Don’t fall in love with your own words.

August 8th, 2012 by elizabethellis

I recently attended a staged reading of a play in development – or, at least, that’s what I was led to believe was the purpose for the gathering. What actually occurred was one of the more contentious and stubborn artistic discussions I’ve witnessed in recent years, which led me to think for quite a while about the attachment an artist has to his/her own work, at any stage of its development.

Some explanation: Playwrights are obliged to fulfill an objective which other writers don’t necessarily need to consider. Unlike many other writing genres, the text of a play will eventually be spoken, and at some point in the writing process, a playwright needs to hear how their words sound outside of their own head. This is usually accomplished through a staged reading. Though staged readings can vary widely in style, scope, and formality, the basic scenario is this: Actors are assigned roles and, script in hand, are seated on stage, and read the script out loud from beginning to end. One person, often a stage manager, reads all of the stage directions, to give an idea of the action that will occur in a fully-realized production. After the completion of the reading, a discussion usually follows with the playwright, performers and audience.

Though many artists feel that a staged reading is essential in the inevitable transition from the page to the stage, I believe that it’s important for the playwright not to rush to present their piece in a staged reading too soon. The work has to have reached a certain level of quality and promise before the playwright offers it up to public opinion and commentary. Also, the playwright needs to have a thick enough skin to hear criticism of their work in progress moments after its presentation. Sometimes I think a playwright will plan a staged reading because they want to hear external confirmation not only of how fabulous their work is already, but confirmation that their work needs minimal changes, if any. This is, quite simply, dangerous for the playwright, who may need to make substantial and necessary revisions to the script. It brings to mind the best piece of advice I ever received from a writing teacher: Don’t fall in love with your own words.

If a playwright treats every word, thought, or concept they put on a page as their precious children to be adored and protected, then the playwright could very well be doomed to produce a library full of very long plays that never reach the production stage, never mind become famous as a Next Great Play. Such was the case with this staged reading I mentioned above. I attended the reading because several actor friends were performing in it, and wanted to hear my opinion of the play. One friend had told me that this script suffered from what he called the Seinfeld syndrome (when the sitcom Seinfeld premiered, journalists asked Jerry Seinfeld what the show was about, to which Jerry famously replied, “It’s about nothing”). As my friend explained, the biggest hindrances in the script for the reading were that A) there was little dramatic tension, B) there were few conflicts, and C) quite simply, nothing much happened. As the audience for the reading assembled – mostly people in their 60′s who were friends of Paul, the playwright – I had a feeling that this would be one of those theatrical events where the friends would heartily congratulate the author, tell him how splendid his work was, and how impressed they were with his vision, or some such twaddle. Let’s just say that the evening did not turn out this way.

As my friend correctly assessed, the script was lacking energy. Two old men in Chicago talked about things that happened many years ago, a mysterious young woman showed up, then another woman (a contemporary of the men, who would be played by the same actress as the young woman) showed up and asked one of the men to move in with her in Los Angeles. For all intents and purposes, that was it. Paul obviously has an ear for dialogue; the language was authentic and often humorous. But honestly: I kept waiting for some big dramatic revelation or action to propel the story forward, and it never happened.

After a little over two hours, the reading ended, and Paul asked the audience for their thoughts. At first, the assembled offered genial congratulations and compliments. I sat, tapping my foot under my seat, wondering how long I had to keep the blandly pleasant look plastered to my face. After about 10 minutes, the polite veneer began to crack, and the commentary became more truthful. Several people told Paul they wanted more action (check), and that the conversations were funny and sounded very real, but nothing really changed (check). Paul, who had been bathing quite happily in the positive reactions, began to look a little miffed. He said that he based the characters on real people and real conversations, and didn’t feel the need to change it (well, Paul, there’s your first problem. Real life does not always translate into dramatic action). He discussed this for a few minutes, at which point I decided to speak up. I told him that I liked his use of language and the characters, but that I felt that multiple opportunities for stakes (things characters want and are willing to fight for) and conflict were left unexplored. I said that I didn’t understand why the young woman appeared at all, as her presence, at least as written, did nothing to move the story along. I finally mentioned to him a great concept I learned in writing class, which is similar to what is said at a Passover seder: Why is tonight different from all other nights? In other words, why today? What is so compelling about these people on this particular day that we (the audience) should pay money to watch what happens to them today? Paul, now definitely irritated, said that he wasn’t going to edit out the young woman because he liked the idea of one actress playing two women (?), and this opened up even more impassioned discussion. Paul eventually ended the evening by saying that several elements of the play were inspired by events at his 60th high school class reunion, and they were important to him, and while he might trim some dialogue, he felt no need to make any significant structural changes to his script.

Oh, Paul. If a disparate group of reasonably intelligent people all give you basically the same evaluation of your work, and none say it’s terrible but that it does need further editing, don’t get peevish. Give it a thought.

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