After three years of intense focus on therapy and personal growth, I'm finally hitting the keys again and will be jumping into NaNoWriMo on November 1st, 2016. Stay tuned for updates!

Tuesday 30 April 2013

JASON SHERMAN - A Conversation

This week I had the good fortune to sit down with one of Canada’s best playwrights, Jason Sherman, to talk about writing, the production process and anything else that happened to jump into my mind.  It was wonderful (and most of all inspiring)!  So, this week’s post will be a summary of the knowledge I was able to extract from this conversation.

One of my most pressing questions had to do with the playwright’s role during the production process.  I’ve worked on a number of new works and observed the various processes of the playwright, but it was the way Sherman managed relationships with the director and actors that really caught my attention.  His input never undermined the process in the room and he was so respectful of everyone’s role in the show.  Sherman shared how he approaches the development of a new piece of theatre.  Here is a summary of some of the key points:

  • always be the cheerleader; you want the artists working on your piece to feel like you appreciate the time and dedication they are putting in
  • in conversations with the director start with the positives; what is working?
  • be as clear as possible about what you want or what the intent of a scene is supposed to be
  • don’t discuss your thoughts in front of the cast; find the time to step aside with the director and discuss the idea and vision
  • meet with the director prior to the start of the process and talk through the show in regards to tone and pace

As I’ve said previously, my work tends to be plagued by monologue after monologue which makes for a very boring piece of drama.  My former post about Sherman discussed how brilliantly he incorporates monologues into very dynamic dialogue (since that post, I have had the privilege to read more of Jason’s work which has only reinforced this opinion).  Sherman, in his oh so eloquent way, was able to give insight into how he views monologues in his writing (which, for me, was the perspective I needed to change the way I approach a text).  This is some of what he said (not verbatim):

  • script writing is similar to composition; to get to a monologue (or aria) there needs to be a build, a lead up, to the point where the character giving the monologue has no other choice but to “sing”
  • ask yourself: why do we need to hear what is being said?  What makes us want to listen to these characters?
  •  find the dramatic action of the scene – what is happening?  What does each of these characters want to achieve?  What do they want from each other?
  •  if you are not able to answer these questions for each of your scenes, then why is the scene in the play in the first place?  It is not serving the story. 

While discussing the art of storytelling, Sherman spoke about how he tells stories regularly to friends and family; this is how he refines his technique.  He pictures that there is a third party watching while telling a story and concentrates on the structure as he goes, building towards the end and choosing the details that will further the plot.  He used the example of telling stories around the campfire; the idea that there is an audience watching you and you need to make sure they don’t lose interest before you reach the climax.  Growing up, I was never the storyteller in my family; writing was the only place that I ever felt I had a voice.  As I got older, I began to tell stories more, but even previous to sitting down with Jason, I knew that my oral storytelling ability was sorely lacking.  In a text based format, I can go back to clarify, edit and rewrite; orally, such luxuries are not available.  Since this meeting, I have been attempting to implement the idea of a third watcher and it is helping, though I feel I have a long way to go before I would be considered an excellent teller of tales.

The final area that I really wanted to hear Sherman’s opinion about was research.  While writing My Mother’s Daughters, I often wondered how true do I have to be to the research and data available?  Sherman’s perspective is do as much as you need, but writing comes out of a need to deep inside of you to say something that is longing to be said, so research should inform this need but not control it.  His suggestion is to do your research and then walk away from it for a while before sitting down to write; let it simmer and digest until it nourishes your story but then toss aside the stuff that is not useful.  You can always go back to the research if you need it. 

During this conversation, we covered a lot of other topics: negotiating contracts, structure of writing for TV and the software that Sherman prefers to use while writing.  I haven’t included all the details of what was discussed, but if you are interested, please leave a comment and I will respond.  These subjects were useful, but did not directly affect the way I write, so I omitted them from this post.

If you are unfamiliar with Jason Sherman’s work, you can still catch La Ronde at Soulpepper until May 4, 2013.  I would strongly encourage anyone and everyone to take a look at his writing.  I think the description I used in an email once was “it makes you laugh while your heart is being ripped apart”.  For me, that is all I need to be a fan for life.  Stylistically they are very different, but what I love about Sherman’s work is the same thing I love about Hemingway’s: it always ends with a punch to the heart that leaves you speechless.  I have yet to finish a piece of Sherman’s writing and be able to put it down and walk away; there is a need to remain in contact with the work for just a little longer even though it is done. 

Sherman is no longer writing for the stage.  You can read his article on why he writes for television now, published in This magazine, online at:

Sherman’s plays are available for order from TheatreBooks:

For tickets to La Ronde at Soulpepper, go to:

To read my previous post about Jason Sherman, go to:

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