Tag Archives: new plays

Playwriting is Storytelling

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Maybe this will become a series: “Directing is Storytelling,” “Acting is Storytelling.” Since I’m right in the thick of season planning and reading a ton of plays every day, writing is my current focus.

Playwriting is storytelling. The primary function of a play is to tell a story. It doesn’t have to be a linear narrative, or have realistic characters, or be traditionally structured in any way. But the basic human need to tell, share, hear, and create stories is as old as the human brain itself, and theatre is one of our oldest storytelling tools.

A play’s most basic elements are the story and the characters within that story. I encounter so many clunky, unsuccessful plays that focus on something other than one or both of those.

Plays about “issues” are probably the most prevalent. You have an opinion about something– abortion, the environment, religion. You write a play wherein the central events are all arguments about these things. This is not interesting. For one, we can all have arguments like these on facebook every day. We don’t need to stage or see a play in order to have The Argument Experience. Secondly, argument is not conflict. A play that consists largely of people shouting their opinions at one another is not a story about competing objectives. And while you might want to be the kind of person who thinks conflict isn’t central to dramatic narrative, I do not. I agree that conflict doesn’t have to be violent, or linear, or even interpersonal, but dramatic narrative is created by conflict of some kind– an important choice to be made, competing objectives, a task made difficult, a journey through something challenging.

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“The Mullet: My Journey, My Struggle,” a solo performance by John Stamos

Another unsuccessful “issue” play is one that’s predictable. These plays set up a weak, obviously assholic opposition and then eviscerates that opposition with the Magical Truth and Awesomeness of the playwright’s opinion on the issue. A victory over an obviously weak-ass antagonist, argument, or idea is not an exciting victory. Would you rather watch a game that came down to the final three seconds, or would you rather watch a 67-2 rout? If you want to tell the kind of story where one side triumphs over another side, the stronger you make the “losing” side, the more compelling the narrative will be and the more satisfying the conclusion.

Remember when you were an undergrad and you thought plays that insulted, offended, and discomfited the audience were hella cool? Because: EDGY. Now that I’m an adult who relies on the goodwill of my audience and ticket sales, I no longer have a bone to pick with my audience, or with “audiences” as a concept. I don’t see myself in an adversarial relationship with “audience” at all. But my company will still do plays that are extremely boundary-crossing, that often some audience members find uncomfortable or challenging in some way. The difference between a play to which we’ll commit time and money and one we will not is simple: while watching a well-written play that crosses boundaries, audience members who are uncomfortable feel that way because of a relationship they have to the material– to the events or the characters– that comes organically out of the story. That’s a culturally valuable challenge. But when I read a play that’s just randomly insulting or (attempting to be) shocking without any purpose other than to be randomly insulting or shocking, I set it aside. It’s all one big juvenile yawn unless it comes organically out of story. A toddler can rip up a bible and then pee into the shreds, it’s the job of high school sophomores to make semen jokes during lunch, and the internet is paved with hurled insults and “offensive” material. You have to give me something more than that– and the “more” is the kind of context that comes with compelling narrative. If your goal is to “offend,” just make another offensive tumblr. The most offensive aspect of that kind of theatre is charging $30 for something we can get by the wagonload for free online.

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Wrong kind of offensive line

Another area where playwrights often lose sight of storytelling is character relationship. Often a playwright will want to draw two people from different backgrounds together, and, instead of taking the time to do this with story, will use a superficial means that only ends up feeling forced. I see this all the time with smoking, pot, and alcohol– like the very fact that someone does one of these has the power to make you take a second look, reframe your opinion of them, and let them into your heart? Hasn’t every human alive done one or more of these things at one time? I’m not inviting John Boehner up to my hotel room just because we’re both drinking scotch. The second most popular approach is the shared superficial like– some song, musician, movie, brand of something, book. “What? You like Spaghetti-Os too? I previously hated you, but now LET’S FALL IN LOVE.” It never rings true. Sure, it’s enjoyable when you discover that someone likes the same underappreciated musician you do, and just as enjoyable to see a moment of connection between characters, but it’s not enough to act as the turning point of an entire relationship.

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Not enough beer in the world, Spleen.

Often playwrights will start a play with ten or fifteen pages of throat-clearing– meaningless dialogue that theoretically “introduces” characters and lays down exposition while actually, the play loses nothing and gains real momentum by skipping those pages entirely and diving directly into the narrative. If the first ten pages of your play are characters saying “Remember when [blah]?” “Remember how [a thing]?” “Remember the time [something]?” you should probably take a second look. I don’t know these people. Their reminiscences are of limited interest to me until I have a context within which to put them. Work that exposition into the narrative itself. Does your play start like this? “CRYSTAL: Remember when Mother died four seasons ago, during the worst alfalfa harvest in Cowcatcher County history, right after Father tried to sell the farm to the mysterious Dr. Ballsworth? And remember how we laughed when we discovered that in her will she had left the entire Farthill Valley to you and I? And remember how she used to say ‘A penny saved is a penny that could have been spent on vodka?'” Yeah, you can cut all that.

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Or you could just do this.

 

I recently read a play whose intricate relationships are painstakingly revealed, bit by bit, in a lovingly tended non-linear narrative, until a gut-punch of a fucking gorgeous payoff at the end, and I almost sprained my fingers on the keyboard in a rush to ask for the rights. What is the play “about”? What love means? Sacrifice? I’m still mulling that one over. Is every detail of the exposition laid down? Newp. But the play is so painfully, heartbreakingly, beautifully rendered that the characters and their story has been haunting me ever since. Why did she make that decision? Does she regret it? Was it worth it? What will happen to her after she’s made that final choice? I can’t get these characters out of my head. And *that’s* the impact you want to have on your audience.

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Directing, Creative Freedom, and Vandalism

From endlessorigami.com

From endlessorigami.com

Once upon a time I worked at a theatre that received two cease-and-desist orders in two seasons– one for copying dialogue from a Disney film word-for-word and performing it without permission, and one for rewriting the lyrics to Godspell. The artistic director of the company told me, “The New Testament is so boring! Stephen Schwartz would have LOVED what we did with it if he had seen it. Ours was SO MUCH BETTER.” She then proceeded to tell me that she had learned her lesson, and asked me to write a commission contract for a playwright that would give her “total artistic control” over what the playwright wrote. “It’s my idea to adapt [name of book she didn’t write nor for which she possessed the adaptation rights] into a musical, so I own it.” Instead of writing her contract, I quit.

Around this same time, Boxcar Theatre in San Francisco took an unrepentant stance regarding their contract violations and theft of material from Rocky Horror Picture Show in their production of Little Shop of Horrors. This added fuel to the fire of the longstanding national debate over what directors and producers can and cannot do with a playwright’s work, as opposed to what some believe they SHOULD be able to do with a playwright’s work.

These two things happened almost back-to-back, and I began to think long and hard about the relationships directors and producers have with playwrights.

A PR shot for Asolo Rep's Philadelphia, Here I Come. No photog credit was provided.

A PR shot for Asolo Rep’s Philadelphia, Here I Come from the press section of their website. No photographer credit was provided.

The latest controversy belongs to Asolo Rep in Sarasota, Florida. Director Frank Galati staged Brian Friel’s Philadelphia, Here I Come with enormous restructuring, eliminating characters and cutting pages of dialogue, all in direct violation of contract. What’s more, it appears from the article I link to above that Asolo Rep makes a practice of this:

The theater has experimented with new approaches to older plays with some success in the past. Two years ago, for example, the theater played around with Leah Napolin’s play “Yentl,” keeping most of the script but adding in original songs by composer Jill Sobule, performed by actors doubling as musicians on stage.

Napolin had a “heads-up about what we were doing,” Edwards said. “But she didn’t know all of what we were doing. . . .  If director Gordon Greenberg had gone to Napolin with every idea for changes or additions that came up during rehearsals “it would have killed the creative process. It would have made it a two-year process,” Edwards said.

While the Yentl production differed because Napolin had a “heads-up,” and therefore had the opportunity from the start of the process to investigate and hold Asolo to the terms of their contract, the attitude is still evident. Involving a playwright in an adaptation of HER OWN WORK is something that would “kill the creative process” and drag the rehearsal period out to a “two-year process.” The playwright is seen as a hindrance; an unwelcome interloper in the director’s much more important “creative process.”

Frank Galati. Photographer: Joel Moorman.

Frank Galati. Photographer: Joel Moorman.

Friel wasn’t even given a “heads-up,” and one has to wonder if that had to do with a (well-founded) suspicion that he would have told them no. Many who have discussed this controversy have mentioned how surprised they were that a director as well-known and experienced as Galati would have willfully violated contract, but I’m not surprised at all. My guess (and it’s just a guess, as I don’t know Galati personally) is that either the producers told him he had permission, or he felt entitled to do precisely what he did.

I’m basing this latter guess on the vehement arguments of directors all over the country who are at this very moment taking to the internet to express these very thoughts. There’s an entire subset of directors and producers who see the playwright as a necessary evil; a hindrance to their more important creative process, and who see the contract as something that exists more as a formality between the producer and the playwright than a legally-binding document that applies to their work. Here’s what they say.

1. Playwrights should be open to collaboration, and participate in their work’s speedy irrelevancy by refusing to allow directors to change things. This is an argument I’ve heard repeatedly. In my many years of experience of working with playwrights, I’ve found them to be very open to collaboration. They are, however, much less open to willful contract violations. There’s an enormous difference between contacting a playwright with, “I have an idea . . .” and “Surprise! We violated the contract! If you don’t like it and agree to let us continue, you’re a jerk who refuses to collaborate and hates artistic freedom.”

It’s certainly debatable whether a director’s changes are better than the original play, just as it’s debatable whether those changes would make the play more relevant or just vandalize the narrative. The arbiter of that debate MUST BE the playwright, because the playwright OWNS the work.

2. Copyright hinders creative freedom. Directors are artists, and their creative freedom must be respected. But why would the creative freedom of the director be more important than the creative freedom of the playwright? Why is the playwright seen as a hindrance to YOUR creative process when your creative process involves interpreting THEIR work? And why would you sign a contract you have no intention of honoring?

I’d like to point out that this isn’t a discussion about whether or not we should have copyright law, or what should be changed about it. That’s an entirely different topic. This is a discussion from within existing law. If you don’t like the law, work to change it, but as it stands now, we are all bound by it.

I’m very aggressive when I direct Shakespeare, because I can be. But when I directed Cameron McNary’s Of Dice and Men, I texted him when I wanted to cut a single line. He said no. I pushed for it– and lost. That line stayed in the final production because it’s not my right– legal, ethical, or artistic– to produce work with Cameron’s name on it that I doctored without his approval.

Jonathon Brooks as Jason in Impact's production of "Of Dice and Men."

Jonathon Brooks as Jason in Impact’s production of “Of Dice and Men.”

The prevailing attitude directors and producers who violate contract to doctor work express is that they SHOULD be able to have that right, that they DO have that right as artists, that their doctoring makes the work BETTER, and that playwrights who do not approve are SPOILSPORTS who do not know what is best for their art.

One wonders how these directors would view this issue if, unbeknownst to them, the actors reblocked three scenes and the final moment, added seven costumes, and replaced all the sound cues with the Wilhelm, then continued to perform the show with the director’s name on it. One wonders how these directors would feel if their protestations were met with accusations of being against “artistic freedom” and “collaboration.” One wonders how long it would take these directors to invoke the terms of their contract with that theatre.

3. “The director’s job is interpretation, and this is my interpretation of the work.” The problem with this oft-repeated argument is that it’s only right to a point. The director’s ACTUAL job is to interpret the work within the confines of the given circumstances. If you’re not a director, you’d be amazed at how much of directing is finding artistic solutions to technical problems. Two examples from the Annals of Real Life: If your interpretation of the work includes flying something in, and the theatre has no fly space, that interpretation needs to be adjusted to the confines of the given circumstances within which you’re directing that play. If your interpretation of the play includes passing out shots of real tequila to your audience, and the producer tells you absolutely not for both legal and budgetary reasons, that interpretation needs to be adjusted to the confines of the given circumstances within which you’re directing that play.

Similarly, if your interpretation of Angels in America includes cutting five pages of dialogue and adding a scene from Titanic, and you have not obtained permission from both Tony Kushner and James Cameron, that interpretation needs to be adjusted to the confines of the given circumstances within which you’re directing that play: the terms of your contract and copyright law.

Even mediocre directors CAN and DO successfully work around various aspects of their interpretations hitting the cutting room floor almost every day. They do this willingly because they respect the reality of space contraints, budgetary constraints, and the like. What I don’t understand is why the reality of contractual restraints are so poorly respected so much of the time.

It all boils down to this: Respect the terms of the contracts you sign. Respect the enormous amount of work the playwright put into the play before you ever clapped eyes on it. Stop thinking of playwrights as unwelcome interlopers who are there to vandalize your work. You’re interpreting THEIR work. If your changes to their work violate the terms of your contract, you’re the one who’s doing the vandalizing.

If you don’t want to work with playwrights and you don’t want to honor the terms of the contracts you (or your producers) sign with them, you should not be producing or directing the work of living playwrights. There are plenty of works in the public domain from which to choose.

Jonah McClellan and Akemi Okamura in Impact's Troilus and Cressida. Photographer: Cheshire Isaacs.

Jonah McClellan and Akemi Okamura in Impact’s Troilus and Cressida. Photographer: Cheshire Isaacs.

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Six Things Playwrights Should Stop Doing

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Because what says “HAPPY NEW YEAR” better than a judgmental listicle?

One thing I want to say right at the start is that this is a list borne out of my own personal experience. These are things I personally see early-career playwrights do over and over and over. I also expect that there will be people who disagree with me, or who say, “But [name of play] does that and it’s the BEST PLAY EVER.” Sure. A genius can take a tired trope and use it ingeniously. But these tropes, I’m telling you, are tired.

The second thing I want to say is that your play is not irrevocably in the suck pile if it uses some of these. I know you’ll iron these out in development. Brilliant writers make a lot of mistakes early in their careers, or copy what writers of the past did when these things were new or acceptable, without understanding that times have changed. A few mistakes don’t make a writer– or even that play– worthless. Rewrite and keep pushing forward.

All of that said, here’s my list. Dear Goddess of Theatre, may none of the plays I read in 2014 have these characteristics, as precisely ONE FARTILLION of the plays I read in 2013 did.

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“Please, please tell me now, is there something I should know?”

1. Making a song a central trope. Emerging playwrights love to make a song THEY love into a central trope. The song is deeply meaningful to the characters; the song has a connection to their past and carries some exposition (“Mom always made us sing this song on road trips before the accident”); the song lyrics are quoted out of context; the song is played or sung at a climactic moment. Apart from the obvious– that this trope is overused– there are a few problems with this technique. Often the song that the playwright loves does not fit well within the world of the play. Sometimes the rights are not available for a certain song. But most importantly, early-career playwrights choose a song because it has a certain emotional content for THEM that other people do not necessarily share.

If you use a very well-known standard that has an undeniably certain context within American culture (Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run,” for example, or “God Bless America”), generally that context is understood by your audience, even if it is not shared. Personally, I hate “Born to Run,” but every time a playwright uses it, I understand what they’re trying to say. However, when you use a random song by, say, Neko Case, Leonard Cohen, or Joni Mitchell (all examples taken from real plays) most of the people in your audience will have never heard the song before. I know you don’t believe me (“EVERYONE knows that song!”) but I’m right. Everyone YOU KNOW knows that song, but imagine a theatre audience filled with strangers, many of whom are not from your social class, ethnicity, or generation. Most people do not know MOST SONGS, no matter how popular that song is within your particular social group. I’m not talking about every usage of a song in a play. I’m talking about relying on a song to carry a particular narrative function. Before you include a song in your play, ask yourself: “Can someone who has never heard this song before, or who dislikes it, still understand everything I need the audience to understand?” If the answer is YES, then by all means, include it. If the answer is, “No, but I don’t care about people outside of the subgroup who know and like this song,” then include it. Otherwise, find a clearer way to do what you need to do. And either way, you might want to consider a trope that’s less overused.

2. Spelling out accents. This one is highly controversial when it comes to “ethnic” accents, but it’s annoying whenever it happens. For one thing, I have yet to see a playwright do this accurately. No amount of mangled spelling is going to correctly convey all the complexities of ANY accent. Most importantly, you’re attempting to dictate to the actor how the lines are said. While the problems inherent in a white writer attempting this with an “ethnic” accent are clear, it’s a pain in the ass when any writer does it for any accent. It’s awkward to try to sound lines out through the mangled spelling you chose to reflect the accent, and while you may believe you’re accurately reflecting the accent even within the limitations of what spelling can do, you may not be in the context in which the line is said, or due to the position of a word creating elision, or any number of things about how an accent works in practice. Just write the lines out properly and let your actors handle the accent. (And YES, I know some great writers of the past have done this, but that doesn’t make it a good idea for you today. If these writers were writing today, would they still be spelling out accents? I will bet you a box of doughnuts and my Cherno Alpha action figure the answer is NO.) Just trust that actors and directors are skillful enough to handle the accent on their own without you having to painstakingly spell it out for them.

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3. The Magical Person of Color and/or Drag Queen and/or Gay BFF and/or disabled person. Many writers will use race, sexuality, ability, or gender expression as a metaphor. You’ll often see this referred to as the “Magical Negro”— a black character with special insight or mystical knowledge who runs around helping white main characters with no narrative or objective of his/her own. I’m saying “Magical Person of Color” because writers will also use an Asian or Native American character (ANCIENT MYSTICAL KNOWLEDGE) or a Latino character (SEXUAL AWAKENING AND ALSO MINDBLOWING FOOD). And now we’re seeing the Magical Drag Queen and/or gay BFF as well (MAKEOVER! SASS! COCKTAILS! HELPING STRAIGHT PEOPLE FIND LOVE!). The Magical Drag Queen is more often than not also a person of color, so two-for-one! We’ve seen disability used this way forever. Two examples: Mystical Blind Person (HE CANNOT SEE BUT HE SEES YOUR FUTURE) and Beautiful Person With Disability That Does Not Impact Their Adherence to Beauty Standards (basically just a deaf Manic Pixie Dream Girl). All these tropes are so common that I’ve seen a number of plays engage brilliantly with them, disrupting them or interrogating them.

If you’re writing a play where the main characters are able-bodied, white, and straight, and you want to include a person of color, an LGBT person, a drag queen, or a disabled person, high five! Now your play looks more like the world most of us live in. But think for a moment: If you have a character who is an active part of the narrative with objectives of their own, excellent. If your white main character runs into a Black homeless man who Imparts Words of Wisdom, or has a drag queen neighbor who appears in one scene to give her a makeover and Impart Words of Wisdom, or goes to the blind Asian psychic who magically solves a problem with Words of Wisdom, you have a tired (and problematic) trope on your hands.

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4. Writing a play like you’re writing for film. There are some things film does much, much better than theatre does, and vice versa. I don’t get my knickers in a twist like some do about the difference between “theatrical writing” and “cinematic writing” when it comes to things like realism, or certain kinds of narrative. I don’t mind if you write a play about a family that primarily takes place in their living room and has a linear narrative. A play can be all those things and deeply moving, brilliant, and transformative. I’m talking about technical or structural things that can be done easily in film but present enormous difficulties in the theatre. One thing I see quite often is the use of microscenes of a line or two (or fewer) that shift back and forth from place to place requiring a detailed set change or a massive playing space. Here’s an example inspired by every play I’ve ever read that does this, and before you think I’m exaggerating for comic effect, I assure you that I am not.

Lights up on Josh in his hospital bed, sleeping. The phone rings. He wakes up and struggles with his IV as he attempts to answer it. He is too late– the line is dead. He sinks back on his pillow. Sung, the ancient and wizened former Kung Fu master in the next bed, slowly rises and looks at Josh thoughtfully. Lights out on the hospital as lights up on Katie’s office, a drab but busy downtown cube farm. Katie is sitting in her office cubicle, staring at the phone receiver in her hand as Terrence, sitting in the cubicle next to hers, leans across the aisle between them and hands her a piece of chocolate. Janeen, sitting in the desk behind Katie, slowly appears over the wall of Katie’s cubicle, shaking her head, while through the office window we see a delivery truck arriving. Terrence sees this and jumps up, crosses to Mr. Taylor’s office door, and opens it, through which we see Mr. Taylor in a compromising position on his desk with a young woman whose face we can’t see. Blackout.

And of course this is the only time in the play we see either the hospital room or Katie’s office. The next scene takes place on the bench outside the hospital or in the office break room. I’ve seen examples like these dozens of times, and while there’s a way to do almost anything if the playwright is fine with stylization, more often than not a play with this kind of writing is filmic in many other ways as well.

If you’re requiring on onstage fire that must be set, rage out of control, and then get put out, for example, or a character who “suddenly transforms into a glorious angel of light” onstage, please at least throw in a sentence or two somewhere about how realistic you need this to look. If you’re imagining actual fire, or an actual being of light, you’re imagining a film.

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5. Older characters whose sole purpose is to impede the awesome young characters from whatever the hell it is they want to do because old people JUST DON’T UNDERSTAND. I can get all I need of this trope through Scooby Doo and 80s movies.

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6. Prostitutes, Porn Stars, and Strippers. Sex workers are not a marker for all women everywhere. If you’re writing a play about ACTUAL SEX WORKERS, then carry on, my wayward son. But if you’re writing a play about, oh, a young man trying to find himself, or a middle-aged man who’s vaguely dissatisfied with life, or a man whose wife just doesn’t understand him and constantly asks him to do horrible things like pay attention to her or fold his own laundry, then inserting a Magical Prostitute who swans into his life and shows him The Way to Happiness, or the Broken Flower Stripper who needs the man to save her from herself and show her that college exists, then I am looking at you with crankyface. Are you writing a play with a sex worker in it? Ask yourself: WHY is she a sex worker? Are you writing about sex workers, or do you just want a naked version of the Magical Person of Color? Does she have objectives of her own that aren’t there just for the male protagonist to correct? Does she have a character, or is she just a racktacular vector for Words of Wisdom?

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I could write an entire blog post on this one.

And now . . . to end on a positive note, FOUR THINGS PLAYWRIGHTS DO THAT I LOVE.

1. Send me their own work and recommend other writers to me. I have had excellent luck with writers I know through the theatre community, social media, or other channels who know what we do, understand our aesthetic, and send me their work. But I have had even better luck with writers who send me SOMEONE ELSE’S work. I think this is because playwrights are out there marketing themselves as hard as they can, and will send their current play to a wide variety of theatres in case something sticks, even if the play may not be the best fit for that theatre, because who knows? Maybe they’re looking to branch out in some way. But when a playwright sends me someone else’s play, it’s because they believe that play is a particularly good fit for my company. They read the play and it made them think of my company. This is THE BEST. When I get an email from a playwright saying, “Have you read [title of play]? I think you’d love it” I get The Tingles.

2. Pull no punches. The highest compliment I have for actors is “fearless.” I think there’s an aspect of that in writing plays as well. I received a play last year that was so fearless, so completely full of its unique approach to story and theatricality, just SO INTENSELY WHAT IT WAS, that I had to get up and walk around the room for a bit in excitement before I could finish reading it. Is it a perfect play? Fuck no. What is? But I fell in love with it because it’s 100% what it’s meant to be. It is not “nice.” It is not concerned with soft-pedalling its world view. Its unique voice jumps off the page and sits on your face. Either I will stage this play one day or I will make someone else do it.

3. State in the character list that they are open to diversity of all types. Look, sometimes a play is about race, ethnicity, sexuality, or what have you in a way that demands a certain kind of casting. If you’re staging Frances Cowhig’s [410]GONE (AND YOU SHOULD), you really need Asian actors. But often a play isn’t about race, ethnicity, or sexuality; it’s about friends who help each other escape an abusive situation, or people who work in politics, or a family trying to get over a death. When you put on the character description page something like “Please feel free to cast these roles with diverse actors. I’m open to a mixed-race family, a disabled lead, or actors of size. We don’t live in a world full of skinny, able-bodied white people, so I have no need for my play to be filled with them,” I LOVE YOU. I would have done it anyway, but when you state that openly, I just freaking LOVE YOU.

4. Believe me when I ask for more work. Most of the plays I read, like seriously 99.999%, aren’t right for my company for the current season I’m slotting. However, many of those plays are still excellent, or intriguing, or display a style or a voice we find compelling that might potentially be a good match for us. We don’t ask everyone to send us something else, so when playwrights believe me, and then ACTUALLY SEND ME SOMETHING ELSE, I am excited. We staged a play this season that I received for just that reason. “Please continue to submit to us” is not a polite brush-off. It means we’re keeping an eye on you because we think you’re worth keeping an eye on.

And PS, you magnificent bastards, I’m in the middle of season planning, so right now this minute (like seriously in the next few days) is an excellent time to send me your plays. Our wonderful literary manager can be reached at lynda (at) impacttheatre (dot) com.

Happy New Year!

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Don’t You Want Me, Baby?

This is just here to amuse me.

This is just here to amuse me.

I’ve written before about playwrights and rejection. I think it’s difficult, though, to understand just HOW MUCH rejection we’re talking about here, and how insanely resilient writers have to be.

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Monica Byrne. I stole this picture shamelessly from her blog. I have more official pictures of her, but I just really, really love this one.

Monica Byrne is a writer whose work I believe in. My company is a few days away from opening her fantastic What Every Girl Should Know Between unsolicited submissions and the plays we request, Impact Theatre receives as many as 450 plays a year to fill the 3 slots we have available (the 4th goes to the annual classic and the 5th goes to a local solo performer). Those odds are just nuts, so you know we must really believe in Monica and her work– and we do. But What Every Girl Should Know wasn’t the first play Monica sent us. The first play she sent us was Nightwork. It was a really interesting play that wasn’t right for us. It made it pretty far up the chain before we sent the rejection. I was intrigued and asked her to please continue submitting. She sent us What Every Girl Should Know. 

We’re the first theatre in the San Francisco Bay Area to produce Monica Byrne’s work, and we won’t be the last. My company has introduced dozens of playwrights to the Bay Area early in their careers, including Steve Yockey, Sheila Callaghan, Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, and Enrique Urueta. We’ve done world premiere plays by writers like Lauren Gunderson, Lauren Yee, Prince Gomolvilas, and Peter Sinn Nachtrieb. We know how to pick ’em.

The salient fact here, however, is that WE REJECTED HER FIRST. And when I asked her to please keep sending me her work, SHE DID.

Then she wrote THIS. She calls it her “anti-resume.” It’s a blog post that contains a link to a spreadsheet of all her rejections. It starts in 2007. It is impressive. Apart from the obvious bravery, it shows just how much rejection a writer– even a gifted writer who is on the verge of nationally-recognized success in two fields (take a gander at this)– can go through.

So read Monica’s anti-resume. Take it to heart. And keep submitting.

DON'T STOP BELIEVIN'.

DON’T STOP BELIEVIN’.

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WOMEN PLAYWRIGHTS: I Challenge You

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Arwen Anderson and L. Peter Callender with Marissa Keltie, Julia Brothers and Robert Parsons in Circle Mirror Transformation by Annie Baker, at MTC

Marin Theatre Company, a LORT here in the Bay Area (and let’s give them a round of applause for how much local talent they hire, shall we? YAY) has two prizes they’re giving out for new plays. No submission fees, and the submission process is simple and online.

Here’s the deal: No matter what the thing is– prizes, contests, festivals, open calls– plays by men make up between 65% and 75% of the submissions. I’ve experienced this personally, seen it measured in studies, and had it quoted to me anecdotally by other ADs.

While I’m sure there are some contests out there somewhere achieving 50/50 submissions, the norm is nowhere near parity. If we want 50/50 productions, the first step is to make sure everyone has 50/50 submissions.

Start with MTC.

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Bowman Wright (Lincoln) and Biko Eisen-Martin (Booth) in Topdog/Underdog by Suzan-Lori Parks, at MTC. Photo by DavidAllenStudio.com

I’ve issued my challenge on my facebook. All you need to do is submit to one of the two prizes MTC has going and then comment “DONE” on my facebook note. I want to see 100 women submitting to these contests.

If 100 women comment on my facebook note that they’ve submitted, I’ll do profiles of three playwrights, randomly selected from the list, on this blog. I’m no Adam Szymkowicz, but still.

Here’s the link to the facebook note. LET’S DO THIS.

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More Tips for Playwrights

This awesome image was taken from http://vimeo.com/19440415

This awesome image was taken from http://vimeo.com/19440415

When you’re just starting out as a playwright, a lot about the industry can seem mystifying. Here are some quick dos and don’ts for people out there trying to navigate the wild waters of playwriting.

DON’T send your play to playwrights, artistic directors, literary managers, or dramaturgs asking for feedback unless you’re related to and/or sleeping with them. Maybe not even then. We’re all very busy people, and we get dozens of people a month asking us for feedback on their plays. You’re asking us to do FOR FREE something we do for a living. It takes hours to read a script, evaluate it, and craft useful feedback. Those are hours we must reallocate from our paid work or our personal lives. Then, when we provide that feedback, if it’s not what the playwright wants to hear, all too often they react angrily, ignore our advice, or tell us we’re wrong. It’s almost always a no-win situation for us.

If a theatre, contest, or individual has already stated that feedback will be provided for free, have at it. Otherwise, don’t ask for feedback on your script from someone who isn’t one of the first ten people you’d call to bail you out of county.

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DO invite these people to come to informal readings. Feed them snacks. Serve them beer. Have them read your play aloud, then open a dialogue about it. This can be an incredibly useful tool. There’s no substitute for hearing your work out loud. Feel free to invite all the playwrights, ADs, turgs, and LMs you like. If they show up, they’re agreeing to give you the feedback you seek. LISTEN TO THEM. Take their advice to heart. You don’t need to follow every piece of advice everyone gives you, of course, but don’t reject criticism out of hand. If all you want is praise, give the play to your mother, a call girl (tip well), or your imaginary friend. I’d advise against having a public reading of an early draft if you’re just starting out. There are a million reasons, but the most important is that professionals will give you advice about how to make your play do what YOU WANT it to do. It’s a specific skill. Save the public readings for a more solid draft or until you’ve found your footing as a writer.

DO consider hiring a dramaturg. Professional dramaturgs often specialize in helping playwrights develop new work. Another option is to find a director who understands your vision and will be on board throughout the development process. I understand (oh so intimately) that most people don’t have a lot of extra money, so this may not be an option for you. Perhaps you know a dramaturg who’d be into a barter agreement. I’d trade dramaturgy for massage therapy in a hot second. Now if I could just convince Karin Wertheim to start writing plays…. (If you’re located in the Bay Area, you really need to check her out. Her bodywork is INSANELY good.)

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DON’T make rookie mistakes in your cover letter. Don’t tell me in your cover letter how “hilarious” or “moving” your play is. If it’s a comedy or a drama, it’s fine to say that. But don’t praise or otherwise evaluate your own work. Also, always proof read. I don’t mind when playwrights have the name of another AD or company at the top of the email due to a copy and paste error (it’s fine, really), but I do mind when the email is riddled with spelling and grammatical errors. I don’t think you need to be a Grammar Ninja to be a good playwright, but a cover letter riddled with errors shows a lack of care and attention. The squiggly red line is there for a reason, chaps. Finally, I’m very interested in your play. I am completely uninterested in the letter of recommendation you’ve attached to it from a famous playwright. I have nothing but respect for Theresa Rebeck, but she knows nothing about my theatre or its needs, so her recommendation is useless to me.

DO follow all the submission guidelines. They’re there for a reason.

DON’T expect a personal response. No, it’s not “just polite” for a company to respond with a personal note to a submission. We all get hundreds and hundreds of submissions, even theatres without paid staff. The workload is nuts, so most of us are barely keeping our heads above water. Many have stopped responding to submissions entirely. And please don’t come out with, as I’ve heard some people say, “Then don’t accept unsolicited submissions at all if you can’t respond to them.” There are an increasing number of theatres who have decided to do exactly that.  I don’t have any plans to stop accepting submissions, but I understand why a company would make that decision. I think playwrights would want to encourage those avenues of access to stay open. So don’t always expect a response, don’t imagine that the reason you didn’t get one is because the theatre is impolite, and don’t tell us we should stop accepting submissions if we’re not sending out personal notes to all 412 playwrights who submit each season. I assure you, we’re all doing our best.

This week's submissions

This week’s submissions

Another thing I hear frequently is “You should state in advance whether or not you respond to submissions and how long it takes.” While I agree that companies that don’t respond to submissions should state that in their guidelines, remember that even theatres that do not accept submissions at all get hundreds of them, and playwrights are often sending submissions based on a third-party post. (I’ve sent numerous emails to various playwriting sites attempting to correct errors about our submission process, to no avail.) There’s no reason why a theatre that does not accept submissions should respond to yours, and a theatre may have in their guidelines that they don’t respond to submissions unless they’re interested in producing, and yet that fact never made it onto the third-party website you’re reading. Again, don’t assume the reason a theatre isn’t responding to you is simple twattery.

No theatre can accurately predict how long it will take to respond. Generally speaking, the longer the better. We can turn a rejection around quickly, but when a play is being strongly considered, it takes much longer as it makes its way up the chain.

Here, have some dynamite down your pants

“Here, have some dynamite down your pants” is never a good response to rejection.

DO respond courteously, if at all, to rejection. While most playwrights are awesome, often literary departments and ADs are confronted with angry playwrights who are upset their play was rejected.  I’ve personally received dozens of angry emails from rejected playwrights. Once we had a playwright resubmit a play, telling us that he had rewritten it to include a Black character “since that’s what you people seem to like over there.” I’ve been called an “asshole” more than once. I’ve been told I was an “idiot” who couldn’t recognize good writing. I was told once that I “require objects of condemnation.”

I’ve even received angry emails from playwrights who didn’t like the rejection letter itself. I’ve received emails complaining that the rejection was a form letter. I’ve received emails complaining that the rejection was NOT a form letter. I once received a lengthy email telling me I was “everything wrong” with theatre because our rejection letter had a formal greeting (Dear Mr. Malcolm Reynolds, etc).

I know rejection is hard, but I assure you it’s not personal. Since there’s no such thing as a rejection that every playwright thinks is “best” (they all want different things, vehemently at times), theatres must make a choice that works for them. So take a deep breath, and then call me an idiot who can’t recognize good writing when you’re at the bar with your friends, not in an email to me.

DO tell me anything practical you think I might need to know. Are you open to casting some of the male roles with women, or using different music than the music stated in the script? Are the difficult technical moments able to be done in a low-tech way? How do you envision that being accomplished? If the script calls for an actor to play the accordion, are you open to other instruments as well? Are you open to double casting?

bring it

bring it

DO watch your language. You can drop all the f-bombs on me you can muster. Creative swearing brings a smile to my lips and a song to my heart. However, be very careful about using words that are considered hurtful. I’ve seen in two scripts recently the usage of the word  “retarded” in stage directions: “Staring at him like he’s retarded.” I’ve seen racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia. I’m not referring to characters’ points of view– of course people write all the time about characters with unsavory opinions– but language that reflects the point of view of the playwright. I’m going to trust that your statement that the right theatre could “jew you down” to a lower royalty rate comes from a place of ignorance rather than outright racism. So review your statements carefully.

That’s all for now. You know I’ll have more later, right? I can’t stop myself. I’m pathologically helpful. I know that starting out in theatre as a playwright can be confusing and overwhelming, but hang in there. It won’t take long for it all to seem like home.

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Playwrights of Color

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Lisa Kang and Dennis Yen in Impact Theatre’s production of Ching Chong Chinaman, by Lauren Yee, directed by Desdemona Chiang. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs.

Like most producers, I’m looking for ways to increase diversity at my company. I’m guessing you are, too. So I put together (with the help of a bunch of awesome people, especially the excellent Sam Hurwitt) a list of playwrights of color from my neck of the woods, the San Francisco Bay Area. All of these playwrights have scripts ready and waiting for you to read, love, and produce repeatedly. There are even some musical theatre and opera composers included.

And just for fun, I included at the end a list of solo performers you should know about, too, just in case a funder gave you a fat wad of cash to bring one of these awesome people to your area.

If you have anyone to add, you can email me at bittergertrude@gmail.com and I’ll put their website on the list!

Hector Armienta

Jeannie Barroga

Eugenie Chan

Christopher Chen

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Christopher Chen

Paul S. Flores

Brian Freeman

Philip Kan Gotanda (Of course you already know his work!)

Imani Harrington

Chinaka Hodge

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Chinaka Hodge

Denmo Ibrahim

Robert Henry Johnson

Marc Bamuthi Joseph

Min Kahng

Cherylene Lee

JC Lee

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JC Lee

Charles Lewis III

Jeffrey Lo

Marisela Treviño Orta

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Marisela Treviño Orta

A. Rey Pamatmat

Geetha Reddy

Andrew Saito

Sean San Jose

Kirk Shimano

Octavio Solis

Michael Gene Sullivan

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Michael Gene Sullivan

Aimee Suzara

Ian Walker

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Ian Walker

Lauren Yee

Torange Yeghiazarian

Ignacio Zulueta

SOLO PERFORMERS:

Brian Copeland

Marga Gomez

Rhodessa Jones

Thao P. Nguyen

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Thao P. Nguyen

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Why Your Play Was Rejected

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I recently received a submission of a play we rejected not two months ago. The playwright attached it to an email directly to me (bypassing my new Literary Manager, the wonderful Lynda Bachman), which is fine. I generally just forward those to my LM unless I have a personal connection to the playwright or to the person sending me the play. But this email was different, and I hesitated long enough to read it, and, unfortunately, respond.

The playwright decided she was going to resubmit her play so soon after its initial rejection because she noticed that I had “replaced” my literary manager (our outgoing LM, Steve Epperson, left to pursue other career options, not because he was “replaced”), and believed that I would better understand her play because I was a woman.

You would imagine in that case the play would be about something specific to the female experience, but it was about writers and mythological characters. My vagina and I read the play together and were able to ascertain almost immediately why Steve had rejected the play: It had technical requirements that were outside of the physical capabilities of our idiosyncratic space and, more to the point, it was poorly written. The playwright showed some promise, to be sure, but the play had all the earmarks of a young writer’s early work– undifferentiated character voices, derivative narrative, clunky dialogue, privileging the “Big Idea” over the stories of the characters.

I gave her some feedback that was honest without being assholic (so I believed, anyway) and encouraged her to work on her craft and continue submitting to us. And of course she responded angrily, which is exactly why we don’t give feedback in rejection letters, even if we could. We receive between 300-400 unsolicited submissions a year, and we just don’t have the womanpower/manpower/level ten cleric power to give feedback to all of them. Then there’s the very real issue that not all feedback is created equal, and feedback you get from some random theatre company that has never met you and has no idea what your vision is or what you’re trying to accomplish with the play will be almost always useless (unless what you’re after is why that one specific company rejected your play).

And I really do understand the anger. It’s hard to be rejected, and playwrights are rejected over and over and over. I can understand why a playwright, in order to stay sane, would look for reasons like, “They rejected me because the LM doesn’t understand my work” in order to avoid having to think “Perhaps my play is not ready to be professionally competitive.”

Part of the problem is that theatres almost NEVER speak honestly to playwrights about why their work is rejected. So I’m going to, right now. If you’ve ever received a rejection letter, the reason is one or more of the following, I guarantee it.

I-Am-Awesome-Close-Up-e13461473446211. Your play is actually awesome, but not right for the company. We have very real limitations that we cannot avoid, such as tech limitations, space limitations, or financial limitations. Some of us have resident actors, and we need shows with solid roles for them. Perhaps your play is outside the theatre’s aesthetic, or outside the theatre’s mission. Maybe your play doesn’t fit well with the plays already selected for the season– perhaps it’s too close in tone or feel to the play already locked into the slot before or after the one for which it’s being considered. Perhaps another theatre company in our area just did a play almost exactly like yours. You would be AMAZED at how many awesome plays get passed over for practical reasons like these. It happens to me multiple times, every single season.

WHAT YOU CAN DO: Hang in there. Believe me, when we find a gem that we can’t stage, we’re whoring it out to other companies trying to get someone else to stage it. I’ve done that with tons of scripts. I just sent four out today, in fact, plus two last week. You can also research theatre companies online to see what kinds of plays they do, what their missions are, and what their aesthetics are in order to better target your submissions. If your script is truly awesome, it will eventually find a home. Be patient, especially if it’s very demanding to produce. This can include things like a big cast (very expensive) or difficult tech (requiring two levels springs to mind as a common problem that can be difficult both physically and financially) or challenging casting (such as, an actor of a very specific type who can sing while playing a portable instrument, or actors with specific physical skills, such as contortionists). But even a very demanding play will eventually find a home if it’s truly awesome– look at Kristoffer Diaz’s The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity, or Aaron Loeb’s Abraham Lincoln’s Big Gay Dance Party. So hang in there.

2. Your play is not well-written. The most common problems are all the ones I state above (undifferentiated character voices, derivative narrative, clunky dialogue, privileging the “Big Idea” over the stories of the characters), plus things like lack of continuity, or “therapy plays” (where the playwrights are less interested in telling a story and more interested in working out issues with their mother/ex-wife/abuser/etc). Playwriting is fucking HARD, and even good playwrights write bad plays from time to time. Artistic Directors and Literary Managers will never, ever tell you your play is just not very good because we’re afraid of hurting your feelings and destroying a relationship. Playwrights who start out sending bad plays often end up, after getting some training and/or experience, writing GOOD plays, and we want access to those good plays.

Look on the bright side! At  least you didn't write THIS.

Look on the bright side! At least you didn’t write THIS.

WHAT YOU CAN DO: Work on your craft. Read this book. Read every play and see every play you can. See more theatre than film or TV. Yeah, a lot of film and TV are high-quality, and you can get good ideas from filmmakers and television writers, but theatre is a different animal with different demands. Learn how to feed it.

3. The odds are insane. My tiny company, as I said above, gets 300-400 unsolicited submissions a year to fill 3 slots. I recently spoke to someone who works at a large theatre that focuses on Shakespeare and does not accept unsolicited submissions, and she said they still receive about 200 annually. Someone else in that conversation said her theatre gets 900 a year. Your play is one of hundreds and hundreds out there. There are easily 100 plays for every production slot in the country, if not more. Let that sink in: Every single open slot in every single theatre in the country easily– EASILY– has 100 plays competing for it. In order to beat the odds, your play not only has to be VERY good, but it also has to be the right play at the right time for the right company.

NEVER TELL ME THE ODDS.

NEVER TELL ME THE ODDS.

Luckily for you, you live in the WORLD OF TOMORROW, where submitting a play is as easy as hitting “send.” Take a moment to think of the poor playwrights of yesteryear (15 years ago) who were copying out scripts at work when their supervisors were in a meeting and having to mail them out to theatres at $2.50 a pop if they didn’t work in a company with a mailroom (I remember getting submissions from Lehman Brothers regularly). The flip side of the newfound ease of the submission process is that we’re all getting hundreds and hundreds of scripts, all the time. Even if your script is fantastic, is it better for THAT THEATRE at THAT MOMENT than the other 412 the theatre will get that year? Maybe the AD has done three comedy-heavy seasons and is considering moving to a more drama-heavy season the next year. Maybe the theatre is hoping to work with a specific director and looking for scripts that will appeal to her. Or perhaps this director is already involved in the selection process. Maybe this director had a recent personal experience that increases her interest in a certain topic, and although your play is just as awesome, the play submitted right after yours is about exactly that topic. The point is: You don’t know. The variables are endless, and the competition is just insane. When I’m in season planning season (ha) in Dec/Jan, I’ll sit at my computer and open file after file after file, reading plays for hours every single day. I don’t even glance at the name of the playwright or the title of the work unless I’m already interested in moving it up to my contenders file, or if I’m sending an email to my LM indicating which ones to reject. It’s truly crazy how many plays we get, and we’re the smallest dog on the block.

WHAT YOU CAN DO: Again, hang in there. Target your submissions. Develop relationships with ADs and LMs. I have personal connections with a few playwrights who know they never have to go through our formal submission process, but can send plays directly to me, AND I WILL READ THEM. They go directly into my personal season planning folder. I know these playwrights are creating quality work and I want to get my hands on it. There are playwrights whose work I have rejected numerous times because it wasn’t the right play for us at the right time who know they can submit directly to me, because despite the fact that I haven’t produced them, I believe in their work and think they’re superstars. If I can’t produce the script for one reason or another, often I’ll send it to someone who I think might be interested. I recently fell in love with a playwright who has a script I can’t produce, and I’ve been sending her play all over the place. ADs and LMs are your CHAMPIONS, not your enemy.

4. Content. This one is rare, but it does happen. We reject plays with misogynistic, anti-Semitic, racist, or homophobic content. We rejected the play that was made up of scene after scene of child pornography.

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I repeat: SCENE AFTER SCENE OF CHILD PORNOGRAPHY. ::shudder::

What we’d never do is reject a play because its content is too “radical” or too “challenging of the status quo” or what have you. We didn’t reject your play because we “weren’t ready” to have our “minds blown” or because we’re trying to “silence” your “anti-patriarchal dissent.” We produce in Berkeley, you know? Nothing is “too radical.” That said, I can imagine a theatre in American Fork, Utah rejecting a play that espouses the kind of liberal values Berkeley takes as a matter of course. So who knows? I can’t speak for the theatres in Beaver County, Oklahoma. Would I reject a play that espouses conservative values? I’ve actually never received a play that was, for example, anti-marriage equality, and of course I wouldn’t stage it if I did, so I suppose the answer is a provisional yes. Artists on the whole are a liberal-leaning bunch, so I don’t get plays about why we should fund a tax cut for the wealthy by eliminating food assistance for poor children, but if I did, it’s likely we wouldn’t stage it. So no need to send it to me, David Mamet. But yes, playwright in Utah who recently contacted me with a concern that his play might be too controversial, I do want to read your play about a transgendered person. I want to read it so hard! Theatre is like 99.99% cisgendered, so anything that can address that lack of visibility automatically interests me. I can easily see, though, how that view might not be shared by an AD in, say, Kansas.

WHAT YOU CAN DO: If you’re writing plays with misogyny, anti-Semitism, racism, homophobia, or child pornography, stop writing plays. For the rest of you, target your submissions accordingly. Online research is your friend. Check out a theatre’s production history. Follow the AD or LM on twitter. There are lots of ways to ascertain which companies might be a good fit for your work.

Again, I want you to remember that there are over 100 plays for every production slot in the country. I have to pass on plays I adore every single season. I have 3 slots for new plays, and we get between 300-400 unsolicited submissions, in addition to the ones I headhunt. The unfortunate truth is that the odds are overwhelmingly against you.

HOWEVER. We are on your side. I’ve dedicated my life to championing new work, and there are hundreds just like me out there. WE BELIEVE IN YOU. That’s why we chose this field. You don’t acquire wealth or power producing nonprofit theatre.  Far from it. Even the highest-paid LORT ADs still make a fraction of what they’d make in a similar corporate job. (My brother laughed out loud when I told him with awe how much the head of a local LORT makes. Having spent my entire career in theatre and academia, I had no idea these salaries were so small compared to the corporate world.) We didn’t start these companies because we thought we’d become wealthy and powerful. We started these companies FOR YOU. If I could stage 20 plays a year, I would. I believe in you and your work. I wake up in the morning and answer emails and hire directors and schedule auditions because your work deserves to be seen.

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Remember that we’re on your side. Remember that a rejection is not always a comment on the quality of your play, and even while you’re reading that rejection, I may very well be sending your play to another AD. Remember that there are so many of you out there that 99 plays must be rejected for every 1 that gets accepted. And always, always remember that we’re here because we love you and think you’re superstars.

So hang in there. Try not to let the rejections get you down. Work on your craft. Create relationships with ADs and LMs, a simple thing to do now that you can facebook friend us or follow us on twitter. (I found an amazing play we’re producing next season through a friendship I developed with a playwright on twitter.) Target your submissions. And KEEP AT IT. We need you, OK?

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Hey, Screenwriters and Playwrights: Create Better Characters

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I’ve been teaching at a film school for over five years now, and working with filmmakers has been an eye-opener. I’ve learned a lot, and I hope I’ve helped some filmmakers along the way.

One thing I think screenwriters and playwrights share is the need to create compelling, honest characters, and yet it’s one of the most common areas in which I see scripts fall flat. This can be a real struggle for early career writers.

So: Are your characters boring? Oh, don’t give me that look. You know what I mean. Bland, flavorless characters; characters whose predictability could be spotted by a nine-year-old; characters that are carbon copies of archetypal characters of the past.  They are all too common.

How are memorable, believable, intriguing characters made? While there’s no one right way, I can give you some pointers to help you, early career playwright or screenwriter, find your own process.

1. Imagine your characters as personalities, not as a collection of visuals.

This one is a particular issue for filmmakers. Filmmakers tend to be visual people, and I often see scripts that approach a character from the outside, and stop there. The writer knows what she wants the scene to look like, but hasn’t thought any more deeply about it than that. When you think about your characters, think in more detail about personality traits. Who is this character? Why does he do what he does? What does he want? Which leads me to:

2. Think of your characters as real people with needs and desires.

I often see characters that are treated as nothing but events in the life of the main character. Imagine your characters as real people with goals, hopes, dreams, fears. What does this person want? What does she want from the other character(s) in the scene? What is her opinion about the other character(s) in the scene, what’s happening around them, what might happen, etc? I see this particular “event-in-the-life” type of sloppy writing shine out in its fullest glory when people write women and people of color.

3. Write better women and people of color.

The amount of stereotypical, flat, and unrealistic women and people of color in film and theatre could, if turned into gold, buy every man, woman, and child who ever lived a copy of the latest version of Final Draft. It’s depressing. Even more depressing is the fact that this isn’t the sole province of white male writers. When writing supporting characters that are women or people of color, treat these characters as real people with stories of their own—feelings, opinions, needs, desires—and not just an event in the life of the main character. And here’s a thought: consider writing more pieces with a woman or a person of color AS the main character. I see much more diversity in main characters in theatre than in film, but we could use much more in both. (More stories from more diverse perspectives, please, with extra awesome.) BTW: One more hooker/call girl character and I will scream. Despite what you see in film, 57% of all women between the ages of 18 and 30 are not hookers. Crazy, right? I KNOW. Additionally, I could easily write a 1000-word blog post just about stereotypical writing for people of color. Be better.

4. People are never generic, always specific.

So stop creating generic characters. Stop throwing generic characters into scenes just to advance the narrative and start thinking of characters as essential parts of the equation of storytelling. I promise you that you can, with a little more thought, advance your narrative just as well—actually, better—with an interesting bartender as easily as a generic “bartender.” What’s more, an interesting, complex character can take your narrative in unexpected directions. Allow your characters to be specific people and see where that takes you.

5. The stronger your antagonist, the stronger your protagonist.

This one is more germane to screenwriting than playwriting, but this basic piece of advice should apply to all characters you create, whether they fall into the protagonist/antagonist structure or not. Make sure your antagonist isn’t a total screaming douchebag from the get go. It cheapens your protagonist’s eventual victory (or defeat, if that’s where you’re going). Make your antagonist a worthy opponent and the end will be much more satisfying. At the risk of sounding like a pretentious asshole (SPOILER ALERT: too late) take a tip from Shakespeare—all of his villains have some redeeming qualities, and all of his heroes have some flaws. People are complex, and if you want your characters to be believable, they must reflect that. An antagonist who has a point and makes some sense in his opposition to the protagonist will provide a much more satisfying conclusion.

6. Show, don’t tell.

Yes, I know this is the 100th time you’ve heard this, but it’s really true. Your character doesn’t need to offload sixteen lines of exposition in the first scene. Don’t be afraid of a little ambiguity. Allow the actors some room to create believable characters with your text. Real people are sometimes indirect, are mistaken, lie. People seldom come right out and say precisely what they’re thinking. Show us the character, the relationships, the emotional journey. Don’t feel the need to load it all into the lines.

7. Pay attention to “voice.”

Characters who all sound the same are annoyingly common in scripts. Create specific character voices. Observe the people around you—you’ll encounter interesting character voices every day. Individuals have specific vocabularies, speech patterns, and ways of framing and expressing opinions. Build this in tandem with your characters’ personality traits, as they will inform each other.

My last, and most important word of advice: Follow your heart. Tell the story you need to tell in the way you need to tell it. Only you can tell your stories, so honor those stories by crafting the best scripts you can.

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Playwrights: Not Actually Slaves

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This is a playwright. Playwrights are people. This particular playwright is the awesome Lauren Yee.

Why are so many people surprised to discover that you ALWAYS have to secure the rights to perform a play that’s not in the public domain, whether you’re charging admission or not? Do they think “published” means “public domain”? Do they just think they won’t get caught? Do they think schools, churches, and cafes are magically exempt? I don’t get it.

If your school, church, or theatre company needed a pickup truck (don’t we all), would you just take one you liked off the street? So why do you feel entitled to do that with someone’s play?

I don’t want to argue about copyright law. I really don’t.

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So for the purposes of this post, I’m going to limit this to living playwrights.

Living playwrights are people who work hard at a job makin’ stuff. And the stuff they make are PLAYS. It’s hard, thankless, underpaid work. The number of people who actually make a living on nothing but their rights ‘n’ royalties is something like, oh, I don’t know, let’s sayyyyyyyy . . .  12. The rest are teaching, writing for TV and film, processing purchase orders, giving handies in the alley, waiting tables, and all manner of things that aren’t writing plays.

Do you like plays? I do. You do, right? OK, do you like GOOD plays? Show of hands? EXCELLENT. So imagine this: If we PAY playwrights to do the job of writing plays, more of them could quit that job at the Cheesecake Factory and just WRITE. I’m sure you can imagine how difficult it is to create quality writing after a day of being yelled at by people who think service personnel are subhuman servebots who both DESERVE and WELCOME the wrath of a frustrated middle manager failing spectacularly to impress his blind date.

It’s hard enough for playwrights to support themselves with their writing without people stealing their work. While I’m not an idiot (despite what you may have heard) who believes that closing that loophole would result in all playwrights suddenly getting a living wage, a tiara, and a case of Newcastle, making sure they’re paid for their work is a step closer to that ideal.

Let’s review:

1. Yes, it is the law (no matter what you THINK of the law) that you cannot use someone else’s intellectual property without their consent, and any play by a living playwright is that playwright’s intellectual property. It belongs to that playwright, just like her bed, her toothbrush, or her Magic cards. You are not entitled to use her property simply because you can get to it without her seeing you.

2. Playwrights DESERVE to be compensated for their work. Slavery is not actually OK. If a playwright allows you to use her work free of charge, that is a GIFT to you. If you perform her work without paying for it and without her consent, that is theft. You are not ENTITLED to her labor. She is not your slave.

3. It doesn’t matter who you are, where you perform, or what you charge. It matters not if you are the Endor Community Theatre or Patti Lupone Elementary or Our Lady of the Sacred Sound Design Church and ADR Studio. It doesn’t matter if you’re not charging for admission. It doesn’t matter if you’re performing in a cafe, or a park, or your mom’s driveway. HOW YOU PRODUCE THAT WORK doesn’t change the fact that the work is not YOURS to use without consent.

So get the rights, OK? OK.

UPDATE: Playwright Don Zolidis, who knows much more about this than I do, says his estimation is that about 50 playwrights are currently making a living from their plays alone. So more than 12, but not nearly enough.

Also: You can learn more about Lauren Yee here.

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