Daily Dojo

Richard Nelson, Can We Clone You?

I’m swamped, but when I heard about this via the ever dependable Mr. Excitement, I had to share it with my dojo-monkeys.

Playwright Richard Nelson, as noted by Mr. Excitement, has just finished his first year in charge of the Yale Playwrighting Program and has written an excellent article in the Dramatists Guild Magazine and man oh man, do I wish he was in charge of all theatre in New York City right now.

A Few Choice Quotes:

I look around the theater today and see so many younger playwrights locked in epic battles with “development” of their plays, an endless treadmill of readings and workshops, and all the accouterments that come with that culture. In essence they seem to be getting a lot of advice about how to write, fix, change their plays.

This culture of readings and workshops that now pervades the American theater would have been unimaginable thirty years ago: there is the word “development,” a concept rife with connotations and attitudes straight out of Hollywood screenwriting, where the writer is an employee and does not own his or her work; there are the “step deals” for playwriting commissions; the directors arguing for copyright of their work; and there is a whole slew of individuals, often interesting and generous individuals, who have been put into the unfortunate position of “shepherding” plays through this process.

In other words there are many many hands now stirring or being encouraged to stir the playwriting pot.

And . .

The damage this culture of “development” has done and continues to do to my profession is and has been immeasurable. To take just one catastrophic change: actors, directors, and even audiences are being taught by this culture to “help” the playwright write his or her play.

Because of this, the focus put on new work is overwhelmingly on “Does it work?” as opposed to “What is it about?” or “Why was it written?” or “Does it matter?” And a language or jargon has risen from this culture, prescribing to young playwrights what a play “must do” or “how a play works.”

One hears a student playwright being told that a character’s “journey” isn’t clear enough, or that the writer needs to determine a character’s “motivation.” One hears how a play has to “build” in a certain way, or how “the conflict” isn’t strong enough. These are terms that seem to suggest a deep understanding of what a play is and how it is put together, but in fact they tell us very little. Perhaps a particular play might be helped by one of these suggestions, but they (and other phrases or “rules”) are too often generally prescribed.

To see how silly this prescription is, one has only to ask: what is the motivation for Hamlet or Lear? The playwright doesn’t write out of “motivations” but rather out of truth and reality, out of people and story and worlds he or she wishes or needs to create for us. These terms are perhaps useful to the critic, or the “dramaturg,” in finding a way in for themselves to these plays, but such considerations are not how plays, good plays, great plays, are made.

And finally . . .

What is a good play? This year I invited to Yale many guests from the professional theater, including numerous artistic directors and literary managers. I asked each one what he or she looked for when reading a new play. And the answer was unanimous – no one said he was looking for a “well-crafted” play, or one with a solid “second act” or one where the “character’s journey was clear.”

No, all were interested in one thing – finding an original voice, that is, a writer who had something unique to say or a way of saying something in a unique way. Something new and something surprising – I could not agree more. An original voice is the essence of good playwriting – now, how can one teach that?

Of course one can’t, but one can encourage its uniqueness, and to do this one needs to empower the writer. Prescribing “rules” does the opposite.

Wow. Awesome and totally on target with regard to my experiences, both as a playwright and a dramaturg (yes, I’ve done both). You can read the whole article here and if you care at all about theatre, you must read it, you absolutely must.

Just a quick aside from my own experiences, we playwrights are getting drowned in readings and development, to the point where it’s freezing us out and hurting the work and, well, hurting our development. And the audience isn’t being utilized rightly in the “development” reading process, either.

Let me explain - to my mind, the audience is the most important role in theatre, but that doesn’t mean the whole audience is the dramaturg for any one individual writer.

Most readings (including the last one I had) the audience in attendence is asked to supply that kind of specific feedback and it’s not only NOT fair to the playwright, it’s NOT fair to the audience, either. That’s NOT their job.

Their job is to listen and respond as an audience, not respond as a professor and articulate their views on Aristotle’s Poetics.

Being an audience and being a dramaturg are TWO different things and it’s getting twisted in the “development” process.

Add to that, a reading or a development workshop is not the full theatrical expression of the play, so asking an audience to judge the play on what they think it WILL do rather than what it JUST DID is unfair, again, to them and to the playwright.

So as it stands, oftentimes the intent of the reading is being abused. And playwrights are certainly being dis-empowered, but that’s another topic for another day.

Readings are important, don’t get me wrong, it helps to hear a play and helps even more to hear an audience respond to the play as it is being heard or seen. But what happens afterwards is another thing entirely.

In other words, when it comes to the theatrical experience as a member sitting in the seats, all audience reactions and feedback are considered equal.

But when it comes to playwrighting, dramaturgy and artistic intent, all feedback, be it from the audience or anyone else involved in the “development” readings, is most certainly not equal - how could it be? One man’s bitter is another man’s butter.

And it goes back to what I learned back in school. A dramaturg’s true job isn’t necessarily to help you craft your play better, but to help you find your VOICE.

Not the voice of the Literary Manager, not the voice of the lead actor in the company, not the voice of the Artistic Director of the theatre putting up the reading, not the voice of the dramatrug and not even the voice of the audience but the Voice of the Playwright.

Lately, a lot of us have been drowned out.

Can you hear us out there?

12 Responses to “ Richard Nelson, Can We Clone You?”

  1. Laura Says:

    Yeah, I had that same reaction when I read it. Audiences for readings provide good feedback through their natural reactions to the work. I *know* when something isn’t working. Comments after the work have usually been worthless. They only serve to either shame the playwright for having dead spots in the play, or have led to completely off-track assessments.

    To be honest, I resent it when people think they can address “what’s wrong with my play.” I usually want to tell them to go take a flying leap and write their own G—D— play. I know my intent, I know why I wrote it, and I can tell when something’s wrong with it.

    I think this mode of “development” is part of our “culture of convenience.” The culture says, “We are here to be served.” If the play doesn’t serve our particular needs or what we think our needs are, then it is a failure and must be fixed.

    Just my two cents… I might have to add more later. ;)

  2. Ken Levine Says:

    Great article by Mr. Nelson. As a TV writer who has written a play and is trying to get it produced, I find this NY system of readings and workshops maddening. I wrote a comedy. I need an AUDIENCE to see if it “works”.

    I also need a good cast. Often times these readings are held with whatever actors can be found. Again, that does me no good.

    Plays are written to be staged, aren’t they? At least they used to be.

  3. Joshua James Says:

    “mob” of development is an even better term for it, when I think about it.

    yes, intent - I know my intent as well, it’s just a question of whether or not I’ve acheived it as effeciently as possible, usually - and best dramaturgs I’ve worked with understand that, rather than project their own intent.

    What’s even tougher is when a playwright is asked, before a reading, what is your objective with this reading, what are you hoping to find out by having this play read at our theatre - that’s always struck me as silly, I mean, what do you think I want from the reading - I want to hear if the play works and I want to see it produced, that’s the goal - why do they often ask that question? I mean, I took the time to write a play, isn’t it obvious why I would want it read / workshopped / produced? Isn’t that what plays are created for, to be shared with an audience?

    Anyway, I’m ranting and I’d promised myself I’d try and keep a lid on the histronics. Thanks for checking in, Laura!

  4. Joshua James Says:

    I especially agree about the casting aspect, Ken, many theatre companies only use what actors are available, whether they’re right for the part or not, and object if you want to bring in outside actors because of how their company actors might react to it.

    but without the right cast, a play is already halfway sunk, you know? And quite often even if they’re right, they are not good actors, but rather cast because they’re the roommate of the artistic director or the lit manager’s girlfriend or what have you -

    In the end, the reading becomes not about the play but about the company doing readings for it’s own sake and not the play or playright’s, which again hurts development.

  5. Joshua James Says:

    BTW Ken, I read your play - it’s very funny, which is to be expected from what I’ve sampled on your blog - have you ever considered submitting it to The New Group or The Director’s Company? I’ve seen some good shows there, though their process is also very slow - but it might be a good fit there.

    Email me off list if you want -

  6. R.K. Greene Says:

    Hey Josh, thanks for including me in on this discussion. As one who has had readings of your plays, and taken your plays around to theaters, investors and other producers, development means something different to me.

    Readings are one way to get a play out in front of people live and for the author to hear his or her work; it’s also one of the only ways to start drumming up the huge support that is needed to launch one. With Off Broadway costing nearly one million dollars to produce a single play with only a few actors, the economic prospects are extremely poor - usually ending up with huge financial losses and only a few weeks of work for the professionals involved. Hence commercial theatre’s reliance on revivals or plays that have proved success in London or elsewhere.

    Plays and playwrights do need to be talked about - its part of the intellectual and emotional response to looking in the mirror communally. A reading provides a private or public platform to do so. Though it’s sometimes useful to take the temperature of a piece from a reading audience, the trusted response is the discussion amongst the playwright, producer, director and even the cast after the reading - they’re the pros, the talented, the one’s intimately involved.

    It take courage to write plays, as it does to produce new ones, let alone being involved in theater at all in any capacity. It’s a passion. Unfortunately, the economics of theater are lousy. Even for not-for-profits, new plays are often rare each season. So it takes passion on many levels to launch a play; I think a worthy developmental pursuit. - RKG

  7. Joshua James Says:

    Thanks for joining in, RK, and for the record, every reading of mine your company did was a positive experience. As I mentioned, I think having readings are an important part of the process - it’s simply that that the intent of the reading is being twisted and abused far too often, which I’m sure you’ve seen as well, in your travels.

    Trust is the important issue. To get a trusted response, as some point the people doing the reading have to also trust the talent of the writer. You and I have that, but there have been soo many readings of mine, done by other groups, where I sit and wonder why they even did a reading of my play if they’re going to treat it, and me, as they are?

    But I agree with many of your points and thank again for coming.

  8. James Says:

    This development hell is what made me and Pete decide to form our own company in the first place; when we came to the city the best that any of the theatres or companies we spoke with could offer was the possibility of a reading somewhere down the road. I thought it was weird that foot-dragging and mass concensus was not just a bad habit with companies but inherent to the actual theatre culture. We figured we’d put our play on ourselves. If we screwed up, then we’d understand that this sort of foot-dragging was the best way to go and accept the culture of development hell (hey, we were new to the city; maybe these companies knew better). Since the show turned out okay (as have subsequent shows), we ended up seeing this D.H. as even more counter-productive.

  9. mirroruptonature Says:

    Hi Joshua, James, all,

    After reading Nelson’s article through a few times, I feel I have to dissent.

    Not from the main point, but from his argument as to why things are the way they are and why we needn change so much.

    I am a big fan of production over development, but for different reasons.

    My take on it is here: http://mirroruptolife.blogspot.com/2006/10/red-meat-for-masses-mr.html

    By the way, I’m not so sure I won’t change my mind, but its how I feel right now.

  10. Joshua James Says:

    I read your blog, pretty cool - I think that Nelson’s point is that the focus shouldn’t be on the bare mechanics of dramaturgy, but whether or not a play works on its own, which we can only know by listening / hearing / seeing it, at times, and not whether or not the inciting incident happens by page 12 or whatever - in essence, and in this I agree, rules don’t matter as much as the work does, the rules are not so much rules as they are fluid guidelines which either help or don’t, but during development we’ve become too obsessed with rules and not enough with the voice of the work.

    That’s what it sounds like, to me, anyway.

  11. R.K. Greene Says:

    Agreed, the trusted source over the mass is far more appealing and useful. SPF is still accepting plays, what’s new from you? - RKG

  12. Joshua James Says:

    I did submit one to SPF, so keep your fingers crossed for me.

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