Recently, I had the privilege to work with some amazing artists on the production of Empty Boxes, a play I wrote back in 2006. This was the first time my solo work was being produced and we were doing it completely on our own accord. Naturally, we had some major learning moments presented to us along the way. In the spirit of this blog, here are the things I learned working as a playwright:
1. BE ON THE SAME PAGE AS THE DIRECTOR
This is probably the most important of these lessons. Before you start into the process, you should sit down with your director and review the script and each of your individual visions for the piece. You absolutely have to be on the same page as your director from the beginning; if not, you are begging for conflict later in the process. Make sure that you are clear about important moments during these initial conversations (especially if those moments are happening in stage directions). The director may not stage them exactly as you had in your mind, but if they know the meaning behind why you wrote it like that, they can stay true to the essence of the action. This type of understanding can only come out of in-depth discussions without the other artists in the room. Having these conversations early will also develop the relationship and dialogue for giving notes about the piece during the rehearsal process.
2. FIGHT FOR YOUR WORK
“No one knows the script better than you” was advice I received from Jason Sherman and through the process of Empty Boxes, I learned the truth of that statement. In my day job as a stage manager, it is a cardinal sin to give your opinion about the direction of a piece (without being asked directly by the director, and even then, you walk a fine line). Keeping my mouth shut during the rehearsal process is a trait that in heavily engrained in my soul, so flipping over to the side of the playwright, where my opinion not only expected, but necessary, was difficult (to say the least). There were times during the process that I didn’t fight as hard as I should have for specific things that I wrote in, thinking that the director had his vision and I should respect that. I didn’t want to over step my bounds. But, the tricky thing with a new work is that for the first time out, the audience is expecting to see the playwright’s vision more than the director’s. They don’t know the show, so they think this is what the playwright wrote; so as the playwright, if there is something that doesn’t sit well with you , it is your job to stand up and say so. This doesn’t need to be a confrontation, but you can explain why something is important to the arc of the story. Which brings me to...
3. TRUST YOUR GUT
Okay, not everything you put into the script is gold, but there was likely a reason you put in the things you did (especially, if you have workshopped it and done many edits – the stuff that’s left should be the things you want to keep). Trust yourself. The production process of a new work needs to be fluid and some things that weren’t originally in the script will develop organically out of the rehearsal process, often these things turn out better than you imagined, but if something is not sitting right, you need to trust what yourself. Don’t allow things that you know are important to be missed or skimmed over. If it is not working in rehearsal, you may need to rewrite it, but you know the work better than anyone else. You’ve spent the most time with it. You’ve seen it through all its incarnations. When people are watching it, they will assume what they are seeing is what you intended, make sure it says what you want it to say. There is a great deal of compromise in any process (limits on stage space, budget, etc.), you can compromise on how the story is told, but don’t compromise on the story that you are telling. You know the things that are important. Trust yourself.
4. DON’T FEAR THE GARBAGE CAN (AKA ‘CUT THE VOMIT’)
Everyone wants their work to be wonderful and brilliant the moment their words hit the page. Even after countless drafts of Empty Boxes, I still think when I sit down to write that the first go will be all I need. WRONG! More often than not, most of what I first produce ends up in the garbage can. Or, it becomes the bones of a piece that grows immensely around it, to the point where the original skeleton is no longer visible. During the first few reads of Empty Boxes, my red pen was my best friend. It was funny to see the director trying to delicately dance around telling me that a scene was terrible (I knew that it was). More often than not, I would say, ‘okay, it’s cut, I’ll be back with something new tomorrow’. Being able to say, ‘this sucks!’ is probably one of the hardest things as a writer, but it is also freeing. Instead of beating your head against a wall trying to make it better, it is so nice to just take it and throw it in the garbage can or hit that DELETE key and start fresh. I can usually tell that my writing is bad (or needs editing), if I’m reading or listening to it and I make a gagging sound. That’s why I call it vomit because it usually makes me want to throw up when I hear it (my work can lean towards the cheesy or overdramatic in the first draft). If I hear something that is vomit, it’s gone – immediately! I like to compare this to sculpting: you start with the uncut stone, you chisel out the basic form and as you continue to work at it, you smooth out all the edges until you have a thing of beauty, but sometimes you miss a couple spots, so you need to take out the chisel again and work those areas until they are as smooth as the rest. It’s all just part of the process. When you see the garbage can as a place to discard the debris from your masterpiece rather than a box containing all your failures, it becomes this good friend that only serves to make your work better.
5. STAGE DIRECTIONS ARE IMPORTANT – BE CLEAR
Once upon a time in theatre school, I had a professor that told the class when looking at a play, it is not necessary to acknowledge the stage directions and that many directors will cut them out of a script without even reading them. Many people from my class still adopt that as their philosophy today, and as a writer I have always tried to limit my stage directions, thinking they weren’t really necessary. Now, I want to shake that professor and tell them never to say that ever again! If you are working on a new play, the stage directions are the only communication the writer has to give you a sense of how the play moves and what it would look like on its feet. If you ignore them, you could be missing something critical to the movement of the piece. Theatre has developed immensely since the Greeks playing in the amphitheatres. Action has a much stronger role; much of what used to be said in long monologues is kept under the surface and told through movement on stage – the subtext. When writing your stage directions, be clear as to what they are to accomplish. It is not flowery prose, but they should give a clear idea of how the play moves. They should inform the artists about how the characters behave, their quirks and the environment that they are in. Don’t neglect them. They paint the visual picture in the minds of your artists.
6. DON’T SKIMP ON PRAISING THE GOOD THINGS OTHERS ARE DOING
Putting up a show is a lot of work and it takes the creative talents of a variety of skilled individuals. If you are lucky enough, you will assemble a team of amazing artists who will dedicate themselves to your show like it is their own (like I had the good fortune of working with on Empty Boxes). Don’t forget that they need praise and encouragement for their contributions as much as you do. Sometimes it is easy to get wrapped up in what isn’t working or how something is straying from what you originally envisioned that you fail to see the incredible work that is going on. Never let this happen (or if it does, ‘cause it will, change your attitude immediately!) If you are constantly critiquing and not praising, it makes it very difficult for the artists involved to stay connected to your work. Everyone needs to feel like the effort they are putting in is acknowledged. It’s not all about you! Try to remember that other people can care as much about your play as you do. You’re a team.
7. WRITE WITH YOUR AUDIENCE IN MIND
This is a tricky one. Don’t misinterpret and think this means writing to please your audience: it’s not. One of my favourite quotes about being a writer is from Leo C. Rosten: “The writer wants to be understood much more than he wants to be respected or praised or even loved. And that perhaps, is what makes him different from others.” If the desire is to be understood, you need to keep in mind those who are expected to do the understanding. You are not writing for yourself; you are writing to have others see something the way you do, to evoke a particular emotion or idea within them. While writing, it is important to keep this audience in mind. Will they understand what I’m trying to say? Am I being clear with my intentions? Is this going to evoke the response I want to evoke? If you are only writing for your personal benefit, keep the thoughts as diary entries. If the idea is to have your work shared, you need to take an objective approach and consider whether it is worth sharing. If not, make it so. No one wants to sit and feel alienated and confused for 2 hours. That is not spreading an idea or message. Even Brecht gave us characters and stories that were clear and engaging (yes, alienating and enraging, but you understood – he wrote for his audience).
8. LEARN FROM THE CRITICS
Don’t take every word to heart, but critics (good ones) will offer an objective opinion of the work. Unless you have a personal conflict with a particular person, a critic would like to be entertained and say good things about a piece. Generally, people want things to succeed, so even if you get a scathing review (and even if it seems like the person is just looking for things to complain about), there is usually some truth to the things they say. This does not mean you should read every review and make changes based on all they say. Just read them objectively. What are they trying to say? Are there common comments among all your reviews? When there are commonalities amongst the reviews, those are likely flags for areas where you are not communicating clearly with your audience. As artists, writers are constantly growing and developing their style. Having someone come out and look at your work and give you feedback is a gift that you don’t always get. So don’t be dismissive of reviews, especially the bad ones. Critics generally have a great understanding of the art form you are communicating in and are in touch with what is happening in that scene. By analyzing what they say about you, you can learn and grow as an artist. But also, don’t let them discourage you, they are the opinions of individuals.
9. TRUST YOUR AUDIENCE
Often as artists we put too much credit in the hands of the critics (they do have the loudest voice) and not enough in the audience. Many nights I would go down to the theatre to meet people after the performance of Empty Boxes, so I was lucky enough to see the audience leaving the theatre; many with tears in their eyes. I had quite a few people add me on Facebook or ask for a copy of the script because they connected so much with the piece. It was a real honour. Even though the reviews of the show were mediocre, the actual audience response was overwhelmingly positive. So, as much as you need to be able to grow and learn from the reviews, you also need to trust your audience if they say the piece is worthwhile. After all, they are the reason you are writing.
There are many more things that I learned about producing and the entire production process, but as a writer, these were the main things that I would keep in mind for the next go around. It’s taken me a while to process the entire experience, but overall, I’m really pleased with the way it turned out and so thankful to everyone who made it happen (including the wonderful people who came out to support our work). If there is one thing that I walk away from this realizing, it is a deepened understanding of how much theatre is a shared experience and from a writing perspective, how important clarity of thought at the start is to the final experience.