On Playwriting: Dealing with Criticism the Collaborative Way

Playwriting is a collaborative art.

Once you’ve made the script as good as you can, you need to find some playwrights to read it and tell you what they think. After 6 or 106 more drafts, you then need to find some actors to read the script to you. Listening to them, you’ll hear the places where the dialogue goes clunk. And actors always have interesting questions.

After a rehearsal or two, find a place to show your work–it can be cheap, it even can be a living room–and invite people to the reading. Preferably fellow playwrights. Afterwards, have a discussion.

As a playwright, you must learn how to make this discussion process work for you, rather than against you.
“Against you” means a couple of things.

—You decide that you should never write another word.
—You rewrite the play to please everyone, and end up with a mess. What my in-laws called “a dog’s breakfast.” That is, everything in your creative refrigerator.

To avoid this, get someone else to facilitate the discussion. This person should have lots of experience. Or they should read Liz Lerman’s Critical Response Process. Or both.

The Lerman approach has four major parts.

First, the Facilitator asks the audience (the “Responders) what the play meant. The Facilitator always tactfully deflects any one giving an opinion until step four.

Second, the Artist (in this case, the playwright) asks questions that they have thought out beforehand.

Third, the Responders ask neutral questions—that is, without an opinion attached. Useful: “Why does your script focus on the errors of physicians?” Not useful: “Why are you so angry at the medical profession?”

Fourth, if the Artist agrees, the Responders can state opinions. If you agree to this, remember that one opinion is only one opinion. But if five people say they hate the ending, you might want to take another look at it.

Also, when someone says “Scene Three doesn’t work,” understand that the problem might actually start in Scene One. Actors and directors also learn this. Suddenly, the show goes off the track—but often the problem happened several scenes before it actually hits.

Lerman doesn’t say this, but many others say it. Do Not Defend Your Work. Listen, take notes, say thank you. You may ask for clarification: “Tell me more about how the ending doesn’t work.” If someone asks “what were you trying to do?” you can answer them—or not. I often say, “what did you think I was trying to do?”

Recently, I’ve been considering taking an online class in writing the novel. The application guidelines point out, at length, that if you can’t manage feedback and criticism, you don’t belong in the class. It’s a skill that you can learn. I learned it the hard way. Don’t do what I did!

And remember, if you get the play into production, your script needs a director, some designers, some actors, a stage manager, and people to build the set, run the lights and sound, organize the costumes…that’s a lot of people supporting you and your script. Collaboratively.

On Playwriting: Where do you begin?

“Write a shitty first draft.” Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird

This is my mantra. When the shitty first draft really gets me down, I go re-read Lamott’s book.

Too many would-be writers give up because the first draft is shitty. Of course it is. Don’t worry about it. Later, you’ll edit. Later, you’ll ask a fellow writer to read it. Keep your butt in that chair and write.

But where should you start? And where do writers find their ideas?

I read many playwrights’ blogs and Facebook groups. On a couple of them, I first heard the question “Are you a Pantser or a Plotter?”

Pantsers just start writing and see what happens. They have some kind of character or image in mind, but haven’t graphed anything out. Plotters outline their plot before they begin writing. Neither one is better than the other. It depends on the writer—and on the topic, story, and/or the idea. Some stories demand to be outlined; others refuse to be so confined.

I’m mostly a Pantser. As I scribble, I learn enough about my characters to write their biographies. Then I keep scribbling. But once I have the first draft done, I often have to clean up the plot—which means I beome a Plotter. I write an outline, or I put each scene on a separate 3 x 5 card, or I draw a picture of the structure.

Actually, I kind of write in all directions. I get ideas while trying to go to sleep, or while making dinner, and I go stick them in to the draft. One writer’s group insisted that I write the whole thing before doing any re-writing. I’m not built like that. You might be. I write, I edit, I write, I get to page 184, curse, and re-write page 92. The trick is to just keep writing.

The reason I’m a Pantser is that I believe writers have to make their own clay. Sculptors get a block of something and cut away everything that isn’t an elephant (or a vision of heaven, or whatever) Writers, however, have to make the clay before they can start shaping it. So I just scribble, creating clay. Eventually, I figure out if I have an elephant or an aardvark.

You do need to be a Plotter if you’re writing a comedy, farce, or thriller. The misunderstandings and confusions of comedy usually need to be graphed out sooner rather than later. If you’re writing a thriller, your graph is essential—it’s like plotting a mystery novel. But not many playwrights write thrillers; those tend to belong to novels and movies.

All that said, most writers begin with some kind of notion, even before they Pants or Plot.
• I have begun with an image: Three women around a hibachi. An old lady trying to wear high heels.
• I have begun with an irritation: Corporate jargon. A family problem. Someone who done me wrong.
• I have begun with a question: Who was Barbara McClintock? Why do we hoard so much stuff?
• I have begun with a character: my clown, Sophy.
• I have even begun with a name: Cora B. Walrath. It was the name of a boat.

Sometimes I look at a completed play and have no idea where it came from.

And sometimes characters or stories tug at my sleeve until I write about them. Yeah, that sounds repulsively precious.

Tell that to Cora B. Walrath, of the play Cora’s Mountain. Or Sam Bidari. She lives in my novel The Dry Country. But she came from my play Chimera. After I finished the play, Sam kept telling me more about her story until it turned into the novel.

Whether you are a pantser, plotter, or some combination, pay attention to the world outside, and the world inside you. Scribble down the name, or the image; the question or the irritation. Stories are everywhere.

On Playwriting: Aristotle, Structure, and Too Damn Many Secrets

I began writing plays because I was an actor for a playwrights group. After working on several of their plays, I sang “I Can Do That” (from A Chorus Line), and started writing my own plays.

I especially wanted write plays because the group was all men, and they all devoutly believed what I rudely call the male orgasm approach to playwriting. That’s the three act, rising-action-climax-falling-action approach.

If your play didn’t do this, it was de facto Bad.

I didn’t agree.

This climax approach started with Aristotle, in the fourth century BCE. But it isn’t his fault. He was describing a specific kind of play popular in his time: Greek tragedy. Centuries later, a bunch of 15th century Italian scholars re-discovered Aristotle’s works, made them into a set of rules, and called them Neoclassicism. The French loved it and made it their own. Eventually, however, it died of a surfeit of regulations.

But over the years, other theatrical theorists wrote playwriting books based on this rising-action-etc. approach to plays. For simplicity, I will call it the well-made-play, or WTM.

For some time, that was how you wrote a play. Some classic plays have been written this way, by greats like Henrik Ibsen, George Bernard Shaw, and Arthur Miller. If you’d like to know the whole story, here’s a very short course in the history of the structure .

After years of writing, I agree that knowing how to write in this mode is essential. All stories need a beginning, middle, and end. All plays need surprises, to keep the audience engaged. After all, when sitting in a theatre, you can’t put the movie on pause and go make a sandwich. So the writer has to keep the audience awake and interested.

But insisting that the WMP is the only way to write, or critique, a script, ends up creating a lot of tedious trash. Unfortunately, American audiences seem to love it. Especially if Secrets Are Revealed during that fabled Climax.

Don’t get me wrong; there’s some terrific stuff written with revealed secrets: August Osage County, Proof, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf, to name just a few. But if you use the WMP, you have to do it brilliantly. Lauren Gunderson has an online class that takes the WMP to a new, and incredibly useful, level. She shows us how to use the WMP well.

But not everyone does use it well. For me, all these revealed secrets are getting tiresome. Googling “theatre scripts where secrets are revealed” found the following. Apologies if one of these is your play; I didn’t read them to see if you did it brilliantly. But pushing the Secret in the logline indicates otherwise.

–All ends happily when ‘The Shagwood Secret’ is revealed.
–Really really complicated and totally unique secrets are revealed over white wine.
–Dark secrets hidden in the grey mists of time are reluctantly revealed in this excellent black comedy.
–The secrets of the house have been revealed overnight as the family slept.
–A one-night stand that reveals a woman’s secret.
–A one act drama for youth theatre with a single (bedroom) setting, in which secrets are divulged
And, too often:
–Years after the death of their mother, sisters RETURN to clean out the childhood home their widowed father left behind. When their estranged younger sister CLAIMS her share of the estate, the three women find themselves unearthing…deep secrets and harsh realities of their past lives and decisions.”

I blame screenwriting for this overabundance of secrets. If you want to make money in movies, (instead of riding the endless Indie film rollercoaster) you need the Big Reveal—that is, revealing a Big Secret.

You can also have a lot of things to blow up. But that’s harder to do in live theater.

Read more about screenwriting structure here

But I write plays, not movies. There are many other ways to skin the structure cat. Next time, I’ll look at some writers who don’t worry about revealing secrets, or about the climax.

On Playwriting: Five Column Analysis

Using columns is a great way to understand a script. After I experienced this technique, I got so I could easily take a script apart, whether reading it or seeing it. The more shows I experienced, the better I got at taking them apart in my head.

Thanks to the late Rex McGraw, at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, for teaching me this.

Here’s how:

A. Take an act from a full-length play, or use a one-act play.

B. Type up the script. That gets every word from your fingers to your head. Yes, it’s boring. Trust me, you gotta do it. Otherwise, you’ll skip over things that you don’t understand.

C. Make a page with columns on it. Here are five areas to cover.

1. What happened before the play began? Before each scene? How do you know that?
2. Each character’s objectives. From moment to moment, what does each person want? A cup of tea? To kill their enemy? To charm someone?
3. Each character’s obstacles: I want to charm you. You ignore me. I decide to impress you instead. That’s my next objective.
4. Environment: words that tell the designers what to do. Words like: “The day is almost over.” “I’m cold.” or “Would you like some tea?”
5. Questions: Words, events, and references that you need to look up. If a character says “He absquatulated to Tahiti,” what the heck does that word mean? And why Tahiti?

Type or hand write your answers and responses. Studies show that handwriting is the best way to learn. Typing is second.

Once you’ve looked this over, find the “through line of action.” If all the characters’ objectives are beads, the through line of action is the string for those beads.

Then ask yourself the main question: why did the playwright break the silence of the universe? What’s the point of this story?

Fair warning: staring at the script and just “thinking” your answers won’t work at all. Unless you’ve been analyzing plays for twenty years.

Even then, if I’m directing a show, or commenting on it for another playwright, I carefully take it apart. With notes. Because I’m the note taker.

On Playwriting

Over many years of acting, directing, getting graduate degrees, teaching, and writing, I’ve come up with some notions about playwriting.

Here begins a series about the vagaries of writing scripts.

If you are a newbie playwright, this is not precisely a How To Write blog. It will, however, provide more detail than in the usual How To Write screeds. (But here’s a good one. Although I disagree with some of its ideas about structure. More on that later.)

If you’re coming to playwriting without theatre experience, get some. Go to the theatre. Volunteer in theatres. Take an acting class. And read plays.

Read plays even if you have been doing theatre all your life. Keep reading them. They show you what’s hot. They give you good ideas about your own plays.

Reading a play isn’t easy. It’s not like reading a novel, or a short story. It’s more like reading music. No one ever says “I read a great new sonata today!” But you can learn how to read a play.

Start learning to read plays by going see a show. Then read the script, and think about how the words got translated to the stage. Eventually, you’ll learn how to see and hear the play in your head, even if you haven’t seen it in production. Playwrights and directors know how to see things that aren’t there. Then they make them appear to an audience.

Script analysis is a great way of learning how a play works, so you can read them more easily, and learn to write them. That’s the next post.

Doing it Myself

I just self-produced one of my plays. (See my post Maize, December 2017.) Now I’ve self-created a print version of my first novel. (The Dry Country, on Amazon, and Amazon Kindle.)

Both self-producing and self-publishing are not easy. It requires organization, money, and marketing—none of them things that writers want to do, none of them things writers usually do well.

What we want to do, what we’re good at, is writing. But we also want someone to hear or read what we write. So when no one picks up my work after a couple of years of tossing it into the void, I do it myself.

And before you wonder why I don’t network and get an agent and all that, I network and query agents and send out plays. But let me note that theater and publishing have changed greatly in the past few years, and are continuing to change. It reminds me of the 1984 book, Playing Ball on Running Water. It’s way to easy to drown.

Indie publishing is much more prevalent and much less looked down upon. Traditional publishing is about Selling Books, which is getting harder. No matter which way you jump, you end up doing all, or most of, the marketing.

Write what you need to write, they tell you. If the world wants it, it will sell. Since I’m not making my living by writing any more, I follow that silly prescription. But I still want someone to read it. Self-publishing at least gets the words out there.

Meanwhile, I keep writing. A new magical realism novel, tentatively titled Wind, Wood, Water, and a new play, definitely titled Chronic. Both of them will go through the sending out and networking approach. But if there are no takers, I can always do it myself.

 

 

MAIZE, a play about Barbara McClintock

Self-producing is terrifying.

But I’m doing it. Because my play about Barbara McClintock belongs in Ithaca. She attended Cornell for all three of her degrees, ending with a PhD in 1927. Then she managed to have a stellar career as a woman scientist, in a time when focused, eccentric women were in short supply.

To get good people, I decided that I needed to pay them–even though this isn’t an Equity production. To find the money, I created a Kickstarter campaign. That meant creating a video (thank the goddess for a husband who knows how), struggling with the site (it only accepts URLs if you cut and paste them), and promoting the hellup out of it.

Did I mention that this is one scary process, this self-production thing?

However, I now have a great cast and a great production team. Risley Theatre, at Cornell, is the place I’d like to do the show–because it’s at Cornell. But it’s student-run, and I haven’t heard a word. Knowing that might happen, I have a backup–Lehman Alternative School, which has a little theatre, and who are very nice folks. Feb-March 2018, if you live near Ithaca NY.

So. If you can help fund and/or promote MAIZE, here’s where to go. Let the world know about Barbara McClintock. And keep this playwright from panicking!

https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/71153726/maize-a-play-about-barbara-mcclintock-and-genetics

Octavia E. Butler. Lilith’s Brood: Dawn, Adulthood Rites, Imago

Read Octavia Butler, everyone says. And I finally did.

Lilith’s Brood, a.k.a. the Xenogenesis Series, is epic, gender-bending, and still politically relevant. (It was written from 1987-1989.)

A writer who can create the Oankali deserves all the respect and kudos Butler has received—which include a MacArthur award. And, reading about her, I am inspired to get some of her other works, especially Kindred.

Her point of view is painfully necessary in today’s political climate. As she said in a 2004 interview, “there must be something basic, something really genetically wrong with us if we’re falling for this stuff.”  The “stuff” she was talking about was Reagan and the possibility of nuclear war. But the “stuff” continues, with constant and scary new developments.

However, I didn’t read every word of Lilith’s Brood. I dove in and out. In trying to decide why I needed to do that, I discovered fourl things about what I like and why I like it.

One: I have read so many sci-fi-fantasy novels, as well as novels in many other styles, that I can see events unfold before they do. In the case of Lilith, I couldn’t bear to watch.

Two: I read, and watch TV shows, only for pleasure. Or to see how the author manages a problem I’m trying to solve in my own writing. The same goes for fantasy novels.( I read, and see, theatrical plays, no matter how difficult the subject, the way other people read challenging novels.)

Three: I worry that reading Facebook has destroyed my attention span.

Four: Most interesting, to me: In a 1995 review of Lilith’s Brood, Burton Raffel calls Butler’s style “crystalline, at its best, sensuous, sensitive, exact not in the least directed at calling attention to itself.” That tells me another thing about how I read. I do look for an interesting writing style. Robin McKinley, Sarah Addison Allen, and Lee Child all have a writing style that keeps me reading even when I see where the plot is going, or lose interest in where the plot is going.

Now I need to figure out how to do that in my own writing. Meanwhlie, I need to read Kindred.

Haruki Murakami, Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman

I have never liked short stories. And I couldn’t get through Murakami’s novels.

But I loved Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman.

In each story, something odd and fantastical happens to ordinary people who live ordinary lives. The narrators aren’t very astonished by these strange happenings—because life, for Murakami characters, is full of the inexplicable, the quietly tragic, the unfinished journey.

Murakami shows how stories happen without quests, without fighting off dragons and psychopaths. I find myself wondering about the folks who want that kind of thing, and only that kind of thing. “Nothing happened for the first 25 pages,” they say. They grew up on car chases, explosions, heroes saving the world.

Murakami is meditation.

Many readers have noted the way novels change as they age. That’s one reason why I am a confirmed re-reader of novels that I love.

But our tastes also change.  Once, I could read and enjoy romance novels—a guilty pleasure. Now I only like the funny ones, and not many of those. Lately, I’ve been reading the adventure fantasies so many people love. But I’m getting tired of stories where one dammed thing after another happens. And happens. And happens. Eventually, all these explosions cease to interest me.

So maybe it’s time for me to go back to Murakami’s novels.

Who supports poor people?

Thoughts on beginning to read THE POLITICS OF EDUCATION by Paulo Freieire.

Begin by assuming that the government should not be in the business of providing benefits for people who don’t work for them.

But who cares for really poor people?

People should not be poor. Everyone should be able to go to college and get a good job.

Who pays for college?

You can work your way through college like I did.

Not so easy.

Average annual tuition and fees for students attending public, two-year colleges in their communities were just $3,260 in 2013-2014, compared with nearly $8,900 for in-state students at four year college.

At the minimum wage of $7/hour, that’s a year’s full-time work to save for one year of community college. But that doesn’t count your living expenses while working. Then you have to work while in college to make your living expenses.

Get a scholarship.

Who pays for the scholarships?

Wealthy donors pay for the scholarships.

Have you donated a full scholarship to a community college?

What if you get a catastrophic illness?

Your employer health insurance will pay for it.

How many employers offer health insurance?

“The share of Fortune’s best companies that still pay for 100% of employee’s healthcare has dropped to 9% this year from a peak of 34% in 2001.  . . Part of the move away from plush health benefits is due to the rising cost of medical care, which becomes a burden on a corporations’ bottom lines.”  Mar 30, 2016,

Only 30% of employers with 50 or fewer employees pay for employee health insurance.

So how do we help people? Can churches do it? If your taxes went down by, say, 20 percent, how much of that would you give to groups that help put poor people back on their feet? How much do you give now, to your church, to local food banks, to scholarship funds? That’s the world we’d live in if the government stopped all those benefit programs.

p.s. Our family gives to local food banks and to scholarship programs. My in-law’s church offers its space to groups like AA, but spends its money on foreign missions.