Direct And To The Point: Head True North

Creating a new play can be a challenging process for any number of reasons. The first and most fundamental challenge revolves around shaping the script to tell the story that you want to tell. In my experience there are three key issues that can quickly derail this process – when a writer refuses to do any rewrites, when the writer is constantly rewriting, when the writer and the director are not on the same page with regard to what the story is or where it should go.

With the first of these, there can several valid reasons why a writer may be opposed to doing rewrites. They may have had experiences where someone bullied them into making changes that they didn’t agree with or where listening to someone’s feedback just made the script worse. They may not know how to fix what they don’t like about what they’ve written and so it’s easier to pass off “making it work” to someone else. They may not have objectively investigated if what’s on the page is actually telling the story they think it is. They may just believe what they’ve written is perfect. (This is NOT to imply that writers are arrogant. It is merely to acknowledge that some people – writers, directors, zookeepers, etc. – are arrogant and believe they can do no wrong.) Regardless, of why they are opposed to doing rewrites, I think the best results happen when the development of a new play is thought of as a collaborative process, where various interpretations, qualities, and insights may be discovered. If you’ve assembled a team that really works well together, the combined brain power of the group can yield ideas that greatly enhance the final product.

The other extreme, where the writer is making rewrites all over the place, can be equally frustrating. Again, this can happen for any number of reasons. There maybe an avalanche of chaotic feedback coming at them from the actors, designers, and director. There maybe seasoned industry people telling the writer the show can be a huge commercial success IF certain changes are made to the script. They may terrified that nothing they’ve written is working and trying to fix it by spraying “rewrite bullets” at anything that blinks. Writing a play is hard. Having it be put through the gauntlet of a reading or a production is even harder. If you’re erring to this side of things, it can be particularly helpful to clarify for yourself what story you want to be telling. What are the basic plot points? What is the journey? What are the important relationships? What is the world like? If you have a clear understanding of what you want these elements to be, it will help you sort through the responses that you get.


A note about feedback: some degree of feedback will find you regardless of whether you are seeking it or not. It may be vague (seeing or hearing the audience laugh or cry) or specific (overhearing a pointed comment as the audience leaves the theater). My feeling is, since you’re bound to get some degree of feedback anyway, why not actively participate in the interest of filtering that feedback towards the things that you want to know. (What happened in this play? How would you describe this character? What relationships seemed to be the strongest?) If you ask specific but open-ended questions you stand a better chance of being able to figure out whether you’ve written what you wanted to write. Sometimes when you’ve got your nose buried in the keyboard, it’s hard to accurately tell what you’ve got. The things that are apparent to you may not be apparent to everyone else. If you find out what you think you wrote is not actually what’s being received, you may want to do some rewrites. Remember that one audience member’s comment (good or bad) does not necessarily represent the experience of the entire audience. They remain just one person. As with any data set, before you draw conclusions (and make any changes) you want to collect a decent sample size. Likewise, the person who “loved everything about it” and the person who “hated everything about it” are statistic anomalies – their response are too far outside of the mean to be useful.

Perhaps most importantly, the writer and the director need to be on the same page with regard to what they hope to accomplish. Their agendas don’t have to be identical, but they need to agree on the things that are most important. At the very least, they should agree on what story they are trying to tell. The same set of words and events can be interpreted in a variety of different ways. King Lear could be the story of how a man’s favoritism ultimately destroys his family. Or it could be the story of one daughter’s unconditional love. Or it could be the story of how unchecked jealousy destroys everything in its path. It’s the same text and events, but leading to three different takeways. Once your play is published and out in the world for everyone to produce, you will likely need to come to terms with no longer being able to dictate how it takes shape. But in the stages leading up to that point, you have to be able to communicate to your director what this version is about. Ideally this would be the very first conversation you and your director have about the piece – hopefully while you’re both still sussing out whether to move forward with the partnership. If the writer feels comfortable with the director, it then becomes the director’s responsibility to decide whether writer’s vision for the piece is one that they can be completely on board with. When the writer and the director can function as a united leadership team, it facilitates a clear and cohesive process for everyone else. One where the conversations in rehearsal are geared toward sharpening and clarifying the important elements. And where the choices that move forward with regard to performance and design continue to build on what was discovered in rehearsal. But in order for that to happen, the director has to have that in mind from the outset and writer has to continue to be available throughout the process.

The play is the point from which everything else springs. Find what true north means for this story. There will things that feel like they are pulling you off course. That is what happens when you leave the safety of the shore to embark on a voyage. Keep that as your reference point and make your adjustments according. Trust in the crew that you’ve assembled to get you safely to your destination. Godspeed.

Thoughts? Comments? Questions? Post them below. The more, the merrier.

Direct And To The Point: Better Angels Of Our Nature

Last week I saw a production of a new musical. It had a female director and a team of young writers, half of which were also female. I could not have been more disappointed. If you were to look purely at the main story arc, this show could have been written in 1950. As people who are creating and shaping cultural narratives, we need to take that responsibility seriously. One of the reasons I started directing was that I wanted to see women portrayed in a more three dimensional way on stage. I wanted to see more women represented on stage and I wanted to see them do something other than be a mother or a love interest. The world I experienced was much richer than the world I was continually seeing reflected back at me. In a previous post I talked about how theater can be valuable with regard to helping people their navigate emotional landscape in a healthier way. Another huge way that theater (and the other mediums for telling stories) can be hugely influential to the world around us is with regard to what they normalize. We’ve made tremendous progress since the 50’s but that progress needs to be reflected in the stories we tell. One of the ways we can help move that progress along to an even greater degree is by shifting the narrative. Here are some things that this production could have done differently in order to be more interesting and serve as a better model for what normal could (should) be.


Women Shaming Women
Girl and boy break up. Girl is having a hard time getting over the break up and checks out boy’s Facebook page. She sees him smiling in a photo with another girl. Girl responds by calling the other girl “a slut”. I understand that girl is having an emotional outburst. I understand that her response is a laugh line. It’s not necessary (what we need know is that he’s moved on and she hasn’t) and it’s detrimental. Write a better joke. If anything she should be yelling at her ex-boyfriend for moving on. The new girl he’s with is not at fault for anything. Women shaming other women – for the way that they dress, for how sexual they are or aren’t – is something that just has to go. There’s enough pressure from fashion and media around how a woman should look and behave. It shouldn’t be reinforced in new works of theater. If her reaction has to go in that direction (and I maintain that it doesn’t since it doesn’t relate to her story line at all) I would rather that she called her “a bitch”. At least that word does not carry the same shaming connotations.

Beta Female
The Girl does exactly what she’s supposed to do and waits for her ship to come in. She bends over backward to please everyone around her. Finally, she lands a man. The Boy has been living the high life down on Wall St, but is fired after a corporate faux pas. He ultimately learns to follow his heart and do something meaningful. These characters are certainly still present in the modern world, but they are the low hanging fruit. They are the default, factory-setting positions for these characters. Unless there’s something super unique about them or their worldview, it’s really difficult to make them interesting. If, at the very least, you just switch the genders (making her a career driven alpha female and him a people pleasing artist) you’re at least starting from a more interesting place. Additionally, the world needs more stories with powerful women and sensitive men. We are saturated with the reverse and it does not serve us as a society. We would do well do get to a point were a high powered executive is just as likely to be imagined female as male. Where the stay at home parent is just as likely to be portrayed male as female. If there are fewer societal stigmas separating genders, it allows everyone to find the lifestyle that best suits their skill set. Which in turn yields people who are happier and more fulfilled. Everybody wins!..But only if we shift the narrative around what’s “normal”.

Woman As Conquest
Boy is at a bar with some of his co-workers. His co-workers decide that he needs to “score” with a Girl and set about trying to help him “win” her. The co-workers know nothing about the Girl they think he should pursue. Boy also knows nothing about this Girl. (i.e. it’s not a scenario where he’s really gotten to know her and has just been too shy to ask her on a date). She has been seen and it is decided that she should be the evening’s prize. Then follows a whole song and dance number about how to get her to go out with him. At the end of which she is cornered into engaging with him. This narrative (in addition to being about as boring as they come) in the larger context of our society is harmful for both genders. It reduces women to being viewed as objects and reduces a man’s masculinity to his ability to “win” her. We would never believe a friendship or even a business partnership that was based on such a flimsy premise. We would expect the two parties to discover that they had something in common and something to gain from engaging with each other. But we would also expect both parties to opt in. You win the lottery, you win a game, you a court battle. You don’t win another human being. With regard to this particular scene and song in the production, it felt like this resulted because the writers felt like they needed a song featuring the Boy’s Friend. Which is completely valid. But in that case make it about how to appropriately and respectfully ask a girl out. Or how to put your best foot forward. Or how to build a relationship that lasts. Or any number of other relevant topics. There are numerous ways this concept could have been avoided and the effort needs to be made to do so. It’s one that is overdue for extinction.

Boy and Girl meet at a bar. Which then progresses to a date – they leave the bar (and their friends) to go out for hot dogs. At the end of said date, he kisses her. Why not instead have her kiss him. That at least makes her an active partner in their courtship. Best of all would be before anyone kisses anyone (that they only just MET a few hours before), they say, “May I kiss you?” and wait for the response. The issue of consent is a huge cultural shift that is long overdue. This adjustment costs us nothing with regard to the story. It doesn’t change the plot at all – what we need to understand is that they like each other, which we still get. It might add a line of dialogue, but it doesn’t even have to be a stopping point. They don’t have to have a whole conversation about consent. It’s probably better for the overall flow of this piece if they don’t. It’s just a tiny blip that says “asking for someone’s consent before you engage with their body is a normal thing to do.” We need to allow the idea that characters can engage with each other as active and willing participants to be romantic. And steer clear of glamorizing the notion that it’s somehow more meaningful if one character pushes themselves on another.

I don’t think any of these examples were decisions that were made in an attempt to perpetuate these older, not-so-helpful narratives. I think they weren’t decisions at all. I think they were defaults. The point is that if you are not conscious about what your work is saying, your work could be saying things that you wouldn’t intend to say.

Be aware – it is the first part of the process. Think from your highest intelligence – there are so many other solutions that can be found once we recognize we’re not going in the right direction. Take responsibility for what you create – the world is listening.

Thoughts? Questions? Comments? Post them below. The more, the merrier.

Direct And To The Point: Beware The Logical

Much of the work I’ve done as an actor has been bringing new works to life. This process is always a bit of a whirlwind, but it can be really invigorating from a creative standpoint because you, the director, and often the writer are building what the story is from the ground up. The scripts are printed pages, not a bound and published book. Rewrites are happening, sometimes right up until opening night. Everyone is hustling

Sometimes, in this setting, a playwright will help you out by breaking up long speeches into separate paragraphs. (Often, when you’re working on a script that has been previously published, the text for those longer speeches just appears in one big, long block.) This formatting helps quickly determine where the character’s thoughts change. After all, Grammar 101 would indicate that you should start a new paragraph whenever you switch topic, and, at minimum, you have to know the points that make up your argument. However, once you understand what that shape is, I think it’s important to be willing to separate the emotional ebb and flow of the character from the arguments within the text. I’m NOT saying ignore the text. You still have to communicate the information. What I am saying is the emotional state of the text may not align exactly with the information. The words about anger might not actually be angry when you say them. It probably makes sense for the emotion of anger to be somewhere in the neighborhood of those words – showing up maybe a sentence or two before or after – but for the words and emotion to line up exactly may actually end up feeling a bit flat. Sometimes there’s more mileage to be had (and more truth) if we’re able to let things get a bit messy.

I was fortunate enough to train with Fiasco Theater at one point (If you don’t know them, you should. They are fantastic.) and one of the principles that they really encourage is that you try to remain as open minded about your character’s emotional state as you can. Know your given circumstances and pursue your objective, but don’t pre-determine how your character feels about it. Be open to the text and see where it takes you. And if you don’t find anything interesting, try out an emotion that seems completely inappropriate and allow that to be your starting point. Rehearsal is the time to try these things out.

When we’re overtaken by emotion in real life, we don’t transition gracefully from one argument to another in a logical manner. Especially if we’re making a perspective changing discovery about ourselves or the world around us, as the characters we play often are. We’re just much sloppier than that in real life. Our mouths often say things we didn’t know we felt until after we’ve said them. We say them and THEN we process what we’ve said. Or sometimes, something happens in our lives where we thought we would react one way and when the moment actually comes we don’t. We thought we would be able to keep it together, and instead we’re a total blubbering mess. We thought we’d be nervous, but instead we’re totally calm. We thought we’d be laughing, where instead we’re crying.

emotions Emotions are messy. Especially, in situations where we’re saying these words aloud for the very first time – which is the effect we’re trying to recreate in theater. The fun in watching theater is when we get to see someone discover how they feel about something When we get to see them at the point when they don’t know what their next move is going to be. When we see them come unhinged. That’s a riveting moment. That when we’re on the edge of our seat, holding our breath. And I think that complexity comes when we allow ourselves to color outside the lines a bit.

Experiment with where you can skew the alignment with the text and your emotional state. Your audience is smarter than you think they are. You don’t have to hold their hand for every step of the way. And your characters can be more complex if you let them.

Thoughts? Comments? Questions? Post them below. The more the merrier!