Category Archives: play development

The Modular Play: An Act of Faith

19442In 25 years of writing plays, I’ve generally worked from beginning to end. I may have a final scene in mind—sometimes an image that spurs the play’s creation. Sometimes, for tightly plotted stories, I work from an outline. Even so, when actually writing the piece, the process opens with “lights rise” and closes with “end of play.”

About a year ago, an idea came to me arising from images and voices I’d carried around for almost aa decade: American soldiers during World War II basically trying to talk themselves calm the night before a battle.

The time and locale fluctuated. D-Day seemed a natural, but also had been extensively covered, from The Longest Day to Saving Private Ryan. I considered the Anzio or North African landings, but those required explanation—and exposition. More and more, I thought of the lousy winter of ’44 and ’45, when war’s end loomed but hadn’t yet arrived.

Then an actor friend suggested I write a Christmas play, which made me laugh at first. No one would immediately associate my dark, sometimes sardonic plays with presents and cheery lights. Plus, could anything new be said of Christmas? Still, I liked the idea of writing a non-sentimental Christmas play for adults. All too often, between Scrooge, nutcrackers, and elves, the holidays seemed a reason to stay home from the theatre. Not because the existing plays were bad—simply because they were tired.

Then somehow the long-smoldering World War II play latched onto the Christmas Eve, finding the German-besieged town of Bastogne, Belgium, during the Battle of the Bulge. I’d long been fascinated by the town’s heroic effort to stave off Panzers as ammo, food, and medical supplies ran low.* And another image came to mind: a wounded civilian, a woman, in the midst of men trying not to fall apart. And If the Fates Allow took shape.

Or rather, it took shapes. I didn’t have an ending or a beginning. All I had were voices and a setting. The play stalled. I couldn’t find a way into it. I figured, what the hell, I’d write what I had—little scenes, snapshots, snippets of conversation. I had no idea where it was going. All I could do was rely on faith that I’d written a bunch of plays—too many maybe—and I could write another, hoping a piece would find its form as had happened so many times before.

It didn’t. A nervy process ensued, where, at any time, the play might go sideways. Plays do sometimes. You get into them and find out they have an unfixable flaw or they run dry. But increasingly, I began to feel comfortable with the characters. I could feel them pushing to have their stories told. So I started thinking of scenes—some so brief as to be blackouts—as pieces of a mosaic. I’d just keep writing until I exhausted the time and place, or until the play’s form revealed itself. No matter how it turned out, I was having a great time writing it. I liked hanging out with the characters and you couldn’t beat the circumstance for drama.

Siege plays—where a penultimate event shapes the action—have a form all their own. You just keep moving forward, and they get increasingly tense. The possibility of disaster colors everything, lending weight and urgency to otherwise ordinary conversation. If a character speaks of missing home, the question hang as to whether he’ll ever see it again. Sharing a cigarette carries a sense of communion—a rite to stave off emotional collapse.

Then, as if illuminated in a camera flash, the ending appeared to me, and it completely startled me—as I hope it will the audience, and I found most of the material written previously supported the resolution. Though my conscious mind seemed to float from place to place, my unconscious had been doing its job. I still needed to properly sequence the pieces and build transitions, which essentially meant rewriting the play from beginning to end, but a great deal of the original material survived the rework, and the beginning found itself. It said: start here. I’d just been warming up to that point.

I can’t say it’s the most relaxing way to work, but it wasn’t boring, and the results worked. I think.

Would I used the “modular play” technique again? Maybe. Plays have a way of telling you how they want to be written, and there’s something satisfying in taking your hands off the wheel and letting your instincts do the driving. In a way, it’s what writers do anyhow. Even when you’re carefully laying out a piece using an outline, you have to step back and let the imagination run. We’re never much more than nominally in control of a first draft. The rewrites demand all the writer’s craft and cunning.

Putting pen to paper is always an act of faith—faith in one’s self, in your intuition, and your need for discovery. Whether you leave the diving board with your eyes open or closed, you’re still going to hit the water. And you still have to clear the rocks.

*Despite my efforts to find a fresh World War II event to write about, after completing the play, I discovered that Band of Brothers had explored the same time and place, although they looked at if from a very different angle.

(At noon, January 26, “If the Fates Allow” meets the public as a concert reading at Portland’s Artists Repertory Theatre, produced by Playwrights West as part of the Fertile Ground New Works Festival.)


ACHTUNG!

If you’re a playwright or care about the birth and life of new plays, you HAVE to read the recent posts at Parabasis. Check it out….

here

Here’s some of the meat:

Theaters:

–Consider themselves one flop away from folding

The following statistics are self-reported, and are probably somewhat skewed due to the selection-bias of the survey (i.e. they only surveyed theaters that produced new plays):
— New plays account for 45.6% of offerings on our stages
— 23.8% are world premieres
— Fewer than 2 shows a season are 2nd productions

–Prevalent emphasis on world premieres are helping to strangle the new play system

–1 in 5 theaters regularly seek new plays that have already premiered

–As a result: the writer/agent want to get as big a world premiere as possible if they want the play to have a future life. This drives them back into the big institutions that they find problematic in the first place

–Culturally specific theaters have to compete with large theaters for multi-cultural grants and frequently become “farm teams” for the artists who will be included in the “multi-cultural” slot at larger theaters

–Expectations have been downsized. Small spaces, small casts.

ACCESS:
–How do plays move through theaters? How do good theaters shepherd this process?

–Lack of Artistic Director access is frequently discussed. It is playwrights’ biggest perceived problem

–Pass-blocking of admin staff, particularly lit depts.

–Most ADs agree that access is the key… so… “how can writers + ADs build relationships?”

–How much do agents help? (this part is tricky, data-wise, i’m gonna try to get it right):
-62% of playwrights had at least 1 play produced from direct submission to theater.
-83% have had 0-1 produced from agent submission
-Only roughly 5 agents are well regarded

–55% of playwrights think formal difficulty is the thing that is most likely to sink their plays

–ADs, on the other hand, rank cost and production demands as highest factor

–“Everyone wants the same 10-20 playwrights, and those writers are backed up with commissions”


Portland Theatre Opportunity

I received the following from the inimitable Sha Sha Sassone of The Bluestockings….

Portland Dramatists Workshop is returning!

You’re invited to come enjoy and participate in the inaugural meeting of

What: The Bluestockings’ Portland Dramatists Workshop

When: On-going Saturday afternoons, beginning May 10, 2008

Time: 2:00 p.m.

Where: Robie’s Deli & More
6504 SE Foster Road
Portland, OR 97206
503) 788-7704

How: Every Saturday afternoon, whomever is interested will meet at Robie’s at
2:00 p.m. for a reading of a previously-chosen local playwright’s play-in-progress. After the play has been read once, everyone there will be asked for feedback. The playwright then has the option to make some changes, tweak this and that, and ask the actors to read it again. More discussion can then ensue. This is a workshopping format, very informal, and, hopefully, creative and fun.

Who’s up first? PDW’s Artistic Director Sha Sha has first dibsies. Her one-act play, “Kama Sutra Sundays” will be workshopped May 10th.

Interested in participating as a playwright, actor, or director? Come on out and talk to us on Saturday. We are looking forward to seeing former PDW friends again as well as meeting new dramatists!!!
The fabulous Bluestockings….


Fire on the Horizon


Leave it to Robert Brustein to mix it up and take no prisoners in the ongoing new play development/prodution debate. This from the current edition of American Theatre:

It’s not that there are no playwrights in this country–I think there are more playwrights in this country of high quality than ever before in my memory. They just don’t have a place to have their plays produced. Broadway has turned away from them altogether, as has even the resident theatre movement, which is no longer supported by the National Endowment for the Arts or the Ford Foundation or the Rockefeller Foundation…. Therefore, [the resident theatres] have begun to turn themselves into commercial producing organizations. And they’re putting on things that have been successful elsewhere and ot taking chances on the new. As a result we have succeeded ourselves out of existence, I think.

Which is enough of a shot across the bow, but Brustein can’t help himeself; he goes on to say:

And if that playwright does write that play, he or she is told, “We’ll give you a reading, a workshop, another reading, another workshop.” They never get productions. Richard Nelson wrote a very inflammatory speech about this recently, in which he complained that the playwright is always being helped to write his play by dramaturgs and by artistic directors, but he or she is never allowed to put the play on.

Ahh. I can’t help it: I love the guy. Makes me feel better about the stack of rejections on my desk too.