Playwrights

Collaborators or Contractors?

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,

Book cover for Free Fire Zone
Free Fire Zone by Theresa Rebeck. 

 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?

 

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

 

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.

P. 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?

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The playwright's greatest power is being the creator of a dramatic story. This does not require the validation of a stage production. Plays do exist on the page. The vast majority of dramatic stories I have consumed existed on the page for me because there are only so many actual productions I could see. The playwright does not need anyone's permission to exercise his power. The only thing the playwright needs to overcome is internalized barriers.

What a question! As a playwright who is also a director, dramaturg, and producer, I have the good fortune to sit in the center of a local creative world of my own making. I have also been fortunate to have been a guest playwright whose work won a production award that came with a week of workshopping. A lot of my theatre work has been in workshopping and play development and I have directed work with the playwright in the house. In nearly all cases the work has been a hierarchy where the dramaturg/director leads the rehearsals/sessions and the playwright observes from the sidelines, offers comments when asked, but largely participates solely with the director/dramaturg post- or mid-session.

This situation, in a friendly, creative, open situation works well, and as a playwright I endorse it. I recognize that I, as a playwright, have a right to comment on a director's choices, but I also recognize that I gave permission to the theatre and director to take the lead in bringing my work to either a performance or to a more developed state. The idea is that one must be able to trust one's colleagues. In most situations, I have found, this works admirably and both sides (playwright and director/dramaturg, if one must say “sides” at all) come away satisfied and proud of what they have accomplished.

It seems that the item of contention here is whether the playwright, by virtue of their artistry, should have a more substantial role in rehearsals or development processes. In many cases, I don't see why not. My question is whether the playwright has the experience and knowledge to participate knowledgeably as a smooth addition to the process. And does the director/dramaturg know how to keep the playwright engaged in the process without dividing the attentions of the cast or readers? (Has the director/dramaturg written a play and had it produced? We talk about playwrights learning the rest of the art by being an AD an such, but it would do well to find directors and dramaturgs who've been on the “flip side.”) It seems that much of the contention may come from establishing separate areas of power that exclude rather than include.

Theatre is collaborative. It has to be, or it's a tyranny. I state this several times in my new book, “Workshopping the New Play; A guide for playwrights, directors, and dramaturgs” (published this coming November, Applause Books). In my POV the health and sanctity of the text or production is paramount; all participants have to be willing, respectful, and above all cooperative.

As a playwright I've worked with some outstanding director/dramaturgs who took my input respectfully and clearly held me as an equal in the process. I found that although I had been asked to keep my comments for certain times (not in the actual process, but in conversation with the director, etc) I was not made to feel secondary to the process. As a playwright whose child was being worked with, I tried my best to be dutifully parental but not helicopter-parental. After I came to trust the crew, it was easy. I also understood what “theatre is collaborative” really means: that your director chooses a certain way, to present your work. They proceed according to a certain vision, an interpretation. It may not be what you had originally imagined, but most times, if you look at what they have done, you learn something about your work. The change in perspective is almost always educational. Look at it this way: if you are successful as a playwright and your work is done here and there, you won't be at all of the rehearsals or shows. You'll have to trust others to present your work responsibly and creatively.

But I'm speaking of a perfect world. In some cases, boundaries are ignored by directors who “know better,” or playwrights who must be actively involved throughout the directing process, giving advice or “clarifying issues” during a rehearsal process. Teresa Rebeck writes about “confusing” a cast with dual avenues of input. She has a point. Traditionally it's the director who helms the rehearsal process. Most direction comes from them; the rest is created by the cast who must eventually take the stage and breathe life into the script. Having a playwright take “equal” rank and, like one or two I've worked with, inject their opinions and comments within an active rehearsal process only serves to, yes, confuse the actors and crew, diminish the authority of the director, and ultimately leave the production without a solid established vision.

Theatre is collaborative. But within that collaboration a system must be established and respected. Only within a smoothly working system will success be achieved. Now, before you send out the hit squad, playwrights' opinions and observations should (of course) very much be taken into consideration. In the rehearsal rooms they should definitely be collaborators, not contractors. Equals, not resected guests. They must, however, understand the system and realize that, with a good director, they will have all the input they need. Conversations between the two should be frequent and respectful. Questions of choice, of technique, must be explained, and questions determining the playwright's intentions and allaying their worries must be addressed as well. Not just at the outset, but all the way through.

As I said, I'm a playwright. I've been in awe of the rehearsal room, the actors, the director. And I've come to learn that I can make my observations heard, my opinions taken into consideration, and my worries noted. In nearly all cases this is a profitable and enjoyable situation for both of us. I'm the playwright, and I have given this director permission to take my work to the stage. And here's the key: I have the right to say no. I have the right to say that the choices made do not serve the play and I wish for another strategy to be employed. It is a right that must be used judiciously, not abused.

A perfect-world solution to this question might be if playwrights learned how to do most aspects of theatre. Writing in a vacuum restricts a playwright's experience and therefore their ability to grow. Better writers emerge when they serve as assistant directors, stage managers, and even learn how to direct and actually doing so on a few occasions. Personally, I love directing. I might even love it as much as writing. But I know from doing both, as well as serving as an AD or SM that my writing for the stage...no, writing for a theatre...has grown, matured, and become more informed. Maybe a theatre program specifically inviting playwrights, new and experienced, to learn how the rest of the business actually works.

(And this begs the question: do I ever direct my own work? The answer is: Only when I can't find anyone else to do it. I already know what the script looks like in my head; I'd rather give the work over to someone I trust who is experienced and judiciously adventurous to bring it to life. The more I see other visions of my work, the more I learn about my work.)

This is why I like to direct my own work. I have lived with the script for years while I was writing it. I have training and experience in directing actors. I have managed theater companies. I have produced plays. I have been a marketing director. I have studied scenic design and lighting. When I work with collaborators on my plays - designers, actors, technicians - I must remind myself every day to keep an open mind and listen to their ideas. An outside perspective is vital. Collaboration will make the play better. But I believe strongly in having the last word.

Excellent article. Everything you said were the reasons I co-founded one theater company made up of playwrights and am now the founding artistic director of my own company that, among other things, produces my own work. The director-centric model is so ingrained in the theater I couldn't think of any way to address it except to circumvent it. I knew I was more than "just" a playwright; I make theater in the real literal sense. Even running my own company and explaining to people the model, I still see, for example, designers ignoring my presence in meetings and talking solely to the director.

this article makes me wanna cry - 20 years ago i was trying to get my plays produced. i had a play on off-off broadway. i was told, don't talk to the actors, and the directer was alarmed to have me present at the rehearsalsm,etc, etc. in other cases, artistic directors rejected my plays because they didn't fit their vision. i found too often that there was an inability to imagine the dramatic movement (i apologize if this comes across as arrogant). i once had a very successful production - the director listened to me, i listened to the director; i spoke directly to the actors. audience response was emotional, powerful & many many people came to speak to me or congratulate me, or speak of their own responses. but the play also triggered controversy; the artistic director of the main professional theatre company in town heartily congratulated the director but studiously avoided me. ? i eventually stopped offering my plays to theatres; i lost heart; theatre, my first love, seemed mired in avant garde experimental, or tedious old tried & true. the message i got was that writing authentically about current issues is too frightening, too risky. i've won awards in other genres for the few things i've published; the one short play i've publised gets produced often... but... it all remains with me. i haven't given up, just pulled back. i call it my emily dickenson complex. maybe it's time to try again.

This is a very intriguing post. I think taking a look at the way George C Wolfe, a playwright and director, organized the eco-system of production at The Public Theater could be a fascinating case study of this. There's no question that he changed the face of Off Broadway theater community when he ran that theater - but why? How? It would be interesting to speak with writers who were produced at The Public during Wolfe's tenure to see how they operated within the collaborative teams for their play productions. Was it any different from any other theater they've worked at? Were they empowered in any unique ways due to Wolfe's perspective as a fellow writer? I'd be interested in knowing more about this.

What a relief to read this insightful post - it's about time this perspective is taken seriously. Thank you, Jayne Benjulian! It's a pleasure to meet you on HowlRound and I'll look for more writing, speaking, teaching and whatever else you're doing.

Written in haste, alas, but you have made my day!

My first collaboration with a director (on a fringe show) was very much like this. I was told when I was giving notes and wanted to show up to my own rehearsals that I was not appreciating the "innate hierarchy that must be adhered to". She put this in an email to my producer, at which time we had a throwdown fight at a diner. I insisted from that day on that I be present at every rehearsal. I believe the show was better because of it. I definitely gave most of my notes to her and let her direct the actors.

The playwright has to be in the room for at least some of the time. It doesn't serve the play not to be. Currently, I am giving my director 4 days alone with the actors so they can breathe and I don't keep rewriting all the time, but other than that I've been there almost every day. It is my responsibility to be present, especially if it is a first run. How is the play supposed to be production-ready if you aren't allowed to do the work? I will never understand this about theater.

Super interesting. As an emerging theatre company we have talked about producing our own written work and as a result, I think, may end up with a playwright at the helm. However, the many directors we have worked with have been invaluable when it comes to readings, workshops and staging. Maybe a co-artistic team would be interesting with a writer and director presented as equals from the start.

Excellent points in the article and the comments. I have always happily worked with the director in the prescribed way, until a recent production experience woke me up. It was clear that the inexperienced director (a former actress) considered me extraneous to the process. She couldn't be a nicer person, but her experience as an actress had taught her that the director drives, period. She was honestly baffled when I showed up to rehearsal. It wasn't a terrible experience only because she was new enough to chalk up the trouble to her own naivete. Wow, I've been lucky with my directors in the past! We can do better than get lucky, though. We can change the terms.

I love the questions this article poses. When I got out of grad school about a decade ago, I spent a few years as co-Artistic Director of Salvage Vanguard Theater in Austin, Texas. We were dedicated to producing new plays (usually world premieres) and dedicated to giving the playwright a strong voice in the production process. I always felt welcome and accommodated as a playwright in rehearsal—sometimes addressing actors (and designers, and anyone else) directly, sometimes going through the director. And I believe most of the writers we worked with felt similarly.

It was therefore a shock when I had my first Equity production, and the director informed me that she would be happy to take my notes about a rehearsal at some point when it was convenient (maybe in a day or two). And when that moment finally came, and I questioned the staging of a particular scene, she looked like I’d just slapped her in the face. She reminded me that the staging was her responsibility, not mine. I asked her if she thought it was odd that she could give me notes on the script, recommending cuts and changes, but I wasn’t welcome to do the same with her work. She informed me that this was how it was done in professional theatre.

None of this felt like “collaboration” to me. It felt like reporting to my supervisor when I was 16 and working at K-Mart.

Of course, many would say, “Well, you just had a bad director,” and maybe that’s true. But my point is, the traditions in place now have a very powerful gravitational pull. Even in the best of circumstances, it can be very tempting, when one’s point of view is challenged, to revert to familiar power structures and shut the conversation down.

Art is scary, especially to make. It’s scary to be in the rehearsal hall and not know what’s going wrong. Or to feel it’s going well, only to see the look on your collaborator’s face that screams, “Dear God, what is this mess?” But it seems like a true collaboration has got to place the director and the playwright on an even level. If not, then we shouldn’t really call it collaborating. We should call it the Thank-you-for-your-product-and-your-recommendations-on-its-successful-implementation-and-we’ll-call-you-if-anything-needs-fixing System. Or “Blue Light Special” for short.

Dan,

If I couldn't comment on staging I would be pissed off. Although I don't work as a director, I have that training and I can read directorial storytelling in a dramaturgical sense . . . and very well. If the director was not open to a conversation I would have a few words with the artistic director.

(of course, perhaps this is why I am relegated to the purgatory of indie theater).

Absolutely, Alejandro. And I don't mean to imply that all of my non-indie production experiences have been like this one. I've actually had many wonderful rehearsal room partnerships with directors, where we discovered what the play wanted to be together in exactly that symbiotic mode you talk about. It seems essential to making the best work, and to making the most of the talent and brainpower gushing around the room.

what a great conversation. as i mentioned in my comment, this was my experience in theatre 20 yrs ago. the few positive experiences was with an indie community theatre, and where i produced my own play in a fringe festival. i felt like an outcast at the time. i had a family to support & i just eventually stopped trying to get my plays produced.

Great post.

My main collaborative relationship has been with a director. And we also both wear producing hats on the projects we share.

I guess it's made me uppity and given me a skewed view of play development because our relationship is equal and symbiotic. I write plays to be unpacked and discovered in a rehearsal process. I write plays that contain challenges and opportunities for a director to solve. I write plays that require me to be in the room working these things out hand in hand with a director. Unfortunately many literary departments don't know how to read this kind of play.

I feel I am an equal in the room with the director. We're both collaborating on creating an experience. I need to guard the text and he needs to guard the production of said text. With trust and intimacy we can work more symbiotically with me commenting on staging and he commenting on text. Also, my director invites me to speak with the designers and come to production meetings. I don't know why this is so radical.

Sometimes I don't take advantage of my freedoms. I often don't like to talk to actors during the staging process because the information they need is about how to play something and what I have to offer them is often intellectual (as I am discovering the play in my own way), so I like to channel my notes through a director. Actors don't want to know what their character symbolizes. They want to know what they want and how to get it. A director can articulate that for them. And sometimes I don't need to go to design meetings. I don't want to start fixing my play to make life easier for the set designer (and then I go home and feel shame for writing such a difficult script).

I agree with the comments above that theaters need to develop relationships with WRITERS and not just one play. I feel like there is so little of that in today's theater. New Dramatists is a great example where the emphasis is on the writer and not the play they write. Not all writers require the same process or are trying to write in the same way.

Jayne, many of your observations are right on and well documented/supported. The one addition I would suggest: who or what does the theatre have a relationship with? As you note above, the AD may fall in love with the play...and so the relationship may be with the play itself; the writer is secondary.

We often hear of theatres providing a home for a writer, which suggests that the theatre has a relationship with the writer--not a single play but the writer's work. But few theatres can afford such a relationship, for they lack the funds to support a writer's time writing / developing the play or the personnel resources needed to support the writer by nurturing the relationship.

It takes time to establish and grow a relationship and, people are needed to strengthen those ties,even with Facebook and other Social Networking sites.

There are places blessed to offer commissions but they too run the risk of forging a relationship with the play and not the writer. I'm reminded of a search I conducted trying to identify work for a new play festival. A large commissionning theatre said they did not have anything to share--even for a reading. I also called a playwright friend or two and, as it turns out, one of these writers had a play sitting in a drawer at this very same theatre. The writer managed to have the play 'released' for the reading. And the play as well as the writer went on to achieve great success.

It was at this moment, all those years ago, when I began to actively question who or what theatres cultivate their relationship with.

If the relationship is with a play, no writer will ever have a voice. Yes, people may bend to accommodate the writer's requests during development and rehearsal, but the relationship is as long-lasting as the run and a few months more. And because it can take a bit of time to write a play, there may not be a strong enough institutional memory (or representative in the literary staff) who can remind others of the writer's positive role in moving the theatre to its current place.

Truly embracing our choice to forge a relationship with a writer will shift the writer's voice at a theatre, within the theatre community, and the rehearsal process--ironically, the briefest but most influential period in a writer's and play's life.

Lenora Inez Brown

One of the ways of creating the changes articulated in this excellent article, would be if Foundations gave grants directly to playwrights who could then choose at what venue and with what director the play should be produced.

It would help weaken the uniform judgements of the artistic gatekeepers in theaters, and put the financial power to get the work produced in the hands of the single person who cares most about it. Turn playwrights into buyers and decision makers and we will have less waste and more exciting theater.

Maybe it would require a fiscal agent to monitor how the money was spent and to audit it, but that would be a low overhead.

Thank you for this.

You have articulated thoughts and questions I have only half-formulated myself -- largely since the recent appointment of playwright Kwame Kwei-Armah as Artistic Director of Center Stage in Baltimore -- and done so with great eloquence.

These challenges need further exploration. Frankly, I need to ask myself why I've never considered working as an AD myself.

In DC, we have an excellent model for playwright-as-AD: Ari Roth at Theater J. I think it's worthy of note that he has consistently turned his theater into a place where playwrights are genuinely empowered collaborators. Not at all surprising.

So much to chew on. Again, thank you.