Sunday, January 28, 2018

Tips for young playwrights

For a TV writer or a playwright, there’s nothing like seeing your first production. After God knows how many specs, one acts, and plays that never saw the light of day, the feeling can be glorious to see your words come to life the first time. I say that reservedly because there are some factors that could spoil it. Bad cast, bad direction, and in the case of TV – your script could be rewritten to where it’s unrecognizable.

That happened with the first produced script that David Isaacs and I wrote. It was a JEFFERSONS and we might as well have turned in a draft of THE PATTY DUKE SHOW considering how much of our script made it to the stage. (Note: Our draft of the JEFFERSONS got us our first MASH assignment so it couldn’t have been that bad.)

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.

It can be overwhelming, especially if you haven’t done it before. I remember my first runthrough. David and I had just been hired on THE TONY RANDALL SHOW for MTM in the late ‘70s. RANDALL was a multi-camera show so every afternoon we writers marched down to the set to watch a runthrough of the day’s rehearsal. I was very excited.

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 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 sixth play.  I only hope to be in a position where I can follow my own tips.


Wendy M. Grossman said...

...and for a worked, detailed example of doing this, read ACT ONE, by Moss Hart.


Joe Blow said...

“Throw out everything that doesn’t work.”

“Don’t just arbitrarily change everything that doesn’t work.”

And, of course, we remember you discussing one of your recent (full length) plays. You went every night, and some nights the audience laughed uproariously while other nights the same material would be met with silence.

So you forgot to say that it’s also necessary to be a genius, have nerves of steel, and years of experience. It probably also helps to already be rich. I imagine you are having the time of your life! I hope to see one of your plays someday!

E. Yarber said...

Revising something with a writer is like being a diplomat. You're acting as an intermediary between the creator and the audience, trying to retain the original spark of the piece while removing whatever a viewer would question while watching the performance.

At odds with this approach, one of the biggest problems I have with beginning writers is that they don't trust the audience. If I suggest making something more subtle, they'll invariably say, "People won't understand that." If you feel you have to talk down to the dolts you're trying to entertain, your work will sound like a high school play. In the end, I feel it's not the audience that's dumb, but that the writer is insecure and trying to keep the level of work within their comfort zone. The mark of a true amateur is being unwilling to admit or accept that you're not 100% talented on Day One.

Sometimes, for whatever reason, you have to do a total salvage job. I once spent three weeks rewriting a 136 page script. By the time I was done, the manuscript was 105 pages, of which 12 were retained from the original writer. It was optioned, though.

There's a flip side to such extensive retooling, however. Let's say you're a first-time screenwriter who has managed to sell your work to a major studio. The studio says, "We love you, kid, but let's have a couple of our in-house boys give it a polish."

Now, the in-house boys are opportunists. They're not going to lightly touch up your vision. They're looking for every single thing they can gut or do-over, because if the finished product is 75% their work, the WGA will give them the sole writing credit. Suddenly your socially-conscious subtext becomes a cynical jab at idealism. Your shy coming-of-age heroine starts flashing her bra to show she's not uptight. All your effort to make a personal statement is turned into a series of crass cliches.

And guess what? The movie is made without your name on the credits. When it flops, however, the studio bosses say, "That's what we get for trying untested talent."

Liz said...

Nice post. Thanks Ken.

E. Yarber,

Thanks for the insight on the workings about credit. I had asked a question yesterday about credits. What you said about "The movie is made without your name on the credits" - is that true? That's shocking to me! A person gets an idea and writes, then someone re-writes it (whatever percentage) and then he gets the credit, not the original writer. That's sad.

Is that why a lot of movies have the same writers names. They took someone's work and re-wrote and took all the credit?

Anonymous said...

What does a “worked example” mean?

E. Yarber said...


Yes, it's possible for someone to write a movie and but not have their name on the final version.

The typical practice is for someone to register a copy of their script with the Writer's Guild, which can be done online. They'll number your draft, send you a certificate suitable for framing (or lining a parrot cage) and save it for five years. If there is a dispute about authorship later, the Guild will then take out your draft, compare it with the draft the other writers also registered, and give the credit to the writer or writers who composed the majority of the work seen in the finished film, at least 75% or so. I have seen awful rewrites go to camera of scripts I previously liked very much.

The basic principle is that the later writers may have had to salvage an unworkable screenplay and deserve full credit if they did most of the work. Like everything else in the system, this can be abused.

The situation can also go in the opposite direction sometimes. Terry Gilliam co-wrote an adaptation of Hunter Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, but the WGA insisted script credit go to Alex Cox and HIS co-writer. Cox had previously tried to adapt the book for a version he hoped to direct, but the rights passed the Gilliam. When the Guild looked at both scripts, they concluded that 75% of Cox's work was also present in Gilliam's version. Gilliam had never even seen the earlier script, but was adapting the same book and naturally used the same material. He filmed a prologue in which a man behind a desk explained that this was the first time in history an audience would see a film that was made with a Not-Screenplay.

Hope that explains things, though you (and everyone else) may wish I hadn't done so.

Mike Bloodworth said...

As always, good advice. The key however, is gettting "feedback from people you trust." That's the problem. Will the people that know what they're doing take the time to help? Will it always be relevant advice? I one of my writing classes the instructor said to one guy, "Why don't you make it...instead?" The guy almost said, but didn't, but you could see it on his face, "If that's what I wanted, that's what I would have written!" I've had the same response to similar suggestions. One must also filter out the HACKS. There are plenty of idiots and goofballs out there that aren't as good as they think they are. They're always ready to "help," but more often than not, they're usless. Would it be better to show a potential play to a layman? That is, someone that is not involved in the theatre. You might get a better indicator of audience reaction. A "Dr." might make your play sound more professional and polished, but will it be more enjoyable to an audience? And when do you throw the whole thing into the shredder and start over? So much of this is subjective.

Liz said...

Thanks a lot for the explanation E. Yarber.

VincentS said...

Thanks, Ken. I'm not a "young" playwright but I am a new one. Writing a play is no problem. Writing a GOOD one is the challenge and I've sent my current play to a few friends whose literary opinion I trust (read: They have no hidden agendas) and I've workshopped it and so far all the feedback has been positive and when I workshopped it I had someone else read the stage directions so I could concentrate on the reading - no mean feat. Based on this I don't think this play would need any major re-writes but I will keep an open mind as I submit it and, of course, be prepared to go through this on a future play.