Play Development, some director's thoughts
Mac Rogers and Dan Trujillo have been talking a bit about play development from the playwright’s perspective. I thought I’d try to chime in on it from a directing point of view.
This was all started because of the formation of 13 Playwrights, whose slogan is “we don’t develop plays, we do them”. I know a couple of the 13P, enough to say that it is a really interesting group of people and it’s nice to see playwrights seize the proverbial means of production.
I’ve been reading over some materials the Director’s Lab gave me for their summer program, and one of them contains tons of interviews with directors and playwrights. Universally, they seem to despise the current system of developing plays. Countless readings, workshops, more fully staged workshops, even more fully staged workshops and then, if you’re lucky, a showcase-code production that technically can’t even be called professional.
Anyway, that’s the dark side of it. There’s also a pretty good chance that you’ll end up developing your play with a director (for example) who is really uninterested in helping you write the best version of your play you can. What the director is often interested in is writing the play for you or, rather, getting you to write the play the director’s not a good enough writer to write.
One of mentors used to work in the literary department of New York Theater Workshop, and (at least at the time) they developed a way of commenting on plays that gave control to the writer, and demanded that everyone structure their ideas towards helping the play get better.
The five step process went something like;
Read the play
Have everyone say one positive thing about the show
The writer asks questions of the people assembled. The answers must be value neutral
The assembled people ask the writer value neutral questions. In other words, what they don’t understand not what they like or dislike about the choices made
The writer can then choose to take suggestions from people if he or she feels like it.
I’ve had a couple of experiences developing scripts like this. It is really really hard and takes a lot of discipline. Sometimes you feel like you want to scream “just rewrite this scene this way and it’ll be better!” but that’s not really the point.
I’m coming to realize more and more in theater that a good process does not guarantee a good product, but a bad process doesn’t guarantee a good product either. So you might as well have a good process, a collaborative one, an artistic one that’s open to change between everyone and is also respectful of people’s boundaries. Let the writer write, if you don’t like the end result, don’t direct it.
That’s how I view it as a director. I don’t get particularly assertive about changes and notes until there’s a real trusting relationship developed and until it becomes clear that the writer can handle that kind of “scene 10 is too long” conversation. If you’re working with a good writer, they should be able to anticipate those kind of notes anyway as they see the show develop in the rehearsal process.
The reading-workshop-production format is only helpful if the processes are designed right. If not, they’re useless or even worse, harmful to the integrity of the project.
Of course, many of the 13P are involved in development processes that they would call helpful. The Soho Rep Writer-Director Lab (full disclosure, I used to intern there) produces really fascinating anti-naturalistic work. New Dramatists is of course one of the more famous places to develop new work, and several of the 13P come from there.
The problem is, like in so many other things, a problem of economics. Let’s say you’re a development house. You have a development program. There really isn’t a lot of money out there, so you fully produce two plays a season. The rest of the time, you’re giving things readings and workshops, sometimes multiple times. It’s not that you’re hostile to new work, it’s just that you’re trying the best you can and there’s really nothing else you can do. There isn’t enough money. The best you can do is give the artists a chance to create and progress and hopefully get a little exposure in the hopes that someone will come along and provide the money for a real production.
Anyway, my thoughts are starting to ramble and repeat themselves, and I have to go to the space soon, so that’s all for now.
Come see First You’re Born!