How Do We Make It? Directors and the New Theater Landscape
Theatre is an intrinsically collaborative form in which work is often made in siloed divisions of labor. The word “collaboration” seems to have lost all meaning even as it pops up on grant applications, mission statements, résumés, and in the mouths of hip administrators. Yet it has always been true that in the theatre we make meaning together as a group. We make meaning as a production team, as an ensemble of performers, and as an audience. The theatre requires dialogue both written and spoken, observed, and shown. A performance is a sum of its parts, it is an articulation of the vision and desire and curiosity of a large group of people. In essence that’s what we want to talk about, making meaning together, and how we might shift our practices to invoke this core idea.
The Bleak Situation and Redefining Risk
We’ve all heard playwrights, directors, and actors complain about a new work getting stuck in development hell. Reading after reading yields yet another reading. In each of these cases the written text of the play is being transmitted to you over the top of a music stand without any marker or artifact of the many other aspects of theatre (light, sound, object, gesture, space) that will ultimately form the performance text and create it’s own dialogue with the written word. We’ve also heard and experienced the plight of playwrights and directors working through development processes together only to have their work or their partnership changed by an institution as a condition to taking a chance on a new play. As a result, playwrights labor to make their plays “director-proof” after enduring a series of under-rehearsed and disheartening readings to ensure that their work isn’t compromised.
We’ve all been alerted to the issues of declining attendance, the increasing age of our audience, and the dilemma of attracting a younger audience to the theatre. Administrators and artistic directors across the board are looking around for new ideas to fill their houses and some of them are increasingly pinning their hopes for a younger, “fresher” audience on new plays. These new play programming efforts often hinge on the hiring of directors, designers, and actors that are “known quantities” in order to minimize the risk of an “untested” script. Often theatres agree to take one “risky” choice in programming a new work and then make fifty safe choices to frame that choice.
Why Do We Make It This Way?
We want to shift the question and ask: not what is the new play, but how do we make it?
We are both new work directors. We’re folks who seek out new projects to develop, and we cherish the experience of building that new work with a playwright. We are two folks committed to new American plays. But we want to look at our assumptions regarding the way a play is made and reconsider our traditional models of programming. At a time where many theatres define risk as the moment they offer a job to emerging or early career artists, we see many institutionalized ways a company will take this leap of faith with a written text, but not with a director who can be largely responsible for authoring the performance text.
Defining the Director’s Role
Last summer, we ran a week-long workshop for directors as part of the National New Play Network (NNPN) MFA Playwrights Workshop hosted by the Kennedy Center and one of the American theatre’s patron saints, Gregg Henry. The topic was collaborating with playwrights and developing new plays. As we began getting to know our workshop directors, we found time and time again that these directors were waiting for an invitation to begin their work. This waiting game ran the spectrum between assuming any vision they might have for the work depended on the playwright’s blessing, to feeling they couldn’t go out into the world and make their own thing for fear of never finding a home for the work or a company that would support their vision.
When we ask these directors about their vision as artists: the way they will work, the ideas they have, they tell us it depends on the script.
We work with young directors all the time who tell us that the job of a new play theatre director is “to be a midwife, a conduit, or a facilitator.” They tell us the play (the written text) is a baby and they don’t want to hurt the baby, they want to encourage it to grow and to cultivate its development, but they’re afraid that as it grows they might teach it the wrong set of ethics or values. When we ask these directors about their vision as artists: the way they will work, the ideas they have, they tell us it depends on the script. And of course it does, like any collaborative form, but the work of a director or of any artist is not to wait calmly for the instructions, but rather to create, support, and be supported by the other visions in the room. Words like “conduit” and “midwife” define the director as a person or thing that helps to bring something into being or assists its development. The way our directors were talking, we got the feeling that the role of a director is someone who gets out of the way of the art. This paradigm assumes there is an ultimate answer you can unlock on the page, and that you just need to be smart enough to excavate it and lucky enough to get it into three dimensional space without destroying it. Locating yourself as a facilitator/midwife means that there is a text in the room with one possible interpretation that a director must interpret in the right way or fail at the job. It means the play is yours to fuck up. We disagree with this idea. If there is only one interpretation of a play then the role of a director is superfluous.
Trusting Your Collaborators
Rather than rely on a production model where the script has all the answers, what if we assumed the script was a powerful tool among many powerful tools? What if we believed that the most important work was about how a group of people, including the playwright, interpreted the words on the page to create the performance text, rather than the playwright's words being the sole arbiter of quality, and then interpretation as a secondary, less important aspect. That the text is there to make strong proposals to the other artists in the room? What if we believed that the most important work was about how a group of people, including the playwright, interpreted the words on the page to create the performance text?
In our workshops we try to get down to what makes up the functioning mechanics of a highly effective, highly collaborative rehearsal room. What we inevitably see is a group of people from the actor to the playwright to the lighting designer who walk into the room with a strong vision for the work. Having a strong vision does not make you an art tyrant, but having a strong vision requires that you also have the flexibility and interest in absorbing similar strong or even opposing visions from your collaborators. This is all about showing up with ideas and proposals that are steeped in your understanding of the work and inviting a similar set of ideas and proposals to live in your collaborator. The best idea is usually in the room and not in your notebook. The best idea is the alchemy of multiple points of interpretation and understanding, which can only exist in the room with other artists.
In a highly effective, highly collaborative room dozens upon dozens upon dozens of choices and proposals from all sides of the collaboration will fall away, while others will become stronger and more deeply grounded in the work. All of this is only possible because each artist is brave enough and confident enough to make a statement of meaning about the work and then able to listen to the ways those statements are transformed by the other equally brave statements in the room. If we train artists to believe they should hang back and protect their vision from the room, then we’ve forgotten the heart of collaboration. The theatre is a perfect space for the collision of ideas in search of a cohesive shared vision.
This eco-system becomes less and less possible when a director puts themselves “in service,” which we see as another way to talk about working as a mid-wife/facilitator. If you work “in service” of the text, the play becomes an exercise in limitation instead of illumination. Most readings are thrown together in a few hours where the director and actors are hastily rehearsed right up to the edge of performance. There’s often very little time to accomplish much of anything aside from a read through, and this process allows for only the broadest and most basic choices that must “serve” the text. The actors and directors are doing their best to ensure that the script sounds correct (rather than explore potential meanings), they simply don’t have the space or time to consider anything else.
We propose a model that aligns with the values of workshops mentioned above, where the development process is longer, and the team is working to craft an interpretation that is meaningful to the people in that particular room. It’s a model built around the premise that there is not one interpretation of a play, but hundreds, and that everyone (the actors, designers, directors, and playwrights) is responsible for creating an interpretation that is unique to the circumstance of their particular audience. In this way, the process of a rehearsal is about creating consensus and finding ways to authentically get everyone onboard by igniting creativity in each collaborator. If there is any way that a director could be a facilitator, it is here; not to find the one “true” interpretation of a play, but instead to investigate the expression of twenty-plus interpretations of the playwright’s words and cohere those ideas into something that is comprehensible, dynamic, and theatrically vivid.
Multiple Drafts, Multiple Possibilities
Some folks say put the play in the center of the room. We say put the play in the center of yourself and respect that it lives in the center of each of your collaborators as well. Allow the possibility that your interpretation, your proposal for the performance text will yield if not an answer suitable for the final draft of the show, a totally valuable experiment in the search for that final draft, one that will inspire similar proposals from your collaborators. Instead of fearing that you’ll “get the play wrong,” start from a place of adventure, a place of possibility, let the work on the page inspire your creativity instead of minimizing it.
Here’s why this is important:
Good plays are ones that support multiple interpretations. We keep coming back to the Greeks, Molière, Shakespeare because they’re plays that speak to us in different ways, in different situations throughout time. If we try to “director-proof” a play to insure only one interpretation, it shuts down a play’s ability to support a multiplicity of meaning. If we make the play too finite, it can only exist for one group of people at one point in history (and that is of course fine, if that’s what you’re after), but if we want plays that expand the form and invite in new audiences, then we need plays that are built for interpretation. We need collaborators and theatrs that support this very theatre-centric practice of making meaning together.
If we are teaching playwrights to “director-proof” their plays by minimizing the possibility of interpretation, then collaborative teams can never do their best work. If directors are only given two hours to rehearse a reading, then the game is to simply execute the terms laid out on the page. If institutions hire new plays, but not new directors, we are short-circuiting the development of fresh and innovative voices.
Rather than taking one risk on a playwright, take a risk on the team, give them time and space and let them create something bigger than themselves.
A more holistic model of playmaking asks the industry to trust in all collaborators and a multiplicity of interpretations. Rather than taking one risk on a playwright, take a risk on the team, give them time and space and let them create something bigger than themselves. We need to stop thinking that new plays will be the salvation of our declining attendance issues, and instead recognize that it is not only the work that’s being made, but also the way that we’re making work that is the problem.
A Proposal for the Future
What if you commissioned groups of artists, as well as playwrights? What if you gave these developmental teams the space to build a new work and included this commission in your season? What if the brick and mortar buildings of the regional theatre housed collaborative efforts by established companies and opened their resources to emerging artists working together to launch new plays? Rather than placing all the pressure on a single new play or a lone playwright to bring in audiences, theatres might instead commission groups of collaborators (playwright, director, designers, actors, others) to make work, and put those people at the center of the creative process. Let’s privilege the drafts and the drafting process of all the artists in the room, let’s continue to ask; “How will we make it?”
The article is just the start of the conversation—we want to know what you think about this subject, too! HowlRound is a space for knowledge-sharing, and we welcome spirited, thoughtful, and on-topic dialogue. Find our full comments policy here
How about this: How about ALL models of director-play relationships being encouraged? People work differently. Some writers love a collaborative relationship with their director and others don't. Some want multiple interpretations of their plays and other don't. So, how about if you guys, Michael and Will, simply work with those playwrights that do? I, personally, would rather slit my own throat with a rusty kitchen knife than ever work the way you propose - but that's me and I'm just one aging, autocratic asshole. So, why not seek out those writers who will eagerly get on board with your holistic style of creating, and let other directors - those who don't share your concerns - work with controlling narrow-minded freaks like me? The world is a big place and the problem of co-existence is a tricky one and democracy doesn't come easily, but why not allow every one to find their own natural collaborative partners rather than impose any manifesto of what "should" or "shouldn't" be? Respectfully, and with good wishes....
And, in fact, the same argument might well be made for dead playwrights, whose work is in the public domain: They are part of a team who each are doing interpretive work - creating meaning that was not in the original text (And here I differentiate a play from a script: a play is an ephemeral event that is the result of the collective work of many artists, often including a playwright.) Of course if the playwright is not present in the process (for example if they are dead), their collaborative contribution is limited to the text itself...but that is by no means an indication that they are not making an important contribution.
This is, in fact, the standard model for existing work - a bunch of artists get together and add meaning to a text, and present their collaborative work on a stage. That is why different productions of the same play are different. If the playwright isn't involved, they brought exactly the same meaning to the process, but other people brought different meanings, so the play ended up saying something different.
A challenge is introduced for existing plays with active playwrights - a fairly common place between working with a public domain play and working on a devised play with a playwright in the room who values the collaboration of the other artists. This challenging place is primarily a challenge if the playwright feels that they should be the only one in the process who is allowed to have anything creative to say - that is, the only person responsible for what the play says.
One could argue that the playwright is responsible for deciding _what_ people say and the actor (for example), for _how_ they say it. But that is only literally true (and perhaps not always even that - we do cuttings of classic plays all the time). If by 'what the play says' you mean not literally what words are spoken, but more generally, 'what the audience understands about the world after seeing the play that they didn't before', then the playwright is only one source of that understanding...they are not the only person who dictates 'what is said'. For example, by changing the way she delivers a line, without changing a word, an actor can change the _meaning_. So, she is contributing to 'what the play says.'
Thank you for this perspective on new play development, and the possible roles of playwrights, directors, and other collaborators. I fully agree that there is a place for a great deal more collaborative and generative work that includes all of the above participants. I have for years directed in a manner that allows both myself and the other collaborators more agency than the largely playwright-centric model with its endless repetition of staged-readings.
But the truth is that this is not and should not be seen as an either/or situation. There are ways of developing plays that are not playwright driven, and ways of developing plays that are. Both sides are valid - and the role of the participants is different in each. There are playwrights who write towards a creative collaboration with all of the other artists involved (generally led by a director) - think for example of Chuck Mee who sometimes describes a very complex and specific stage direction, and then adds "or something like that," so that directors know the goal is to achieve a similar effect, even if their specific choices are different. And there are playwrights who do not write toward this type of collaboration or openness to radically different interpretations - playwrights who provide a very specific vision in terms of style, stage directions, intent, etc. I think the article makes an understandable, but significant mistake in stating the "Good plays are the ones that support multiple interpretations." Does this mean that, say, Eugene O'Neil did not write good plays? His works are full of extremely specific directions - one needs only read the first few pages of "Morning Becomes Electra" to see how exacting they are.
Personally I don't do well directing those plays, but I know many wonderful directors who do. The pool we are splashing in is big enough for both visions.
All that said, I believe the American Theater has a pretty robust structure as far as playwright driven/text driven development goes. It may not be enough - but the playwright's vision is taken pretty seriously. And we are largely lacking in models, such as the excellent one suggested at the end of this article, that give equal weight to directors and other theater artists as generative artists.
Thank you all for the conversation,
I want to echo some of Ben´s comments shared above. While there are some stimulating general goals articulated in Michael & Will´s article, we must be careful in believing there is a "one size fits all" approach to directing plays, creating theater, rehearsing collaboratively.
Some plays flourish within a kind of consensual hierarchy, particularly when the play has never been staged before. The playwright has labored for months or years on the piece in isolation, and needs collaborators to bring her vision into multidimensional reality. The playwright needs a director and actors to accurately and faithfully bring the page to the stage. Far from superfluous, as Michael and Will write in the article, the distinction here is like that between written sheet music and hearing the music played. Perhaps this is not the kind of theater Will and/or Michael is interested in, but this process can definitely ignite the imaginations of many, many actors and directors today.
Theater does not always depend on plays or playwrights, however, as we know especially from the 20th century. Sometimes groups form around a particular work-ethic, a set of principles or values, that creates new theater in a less hierarchical, more collaborative fashion. Today, this is called "devised theater", but history is rife with examples, from Joseph Chaiken´s Open Theatre to the Living Theatre, from Grotowski´s Polish Theatre Laboratory to Reza Abdoh´s Dar a Luz, the Wooster Group to Theatre du Complicite and the SITI Company.
The role or significance of the (stage) director has grown in importance particularly in the 20th century. Perhaps this is due to the development of cinema, which is often referred to as a "director´s medium"? Theater, primarily an aural medium for thousands of years, has begun shifting towards become increasingly visual in the past century. Some directors have chosen to use their performers as colors on their canvas (Robert Wilson), while others have chosen to become their own theatrical auteurs (Richard Foreman and Richard Maxwell), staging their own works. The field is endless in its diversity.
Seeking better ways to collaborate and work with one another is a worthy goal that I share with the authors, and I believe with anyone taking the time to comment on this article. But one of the fundamental tools to creating an ideal setting for collaboration is to know the goals, needs, and desires of your team. Find out if the writer, if the actors, if the director, share your goals, your working methods, your ways of collaborating. Don´t assume everyone is on the same page.
Lastly, as someone who has worked in theater for 28 years internationally in a variety of settings and conditions, and with a host of collaborators and writers, I must say how much I respect the work of playwrights and every writer, who are able to work in creative solitude for months and years to create new work. As an actor or director, I thrive in a rehearsal setting, because there are other people around to bounce ideas off of; a playwright has created this new work alone, has devoted hours and hours every day to it. After all that, the least I can do is try to "sleuth out" what she has written, and to try and bring that to life. Certainly, there is a conversation to be had, a collaboration, but only to the extent that it is my job as an actor or director to artistically interpret the author´s intent.
Brendan McCallArtistic Director, Ensemble Free Theater Norway
Brendan, thank you for this thoughtful, compassionate, and inclusive response. I have experience as an actor and director, and recently over the past six years as a playwright. Yes there are various ways in which the collaborative theatre making process can unfold itself. Your awareness of the very personal and time involved process that the playwright has already immersed themselves in, usually before any collaborative process begins, and the importance of honoring that in the other team members interpretation of the author's intent, is in my opinion vitally important. In most instances the playwright has lived and breathed this play for some time [sometimes years] before anyone on the 'collaborative team' has seen it. Depending on the type of playwright and play, there is a strong probability they will have much insight into the salient theme of the piece and the subtext. This does not mean that they cannot gain value and insight from others, director and actors, that would enhance the play. That's part of what development process is about, editing, shifting, reworking something in the text. But there were times in this article that I heard an implication that everyone should have an equal say in the shaping of the text itself. Unless the initial beginning of the play project is designed with this type of collaboration, then I do not agree.
Re: ". . . instead to investigate the expression of twenty plus interpretations of the playwrights words and cohere those ideas into something that is comprehensible, dynamic and theatrically vivid." A grand idea, a grand scope, and potentially a real muddy mess. And what exactly is meant by 'interpretations' of the playwrights words. As a director I do not seek out the lighting designers or costume designers interpretation of the text of the play. This does not mean I'm not open to a possible suggestion for something that is creating a momentary stumbling block during the rehearsal process. Anyone has the capacity to shed light on something. However, for the most part I feel you need both team collaboration and a hierarchal structure in most instances [not all] of theatre making. In terms of working with a written script, by a singular playwright, the interpretation of that script, [certainly in terms of written text, and hopefully to some degree the vision of it visually] should primarily be between playwright, director, and dramaturg. Although there definitely have been times when an actor has spoken with me about some line that is problematic or isn't working for some reason, and I get their point and have changed the line, or even added one. The nuanced exploration of how that interpretation is explored, enriched, experimented with, clarified, made vivid, subtext explored etc etc, is primarily between the director, actors, and when relevant other team members. There can be some creative variation of this type of collaborative process of course depending on various factors. But totally equal collaboration is something that is rare, and tremendously difficult to accomplish. People are so willing these days to give you their opinion on something, when they really have limited scope of knowledge and experience within a specific field of endeavor.
Lastly, I'm not certain what the authors exactly meant by good plays being about a multiplicity of meaning. To me good plays, those that receive multiple revivals through the decades and even centuries, are good because the script [i.e., text, story] reveals enduring themes and motifs with emotional vibrancy, depth and relevance that somehow illuminate the human condition. Yes, that illumination may be revived or refreshed via various interpretations [or expressions] of the play [and I suppose in that sense one could say 'meaning'. But it does not remake the play, it does not rewrite the play. It reveals the play in a fresh and vital way.
Thank you for your thorough response, Michael.
Every time a team of artists get together to make theatre, it is a unique combination of inputs, goals, ideas, assumptions. Particularly with people who have not worked with one another before, this can be problematic, as every individual member of the group--from the actor and director to the playwright, designers, producers--all have different notions of how much their input on the process "counts": who has the final say? How is the hierarchy structured? Are there alternatives to traditional ways of theater-making, or does it all return to the same way it´s been done for most of the modern era: a kind of hierarchy, with lots of input from the various collaborators.
I don´t know if "everyone having equal say" is necessarily beneficial or useful. Depends on the situation, how much time one has. If I were Andre Gregory, and had months to explore "Uncle Vanya" with my collaborators, then yes, I would welcome such a chorus of perceptions and voices. However, usually there is a pressure of time--the process must result in some kind of product. There is a deadline of some sort, whether arbitrary or chosen. Not all of us have the luxury of endless amounts of time to explore every possible avenue of what can be done.
Unless we make it so. Because there is no "one size fits all" in theatre-creation, I find the differences between how groups operate important, fascinating, stimulating. And I think this includes discussions around "collaboration" and "ensemble" that are bandied about these days (as if this is somehow a new concept, when in fact people older than when our grandparents where children have been doing it, and doing it radically).
I´ve enjoyed being an actor, a director, a choreographer, and had varying levels of "collaboration" with a wide variety of artists. None of them work the same. Nor do the same people necessarily work the same on every project. Sometimes it´s been rich to have so much of a voice, as an actor; other times, it´s been a joy to let her or him be The Boss, and to do my best to uphold that vision. Sometimes it´s been a headache having "so many voices contributing" to the work; but often, those headaches have lead to break-throughs. They´ve also lead to crap.
Ultimately, I don´t know of a guarantee of what process will work for which project. I have some ideas, some hopes, some views based on experience; but each project is its own night-boat journey. Sometimes we just have to set out, and see what happens. And to do that effectively--for me, anyway--I like having collaborators with me that I trust, that know things that I don´t, and that have the courage to test my views, refine them into their sharpest focus. This is often why I (like others) tend to work with the same people, again and again.
Thanks for the dialogue.
From the perspective of an actor, writer, and director (I've been all three and more of the last lately), I say Amen to this! I too think already established devised/original work theater companies should open their doors to "traditional" playwrights so they can discover the wonder of having a devised process. Sometimes a play is born on the laptop of a writer before it ever hits a director's eyes or an actor's mouth, but even having playwrights who typically play the develop-and-submit game participate in a devised process once or twice would open up a lot of space, conversation, and opportunity. Regional theater gotta get on board, though! Otherwise, we're going to end up with a lot of new plays that sound and look the same.
On another level, asking that great question up front: "Why this play at this time for this audience?" for an established play requires a creative team to open up the doors of the play to interpretation. If playwrights only want their play to be interpreted in one specific way, that play may never have relevance outside the time and place it is originally produced.
Two years ago the grants we received from the Pew and Independence Foundations made it possible for me to to bring the playwright, Paula Vogel, into the midst of a theater company. Her new play Don Juan Comes Home from Iraq was developed similarly to what you propose in your essay.
In January 2013, we organized a reading of Ödön von Horváth’s play Don Juan Returns from the War, which was an inspiration for our project. At the same time Paula, Walter Bilderback (the Wilma’s Dramaturg), and I began reading and viewing materials about the wars in Iraq andAfghanistan and their consequences. We also interviewed many veterans of the two wars in Philadelphia and Washington,D.C. In April, we held a week-long vocal and physical movement workshop with Jean-René Toussaint for twenty Philadelphia actors. Out of this group, Paula,Jean-René, and I chose a company of nine. Paula had a company of actors before she wrote a single word. Paula wrote the play for these actors and their voices. She told me that she heard them when she wrote. She had never had that experience before in her entire career.
Paula was working on the script, writing it in her head, as she said, and by the time we had our first two-week workshop in October, we had forty pages of text. By the time of ourDecember workshop, we were close to having a play, with only a few scenes missing. During these two workshops, we were also working to develop an acting company through unifying physical and vocal exercises and improvisations. Simultaneously, our designers were developing the world of the play before it was completely written. Matt Saunders and I imagined a set that was metaphysical and non-literal, expressing internal stages of Don Juan: his PTSD. Like the bodies and voices of the actors, design elements, too, influenced Paula’s script-in-progress.
Paula felt very strongly that we had to reciprocate veterans’ generosity and offer something to them. She led four different playwriting workshops for veteran writers over the past year. As many of theater people know, Paula is an extraordinary teacher. In her workshops everybody, including me, as well as the actors, had to become writers. Through writing together, we developed a network of veterans who became our advisers, making sure that we had our facts right and that our actors fully understood theexperiences they’d be portraying. It has been an unexpectedly strong collaboration. Selection of veterans writing from these will be featured in one of the evening during the run and will be read by the cast. .
This project has been a great artistic risk. We scheduled the play in our season before it was written. The process was daring, stimulating, creative, and purposeful. The production is opening this Wednesday.
Blanka, this is thrilling! I'm so glad to hear that the project was a success, and that the collaborative model led to a great project!
I am hoping I can hop down to Philadelphia to see it, especially hearing this about the process. THIS is how to do it: production support from the get-go. Rare and amazing and super brave.
I love the idea of commissioning a creative team--writer, director, designers, and performers--to bring a new work out. I love love love that idea. Where these "let's not fuss about the play/playwright" essays leave me cold comes down to this: where are you while I'm getting up at 5:30 every morning to write before work? Where are my collaborators? I don't have any yet! The play isn't written! Once I've put it through several drafts and honed it and had a living room read and maybe an outside read...THEN, then it starts to attract attention from potential collaborators. And it doesn't sit well with me when those collaborators, principally the director, want to be a big happy collaborative group where the playwright has no more say than anyone else. It ESPECIALLY galls me in situations where the directors and actors have been hired (paid) to do a workshop, but I, the writer, am in the position of being "gifted" this opportunity. And don't get me wrong--getting time and collaborators and a theater interested in supporting a workshop week is wonderful! But I'm also taking a week off from paid work while you are gaining a week of paid work. And I get into a territorial little snit about the sudden democratic attitude in the room. Are these my best qualities as a person and as an artist. No. I don't like being territorial and adversarial and assertive and playing these games. And I would love a format that could truly foster collaboration. That format doesn't start with me on my own for a year, alone with a project no one cares about but me. But that's how it is now. I would love an opportunity to find out how it feels to start together, but that's not my world, and it's not a lot of playwrights worlds.
Catherine, I totally hear your concern. We wrote this article to change the system and to allow for more playwrights to find themselves in collaborative situations with director, writers, performers and designers. We feel that most theaters don’t really recognize that this type of team-work is really essential. As a couple people mentioned in the comments, some theaters are starting approach new play development through a different model! Am I right in hearing that you’re upset because the theater paid everyone else except you? is that what made you feel territorial or was there something else about that specific situation?
I do get where you're going--and like I said, I love the idea. How fun would it be to have a team in place to make a show like that with production support? I'm not complaining about a particular situation so much as trying to be honest about the resistance I have--and many playwrights I know share this resistance--to being suddenly confronted with "this isn't YOUR play, this is a big collaboration." To change the system will take big shifts in business as usual for theaters, but it also will mean playwrights will have to give up the only piece of business control we currently have. We are both central and strangely marginal to the current process, and as long as we're routinely dealing with things like being barred from rehearsals and forbidden to speak to actors (or anyone at the theater, according to the most territorial directors!), my honest take is that I won't be giving an inch, even if I can see green, green grass over there.
I'm so grateful to have read this piece. I've been trying to find similar sorts of opportunities for myself as a collaborative playwright, with some success here and there. What's you're proposing is deemed a huge risk in this market-place, and one that tried and true "devised theatre companies" have cornered the market-place on. While I'm a fan of devised theatre, I often feel like I'm jogging alongside, saying "Can I come and play too? I can pitch in on the Narrative?"
The well-meaning play development companies and festivals often speak of serving the needs of the play and the playwright. But a part of this piece that really struck a chord with me was this - why do we all think that the playwright has all the answers? Obviously, someone has to finally make a decision when concensus isn't present (as Moises Kaufman had to do with the Tectonic Theatre on The Laramie Project) as the show has to go on. (I was chuckling to myself last night at the Muppet Movie when Kermit the Frog is abducted and finally the whole company can literally run amock because the evil Constantine Frog says "Do anything you want" complete with Animal's hour and a half drum solo! Dramaturgy be damned!)
But I think some of the reason why musicals and screenplays are so often successfully written in pairs is because those artists don't have to suffer alone, they can say to that friendly someone, "Hey, what about this?" or "You know what would be great?" I've heard stories that the Coen brothers sort of like to crack each other up all the time, and of course the audience is the beneficiary of that dialogue. How can you get good at telling jokes without someone there to laugh?
Last year, I was commissioned by Simpatico Theatre Project to develop an adaptation of Lysistrata based on some sort of theatrical question about "the war on women". The idea was actually the director's, Ali Garrett. Our concept was to put together a group of actors and the original text and workshop some ideas in the fall in 8-10 workshops which were sort of trial balloons where we unpacked the original, brought in rhetoric and research from the media, and music and just sort of played around with it. I basically sort of imagined what I thought Max Stafford Clark and Caryl Churchill did when they developed their work with Joint Stock. We then boiled the so-called war on women down to a hypothetical bit of legislation we imagined - what would happen if women couldn't get birth control without their husband's permission? Something out there in this current realm, but only just. So we went with that, I did two drafts and we read them, and this small company padded the rehearsal process so that we had time to develop new scenes with the actors but the outline was solid. It was sort of crazy, and we argued, but we had fun and in the end - every one had contributed something to the play or to their character's point of view. Who's idea was what? It was Our idea. It came from the conversation.
Plays and playwrights thrive with deadlines. So do productions. Instead of just serving the needs of the playwright, if we all look to serving the needs of the production, the audience might benefit. After all, for all the service to what we put in the pot, somebody's gotta eat the soup.
What I don't understand, as a playwright, is who has the authorial say within this collaboration as to "intention". This seems like another straw-man argument by a director who wishes to minimize the writer's intention. That you use a vague sense of virtue in "collaboration" concerns me and causes me to distrust you.
Hi Chuck, I know that we put a lot of faith in the word collaboration. I don’t like it myself because it’s extremely vague and I find that it tends to be overused. But I will defend a certain amount of virtue in “collaboration” because in my experience, it allows for a much better production. Collaboration shouldn’t mean hiding an author’s intention, if anything it should bring it to the forefront. Perhaps “concatenation” is a better way of thinking about it. I’m not trying to minimize the author’s intention. I want to “add to” or "enhance" to the author’s intention. Simply executing an author’s intention makes the director’s role and really the actors role superfluous. Why else do you want the other people in the room?
I want them to help clarify the intention as written. I heard an interview with Josh Homme of Queens of the Stone Age regarding the fact that a rock band is not best served by democracy. The songwriter needs his fellow musicians to help make the sounds in his head real. I think the same is true of a written script. Devised work is different. That is a different conversation. A written script needs smart creative artists to help use their craft to clarify the story. That clarification process seems mutually exclusive to the authorial license the playwright needs to have if the story will have intent. It doesn't mean the playwright is best served as a dictator but it does mean that there is a deference to the writer when choices need to be made.
So, I think you have a great perspective worth discussing Chuck- and I'm wondering, don't we all want directors to make our words and ideas as meaningful and brilliant to their audience as possible? I think the best directors are able to totally honor the author's intentions while still finding a new way of engaging the piece with an audience. And, I'd also assert that in the best cases, a director can find new ground to explore within the world of a play that brings new clarity and meaning to the playwright's work.
So, maybe we should be looking at building stronger relationships between directors and playwrights? I think something Michael and Will discussed- bringing the actors, director, and the playwright together to build something new- is totally valuable to everyone in the process.
What a great article- love the idea of commissioning groups of artists to build new works, love the multiplicity of possibilities in the un-finite play, love the mystery and joy of actually trusting our collaborators...
This was an amazing article, the last paragraph alone was exciting. Imagine what a process like this would yield.
We shouldn't have to imagine it. Bertolt Brecht, in The Short Organum for the Theatre,puts it this way:
“The ‘story’ is set out, brought forward and shown by the theatre as a whole, by actors, stage designers,mask-makers, costumiers, composers and choreographers. They unite their various arts for the joint operation, without of course sacrificing their independence in the process.” (Willet's "Brecht on Theater" p202)
Fantastic article. Having worked for 15 years in Amnahattan to foster just such relationships and pertnerships around new work with varying degrees of success, I would say the wall we are coming upon is how does the economic model in America inform how theatre creators make choices. Iwould observe at top levels , the definition of "roles" in a production is essesntial to budget preparation and proposals that creat e funding for work at major institutions. So I ask the question, can you have a serious career as a creator in the theatre if you are not recognized and even publicly priased for your role in a production's development? How do you gain credibility in our industry that allows you ask a higher price for your services?Of course the question is how do we make work, but the other question outside of that is how do we make lives? How do we fashion reasonable or maybe only semi-resonable conditions for artists to enter into to engage in their craft? Who is responsible for creating those conditions and I think as you take steps further back you'll find they are may who oversee purse strings of the arts who are more concerned with an unclear process than they are with a mediocre product. As long as there are unions at the center of our industry that prescribe very particualr roles for individuals who will get very specific economic returns from those roles, artists will continue, by necessity of professional standing , align themselve with one particualr task.I suggest we need a new word.Theatricians: artists of multiple disciplines in the the theatre. We've been using this word for a decade and a half in our company.How we make art will change when we change how we define artist in the theatre and I think we need to begin by recognizing that being an artist in the theatre is a worthwhile profession to be devoted to not only under the shelter of academia, but out in the wild world of a free market economy - which it is - and if it is, how do we recognize and give credit to artists who refuse to categorize themselve and hyphenate themselves.
Hamilton Clancy, Producing Artistic DirectorThe Drilling Company Theatre New York, New York