Saturday, December 14, 2013

The play's the thing

When I first started writing plays a few years ago, I was immediately impressed by how much easier it seemed than any of the other types of writing I had done. Partly, I thought, it was due to the fact that the director and actors would sort out all the minutia. I, therefore, would not have to write about it. I also began to think of play-writing as a collaborative process - so much would get changed during the early rehearsals, when I realized that certain lines were unspeakable, or important aspects were missing. Only recently, did I come to understand how the creative process of writing a play, for me at least, differs from writing fiction.

It came to me when Marcia Nowik, who was directing two plays for this year's 10-Minute Play festival, asked if I minded her making a suggestion about the staging of my play "Coots." Of course I didn't mind - Marcia has a lifetime of experience in the theater, whereas I had acted in one play and written a half-dozen one-acts. What I said to her was, I would be glad to have her suggestion, as long as it didn't involve moving my writer character from his isolated position on the stage.

"That is my vision for the play," I said.

Once I had said that, I started to wonder what I meant. Here's a shot at it:

When I started to think abut that play, I began by picturing a playwright in the corner of an empty stage, struggling with the inspiration for his next play. You could see the glow of his computer screen and hear him calling to his muse, "Harry... Harry... Harry..." Soon the lights would come up and his characters would arrive on stage and start playing around in his head. They would look at him and talk to him. He would talk back, but never, ever look at them, because they were only in his head. In the end, they would realize that they only existed in his mind. And he would begin to question his own existence. That was my vision for the play.

This play and most of my others, seemed to have arrived as a complete package. I often envisioned the ending, before I had fully mapped out the middle. I knew right from the start who I wanted on stage when the play ended.

In "Bench to Nowhere," for example, I envisioned a bench in front of a market (Tom's... er Bill's...) populated by a cast of characters who would come and go as they interacted with the main character, Dusty. That's how it would start. I also knew from the very beginning, that I wanted all of them on the bench at the end of the play, so that when the bus left without Dusty, they would all be there to share the pain. In a way, that dictated the entire course of the middle of the play. This kind of thinking has pretty much held true for all of my plays.

Writing fiction, for me, is often like going on a trip - you hear this from fiction writers a lot. I get in the car and start driving without knowing where I'm going to end up. Often, writers will tell you, they're driving at night and their headlights don't shine very far down the road. It's an adventurous and fun way to create, and sometimes the results are surprising, and hopefully bring a sense of full-circle kind of satisfaction.

But, driving in the dark is very different from the process of envisioning the stage at the beginning of the play and then again at the end. The closest I have ever heard of a fiction writer coming to this is John Irving, who says he starts every one of his novels by writing the last line first and then working toward it. He claims to have never changed one of those last lines. Maybe that's what I'm doing when I start a play and I just don't know it.

Now that I have more clearly defined the process of play-writing for myself, maybe I can put it down in a few lines.
  • Start by sitting in the audience. 
  • What do you see on stage as the play begins? 
  • What do you see at the end?
  • Now look to your right and then to your left - who do you see?
  • What will it take in the middle of this play to bring you and them a sense of fulfillment?
  • Now, recite the following: Harry... Harry... Harry... 
The Fourth Annual Yellow Springs 10-Minute Play festival will be held on October  24 & 25, 2014. The deadline for script submissions is September 1, 2014. Send scripts via email attachment to

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