8 The Playwright
Ingrid De Sanctis
Unlike a novelist who writes for the page or a screenwriter who writes for film or television, playwrights write for the stage. As a student, you may first encounter a play as words on a page, but this is only the beginning of the journey. Plays are meant to live in a three-dimensional form. Because a play is a live experience with a new audience each time, it can never be repeated in exactly the same way. Playwrights are not fully satisfied until their plays move off the page and are embodied by actors on a stage in some way, shape, or form. When playwrights are writing, they understand they are in collaboration with actors, directors, and designers as they all build the play for an audience to encounter.
In this chapter, you will learn how playwrights build plays using the foundational elements of playwriting, the career of a playwright, and meet a professional playwright TJ Young, who will share his ideas about the future of playwriting in the 21st Century.
Why Playwright and not Playwrite?
The word “wright” is an old English word meaning a maker or builder. Examples include shipwrights, wheelwrights, and millwrights.
Why would the playwright be mixed in with occupations that focus on building wheels and ships and mills? Because a playwright is not just a writer of plays but a builder of plays. Playwrights are architects for the theatre and as such are equal parts visionary, anthropologist, poet, and historian. Plays are not only words on a page but a structure for future dramatic action. Plays are constructed and the playwright must understand how the writing meets the actors, meets the stage, and meets the audience. In order to build plays, playwrights must have a keen understanding of the workings of theatre, knowing a play is a physical story to be embodied by actors, and interpreted by directors and designers. There is a craft to this process in which it’s helpful to think of plays as having various parts; conflict, characters, dialogue, stage directions, plots, and subplots, and, like the wooden beams of a well-made house or the ingredients of your favorite recipe, they will, if you’re lucky, create a structure with dramatic energy, a sense of forward movement in which the struggles of each character reveal something with which each of us can feel and identify.
A Bit of History
Playwrights have been making an impact on audiences ever since the first plays were performed. The earliest playwrights not only wrote the text but also cast and directed their own productions. During the Elizabethan Age, playwrights like William Shakespeare re-invented the English language, expanding with at least 1,700 new words still used today. The emergence of realism during the nineteenth century took over theatre in western Europe and continues to shape the way we tell stories.
When Irish playwright John Synge’s, The Playboy of the Western World, premiered at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin on January 26, 1907, instead of applause, the audience threw potatoes at the stage and rioted in the streets. The play was described by Irish party leader Andrew Griffith, as “a vile and inhuman story told in the foulest language we have ever listened to from a public platform.” When the play moved to New York in 1911, applause was again replaced with hurled potatoes and riots in the street. How did the playwright experience this reaction to his play? “It is better any day to have the row we had last night than to have your play fizzling out in half-hearted applause? Now we’ll be talked about. We’re an event in the history of the Irish stage,” he wrote in a letter to Molly Allgood.
The former President of Czechoslovakia, Vaclav Havel started out as a playwright. As a young man, he worked in the theatre as a stagehand and eventually became the resident playwright of the Theatre of the Balustrade company in 1968. During the Soviet reign, his plays were banned because they criticized totalitarian politics. Despite being banned, his two-person play, Protest, about a political activist, continued to be performed in living rooms in private homes. He was arrested numerous times, spent four years in prison, and eventually became the president of Czechoslovakia.
Playwright Tony Kushner wrote the two-part Angels in America in 1993. Set in New York City in the 1980s during the AIDS crisis, the play focuses on Prior who abandons his gay lover who has AIDS, and Mormon attorney Joe Harper, a closeted gay man and Republican political strategist. When it was scheduled to be produced at the Charlotte Repertory Theatre in Charlotte, North Carolina in 1996, it was met with protesters, particularly from the religious community disturbed by the nudity in the production. In the play Prior takes off his robe and stands naked as his nurse checks the legions on his body from AIDS. It was suggested to playwright Tony Kushner to adjust the nudity, but such changes would violate licensing agreements and copyright laws, so no changes were made. The board of the performing arts center threatened to cancel the production. Charlotte Repertory Theatre responded by charging the board and officials with a violation of free speech, Judge Marvin K. Gray of the Superior Court ruled in favor of the theatre and the show went on. All this press did not deter the audience from attending and the theatre sold more seats in one day than in its entire history.
The Pulitzer Prize winning play Fairview, by Jackie Sibblies Drury, centers around a middle-class black family. Initially, the play resembles a sitcom, but as it progresses, the play’s shape and form shift. By the end, Keisha, the teenage daughter, changes places with the audience. This physical shift and Keisha’s final monologue created strong responses ranging from anger, fascination, and discomfort. On Twitter, one audience member reported, “7 people walked out, mid-play, 50ish people stayed for the talkback, prepare to be challenged.” Playwright Jackie Sibblies Drury responded to this audience reaction In a New York Times article, “A lot of people who have been upset by it have also intellectually engaged with it and I don’t know that being upset is wrong.” In his review of the play in the New York Times, Ben Brantley wrote how the play is “a glorious, scary reminder of the unmatched power of live theater to rattle, roil and shake us wide awake.”
Playwrights may want to amuse their audience in comedies like Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple about two opposite personalities living as roommates. They may want to disturb their audience as in the husband-and-wife battle that makes up Edward Albee’s, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? As we explore the elements of playwriting, keep in mind how plays become three-dimensional events for an audience. They start in the mind of a playwright with the hopes of ending on a stage somewhere to create discomfort, discoveries, laughter, applause, or even a potato.
How do Playwrights Build Plays?
Theatre is a collaborative art form and, at some point, designers, directors, actors, stage managers, and the audience will interact with the script, often without the playwright in attendance. Months or even years before that happens, plays are created in the minds of the playwrights; a solitary process. How do they begin?
Here are the elements playwrights consider when building plays:
- THE STORY
- THE DRAMATIC STRUCTURE
- THE CONFLICT
- THE CHARACTER
- THE DIALOGUE
- THE STAGE DIRECTIONS
- THE JOURNEY
Think of a play as a room with eight doors. To begin writing, a playwright can walk through the door of character or maybe hear something on the street, and they walk through the door of dialogue, or maybe they want to write a play that feels like a collage, and they start with structure. Whatever door they enter, playwrights consider these elements when they are building their plays.
Every playwright starts with a story. The plot is different from the story. The plot is the events from the story that the playwright chooses to include in their play. Where a playwright chooses to start the play is called the point of attack. The start of the play may be early, so there’s not a lot of backstory, or it can be very late, meaning a lot has happened before the play begins. Quite often, there’s a secret from the story that happens before the play starts, but gets revealed during the dramatic action of the play. Exposition is the tool for playwrights to reveal the information that happened before the play began.
The way in which the playwright structures the plot, or the way in which those events are sequenced, is called the dramatic structure. When building a house, an architect creates a blueprint based on the needs of the homeowners. In a similar fashion, the playwright determines a structure for the play based on the needs of the plot. This dramatic structure is the organization of the scenes, how the conflict is explored, when characters are introduced, the events that happen in the play, the climax of the plot, and how the play is resolved. Maybe the playwright will choose to use flashbacks or dream sequences as well.
For instance, the play Stop Kiss, written by Diana Son, is structured out of order. The main characters, Callie and Sara, become friends. Slowly their friendship evolves into a romantic connection. A hate crime takes place against one of the characters and changes both of their lives. Scenes in the play go back and forth in time and the playwright masterfully reveals the backstory scene by scene. There is a detective who investigates the crime, a boyfriend who is trying to understand what has happened, and other scenes all taking place before and after the incident. The hate crime itself is not one of the scenes that happen in the play. The playwright ends the play with the kiss, the moment before the assault takes place. By the time the audience arrives at the final scene, they know what is about to happen after the kiss, but instead of violence, blackout.
As you continue to encounter plays, you will find they are built in a variety of shapes and sizes. The length of the play will be determined by the needs of the plot. Sometimes the story needs ten minutes, sometimes the story needs three hours with an intermission, sometimes the story needs ninety minutes without an intermission. Some plays take place in one location with few characters, others take place over years in multiple locations, and others may have a more poetic structure and take place in an altered universe. Most contemporary plays fall into one of the following categories: one acts, ten-minute plays, full-length plays in one act, or full-length in two acts or three acts with an intermission.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning play, The Humans, written by Stephen Karam, is a one act without an intermission and runs 90 minutes. At one time in history, playwrights were encouraged to write plays that observed what were called the “unities” of time, place, and action. Unity of time means that the play happens in real-time. Unity of place means that the play takes place in one location. Unity of action means there is only one plot, with no subplots or characters in separate scenes that don’t interact with one another. In The Humans, a contemporary play that observes the unities of time, place, and action, patriarch Erik Blake travels from Pennsylvania to lower Manhattan to celebrate Thanksgiving at his daughter’s apartment. During the Thanksgiving meal, the family discussion reveals the challenges they are facing, ranging from illness, religion, and generational differences. In this old run-down apartment, the conversation is intensified by horrific surprises. You will have to see the play to find out what happens!
When we think about conflict, we may think about an argument with our mother or a misunderstanding with our best friend or a recent breakup. These interpersonal conflicts exist in plays, but there is also a larger conflict in place within the structure of a play. Plays are built around a primary character who wants something that is difficult, or nearly impossible to achieve. In pursuit of what they want, characters will confront obstacles. The obstacle is what stands in the way of what the character wants most of all. The bigger the obstacle, the more tension or resistance you have in the conflict.
Plays are conflicted on multiple levels:
- Conflict with another character
- Conflict with self (beliefs, values, goals)
- Conflict with nature (weather, storms, death, time)
- Conflict with society (government, economics, classes)
- Conflict with greater powers (gods, fate)
Joe Pitt is a character in Tony Kushner’s play, Angels in America, and his circumstances are examples of multilevel conflict. Joe is a gay man who wants to come out of the closet, but is deeply conflicted. He is a law clerk working with famous conservative Republican Roy Cohn and his job would be impacted. He is a Mormon and worried he’d be rejected by his community. As a Mormon, his beliefs are challenged, and he is scared of the God he knows through his religion. Joe is also married to Harper, and he does not know how to tell her the truth, even when she confronts him directly. Joe confronts obstacle after obstacle and, as the play continues, each obstacle intensifies his conflict.
Characters are the people in plays. People have personality traits. They also have a backstory, which are the things that happened to them before the play began. The history of the characters impacts how they see the world and motivate them in different ways. Character includes their relationships; for instance, are they a son, a mother, a friend, a student, a daughter? In plays we see characters in heightened moments, often backed into a corner and in need of action. A common adage in the theatre is that plays are life with the boring parts cut out.
Playwrights put a combination of characters together to create collisions to strengthen the conflict. These characters create trouble for each other. In the play, A Raisin in the Sun, written by Lorraine Hansberry in 1959, a black family is in conflict on how to use the life insurance money following the death of their father, Walter Younger Sr. Beneatha is the 20-year-old daughter, who is dating two different men, Asagai and George. When she is with George, who is wealthy, educated, and sure of himself, Beneatha is angry and defensive. When she is with Asagai, who is from Nigeria, she is challenged about her choices yet able to process her African identity. Beneatha’s dreams, flaws, and personality are revealed through the collision with these other two characters.
One of the primary ways in which a play communicates itself is through speech. In novels, the author can write what the characters are thinking and feeling. But in plays, all you have is the words that the characters speak to one another, to themselves, or sometimes even to the audience. Dialogue is literally the words that the characters speak in the play and the most important component of playwriting. Plays are unique because the only thing that the audience knows about what is happening is what they see and hear the characters doing and saying.
What are the functions of dialogue?
- Dialogue reveals individual character. How is one voice different from another voice? How does education impact the way a character speaks? The character’s vocation, relationship, economic status, needs, and goals are revealed by what they say. Each character has their own unique rhythms and phrases based on their background.
- Dialogue reveals relationships. If they know each other well, they may interrupt or talk at the same time. If one character has higher status, the characters may be more formal with each other.
- Dialogue reveals location. If you are in an office or at the park, dialogue reveals rules of behavior based on the location. If the characters are in a public or private space, how and what is spoken is impacted by where the characters are in the moment.
- Dialogue reveals backstory. What happened before the play started is revealed through what the characters say to each other. Exposition is important to understanding the story. The details and the secrets of the past are woven into the dialogue.
The Stage Directions
Playwright Lauren Gunderson says this about stage directions in her essay, “God is in the Stage Directions”:
“Stage directions are the very reason I write plays at all. Stage directions
are how I fell in love with theater! Watching actors brawl, kiss, grab,
break, weep, clutch, die, soar, exit, enter. The moments that gripped
me are the ones that orbit around a stage direction that propels a
truth-telling action. The truth is what people do, not say. I crave plays
that move, soar, leap, dive, embrace. Give me action, give me bodies
in motion, give me nonverbal communication!”
When you are reading a play, you will encounter stage directions (they’re usually in italics). Through the stage directions, playwrights provide information about the physical life of the play. The action described in the stage directions may include the behavior and movement of the actors, the details of location or scenery, the sounds outside, the props involved in the scene, or even when an actor should pause (what is sometimes written as “beat” or “pause” or “silence”.) Characters may pick up a glass of wine or a cell phone, they may be dragging a couch across the room or breaking a dish. When playwrights are writing plays, they are seeing their characters in action on stage. The characters are not only talking, they are moving and communicating through those actions. Note the stage directions in this excerpt from Big Love by playwright Charles Mee.
You think I need a man to save my life?
[she throws herself to the ground again]
I don’t need a man!
I don’t need a man!
[she gets up and throws herself to the ground again
and again, as she yells]
These men are leeches
these men are parasites
[she is throwing herself to the ground over and over,
letting her loose limbs hit the ground with the rattle
of a skeleton’s bones, her head lolling over and hitting
the ground with a thwack, rolling over, bones banging
the ground, back to her feet, and throwing herself to
the ground again in the same way over and over.
music kicks in over this—maybe J.S. Bach’s
“Sleepers Awake! &” from Cantata No. 140 and, as she
hits the ground over and over, repeating her same litany
as she does, Olympia watches her and then she joins in,
and starts throwing herself to the ground synchronously
so that it is a choreographed piece of the two women
throwing themselves to the ground, rolling around, flailing
on the ground, banging angrily on the ground, rising again
Playwright Charles Mee has communicated the physicality of the moment and the choreography between the characters, Thyona and Olympia. Do the actors playing these characters literally throw themselves on the ground over and over in production? Must J.S. Bach’s “Sleepers Awake! &” from Cantata No. 140 be used at this moment? Must her head hit the “ground with a thwack”? In production, these stage directions may not be followed exactly, but they inform the production decisions. Stage directions are an opportunity for the playwright to collaborate with designers, directors, actors, and the audience when they are not in the room.
The journey of a story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. At the most basic level, a character starts the play as one person, something happens, and then by the end of the play, they are someone else. A journey requires change. Once the audience knows where they are and who is on the journey, trouble ensues. The ending of a play is the culmination of the journey and a resolution (or continuation) of the conflict. Knowing how to create a satisfying and surprising journey is part of the playwright’s work in the writing process. When you go to the theatre, what happens in the end will greatly define your experience. How will the audience react to the end? The ending is what you will be talking about on the drive home or the next morning.
In 1879, Henrich Ibsen wrote, A Doll’s House, the story of a woman, Nora, who wants to leave her marriage. In the last moment of the play, Nora announces to her husband, Helmer (Torvald) that she is leaving and nothing he does will stop her.
HELMER: All over! All over! –Nora, shall you never think of me again?
NORA: Know I shall often think of you, the children, and this house.
HELMER: May I write to you, Nora?
NORA: No–never. You must not do that.
HELMER: But at least let me send you—
HELMER: Let me help you if you are in want.
NORA: No. I can receive nothing from a stranger.
HELMER: Nora–can I never be anything more than a stranger to you?
NORA: [taking her bag]
Ah, Torvald, the most wonderful thing of all would have to happen.
HELMER: Tell me what that would be!
NORA: Both you and I would have to be so changed that–. Oh, Torvald, I don’t believe any longer in wonderful things happening.
HELMER: But I will believe in it. Tell me! So changed that–?
NORA: That our life together would be a real wedlock. Goodbye.
[She goes out through the hall.]
HELMER: [sinks down on a chair at the door and buries his face in his hands]
[Looks round and rises.]
Empty. She is gone.
[A hope flashes across his mind.]
The most wonderful thing of all–?
[The sound of a door shutting is heard from below.]
The sound of the door shutting, as noted in the final stage direction, is the end of the journey. The journey is resolved with a shutting door. An action louder than any words. And this ending rattled audiences in 1879. During its premiere, this play was met by protestors who were insulted by the depiction of a woman who would leave her children and her husband. Women at the time were expected to submit to their husband and being a devoted mother and wife was their primary duty. The play was so controversial that Ibsen was forced to write a second ending that he called “a barbaric outrage” to be used only when necessary. In the second ending, she decides that the children need her more than she needs her freedom. The last moment in the play impacts how the audience reacts. Will they clap? Will they be still? Will they leave the theatre seeing their world differently? The playwright considers these factors when putting their play together.
A Career in Playwrighting
How does one decide to be a playwright? Maybe they first realized their interest in playwrighting in a university class or at a local theatre. Maybe they knew they wanted to be a playwright since they participated in a production in high school. Wherever it started, writing plays takes time, effort, and an understanding of the craft. Sometimes playwrights go to graduate school to pursue a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) in playwriting to hone their craft. Playwrights spend months, or maybe even years writing and developing their scripts. An actor or a director begins their work weeks or months before opening night, while the playwright spends months or years preparing plays for a premiere.
Once the play is complete, what is next for the playwright? There are multiple avenues for a play moving into a production. Many playwrights work on commission. A university, local art organization, theatre, or festival may pay a playwright to write a script about a specific topic. Once their play is complete, their scripts may be submitted to theatres. Throughout the country, there are hundreds of calls seeking plays of different styles and topics. Many of these submissions do not require an agent, and those are called open calls. A playwright sends in their play and waits to hear it if is selected for production. If selected for a development process, playwrights are provided an opportunity to develop their work with a community of artists through conversations, rehearsals, and a festival of public readings. During this process, the playwright may rewrite the script and create a new version or draft. In the process, they may work with a dramaturg, actors, director, and designer to explore the script and assist the playwright in understanding their play.
Paula Vogel teaches playwriting at Yale University and won the Pulitzer for her play How I Learned to Drive. In an interview in 1997, she said:
If you’re going to be a playwright, you’re going to craft
something that lets actors, directors, and designers do
their thing with an audience. You provide the structure.
The really great playwrights that I love absolutely do
that. I think we must have said this in the first week of
rehearsal: Words are cheap. They are very cheap. If
they don’t work, drop them, cut them, change them,
it doesn’t matter.
When plays are finally produced, playwrights receive a royalty for performances and maintain creative control through copyright agreements. These contracts protect playwrights, and no changes can be made to their script without permission. But plays have to be in production to receive royalties and even successful playwrights whose plays are produced nationally need another source of income. Tony Kushner is one of the most well-known and successful playwrights in American Theatre. In a Time Out New York article, Tony Kushner acknowledged that his success as a playwright did not generate enough income to make a living for himself. “I make my living now as a screenwriter. Which I’m surprised and horrified to find myself saying, but I don’t think I can support myself as a playwright at this point. I don’t think anybody does.”
Playwrights writing for film and television has become more and more common. For example, Aaron Sorkin is a playwright turned screenwriter. His play, A Few Good Men, premiered on Broadway in 1989 and later became a film. He has written West Wing, The Newsroom, Moneyball, and Steve Jobs for film and television, to name a few. Most successful working playwrights are working for film and television in addition to writing for the theatre. Yet many playwrights remain committed to theatre and the magic of the live audience reaction and return frequently to the stage.
The Future of Playwrighting
In our most recent history, COVID-19 closed theatres across the world. Productions ready to open were put on hold. In fact, plagues are not new to the theatre. Throughout history, plagues and diseases have closed theatres. Theatre historians have discussed how these shutdowns have impacted the writing of plays, specifically Shakespeare, who wrote some of his most famous plays during his quarantine. When the entertainment industry went online during COVID-19 and theatres shut down, playwrights had time to consider what was needed in the post-COVID world. Theatre artists started to experiment with live streaming of plays and an entirely new form was created— Zoom plays. During this break from live theatre, concerns around the environment, ticket prices, and accessibility rose to the surface for playwrights who were considering the plays of the future.
In the Los Angeles Times, Theatre Critic Charles McNulty asked 25 theatre artists, ranging from directors to designers to playwrights, “What will the post-Pandemic stage look like?” Two-time Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Lynn Nottage answered.
“Optimism is what’s dragging me through these pandemic
days that have stretched into months. It has given me time
to think about how and why I want to return to making
theater. It is my hope that when we’re able to gather en
masse that we rethink the tyranny of the proscenium stage
and our dependency on making theater in traditional and
exclusionary spaces. No doubt, people will desire robust
and healing storytelling, but we have to ensure that we
create an environment where theater is accessible to
With more on the future of playwriting, let’s talk with playwright TJ Young.
Interview with Playwright TJ Young
TJ Young is a Texas-born playwright and dramaturg based in Pittsburgh where he serves as co-representative for the Dramatists Guild – Pittsburgh region. His plays include NO. 6., Lyon’s Den, Dark Skinned Pavement, Ruby’s Baby Blue, Hell is Empty, Hallmark, The Inseparables, and Isle of Noises. His 10-minute plays are: Before The Fire, Effie, Rock the Cradle, Lilies, and Stuffed. He was the recipient of the 2017 Ken Ludwig Playwriting Scholarship. He has had productions at Texas State University as part of their New Works Festival, Director/Designer Collaboration Project, and as part of their 2016-2017 Main Stage Season. He was the 2019 Spotlight Artist of Throughline Theatre Company in Pittsburgh, PA. He received his MFA in Dramatic Writing from Texas State University. He has been a Teaching Artist with City Theatre in Pittsburgh and Quantum Theatre in Pittsburgh. He is also the NPP Vice-Chair for Region 2 of the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival. He is a Partner at subTEXT Solutions Dramaturgy Group.
His most recent play, Isle of Noises, serves as a prequel to William Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Starting from the moment Sycorax washes on the shore of the fabled island, the play shows what happened between then and the time that Prospero is banished. After a young Caliban discovers the history of his mother’s exile, he is presented with a chance from Ariel to gain more power and strike back at those who have done his mother wrong. Ariel, having been cast out from the protection of the great fey on the island, has motivations of their own and uses the plight of Caliban and Sycorax to their own benefit. This story looks at the pain of the past, the transfer of power, and how both can drive individuals to act in heroic and tragic ways.
Why do you write plays?
I write plays because I believe deeply in the power of storytelling and, more importantly, what we can learn about humanity through storytelling. I’m not one of those playwrights who necessarily writes what I know, I write what I want to know. I write plays as a way to explore the world around me. I heard the quote about how theatre explains life to the living, and that has been my mantra. Whenever I sit down to write a play, I ask what I am trying to explain to those around me. The plays I am most drawn to are the ones with three-dimensional people, the ones that have complexity, human emotions, and intentions. I’m most compelled by plays that give me a different perspective and put me in the shoes of someone that obviously can’t be. Those plays allow me to find empathy through connection, not sympathy. I think it’s really important to not be sympathetic but to be empathetic and to feel the emotional base of what characters are going through.
Who is a playwright or play that’s made a big impact on you?
I know the play and the playwright that made the biggest impact for me is the musical Passing Strange by musical and performance artist Stew. That musical is the first time that I felt like I saw myself completely on stage and it allowed me to write the way I want to write. I used to be convinced that playwrights had to write a certain way and I remember the line in Passing Strange when he said, “he’s like the brother side of midnight.” There’s so much poetry in that play and I thought, and I thought, I can do that. I can write in that poetic voice! I’ve seen Passing Strange probably thirty times [Available on Amazon Prime] and it is one of the most compelling musicals I’ve seen in my entire life. It won the book for best musical, but it didn’t win for music. The writing of that script [the book] is mind-blowing. At one point in Act 2, he says, “he made a mean Molotov cocktail,” and that line is a twist of phrases and so good.
How would you describe your process?
I used to write down every idea I had and then I started moving to writing down the ideas that won’t leave me alone. If a story is in my head and keeps coming up, then (it) is the story I have to write down. I think 95% of writing is thinking, dreaming, and processing in your head. With my recent play, Isle of Noises, I watched five versions of The Tempest. I watched those versions over and over and over again to see how they treated Caliban and Prospero’s relationship. I do a whole lot of research and give myself a theatrical convention to latch onto and give myself rules. I knew I wanted Isle of Noises to be heightened language and I wanted some sort of manifestation of magic. I wanted physical magic, which is why I landed on big puppets in the play.
I’m trying to work on a play right now where there are three people and there’s two circles of microphones, with one person is in the middle and the other two people play every other character in their lives by switching microphones. The characters never touch until the very last moment of the show. I found that a theatrical convention helps my process so much because I forces me to think outside the box and not just write the next kitchen sink sort of play which those plays are fine, but that’s not what I feel like I’ve been called to write.
1.) I write the ideas that won’t leave me alone.
2.) I think of a theatrical convention that I want to play around and that’s inherently theatrical.
3.) I start trying stuff out.
What is the best advice you’ve been given about being a playwright?
The best advice I’ve been given about being a playwright is to stop writing to be produced. The second you start thinking about the limitations of what could happen is the second you start limiting yourself. Someone said, you know designers love a challenge and they don’t want to keep designing houses. Lighting designers want to do more than just turn a light on in the room and costume designers want to be pushed as well. So don’t write what you’ve already seen. I have a show with a man who’s in a giant water tank the entire show. I remember I was talking to my dramaturg, and I said I was like he’s like there’s something wrong here and I’m worried about things technically. And he was like, it’s not your problem and it’s not your job. Your job is to create the world and if people are up for the challenge, then they will figure out a way to do it. That opened up so much for me.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to become a playwright?
Consume as much as you create. I think it’s as vital for us to refill our own artistic tanks and see things that we love. See things that we hate. See things that we like, see what a good idea is but is bad execution so that way we can start to question and form our own creative sensibilities. Playwriting is an extremely solitary process, but if we’re not reminded of the connection it can give us, we give up. I’m about to go into a summer consumption so I can be like, what are some things I want to try again? A playwright should absolutely consume more, as much as you create, if not more.
And if you ever get notes on a work, don’t act on them right away. Don’t put too much credit in notes from people who are not willing to actually invest in you as an artist. If someone says hey we’re not interested in your piece and here’s all the reasons why- stay cool-and if someone says we’re interested in your piece, and we have these questions that’s a way better place to start because they’re actually looking to invest in you and your idea. As a playwright you feel like you have to be like, oh thank you so much thank you for reading it you so much but you don’t take everyone’s opinion you are not willing to invest in you
How would you talk about the collaborative aspect of writing plays?
One of the greatest things I’ve ever done is found a dramaturg that I can send my stuff to. I vetted him by sending him a copy of Passing Strange without telling him why I sent it. Then he watched it and we had a conversation about it and that’s when I knew I was like yeah, you can be my dramaturg.
I often see playwright like a road map. If I said, I’m trying to give you a map from Virginia to DC and you end up in Florida, it’s not your fault. It’s my fault as a playwright. I know what my intentions are and, if at the end of Act One, you have all the questions that I don’t want you to ask I’ve done something wrong. Whenever we get into production, that feedback loop of actors asking questions and trying to see things from their characters’ perspectives because the playwright sees the play as a whole, while performers see it from their track I find that good actor questions can shape the piece so much in such a really intelligent and helpful way. It is the same thing with designers. A designer asking a really good question about the timeline of this, makes me sure of the world. I think that the biggest thing is there’s this assumption that the playwright has all the answers for the play. That’s not true! The playwright has the ability to change the words and the reality of the play, but the playwright doesn’t have all the answers. We need other people to ask those questions and talk about how they experience it. That way we can either adjust or say that’s exactly what I want. While the writing part is solitary, I don’t think that the play actually comes to life until other people are touching it.
What is a hope you have for the future about theatre?
My hope for the future is actually hoping to pull back to what used to happen in the past, like the play, Playboy of the Western World. When that play opened, people rioted because it was such a cutting look at their society. When rite of spring first premiered, they went to burn down the theater because it was so controversial. There’s a level of bite to theater that I love. I hope future artists are brave enough to have that bite and do the things that might make people uncomfortable. I am trying to find ways to do those things in a very subversive manner. So many things I am trying to say with Isle of Noises is about colonialism, it’s about the rape of the culture, it’s about revenge, it’s about power, it’s about a whole lot of other things. Oh yeah Shakespeare is great and I’m like, Shakespeare is a little bit racist y’all. Let’s pay attention to the truth and I’m also trying to find ways to continuously push the cultural norms of what are expected within my cultural identity around gender expression, sexuality, and around ideas of masculinity, especially for black men. And also, just the brutalities of being a black person in America, to be honest with you. I don’t write neat plays. Not that there can’t be fun– but even in even in the plays that are fun, like my Three Musketeers adaptation. I made every pronoun gender-neutral, and I said it can be cast by absolutely anybody so there’s no way that that play can be cast where there isn’t some queer interpretation of relationships. A lot of people say Three Musketeers is one of the classics and I’m going to say we’re going to push it. We’re going to question it and you’re going to accept it. I think more things like that are definitely in my future.
Point of Attack