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'The Process,' Part Two

September 21, 1986|DAN SULLIVAN

Our comments on the new-play process in the Sept. 7 Calendar seem to have touched a nerve.

The argument, occasioned by Barbara Isenberg's report on a UCLA-Mark Taper Forum new-play workshop, was that those involved in developing a script should proceed with caution, remembering that it represents someone else's vision and voice, not their own.

Besides the letters of accord printed in last Sunday's Calendar, we have heard from two people who have gone through "the process" from different ends: a playwright and a former resident-theater literary adviser. Significantly, neither wants his name used. "I may want to work in the theater again," says the literary adviser.

The playwright has a piece running in Los Angeles at the moment, but he doesn't consider it his baby anymore. He speaks of being barred from rehearsals, of cuts being made in his script without authorization. "Basically, my piece was taken away from me. Those who put it on were not being truthful when they said they respected the writer."

The literary adviser (for a non-California theater) notes that "the process" tends to serve the institutional needs of the host theater more than it does the artistic needs of the playwright.

"It has been my experience that the more accommodating a playwright is concerning revisions, the less good he does his play. (And yet) a malleable writer is more likely to be invited to participate in future projects.

"There is also considerable pressure on the literary consultants and directors to contribute opinions in order to justify their participation in the project and their places in the company. The argument of 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it,' doesn't wash when your contract is up for renewal."

Meanwhile, "the playwright has had months of painstaking work literally broken apart and reassembled by people who may be far removed from his artistic vision. Additionally, he's got the prospect of a full production dangling in front of his nose. He's ready to listen to anything, make any concessions, to get his work on the boards. The writer is a shambles."

And yet this correspondent wouldn't do away with "the process," for this ironic reason: It teaches playwrights self-defense, gives them experience in coming to grips with the forces that shape theater productions. It "forges playwrights, if not plays."

Both these correspondents are writing from firsthand experience. I've only dabbled in "the process," as a summer dramaturge. From what I've seen, there's another danger, as well--exactly the opposite of the one we've been discussing. The playwright can receive too little feedback.

This can happen when (a) the script is perceived as hopeless; (b) the playwright is perceived as being unable to handle criticism; (c) the forum for feedback is public (meaning that everybody has to be terribly polite and supportive) or (d) all of the above.

The playwright doesn't go home shattered. But he or she may go home deceived. The letdown comes a few months later. Everybody seemed to love the script--so why hasn't anyone called to give it a production? In these cases, it would have been far more kind to let the playwright know, before breaking camp, that everybody, in fact, had had big problems with the script, starting with the 12-page monologue at the top of the first act.

Who is to bear the bad news? Clearly, it is wrong to flood the playwright with "input," as happened in the UCLA workshop. The playwright is so outnumbered by everybody else in "the process" that it's poor sportsmanship to pile all over him.

Again, there is input and there is input. A playwright can use the information that an actor is having trouble with a particular word or passage. It's less useful when the actor starts raising objections that his character (or, worse, somebody else's) wouldn't behave that way. Perhaps the actor hasn't had the playwright's experience in living.

To avoid confusion, it's good to have someone sort out the input and present it to the playwright in a way that doesn't trigger his already-paranoid alarm system. Maybe the director. Maybe the dramaturge. Maybe both, in tandem. But never a committee.

Privacy abets frankness, too. Most new-play workshops take place in semi-seclusion, but if Joe Papp wants to send an observer up for the weekend, he'll be welcome. This can cloud communication. Out of concern for the playwright's future, one doesn't want the word to get back to Joe that this writer is a loser--even if his play is. So, everybody waffles at the critique.

The most impressive new-play workshop I ever attended took place in the dead of August on a college campus in rural Minnesota, with absolutely no one around but the playwrights and the staff.

Putting the plays on wasn't a "collaborative" process. The workshop director--a playwright himself--made sure that each playwright got to see exactly the play he had written, not the one that his actors and his directors thought he should have written.

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