Playwrights vs Directors and tiny new saplings: Who gets ownership of new plays?

One thing I’m increasingly interested in debating and mentally chewing over is the role of the playwright in rehearsals, the relationship between the creatives and the play, and in a broader sense the concept of shared ownership and authority over plays. I’ve had some rather… thought-provoking experiences in the relatively short time I’ve been writing, and I keep seeing blogs and discussions about it.

I was reading an article with playwright Joe Penhall the other day and he said:
“It’s quite an old-fashioned idea that we’re all here to serve the play, from front of house to costume to the director. That idea is gone, it’s archaeology, you will not find a director in town that wants just to serve the play, or you will but they won’t be a careerist director. The directors who want to build a career are all trying to find ways to put their stamp on it and reinvent it.”

And Jayne Benjulian, writing on American theatre culture (from 2011 but doing the rounds today and still as relevant), made this wise observation: “There is no manual that could possibly prepare [playwrights] for what they will encounter. Each time they enter a theater, they enter a culture with new rules. […] There are playwrights who demand to be equal partners with their directors. These playwrights are known as “difficult.” Here is what playwright Bill Cain would call “the cognitive dissonance of theater”: On the one hand, the playwright is told that theater is uniquely a writer’s medium; on the other, he is told to sit in the back and shut up.”

Theatre is so inherently collaborative, yet has few rules. We are expected to be joined by a mutual passion for ART that smooths over all differences in interpretation. But differences in interpretation can be huge. Of course a director should bring their own interpretation; a play text is not an IKEA instruction manual to be followed to the letter. But any directorial interpretation has to come from the script and be justified by the script. A director who tries to shove their own style onto a script that doesn’t fit it is a poor one.

My first play was a dark drama about mental illness but it had a lot of expressionistic and surrealist sort of wacky comedy in it, and the comedy was crucial. I wasn’t able to attend rehearsals for the first staging of it (it started out as a 30-minute festival piece) due to pneumonia, and I was excited to allow the director free rein. I still am excited by that, but it only works if writer and director have mutual respect and understanding of the text. I think it also helped that it was for a scratch festival performance, because such things are low-stakes opportunities to develop and play. The director took the play in a physical theatre-direction which was not especially my vision for it, but the directorial choices were informed by the text and I was very happy with the end results. The first director who was (temporarily) attached to the full-length play wanted to do it as a straight naturalistic drama, which meant instructing the actors to “play against the script”. I don’t know if that’s really how they interpreted the script or if it was just their personal style preference, but it meant some scenes did not and in my opinion could not work.

“Theresa Rebeck reminds us in her book Fire Free Zone, “in the rehearsal hall, the playwright is often asked not to speak directly to the actors because that could ‘confuse’ them—in other words, it might undermine the director’s authority.” That caution rests on a supposition, Cain says, that actors should not be confused. Might confusion serve as a productive force early in rehearsals? Might actors be more engaged in the process of the play’s meaning?” (Benjulian, 2011)

That’s a really interesting aspect, but “actors could get confused” is so euphemistic, isn’t it? Actors are not children. I find the opposite is often true. Actors generally sign on to plays because they like the script (and actors who don’t perhaps should be reconsidered – I had an actor once say on the first day of rehearsals, “I haven’t read the script but I really want to get a foot in the door with [director] because it would be really good for my career” – gah!). If actors like and have an emotional connection to the script and the character as written, what does it do to them and their process to have a director who wants to change it? I’ve had actors contacting me privately to complain about directors mangling the script’s intentions, which I just think is awful and puts me in a terrible position: of course I have an agenda in wanting the production that’s true to the text, but supporting mutiny is disastrous. I would always publicly support my director, but as a director if your actors are complaining that you don’t understand the script then something’s gone wrong.

And this is all very arty, but we can’t ignore the practical side. A playwright, particularly playwrights like me who are in the early stages, we have to be concerned with our own careers. I consider writing to be my job: it’s how I pay the bills and I plan to be a lifetime career writer. I’m not just wafting around making “art”. A bad production at this stage of my career, or a production that misrepresents me as a writer, could do genuine damage to my ability to get more jobs. A metaphor so clunky I’d never use it in a play: plays are like trees. Hamlet is the mightiest ancient oak. You can do anything to do it and it won’t die. You can fuck with it in any kind of way, cut it to shreds, edit it. You can set it in the past, present, or future; on a space station or underwater. You can make it a parable for any war or political situation you care to choose. You can stage it as a mime, kabuki, a dance, an opera. You can perform it in literally any language on earth, including Klingon, and it will still be Hamlet. Even if it’s shit, Hamlet is still Hamlet. There will never, ever be a production of Hamlet that’s so bad, it destroys Hamlet. But a piece of new writing is a helpless seedling. If the first production is terrible and done without due care it will die. I love the idea of handing a play over to a director and seeing what they create afresh (a production) out of the raw material (the script) you’ve given them. Love it. I have no issue with directors changing or radically interpreting my work. In a production of an existing play you can do whatever you like because you’re only doing it to that one production. The original script remains intact and future directors will be going to the original text. With a new play and especially a play being workshopped, whatever edits you make are for good.

In Britain we are constantly told how privileged we are as playwrights, that we are spoiled. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been told, “Of course if you were in Germany you wouldn’t even be allowed in the rehearsal room.” Personally I think the current obsession with and deification of German and Dutch contemporary theatre and the assumption of the position of the writer there is a bit reductive. I’ve seen great plays and terrible plays in Berlin. I mean, I love Katie Mitchell’s work but I’d hardly call her not a writer’s director. I’d consider her very much a writer’s director.

So what’s the answer? I don’t know, but I think respect for yourself and your work, even if you’re a beginner. I’ve said yes to things and to people because I was over-excited, or flattered (It’s like when you’re in high school and someone really popular asks you out and you’re so excited thinking, “OMG the headcheerleader just asked me out” it doesn’t occur to you to think about whether you’re actually compatible), or thought working with a ‘famous’ person would get the play attention, or felt I couldn’t let an opportunity slip by. Coming from acting where getting a foot in the door is difficult to the point you’re scared to turn down any opportunity has meant quite a dramatic attitude shift.

Fundamentally, know yourself and your own work. Ask questions. Ask for discussions before saying yes. And don’t be afraid to say no, because a no is not a rejection. There are two directors who I respect enormously, who I think are talented and whose productions I enjoy – but I would never allow either of them to direct one of my plays and I’m pretty sure the feeling is mutual because we’re just too different in our working styles. And that’s absolutely fine. But it’s taken some time and emotional maturing to get to that realisation and with everything it’s still a work in progress.


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