Last summer David Dower went to PlayPenn and got a big reaction after he mentioned that new play funding and resources has begun to shift away from playwrights and towards companies. I wasn’t there. I only heard about it second-hand. (Although I heard it from David, so it was more like one-and-half-hand.) If the change is coming, I welcome it. This isn’t an either/or situation, playwrights versus devised companies. Rather, this is an evolution—one where writers might need to find and argue for their place in collaboratively created work. Some of that adaptation starts with language. And it continues when we are able to adequately articulate what we bring to the table.
I split my time between conventional playwriting and devised work. So sometimes I tap out ninety pages on my laptop and look for a reading, and other times…well…I’m always trying to explain exactly what it is I do. My role as a writer in devised theater feels distinct from the work of a conventional playwright. While the skills might translate, I find the tag of playwright to be cumbersome. The joy of devised work is devising a process with collaborators and discovering our role. To free myself from the assumptions that come with being a playwright, I felt I needed a new term. So when I am doing devised work I like to call myself a “script designer.” On devised projects I may use the skills of playwright, but in a fragmented form.
I’ve co-created a generous handful of play with my theater collective called The Duplicates. Early in the development of a devised piece about the Dionne Quintuplets, called The Fictional Life of Historical Oddities, we were trying to get a handle on how the initial imagery and design ideas might fit into the whole. I had a small revelation. We’re trying to structure the piece. I know how to do that. I structure my plays all the time. My collaborators were designers and directors, perhaps they had structured stories before, but this felt like my expertise. I took the lead of the discussion. I asked the group the same questions I ask myself when creating the form of my plays.
Nothing gives me a feeling of mastery over skills like having to explain them. I’ve made an evolving list of the different skills I can bring to the table.
In creating work with others, sometimes the skills of the writer are exactly what are needed. Ultimately, using the term script designer isn’t a radical idea. Many of my fellow playwrights are doing similar stuff. We follow in the rich tradition of writers who’ve found a different way to interact within ensemble and collaborative companies. I look to Lee Breuer and Mabou Mines, Caryl Churchill and The Joint Stock Theatre Company, and Kirk Lynn and The Rude Mechs. For me, Script Designer makes more sense in terms of credit, in that my function was not too different than a designer.I used my craft in service of the production.
With Fictional Life I did not write the whole script. I don’t even know if I wrote half. But there was not a single word I did not closely examine. One of the benefits of intense collaboration is it forces me to open up and communicate my process. Nothing gives me a feeling of mastery over skills like having to explain them. I’ve made an evolving list of the different skills I can bring to the table.
Generating text: The basic act of playwriting is writing—dialogue that moves, sentences that compel, and words that intrigue. Generating text with other people: I can also help other people create text by sharing skills and methods for creation.
Editing/Compiling text: Wherever text comes from—writers, interviews, found sources, improvisation, adaptation, Dead Sea scrolls—someone has to put it together into dialogue, monologues, and scenes. I take the material and select, omit, combine, and reformat (because everyone knows that if a scene isn’t working, it might be the wrong font).
Story: Not every piece of theater has a story, but many do. And those that do, can look to a playwright, who is often trying to turn an idea, an image, or a fragment of language into a series of events.
Structure: A project may focus on a story or a concept, but either way, I want it to culminate in a satisfying piece of theater. I believe the form of a piece should speak to the content—by contrast, compliment, resonance, etc. It’s just another way of asking: What’s the best way to tell this story?
Fine-tuning language: With my own plays, by the last few weeks of rehearsal I have made all my big changes. I turn my attention to the details—making the bad sentences better and the good sentences great. It’s the exact same thing in a devised process. And while everyone else is making sure that the stilts fit for the old woman puppet or that the house light balloons are working, I’m the one who realizes that the White Chair monologue is a sentence too long.
Drama: A playwright has to know how to ratchet up the tensional forces of a play through all those wonderful things like conflict, stakes, urgency, and action. While not as concrete as generating X number of pages of text, these are very necessary tools. On any given project I may only use a few of these skills. So when working with new collaborators I like to break down what is expected of me. Do they want text they can play with? Do they want me to turn improvisation exercises into scenes? Who gets final edit of the script? Often these skills are interrelated and parsing them among collaborators can be nearly impossible. Where, exactly, is the separation between structure and story? As soon as I step outside the conventional role of playwright, things become more complicated. Isn’t that wonderful?
Despite the challenges, bouncing back and forth between the role of the playwright and the role of the script designer has made me a better writer, collaborator, and artist.
I attempt to negotiate ownership, credit and compensation with as few assumptions as possible. The benefits of conventional theater are the roles create guidelines for who is responsible for what. Without these structures, collaboration is dangerous. Even more reason to know what you will give and what you will get. Despite the challenges, bouncing back and forth between the role of the playwright and the role of the script designer has made me a better writer, collaborator, and artist. By working in different processes, I’ve refined my craft with language, story, and structure. I’ve learned new vocabularies, different rhythms, and adapted what I do well to other impulses.
By employing my craft to different projects, I can make my voice more dynamic and elastic, capable of things I never thought possible. When I go back to writing plays on my own, I come with new skills. Yet, I would never abandon my playwriting. Writing a play is a reminder of the freedom of not answering to anyone else and the responsibility of not having anyone else to blame. When I sit down to write now, I try to balance what I’ve learned working with others alongside all of the skills of the playwright. So, you know, piece of cake. I have a wish. I hope that writers will be both script designers and playwrights. We will write new plays. And we will get gigs working with other companies the way designers do. (I also wish the inverse—that productions could originate with a really killer set design.)
The skills we have as playwrights could make us invaluable as collaborators. I’ve seen devised work that has thrown out the role of the playwright, and with it, lost some of the skills of the writer to the detriment of the work. (Although sometimes the writer-less work is phenomenal.) I hope I get to design scripts for the Duplicates for years and years. I hope I work with dozens of companies that challenge me. And I hope I write a bunch of hard fought plays. I believe alternating these two roles will make our plays better and make for better devised theater.
Special thanks to my mentors. I borrowed a couple bits of terminology. I will return them when I am done.