Alandra Hileman honors a very special day.
Theatre Rule of the Month: Measure Twice, Cut Once
Today, January 19th, would be Edgar Allan Poe’s 207th birthday. His happens to be one of the few famous birthdays I remember without prompting, thanks to two years in high school I spent working on a massive research project (which, as a matter of fact, I was never actually required to finish and turn in). I also probably have more poems and passages from Poe’s work rattling around in my memory than any other single writer, not that I would trust myself to do a proper recitation anytime soon. Delightfully, I’m finally getting the opportunity to put all this info to use in one of the far-to-many plays I’m currently in the process of drafting up, which means Poe has been on my mind a lot of late.
Interesting fact about Poe: he was a fairly obsessive reviser. Many of his poems and stories exist in multiple versions, with revisions running the gamut from simple spelling corrections or a change of title all the way to entirely new stanzas or endings. His output of fiction, poetry, and essays was fairly prolific, so when you begin to comb through the various publications to look for the revisions and variations, it adds up to quite a lot of text to compare.
Yes, publications. There aren’t many original drafts belonging to Poe that survived his turbulent and impoverished life, so most of the revisions we know about come from fair copies that were in the possession of magazine editors to whom they had been submitted, or the actual published texts, of which there were often several variations. Which brings me around to this month’s rule.
One of the first things you learn (or should learn) in both carpentry and sewing is the rule of “measure twice, cut once.” This rule gets brought up often in the theatrical world because, honestly, there’s usually not enough money in the budget to do something over if it doesn’t measure up the first time. So if you’re building a set, first you measure everything: the doors, the floors, the 2x4s. Then you draw your sketch to scale, measure your space and materials again, (for extra credit measure your scale drawing again), and then, and only then, do you start cutting and screwing. Apply the same to sewing, but with bodies and fabric.
It’s a solid rule. And it’s totally the opposite of what many writers seem to be taught. I’ve done readings for plays where I see draft after draft after draft presented, each one different, often each presented exactly as flowed from the writer’s pen (or laptop). Outlines are perfectly respectable, but not required. And sometimes, you keep making changes and revisions even after you’ve, I don’t know, won a Pulitzer prize for your play and had it produced and published all over the world. (coughBuriedChildcough) But then, words are a lot cheaper than lumber, so you can usually afford to screw up or change your mind more easily.
This isn’t intended as any sort of perfect metaphor, and all rules are probably made to be broken. But it is interesting to look at these two sides of how things are made. One is a very precise, planned system meant to deliver exact results the first time it comes together. The other may be a perpetual work-in-progress, or an experiment in throwing something half-baked in front of people and then adjusting after you see what it is. And since re-researching Poe brought it to my attention, I’m curious to pay more attention to where these two methods come to the fore as I plug away on measuring and (eventually) cutting my own writing about Poe.
So, happy birthday to the inventor of the modern detective story, formative contributor to the science fiction genre, first American writier to try to live on writing alone, and all-around wow-you-make-me-feel-better-about-my-life-choices guy, Mr. Edgar Allan Poe. Thanks for the work.
If you’re more interested in Poe’s alcoholism and weird relationship with his 13-year old cousin than his revision habits, you can come see Alandra Hileman’s upcoming play Cyprus, Sin, and Care this Spring in the BoxCutters readings series at The Breadbox. Quoth the Raven, “See You There!”