The Best Way to Have a Conversation

Over at his blog, Gwydion Suilebhan has a really great post about the (relatively) long process he’s gone through writing his play The Butcher. It’s got a ton of great stuff to chew over in it, but it also had some things that struck me in a way that I wanted to unpack at more length than a comment on his site would allow. So, onward! To the unpackatorium!

At the heart of Gwydion’s post is the absolutely correct assertion that every play and playwright has the process that is “right” for them, time-wise. His particular process tends to involve a longer timeline, of writing and re-writing and workshopping and developing and honing, which he holds in contrast to a lot of other playwrights who have higher and faster outputs. And it’s fantastic to have a dialogue about all the different routes that plays take to being “done,” in order to push back against the cookie-cutterization that can sometimes occur when every new play is shoved into a five-week-rehearsal-then-production time slot. Flexibility is important, as is recognition of what each play needs.

But in making his point, Gwydion has some phrasings that seem, frankly, a bit dismissive of people with faster processes than his own, which seems to defeat the purpose of such a dialogue. To wit:

I’ve also heard playwrights claim to be able to finish two, three, or even four plays in a single year—not on one miraculous occasion, mind you, but year after year after year. I find this unfathomable. When I hear artistic directors and literary managers complain that the plays they read aren’t really finished, I think: some playwrights may not be exerting enough pressure on their work.

I want to reiterate that I agree with the major points that Gwydion is making: some plays need longer to gestate and develop. Some plays are dashed off and sent into the world too quickly, before they can really find their substantive footing. But ultimately, I think I need to give some pushback on the idea that a quicker development/production cycle necessarily means a play that is less relevant or deep, and I think I need to do so because of the same conversational and collaborative nature of theatre that is so evident in the evolution Gwydion lays out for The Butcher.

One of the things that everyone always praises about theatre is the sense of immediacy. When you go to see a show, you are having a conversation with the actors on stage, even if you’re mostly a silent participant. As playwrights, we facilitate that conversation: we give the actors and other artists the tools by which to bring the audience in, and get the dialogue going. And some conversations are very big, and very deep, and very universal, and facilitating those conversations properly often needs a lot of time and a lot of development. But other conversations are incredibly immediate, and specific, and localized, and it’s precisely those conversations that I believe theatre should be having more of, because we can have more of them than movies or books or TV, since we’re not beholden to big national distribution at all times. We can utilize low-overhead, maximum-impact models and have incredibly relevant discussions with our audiences, but that requires a quicker turnaround than is being created by the current theatrical development model.

Take, for example, the recent revelations about the NSA and the state of personal information in our country. It’s a fascinating conversation, and it’s one that I think should be dramatized on our stages, as soon as possible. I don’t mean I want to see a lot of sloppy, ill-informed and dramaturgically loose productions of half-baked ideas, but neither do I want to wait five years to see a finely-tuned, perfectly calibrated and half-remembered assessment of how I was feeling back in 2013 when this all came out. I don’t want theatre to be slap-dash and careless, but the push to make everything perfect before a production goes up is putting us behind the eight-ball in ways we can’t afford. And that’s not even accounting for the immense developmental effect that a first production has on most plays; there’s only so much you can learn from just readings and workshops.

Again: there are lots and lots of plays that are wonderfully well-served by longer development processes. The Butcher, by all accounts, is one of them, and I want to see it when it’s finally ready to be seen and gets a home. But if you take five years to develop a play, the conversation at its heart has to either a) incorporate all five years’ worth of developing conversations around its theme, or b) change and adapt to each new version of the conversation, every time it gets developed, at which point it can raise the question of whether it’s the same play or not. That’s a lot of breadth for one play to incorporate, and for an audience to be able to judge by. Especially if they’re an audience that’s newer and less familiar with theatre, in which case they really don’t care about the journey a play has taken; they’re only interested in what they’re seeing right that second.

At the end of the day, I don’t think it’s good to nail ourselves down about our processes. If it’s at all possible, “slow” playwrights should occasionally try writing faster, and “fast” playwrights should occasionally try writing slower. There’s no one right answer for everybody; there’s not even one right answer for every individual. I’m in tech week right now for a play that’s been developing for about four years now. Similarly, I have a few plays that I wrote first drafts of in a week or less, and then proceeded to tinker with and fine-tune (or completely discard) through writing groups and living room readings before they ever took on any truly public shape. I’ve gone through pretty much the whole spectrum of timetables while writing, and the only real “rule” that’s ever worked is to look at each idea and assess what the conversation I want to be having really is, and then figure out the best way to have it at the time when it matters most. To do otherwise risks losing that immediacy that is at the heart of what we do, in pursuit of perfecting something that is pretty much bound to change during a production process, anyway. If we want theatre to stay relevant, then we have to risk being imperfect just as much as we risk being too thorough.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “The Best Way to Have a Conversation

  1. I agree with you that Gwydion Suilebhan’s post is “really great,” and agree as well with your gentle critique of it. But if I think about writing, I come up with something perhaps simpler.

    Writing is an artifact, and each scrap of it as well as each magnum opus is an entity with its own integrity. When writers revise their writing they are archeologists mining their own past, even if that past was mere hours ago.

    Playwrights have created the notion of “development,” implying revision is a growth process when in fact it’s fundamentally and simply revision: You have one thing to begin with and you make it into something else.

    I suppose I’m sounding a bit esoteric here, but it’s a guiding principle for me that anything written is something unto itself, and once changed, it is something new and different, and never necessarily improved.

    What this means to me, as a writer, is the following:
    • Nothing’s ever finished or perfect.
    • Something’s ready, for better or worse, whenever it’s seen.
    • Each version of a piece of writing is a source for any that follow. We should never dismiss the significance of source material, often regarded as the “authentic” version.
    • The author witnesses each iteration, experiences a community of work, not just one actor. Of all people, the author should appreciate that some earlier creations might be just as viable as the latest.

    Revising a piece of writing over many years, one has to consider how the world and audiences have evolved, and to what extent the writer finds himself / herself chasing changing times.

    Having multiple “development” turns of one play introduces yet another layer of random influences. If I’m being extreme in thinking that each rewrite is a new work altogether, for playwright Suilebhan, re-running The Butcher through Cultural DC, Great Plains Theatre Conference, The Theatre Project, Theater J, and Gulfshore Playhouse—perhaps a financial necessity, perhaps an artistic opportunity—must have spawned at least 5 new version trajectories of The Butcher, each of which might bear dissimilar fruit.

    My playwright father distrusted revision, always telling me to “write in white heat.” I treasure a novel I wrote when I was a teenager which I did revise, repeatedly. But the first version is still the source, the proof of itself—the truth, warts and all.

    But time passes, it’s passing now, and I spend less time thinking about the “readiness” of anything. It’s enough that things are seen to exist and appreciated for what they are.

  2. bernardrice

    I agree with you that Gwydion Suilebhan’s post is “really great,” and agree as well with your gentle critique of it. But if I think about writing, I come up with something perhaps simpler.

    Writing is an artifact, and each scrap of it as well as each magnum opus is an entity with its own integrity. When writers revise their writing they are archeologists mining their own past, even if that past was mere hours ago.
    Playwrights have created the notion of “development,” implying revision is a growth process when in fact it’s fundamentally and simply revision: You have one thing to begin with and you make it into something else.

    I suppose I’m sounding a bit esoteric here, but it’s a guiding principle for me that anything written is something unto itself, and once changed, it is something new and different, and never necessarily improved.

    What this means to me, as a writer, is the following:
    • Nothing’s ever finished or perfect.
    • Something’s ready, for better or worse, whenever it’s seen.
    • Each version of a piece of writing is a source for any that follow. We should never dismiss the significance of source material, often regarded as the “authentic” version.
    • The author witnesses each iteration, experiences a community of work, not just one actor. Of all people, the author should appreciate that some earlier creations might be just as viable as the latest.

    Revising a piece of writing over many years, one has to consider how the world and audiences have evolved, and to what extent the writer finds himself / herself chasing changing times.

    Having multiple “development” turns of one play introduces yet another layer of random influences. If I’m being extreme in thinking that each rewrite is a new work altogether, for playwright Suilebhan, re-running The Butcher through Cultural DC, Great Plains Theatre Conference, The Theatre Project, Theater J, and Gulfshore Playhouse—perhaps a financial necessity, perhaps an artistic opportunity—must have spawned at least 5 new version trajectories of The Butcher, each of which might bear dissimilar fruit.

    My playwright father distrusted revision, always telling me to “write in white heat.” I treasure a novel I wrote when I was a teenager which I did revise, repeatedly. But the first version is still the source, the proof of itself—the truth, warts and all.

    But time passes, it’s passing now, and I spend less time thinking about the “readiness” of anything. It’s enough that things are seen to exist and appreciated for what they are.

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