Daily Dojo

Playwright As An Adult Who Can Chew Bubble Gum, Walk & Do Other Things, Too

As an add-on to the below post, in which Richard Nelson speaks about the subject of playwrights being hurt by those trying to “help”, I thought I’d offer up this rant about directing, writing, and little bit about class and ownership . . .

Many times when my scripts have been presented either as workshops, showcases and readings and I’ve expressed interest in directing my piece, I’ve been told either:

A) not allowed.

B) actively discouraged.

Or some nicely worded combination of the above.

There may be some good reasons, in that they have a lot of directors in house that they (the company) wish to keep occupied and out of trouble.

The trouble is, at least a couple times, this playwright ends up with an inexperienced director who does a less than able job and the end result is less than satisfying. I don’t mind it so much when I get paid (because that’s how this works, right?) but it rankles a bit when I don’t.

Just a year and a half ago or so, I asked to direct a one act play of mine being featured in a showcase . . . the AD of the theatre said “Well, I’ve never seen you direct,” and I said, “You want references?”

The AD wasn’t interested and eventually gave the job to a nice fella who had never directed before BUT had taken the AD’s directing class. And it didn’t turn out well, the show.

And frustrating for me because I’m quite experienced as a director . . . in fact, I’ve been directing longer than I’ve been writing . . . worked at a place called THE DIRECTORS COMPANY and actually ended up in New York City as a result of an internship with award-winning director ANNE BOGART . . . So I have this in my background, yet I’ve often found myself in a position of having a new director “explain” directing and blocking to me while I smile patiently.

Understand this: I love good and great directors, I do. I’ve worked with some solid pro’s and we’ve worked well because neither of us tries to teach the other anything . . . we just use our mutual skills to compliment each other.

I’m good at directing, but I actually prefer to let someone else direct a whole, big production . . . and that’s reflected on my resume’, most of the time. And I can sincerely understand why a theatre would rather entrust the budget of an open running show, which can be large, to a director they know can deliver.

However, READINGS are another matter entirely. So I’m speaking SPECIFICALLY about directing readings of my plays.

I don’t understand the resistance to letting the playwright direct a reading of his or her own play, if they wish.

Last year for a reading at a company, when I mentioned I wanted to direct. I was told, “that defeats the purpose of the reading,” if the playwright directs it . . . to which I would wonder . . .

How can a playwright, directing a reading of their play, defeat the purpose of said reading?

Isn’t the purpose of a reading for the play to be heard as the playwright intended it, and if so, isn’t the playwright an important resource in that regard?

To assume that, because I wrote the play, I’m not capable of understanding what needs to be done in terms of asking actors to read various parts, listen to them do it once or twice, to assume that I’m not capable of doing that is a wee bit silly.

Actually, I find it somewhat insulting, too.

Has that happened to anyone else?

The above wasn’t a company unfamiliar with my work, either. They’d already had a number of readings of my pieces, and produced showcases and workshops. But despite that, I wasn’t allowed much input on casting and wasn’t allowed to direct. The reading didn’t go well and the script was blamed . . . which rankles . . . because I know I could have made it work.

Just a look at my website or resume’ would tell anyone I’ve experience enough to direct a reading.

Just a conversation would also do the same. And I have references.

But it’s not about me, see. It’s about all playwrights. About our changing role.

It’s more about the process Richard Nelson mentions, the one where the playwright is infantized . . . where it’s assumed that, since we chose to be playwrights, we are unable to understand any of the other working parts in theatre, and it makes me a bit angry.

Because it’s not true.

Playwrights can, and often do, understand the directing and acting processes as well as the writing ones. Many great playwrights such as Sam Shepard, Caryl Churchill, David Mamet and Harold Pinter are known for directing plays as well as writing them . . .

Playwrights can chew gum and walk at the same time, we are not infants. We don’t need you to explain that a theatre has seats and that audiences sit in them . . .

Yet again, I’ve observed this tendency again and again, and when playwrights complain, we’re tagged as troublemakers . . . or told we’re causing our own victimization, and if we don’t like it, to produce our own theatre.

Mind you, I have produced my own theatre. Yet often this garners me little respect . . . I’m telling you, I’ve observed a tendency among companies and directors to infantize playwrights.

I’ve actually been less and less involved with theatre as a result. I love the work, but I haven’t loved how the role of the playwright has evolved since I started doing this in the nineties. And it’s not like it pays so much, either.

I think part of it has to do with power and class . . . which Freeman writes about so well in his post Class and the Victim Mentality that I’m jealous I didn’t write it first.

For the record, I’m strictly working class.

Listen, just in terms of pure politics, throughout history the Ruling Class has always tried to infantize the Working Class . . . we were good enough to clean toilets and the like, but not mature or worldly enough to be involved in the important decisions.

I see that many, many times in theatre with regard to playwrights . . . at least on the indie-level, anyway . . . we’re not thought to know what’s best for our own work, even though we wrote it, and it’s not even really considered “ours” by many professionals unless a director claims it. That the play is incomplete until a director or dramaturg says it is.

Or that it’s not even literature.

Anyway, maybe I’ve wandered off point a bit, but I thought I’d take this moment to state that I’m a grown-ass man, dawg, and even though I’m a playwright, I also know quite about about all the other jobs one has to do in theatre . . . and I respect them all . . . would it be too much to ask for a bit of respect in return?

I can walk, chew gum and a whole lot more things.

So can many other playwrights.

12 Responses to “ Playwright As An Adult Who Can Chew Bubble Gum, Walk & Do Other Things, Too”

  1. Mark Says:

    This is a great post Josh. As you mention - and I say this as a director - there are many great playwrights who are fine directors of their own and others’ work. Yes, directing is a different skill set from playwriting (and I don’t think writers who don’t have said skills should direct), but there’s nothing in the world about being a playwright that would preclude someone from also being a great director, if that’s the way it came down.

    You mention most of the great ones, but to those, I’ll add Steven Dietz, who I worked with as an assistant and is as fine a director as they come.

  2. isaac Says:

    The question, Josh, that I have is this (I think you make a lot of good points, although once again I would argue that you’ve misunderstood what I meant by plays not being literature or perhaps I chose a very loaded way of explaining that plays are meant to be performed and need to be studied as such and the terminology I used totally got in the way):

    Why did you let your one-act be directed by the AD’s total novice directing student?

    I’m not asking this rhetorically, or to provoke or anything like that, I’m really curious. Because it seems to me that an artistic director who says “hey, you have a great deal of directing experience, including of your own work, but I’m going to have my total novice directing student do it anyway” has absolutely no respect for you, your work, or what it demands. So I wonder why you would work with someone like that.

    (I’m guessing that the answer has something to do with the lack of opportunities for playwrights. But that’s just my guess)

    Also… in re: the infantalizing thing… I agree that both in the reheasal room and in the system at large, writers (and actors! oy vey! the actors!) get treated like babies. But I don’t think that saying that there could be more to a play than the author’s intent (even though said intent is very important) is infantalizing.
    Babies always get their way, after all.

  3. Joshua James Says:

    Hey Isaac,

    Well firstly, the AD didn’t say “You have a lot of experience, etc” I said I did and offered to provide proof . . . he simply wasn’t interested.

    I should add that I also expressed interest in directing a couple of the other plays, written by other writers, and I was also dismissed without consideration.

    He, the AD, simply had his mind on how it was going to go no matter what.

    Now the reason I accepted the novice, well, that’s two-fold . . .

    Firstly, some background, this wasn’t out of the blue . . . we developed these plays during a four or five months of meetings . . . they invited some playwrights to write about a specific subject.

    In the beginning, it was great, we submitted work and read it, exchanged ideas and it worked fine. It didn’t get hinky until they decided to workshop it as a showcase.

    Then, all of a sudden, it seemed that the writer’s views, which had been important before, meant nothing.

    But I didn’t want to pull the play after putting months of time into this thing (and I had another piece in as well) and so I agreed to work with the director.

    The honest truth is, too, that sometimes first-time directors can be great. So it’s not necessarily that he was a novice . . . as long as he and I can communicate, I don’t see that experience is a problem.

    I’m willing to take a chance on a novice, in other words, if they seem promising. I wasn’t given a choice, but the fella seemed nice and worked hard, too.

    But the process was, unfortunately, difficult, and made more so by casting issues . . . this happens, but I’m not bitching about that. Sometimes one just has a bad fit, you know.

    So I’m not necessarily bitching about an inexperienced director . . . we all were that, at one point.

    I’m bitching about the larger issue, that the AD trusted someone as director inexperienced, simply because the director had taken a class, over the writer with experience and whom he’d sat in a room discussing the scripts amicably for five or six months . . .

    It speaks to a lack of trust, and it wasn’t just aimed at me, but all the writers in the room . . . and we were all over the age of 30.

    I’ve seen this before. When it comes to actually getting the work ready, writers are viewed as infants.

    And I should add, I don’t agree that babies get their own way all the time, any way. Plus, I don’t WANT to have to throw a fit to get my view across, you know?

    The biggest thorn is being shut out of READINGS as a director.

    I mean, do you think the playwright directing a reading of his / her script defeats the purpose of the reading?

    I don’t see how . . . We want to hear how it’s supposed to be before a listening audience, right?

    As a writer, I look at a reading as an AUDITION for the company . . . my way of showing them the script is worthy of being produced.

    If the reading is cast with actors that are not skilled or just plain wrong for what they’re reading, it kills it. And worse if you have a director directing the reading who doesn’t get it.

    But too often I’m told I cannot direct and also, have no imput on casting. Sticks in my craw, I must say, especially when the reading doesn’t go well. Casting issues are another thing, I’ve worked in casting and have many contacts and I cannot tell how how condenscending people have been to me about it, simply because I’m a writer.

    The last reading I was trying to get my friend, a pro actor, in it, I wrote the part for him, and there was a shitload of resistance at the theatre right up until someone saw him on TV . . . then they figured, oh hey, maybe he’s good after all, even though he’s friends with the writer!

    Readings have been especially brutal, that way.

    Some of this has to do with the misuse of readings . . . they’re just part of the cannon-fodder and under-used actors and directors are put in them to give them something to do . . . therefore they don’t turn out well.

    If the readings AREN’T an audition and are FOR the playwright to hear the play, why not let them cast it as they wish and hear it they way they intended?

    The sad thing is, most of these issues could be resolved with communication . . . I’m open to hearing a company’s issues on casting, etc . . . but my experiences have been (not all the time, but a majority) that communication has been difficult and it’s been that way because playwrights are viewed with the attitude I’ve described in the post above.

  4. isaac Says:

    Josh,

    I agree that playwrights should be there at readings. In fact, I think playwrights should be at auditions and at all rehearsals, if they can be. I also think playwrights should feel free to answer actor’s questions in rehearsals, and give the director notes in the rehearsal room.

    The question I have, Josh, is how and why you keep ending up in these terrible working situations?

    Keep in mind that they are terrible, and I think the people you are talking about are bad at their jobs and behaving badly. And the fact that the novice student director behaved the way he did tells you something about how he was trained by the AD that trained him. But keeping that in mind… I read (and enjoy!) your blog quite a bit, and the regularity with which you find yourself in (not just mediocre but) terrible and disrespectful working situations is astounding to me.

    It’s astounding because basicaly no director I have met (and I’ve met a lot of them) would think the way that you’ve been treated is appropriate. So again the question for me is… how and why do you keep ending up in these situations?

    (and i know that there are plenty of times when you find yourself in good situations too)

  5. Joshua James Says:

    I bet I’ve just met more directors - LOL! But only because I’m older and been doing this longer . . . and I have a lot of productions under my belt, so that’s possibly how I’ve gotten this many - I’m not sure, exactly, but until a four or five years ago, I’d aveaged five or six separate productions a year, and a lot more readings . . . and it’s been higher the past four years, so it’s mainly a question of numbers . . . but let me tell you this . . . I haven’t even shared the WORST horror stories yet - LOL!

    But I have had great experiences, too . . . In particular I would point out Nick Corley as a fine director with whom I’ve worked with many times, and last summer during the Atrain plays I had a great experience with the director whose name I pulled out of a hat there, Susan Einhorn . . . and we’ll probably work together again soon.

    I loved the director I had in London, Nancy Hirst.

    Not only that, a young director, Doug, directed some shorts of mine last fall for a brief run . . . he was young and I believe relatively new to directing (he’s a pro actor) but it was a very positive experience.

    So they’re not all bad - LOL!

    But overall, I’d say the negative experiences outnumber the postive ones . . . I guess that’s just how it is . . . just like at auditions, fewer great actors than bad . . . and when reading scripts, the bad ones outnumber the good ones.

    I don’t think, however, that my situation is unique . . . there are many horror stories, some of whom involve places you and I both know (a certain downtown theatre space comes to mind) and other writers have spoken to me at length about their troubles . . . so I know other writers have run into the same thing.

    And I have noticed a trend toward marginalization of the writer . . . it is different than when I started doing this, over ten years ago.

    I only bring this up since it’s a subject I think should be talked about . . . and I’m astounded when I hear that I shouldn’t direct a reading of my own play (from a theatre company already familiar with my work and who’s been around for 20 years or so) because that would “defeat the purpose of the reading” because I don’t get why someone might believe that, but apparently some do.

    And it’s weird, because I cannot even seem to disagree.

    For the record, there are a lot of companies I DON’T work with anymore, due to negative experiences . . . but I’m fortunate in that I’ve had a lot of productions and feel comfortable saying no.

    But I also remember sweating saying no, too . . . and being told that a label of difficult is not condusive to a good career, etc.

    So I throw this out for the edification of the masses . . .

  6. mirroruptonature Says:

    I am a playwright, and a director.

    I am currently directing a play for a new play festival. The following was included in the guidelines sent out to directors and to playwrights in the festival:

    VERY IMPORTANT, READ THIS CAREFULLY: A focus of the festival and a hallmark of our success have been to highlight the work of local playwrights of extraordinary talent. They are welcome to come to rehearsal and you should contact them early in the process to have a dialogue about their piece. Normally this tends to be informative and intriguing. However, you may hold some rehearsal without them if you feel you need some time alone with actors. The roles of playwright and director are held with deep respect at our Company. THIS CANNOT BE STATED MORE EMPHATICALLY. Playwrights should not direct actors, do line-readings, mandate blocking, etc. By the same token, directors should never change a line or stage direction in the script without permission of the playwright, and should not seek to alter the overall message or appeal of the play in any way. We treat Playwrights with the utmost respect and kindness. If a conflict arises at any time, please contact me immediately so that we can clarify parameters and clear the air with professionalism. Theatre is by nature a collaborative and nurturing art, however, it should also be treated as a professional one with clear roles for all involved, so that everyone is respected.

    I have had a good experience so far with the playwright.

  7. patrick Says:

    I’ve found in dealing with other companies that the ban on playwrights directing their own work seems to spring from the same source as banning directors from casting themselves in a (the) lead role. In many, if not most, cases that’s just a bad idea and the final product tends to be crap. That doesn’t mean it’s impossible.

    I think the thought-process behind it (and this is coming from the outside looking in) is that they want the playwright to feel like they can concentrate on their script without having to be distracted by the constant and intrinsic demands of directing — dealing with actors/designers/producers/etc. And that I can understand. After all, many of the playwrights mentioned above who have directed their own work didn’t direct the first production of that work, and were able to focus completely on the script.

    Having said that, like any other hard and fast rule, it isn’t elastic enough to take into account every situation.

    I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a playwright directing their own script, especially a reading of their own script. But again it seems like this springs from the assumption that the writer’s script has come unfinished. That it still needs serious work, and development. As opposed to just needing a production. Which is what many playwrights these days need the most.

  8. Joshua James Says:

    Oliver directed himself in a lot of plays, right? As did Welles . . .

    It may come from the same source, but I don’t know that it’s the same thing at all . . . it’s hard to look at staging when you’re a part of it . . . in fact, it’s a bit impossible, though that doesn’t mean the end product is bad. Just that the journey is more difficult, which is why it turns out bad so often.

    But a writer directing their own work can see all the staging, the lights . . . they can sit in the audience and watch . . .

    And I would argue that more writers directing their own work (and the work of others) improves their craft . . . certainly my work has been informed by my acting (I began as an actor) and directing worked, informed and improved . . .

  9. Mark Says:

    I still really like this post and agree with it strongly. To add to the list of writers who’ve directed their own work: Richard Nelson, Tom Donaghy, Christopher Shinn.

    But I do want to echo Isaac’s question. Josh, you mention all the time, on your blog and in others’ comments about these terrible working situations. I don’t think you and I are all that different in vairiety of experience and I’m regularly shocked by the experiences you seem to have. I realize you don’t want to mention names on your blog, but that absence has the effect of presenting such a negative view of director and artistic directors.

  10. Joshua James Says:

    Hmm, I think it’s just that the horror stories themselves are just striking and more interesting in terms of framing the discussion . . . I mean, I’ve had a lot of shows where I was very proud of the end result . . . if I wrote about it, however, it would come down to just saying . . . we did this show and it was great!

    So maybe that’s why the stories of what has gone wrong are so striking, I don’t know . . . then again, I’ve certainly been present on a lot of downtown stages - LOL! And some of them have certainlly been dodgy . . . but in some cases, even when it has been, I’ve had some fun stuff . . .

    Certainly the tragic stuff makes for more interesting posts, I’ve had some wild stuff happen to me, including walking in on some audtion for a play of mine, that I had written, that I had no idea was being done or that auditions were being held for it - LOL! They never asked me for permission, just took the play and decided to do it without asking . . . an actor-friend told me she just auditioned for my play and I was like, uh WHAT?

    In my post LET ME EXPLAIN MY CONCEPT FOR YOU PLAY I outlined the DO’s and DON’T'S for directors working with writers, and took pains to mention how much value I got working with Nick Corley - he’s one of the best.

    And I mentioned Susan Einhorn above, and there are other good ones . . . Rebecca Robertson comes to mind, and a bunch of actors who directed my plays worked out, including my buddies Adam Rothenberg, Ato Essandoh and Doug, who I spoke of earlier . . . Erica Gould is great. There are more good ones . . .

    Anne Bogart, who brought me to New York via an internship, is one of the most generous people I’ve ever met . . . a devout listener, too . . . and ironic in that she’s not that interested in story or acting . . . she’s primarily turned on by sound, light and movement, ordinary talky plays ain’t her bag . . . but she’s so good in terms of communicating and listening, I think she could direct anything she wanted to.

    But for some reason, I’ve met more bad than good, even with the pros, and as I mentioned, I haven’t even told you the really outrageous stories yet . . . which makes me value the good and great ones even more . . .

    But I can talk more about the great ones, if you wish. I just feel that, in this day and age, directors seem to be the ones with the power, and there are many not using that power responsibly, you know?

  11. Ian W. Hill Says:

    I don’t think this “infantillizing” (perfect word for it) is confined solely to writers, though they tend to get the worst of it. I see this happening towards anyone working in art or craft who has the apparent temerity to actually function in more than one job.

    I’m an actor-director-designer-writer. I always function in at least two of those positions on any of my own shows, often three, sometimes all four. The amount of people (generally those who don’t know what I do) who seem to find this strangely, condescedingly humorous is surprising (”Oooh, big man! Does it all himself! Who do you think you are, Orson Welles?”). I love working with others in any of those positions, but frankly the way I work it’s just more handy and direct to do it all myself, and I feel perfectly capable of doing it — I’ve done all the jobs separately for others quite happily and competantly, so why not do all the jobs for my own shows, where I’m trying to keep everything of a piece.

    People see you in the first craft/art role you perform around them, and that’s IT. There seems to be an actual resentment if you try to step outside those bounds. I once acted as 16mm director of photography on a film project for a theatre company I had acted with, where most of the newer members didn’t know me. When I acted in the company’s next show, there was an odd friction between myself and the other actors. I found out years later from the producer and writer of the show that several members of the cast had complained about my casting, saying that I was a Filmmaker, not an Actor, and I shouldn’t be onstage with them (of course, I’ve done more acting than filmmaking, but that didn’t matter).

    Strange resentment, this. Patrick mentions the oft-touted reason that the work winds up being crap when the creators’ attention is split, and, yes, that can very well be the case (I’ve seen it, I think I did have it happen to me once as a director/actor). But when someone has more than enough experience at it, and can show that experience (as you note you certainly can) it becomes a ridiculous restriction.

  12. Joshua James Says:

    Good to hear from you Ian, we’ve both done many jobs on several of our shows, and I don’t think it leads to closing us off to collaboration, I think it makes it easier . . . you can really appreciate someone else’s job once you’ve walked in their shoes, right? When I’m working with a designer or director, I’m very aware of what they have to worry about and try to make things as smooth as possible, simply because I’ve been in their positon.

    At the college I went to, you had to do every job there was in theatre at least once, you weren’t allowed to only act or only direct, and it was very beneficial.

    once, when I had a show being showcased, I showed up for dress and found the director in a panic because whomever was going to set up the lights for them flaked out.

    I said, no worries, we’ll set the instruments up in a basic McCandle’s, get it balanced out, it’ll be fine.

    He said, McCandle’s?

    Yeah, you know, forty-five degree angles, etc . . . and showed him what I meant, got it lit.

    He said, you’re the writer, how do you KNOW this stuff?

    Interesting, since according to both our resumes, we both have degrees in theatre . . . LOL!

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