The process of writing…

The process of writing for the stage has been so strange for me. After fifteen years as a fiction writer, I'm used to having total control over my story. If an editor wants me to change something, and I disagree, I can always decide not to publish with them. And for the most part, they leave my stories alone, aside from perhaps catching a typo or two. (Editors tend to be far less hands-on than they used to be, due primarily to lack of time in these crazy days.)

I'm used to workshopping my stories, of course -- I'm one of those writers who ardently seeks feedback, from pretty much anyone willing to take a look at my manuscript. Please, please, tell me what you think. Ideally, tell me you love it, just as it is, but if there's something you think could be better, tell me that too. I'll think about it, and maybe I'll revise along the lines you want. Or maybe not. Because in the end, the story is mine, all mine -- at least until it's published, at which point, it becomes the reader's story too.

Theatre is so different. The workshop process is similar, although with more pieces to it. Table reading. Staged reading. Feedback from actors, director, maybe from a playwriting instructor, if you're lucky. That last bit isn't so different from my graduate fiction classes, but the whole actor/director interaction is fascinating and disturbing. I find myself wanting to control it all. I write little tone notes in the manuscript: [snarky] or [long pause] or [awkward silence]. I write them knowing there's good chance the director will throw those out entirely. I restrain myself from writing long explanations of the character's motivations at this particular moment -- "No, see, of course she's angry, but wouldn't say that she's angry, because that's not how she interacts, so I need you to do something to show she's angry..." I can't write all that in the manuscript.

All I can do is give them the dialogue, perhaps a tiny bit of stage business here and there. Give them the words, hand over my trust, and walk away. Hoping that between my words, the director's vision, and the actors' talents, something magic will evolve.

Do you know the joke about the control freak?

Knock-knock.
Who's there?
Control freak....now you say, 'Control freak who?'

Yeah. This playwriting thing -- it's not for the faint of heart.

3 thoughts on “The process of writing…”

  1. .laugh. I’ve spend years on the tech side of theater, and the most directive of all the playwrights whose pieces I’ve worked on is Tennessee Williams. I remember thinking, “sheesh, you’re not the director!”. It’s that letting-go, though, knowing that when art is alive it’s not all yours anyway. When I write poems (or sermons–occasionally I get sick at the last minute) and hear someone else read them it’s a strange and wonderful revelation.

  2. Re directive playwrights: And then there’s Beckett. “Since Beckett’s death, all rights for performance of his plays are handled by the Beckett estate, currently managed by Edward Beckett, the author’s nephew. The estate has a controversial reputation for maintaining firm control over how Beckett’s plays are performed and does not grant licences to productions that do not strictly adhere to the writer’s stage directions.”

    For example, iIrc, they refused to allow a production of Waiting for Godot in which one of the male characters was played by a woman–even though the character remained male and the actor’s gender was not (I think) obvious to the audience.

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