“So many of your characters go to Northeastern,” said a classmate in my playwriting class.
I replied, “Well, I don’t like to write about cities that I don’t know relatively well. I don’t want them all to go BU and MIT and Harvard are out of the question because how do I write a character who is smarter than me?” And then I realized how utterly lazy I sounded.
A play that my playwriting professor- Kirsten Greenidge– wrote, entitled “Splendor,” is currently being produced at Company One. In his review of the play, Joel Brown mentions that the script was born out of a short play festival in 2010. However the production’s dramaturge, Ilana Brownstein, informed us that research for “Splendor” began for Kirsten in 2009. That’s four years of work on a single piece of theater.
Compare that to Neil Labute who has published upwards of 21 plays and 13 screenplays since 1989. That divides out to about eight and half months of work on each script. This statistic makes me question the quality of his work. And yet, I cannot deny that I cried when I read “Reasons to be Pretty.” His dialogue is truthful and his characters relatable, and aside from a few short adaptations of Greek dramas, his source material is usually pulled from day-to-day, contemporary interpersonal relationships. Labute seams to mainly stick to writing what he knows.
In her recent Howlround.com article, “Postcards from Romania,” Hanna Wolf writes:
“’Is all new theater here about communism?’ I ask my friend and host, Ioana Moldovan, after seeing yet another play about the fear, terrible transgressions, and bloodshed that Romania went through between 1945 and 1989. ‘Yes,’ she replied, ‘because it’s still happening, it’s the only thing we know.’”
Its clear that what the Romanian playwrights are writing and exploring what they know. However, Hanna Wolf is researching. She is spending a year immersed in a country, culture, language, and theatrical landscape with which she is not familiar in order to become what she calls, “an international artist, not just an American one.”
This leads me to believe that there are two avenues of creative exploration: introspection and extrospection. Introspective creative endeavors require digging deep within one’s inherently, naturally, or culturally acquired knowledge. Extrospective creative endeavors require expanding out of oneself to acquire new knowledge about what one doesn’t already know about. However, the goal of both avenues seems to be the same: to better understand the world, its inhabitants and their relationships to one another.
The truth is, there is a difference between, “Write what you know,” and “Write what you already know.” That is not to say that writing what you already know can’t be illuminating. I’m simply suggesting that the research process is meant to expand what one knows so that one has more material to write about.
My grandmother might tell you that studying theater is just an excuse to avoid academic endeavors. However, I have realized that some of the best dramatists, dramaturges, directors and actors are the ones who use every role, production or project to expand their range of knowledge.