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ProPlay: Playwrights Wanted

Questions on this page (2 of 2):
1: Is there a limit on the number of characters a play can have?
2: What kinds of things do you focus on when you rewrite? And how many drafts do you usually do?
3: What's the playwright's role in rehearsal?
4: How does a beginning playwright like me go about getting her plays produced?

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Is there a limit on the number of characters a play can have?

In an ideal world, no. In this world . . .

Your play should have just as many characters as it needs to tell the story well, but no more. (Wait! That's not as jelly-spined as it seems.) If you're writing an epic about the colonization of Mars, maybe that means a cast of dozens -- but understand going in that your chances of getting your play produced someday are significantly reduced -- significantly reduced -- by requiring such a large cast (unless you have an in at your local community theatre -- or at NASA). Don't care? Then bring on them Martians! On the other hand, if you are concerned about your play's chances of production, keep it to something more reasonable. What that is will depend on the circumstances you're working in, though note that there are a lot of plays out there these days for five characters or less.

But I'd say you should choose your characters concisely and economically for dramaturgical reasons as much as practical or financial (or cynical) ones. I like to examine each character to make sure they have a reason for being in the play. Most often this means they contribute to the story, the plot, in some important way; in fact, I often ask myself, "If this character weren't in the play, would it end differently?" If the answer is No, then I go back and look at exactly why they're there -- and I might well take them out. (My friend Lyle Victor Albert wrote a comedy called "Cut" featuring characters who've supposedly been removed from famous plays -- like Godot.) Sometimes, in certain kinds of plays, a character may simply contribute to mood or texture, I suppose. Though I think most actors will tell you, playing mood or texture is not a lot of fun . . .

More important, any character who isn't contributing to the play's "centre," whether that centre is the journey of  the main character, or the evolution of a central relationship, is a distraction, not a help. Plays are, I think, closer to poems than, say, novels, in their need for compression, economy of means, streamlined storytelling. You often have a lot of ground to cover in just an hour or two. And you generally end up with a richer emotional experience if you go into a handful of characters in depth, than a lot of characters just a little. Stick to the ones you need.
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What kinds of things do you focus on when you rewrite? And how many drafts do you usually do?

As for how many drafts: almost certainly at least four, and often many more. With my play "Odd Jobs" I did sixteen (counting both major revisions and minor polishes) before losing count, and continued to revise long after it was first produced and published. Mind you, that is a play that has had a long life and been produced many times -- which meant that I had incentive to keep revising. About two years ago I finally quit working on it. That would be ten years after its premiere.

In the early going, rewrites may be quite radical: choosing a different central character, choosing a different "point of departure" (for example, realizing my first draft doesn't really get going until the end of act one, and so moving that moment, whatever it is, to a point earlier in the play), deciding to work in a different style. Adding characters, removing characters (see the last answer). Even if the first draft seems more or less "right," the early drafts are, to me, the place to be courageous, try stuff, explore the characters and what they're capable of, to what extremes the story can be pushed, how theatrically interesting (in terms of its use of the stage -- bodies in space, light, sound, etc.) the play can be and should be. It's not the time to fuss with a dialogue change here or there. (Then again, there's the example of Edward Albee, who says he changed one line between completing the first draft of "Whose Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" and its opening night. Then again, Sam Shepard did twelve drafts of "Fool for Love.")

Later on, it becomes a question of making sure the play is moving forward in some manner at all times (which often means cutting), and paying attention to rhythm, so that the action isn't all highs (which can burn an audience out) or lows (which will put them to zzzzzzzzzzzzzz . . .). It may also mean fussing with dialogue changes here and there, though that's the kind of revision that more often goes on in rehearsal. The best thing about rewriting -- other than that satisfying aesthetic thunk when something finally falls into place -- is that it leaves me free, in the very first draft, to turn off that little censor in my brain (you have it too; the one that says, "That's stupid;" "It's not good enough;" "It'll never work;" "You're making a fool of yourself") and write freely and intuitively and inventively. It's not supposed to be "right" in the first draft; there'll be time for that later.
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What's the playwright's role in rehearsal?

I don't know about other writers, but I'm usually still trying to make the play as good as possible. (Remember I said there'd be a time to get it right? This is the time.) I desperately try to avoid going into rehearsal with a script that isn't at least sound; properly structured, character through-lines clear, story clear, characters distinct from one another, etc. Even so (and in the past I haven't always succeeded in that goal), there's always something more to do; I mentioned some of the sorts of things I might fiddle with above. Hopefully, it is just fiddling, though I once found myself in a situation of pretty completely overhauling a play during its rehearsals, trying to stay one day ahead of the actors as I rewrote each scene. Actors quite rightly tend not to like that sort of thing -- though I think they dislike being in a play that doesn't work even more . . . (Unbelievably, under the circumstances, that one worked.)

Note that I don't direct my own plays (though I have directed) -- mostly because I want to be free to concentrate on the text.

I also, of course, spend a lot of time discussing the play and its context (period, setting background, politics, whatever) with the cast. Well, I shouldn't say a lot of time; in a three-to-four week rehearsal period (which is what I'm used to), you can't sit around gabbing too much, and, besides, the play had better be self-explanatory to a great extent anyway (unless you're planning to sit down with each of the audience members and explain it to them too). But -- particularly if the play is unusual in its point-of-view on, or treatment of, its subject -- and many of the best ones are -- there's always something to discuss. In turn, you may learn things from the actors that find their way into the play, to its permanent benefit. You have to be as discriminating as ever in accepting this feedback, though; not all actors can put their character aside and view the play as a whole. Those that can, however, often provide input that is both wise and practical.

Some things to watch out for: actors suggesting early in rehearsal that something needs "fixing;" if you wait a few days, as they get to know the play better, what seemed to be a problem or "wrong" may suddenly not be a problem anymore. If it is, though -- fix it. (Who decides? You.) Also, actors asking how a line should be played or what a character "means" at a certain moment. As mentioned above, these things should be reasonably self-evident from the text itself. (If you're lucky, this play will be done again, and maybe again, in situations where you can't be present; you want a text that can work regardless.) If something's not self-explanatory, you may want to revise that material. Or it may be resilient and resonant enough to absorb a number of different approaches and interpretations and still basically do what you want, in which case there's no "correct" answer.

I used to avoid answering these questions, figuring that I'd rather the actor discover the answer for him/herself. But this frustrated some people; they thought I was hiding something. So now I give an answer, but I often explain that this is just how I might choose to play it if I were performing the role -- there may well be other choices just as, or more, legitimate.

Some playwrights think this is crazy, and want to give direction down to the last syllable. This is the way that works best for me and my plays.
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How does a beginning playwright like me go about getting her plays produced?

First you learn how to write a play. I'm not being facetious; I'm always amazed at how many people worry about marketing themselves when what they really need to focus on is learning the craft of playwriting. It's like a mechanic setting up in business and saying, "Oh, I'll learn about engines later." Fine, but stay away from my car.

I'm not saying, of course, that this is the case with you; I'm sure you're a great playwright and mechanic. ;-)

But let's say you have got the basics down (either by enrolling in classes or workshops at your local college or online -- that's what we offer here at E-script -- or simply by reading a lot of plays and writing and finishing your own). Now you have a script you think is pretty good. Well, if you haven't yet developed an association with some theatre in your area -- do so today. Really. What are you sitting there for? Go! Call them up! Volunteer! Fund-raise! Take their Artistic Director's weekend acting class, or whatever. This will give you an opportunity to say nonchalantly at some point, "By the way, did I mention that I toss off the odd play now and again?" (To which they'll reply, either sceptically or enthusiastically, depending on their theatrical tastes: "How odd?") Your script will be paid a lot more attention because they already know you (and know you're in their community, which often helps too). Most of my plays are written on commission, but they're commissions from theatres with which I have an ongoing relationship.

If you're nowhere near a theatre, professional or otherwise, that sometimes does new plays . . . Get your craft skills in order, write a play, try to get some professional feedback on it (again, via something like E-script, or contests that provide critiques), rewrite it. Then, when it's the best you can make it -- mail it out. Lee Wochner, in his Q & A, has some good tips on that whole process -- particularly researching where to send your play. Suffice it here to say that, while the first method is more likely to get your play noticed (which is, of course, the first step towards getting produced), the second can still work. And while you're waiting to hear back, get started on your next one.

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