Daily Dojo

REPOST - Let Me Explain My Concept For Your Play

Originally posted November 8th, 2005. With the debate that rages currently regarding development hell for plays, it feels even more applicable today, so I share it again - jj

This is also a true story.

The first short plays I ever wrote are called -


Together they are performed as a trilogy entitled LOVE, LUST & LIFE though they can also performed separately. You can read them online if you wish, just go here. If you are on a PC, it may automatically download the play, but with a mac it should just let you view the piece. Back to the story -

They are very minimalist, very spare, two people telling the same story from completely different points of view. No set, no props, you don’t see the dog (he’s barking in the distance) or the cat. Forget about the car. Two faces. One story. And the stage directions explicitly state that the characters do not look at or acknowledge each other in any way. This is in bold print.

Few years back, a small theatre company was doing the plays, they assigned three different directors. I offered up my contact info to the company, in case they wanted to discuss the plays with the author, but the directors never called or emailed me. I was never invited to a read-through, nothing. I was young and didn’t say anything. It was a short run so I figured, “Fuck it.”

Now I happened to be at the theatre (which housed several different theatre companies) on other business and it turned out that the company in question was doing a dress rehearsal that night of my material. Someone pointed me out to a young man that I had never met up to that point. He introduced himself as the director of A BOY, A GIRL AND A DOG and asked if it was all right if he could ADD A LINE to the play. Here’s what happened.

Add a line? Where?

The scene where they meet in the elevator.

There’s no scene where they meet in the elevator. Boy tells the audience he met Girl in the elevator, but there’s no scene where that happens.

We actually have them meeting in the elevator. It’s totally cool, you’ll love it, very dramatic . . .

But it says in the stage directions . . .

So if it’s okay with you, we’d like Girl to say, “Hold the elevator, please” in the elevator scene in order to give the saxophone player time to get on the elevator.

There’s no elevator scene, there are no scenes in the play, the play is only nine pages long, it’s barely long enough to be a scene itself . . . saxophone player? Did you say saxophone player?

We added a saxophone player, it’s totally great, gives the play real depth. He plays music throughout the piece, he’s like another character.


We still have the dog, of course . . .

A dog AND a saxophone player? A fucking saxophone player?

(after a moment)
Let me explain my concept for your play.

It went downhill from there.

This is the third and final segment of Talkin’ Smack About Theatre in which we address the three following topics:

1) – The Director and the living playwright.
2) – The Actor and the living playwright.
3) - Theatres and Cover Tunes.

We’ve discussed number two and three, (‘cause I do things ass-backwards) so now we come to the number one Big Kahuna –

The Director and the Living Playwright.

I must admit that I wasn’t quite sure how I was going to broach this topic. I’m not a big theory guy; I’m strictly a blue-collar workaday playwright and prefer the same in directors. A few directors have shown and taught me fantastic things of great value – these are directors I would not hesitate to work with on any project.

On the other hand, many other directors have basically pissed all over my plays.

A director, all by their lonesome, can make or break a great play. A brilliant director can show you how to make a good play great. A brilliant director can even make a bad play good. A brilliant director makes you happy to be alive and privileged to be in the same room with them.

A terrible, Shit-Happens director makes you long for the sharp release of a razor across your own throat.

Unfortunately for all of us, the Shit-Happens directors vastly outnumber the brilliant ones.

Once, a friend of mine, a very experienced actor, was considering a directing job, his first, and since he knew I was also a director, he asked me if I thought he could do the job and what approach he should take.

“Have you worked with bad directors?” I asked. He nodded.
“Have you worked with good directors?” I asked. He nodded.

“Do what the good ones did and don’t do what the bad ones did” was the sum total of my advice and he nodded and did a fine, fine job.

So let’s approach it this way, assuming that there are a few of you directors in the Dojo now who are on the fence, waffling between brilliant and Shit-Happens, and if so here are some tips that I’ve learned, some DO’S and some DON’T’S for directors working with the live writers. They are in no particular order, and I’m certain after I finish writing this I’ll think of a couple dozen more. But here are the ones living in mind now.

DO - Read the play.

Yes, it’s true that there are directors who don’t read the play. It’s true, believe it, that shit happens. They took the job because they liked the title or because they had a crush on the lead actress in the cast. They didn’t even know what it was about until the first rehearsal. They took the job because they want to be able to tell people what to do (their idea of what a director does) and no one said that there would be required reading for this job. Guess what? It’s part of the job and if you don’t like to read, you shouldn’t be a director.

DON’T - Rewrite the play yourself.

Okay, this is important. Take a deep breath, Josh. Okay, I’m all right. Here we go.

You, the director, you are not the author of the play. That’s important, we need to restate it. YOU ARE NOT THE AUTHOR OF THE PLAY. IT’S NOT YOUR FUCKING PLAY. IF YOU WANT A FUCKING PLAY FOR YOURSELF, WRITE ONE!

Don’t rewrite the play yourself. Don’t fucking do it. This is, probably, the biggest problem I have with young directors. Old directors, too. Directors of all shapes and sizes, professional and amateur.

Look, directors, some new plays need to be cut. Some need to be rewritten.

But that’s the WRITER’S job to do so. Not yours. You don’t cut them without the writer’s permission. Just don’t do that. You don’t rewrite them without the writer’s permission. Just don’t do that.

Would you like it if, when I got to rehearsal, I completely ignored you and started directing the actors, cut staging and told the lighting designer to throw out the design and start over?

If the play needs work, script-wise, then make the playwright do that work. If the playwright is happy with the written work, then that’s it.

Sidebar, Your Honor?

Just because you and your actors cannot make a moment in a script work does not mean that the moment, as written, doesn’t work. I’ve seen that a lot, someone cannot make something work and they blame the writing. Not true, not always. It may mean that you need to work harder at it. It may mean that new acting and directing choices need to be made. It may mean that the writing sucks, sure, but it could also be you that sucks. And if it’s not the writing, if it’s you that sucks, changing the writing isn’t going to make your directing suck less.

Back to testimony.

The reality is, you (the theatre, the director, etc) agreed to do the play as written. In professional situations, where rights are paid for, there’s a contract that means the play as written and it doesn’t mean anything other than that. Even if you don’t have a contract, there’s usually a verbal understanding. In the program, my name is listed as author and that means I wrote it. No one else. I have pulled plays from production because I’ve shown up and they’ve cut a third of it without my permission. They violated our working agreement. Don’t do that.

Rewriting without the playwright’s approval is just that. A violation. I’m being hard on this, but this is a hard fucking issue, folks. You don’t own the words. You don’t. If the words are bad, if the play sucks, then you shouldn’t be directing it.

Generally if you ask a playwright, they’ll rewrite something to make it work. But DON’T YOU DO THAT FOR THEM. This happened to me a LOT in the beginning, because I am fairly user-friendly when it comes to talking about changes. I just want it to work. Since I’m so friendly when I’m there in the room, it becomes assumed I won’t mind if you fiddle with it when I’m not there, as well. Then I’ve shown up and it turned out to be an uncomfortable situation because, well, I was taken for granted and you should never do that to anyone, regardless of his or her job, in the theatre.

As a side note, some of the best treatment I’ve gotten has come from directors who are also writers (there are a lot of those). They understand what it takes to do what I do on my end and treat me as they themselves would like to be treated.

Now a brand new play, especially, it needs crafting, it needs pruning. I admit it. You know how you do this? Here’s one hint on how to start.

DO – Talk to your playwright.

Here’s a big note, directors.


Collaboration does NOT mean the writer does only what YOU want HIM or HER to do. Too often directors wave the collaboration stick to get what they want, but if I need something to happen onstage, it turns out to be a one-way street. That’s not collaboration. What is collaboration?

It means the two of us talk and share ideas. And some of my best times as a writer have been when I’m sitting down with a director and we’re challenging each other on what the scene is really about.

But if you can’t communicate, you’re not going to be able to do this. This bears repeating. If you cannot communicate about your craft, how are you going to be able to communicate with it? That holds for you playwrights, too.

I’ve stated before, on other sites, that the playwright is the Architect of the story and the director is the General Contractor who’s job is to build the story strong enough to hold the weight of the audience.

If there’s a design flaw in the story, talk it out. You should be able to do this, if not, then you need to learn. Both of you.

DO – Ask questions.

This is best way to learn what a play is, why it was written and how it is intended to be received by an audience is to ask questions of the author. Ask the playwright, damn it. Especially with new plays. Especially if there’s a knotty problem with staging or words or what have you. Sometimes the writer may not know, either, but by asking you can figure out the solution.

My good friend Nick, one of the best directors I’ve worked with, directed a workshop of my play TALLBOY WALKIN’ and we wrestled and wrestled with the ending, which for some reason felt uneven. After hours of rehearsal and much conversation about it, we sat there at a loss, without speaking and suddenly Nick looked at me and asked, with real curiosity:

What do you think the emotional peak point of the play is and why?

Bam! Right there. And just by asking that simple question, we were able to see immediately how to fix the end (which required moving one speech to a point five pages earlier in the play) and after that it flowed like butter.

I kicked myself for not seeing it sooner. But I didn’t ask the question, Nick did, and I’m thankful for that.

It doesn’t matter to me who asks the important questions as long as they get asked and we both, the director and writer, do our best to answer them. That’s what real collaboration is.

DON’T – Cut the playwright out of the rehearsal process.

Now there’s no reason for the playwright to be at every rehearsal. There’s also no reason they shouldn’t be there, either.

Sidebar, Your Honor?

Playwrights, if you’re reading this and you attend rehearsals, you should know how they work, you should know that process, what to expect or what not to expect. You don’t expect opening night performance, to begin with. That’s why it’s rehearsal. If you don’t know what the director’s job is and what the actor’s job is, keep your mouth shut unless asked questions. But I highly recommend that if you write plays and you’ve never directed and you’ve never had an acting class, it’s high time you learn what that end of it is about.

Back to testimony.

My rule of thumb is that I come to the first read-through, I come to the first run-through and then I come to the first dress rehearsal. I do that but I am usually talking to the director about the work constantly throughout the rehearsal process. With a new play, I attend more rehearsals because I may need to rework a piece more. I don’t mind doing that with actors in the room, in fact, it’s quite exciting.

Too often, however, I’ve been cut out of the whole process, shown up for the last dress rehearsal and found a disaster. And oftentimes it’s a disaster that I could have helped avoid had I been part of the process.

The good playwright is a resource, y’all. Use them. Which leads us to –

DON’T – Disregard the playwright’s notes.

Here’s a good rule of thumb for the director when it comes to writer notes. You have rehearsal and the playwright’s in attendance. Now, let’s say that at the end of rehearsal, when you usually give notes, instead give them a five minute break and meet with your playwright. Ask the writer for his notes first. Then after break, you present both your notes together. This way the cast doesn’t know whose notes belong to whom and you guys are unified.

What you don’t want is to give your notes, meet with the playwright and then turn to the cast, sigh and say, “Okay, the writer wants this part faster” like it was an inconvenience. You don’t want the cast to know who gave what notes. They’re your notes, you incorporate everyone into them, the Designers, the Stage Managers, everyone.

I’ve actually requested directors to meet with me before they give notes and they agree, then blow me off. They ask me after everyone has left and gone home, do I have any notes? Very rude. Or perhaps they listen to my notes and completely disregard them, don’t pass them on at all.

Listen, if you don’t agree with a writer’s note, discuss it with said writer and have a damn good reason why you don’t agree. Work it out between the two of you.

DON’T – Cast your friends in my play and then not kick their ass when they slack off.

Big problem. Directors cast their actor friends, then don’t put a boot to their butt when it comes to memorizing lines, being consistent or even showing up on time.

You cast someone, make sure they know their lines and know their shit or get somebody else. That’s the director’s job, to make sure everyone else is doing their job.

Hey, I have actor friends, too. I’ve also fired actor friends for fucking up. Because it is a job and it needs to be done well. If your friends aren’t serious and you allow it, then you’re not serious too and in my experience the play always suffers for it.

By the way, if you cast a friend and your friend is fucking around and making you look bad, you either need to cast better or you need to find new friends.

DO – always be prepared before rehearsal.

Directing is ninety-nine percent preparation. You should know before you step into rehearsal what you’re going to work on that day and why. Do not make it up as you go, only sloppy, Shit-Happens directors do that.

Be prepared.

DON’T – Try to teach acting when you should be directing.

Biggest misconception about directing is that the sole purpose of the director is to teach actors how to find the character. Teach them to find the natural impulse, to find their character’s motivation.

It’s bullshit.

The best directors I’ve worked with hire the best actors they know and let them do their job. They don’t cast actors and proceed to teach them how to act. They cast actors that know how to act already and get out of their way.

Which is not to say that occasionally a great actor won’t get a little lost and need assistance, that shit happens once in awhile to everyone. Then you talk and work it out. But if you have to teach everyone how to find their characters, if you have to tell everyone the basics of their job, you should have cast it better or perhaps change your approach.

DON’T – Put the concept over story.

See the anecdote at the beginning of this post. Too often directors, beginning directors, are anxious to show off their bag of director tricks at the expense of the story. So you get things like a sax player wandering around in a story where he doesn’t belong. Or the worst, oooh, look, a fog machine, oohh, ahhh. Wow. Fog. Cool.

My advice? Tell the story as simply, cleanly and clearly as you can. Avoid concepts.

The concept is not the story. The story is the story.

If your concept has nothing to do with the story, it doesn’t belong onstage.

If your concept doesn’t support the story, it doesn’t belong onstage.

If you have to explain your concept, then right away it’s unnecessary, right away it doesn’t work. It doesn’t belong onstage.

You know what? Don’t have a concept. You don’t need it. Just figure out how to tell the story and you’re golden.

DON’T – Yell “Cut” to stop rehearsal.

It’s not a fucking movie set.

They are two entirely different things.

DON’T – Encourage actors to “improvise”.

Because it doesn’t work, improvisation usually sucks and most especially, when you articulate the subtext in a scene, it often destroys the power of said subtext for the actors. For more on this, read Hey, What’s That Guy Doing In A Dress?

Too many folks believe improvisation is some magic fix-it tool for acting problems and that’s totally bogus. Trust me when I say that improvisation is over-rated and often misapplied.

DON’T – Be afraid to listen and share.

This has been a long post and maybe I’ll retire afterwards. But my best advice for directors is learn to listen and share. Not just credit, not just work, not just ideas, but everything.

The BEST directors I’ve worked with have been great listeners and great at getting great people in one room to work together. Who have not been afraid to ask someone for a suggestion and then utilized the suggestion, even though it wasn’t theirs, because it was a great idea. No matter whom it came from, they spotted it and used it.

The BEST directors I know have been the BEST listeners. You cannot be a good listener if you’re afraid to share. Share your time, share your ideas and most importantly, share others ideas and suggestions. Listen to others and they’ll listen to you and together you’ll make something great.

The worst SHIT-HAPPENS directors I’ve been unfortunate enough to be around got into directing so that they could tell other people what to do. So they could make all the decisions and take all the credit. So they could own it. They don’t care what anyone else thinks, nor do they want input. They want to be the creative genius at the top of the totem pole.

I’ve gone on and on and I’m certain to get flamed by a couple of folks who live for improv, so before I go underground, I’ll end with this.

Let me explain my concept for you.

Don’t do what the bad directors do.

Do what the good directors do.

One Response to “ REPOST - Let Me Explain My Concept For Your Play”

  1. Daily Dojo of Joshua James » Blog Archive » Guidelines . . . Says:

    […] These are great guidelines for directing new work. I’d recommend them for everyone . . . that and this. […]

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