Hi-Ho, The Glamorous Life: I Don’t Want to Wait

Marissa Skudlarek gives us her longest blog ever, because she’s got a lot to think about. 

As Allison Page noted here last week, self-producing is a hot topic among theater-makers right now. On Facebook, the group “The Official Playwrights of Facebook” frequently plays host to conversations about best practices for self-producing, and last week, HowlRound led a Twitter conversation on the topic.

In these discussions and conversations, there always seems to be someone (or multiple someones) offering advice along the lines of “Before you even think about self-producing a play, make sure you’ve done tons of drafts and multiple readings and workshops.”

Here’s why I think that that may be dangerous advice.

(Caveat emptor: I haven’t self-produced a play before, though I am planning to do so this year. Therefore, I may be writing this column from a place of naïve ignorance. If the play I self-produce this year goes disastrously, and I end 2014 moaning “Oh, if only I’d listened to the advice of my betters, if only I had revised and workshopped the play more before I produced it,” I will write a follow-up piece lamenting my folly. But these are my beliefs as they stand now.)

Now, I want to be clear that I don’t think playwrights should slap their raw, unedited first drafts onstage. My plays have definitely benefited from table reads, staged readings, and thoughtful revision. What I am taking aim at, though, is the idea that a playwright must spend years revising and workshopping a single script before it can even be considered stageworthy.

The standard counter-example to the idea of “every play needs tons and tons of revision” is Shakespeare. While we know very little about Shakespeare’s life or his writing process, consider this: he wrote about forty plays in twenty years, at a time when writing was much slower and more difficult than it is today. And he had a day job, too: he acted in and helped run a theater company. So it’s doubtful that he had the time to do multiple revisions and workshops of each of his plays!

But, you might say, Shakespeare was a genius and, anyway, he lived 400 years ago. Still, think of some examples closer to our own time. Well-known American playwrights such as Sam Shepard and Lanford Wilson got their start by writing and producing lots of plays at the Caffe Cino: fast, cheap, and dirty. Not all of their early plays stand the test of time, but they got these writers noticed, taught them valuable lessons about the craft of playwriting, and are still being read and produced today.

Moreover, why are playwrights told to spend years workshopping and revising, when we do not expect the same of screenwriters? Woody Allen writes and directs a film a year, pretty much, and he claims that he doesn’t do multiple drafts of his screenplays—he just writes a script and then shoots it. And he has more Oscar wins and nominations for screenwriting than anyone else! Or, as you know, we are living in a Golden Age of television, and a typical TV episode is written, shot, and edited within a span of weeks or months. Some of the most brilliant dramatic writing of the 21st century has appeared on TV, and none of it comes from writers who spent years revising and workshopping a single script.

We playwrights may not earn as much money as Hollywood screenwriters, but historically, we’ve consoled ourselves by saying “Well, at least our plays do not get stuck in ‘development hell’ the way that screenplays do!” Yet now, people are advising us that for “the good of the play,” we need to get stuck in a development hell of our own making. We hear that our work is so precious, so special, so flawed, so fussy, so hard to get right, that it needs years of tender loving care before it’s ready to go out into the cruel world.

Actually, here’s a metaphor for you. You’ve probably heard people compare writing a play to having or raising a child. And, in the olden days of high infant mortality, parents would have lots of children and then try not to get too attached to them, for fear that the child would die. Discipline was severe, and parents expected their kids to grow up fast. Nowadays, people plan for their children carefully, have just one or two kids, lavish them with attention, and overthink every aspect of parenting. Likewise, in the olden days, playwrights expected to write plays at a steady pace, have them produced regularly, and then move on to their next play. But, nowadays, we are encouraged to write fewer plays, and become “helicopter parents” to the plays we have written.

I don’t want to return to an era of Dickensian cruelty and high infant mortality, nor do I want to live in a world where every play is produced right after the playwright completes the first draft. Still, there’s evidence that helicopter parenting is harmful to children, and I think it can be harmful to plays as well.

Consider this: if every new play needs to be workshopped for years before production, this will ensure that the theater always lags a few years behind the rest of culture. One of the theater’s advantages has always been its immediacy and flexibility. But as the rest of the culture speeds up (blogs, Twitter, the 24-hour news cycle), we’re encouraging playwriting to slow down and take its time. Also, if you do too many drafts, there’s a risk that you will grow bored with your own play and that it will lose its initial freshness and liveliness. You may even extinguish the creative spark that caused you to write it in the first place.

And if you want to do a dozen drafts and three workshops of your play in the hopes that you can iron out all of its flaws and make it critic-proof… sorry, honey, that’s not going to happen. No play is ever “critic-proof,” because no work of art can ever appeal to everyone’s tastes. Moreover, I remember reading a line in Chad Jones’ SF Chronicle review of American Dream, by Brad Erickson, that pulled me up short: “For a new play, American Dream is in remarkably good shape, though, as with any new work, there is still room for editing.” I never saw American Dream and therefore cannot say whether it had “room for editing” or not — what bothers me here is Jones’ cavalier implication that every new play needs editing and that it’s rare to find a new play that is in “good shape.” It suggested that critics approach new plays with the assumption that they are always flawed in some way. And if a critic goes into your play with that attitude, no amount of revision will help your cause.

A culture that encourages “five years of revisions” encourages writers to operate from a mentality of fear and scarcity, rather than a mentality of joy and abundance. It suggests that the financial, emotional, and reputational damage accrued from producing a less-than-perfect play will be far more consequential than any lessons you might learn from producing that play. (And everyone says that producing a play teaches you a lot and will make you a better writer the next time around.) It encourages black-and-white thinking: it suggests that unless your play is perfect, it is worthless.

Maybe some people do benefit from this advice. Maybe there are brash, over-confident people who bang out a play in two weeks, refuse to revise it, and insist on producing it “as is.” But I’m a fearful, neurotic person who has struggled with perfectionism for my whole life. So I can say with some authority that, for people like me, it is dangerous to tell us to wait and revise and make sure everything is perfect. Because we will wait, oh yes. We will wait forever.

Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright and arts writer. She’s gearing up to self-produce a full-length play later this year. For more, visit marissabidilla.blogspot.com or @MarissaSkud on Twitter.

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20 comments on “Hi-Ho, The Glamorous Life: I Don’t Want to Wait

  1. Robert Estes says:

    Seize the play! Great essay, Marissa. Best wishes on producing your play.

  2. samhurwitt says:

    I’d say that Chad’s comment is actually more or less in agreement with you, actually. I see a ton of new plays every year, and it’s very rare that a world premiere really feels “done.” It’s not perfect, but it was judged good enough to get on its feet, and that’s OK. What’s great is when a play gets a second production, or a third, where that work can actually be done. A lot of playwrights have expressed the same thing, and that’s what the whole movement toward “rolling world premieres” is about–trying to get beyond the idea that the premiere is the goal or the end of the road, but rather it’s just one step along the path of the play.

    • That’s a really good point, Sam, and on further reflection, I do think that Chad Jones and I are approaching this from similar angles. After all, he’s not one of the people who’s suggesting that a play must be flawless in order to be stageworthy — he gave the play a positive review overall, including the “Clapping Man.” And I can see how the overall thrust of my essay is “even if your play isn’t perfect, you should self-produce it anyway” — so I guess that I, too, am acknowledging that it’s hard to get a play absolutely flawless prior to opening night! The “rolling world premiere” trend is certainly something to be encouraged.

  3. Allison says:

    The conversation about revisions and “when is something done?” reminds me of Dawn Powell’s infamous BIG NIGHT debacle in 1933 (I think that’s the right year). Long story hopefully short, Dawn Powell’s play was to be produced by The Group Theater. Stella Freakin’ Adler was cast in it, for heaven’s sake. Expectations were high. They then took the script on a workshopping retreat, which resulted in Dawn extensively rewriting it. They rehearsed it for nearly 6 months, with constant changes. (Apparently Dawn kept great journals from this time which give hilarious insight to that whole torturous experience.) The result was apparently a disaster. It lost large amounts of money, got terrible reviews and closed after, I think, 9 performances.

    They polished it and polished it until it became a monster. So. I guess that’s an example of over-doing it. I plan to do a few readings of my play this year before definitely casting it and starting the production process, but I hope that I don’t spend every day questioning motivation and tone and polishing it away to nothing. There should be a middle ground. Not a forever-editing ideal. That’s just setting ourselves up for dissatisfaction.

    Secondarily, if Theater Pub gets back to live shows, I absolutely want to put together a reading of BIG NIGHT with the original script + some of the actual positive changes that came from 6 months of constant revisions. (And one of her more bizarre plays, too.) It’s all in this book: http://www.amazon.com/Four-Plays-Dawn-Powell/dp/1883642612

    Marissa, you should be able to read the introduction pages at that link, it contains some of the story of BIG NIGHT and I’m positive you’ll find it interesting/possibly terrifying.

    • Oh Allison, you know how I love anything to do with the 1930s! This makes me want to go back and reread “The Fervent Years” (Harold Clurman’s history of the Group Theater) — it probably discusses this episode, but it’s been several years since I’ve read it. I’ve never read any Powell, but you’re making me want to explore it and your idea for a reading of BIG NIGHT sounds exciting!

      Yes, there needs to be a middle ground between over-editing and under-editing (a lot of my Theater Pub columns are about staking out the middle ground and arguing passionately for it!). There’s a big difference between “four drafts, two table reads” and “fifteen drafts, four table reads, two workshops.” One is prudent; the other, as you say, is setting yourself up for neurosis and dissatisfaction.

  4. Thanks Marissa for a great essay, and one I especially needed to read just now (as I approach the sixth or is it seventh draft of a play I used to love but now feel quite tired of). You really struck a chord with me. I think I would write better, more inventive plays if I were on a strict deadline–“You have to bang this one out in three weeks, ready set GO!” and just do it.

    • Thanks, Allison! I do think that you should give your plays space to grow, develop, and improve — don’t make the mistake of swinging too far to the other side if your natural tendency is to take things slowly. (“My last play took three years; this one will take three WEEKS!” sounds like a dangerous idea.) But yes, if you’re on draft #7 and inspiration is flagging, might be time to either take it to the next level (production) or else to write something totally different.

  5. A couple of additional points that have been come up in Facebook & Twitter discussions of this blog post: I really should’ve cited a source for that “five years of development” quote (it looks funny just sitting there in quotation marks) — it comes from the Howlround Twitter conversation, where someone said that the play he is self-producing had had “a dozen readings over the past five years.” Which seemed excessive to me, though in line with this general trend of writers being told to do more drafts and readings and workshops before they can consider their play stageworthy. And I bet that that has something to do with the scarcity of money for new play production these days — if there was more cash around, there wouldn’t be so much caution and so much fear.

  6. chasbelov says:

    Reblogged this on Exit, Pursued by a Lark and commented:
    While I’ll acknowledge I’ve hurried some of my plays to readings too quickly, yeah, the quest for perfection gets old. Williams and Albee produce(d) their plays and then revise(d).

  7. bjwany says:

    One of the first things Rob Handel goes over with us once you begin CMU’s dramatic writing program is his idea of “the life cycle of a play”, which I wish I could draw here because I think the visual adds to the understanding… But “the life cycle of the play” kind of looks like a bunch of successive loops. And his thoughts (which I agree with) are that you start a new play, you go through a couple drafts before you start showing it to people for feedback – not people that are especially close to you who might tell you things that are important, but it is easier to take for whatever reason, but the people who are going to start looking very critically at what’s going on in the play and in the script and give you feedback that means, often times, a substantial re-write.

    Or, another way to say it is, the first draft is all about just getting something down on the page. The second draft is when you polish it up so it reflects something that you’re not completely to show other people, and the third draft is when you’re starting to really shape it into the thing you want it to be and you present it to others for feedback.

    Then, once you get that invaluable feedback, you start incorporating the changes, seeing how it resonates, and that happens until the rehearsals start and at some point the script is locked because the actors need to learn their lines. At that point, the script isn’t moving forward and changing anymore except for minor cuts or edits (though, in some productions, I suppose they do make major changes) because at some point you do need to stop and just do the thing in order to formulate any kind of opinion about it “what needs to happen next”. The whole idea about a play is that it’s something to be performed. You can’t just get all your feedback on a new play by reading it since a play is written for three (well, really, four) dimensions.

    After the play has had a production, you get feedback and have your own thoughts on what you want to change, then you go through the cycle once more until the next production.

    This isn’t to promote an endless spinning of wheels in the crafting of a new work, but I do think you’re trying to get your script to a point where other people generally have the kind of experience that you were shooting for – and there are endless ways to achieve that.

    With film and TV, the reason that TV writing happens fast is because that is the nature of the beast. This process is just put in miniature for something like a new episode. The reason why TV writers are hired is partially because of their skill with turning around a new draft (that ultimately the showrunner has the final say about). The same goes with screenwriting and, the one thing I would point out, is that Woody Allen is making his own films. If he wasn’t, I wonder if the scripts would go through the revision cycle more. There are a lot of scripts written that take years going through multiple drafts before getting into production.

    Self-production is great and often essential because it gives you the power to end the revision cycle and move onto the production phase. Because at some point, if you want to develop as any kind of dramatic writer, the script you wrote must be built. For film and TV, it’s going to be recorded and then edited, then bam, it’s done. It’s out there. For a play, it’s not “done” because someone else can produce it and that production will give the script a new life and opportunity to discover new things.

    This is long-winded, I apologize… I do ultimately agree with you that it is a difficult balance in knowing when to stop revising and editing, and I think that having a deadline or a production is one way to end that horrible process (just kidding, it’s not THAT horrible…).

    🙂

    • Yes, I realize that Woody Allen is an anomaly in terms of never doing revisions (and truth be told, I think that some of his screenplays could use another draft or two). And you’re right that because he directs his own films and also finances them outside of the major-studio system, he has the luxury to work the way HE wants to — it’s the movie-world equivalent of being a self-producing playwright. But the thing is, nobody ever looks down on Woody Allen (or other prolific filmmakers) for “only” taking a year to write each of his scripts. If anything, in Hollywood, people get upset when filmmakers take too long between projects (“Alexander Payne didn’t make a movie for 7 years after SIDEWAYS? What is his problem?!”). Whereas, it seems to me that in the theater world, there’s this attitude of “You’ve only worked on this script for a year? Then it can’t possibly be production-ready.” There just seems to be something wrong with the world when TV writers can work on a script for a (very intense, to be sure) month or two, and then have their writing seen by millions of viewers, but a playwright can work on a script for two years and still have people tell him that it’s not ready for an audience, not even in a short run at a 50-seat black-box theater.

  8. Oddly enough, this debate reminds of the kind chess players have about speed chess. It emphasises rapid-fire skill, deduction, and critical thinking, but the absence of pondering a move and building a relationship with your opponent is lost. It’s no surprise then that many of the greatest chess players in the world have always considered speed chess a waste of time.

    I really like Barb’s comment that “the whole idea about a play is that it’s something to be performed” (it’s the sort of comment that makes you ask yourself if you’re focused on the journey or the destination) and getting feedback from valid sources. Writing is so solitary that it’s easy for a writer, particularly a dramatic writer, to forget that they aren’t alone in the process. Yes, they are writing alone and more or less for themselves, but if they have real aspirations of the script being produced, then they’ll need the feedback and collaboration of people who can help them do that.

    I guess it should be a balance of the writer getting the story in the right place on the page and the director/actors/etc. making it work on the stage.

    • Yes, where do the director/actors and their ability to “make it work” com into play? There are a lot of “classic” plays that are considered problematic or flawed in some way, but directors LOVE tackling them because they love a challenge. (Much of Shakespeare falls into this category. Or think of “Woyzeck,” unfinished and fragmentary at the time of the writer’s death.) I’m not saying I’m Shakespeare or Buchner, far from it! But the attitude toward classic/canonical plays often seems to be “It’s not perfect, but it’s really interesting and exciting and we’re going to make it work,” while the attitude toward new plays is “It has to be perfect before you even consider producing it.”

  9. Ray Nelson says:

    This is a really great article, Marissa. Although I truly believe in the importance of workshops and readings, the thought of developing a play over five years almost made me throw up.

    As a self-producing playwright, I’ve found that three or so workshops and a staged reading is enough for me to get my play in first production state.

    I think, as writers, it’s easy to forget why we’re writing in the first place. We have stories we need to tell and connect with other human beings. Staged readings and development hell just don’t do that for me.

    And I think it’s time we drop the “self” in self-producing. It sure as hell feels just like producing to me. Let’s take pride in getting our work on its feet and not let the “self” detract from it in any way.

    • Thanks for reading and commenting, Ray. I’m interested in your advocacy of “three workshops and a staged reading,” rather than the other way around. For me at least, it’s easier to do a staged reading than a workshop (“workshop,” to me, implies longer and more intensive time spent with the actors) and the audience feedback received at a staged reading is invaluable. What does a “workshop” involve for you, and how are you able to find the time to do so many of them?

  10. […] of our theater from one of fear and scarcity, to one of joy and abundance. I wrote about this in a column earlier this year, and I can see that it might become one of the guiding principles of the year […]

  11. […] I progressed at all in the last year, when I wrote on this blog about trying to operate out of a sense of joy and abundance, rather than fear and […]

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