Nicole Renee Gilman, IMI Program
Christopher Durang/Marsha Norman Chapter
Sometimes I am asked to talk about writing plays to groups of people who don’t know anything about writing plays, people who’ve spent their lives writing novels, or buying stocks, or building houses. But sometimes we all need to hear the basics again. So here are my simplest thoughts about writing for the theatre.
One of the oldest ideas about writing for the theatre is the notion that everybody has at least one play in them. And there does seem to be evidence for this. All the time people come up to me and say, Marsha, I have this great idea for a play. What they hope, of course, is that I will write their idea for them, and make it as brilliant as they would if they only had the time to sit down and get the thing on paper. But alas, I tell them. The only person who can write your play is you. But what I can do is to hit the highlights: what a play is, what a play has to do, and what are the mistakes you don’t have to make.
I think my favorite thing about teaching is being around younger writers in their twenties and early thirties who I otherwise probably wouldn’t meet. This surprised me because one of my fears when I first was asked to teach at Julliard (Michael Kahn had asked Marsha Norman first and then Marsha thought to ask me with his agreement) was that it would somehow interfere with my work, either by the time it took or by being around a struggling playwright. I was afraid that it would sap me in some way.
When Marsha called me, I said I really wasn’t thinking about teaching Then she said that it was team teaching and so I said, with some reluctance, “ok.” A week later I got cold feet and I also got to thinking, “Gee what if I don’t like the students or what if I don’t have anything to say.” So I called her back and I said, “You know, I just don’t think that I want to do it. What if I say mean things?” And she said, “Well, why don’t you just do it for six months and if you hate it you can quit.” That was a good thing to say to me because I said okay.
To my total surprise, I found that I really, really enjoyed the teaching. And I was pleasantly surprised to find that, in most regards, being around the students has energized me more than I expected. It’s partially the fact that people who are in their twenties can be invariably more optimistic and energetic. I can feel a little jaded, a little dark, about how the business works. Being around their enthusiasm felt exciting to me. When they would be excited about writing a play, I would find I’d sometimes just go home and it would make me want to write a play.
As a matter of fact, two things have occurred with our teaching. Marsha and I never intended to bring our own work in. Among other things, we figured the students would have enough on their own. But we have very small classes; our first year was only four students, which I’m sure sounds crazy—two teachers, four students. Now we’re up to eight with the two of us, which is still a pretty small, select way to teach. But we have found that, from time to time, students won’t have something to bring in. And both Marsha and I have gotten into the habit of bringing in something of ours that we’re working on. I must say, the first time we did it felt very vulnerable because you’re the teacher… Blah blah blah. And then we’re sort of at the same level as the students. But the atmosphere in the classes is usually pretty supportive and definitely not harsh for harshness’ sake. And plus, just like the students, we learn things about our work.
In any case, Marsha and I actually brought in our own stuff and I could tell that the students feel complimented that we did. They found it very interesting to see what some of our struggles include. Occasionally what we brought in has been something for television or the movies. Then they get to hear that this is a re-write and we’re dealing with notes from this or that executive. Most of our focus is on playwriting. Nonetheless I think it’s a learning experience.
The other thing that occurred is that one of our students came up with the idea that we should all write ten-minute plays that we would try to put on at Julliard with Julliard actors. I think it was our second year of teaching and I think we had seven students that year and Marsha and I made nine. We looked for some theme for all nine to write. One of the students came up with the idea of the nine lives of a cat. So we wrote these things called cat plays. The short version of all of that is that I’ve mostly found myself energized being around playwriting students.
For starters, on the simplest possible level a play is a piece of machinery. Like a ski lift. Like an automobile. Like an airplane. All of which may be beautiful in themselves, but which have a single justifying purpose and that is to take you somewhere. In the case of a play, it must take you from where you are when you enter the theater, to where you are when you leave. A play that doesn’t take you someplace, doesn’t work. Instinctively, you know this. It doesn’t move you. You walk out and you say, “It didn’t go anywhere,” and you call up your friends and you tell them you hated it and they stay away and the show closes. Finally, the show moves, but it isn’t to that great destination the playwright was hoping for.
As simple as this rule is, I cannot state it strongly enough. You can have the most fantastic Mercedes coupe in your driveway, and the finish can be flawless, and the seats can really be comfortable, and you can even have Harrison Ford sitting in the back seat for God’s sake, waiting to talk to you. But if the car won’t run, it’s going to be a really long afternoon. Nobody wants to come over to your house to sit in the car. Not for two hours they don’t. Even if you’ve got both Harrison Ford and Tommie Lee Jones in the back seat. Sometimes actors think they can make a play move in spite of itself. But they can’t, and eventually, even though they believe in you and your talent, they get out of the car and leave you for some other vehicle, and without actors, you are really truly stuck.
A play has to move. It has to go where it says it’s going. Like a flight to Chicago. If you buy a ticket for Chicago, when the plane lands, you better damn well be in Chicago, or you’re going to have some mighty angry people on your hands. You’re going to have—as Lucy would say—some explaining to do. But more of that later.
Put in still another mechanical way, a play is like a ski lift. What you want from a ski lift is to get in, ride to the top of the mountain, get out, look at the view, say Wow, and go home. What you don’t want, in a ski lift or a play, is to stop half way up the mountain and just hang there. Nor do you want somebody to pull the shades, come on the loud speaker and lecture you about the politics of Kansas, or to tell you about their Aunt June, to whom nothing really happened, or to show you pictures of their very pleasant children. Finally, and worst of all, you don’t want to ride a ski lift where there is no mountain. But it isn’t enough to be told there is a mountain out there. No. If you have paid your money, you want to see the mountain for yourself. You want the ride. You want to go someplace you’ve never been and feel how things are there. And the playwright owes that to you. Now obviously, no one sits down to write the great bumpy ride to nowhere, but that is what way too many plays feel like.
So. What is the mountain? What is a good subject for a play? This is the easy part, actually. Or should be. What are the mountains in our lives? They’re the things we want but we can’t have. I want to avenge my father’s death. I want to go to Moscow. I want my husband not to call me his little bird. I want to marry this cute guy from this family that my family is fighting with. I want my sons to respect me. I want this guy Godot to show up. I want to be happy. I want to be King. I want to be dead. Etc. Etc. It almost doesn’t matter what it is that the main character wants. It is the wanting that is the subject of the play. It is want that creates drama in both the tragic and comic forms. Not every story will make a play. Plays are not stories in any conventional, literary sense. Plays are stories about need.
Julliard is advertised as a one-year program with an optional second year residency. Originally we were trying to establish that you came back for an extra year so long as you were getting some production experience—a workshop production or a rehearsed staged reading. As time has gone by we’ve let up on that requirement. Still, the people who come back for a second year frequently will have a production experience.
It’s not a degree-granting program. but it functions similarly to other academic programs. There is a once a week writing seminar for three hours with all the students, Marsha and myself. This is my first experience of team teaching which it has worked out very well for me and Marsha, but that was another fear I had going in. I had no idea what that would be like and I don’t think I’ve ever been team-taught.
Sometimes it almost starts to feel like a relaxed talk show that Marsha and I are running in the class. I remember our first year I used to joke with myself that she and I were turning into Nick and Nora Charles in the classroom. In any case we found out that we got along very well together and also we tended to agree most of the time—genuinely agree, not fake agree—which was a relief because I was thinking what do we do if we don’t agree? But one of the things I think I find valuable for the classes is that, even when we agree, Marsha and I have different ways of talking about what we’re thinking. So I feel that it gives a slightly different perspective for them to hear from both of us. In a certain sense it takes away from that turning the teacher into a guru because sometimes we’ll disagree.
Once in the first year Marsha and I out and out disagreed with one another on a play. But it followed three months of teaching where we pretty much agreed on everything. It was clear that both Marsha and I liked all our writers and we’d talked about plays of theirs that we liked and things that were going well in lab. A student brought in a one-act and the main character in it ended up slitting his wrists at the restaurant in front of his girlfriend. I just didn’t buy it; it felt really fake to me. But when it was over Marsha said, “Oh, that was so wonderful and so moving and so dark” and you could see my face was uncomfortable. Then I said, “Oh gosh, I hate to say the opposite but that doesn’t work for me.” I tried to articulate why I didn’t find his action believable; but I know the fact I had already liked several of the writer’s previous plays made it seem more “do-able” to be so honest. It’s not a play that the writer ended up doing anything with.. I hope I wasn’t horribly discouraging.
A play is our journey through the main character’s life, from the point where we know what he wants to the point where he gets it or not. How he goes about getting it, what stands in his way, whether he deserves it or not, and whether he’s happy when he gets it, these are all secondary issues. When you are thinking of writing a play, you should first fill in the blanks in this sentence. This is a play about a blank who wants blank. Force yourself to summarize your idea in one sentence. This play is about a King who wants his daughters to prove that they love him. This play is about an ex-con who wants to make something of herself. When you have this sentence, write it down on an index card and tape it to the underside of your computer, so when you wonder what the hell you’re doing, you can just read the card.
But the main character doesn’t just want something. He really wants it. He wants it now. I mean in the next two hours. I am not exaggerating this urgency thing. One of the ugliest sights in the world is watching thirteen hundred people trapped together for two hours—all of whom have paid fifty dollars for the privilege—watching your audience who came in hopeful and happy turn on a character whose problem is that he maybe wants a little something sometime or other. No. We all know what it feels like to want things. What we want from the theater is the chance to see what happens if we ask for what we really need.
Plays are about survival. If turtles wrote plays, and risked coming together in the open to watch them, the plays would not be about the joy of crawling in the sand, or memories of the happy days before mommy died. Plays by turtles would be about things you had to know if the species was to survive: where to bury the eggs so that more turtles would stand a chance of hatching. They would be about what not to eat, when to fight and when to back down. They would be about what happens if you break the long-established rules of turtle life. Plays by turtles would contain the things the species must remember, even if they are forgotten by individual members. Anything else would not be worth your turtle time, and you would probably swim off in the middle of the thing and go eat or get laid.
Our work consists primarily the students’ bringing in their own pieces and us responding to them. Marsha seems to know more about exercises than I do, she has had more experience with them, so I just play along. We’ve had several classes where we’ve done exercises.
I guess I don’t personally love exercises, although when I was at Yale I wrote a play, actually a couple of plays, due to an exercise. I do go along with them if someone is not writing. When we go through a period when somebody isn’t working on something we have done that, — worked on exercises for a class.
I also remember our first year when we were just dealing with four students, there was one student who had started a good play that we liked but she kept rewriting it and our other students were moving on to new pieces and she kept doing the same one. Marsha and I were concerned about it. We were actually about to go to her and tell her that she should put that particular play aside, that it was already good, and go on to new things. We were going to give her some exercises to jump start her. And oddly we didn’t have to because the day we were planning on talking to her about it she brought in a new script, which was excellent and she was off and running.
In one exercise that Marsha brings into class everybody is given this paragraph with blanks in it and they are to fill in the blanks. “This is a play about blank. It’s set in blank and the main character is blank. The conflict is between blank and blank. And the play is over when blank happens, or blank is achieved; or something.” When we did that in class everybody read back and right away some of the sentences were better that what I expected. People plugged in, “This play is set in Denmark and it’s about such and such.” We all voted on which play descriptions sounded the best and we would choose one of the ones that were chosen and we would take turns writing scenes for it. In this particular exercise I think one student would write scene one and we would discuss what would be in scene one, and another student wrote scene two and so forth.
I remember one of my resistances to this type of exercise. I find, particularly in the movie business, that there are an awful lot of executives who are usually from business school and who come from the belief that they can analyze what makes a good movie script. I found that, when we would give the exercise and discuss what should go on in scene one, one part of me thought, “Oh my God this is turning into working for movie executives.” But there are valuable things to some of these exercises. Though I believe that, bottom line, when a playwright is writing a successful play, it’s the intutive part of the brain that is working, not the analytic “what makes a play work” part. Both Marsha and I sometimes say to our students (and to ourselves), “get out of the characters’ way, and let the play tell you where to go.” Easier said than done, of course.
I had an exercise in the Yale School of Drama, probably in the first month or so, to write a scene of a man and a woman on a train, and the man is lighting up a cigarette and the woman wants him to put it out. I was still discovering my liking for surrealism and so my train was also a boat and kept having water come in the window and it became this crazy play I wrote called Titanic. I worked on it a lot my first year there. But exercises are definitely not a major part of what goes on in our class; it’s a back-up part.
Plays are about need. The main character must be aware of her need, and she must be active in her efforts to get what she needs. Given those two things, the end of the play is a snap, and a very satisfying one. The main character must either get what she needs, or deal with how she can live without it.
Now occasionally, some genius writes a play about more than one character. But not often. Most good plays are about one person and what that one person needs. Anybody who has ever tried to satisfy two needy children at once knows it is very hard to pay attention to two sets of needs. In life you sometimes have to do it, but in the theater you have the luxury of just considering, for two hours, the longing of one heart.
We care about the needs of one person because that is how we go through life. As one person. And when we see what someone else wants, and hear what she has to say about it, and see what she does, then we know who she is compared to us. Which is how we learn most things, I think—by comparison. Character develops by comparison too. Moment to moment, we watch the main character as if she were us. As if we wanted to be king, as if we wanted to marry Romeo. And if the writer has done her job, at the end of the play we haven’t just watched, we have actually felt what it was like to be Juliet, to be Blanche DuBois, to be Mrs. Antrobus. The playwright’s task is to give the audience the experience of being someone else, of living the crucial moment in someone else’s life. But how do you do that?
So there’s this weekly seminar; and then the other part that is very important and mirrors my experience when I was a playwriting student at Yale School of Drama in the early seventies is that twice a month there are labs with the Juilliard actors. These are rather briefly rehearsed readings of what the students are working on right now, usually a full-length play or sometimes just an act . The actors read the plays aloud, and, for both me and Marsha, this was an important part of the program. We both liked the idea that the student would get to hear their work read aloud so it wouldn’t only be discussion sitting around the table.
We try to start out with the feeling that the students are fellow writers and that we are just here to confer and give feedback. And during the seminars other students are encouraged to give feedback. This is something we monitor. I know that there was a group of students who came in our second or third year who were rather harsh in their criticism of one another—they were “first years” and new to the Program —and we had a second year group who were more diplomatic and encouraging rather than harsh. I don’t think we ever actually talked to them about it— though Marsha and I talked aboutwhether we’d have to—but just as the year went on the new class members just got better about it. It’s really the difference between saying “I don’t think this play works at all” or dictating what should be done if you were to write it: “what you need to do is cut those characters out and move it from Boston to New Orleans, and make all the Jewish people be Catholic.” At Yale I often found my fellow playwrights would end up giving advice that matched what they did in their writing, rather than making the leap to what you’re trying to do in your writing.
So rather than being harsh or offering strict advice, in class I think it’s good to start, if possible, with some positive remarks. I know when I act I need the director to say what he or she likes as well as what he doesn’t. And then in terms of what’s not working in the play, you can say “I had a problem with the theme of such and such, or when the character did such and such in scene two, I didn’t believe the motivation.” Specifics – specific lines, specific scenes – where you felt the play lost you, or didn’t convince you – I find giving specifics is very helpful. (Jules Feiffer taught for one year at Yale – lucky me – and he was very good flagging specific things he liked, and things that lost him.)
So far, we haven’t needed to articulate our concerns about the right tone to talk about plays. Usually the returning students set the tone. Where we do sometimes instruct about giving some feedback is at the labs where the actors and sometimes guests are around to comment. We point out things we don’t want to say such as: “Here’s how to re-write your play.” Instead it is more useful to say, “I was hooked in and I was interested but I got lost here, or I lost interestthere” just because that is information that the writer can make use of. But we don’t want to give solutions. It’s interesting and tricky. Last year we were giving that speech to the actors and the guests in there and then someone who is big on the board at Julliard and has been very supportive of the playwriting program and often comes to the labs, came to this particular lab and told Marsha afterwards that she felt what we said to the actors and the guests shut everybody up. She felt that the play in question needed more feedback that it didn’t get it. So Marsha and I actually decided that she was right. We just have to find the right balance in setting the tone. It’s tricky to tell people, especially people who aren’t seeing us week after week, how to give feedback.
But certainly Marsha and I have experienced, as working playwrights, having to deal with horrible reviews in the newspaper. You just become very sensitized to how discouraged you can get by a slashing comment that triggers “oh I don’t know what I’m doing, I’m worthless”.
The lab is also a good venue for discussing the work of a playwright beyond writing. Marsha and I discovered over the first three years of teaching that every year the same topics would come up anecdotally and related to the functioning in the real world of the theatre. Things like: how do you deal with directors when the director and you aren’t in agreement; what if the actor seems miscast; and among the things we’ve ended up saying is that it’s important that playwrights learn how to talk to actors. We don’t mean behind the director’s back. But you can’t just say, “Oh you have to be funnier,” because if the actor’s lost, that comment will be useless to them. You as the writer have to learn about the fact that actors are playing intentions and get good trying to figure out what’s going on with what they’re playing, and then obviously talk to the director about it. But since the world isn’t perfect and there are directors who maybe are more visual than “actor” directors, you just need to protect yourself. Plus, when you are dealing with having a reading in theatres, sometimes you either won’t have a director or you’ll have that thing where everyone has to make their choices in two hours. So we end up giving a lot of feedback of that nature, how to work with directors, actors, how to address the “what is my intention” needs of actors. Plus if a character’s intention isn’t making sense, that is a problem with the writing; and the actor expressing difficulty is actually offering you help in showing you an area where there’s a problem.
After you identify the moment you’re going to watch, then you pick the perfect place to stand and see the thing. Going back to the ski lift analogy, if you build one, you don’t take people around the back of the mountain. You don’t take them to a little cave about half way up. You take them to the top. If you’re going to show a whole life in two hours, you have to pick the moment from which the whole life is visible.
My play, Night, Mother, is about a woman who wants to kill herself. I could have set it in any number of moments. I could have set it at the funeral, and told the whole thing in flashback. I could have set it in her imagination as she was deciding to do it. I could have set it at her brother’s house when he was trying to get dressed for the funeral. But no. That would be the solemn version. Solemn is deadly. Serious is what we want. Dead serious.
Night, Mother is about suicide. Suicide is a terrible thing. We want to know what to do if somebody we know tries to kill themselves. We want to see somebody try to stop them. So I set the play in the hour and a half before Jessie kills herself, and put with her the person who had the greatest claim on that life, the person who stood the best chance of saving her. And watched what happened as Jessie tried to explain herself and make sure Mama would be all right after she died. And watched as Mama tried to find something that would work. I made it Saturday night so no one would come and interrupt them. I had Mama try to make a phone call for help, but had Jessie threaten to kill herself more quickly if she did. I set up an underlying three act structure, with Mama searching first the present, then the past, and finally the future for the solution to this puzzle. I made sure that it got harder and harder for both of them, the action escalating, the stakes getting higher and higher, and I kept the clock ticking.
Now. In the first ten minutes of the play tell the audience what the main character wants. Do not count on them to get this by ESP or common sense. Tell them. I’m really getting mellow in my old age here. I used to say that this had to happen on page 8. But now I say page 8 to 10 is O.K. The audience will give you ten minutes to get going, to fill them in on where you are, to show them you can fly this thing, and tell them where you are going. But then you have to do it. Announce the destination. Brad wants the family piano. Macbeth wants to be King. Whatever.
When the audience knows what the main character wants, they relax. They know when they can go home. The next thing they need, in order to feel comfortable and be able to follow you, is a grid, a kind of map for the world you are taking them into. They need to know how to store the information you’re about to give them. Who are the main characters, and who are the observers, and how are they related. Where are we, the country or the city, the past or the future, and how do things work here. Are we looking at years here, or days? Is it a sane world? How do people usually solve their problems? When we know the world, we begin to anticipate things, to fear what will happen. We begin to live in the play. We move forward in our seats, we gasp and laugh and dread the terrible end we fear is coming. Hamlet won’t really kill everybody, will he? Emily isn’t really going to die, is she? Dread is a fabulous thing to feel in the theater, and you can only dread the trip up the mountain if you know how high it is, how cold it is, and how unprepared you are.
We don’t read anything in class outside of what the students are writing. When I taught for one year at Princeton and had undergraduate students rather than graduate students—so far everybody we’ve had in our Juillliard classes has been through college—I discovered early on that I couldn’t just assume that they’d read lots and lots of plays. There were a lot of famous ones that they hadn’t read so at Princeton I actually did assign a play a week to discuss and we would discuss the play.
At Julliard, even though it’s not a degree program, the playwriting students are encouraged and allowed to take other Julliard classes. So there is one theatre history course they can take if they want, although that is not the same thing as reading plays. One class they do often take is Michael Kahn’s acting Shakespeare class, and our students have reported back that his analysis of the Shakespeare text is both very interesting and inspiring and also very useful for writers.
One of my fears about teaching is like my feeling of discomfort with movie executives. I’m uncomfortable with theories. I don’t like theories and anyone who says every good comedy has X in it or that every play must begin with X. I am not going to be able to give that to people.
I have discovered in teaching, though, that there are a few thoughts I have that seem worth passing on, that pass as “Chris’s Rules.” One of them is more of a psychological thing but I think it’s very important: what you write should come from an impulse to communicate something that you feel STRONGLY about, even if it amuses you in a strong way Writers should guard against narcissism – from writing because you like the image of yourself as a writer. Or writing every damn day, because you think every single thought you have is equally of interest to everybody. Writing a play because you want to be a writer is not a good idea. So you have to have a genuine and strong response to the theme or the characters or to something about the play you want to write.
And I’ve also discovered—and maybe it’s because I write comedy—that one of the recurring things I keep coming back to with students is—and it has a very dull name— exposition. Get good at exposition. Letting the audience know where they are and who the people are and what their connection is to one another is really important. You can choose to be like a Harold Pinter play and let everything be mysterious, and that has its own value too. But I remember one student who wrote a play that was very Sam Shepard-esque. It was very hard to get your bearing in it and it took 15-20 pages before I realized that the characters were mother and son. He could choose to do it that way, that’s his absolute right to make it be mysterious. But I think perhaps he could be mysterious for five pages and then we could find out who they were. When I re-read the pages knowing the information of what their relationship was, I found it much more interesting.
Now, finally, character and plot and how they are related. Good characters have some or all of the following: a particular way of speaking, things they think are funny, personal history, including grudges and passions, an occupation, size, gender and age, failures, secrets, ways of wasting time, delusions, weaknesses and dreams. They have a name and you should not start writing them until you know what it is. They have things they know how to do, and things they don’t. They take steps. They make mistakes. There is nothing more deadly than a passive central character. Except maybe a whole stage full of people who all talk alike.
I have the idea that you should be able to erase all the character names in a play and still tell who is talking. I have the idea that you shouldn’t write the first page until you know how everybody talks. Like a composer who decides which instruments he will put into the piece, a playwright voices the play first. How characters speak is your first and maybe your best clue as to how they think. What they do with their ideas and their time, how picky they are, how dull, how determined.
When you know who the characters are, then you know what will happen. Plot does not come from above. Plot comes from who these people are on the stage. They do what they do because they must. Or they can. Or they feel like it. But it is the characters who act, who cause the thing to move forward. The plot is nothing more than what the main character does and what the other characters do back. We try to make it look more complicated than that, but it isn’t. And if it seems like a sport here, well, it feels that way sometimes. Each move the character makes takes him closer to his goal, or puts him further behind. As his problems arise, and as he solves them or is defeated by them, the play moves toward its resolution, which, when we get there, must come just when we are ready for it, and must not be a surprise. We arrive at last at the top of the mountain. And it is as glorious and terrifying as we thought. The end must be what we feared would happen from the start. Unless it’s a comedy, of course, when the end must be what we feared would never, could never happen.
Plays seem to unfold on the stage, effortlessly, humorously, carried along by the ticking of the clock and the tendency of people to keep talking. But they are anything but accidental. Good plays answer the audience’s questions as they ask them, but not before. They don’t burden the audience with information they don’t need. They do provide information, relief and amusement, as necessary.
It’s such a valuable thing in the playwriting classes to have the teacher and some of the fellow students responding to your work. One of the people who taught me that way, when I was at Harvard as an undergraduate, was William Alfred, who wrote the play Hogan’s Goat. He was a wonderful teacher, very charismatic, very charming. He would give feedback in a very generalized way, but he was very charismatic. He might respond with only what he thought the theme was and I would go, “Oh I see. I didn’t even think of that. Yes I think he’s right.”
Then, when I went to Yale Drama School, Richard Gilman was one of the teachers; he was very smart. He tended to be very intellectual and analytical so I felt that I learned more about other plays and less about my own. But he was certainly valuable to listen to.
I also studied with Jules Feiffer which was great. He only taught at Yale one year and I was so lucky it was one of my years. He was the first teacher that I had that not only was encouraging but really worked hard to be specific. He would say, “I like such and such but you lost me on this line and then I didn’t know what they were saying for these next ten lines” and I found that so helpful. And when possible I try to give specific notes that way. But Marsha and I are careful about trying not to be gurus. So when we give feedback, we say, “This is just feedback. Follow it if it makes sense to you, use it, and if it doesn’t, don’t”—which I think is an important thing to do.
I never took any theories out of my formal training, but what I did find was that I found it valuable to have these sympathetic listeners giving feedback, teachers like William Alfred, Howard Stein and Jules Pfeiffer. They were wonderful coaches and they gave me more self-confidence and were helpful the way that sometimes a good director can be in a rehearsal or a good dramaturg, by saying I feel I got lost here, or don’t forget your scene with X and right here there’s a different theme going on. I found the feedback very helpful because you get so close to your own work that the feedback is necessary. I don’t know that going to playwriting school is the only way to do it—I definitely don’t think that.
I think, strangely though, going to a program and especially a well-known one helps you to get doors to open. That is certainly not the only or even main reason to go, but I consider myself so lucky to have gotten into the Yale School of Drama when I did. I felt very confused when I went to Yale. I was really looking to see if I got encouragement or didn’t get encouragement and I didn’t know what I would do if I didn’t get encouragement. Anyway, when I graduated it’s not that the world totally lay at my feet, but there was no question that certain doors opened because of Yale. I also discovered that it helped having teachers who were famous (like Jules Feiffer and Robert Bernstein) who were extremely generous about writing letters of recommendation. So, practically speaking, going to the school or going to training can be very helpful.
The language cannot be exactly as it is spoken in the world. It must be slightly larger than life, so that when the actors speak it, slightly louder than normal, it can shrink a little on its way out to the audience and arrive on their ears sounding just right. Furthermore, the play is not simply what is in the lines. The play is also what is not said, what lies under the lines, and what the audience imagines during intermission. Plays are best written quickly, are derived from things that happened at least ten years ago, and if you’re looking for a good idea for a play, think about some time when you were really scared. Remember that the audience doesn’t care about ghosts, that if you want to cover your exposition, a good way to do it is in a fight, and a good cheap trick is to put in a character who doesn’t know what’s going on. Don’t let the characters just stand around and talk. That’s as boring on the stage as it usually is in life. If you can’t figure out anything else for them to be doing, have someone spill a cup of coffee. There are certain subjects almost no one is interested in onstage. One of those in incest. Another is religion. Don’t give two characters names that start with the same letter. A big speech works best if the character doesn’t want to give it.
And then the other thing at Yale was that they were very encouraging about working with the actors, and I liked getting to know the actors and working with them, usually in the Yale cabaret. I felt—and I mention this to my students when the Juilliard actors will sometimes come in—that sometimes the actors’ comments helped me with my writing more than my fellow writers. My fellow writers tended to have their own personas and, at their worst, would basically tell you how they would write it, while the actors usually were just about telling you when they were having trouble going from moment to moment. Or when they didn’t know what a scene was about. I actually learned a lot from the Yale actors who came and gave me feedback. We hope that, at their best, the labs give that kind of information.
This isn’t always dependable either, though. Sometimes you find that a scene actually works but didn’t play well—Marsha and I will talk about it later— because the actor was playing the wrong intention. That can be very hard to tell sometimes.
Feedback can be a tricky thing. A whole bunch of our students have gotten readings at different theatres, including some of our grads, and after these readings usually the dramaturgical person from the theatre will make suggestions for rewrites. It’s like, “Maybe we will do your play or maybe we’ll do a two-day rehearsal and another reading.” In any case, it’s what we’re starting to call development hell. There’s a danger to it, and we say to the students, “Don’t be so anxious to get a production that you let yourself be talked into writing your play away.” It’s just something we discuss.
The other thing we end up discussing with them—and again this comes from some of the students’ experiences—is that money is getting tighter and harder so theatres are getting a bit more scared to do new work than they used to be. It was always hard but they’re more scared. So they want to be able to get the grants for encouraging playwrights but they don’t really have the money to gamble on new productions. In a way you’re jumping through these hoops basically for maybe a more elaborate reading at the end. Then you can start going from theatre to theatre doing this with the same play. I don’t mean to be badmouthing the theatres because I think the lack of funding is a real problem for them and I do acknowledge that they’re still trying to help writers. And I’m not saying that, across the board, all of these experiences are bad. But I think that reading-after-reading process can be scary and that you have to develop your own filter, your intuition for what comments will help your play and what comments will make you write a totally different play that is no longer yours. You just have to be careful.
When we have a lab and the comments are open, not only to ourselves and the other playwriting students but to the actors and the guests, sometimes the writers will get a barrage of comments. We’ve both noticed that there were certain writers who seemed to better have their feet on the ground and just intuitively know which comments to listen to and which ones to let go of. Other writers get totally confused and start to rewrite their play either out of existence or into something totally different. We also saw that happen with one student who had a production at the school. What started as a very good but flawed play became a very diffused but flawed play. We bring that danger to students’ attention but I actually don’t know what the solution is. Unfortunately it kind of depends of intuition.
I feel as if I learned a lot by osmosis and I just never go to it by analysis. When I try to work to make money—writing movies and television when I get the jobs—and when I get notes, I can even hear the sense of some of the notes. But I still have to wait a moment for the notes to get inside my brain and to move to some other part of my brain that’s creative, that’s not the analytical part. I have to have a little sparked response to the note before I can actually do it.
Don’t write big roles for child actors as they are very hard to find and they can’t rehearse a full day. When somebody wants to direct your play, the important question to ask them is what they like about it. Don’t sign a contract without talking to the Dramatists Guild, and if you’re not a member of the Dramatists Guild, join. If we don’t stick together and protect our copyrights, there is no reason to write plays at all.