Fledgling playwrights often think that veteran theatre artists know more about playwriting than they do, and they are usually right. I was appropriately starstruck by those who helped develop my work during my playwriting infancy. I was lucky enough, even in the early days, to work with some of the greats in the field of theatre for young audiences. These experienced artists taught me valuable lessons, including how to do productive work in new play development, how to look objectively at a script and how to reveal characters through action.
Some also wanted to write my plays for me. And I, believing that everyone knew more than I did, was willing to make any changes they believed would strengthen my plays. I was even willing to let these artists lead my plays in directions I might not otherwise have taken, directions that led me away from my original intent. But looking back, my feelings toward those who advised me then are warm and appreciative. So, what? If it makes the play better then what's the problem?
The problem is this: I have an early play that has been re-written so many times according to the opinions and needs of others that I hardly recognize it anymore as my own work. This surely, is a failure on my part, a failure to recognize and remain true to my own process, my authentic voice. Pleasing others before oneself may be alturistic, but it is also a kind of artistic suicide. Playwrights must know their intent, must know the heart of the play, must please themselves first. There is nothing more important than finding an authentic voice, that part in each of us that Aurand Harris called, "your touch of the artist." What I failed to realize in my early days as a playwright (and have had to learn and relearn many times since) is that no one, no matter how experienced, knows more about my plays than I do.
Allow me to explain. There is a significant difference between keen dramaturgical advice and prescriptive play-doctoring. The former is about helping the playwright see deeper into what is on the page in order to advance the process already begun. The latter is about leading the playwright someplace he or she may not have intended to go, or want to go, for the sake of making a better play. But according to who? People say that ultimately a play takes on a life of its own, and I believe that to be true. But I also believe that the one who birthed the play knows better than anyone its lineage and intent. And only this authentic voice knows its creative universe.
So how do playwrights, in our vulnerable conditions, wanting the whole world to love our latest draft, hear the difference between dramaturgy that fosters the playwright's intent and wanna-be playwrights who would rewrite the play according to their own artistic sensibilities? We all know playwrights who have been so burned by "helpful" advice that they have shut down their listening mechanisms forever or at least until the hurt and mistrust wears off. But I don't think this is the best answer for us. To close the door to valuable input because of some destructive offerings may be understandable but hurts us more in the long run. We know that our work benefits from incisive dramaturgical thinkers. It would be a shame to close doors that might lead to growth for the play and the playwright.
Here's what works best for me.
Learn to listen to everyone, but develop a sensitive filtering system that can discern the differences, the nuances of the advice, and ask yourself these questions: Is this advice judgmental about the play in a destructive way? If so, beware. Does this advice presume to know more about your play than you do? If so, listen with that in mind. It would be a better world if we could remove people's mostly unintended negative feelings (and, of course, jealousy) but we can't. And face it, we've all been there.
Learn to listen without feeling compelled to explain or even comment. Never defend your choices; it's mostly a waste of energy. Be gracious to those who have taken the time to respond to your play. Develop the confidence to say thank you, even if you disagree with what's being offered. Meanwhile, edit and shelve the information into categories that make sense to your process.
Learn to listen with half an ear. Approach the brilliant ideas of others with caution. It's too easy to jump on the bandwagon of a good solution. After all, that's one less you have to come up with. But ask yourself: Does this idea forward my original intent? Is it offered in a supportive way? Is it designed for me to discover the answer for myself? Do you have a sense that this advice encourages you and your play to be successful? If not, look out.
And finally, learn to listen to your authentic voice. It is your best ally in the artistic process.
It seems to me that there are two responsibilities at work here. Responders are accountable to their intent—if the advice they are offering is given in the spirit of the aim of the playwright. The playwright owns the burden of listening carefully with a disciplined ear for those thoughts that support the play's vision. Hold these close to your artist's heart while politely discarding others that tell you how the play should be done. Develop a kind of radar for negativity and a homing device to target advocates for you and your play. Ultimately, my failure to nurture my authentic voice early on has taught me invaluable lessons: how to listen, how to accept and how to discard.
Article reprinted from
"Trainwrecks: On the Virtue of Failure,"
TYA Today, Spring 2001.