I spend most of my time thinking about playwrights: discovering them, reading their work, talking to them, working with them on their scripts, asking them what they think about and why they’ve made certain choices. I have often wondered about the permissions and prohibitions we give playwrights, both spoken and unspoken, when we’re working on their plays.
There is no manual that could possibly prepare them for what they will encounter. Each time they enter a theater, they enter a culture with new rules. For the most part, this culture is a director’s culture; we teach playwrights the rules of behavior and not the other way around. I was therefore moved by a response to Lisa D’Amour’s article in HowlRound by a commenter who said, “the whole company (small or large) has to respond to the playwright as a leader. It can be dangerously easy for a company to think that it’s going to produce ‘for’ the playwright, or even to assume that the playwright doesn’t know how to produce,” and by another who mentioned “the playwright as leader.” Many of the theaters I admire call themselves “playwright-centered,” but that is not the same as playwright-led.
In a playwright-centered theater, the artistic team looks for scripts that ignite the imagination of the theater-makers so that they might come together, envision a play on stage and make that script live. The works starts with a brilliant script. Playwright-led is something else altogether. There are dozens of small companies around the country, some, like 13P, successful at driving production for the work they’ve written. What, however, would a theater where playwrights are equal collaborative partners in production look like? How would that be different from most of the theater environments in the US today? Nearly all of the theaters I know are director-driven.
The Artistic Director (a director, actor, or dramaturg turned director) articulates and embodies the theater’s vision. Whether the artistic team introduces playwrights to the artistic director and/or playwrights are cultivated over the long-term by artistic directors themselves, playwrights are chosen for a season because the Artistic Director: (1) falls in love with a play; (2) thinks the play will make money; (3) is loyal to the playwright; (4) sees that the play is a perfect match for a director with whom she wants to work; (5) believes directing the play will present a new creative challenge that will elevate her skills; and (6) any combination of the former. What happens when the playwright and director arrive at the theater has as many outcomes as there are artistic directors. Maybe the right director for the project has been chosen, maybe not. Maybe the playwright is a pain in the ass, maybe not.
In one common model, the playwright is a contractor, perhaps a supremely happy one, but, although never referred to as such, she is a contractor offering a service and product nonetheless. To whom is the playwright a contractor in principle? Contractually, to the theater and therefore the artistic director; in practical terms, she reports to the director. Even in theaters that are nominally dedicated to the playwright, the director remains the authority in the rehearsal room and in all matters of the play. On the other hand, there are playwrights who demand to be equal partners with their directors. These playwrights are known as “difficult.”
Now that I have met several of these writers and know their work, I challenge that assumption. “Difficult” in this context means a playwright questions the authority of the director about specific choices. Here is what playwright Bill Cain would call “the cognitive dissonance of theater”: On the one hand, the playwright is told that theater is uniquely a writer’s medium; on the other, he is told to sit in the back and shut up because the actors may be confused by conversation with both the playwright and the director. Theresa Rebeck reminds us in her book Fire Free Zone, “in the rehearsal hall, the playwright is often asked not to speak directly to the actors because that could ‘confuse’ them—in other words, it might undermine the director’s authority.” That caution rests on a supposition, Cain says, that actors should not be confused. Might confusion serve as a productive force early in rehearsals? Might actors be more engaged in the process of the play’s meaning?
Typically, the playwright makes comments in sanctioned moments during rehearsals or to the director during breaks or over drinks at night, and then, the playwright goes back to his hotel to rewrite, sends fresh scenes in the early hours of the morning (and for fast, overnight rewrites, the playwright receives kudos), and so on and so forth with infinite variations on the process. How has this come about? It is a result of the economies of power: she who wields the money—and in a world where there is little money, exposure is currency—holds the power. Artistic directors, who are mostly directors, distribute the currency. “The anthropology of modern theater is a divine right monarchy,” says Cain.
The problem is, even genius directors are maybe geniuses every other show. Add to this reality the fact that many directors do five shows a year, and you can see why it might make compelling sense for a playwright to work as a full partner in the collaboration about his own play. I am surprised how seldom they do. While I am not advocating a television model—that is, after all, a completely different economic model—it is presumptuous to think we have nothing to learn from TV, most especially now, when so many talented playwrights write television scripts for shows to which so many of us are addicted. All of these playwrights working in TV are now experienced in different ways of collaborating, including as writer-producers; they demonstrate it is possible, and not unusual, for writers to run things—and to wield power.
True collaboration might take as many forms as there are writer/director teams. Accomplished playwrights in mid-career or at the apogee of their careers—writers with a track record or whose economic power entitles them to authority with theaters may want—and have the skill—to function as equal collaborators. In a theater in which playwrights are full collaborators, it is conceivable that a writer would function more as executive producer of her own work, to use a television model, than as contractor.
In practical terms, perhaps the director and playwright both give notes to the actors in the presence of the other: “There is no pretense of being invisible and working through the sock puppet of the director. I come in with a yellow pad.” So says Bill Cain, who worked with Bill Rauch in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival production of Equivocation and Kent Nicholson in the Marin Theatre Company production of 9 Circles. “Everyone reports to the play; everyone is fully engaged. The aesthetic of the play is a shared one.” Cain will publish a book about his collaboration with each director on five different productions of the same play: Shakespeare, Equivocation and a Writer's Year in the American Theater: One Year, One Play, Five Productions, Five Directors, Five Casts.
Polly Carl’s comment in this journal about titles in theater questions our working proposition about making plays: titles are indications of the artistic silos we have built. Some of us are just fine with our silos, and some of us would like to experiment with stepping out and inviting other people in. Could a writer serve as an artistic director of a theater? Why not—as long as that writer understands enough about production and direction to make strong choices in those hires. Why aren’t more playwrights artistic directors?
The two most important things an artistic director does are plan the season and hire brilliant artists; a playwright with enough practical experience in theater might be a fine choice. Would boards of directors consider a playwright as an artistic director? If not, is that because boards, too, have inherited the “divine right monarchy” model of theater? Producing collaborative art that is a collaboration of equals is not the same as producing collaborative art that is the vision of one person orchestrated by other artists—the symphony conductor model, if you will.
“Wait!” some theater directors will say, “Wait, I’m collaborative. Playwrights love me.” Maybe so. Here’s the litmus test: What do you do if a playwright disagrees with you on the effectiveness of the staging of certain scenes? May your playwrights speak to the actors during rehearsal? Which playwrights will you not invite back to your theater? Why? No one will hand power to writers. Can theaters make space for playwrights with a full voice in the rehearsal room? Can we shift the economy of power in theater?