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Being the Playwright in the Room

I’ve been wanting to post for a little while now about the experience of writing and producing a new play for my senior thesis. It’s probably one of the most difficult things I’ve ever had to do. I wrote the first draft of the play in the first semester of my junior year, took a break from it while I was studying abroad, then returned to campus my senior year and have been doing rewrites and readings for feedback since September. This has been an entirely new experience for me in many ways; in fact, the only thing not new for me was literally the writing. I’ve loved writing my whole life, which is why I felt the truest impulse for my undergraduate thesis was to write over anything else. It exemplifies my desire to create theatre and put my own voice out in the landscape rather than solely focusing on how to tell other people’s stories. However, I was used to writing for pleasure whenever inspiration struck me, which is not exactly how one goes about getting a play production-ready. Throughout the writing process, I charged myself with making my own deadlines, being open to receiving feedback (sometimes reluctantly), deciding which notes were most important, how to incorporate those notes into my next draft, and gearing up to perform major structural overhauls of the whole thing. This process, at once turbulent and sluggish, finally led to a draft that the director and I were proud of and could hand to the actors in rehearsal, though knowing there would be more edits made in the room.

Now we are in the midst of the rehearsal process, and negotiating how I exist in the room has been a challenge. I will backtrack again and explain that how my director and I have figured out how to work together on a new piece was a journey that started all the way back in the fall when we agreed to work together. We were already good friends, and finding our working dynamic as playwright/director as it coexisted with our friendship was difficult at first. It required being honest with each other, as well as challenging each other in a positive, productive way. We also needed to make sure we were on the same page about our mission and goals for the play itself. My director needed to let go of trying to steer the play into a direction where he saw it going and trust my vision, and I needed to let down my defenses in order to receive the helpful feedback that he provided. Ultimately, the agreement we landed upon was this: I am the authority on the text, and though my director can provide input and feedback, I get to decide which notes to take and which to leave. Likewise, he is the authority on the production, and I can provide feedback which he can in turn take or leave. This is a fair arrangement that allows us to both have creative authority over our own theses without compromising the artistic goals of our partner.

Something I knew logically going into this process was something that proved to be harder to put into practice: the production is not just my play. Obviously the production is the work of not only the playwright but of the actors, director, designers, etc., and these varying forces when united can produce something greater than any one of them would have been able to make it on his/her own. However, as I found, it is another thing entirely to see one’s work nestled in the hands of others and letting go of the idea that I can be in control of how it is presented. I was fortunate enough to have found collaborators that I trust, so I have confidence that their choices will be in line with my intentions for the piece, and also that they can bring ideas to the table that I’ve never thought of which enable me to learn more about the play myself. In the same way that a playwright has to let go of the desire to control how an audience responds to their play (everyone will always experience a play differently), the playwright must also trust her collaborators to bring the play to life in a way that stays true to the text but also honors their artistic choices.

Part of my stress around being in the rehearsal room as a playwright came from a fear I have of not owning my own voice or authority. To what extent do I have an obligation to speak up about my own intentions? What happens when I think the director or an actor has a totally different idea of a character than what I think I’ve written? Do I just trust their instinct or do I say something to defend my piece? An article recently published on HowlRound entitled “How Do We Make It? Directors and the New Theatre Landscape” helped to shed some light on this issue for me, especially this quote:

Some folks say put the play in the center of the room. We say put the play in the center of yourself and respect that it lives in the center of each of your collaborators as well. Allow the possibility that your interpretation, your proposal for the performance text will yield if not an answer suitable for the final draft of the show, a totally valuable experiment in the search for that final draft, one that will inspire similar proposals from your collaborators. Instead of fearing that you’ll “get the play wrong,” start from a place of adventure, a place of possibility, let the work on the page inspire your creativity instead of minimizing it. Here’s why this is important: good plays are ones that support multiple interpretations. … If we try to “director-proof” a play to insure only one interpretation, it shuts down a play’s ability to support a multiplicity of meaning. If we make the play too finite, it can only exist for one group of people at one point in history (and that is of course fine, if that’s what you’re after), but if we want plays that expand the form and invite in new audiences, then we need plays that are built for interpretation. We need collaborators and theaters that support this very theater-centric practice of making meaning together.

This idea that there is no ideal version of the play was comforting to me. There are a lot of different choices that could be made which would have different effects for different moments, but they are choices worth exploring to find which is most fitting and provocative for the production. The article also introduced the notion of the script as a “powerful tool among many powerful tools” – the text is not gospel: it is a living organism that has a lot to say but still has room to be impressionable. One of my acting professors here once taught me that the text of a play provides the “black space” and takes up 30% of the page; the other 70%, the white space, is for the actor and director to fill. I do want to be a playwright that leaves a healthy chunk of white space. I do want my collaborators to feel like their artistic agency is being honored, and I don’t believe that the text ever needs to be compromised because of that. New plays are weird beasts; they breathe and move and adapt in the room. All collaborators have important voices that need to be honored because we do not make theatre alone. 

I have learned A TON through this experience, and I am grateful that I got to have my first production go up in an educational environment. This way, I can make all the blunders I want and learn about how I operate as a playwright (which was also surprising sometimes) in a place where my professors and colleagues are here to support me, offer me advice, challenge me, and ultimately further my development as a theatre artist. The “success” of the play is really secondary to the experience of developing a new play for the first time. Having this laboratory space to discover that for myself has been a true gift, and I feel more confident going forward after graduation as a playwright and a developer of new work.

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About oliviahaller

Olivia is a DC-based actor, playwright, dramaturg, and producer.

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