The Soul of Playwriting

Guest post by Charles Deemer

In the mid-1970’s, armed with an MFA in Playwriting from the University of Oregon, I found myself on the campus of Salisbury State College on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. There a small theater department was headed by LS, who was thrilled by my arrival. LS had suffered a heart attack while teaching at the prestigious Yale Drama School and had taken the position at Salisbury for its stress-free environment and proximity to opportunities for sailing. He was excited to greet another theater person on campus. He already had plans for me.

His plans, I learned soon enough, included a variety of roles in upcoming plays. But there was a hitch. I had never been on stage in my life.

LS couldn’t believe it. He understood I had an MFA in Playwriting. What respectable school would offer such a degree to someone who had never acted? Back on Oregon’s campus, there had been a departmental tug of war over the management of a Shubert Playwriting Fellowship program between the Writing and Theater departments. Writing had won, which was my degree, and in the months ahead LS would teach me why this had been the wrong choice.

LS called me “a theoretical playwright,” not a REAL one, like a mechanic who refuses to get his hands dirty. He didn’t let the matter rest. My earlier background in fiction, he shouted at me, might be the worst possible background for a playwright. He said I must think I am “a writer.”

In the end, the former Yale Drama School director shamed me into going on stage. Under his direction, I portrayed the narrator in A View From the Bridge and Editor Webb in Our Town. The experience taught me nuances about playwriting I could not have learned any other way. It’s one thing to realize, as I did, that dialogue is language to be spoken, not read, but quite another to be the actor who says the words in a particular dramatic context. It’s one thing to write that an actor exits stage left, changes costume, and reenters stage right — quite another to have to do it.

I learned how practical, how flesh and bone, the actor’s craft is, and I learned that as a playwright actors themselves were the letters of my alphabet. Not language, actors.

A decade later, back on the west coast, this truth was brought home even more forcefully. I was an artist in the schools in Portland, helping students make a film, when I saw a demonstration by a group of actors from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. They performed the Portland phone directory.

This was remarkable! You want Hitchcock? You got it. A John Wayne western? You got it. A Mickey Mouse cartoon? No problem. And their only dialogue were names and numbers from the phone book.

I asked myself, What does this say about playwriting, about the person who writes those names and numbers? Clearly the dialogue is secondary to something else, to its fleshed expression, to the added dimensions the actor brings to the words. As I came to understand it, this insight added a burden to the dialogue I wrote. Establish character and move plot, yes, but there was much more to it, I wanted to write dialogue that invited the very craft I was witnessing, all the inflections, accents and body language brought by the actor; I wanted to write dialogue that actors would kill to say. Because playwriting is the art of writing for actors. Playwriting is the art of writing for actors.

Late in my career, I began making digital films, shooting with a minicam, primarily to show my screenwriting students at Portland State University that it could be done. My most ambitious project was a no budget feature. Well, I did buy the cast coffee and drinks more than once. We completed the project with a dramatic outline from which the actors improvised. Now and again I would reshoot a scene with dialogue suggested on the spot, but by and large, the language was their own. I am sure their script is better than any script I would have written.

Playwriting is the art of writing for actors, and I wish I had understood the importance of this much earlier in my career. I urge young playwrights without a theater background, and there are many, to get their hands greasy as soon as possible.


Charles Deemer is  a retired playwright and screenwriting professor. He has an MFA in Playwriting from the University of Oregon. Deemer’s play Famililly won the 1997 “Crossing Borders” international new play competition. The public television version of his play Christmas at the Juniper Tavern won an ACE award. Deemer is a pioneer in hyperdrama, a term he is credited with coining. His bio is at http://www.ibiblio.org/cdeemer/bio.htm

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

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