Tuesday, April 17, 2012

How To Treat A Playwright In Chicago (Randall Colburn)

                                                     Even August Wilson rewrote his boring plays

As a playwright, I work on a lot of new plays. Mainly my own, since the plays I write are usually new. I’m not the kind of playwright who goes to rehearsals constantly. It’s important to let the director, designers, and actors do their thing without some scarf-ensconced asshole hanging around, smoking his pipe, and sighing resignedly when you mess up a line. When I am there, though, it’s easy to feel like an alien, especially in storefront theater, where many actors and directors haven’t had the chance to work closely with a playwright and the limited resources have the potential to hinder the creative process through sheer practicalities.

As a means of introduction to fringe-dwellers interested in working on a new play with a playwright in the room, I’ve compiled this handy guide. I hope it helps.

(Addendum: Aside from my own experience in the storefront community, I haven’t done, like, research or anything, and I do not presume to speak for other writers. When I say playwright, I mean me, though I don’t feel I’m too off-center here.)

1          We’re going to rewrite.

Though it may seem like a load off your shoulders at first, if you’re working on a new play where the playwright is present in the rehearsal room and is not rewriting, or not at least fine-tuning, you’re probably fucked.

On the regular, though, it’s going to happen. So don’t try to stop us. It doesn’t matter how much work we’ve done on the play before rehearsals. When rehearsals start, and actors start saying our words and stumbling over our words and walking around with our words coming out of their mouths, things are going to start changing. It isn’t because we don’t like you, or don’t feel like you’re doing a good job, it’s because making a play is like building a spice rack: you don’t know how crooked the shelves are until you try and put a bunch of spice jars on them. Give us the space to straighten those shelves so you guys don’t fall all over yourselves and spill spice everywhere. Spice. Metaphor. Yay.

Now, the playwright may tell you beforehand: “Ya know, I’m feeling really good about it. I doubt I’ll do that much, really.”

That’s a lie. I say that shit all the time, and I’m always wrong. My play HESPERIA had already had a well-recieved production at Right Brain Project before it opened at Writers’ Theatre, and I still rewrote the whole damn thing.

So never trust a word the playwright says when it comes to them being finished. They’re not. They never will be. And since that’s the case…

2          Give us a deadline.

And be vigilant about it, dammit. Make it a week or two weeks before tech. That’s usually good.

Some people use the word “cement.”

“We should cement the script by that point.”

All that should mean is no more big changes. No new scenes, no new characters, no new tech. Fine-tuning never stops. Stop worrying about your actors. If your actors are professionals, they can handle it. So, actors, on that note…

3           Embrace the fact that you’ll be memorizing, unmemorizing, and rememorizing things constantly.

We’re probably going to cut all your favorite lines, add ones you don’t like, cut those, add others, and end up with some amalgamation of it all. Embrace it. You’re part of a living, gestating piece of art. That’s exciting, even when it isn’t, and it’s a damn good skill set to have.  Along those same lines, keep a binder, dammit. And replace old pages with new ones. Don’t put the new ones in that pocket in the front. You’ll forget. You always forget. Which leads me to my next point:

4          Get access to a free printer.

Working on rewrites during HESPERIA rehearsals at Writers’ Theatre was a revelation for me. Why? Two reasons:

a        Bobby Kennedy
b       Writers’ Theatre has their own printer

See, Bobby Kennedy is their literary associate, and a printer prints stuff. So Bobby did the printing, which he was happy to do since that’s part of his full-time job. And their printer printed stuff really quickly because it’s a big printer. They even printed each set of rewrites in a different color, so we could keep track! The best part of it all: I didn’t have to do it, pay for it, or hide it from my bosses at Groupon.

But that’s rare in the storefront scene. I’ve done about 10 shows on the fringe where I didn’t have direct access to Bobby Kennedy and his magical, multicolored printer. We print from our piddly desk printers, or covertly do it at work, or go to Screenz and pay stupid amounts of money.

And all of that is fine. Just have a plan in place. You’re going to have to print a lot of pages, get them organized, and hand them out to actors. Speaking of actors, make your damn actors do it themselves. We’re all in this together.  Have a printing plan. Or make it part of the budget. If it’s a new play, it’s necessary. Believe me.

Oh, and don’t waste copies on the playwright. We always have our laptops. Unless we don’t. I always do. Whatever. As for us playwrights…

5         Ask, don’t tell.

Talking to us can be hard. We know. We know that you know that we put our blood and guts into this play, and we want you to know that we know that it’s hard for you to bring concerns to us, as you don’t want to offend us, or make us feel unloved. But we DO want you to bring concerns to us, because clearly we respect you and your opinion enough to be working with you. BUT, we are also fragile, sensitive creatures who put our blood and guts into this play, and if you tell us our play isn’t perfect we’ll probably go home and cry a lot. To offset this, do us this favor:

Don’t tell us what’s wrong with our play.

Please, don’t say:

“I don’t think my character would do this.”
“I think the ending is contrived.”
“I think you suck.”

Instead, ask us questions.

But please, don’t ask questions like:

“What the hell does this mean?”
“Why do you hate women?”
“Who do you think you are?”

Ask us what we were thinking when we wrote a certain scene. Or why we feel this monologue is important. Or why we chose to dedicate ourselves to writing instead of something more wholesome, like, say, baseball.

Make us explain ourselves. If we don’t have an answer, we’ll probably get where you’re coming from, because you’ve so cleverly let us discover your own concern on our own. Any tension or discomfort has been evaded, because the prickly playwright figured it out his or herself. Speaking of preserving the relationship between director and playwright, and preserving that relationship is important…

6. Have a game plan.

Playwrights can be hella distracting, especially if you give them free reign. I don’t shut the fuck up. It’s awful. In college, when my first play was produced I mouthed along with the words during rehearsal. I was such a little asshole. Combat this by laying the ground rules. Here’s ones I would recommend:

* The playwright only speaks in rehearsal if asked a direct question.
* The playwright filters all of his or her thoughts through a director or dramaturg.
* The playwright sends all rewrites to the director or dramaturg before disseminating to the cast.
* The director keeps the playwright in the loop with any major updates.
* Nobody bangs each other until the show’s open. 

-Randall Colburn

Catch Randall's play "The Improv Play"


  1. The "ask don't tell" idea is like an introduction to dramaturgy. Audience feedback after staged readings could benefit from this as well. That's why they work best when led by a dramaturg or playwright. Feedback that tells the playwright what to write or how to structure are ignored or stolen, but have little to do with the story as told. Better to have questions like "Why does the character do this illogical thing?" which prompt a playwright to make decisions: does the audience need to know the reason or need to be told the character might be illogical? Is this important or distracting to not answer this question? What script alterations provide too much audience handholding? Is this something that will be shown visually in the staging?

    High five, Randall.

  2. Yep. I agree with pretty much all of the above. Although I am that scarf-ensconsed asshole who goes to all the rehearsals.

  3. Some fine reminders. Although I confess that I was a bit floored last night at a rehearsal when the playwright asked if I had an extra copy of the script for him. I've... never had that happen.