Playwrights: If a director wants you to edit your script, what’s the harm?

Guest blog post by David Wiener

The American new play sector has gone through so many dizzying changes over the past decade, it doesn’t even make sense to talk about a “New Normal” anymore.

There is a running current among many playwrights that we are the master of our script, and if a theater wants to make edits, they should produce a different play instead. I agree that playwrights are the master of our scripts, and should have complete discretion as to whether to allow changes. However, what I suggest, is that when asked, we enthusiastically work with directors to combine their artistic visions with ours.

Here are some examples from my own experience:

  • A full-length play that was premiered in California, which led to additional productions elsewhere. The premiering theatre had some very challenging limitations. I tailored the script to suit their needs by cutting minor characters, combining scenes to simplify set changes, and worked with the director on lighting schemes and ideas that did the work of set pieces we simply couldn’t get.
    • I also had to cut the last scene and entirely rewrite another. If you had told me before the play was in rehearsal that I would have to do all that just to get to opening night, I probably would have run screaming from the theatre. But it worked amazingly well – facing up to the limitations of that particular theatre created opportunities for collaboration, blurring the usual lines of separation between playwright, director, actors, and techs as everyone contributed ideas to reach the shared goal of putting the damn thing on stage in the best possible form.
    • Later productions in London and Boston were mounted with fewer changes – those theatres had the resources to use everything on the page. One director wanted very much to deepen and expand a supporting character. By adding and incorporating active exposition into a number of her lines, I was able to build tension and shift her focus from a single-minded, desperate wish for revenge into a reflective resignation and acceptance of her past and present. It did alter the dynamic of the play but this version also worked.
  • One act and short plays offer even more ways to be adaptable. I’ve been able to expand the productions of my one-acts by rewriting them for radio theatre. This is a great way to practice new writing skills. All the descriptions, business, stage directions, and so on – all this has to be turned into dialogue, transforming everything seen on stage into things clearly heard on the radio.

 

  • I had a short play produced about 9,000 miles away from me at two separate venues. It featured a drunken woman who gets progressively more drunk through the play. The first venue was no problem at all – it was very well received. However, just a few miles away in the second venue, the local culture was quite different. Portraying a drunken woman on stage was a considered an outrage and, to make matters worse, the actresses’ mother happened to be in the audience that night to witness her daughter disgrace herself on stage.
    • Fortunately, nothing happened beyond some vocal criticism but it could have caused real trouble for the actors. If I had known about these pronounced cultural variations, I could have had a wonderful opportunity to create a second version of the script, one that would have taken into account the feelings and sensibilities of that second audience.

 

As the playwright, you will have to decide whether such alterations offend your artistic aesthetic. I know my answer, and am comfortable with it.

I’ve been fortunate enough to see the changing face of modern theatre from many different angles: as a playwright with works produced in seven countries, and as a Literary Intern and Dramaturgy Associate, Special Projects Writer, and Board member, all at various theater companies. The value of flexibility on the part of playwrights becomes clearer to me every day — it makes your work as a playwright so much more interesting and it opens up whole new opportunities for you, your producers, your directors, and for your actors.

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David Wiener is a playwright produced in seven countries, has worked as a Literary Intern and Dramaturgy Associate (La Jolla Playhouse), as a special projects writer (San Diego Shakespeare Society, “Shakespeare for the Blind,” “Shakespeare’s Women,” and others), and as a Board member of the Horton Plaza Theatres Foundation (which oversees the Lyceum Theatre, home of the San Diego Rep).

The opinions contained herein are solely those of David Wiener, and not necessarily those of Play Submissions Helper.

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