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PARDON MY INPUT : Call It Tryout or Process, It's Still 'Get the Playwright'

September 07, 1986|DAN SULLIVAN

For purposes of self-preservation, every playwright in town ought to read Barbara Isenberg's cover article in today's Calendar. It is the best account I've seen of what can happen to a new play when "the process" gets hold of it.

"The process" is resident-theater jargon for what used to be called a new-play tryout. In the old days, new scripts got revised under the gun, in hotel rooms in Boston and New Haven, with the Broadway opening 10 days away. The emphasis was on getting the thing to work, sometimes at the cost of what the playwright had started out to say. Musicals are still put together this way. It can be a bloody business.

"The process" is more benign. The aim here is to help the playwright "find the play." If a production is involved, it's not a make-or-break one. The writer is assured of "the right to fail."

He also gets the benefit of "input" from everybody associated with the process. From what they tell him about his script and from what his test audiences tell him (sometimes there are even questionnaires), he should emerge with a clearer idea of what he has written and of where it needs to go.

That's the way it's supposed to work. But as Isenberg's piece suggests, "the process" can turn into a replay of the old hotel-room routine. Rather than supporting the playwright, everybody gets a chance to jump on him. Rather than helping him to find his play, everybody makes him feel guilty for not having found their play.

In this case, the playwright seems to have come through with a grin, treating it as a survival experience. That's probably more sensible than putting one's head down and rejecting any "input" at all, on the grounds that one has written what one has written and it's up to the actors to make it work.

But one thing that Isenberg's playwright says disturbs me. Now that "the process" has helped him to find his play's optimum structure, he tells her, it will be easy to put his voice back into it. "Now I can put on the paneling."

Without holding him literally to the metaphor, it seems to reduce a playwright's "voice" to that of a local accent that can be applied to almost any kind of material, which will then become his.

Playwrights who actually feel this way have been hanging around actors too long--which may be a reason to make "the process" last only for a couple of weeks. Actors do make pre-existing material their own. But writers spin their own material, like spiders, from inside. The voice, the vision, determine the structure. The writer mustn't--even if he can't always defend his choices in so many words--abandon them too quickly.

It takes courage to stick to one's guns, especially when beset by verbal types (writers aren't always verbal--that's why they work on paper) who know exactly what your play needs. And there are more and more of these bright people in resident theater every year--dramaturges, literary managers, script advisers, each with his clipboard and his pages of notes.

It's fun to give notes. It puts the note-giver in the position of teacher, with the playwright in the position of pupil--abashed pupil, at that. He has made this clumsy, formless thing and now Teacher will help him shape it into a lamp.

Except that it may not mean to be a lamp. It may mean to be a table. Young playwrights who realize how much they don't know about theater are right to listen with respect to people who do seem to know something (even critics). But in the end every writer has to have the guts to say: "No. It's my name on the title page and that's not what I meant to say."

Again, this is hard to do, especially in a town that tends to think of writers as workmen who can be fired if they don't fit the needs of "the project."

Theater hasn't gotten to that point yet. The writer is the project. A play is one person's view of the universe. It can't be pulled and stretched any old way like taffy. Too many helping hands may leave fingerprints all over it.

Helping hands are fine. Writers should know how to listen. They should also know when not to listen. And the helping hands must learn when no help at all is the best help. "The process" is fine, but its first premise ought to be that of the ancient Greek physician: Do no harm. Otherwise, we might just as well go back to New Haven.

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