Will Dunne is a playwright, scriptwriter, and teacher whose plays have received many international, national, and local honors. I got to know him when I copyedited his book, The Dramatic Writer's Companion: Tools to Develop Characters, Cause Scenes, and Build Stories, for the University of Chicago Press.
Will was one of those dream authors: he submitted an immaculate manuscript, quietly corrected my editing lapses, and indulged me when I challenged him to reduce Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? to a haiku. (I would share it with you, but it contains a plot spoiler.)
A couple of times recently I was invited by playwright or director friends to attend staged readings of drafts of new plays. Both times, the audience was made up mainly of actors and writers, and afterward there was a rather intense postmortem, with a moderator guiding the criticism while the author listened and squirmed. I was curious about the process and thought you might be, too, so I asked Will to talk about it.
Carol: Have staged readings always been a part of play development? This seems so different from the process of developing a novel or short story.
Will: I’ve been writing plays for about 30 years, and readings and discussions of the script have always been part of the development process. Unlike fiction, a play consists of much more than the words that the playwright puts into the script. Before the play can be fully realized in front of an audience, actors will bring their insights and emotional life to the characters, designers will flesh out the many different physical elements of the story, and ideally the director will work to keep all of these different talents in balance with the playwright’s vision. Because so much else is involved, most playwrights invite others to help them understand the full dimensions of the work underway. As others respond, feedback begins to flow and, for the playwright, this can be both a good thing and a bad thing.
Carol: So explain the good, beyond the obvious gaining of ideas of how to improve the work, and the bad, beyond the potential devastation by criticism.
Will: At its best, feedback does two things. It sheds light on what you’re trying to do and it provides a way to measure how well you are accomplishing that. A discussion of a play within these parameters can help you uncover specific elements that are not working the way you had intended. More importantly, such discussions can help you dig deeper into the choices you’ve already made. As a result, you may find dimensions of your work that were not apparent to you at first and, in doing so, discover new directions for your characters and story. In other words, feedback is not about pointing out “what’s wrong.”
At its worst, feedback steers you into other people’s ideas of what your play should be about and how it should be written. In many post-reading discussions that I have observed, both as a playwright and as an audience member, I have found that the feedback from the audience tends to run the gamut from helpful to destructive, is often dominated by two or three people who wish they had written the play instead, and needs to be sorted through carefully before any changes to the script are made. I have also found that, while some playwrights resist criticism and make no changes based on it, most lean too far the other way. They try to address almost every criticism they receive and end up pleasing everyone but themselves. Of course, it can be devastating to get criticism, but even worse is to end up with a patchwork that no longer serves your reason for writing the play in the first place.
Carol: I get it. The writer can rework or eliminate parts that don’t serve his purpose, and run with promising parts that aren’t yet fully realized.
Resisting criticism is easy to understand, but have you ever resisted using a great suggestion from someone at a reading because it wasn’t your own?
Will: Good ideas often result from discussions of plays and, if I received a great suggestion from someone else, I would certainly give it a try. In the end, it’s not the idea that counts so much as how the idea is executed.
Carol: Ah, yes—true for all kinds of writers. So what usually happens after the writer uses the feedback from a reading to revise the work?
Will: That depends on the nature and scope of the revisions. If the changes have been substantial and the playwright still has significant questions about the work, he or she may wish to have another staged reading in front of an audience. It is not unusual for a play to go through more than one reading before it is ready for production. If a second or even third reading does occur, different actors may be enlisted to read the roles so that the playwright can hear the characters through different voices. This is especially important if any of the actors from the first reading were not suited for the roles. Sometimes a problem with a character may be due simply to the actor who read it. When having more than one reading, it’s also a good idea to find new audience members so that at least some of them will be hearing the material for the first time.
If the changes after a reading have led the playwright to feel confident about the work, the play may be ready to send out to theaters and competitions. When the play is selected for production, the rehearsal process will begin with yet another reading. This time it will be a “table reading” where the actors who will actually play the roles read the script aloud in the presence of the playwright, director, and designers, and another set of questions gets asked. At this point in the play’s development, the feedback is usually more practical, focusing on cutting and clarifying the script rather than making huge changes. In addition, script adjustments often must be made to meet the real demands and limitations of the production. For that scene when the aunt arrives from Austria, for example, do we really need to show a life-size train pulling into the station?
Carol: Whoa—let’s back up a minute. We made a bit of a leap there, between the readings and a play being selected for production. Can you say something about how a writer decides where to send a play and what the odds are of having it chosen for production? Are there dos and don’ts for submitting a play to a theater or a competition? And at the other end, do producers commit to a play before they hear it read by actors?
Will: For most playwrights today, it’s difficult to get work produced. Especially in tough economic times, many theaters are struggling to make ends meet and producing a new play, especially by a new playwright, means taking a risk that could lead to significant financial loss. As a result, larger theaters tend to work with playwrights who already have track records. Smaller theaters are more likely to take on the risk of new work because less money is involved, but, for the same reason, production quality may fall short of what the play really needs.
The good news is that there are a lot of theaters in the United States (more than 200 in the Chicago area alone) and they produce plays all the time. You just have to find the right theater for your work and the opportunity to get your play read by the right person. Many resources are available to help playwrights tackle this daunting quest. At the national level, The Dramatists Guild provides a powerhouse of support for playwrights, including the annual Dramatists Guild Resource Directory (sometimes referred to as the “Playwright’s Bible”).
Before submitting a play anywhere, you need to know what producers want and don’t want, how they expect to receive a submission—for example, synopsis and sample pages versus full script, electronic submission versus hard copy—when exactly to contact them, and whom to address. The Resource Directory puts all of this information at your fingertips and includes in its scope not only theaters, but also festivals, conferences, contests, colonies, residencies, grants, fellowships, and other career opportunities. No playwright should be without it.
Here in Chicago, we are lucky enough to have Chicago Dramatists, a 32-year old “playwright’s theater” devoted to nurturing new voices for the American stage. Playwrights gain many resources—classes, workshops, individual script consultations, reading opportunities, business advice, industry panels, and more—to help them not only develop plays, but get them up on stage. And you don’t have to live in Chicago to take advantage of many of these resources, such as script consultations. Similar types of organizations include New Dramatists in New York and the Playwrights’ Center of Minneapolis, among others.
How do theaters select plays? Like each playwright, each theater is unique so there is no one set of guidelines or advice that will apply to them all. My experience has been that an unsolicited script has a better shot at getting a good read in a playwriting competition than it does in a stack of scripts that have been on the desk of a literary manager at a theater for the past year. My experience has also been that, on that same desk, there are two stacks—the tall one and the short one—and that it is really important to try to get into the short stack. That means getting out and meeting other theater artists, becoming familiar with theaters that feel like the right match for you, and finding ways to get yourself known there and drum up interest in your work so that it is not “unsolicited” when it arrives. I know many playwrights who created their own career opportunities by volunteering to work at a theater and getting to know the staff that way. Playwriting conferences, such as the O’Neill’s US National Playwrights Conference, Seven Devils Playwrights Conference, and PlayPenn also offer opportunities not only to develop your work but advocate for yourself as a playwright, though first you have to be accepted.
Speaking of creating your own career opportunities, there is a lot to be said for making a real commitment to your work and producing it yourself. This doesn’t need to be a Broadway production. If you can assemble a good team of theater artists, you can mount a streamlined production of your play in a small venue without spending a ton of money. You might also check out the fringe festivals in your area. Many provide the venue and handle the marketing for you. Whether you produce the play alone or through a festival, you will be getting your work up in front of an audience and perhaps a few critics and, if the response is good, it may open a door elsewhere. Even if it doesn’t, you will have learned a lot about your play and yourself in the process.
Carol: Will, this has been amazing—you’ve shown us the whole play-development process from first draft to acceptance for production. Thank you so much.