedicated audience members) learn to distinguish between the contributions of the writer, the director, the actors, and the designers when they view a play. Yes, it takes a long time to develop that skill.

Still, to avoid unfairly getting the blame when something goes wrong, it's incumbent that the writer work with any given production that he or she can.

And Guy, something tells me that Derrida either never worked in theatre or maybe he was just talking about Samuel Beckett, as his description sounds much more like the auteur theory of filmmaking than the role of the playwright.


Ian, I think the bigger question is why distinguish at all? If I go see a production and have a good time, enjoy it, are moved by it, does it matter that if I read the script, I wouldn't be as moved? Why do we have to parse out blame and credit?

We work in a collaborative art, but spend a lot of time judging it as a solo event.

Ian Thal

Why distinguish? Because I'm just fascinated by process of how collaborations work. So I'm fascinated by what sort of mind contributes this or that and why one set of collaborators make for an effective team and why another production sometimes comes across as if one contributor is attempting to sabotage the work that everyone else is putting into the project.


I was quoted above. I consider that a compliment and also usurpation.


Isaac, i don't think this is controversial at all. It seems like everybody is in agreement here.

I have something controversial to say. I like the feel of soft things against my skin. I also enjoy sleeping at night and rising when the sun comes up.


Ever see a beautiful building that just knocked your socks off? I bet if you looked at the architect's blueprints for that building, you wouldn't be so impressed. Should that reflect badly on the architect? Of course not.



You crack my everloving shit up. I said it might be controversial because in the past on this blog I tend to get into trouble when talking about it not being all about the writer or the script.

Turns out... this time around..not controversial.


I will, just for the fun of stirring the pot, point out some power-words that I see people use. I often notice that some playwrights and their partisans call the thing they wrote "the play," and the mounting of it "the production." Some directors and their partisans call the thing written "the script," and the mounting of it "the play." People often want the thing they have the most control over to be "the play," which seems to be the favored term.

Isaac, your point about new play development is really well-taken. A new script/play/what-have-you really is best developed in tandem with the practical elements of its realization, and in collaboration with the artists implementing it. My experience is that readings in a vacuum are only useful once or maybe twice at the outside.


"A new script/play/what-have-you really is best developed in tandem with the practical elements of its realization, and in collaboration with the artists implementing it."

This is why those of us who often bitch about play development feel so suspicious of it. It is, as Mac says later, accomplished "in a vacuum" and doesn't reflect why most of us got into this racket in the first place: to see our ephemeral, ethereal words bounce-up-against/wrap around all the physical elements of a production.

Karl Miller

Yeah, I expected some backlash from the Albee/Mamet camp of Platonic productions. Cool.

Playwrights can demand what they will, but critics are another story. On StageGrade, the difference between a B or A could mean a top-flight, revelatory production that just wasn't something you'd want to transcribe, bind, publish, and read on your own. I think critics are quick to blame the writer for everything, to make the script the focal point for their judgement, because they're writers themselves.

But literature is a bonus in theatre, it shouldn't be where we start. A playwright should want to be more than produced (and certainly more than published); s/he should want to be REproduced. If you're a dramatic poet, this excites you: poetry is forged in the multiplicity of expression, it's not just a fancy or lyrical way of saying something precise.

If, on the other hand, you are an "actor-proof" writer, you're probably into naturalism or clever structures -- these are different forms, but they appeal to a certain strain of writer. Naturalism can subvert the actor's work through brute mimesis and clever structures don't need good acting, or really any acting, to announce themselves.

"When the Rain Stops Falling" -- the Lincoln Center show I read about for StageGrade, but have not seen yet -- got a lot of this kind of criticism. Cromer apparently worked overtime to create a live show out of a script that worked overtime to draw attention to its own undulations and mechanical reveals. So does that make it a good show with a bad script? Or a clever script with a show that does it proud? I guess it depends on which element is more important to you.


FWIW, I use "script" to refer to the printed pages I create, "play" to refer to what happens on the stage, and "production" to refer to the whole ball of wax, including the marketing, the theater, the publicity, the opening, the cast party, rehearsal, casting, tech -- you get the picture. And I don't know that, at least for me, there's a power play going on -- merely an attempt to describe things accurately.

Pete Miller

I only get a strong feeling for the script, as opposed to the production (Using Gwydion's definitions since he's just ahead of me) once I've seen several productions of the same script. I also find I rarely remember particular pieces of language from a script until I've seen it played a few times. To me, these are some of the strongest arguments for pushing further productions of scripts beyond their premieres. However, devoting more nights to second to nth productions does reduce the number of nights available for premieres. Interesting balancing act.


Since this seems to be a ditto-fest, allow me to take the occasionally-presented chance to prove that Isaac and I are not, in fact, the same person.

Absolutely, I think about plays in a script-centric way. I think that everyone in the creative process is there to serve to play, as it is expressed in the script. That's the kind of theater I make and that's the kind of theater I like. For me, I prefer to go to the theater and see elements working in concert toward the expression of a singular, subjective viewpoint that is so powerful that it insinuates itself directly into my inner life. I've never encountered a collaboratively-created, high-concept directed or devised production that has impacted me in the way that a unified production of a Tennessee Williams or Christopher Shinn play has.

But, hey, to each his or her own. The reason I bristle at some of the language in this post, however, is that it seems to proscribe behavior or thought -- i.e. talk that "WE think" and "WE do" things in a way that is somehow bad or wrong. I'll think about plays and do plays any damn way I want, thank you. Free country and all.


Mark, I think I'm closer to your end of things, but maybe not quite as hard-line. When I say a play is best "developed in tandem with the practical elements of its realization, and in collaboration with the artists implementing it," I mean, after at least an initial draft has been written and everyone is on board with the parameters of that vision. At *that* point, then I like to hone it with the people who are producing it with me. A play that was collaboratively-created from the very outset would not be a setting in which I would thrive.



Bristle away, the prescriptivism was deliberate!

But i actually think you and i may not be that far off from each other, to be honest. I am all for slavish devotion to the story that the writer and script are telling. What i am not in favor of is slavish devotion to the writer's vision of how that story should be presented, (I am instead for respect and, when necessary, deference).

To take some examples:
Simon McBurney's production of All My Sons on Broadway was not a presentation of that script in the way Miller intended. It was mythic rather than realist, incorporated multimedia, had some Le Coq movement stuff in it, there was an inserted storm sequence at the beginning etc. I have no problem with this because McBurney was true to Miller's story and his characters, and simply found a different way of presenting that story and those characters. One that I personally found enthralling and emotionally powerful (although the multimedia stuff was not to my liking). I don't think the fact that the production choices were not unified with Miller's vision of how the play should be done really mattered.

Or to take another example: The original draft of Melissa James Gibson's [sic] calls for a realistic set that encompasses three apartments, while the play also contains snippets of overheard dialogue from a fourth apartment. The world premiere at Soho Rep looked nothing like the production Gibson imagined when she wrote the play, the set was three moveable, rotatable closets on top of a hyper-real fourth apartment that the audience could only see the bottom three feet of. Now, Gibson was involved in the production, so I'm sure she okayed it, but even if she wasn't-- and didn't-- I think gestures like this, which are both interpretive and creative, are totally fine.

Similarly, I doubt the original draft of Dying City called for a rotating set (although i could be wrong on that one).

These are examples of where production choices totally change an audience's perception of a script, in some cases with and in some cases without an author's permission (Miller can't give his permission, obviously).

On the other side you have european directors theatre which is almost entirely bullshit. I didn't see Peter Sellars Othello, because from reading interviews with him (and reviews of the show) it was clear he had no interest in or respect for the story Shakespeare was telling. I wish in those instances, directors would simply use some of their absurd amounts of state funding to commission an up and coming playwright to write the story they want told, rather than forcing it onto a classic text. I've seen productions in this vein that work, but they are few and far between.

I guess, to reconnect to something Guy was talking about in this comment thread, it all comes back to Peter Brook's take on stage directions in The Open Door: It's not about what the stage directions literally Say but rather what they are doing. Brook follows it up with an example that I'm going to paraphrase: When you read Uncle Vanya or The Cherry Orchard you see that the play begins with a very long description of the environments the characters are in. The important thing is not to actually have the sofa, the samovar, the period chair etc. What the stage directions are communicating instead is that the production needs to feel real. In our time, we may have a different vocabulary for what feeling "real" is on stage is.

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