Working in the Theatre: Playwriting

[opening music] [music] [onstage dialogue] I came
here today to talk to you about thievery. No, I don’t have an ordinance
or a proposal for how to handle this but I want to tell you what I see, which is a kind of fear that’s
making people act in ways… In ways afterwards that I think they might regret. But the damage has already been done. [overlapping dialogue] I don’t care what’s been going on with him at home, he cannot say things like that and he cannot act like that! [overlapping] I’m thinking of picking up the violin again, I want people to stop telling me that I’m wrong I want liberty, and I want justice. I want–I want– I want my music back. Scene. [applause] So is the whole play as good as that? [Laughter] We’re still playing with how it frays. We’ve moved it several times and we’ve experimented and we’re just looking to you guys to help us. [David Henry Hwang] I basically rewrite until someone makes me stop. I’m always aware of the things in the play that
still aren’t working as well as they could be. There’s a saying that “art is
never finished, it’s abandoned.” At a certain point, you just have to say, “okay, it’s done.” But it’s then hard for me to watch. [Anne Bogart] I hope that even though it’s
not all piled on top of each other like it is here that all of the rest of it is as clearly calibrated as this is, that in other words, the way this, you broke in to speak, the way the scene starts over here… [Hwang] This is a new class
that we’ve just started this semester, and it’s called Collaboration 2. We’ve brought together the second-year playwrights, the second-year dramaturgs, and the second-year directors, and the class is co-taught by the heads of those three concentrations: myself, Anne Bogart from Directing
and Christian Parker from Dramaturgy. [Student] I really felt like I knew where to
look at every moment, which surprised me. If that is continuous throughout… [Student] I kind of had a different experience, or maybe the same of at a certain
point the work of trying to look was less interesting than
the experience of just listening, but I found that just listening was incredibly satisfying. [Ed Wasserman] We presented
a piece today called Town Hall. We actually took the opportunity a couple weeks ago to sort of seize on the specific current political moment and sort of respond directly to that. So, we’ve had sort of an expedited process. [Student] I felt like you have successfully
created a really strong character I don’t know much about him, but
I feel like he’s a fully fleshed character, all of them at all times, and what they’re saying feels like it’s
part of a really complicated, real story, and I would say when they started
saying the “I want, I want, I want,” it felt slightly just like a kind of chorus of voices, I guess. [Hwang] Are you saying that it feels like… It feels like it’s working a little hard to earn the ending and to sort of have a choral moment at the end? [Student] Yeah, maybe, yeah. [Bogart] But if the voices are individuated more, it will be better, because you’re playing it as a chorus rather than each of you has something to say [Hwang] Trying to figure out what’s
working and what’s not working in a play is a very intuitive process. One of the things that I do is
I try not to look at the text itself because I don’t want to get distracted by the words. What I want to watch is the actors interacting. And if I get bored, if I feel this seems fake, if
I feel like I don’t understand the story anymore, then I go back to the text. And then certainly once you
put it in front of an audience, the audience tells you what’s working and what’s not. If you think something’s funny
and the audience isn’t laughing it’s not the audience’s fault! It’s either my fault, or it’s the
director’s fault, it’s the actor’s fault, it’s somebody, it’s us on the production side. [Music] [Actress onstage] You know,
I never thought I’d make it to 25. Isn’t that a positively morbid thing to say? [Actor onstage] No, I understand completely. In fact I’m quite sure I won’t live past 40. [Actress onstage] Frank, what an awful notion. You’re already 38. Why would
you say something like that? [Actor onstage] I just feel it’s one of the few
things I’m absolutely sure of about myself. [Actress onstage] I’m tired of talking about me. Let’s talk about you. Tell these artists something about you. [Actor onstage] What do you mean? [Actress onstage] Anything. Something I don’t know. [Actor onstage] Uhh, I’m funny. [Actress onstage] I know that. [Actor onstage] I’m handsome. [Gina Stevenson] I wrote a first draft
of this play in August of this year and mostly it’s been pretty set in
terms of the writing, at least for now. My focus mainly with this class in
terms of the changes in the feedback has been making a lot of notes about
what I might want to change for the future in this play. [Hwang] Gina, I’m a little interested in
this issue of is Frank funny or is Frank not funny? I mean, an easy thing to do is when he says he’s funny she instead of saying “I know that,” she’s really
she kind of, “well, you think you’re funny.” Or, he is funny! I just don’t… what do you think? [Stevenson] I have heard everybody like,
“he was so funny!” like my actual grandfather. But I have no idea what
kind of joke he would make So I feel like that was part of it,
like, yeah I know he’s funny, but I don’t know how…which way he is funny. [Hwang] I think teaching is a lot
like psychotherapy in some sense. In that at this level, what I’m trying to do as a teacher is understand what the students play is trying to do. If we can figure that out, then it becomes a question of “okay, how can this play do this thing better?” What I’ve learned about writing and
about my own writing from teaching is a greater appreciation for the
world of possibilities that exist whenever I sit down to write a play. It makes me more brave, I think, to try new approaches because I’m exposed to and get
some sort of intimate collaboration with a range of writers who are trying to do things that are different than the things that I do. [Actress onstage] Did I ever tell you about Edney? Edney Whiteside Edney? Edney, come out here! I need to see you. [Actor onstage] You okay? What is it? [Naka Adodoadji] For me, this class has
very much been about development. This isn’t the end goal, this is the beginning. This is the first stage of discovering what this play is. [Actor onstage] You’ll see! The
next few years will flyby and… [Actress onstage] …soon enough, it’ll be you and me, and we’ll be married… [Actor onstage] …we’ll buy your home, we’ll have some kids, we’ll grow old together. That’s the way it’ll be. [Adodoadji] It’s been really, really
helpful to present something that has maybe been problematic for us or giving us issues with regards
to the world of this play. This world is very nonlinear, time is compressed, you’re seeing many decades pressed into one moment and trying to understand “how
do I relate that to an audience?” [Bogart] There’s there’s a really fantastic
series of repetitions in this scene that Nako has built. What it starts with names. You say “Edney” and then you say “Edney” again, and then you hear Eunice, and then
you hear “Anna Mae, Anna Mae,” and then you come back to Edney,
and then you come back to Eunice. Each one of those is a build
towards where the scene is going. I also think that in life and on
stage, you never say a name neutrally. You always say- Christian, you know what I’m talking about. [laughter] “Philip!” You always have
an intention behind a name You never just say, “Philip,” ever. [Adodoadji] I want to present good work on stage, but I also am very aware of letting
the audience in on the process, that this is… it’s a work in progress, and if they were to come back a year from now, it’s going to be different and they are a part of that because how they react to what
they see is going to help me understand what needs to be fine-tuned
within this play, what do I need to edit, and how do I sculpt it. [Hwang] And in terms of this issue of
playing the ending before the ending actually comes… Whenever somebody goes, “did I ever tell you the story about…”, it takes a certain amount of energy off of the stakes because then we as the audience are like, “okay, so now we’re gonna hear a story.
We’re going to have a flashback.” [Adodoadji] Right, well, it’s indicating something. [Christian Parker] It feels right now
because it’s sort of slow and elided, it feels like the wavy TV screen a little bit. Like, now we’re going into memory land, and what that says to me is that
it doesn’t matter as much actually. And I wonder if there’s something to explore in trying to pop the memory forward so that we actually go faster and we go louder. Not louder, but bolder, somehow so that there’s–so that we’re not in sort of like, “ooh, now we’re in kind of slightly-
heightened-memory-talk land,” that the language is the language, but the urgency in the telling of the memory is driven by the need to share it in the first place When I hear somebody say
“did I ever tell you about this?” and then kind of slowly go into it, it actually pulls the stakes right
out of it immediately for me. [Hwang] A play is over, at least the first draft, because I feel that I’ve arrived at the
destination that the play was meant to send me to. however, having written the first draft, that’s just that really the very beginning of the process because so much of playwriting is about rewriting. So then I want to hear the play out loud and I learned a lot from that. I’ve made the play as good as I can without hearing it, but then as soon as I hear it I
realized I’ve made X, Y, and Z mistakes. [Bogart] There’s something that Stanislavsky said that’s so terrifying for actors, it’s really scary No, this is deep! [laughter] “Every gesture should contain the whole play.” [Laughter] So I mean in terms
of what [name] is saying that everything that happens to
you is your whole relationship. It’s really cute. [Hwang] So, take that on! [chatter] [Nana Dakin] I think that where
you move in this scene is actually about like, your distance is you being pushed away from Kelly. So, the only time that you can actually run into the scene is when she calls your name and says “Meg.” Right? Because I think that’s the way the words
and the blocking have been working anyways. Like, she walks over there, so you
can observe her this whole time and you can move in different places, you can be here, you can stop, you can react, you can do this, but you can’t get close because Kelly’s distance has actually pushed you away. [Hwang] My relationship as a
playwright with actors is that I feel that everything that I want to tell
them should go through the director. She controls the production. She’s in charge of what’s going on on that stage and I feel like that’s the kind of chain
of command and I respect that. [dialogue] [Nora Sørena Casey] The director that
I’m working with, Nana Dakin, actually comes from like a physical theatre background and so we knew going into this that
she was really physically oriented and that I’m actually like really language oriented so we were like “cool, how can we make a
collaboration that plays to both of those strengths? When I originally wrote the script, because
it doesn’t move forward in time linearly, I grounded it in a way that there’s a main character who goes everywhere and then all of the other characters in
her life are like rooted in a specific space and what Nana did is when we got that, she was thinking about it and then she said to me, “I think it’s actually going to be really
boring if we can see all of those spaces. We’re going to know where
we’re going before we get there.” So, she came up with this idea of having no scenery, but actually what we’re always
using movement and space for is to talk about relationships. [Actor onstage] You could’ve invited me to the funeral. Face it. You’ve been avoiding me. [Actress onstage] Just because I won’t do your dishes? [Actor onstage] No, I don’t need you to do my dishes. [Actress onstage] Yes, you do. Look at you, you’re worse off than I am. [Actor onstage] No, I’m equally bad. That’s why we fit together. You look beautiful. [Actress onstage] You are stressing me out. And this place is a mess and now, now I have to stress-clean… [Sørena Casey] I was really interested in
moving through time and space really fluidly and so the way that I wound up approaching that was by writing really associatively, sort of free writing from intuition
and trying not to censor myself a lot and just let images or characters
take me wherever they wanted to go. [onstage dialogue] The nurse asked about you. I told her you were a doctor. Dad! There’s still time for you to become a doctor. Don’t be surprised if she asks for your advice, say something good. You cannot do that! You’re– I’m what? You’re what? You’re projecting. Last week, we’ve talked a lot about
how as playwrights and as artists, we often hide in plain sight. David actually gave an example
where one time he was like, “Oh, I’m really struggling with a character in this play, I’m just going to name that character David. And now once I’ve identified that character as me,” that somehow opened up his ability to get creative with it. And for me, I realized that it’s really deeply
personal to me in a way that I didn’t know. And actually, if I had set out to do that, I probably would have stopped. [Max] So we got to like read this in David’s class, and what’s so interesting is
that on the page when reading it it’s so clear like where Kelly’s focus, like how it turns, and how if this is like a traditional play these would be these like two-
person scenes one after the other. But actually, it’s like a bunch of two-
person scenes all on top of each other. [Hwang] Yeah Max, I think it’s a really good
example of the difference between text and theater I mean, this is a play that’s a little hard to understand on the page until you get it up on its feet and, you know, and it’s very clearly directed. And then all of a sudden, everything, you understand
all the sort of complexities in these relationships which are implied by the page, but aren’t necessarily… you kind of have to direct it in your own head, if you can. [Bogart] I saw a Caryl Churchill play in London, I forgot the name of it, it’s her newest, and it was mind-blowing. I mean, mind-blowing! And
I bought the text afterwards because it’s The Royal Court
where you could buy the text, and I read it and I realized that it
was completely insane on the page and that if she had been a young playwright, she never would have gotten produced. Like, people would have said “what is that?!” And it’s such a lesson, you know,
nobody would have bought it, but because it was Caryl Churchill,
people trusted that it made sense and it was crystal clear on the stage. [Hwang] I didn’t grow up really going to the theatre. My freshman year in college, I
saw some plays in San Francisco and I started to think to myself,
“Oh, maybe I can do that!” I found a professor who was willing to take
a look at some plays I wrote in my spare time and he told me they were really bad, which they were, and that my problem was that I wanted to write plays but I didn’t actually know anything about the theater. But, that same professor then guided me in creating
an independent study, a major in playwriting. and I essentially saw as many plays and read
as many plays as I could over the next few years and that became my education. [to an audience] The summer
before my senior year in college, I was home in LA and I saw an ad
in the LA Times calendar section which said, “Study playwriting with Sam Shepard!” And at Padua, Sam and the wonderful
playwright Maria Irene Fornes, they began teaching us and working with each
other to cultivate writing from the subconscious. So, what does that mean? We have our conscious minds, of course,
and we have our subconscious minds and it is most likely that our conscious
mind is the part that says to us “well, you’re not really good enough to do this,” or, “who would be interested in what you’re writing?” and that trick becomes to find a way to
try to get beneath that conscious mind and instead finding someplace that
you don’t completely understand. So, what I want to do now is do this little exercise which was one of the ones that Maria Irene Fornes
gave me and the rest of our group in Padua the summer of 1978, when I feel like I first began
understanding what it means to write. The first part is finding your… setting up your scene. If you want, you can flip through a magazine and
you can write about the two characters in the pictures. Then the second part, I’m going to give you about
10 minutes just to start writing. And then, I’m going to stop you and we’re going to do something
with what you’ve just written. [Hwang] I like to have three things
before I start writing a play. One is there’s the question, there’s
something I don’t understand, and so I write the play to find out how I
really feel about a particular issue or question. The second thing is I like to have a big idea where I’m beginning and where I’m ending. And the third thing is I usually have some other
formal model that I’m taking as my inspiration, some other play, which gives me a sense
of the type of play that I’m trying to write. [to the audience] So, now I’m
going to pull out a random word or phrase and what I want you to do is to continue
writing the scene that you’ve been writing, but now it’s your job to incorporate the
random word or phrase into the dialogue. I’m going to start with “basement studio.” “Basement studio.” “Supermoon.” [Hwang] A lot of times, the most
exciting moments as a writer are when my characters do things I don’t agree with because A) it means they have their own
opinions and they’ve started to come to life and B) because then I’m learning
things, I’m discovering things. I become like the audience member who is being surprised by what’s happening in the play. The late Nobel prize-winning
British playwright Harold Pinter used to talk about the fact you make a deal with your characters. Sometimes you do what your characters want and sometimes your characters do what you want. So, that suggests that the characters themselves
have to take a kind of life that’s out of your control and the tension between what you control
as an author and what is out of your hands I think is the question of how to make art. [to an audience] This exercise
simulates the process that a writer goes through, when you’re in control to some extent and then all of a sudden this
impulse pops into your head and a character does something you don’t understand or says something whose
meaning you’re not clear about. And often times when as a
writer, you follow that impulse, if you feel it very strongly, that’s when
your characters start to come to life. [Hwang] I wrote a play once
called The Dance in the Railroad, which was my second play to be done in New York, and it was about two Chinese railroad workers building the American Transcontinental
Railroad in the 19th century and at about the middle of the third scene I had an impulse that one of them should turn into a duck. And so, that’s the sort of thing that
you don’t necessarily understand but if you feel a strong impulse,
sometimes you go with it and it ends up defining the play, which in that case it did. [to an audience] We can
look at plays and watch a play and feel that it was too dry, that it was too
deliberate, that you felt the author’s hand. When you feel those impulses, perhaps it means that the
author was too much in control, that there was too much of the
conscious mind being brought to bear on this particular work, and not enough of the sort of
anarchy of the subconscious, which, at least as far as I’m concerned, helps to bring works to life. [Hwang] There’s no formula
for how to write a good play. Nobody knows what’s going to be successful, even if you define success
commercially, artistically. So, you therefore have to fall back on
writing what you’re really interested in, what you really believe in, and that makes the plays unique and idiosyncratic. And paradoxically, if you don’t
think about trying to be successful, your play is more likely to be a success. If a play of mine is doing what I dream it can, it allows the audience to see the world in a
slightly different way by the time they leave, if I can get an audience to ask questions
that they haven’t asked before and see the city they live in, the country they live in, the people who are their neighbors
a little bit differently than before, then I think that’s a pretty good achievement.


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