Most beginning writers get told to write whatever they like, in whatever way they like. It’s a very popular idea, to just follow your muse wherever it may go. Creativity über alles, or something like that.
Well. Much as I hate to rain on any given parade, advice of that sort strikes me as wrong-headed and useless. If you’re writing for the stage, you need to understand the considerations of directors and producers. They, plus audiences, make up the market for your work. Sure, you could thumb your nose and choose to write in a total vacuum––ah, yes, the moral high ground, that purity of unsullied artistic vision––but this is a surefire method for keeping your work unproduced.
Heresy, I know. But for the sake of argument, join me, for a moment, in accepting the metaphor of the world at large as an endlessly shifting marketplace of ideas in which your writing must compete. How, then, to proceed? May I suggest hurling yourself into that marketplace river and learning to swim? Sure, your “total artistic freedom” will become suddenly constrained, limited. But limitations (and scarcity, that excellent environmental catchphrase) are the very soul of invention. Definite parameters––in art, in science, even in gardening––give shape to great work.
How do I apply this dangerous philosophy? All sensible considerations aside, I generally allow myself to write five to ten pages of just about anything that pops into my head. No questions asked; no constraints; no internal niggling about cast size or grandiose set requirements.
This usually leaves me with several possible projects. When one of those won’t let me rest––when the interplay of voices I’ve begun just won’t shut up, including when I’m mowing or helping with homework––that’s the project that earns my trust. That’s the one that I know will hold my attention for as long as it takes.
And that’s when it’s time to ask some hard-nosed stumpers.
Now, picture me in my lonely writer’s garret (actually a very sociable basement, surrounded by my gleaming beer can collection, two desks, and an overstuffed bookshelf). I am sitting down to write the opening of One Over Par. Here are a few of the questions I need to answer––and note that not one of them has to do with the equally important dramatic questions of “What changes?” or “What conflict is at work from the moment my characters appear?” or “Is Stavros’s goal sufficiently ridiculous?”
1) Who am I writing for? An equity theater? A middle school? A touring company whose set and equipment must fit comfortably into the back of a mini-van?
2) When I finally get the script done (in, say, a year), to whom can I send it? My sister? My agent? A high school drama teacher? The literary manager at Steppenwolf?
3) Who is available to help me develop this particular script? My friends? Actual professional actors? A dramaturg I once met over dinner at a conference in…wait, was it Dallas, or Portland?
4) What is the fewest number of actors required to tell this particular story?
The answers I arrive at for the first question, above, will determine a lot about permissible content, and about the set requirements I can reasonably demand. Dare to consider, from the outset, the price tag of the show you’re creating. How deep will your producer’s pockets have to be?
The second question matters more to me with every passing year. My network of contacts constantly shifts as people ebb and flow around me, intersecting here, drifting out of view there. Ten years ago, I cultivated a great relationship with a lit manager at a major theater in New Jersey. He really liked my work. But then he got out of the theater business altogether. At least in the state of New Jersey, I was back to square one.
Frankly, knowing where I’ll send a project helps me no end in the writing. It puts a whip at my back and keeps me dreaming hard enough about the future to dream the dream of the play itself. No small thing, that.
I generally know the answer to my third question: Who will help me develop the script? Unlike the Little Red Hen, I am fortunate in having this ground well prepared in advance. I have access to a department full of skilled undergraduate theater students at the University of Evansville, and I have the department chair’s ongoing blessing to borrow said students for tablework. So I know I can get a first reading, and that I’ll get considered feedback from it. That, too, gives each project a little extra push––a sense that forward momentum is possible. But as to what happens after that? “It’s a mystery.”
The solution to question number four varies from project to project, but so far, the answer has never dropped below three. I enjoy the dramatic tensions that can be created by triangles, by triads of characters in conflict. Two-handers and one-handers leave less room to roam. Call it a fiscal failure on my part, but I like a more crowded stage.
You can say all these are crass commercial considerations if you like, but to me, they’re part of a vital winnowing process, a series of hoops through which each of my starry-eyed, outrageous ideas must pass before I really get down to the brass tacks of writing and the joyous but demanding task of endless revision. Only once these questions are answered (or at least dutifully pondered), can I at last get down to actual artistry––to the play in playwriting.
‘Til next time. Dream hard. Write harder.
Visit Mark's website: http://www.markrigney.net