-An excerpt from a playwright interview book
I’m a little bit suspicious on some “top tips”. I still read them like a bowl of open chocolates I find it hard to resist. The “morning routine” or the “business day” categories are so far away from what a typical person does or can do. On top of that, what works for one person often doesn’t work for someone else especially if that person is a CEO.
Yet, I make exceptions for writer interviews. While I still may not be able to practice how other writers practice there’s often thoughtful ideas in the answers they give on why they write what they write.
This is a set of interviews by Caroline Jester and Caridad Svich on 50 playwrights (half US, half UK more or less) on their Craft.
Fascinating in the variety of craft and thinking from playwrights.
From the first chapter:
“WHERE DO IDEAS COME FROM AND HOW DO THEY BEGIN THEIR TRANSFORMATION INTO PLAYS?
Surely playwrights know what they are going to write about before they put pen to paper, or fingertip to keypad? This chapter investigates where they find their ideas and how they follow them on the journey as they become plays. Each writer was asked whether their ideas come from a sudden conceit or if they are more planned. There really doesn’t appear to be one clear route to follow.
José Rivera finds it hard to separate inspiration from craft when writing for theater but feels playwrights are always looking for that “riveting metaphor” to help a deepening understanding of our times. He writes plays not to understand himself but rather to understand an idea. It is through the craft of playwriting and the toolkit of conflict, spectacle, language, and story that he carves an idea, or “maps an obsession.”
Steve Waters can look back on his body of work and notice the aspects of himself that keep popping in. He believes playwrights carry around instincts and experiences that make them alert to particular stories they want to write about. But he has to wait for those instincts and experiences to come into view. Once he senses character or a scene, everything starts to fall away. But once he imagines place, he can write the play.
Charlene James usually gets an idea from hearing a conversation, watching a documentary, or seeing a headline. It is an impulse, a reaction to something, but the idea needs to sit there and “marinade” before it starts to talk through her characters.
Quiara Alegría Hudes is interested in the inward battles we face and is open to inspiration from anywhere, waiting for the seed that has been planted to take root. She responds to the work of her predecessors as well as witnessing the changing landscape around her. It might be “feng shui,” but what are the truths that have been hidden underneath?
Alecky Blythe uses the words of real people to create her plays and seems to follow their lead once an idea has struck. Casting her net as wide as possible before crafting the play ensures an authenticity to the story that doesn’t come from a desire to write about an issue. And her dictaphone gives her a license to go to areas she hasn’t been before.
Steven Sapp’s ideas come from where he is in his life at that time. But he is part of an ensemble, and how ideas develop always begins in collaboration with others. He started in the poetry and open mic scenes in New York City, where there were no rules, and that organic process did not stop when the ensemble “arrived” in the theater scene.
Chris Goode is suspicious of an idea that seems to be complete. He will carry it around with him until something largely unconnected finds a space to lodge inside his head as well. When the differing strands entangle, a traction occurs and an idea begins its journey into a play.
Sylvan Oswald lets ideas stew inside for a long time. And the ingredients that make up the stew are disparate elements that have been chopped, with spices added, sealed in a jar, and buried in a hole. It is ready when it is ready, and thoroughly ingested before giving fuel to the play.
Naylah Ahmed can have a desire to address something that is unpindownable and it can be with her for many years before the writing begins. But how do you unravel what is unpindownable into a play that others can share?
Paula Vogel writes to share her concerns about the world we inhabit and her plays are written with a sense that she is trying to understand what disturbs her. And as a dialectical artform, the responsibility of playwriting is to “explore the gray areas and eschew the black and white.”
As you enter the chapter, be ready to be taken on a journey. But there isn’t one path to follow. Be open to many twists and turns along the way as ideas emerge and the creative processes begin. As with any creative process, it is usually best to acknowledge that it is a trip into the unknown…”
Check out Stephen Jefferies book on writing plays.
Hear about the chat with legendary agent, Mel Kenyon.
Some notes from listening to the literary manager of the Royal Court, Chris Campbell. (soon to be at Oberon Books)
Be inspired by Artistic Director, Kate Wasserberg’s Dauntless Theatre.