My Ten Years
It was just about ten years ago that I wrote my first script. It was a piece of garbage based upon a novella by Dostoyevsky. I quickly realized that it was a piece of garbage and tried again with an original idea, which resulted in a one-act play entitled “Jack and Jill.” It was also a piece of garbage. Fortunately I didn’t realize that at the time, so I was sufficiently encouraged to write a third script, and, as the saying goes, the third time was the charm. I produced the resulting one-act play, an absurdist comedy entitled “In to the out Side” on a double-bill with “Jack and Jill” for the 2008 Capital Fringe Festival. I discovered two important things from that experience. The first was that “Jack and Jill” was a piece of garbage. The second was that my strength is in writing comedy.
Why did I turn to writing plays to being with? I had spent a number of years pursuing musical composition without any notable success, and during that time, as a hobby more than anything else, I tinkered with creative writing. I wrote numerous short stories and took a couple stabs at novels, but the results always felt forced. So I decided I had nothing to lose by trying something different. As I said, my first couple attempts were misfires. But writing “In to the out Side” was an uncanny experience. It began with an unexpected, random vision, clearly seen in my mind’s eye, of the setting in which the play takes place. Once I knew what the setting was, the entire play came to me, more or less fully-formed, in a flash. All that was left was to set it down on paper and work out the minor details.
That was the point at which I realized that I would always be a third-rate composer, but, given enough effort, I might someday rise to the level of a second-rate playwright. I have since written five more full-length scripts and several dozen short scenes. I’m now in the process of developing my latest script (“A Theist”) with the goal of producing it as part of Capital Fringe Festival in the summer of 2017. To that end, I’ll be presenting a reading of it at the Kennedy Center’s 2016 Page-to-Stage Festival over the Labor Day weekend. Heaven help me.
As is customary whenever we encounter years ending in zero, I thought it might be interesting to enumerate some of the lessons I’ve learned about my craft over the past decade. My only caveat is that I’m no expert. Fortunately, neither is anyone else.
1) There are no experts. If someone asserts that they can teach you how to write a good play, they’re either lying or deluded. To be fair, this applies to all of the creative arts. What can be taught is technique. But the assertion that there is such a thing as “proper form” or any other such absolutes is hogwash perpetrated by unimaginative people who want to take your money and waste your time. The most important part of being a writer cannot be taught and, although I hate to say it since it may crush someone’s dreams, you either have it or you don’t. No amount of study or practice can alter that fact. If that sounds arrogant, then…
2) Be arrogant. Not in all things, of course, but when it comes to your writing. You know when you’ve written what you intended to write. And you know when you have legitimate doubts and require input. But if you feel that you’ve written something that’s good, don’t let anyone else dissuade you from your convictions. Many of my pieces don’t look like much on paper and if I try to summarize them in prosaic terms, people often react by saying something like: “Well, that doesn’t sound like much of a story.” That reaction frequently fuels my conviction that I am, indeed, onto something. As often as not, I turn out to be right, too, which isn’t bad as a batting average.
3) Write to produce. I know too may playwrights who write just to write. They write just to say they have written. They spend weeks or months on a script, present it in a low-key reading somewhere, and then it sits on a shelf while they move on to the next hard-fought dust collector. The problem with theater arts — and performing arts in general — is that they’re fantastically expensive to produce. Thus, professional and community organizations which are devoted to producing plays have very limited resources and opportunities for writers. There are literally hundreds and hundreds of people vying for every single opportunity, and the odds are going to favor those who are the best at playing politics, stroking egos, and insinuating themselves into the cliques which control the resources. Fortunately, outlets such as the plethora of regional Fringe Festivals give self-producers access to stages and audiences which might otherwise be unavailable to them. Even if you don’t have such a festival in your area, I contend that it is still worth your time and effort to produce your own work. For what other legitimate purpose would one write a play, if not to have it performed in front of an audience? This is related to…
4) Embrace poverty. This, of course, is hyperbole. But if you’re going to produce your own work, you’ll likely need to finance it yourself. You may be able to raise funds, and this is easier than it has been in the past thanks to crowdfunding and social media. It is likely, however, that you will have to make some personal sacrifices in order to bring your work to the stage. Put off buying that new TV for another year. Or that new car. Or going on that vacation, since you won’t have time for a vacation anyway.
5) Producing your own play takes at least one whole year. From the time you first put pen to paper until the curtain rises on opening night, twelve months is a minimum. My current script has been in development for three years, and there’s another whole year to go before it hits the stage. Part of this time-frame is dictated by the fact that, as a self-producer, I wear many, many hats. I’m the prop master and the set designer and the musical director and the Web master and the graphic designer and the copy writer and on and on.
6) Be realistic. Write what you need to write, but realize that, as a self-producer, your resources are going to be limited. This doesn’t just refer to financial resources, either. I frequently write with minimalistic production values in mind. Simple sets, simple props, and simple costumes will all make your life easier and result in fewer compromises when you finally mount a full production. Whenever possible I write roles which are gender-, age-, and race-neutral, since this simplifies casting. Writing for fewer characters makes scheduling much easier, and also allows whoever is directing to hone their efforts more finely given what is usually limited rehearsal time. If you violate these guidelines and decide to be lavish in one or more areas, do so with an understanding of the consequences and a willingness to accept them.
7) Be unrealistic. The first time I produced my own work I had very little experience with either producing or directing. This played to my advantage: Since I didn’t know what I couldn’t do, I went right ahead and did what I wanted. Theater is not rocket surgery. Try and fail. It won’t kill you.
8) Always have a Plan B, a Plan C, a Plan D, a Plan E… If you get to Plan Z, you can move on to Plan AA. In 2014, the night before my production opened, one of my two actors broke her kneecap. This was a play which required lots and lots of physical action. There was no way she could perform in a wheelchair. We decided that we would park her on the corner of the stage with a bag of frozen lima beans on her knee and she would speak her lines while I would don her costume and provide the physical actions. She would be my voice, and I would be her body. Fortunately, this was theater of the absurd, so there were no “conventions” being violated. Fortunately I had written a gender-neutral role, so I was able to use the same costume — a t-shirt and overalls — without any changes. Fortunately I chose to direct my own work, so I was familiar enough with the actions and blocking to jump in at the very last minute. The point is: There’s always a way.
9) Embrace negative criticism. That same 2014 production which I just described was reviewed by two different sources. One of them gave me what was arguably the best review of my career thus far. Despite awarding us only four out of five stars, the reviewer praised our resilience in the face of potential disaster, and described the script itself as a “masterpiece.” The other review was arguably the most scathingly negative review I’ve ever read of any play, professional or otherwise. It was, in fact, so over the top, so utterly devoid of any journalistic integrity, that portions of it had to be retracted, as they amounted to ad hominem attacks on one of my actors. Now, as good as the positive review had felt, the negative review left me feeling sucker-punched, bloodied, and deeply depressed. Part of me is still angry at the editor who allowed it to be published. And for a while I felt that I might never return to producing my own work for a general audience again. But I got over that. My typical long-term response to negative criticism is: “To hell with that! The next one will be so good that they’ll be forced to eat those words!” Negative criticism can be your greatest source of strength and motivation. Stop the bleeding, and then be grateful for it.
10) Always end your lists at 9.