How to Be A Playwright In The New Play Rehearsal Room
My favorite place in the world is a room filled with artists joining together to create a shared vision.
Being a playwright in the rehearsal room isn’t like being a playwright writing alone. It can be far more rewarding and complex. And it was only by working on one show after another that I learned what’s needed from me in that room, and what I need from others.
As I write this, I’m in rehearsals for my new play, The Last Burlesque, premiering at the Capital Fringe Festival this summer. Because I’ve stepped away from rehearsals for a few days (see #7), I thought I’d take the opportunity to write down a few best practices I’ve learned (and continue to re-learn) about being the writer in the room.
1. Be in the room.
If it’s a brand new play, be present during those first couple weeks. Don’t stick around for the table work and then ghost out. When a play gets on its feet, you start learning things you couldn’t imagine when it only lived on the page.
Conversations will happen. Questions will be asked about character, plot, and structure. Where should somebody move? Why is somebody doing one thing and not the other? These questions might make their way to you in the rehearsal report. Being present to understand the context of questions and respond with a conversation is worlds better than responding to your stage manager via e-mail.
2. Socialize with your director.
Drink, dance, jog, do yoga, or just meet for coffee with your director. Very soon you’re going to have some intense conversations with this person. Those conversations might be contentious, which isn’t bad. A quality I value in directors is their ability to frequently, but productively argue with me. But it’s tough to productively fight with someone when your relationship is limited to those few hours in the rehearsal room. If you’re not comfortable getting your hands, brains, and artistic sensibilities dirty with your director, it’s doubly difficult to speak up in support of your own point-of-view, or listen with an open mind to theirs.
3. Actors are smart. Frequently they are smarter than you.
When everyone sits down for that first table read, you are unequivocally the world’s leading authority on your play. This will change swiftly.
Actors might not become deeply versed in the arc of the whole play, but they will understand their characters in ways you never dreamed. If a character says something that doesn’t fit their personality, or does something that doesn’t track with their emotional arc, the actor will be the first to know. They need to feel comfortable voicing that, and you need to be receptive and listen.
I continually stress to my cast that if they ever have questions, they should feel free to approach me. Like writers, most actors feel that if something isn’t working, it’s probably their fault. They will try their damndest to make a moment work when the best solution might be a quick conversation followed by a quicker revision.
All of the above can apply just as easily to designers, your director, and even your stage manager—who has probably sat in on more rehearsals than you will in a lifetime.
Every rehearsal room has the potential for innumerable moments of joy.
4. A script is a blueprint, except when it’s a battle plan.
There are some who contend that a play script is a work of art unto itself and can be enjoyed as such. Those who think otherwise commonly describe a script as a blueprint from which other artists build—not a bad metaphor.
If an architect does her job right, she can hand a blueprint to the builders and the structure that emerges will look pretty much spot-on to what she designed. No adjustment necessary as long as the math is right. I’ve been reminded with The Last Burlesque that the blueprint metaphor can fall apart pretty quickly when it comes to new plays.
I can’t count the number of times in this process that a chunk of dialogue that flowed perfectly on the page became unwieldy once actors were saying it, and moving in the space. Entire beats flutter to the cutting room floor because they were utterly unnecessary when living bodies acted it out.
With this particular play, I’ve consciously put much of the dramatic action into non-verbal elements. Character development happens in a dance, while an emotional climax arrives in a burlesque. Because of that, I came into the process knowing that a lot would probably shift as soon as we started moving. I pictured many scenes as battle plans—something that made for a good start, but did not survive in the rehearsal room.
It’s been a change in my mindset that’s made things go much more easily and productively than if I’d come in unwilling to adapt. Which reminds me…
5. Be willing to be wrong.
Be willing to accept that other artists in the room will have a better grasp on a character, a scene, or the whole damn play than you. In which case you should…
6. Know when to shut up.
If you’re like me, you want to fix things. You want to have a voice in any discussion that involves story and meaning. But you don’t have to. Most of the time it’s best to sit, wait, and listen.
7. Get out of the room.
I know this step is contrary to the first one, but there is such a thing as revision blindness. If you’ve spent weeks immersing yourself in the beat-to-beat details of character interactions, it becomes harder to step back and see the full arc of the play.
So get out of the room. Take a few rehearsals off. If you’re like me, you don’t want to. Make yourself, or have your director make you leave. When you step back into the room, things you’d become blind to—both positive and negative—will become much clearer.
Don’t. Let me expand. Don’t go to tech.
For most playwrights, tech is excruciating. You are next to useless. The wonderful nuance, depth, and flow found during the rehearsal process obliterates in a tediously slow wave of false starts, lighting cues, and “Hold please!” If you start trying to give notes in the middle of that, things can get ugly real fast.
Stop by with a basket of whatever keeps your director, cast, and crew going—coffee, whiskey, or peanut butter—and then leave. Go home. Go to the movies. Just go. I polled theatre artists on Facebook, and found that I am with the majority in this opinion. One of the few dissenting voices argued that a playwright should be in the room in case a technical decision impacts the writer’s vision in a negative way.
I would counter that none of the artistic decisions made in tech should come as a surprise if you’ve been having the right conversations with your director and designers. And those first post-tech run-throughs should allow for adjustments. Most designers are used to taking notes and revising on the fly.
9. Have fun
In the midst of all of the above it’s sometimes easy to lose touch with what brought you into the room in the first place: the experience of joining together with other artists to create a shared vision. Every rehearsal room has the potential for innumerable moments of joy. I still honestly can’t think of any place I’d rather be.