The way training often teaches young theatre artists to think about creativity is wrong. Most people think about creativity as either a mystical process that Elizabeth Gilbert called “big magic” or as a purely mechanistic one—as Steven Pressfield put it in The War of Art, “The most important thing about art is to work.” However, both prevailing understandings of creativity are almost entirely focused on individual artistic genius or personal work ethic as opposed to collaboration. This individualistic understanding of creativity is not only inaccurate, but in the United States it is firmly tied into a capitalist framework of art-making that is more about profit than actually creating good art.
The nature of the theatre debunks this individualistic idea of creativity. In the typical process of new play development, a play is shaped not just through formal discussions between the playwright and the dramaturg (though that is a major component of new script authorship), but also through artists being in a creative space together. Scenes change based on actors’ choices, new characters are created because of off-hand remarks from collaborators, and entire story beats change based on the reactions of people in the rehearsal room. In this way, the final version of a script has as many authors as there were voices in the room—and often several authors outside of the room.
So who, then, writes a play? Who is the author?
The idea for a script—the core creativity of it—is not born but evolved.
Playwright and theatre theorist Charles L. Mee once wrote that:
“There is no such thing as an original play. None of the classical Greek plays were original: they were all based on earlier plays or poems or myths. And none of Shakespeare's plays are original: they are all taken from earlier work… Sometimes playwrights steal stories and conversations and dreams and intimate revelations from their friends and lovers and call this original. And sometimes some of us write about our own innermost lives, believing that, then, we have written something truly original and unique. But, of course, the culture writes us first, and then we write our stories.”
To unpack that quote a little, formal education and informal cultural understandings both frame artists as singular creative forces, people who wake up one morning with a brilliant idea that, like Moses descending from the mountaintop, they provide to their audience in the form of paintings, poems, or completed playscripts. But that notion is ridiculous. When someone writes a script, any number of things can inspire them—their kids, their friends, their trauma, their political point of view, etc. So, then, the idea for a script—the core creativity of it—is not born but evolved. To put that another way, one person doesn’t sit down to write a play and immediately create a fully-formed artistic work; lots of factors interact to put that idea in the playwright’s head, and still more factors shape the “final” version of their script.
Under this expanded framework, everyone who works on a play—which is a live, performed thing that is different from just the script itself—authors it. Productions of plays are shaped by any number of things, including non-artistic elements like budget limitations, where the play is being performed, the demographic make-up of the artists involved, etc. Very few plays exist in reality in the way they were originally conceived. So, just like the process of writing a script, the process of realizing a play has many, many authors.