Essay by

Script Designer

Essay by

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.

Actors on stage
Production photo from The Fictional Life of Historical Oddities by
the Duplicates, produced at Cohen New Works Festival, 2011.
Photo by Tom Horan.

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.    

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Thanks for this great and useful piece. Just one tangential quibble-- your citing of David's comment that funding is moving from "playwrights to companies". When exactly did playwrights get funded, rather than "new play development" organizations who then "choose" playwrights through the endless process of submission (in more senses than one)?

Funding directly to playwrights, who could then choose collaborators for their projects, is actually an excellent idea. It would create a very different landscape. I wonder how many playwrights are impelled towards company based models by the need for autonomy and creative input, given our disenfranchisement in the shopping-cart "new play" model? Yes, ensemble creation and "script design" can be wonderful-- processes I've embraced at times and loved working in.

But the idea that "playwrights" are funded in any meaningful way --meaning, given money to underwrite our own productions and see companies bid to work with us (a kind of reverse commission--back the generative artist first, not the organization) doesn't fit my understanding of "new play development" in the US context. The places that do put the writer first, significantly, don't have direct ties to production (New Dramatists, Playwrights Center, PlayPenn, etc. etc.)

I like this idea. I think that a playwright's ability to adapt is one of the greater skills that you could acquire. The new ground that we pave today always leads to the new "normal" tomorrow.

First of all, Tom awesome article. And great discussion that is happening here.I am one of those confounding duplicates that Tom mentioned and can confirm that this discussion that has been happening is one that we have been having from our first show. I believe we were all more interested in the question and topic of ownership as opposed to the ownership itself. We have a wonderful understanding with each other that everyone does everything and should there for receive credit. However as we progress with the company and our work the topic of ownership has begun to take on a more physical presence and less philosophical discussion. But due to our early on openness with each other about what everyone wanted I think that this transition from "this is interesting to talk about" into "we need to know this to write the grant due tomorrow!" has been for the most part a painless process. I am excited to continue this topic of discussion as we and our work grow and evolve.

Thanks for getting all this chatter going Tom!


Thank you Tom & Richard for chiming in on my query about "ownership" of collaboratively created works. The copyright ownership is somewhat different from the credit line. As Richard's comments illustrate, it is when someone actually starts making money that people seem to start caring the most. Rather than writing about the court decisions that have addressed "joint authorship," (for those of you who are interested, you could read the Childress v. Taylor decision and the Thomson v. Larson decision) I am mostly interested to hear if folks that are doing collaborative work are discussing those copyright issues at all and if so, at what point do they start discussing them.

Dan, I think the first time the issue of compensation for playwrights involved in collaborative creation came up in the US was with Jean Claude van Itallie and the Open Theatre in the 1960s. That time period may make this seem like I'm referencing the Prussian Wars, but the issues they confronted are the same today. The Open Theatre was led by its founder, Joe Chaikin, and van Itallie was referred to by Joe as its resident playwright. But the range of what van Itallie did was nearly identical to the processes Tom Horan describes here.

Initially, van Itallie assumed (and Joe assumed) that as playwright, he'd take a standard playwright's royalty for publication of the scripts that resulted from the Open Theatre's collaborative process. That was fine until the performers realized that he was actually making money from this arrangement. In extended discussions, the performers argued that they were doing the playwriting as much as van Itallie was, that he was in fact recording and editing their improvisational work and then putting his name on the resulting texts. van Itallie argued that he usually provided the initial "scenarios" that formed the basis of these improvisations and sometimes provided entire sequences of a piece. Chaikin eventually forged a consensus that all members of the Open Theatre were "authors" of the work, including van Itallie, and would share equally in the author credit and thus share equally in publication royalties. Since the work of the Open Theatre was so specific to the company, the scripts of this work were as far as I know never produced by other theatres, so performance royalties only came into play in the Open Theatre's own productions.

Thanks for the useful article. I am a lawyer and so, as much as I would like to be on the creative side of things, my brain ends up focusing on the business/legal aspects of creative endeavors. It would be helpful to me if you (or others reading this) could also provide some insight into how you think through the copyright/ownership issues when you collaborate on a devised piece.

Dan, boffo question. As an artist I’d love to hear what a lawyer has to say on the subject. Or how other artists deal with ownership/credit. I’m a geek for Intellectual Property discussion so pardon me if I digress.

In my experience, like the situation Richard mentioned, problems arise when the necessarily mysterious and murky process of theater creation hits open air.

I co-founded a bad-ass theater company called The Duplicates, who made that show I mentioned, Fictional Life. We all do a bit of everything, directing, writing, designing, performing. On our posters we are listed under “created by.” Makes sense to me. How do you really parse out what everyone did? Even a single idea could have multiple authors: one person to think it up, one person to agree, one person to implement. Seems ridiculous to think great ideas exist in a vacuum.

Immediately after the first production of Fictional Life - I’m talking before the post-show music had stopped - we immediately got a bunch of questions we were unprepared for: Who wrote the script? Who made the projections? Who made the puppet head? It seemed impossible to explain the process in a short sentence. Perhaps it would be easier to say “I wrote it,” certainly when people were ready to hand out praise. (The emotional aspect of credit has less legal ramifications, but feels equally important.) One of the creators, Rowan, tried “We all made everything,” which was truer but remained unsatisfactory. Since then we’ve had to explain ourselves on grants, on our website, in programs/posters, in budgets and, the most difficult, to new collaborators. We try to be as transparent as possible about who’s name goes where and who gets paid what and who’s responsible for getting certain things done. Now this is the same conversation that I try to have with everyone I work with.

We also all work as individual artists and its super tricky to put some of this stuff on a resume. I list collaboratively created scripts with an asterisk. But what about Courtney, our director, who has written tons of words for all our plays and been an active part of their creation from the get go. Can she say she wrote the plays? If she wants to, I say yes. Why should our collaborative work not count because it doesn’t fall neatly into roles? I think it’s cool if my resume says I wrote the play and hers says she wrote the play. Because both are true. This only works because of lots of honest discussion. Even now, I trust that my collaborators could tell you what I got wrong.

Great article!! Here's to the evolution of the playwright and the theatre in general!! And Thanks for dismantling this false dichotomy between one approach to theater making and the other. I make theatre and the form it takes depends on the project, the people, and the community that will potentially benefit from and/or supports the work being presented. The 21st Century is in full effect!! Bravo!