Wednesday, February 05, 2014
Tips for young playwrights
Playwrights don’t have that problem, but they have another. Once their play gets on its feet the real work often begins. The dreaded rewrite phase. After taking months to carefully and thoughtfully craft your play, now you’ve got a week to fix the story, throw out the whole father subplot, replace the airport scene, find a new ending, punch up a lot of the jokes, and add a two-page speech to convince a jury that Charles Manson was just a misunderstood youth.
We arrived on the stage, the producers schmoozed with the actors, and there were still doughnuts on the crafts services table. Directors chairs were lined up in front of the set. They even had our names printed on the backs of them (although only assholes actually made a point to sit in his own chair). I took my seat along with David and the rest of the writers, all of whom were experienced. My script was in its handsome show binder on my lap and my pencil was at the ready.
The runthrough began. I was enjoying it, laughing at a lot of the jokes. Then I glanced to the side. The experienced writers were all furiously scribbling in their scripts – X’ing out things, marking certain places, drawing arrows, writing in the margins, dog earring pages. I thought to myself, “What are they seeing? This all looks pretty good to me.”
After the runthrough I walked back to the office with less of a spring in my step. We all gathered around the conference table to discuss the night’s upcoming work. A writer would just say, “And page 13, Jesus!” The other writers would agree. Nothing more needed to be said. It was obvious.
Except to me.
We went to work, each issue was addressed, and the next day the runthrough was noticeably better (even to me). Over time I began to catch on. Seeing how pros improved scripts was invaluable. There is just no substitute for experience.
But that doesn’t help the poor young playwright who now has a two-hour play to fix all by himself.
So here are some tips:
Have the right mindset mindset going in. The point of the runthrough is not to entertain you, but for you to analyze and assess what other people might find entertaining. Don't be like me.
You don’t have to totally fix the play in one night. Work on the big things first. Does the story track? Fix some of the jokes later.
Throw out anything that doesn’t work, even if it took you four months to write and was the reason you started the project in the first place.
There’s a saying on Broadway: Cut 20 minutes and run 2 years longer. Better to be short than long.
You don’t have to fix it yourself. Get feedback from people you trust. And it’s a time honored tradition in the theater to bring in “play doctors.” Abe Burrows became a legend doing that. Swallow your pride. If you want help, seek it out.
Don’t just arbitrarily change everything that didn’t work. Sometimes it’s the acting and directing. You have to make that determination, but many times things don’t work because the actor or director doesn’t understand the intent. Keep the lines of communication open.
And finally, when you’re up all night in a hotel room tearing your hair out in a rewrite, stop for just a moment to remember how exciting it is that your play is actually being produced. It's all worth it.
In general, playwrights gravitate to television – that’s where the money and greater exposure is. But I always felt that more TV writers, especially comedy writers accustomed to the multi-camera format, should go the other way and write plays. How many plays are saved during tryouts? TV writers deal with run-throughs every day for years. Who better to tackle the process? I'm currently writing my second play. I only hope to be in a position where I can follow my own tips.