On The Care And Feeding Of Playwrights - Beverly Hills Playhouse

On The Care and Feeding of Playwrights

It’s an unfortunate responsibility to have any affiliation with a playwright. The necessary support level is high. It’s like having some exotic pet. Or a boat. Apparently they say the two happiest days in a man’s life are the day he takes ownership of a boat, and the day he sells it. In the performing arts community, there is a perilous ongoing dance between obligation, desire, responsibility and friendship that can have some severely negative consequences if someone’s foot flattens another’s toe. So let me offer some thoughts on this dance from the playwright’s perspective.

In my opinion, playwrights are on the line for their work in a way more closely aligned with painters, composers or novelists than screenwriters, even though many playwrights also work as screenwriters (big screens and small).  Just as with every note you hear in a piece of music, or every word you read in a novel – every word spoken in live theatre is controlled by the playwright.  I think it was Coppola who said that most movies are written on the hood of a car – lines are improvised and changed between “action” and “cut” over multiple takes, and that’s after several writers were hired over many drafts. In the theatre, the words have been dissected and doubted, tossed aside and resurrected, agonized about over a couple years by one writer in solitary confinement – it takes at least two years to develop a decent play, and many great plays out there have taken far longer than that.

I think of the writing process as a spectrum, and at one end, there I am at my computer typing away. At the other end, I may well stare vacantly into the void of ESPN, with some small percentage of my brain still working on the script in the background. I’ve practically come to tears while playing tennis certain afternoons, not from the poor quality of my tennis, but because I can’t figure out the play I’m working on (so it’s no wonder I keep framing the ball sky-high into neighboring backyards).  But throughout the spectrum, there is the torture of doubting whether you might have anything worthy to say, there is thought, trouble, and inspiration, quietly (or not so quietly) acting out scenes while I’m driving around town. Finally, a staged reading with feedback: You’ve invited some big brains to hear it, you’ve asked for their suggestions,  and you want to punch them all in the face. You learn to listen anyway. And rewrite. Another reading – more feedback. More rewriting. Casting, rehearsals – notes from the director. And rewriting. It’s at least two years per play. Maybe some of us move quicker – but many move slower.

So you get to the end of this arduous process, it’s opening night, and what do you want? A full house. Some great reviews would be fantastic as well, but mostly you just want people to see it. It’s all been designed for the moment when the story, real live actors, and real live audience members interact in a way we thought all along might be worth  the effort. The experience is nicer obviously when people like it, but mostly I just want everyone to see it, to have the chance to see if this alchemy takes place on any given night. And if you’re a friend, neighbor, associate, student, co-worker of a playwright, this is where you come in: Seeing it, and behaving well while seeing it. If you don’t see it, or you don’t behave well, you’re going to damage severely that relationship. And that may be fine – I’m not trying to argue that a relationship with a playwright it more important than any other. I’m not trying to say every playwright is deserving of adulation from his network of friends and associates. I’ve seen adulated plays and wanted to bang my head against a radiator, and I’m sure people have seen mine and been similarly inclined. But there’s adulation and then there’s simple support. I’m just letting you know that if you have a playwright in your midst, and you happen to be interested in maintaining the relationship, it can get completely fucked up by not coming to the play, or from poor behavior while seeing it. In your world nothing has happened, and over there in Playwrightland it’s toast, it’s over. 

A play is our version of a novel, but one with a 4-8 week timer on how long it can be read before it goes away. That very intense investment along with a timer on the chance to experience it makes for a bigger deal in terms of desired attendance. We clock it. We track it. We memorize every face that has walked in, and check it against those we know who have not walked in. (I think the reason many actors in particular may not quite understand this fully is that they may do 3-4 plays a year, or several appearances on television or film, and so each one has seemingly less importance – though I’m a big believer as well that if you are connected to an actor, you should check in once or twice a year to what they are doing.)

And now the behavior part. The composer Jason Robert Brown told a harrowing story about being invited to an opening of a Sondheim musical, which apparently had not gone well, and then, along with one of Brown’s friends, having an after-show dinner with Sondheim. Wanting to avoid the topic of not having liked the work, they self-consciously and awkwardly spoke of other topics, before an exasperated Sondheim finally asked, “So, uh, did you like it?” Dinner didn’t end well. More on that later.

I’ve been on the receiving end of some pretty interesting behavior at my plays for sure:

  • In 2010, a former student was offended by something in Act 1 of ENGAGEMENT – at intermission he stormed with high drama to the box office to demand a refund (which we didn’t grant) before walking out. He then went home and posted on Facebook how insulted he was by the work. Yeah. Really.
  • In 2015, three former classmates from the 1990s at BHP came to the preview performance of DISCONNECTION. They happily greeted me outside on the sidewalk beforehand. That was the last I saw of two of them. The third did come up afterwards to tell me she thought it was too long (“I don’t like stuff that is over 90 minutes”). That was all she said about it. The next morning, another of the three emailed me: “Great to see you last night. Keep up the work.” KEEP UP THE WORK?! I’m like, “You can’t even use the standard ‘Keep up the good work’? You have to remove the word ‘good’? Just to ensure I know you didn’t like it?!” Oy.
  • People who have left at intermission… Brutal. This is a cardinal sin. Don’t care if you freakin’ hate the first act, you stay and you see if the writer redeemed it in Act 2. If he wasted your time for the full 2-3 hours, that’s part of the price of being associated with a playwright. He or she might waste your time on occasion. But as Milton used to quote Harold Clurman: “Better than bowling!” (There’s also the variant about something coming up at intermission – a sudden job shift available, sudden problem of some sort. And these aren’t surgeons-on-call problems. Now, of course excuses like that may well have been lies to cover not liking it, but if they’re true? Keep the damned phone off. Pretend you’re in the play (because as the audience you really are in the play – you’re part of the alchemy), and deal with your inbox afterwards.)
  • The weird, insistent box office requests – one old friend: “Can you reserve me 4 tickets for Saturday?” Then: “Actually it’s 5 tickets.” Then that day: “It’s going to be 3 tickets. Are there any comps?” Then at 7pm that night, a text: “Traffic is awful! Can I reschedule those tickets for next week?” At which point I said I wasn’t really the ticketing agent for the show – she could easily contact the box office for this stuff, and here’s the link to it. I never heard from her again, she never saw the show.
  • The lateness. Late arriving for the show. Late coming back from intermission – how many playwrights have had their heads almost explode from friends arriving late from intermission? (I still remember my first meeting with Milton at his house, and I showed up five minutes late because I didn’t know the parking situation – he opens the door and says, “You know what late means? It means FUCK YOU!” Slammed the door. End of meeting.)

I shared a draft of this essay with a few other playwrights I know, and they each immediately emailed and called with several stories of their own that match or exceed these. One humorously blamed me for two hours of work with her therapist to handle the years of repressed trauma and resentment sparked by this conversation.

So here’s a little top ten checklist for the care and feeding of playwrights:

  1. See the play. And I know – if it’s one weekend anything might happen. But most plays run for at least 4 weeks. I’ve had supposed friends who have missed 45 performances of a play. A couple have missed 90 performances of two plays over two different years. Going to the correct theatre is always good. Being on time, all that.
  2. Acknowledge the opening somehow. Acknowledge the closing. Acknowledge a re-opening. Say something. Make us believe.
  3. If you’re a student of a playwright (I have lots of these), and the play runs a while – see it twice. The performances and quite possibly the script will have evolved, and you can learn from that. You’re thinking it’s some weird obligation, and it’s actually a chance to learn. In the meantime, my actual struggle is to have students see it once. (Another memory of Milton: His insistence we all see “The Red Shoes” for one shot: that of the dance students rushing up the stairs of the theatre, boundless in their enthusiasm for seeing new work….)
  4. Say something nice. Write a nice email. If you’re being insincere, don’t worry – we know, we can tell. But the etiquette is appreciated while the truth will still be known. When you say nothing, we remember that, too. It’s all clocked with astonishing detail and recall.
  5. Don’t leave at intermission. Ever. That’s instant death to the relationship.
  6. Don’t ask about ticket availability, or comps, or how to get them. Playwrights aren’t box office staff, and it’s  depressing to be treated as such.
  7. Don’t ask when it’s closing. That information is usually a mouse click away. When you ask that question, the playwright hears, “How long do I have to fulfill this stupid obligation to see your stupid play? I’m so disinterested that I can’t even look it up.”
  8. If you say you’re going to show up on such-and-such a weekend or performances, be good to your word. If you can’t, then let us know. Because we remembered what you said. We’re waiting to hear.
  9. Don’t offer your critique unless it’s asked for.
  10. If you see the playwright on the way into the theatre, and he/she sees you on the way into the theatre, then make sure they see you on the way out. If that’s not possible, then the acknowledgment of the play needs to happen fast. Like, a text on the way home, followed by email later or next day.

And now you’re thinking, “Uh, that’s crazy. I have to do all that?” Nope. Not at all. Life is busy, and again, I’m not saying a playwright is more important than anyone else. We are exotic pets, and perhaps you’re regretting the maintenance. But if you have one, if you’re interested in keeping that relationship, then you’ll do your level best. As one of my friends wrote me back regarding the draft: “If you have a playwright friend, and you don’t see his play, you’re not his friend. If you see the play and respond poorly, you’re not his friend. You are the death of creativity. You are fucking mold. You ruin shit and you make people sick.”   So. That’s the angrier version. He’s younger than I am. I am more wistful, I have more miles on the odometer, I know well I’ve misbehaved myself a few times for sure. There’s no one who can’t to some degree be called a hypocrite on the matter of support. But these days, there are few worse feelings for me than that of a friendship drifting away – friends seem harder to make, easier to lose, and this issue of support has been part of that drift more often than I’d like. And while this essay has been written from my personal angle, I’d bet good money that most in the creative fields have their own version of what I’m talking about.

Back to Jason Robert Brown’s story. He was advised to call Sondheim the next day and apologize, which he did. Here’s his memory of what Sondheim told him: “Nobody cares what you think. Once a creation has been put into the world, you have only one responsibility to its creator: be supportive. Support is not about showing how clever you are, how observant of some flaw, how incisive in your criticism. There are other people whose job it is to guide the creation, make it work, to make it live; either they did their job or they didn’t. But that’s not your problem. If you come to my show and you see me afterwards, say only this: ‘I loved it.’ It doesn’t matter what you really felt. What I need at that moment is to know that you care about me and the work I do to tell me you loved it, not ‘in spite of its flaws,’ not ‘even though everyone else seems to have a problem with it,’ but simply, plainly, ‘I loved it.’ If you can’t say that, don’t come backstage, don’t find me in the lobby, don’t lean over the pit to see me. Just go home and write me an email or don’t. Say all the catty, bitchy things you want to your friend, your neighbor, the internet. Maybe next week, maybe next year, maybe someday down the line, I’ll be ready to hear what you have to say, but that moment, that face-to-face moment after I have unveiled some part of my soul, however small, to you: that is the most vulnerable moment in any artist’s life. If I beg you, plead with you to tell me what you really thought, what you actually, honestly, totally believed, then you must tell me, ‘I loved it.’ That moment must be respected.”

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