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.