Wednesday, April 7, 2004

Writing On Writing, Part Seven

An article in the March 1 edition of The American Prospect by Elizabeth Benedict got me to thinking about writers and writing. It also got me thinking about the foundation of where I come from as a writer and what forms my expression in words.

Seventh in a Series

(Part One)

(Part Two)

(Part Three)

(Part Four)

(Part Five)

(Part Six)

The difference between playwriting and most other forms of creative writing is that it isn’t a solo effort. For a novel or a short story, all you need is a reader. Sure, you can read the script and understand the plot and the characters, but the script is like a blueprint with all the internal workings – stage directions, costume and prop lists – included. In order for the play to be completed, you need a director, a cast, a stage, sets, lights, costumes, and an audience. And in order for the message to get across, the playwright needs to know the language of the stage.

It’s a cumbersome medium. Putting on a play is hard work, and there are all those other people who have to put in their two cents; the director, the designer, the producer, and worst of all, the actors. (I once heard a designer refer to actors as “props with feet.”) And they’re all there with their egos and “concepts” to interpret the story the playwright has crafted. The results are sometimes surprising.

When The Hunter was written, it was my first foray into letting a work of mine go off on its own. The director was a man with very strong ideas of his own – including not allowing me to attend many of the rehearsals. I was stunned, and it led to a tense relationship between us for a while; both of us had to learn about the playwright/director relationship. (Rule Number 1: both playwright and director need to learn how to trust each other.) But when the play was finally ready for staging, I was both surprised and amazed that what I had written six months before was suddenly on the stage. Those actors were speaking my lines. The audience was listening to my words. And when it was all over, everybody clapped. I went to the director and cast afterwards and paid them the highest compliment I could think of: “It’s what I meant to say.”

The reviews were pretty good. Not great, but what could I expect for my first effort? One thing I found intriguing was reading reviews written by Intro To Drama students who had no idea that the playwright was a fellow student at the University of Minnesota. I learned a lot about my characters and what the play said to them – things I had no idea were in the play. I was invited to speak to a class about my play and one student asked me a very complex question about the psychological background of the main character. For a moment I tried to come up with something that sounded intelligent, but in the end I just said, “Well, I really don’t know – I just wrote the play, that’s all.”

One of the questions most often asked of playwrights is “Why do you write plays?” (The smartass answer is that there’s no heavy lifting required.) It’s usually asked in terms of other forms of writing – why plays instead of novels or poetry? I can’t speak for other playwrights, but it has to do with the characters. When I become acquainted with a character that I want to write about, I see them in their world and I know how I want to tell their story. Sometimes it’s a play, sometimes it’s not, and sometimes, like The Hunter, I can make them work in both. The format of playwriting isn’t that hard, but it does require thinking in terms of the stage. What you can tell in five pages in a novel has to be distilled to an action, a line, or a monologue in a play. The audience fills in the rest, and you have to trust them – and yourself – to make it work. And sometimes you see the characters in a way that only a novel is the way to tell the story. That’s the case with my current piece in progress.

The second most often-asked question of playwrights – or any author – is “Where do you get your ideas?” The answer is simple: from me. It sounds trite, but writers do write about what they know best, and that’s themselves. They find something in their lives that they feel they must express and out it comes. The plays that I have written have all been about characters that are me or like me and what is important to them. And I’m not alone. Contemporary playwrights such as Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, William Inge, Neil Simon, Wendy Wasserstein, August Wilson, Sam Shepard, and Lanford Wilson, just to name a few, have turned the stage into the psyschiatrist’s couch where all the slights and turmoils of their lives are analyzed and dissected for all to see. (Not that I would compare my work for an instant to any of those writers – they are lightyears beyond my feeble efforts.) It’s not unique to playwriting. Contemporary fiction and film has become character-driven, sometimes taking a plot along just to keep the action moving. I’ve written, at last count, four full-length plays since The Hunter, and I revised it heavily when I directed a production of it in 1984. (Don’t ask – a playwright shouldn’t direct his own stuff.) All of the works since then have been about characters who are trying to find themselves a place in the world and what they’re supposed to do in it. That sounds like me.

Oh, one question I get asked a lot is “Why is it spelled ‘playwright’?” To wright means to craft, as in “to build.” Playwrights, like sculptors or blacksmiths, form something out of words and assemble them for presentation. It’s merely a trick of the language that “playwright” and “playwriting” sound alike. But it’s a happy coincidence.

Next time: Hearing voices.