Get more productions: how to be a playwright that directors want to work with

Anikke Fox, Reading of "Another Thing to Fall," January 2011.

Anikke Fox, Reading of “Another Thing to Fall,” January 2011.

Do you want to get your plays produced more? Well, duh, of course. Besides writing the best play you can, and finding the theaters that will love your play, you can also be a playwright that directors want to work with.

Four directors came to the Seattle meeting of the Dramatists Guild last Sunday, to talk about “The challenges and rewards of directing a new play and working with the playwright.” I took notes like crazy, so I could distill what they said into what you can do when you’re working on a production of one of your plays, to be a playwright that directors want to work with.

The four directors at the meeting were Scott Nolte, Producing Artistic Director of Taproot Theatre in Seattle; John Dillon, Seattle-based director who’s also Associate Director of Tokyo’s Institute of Dramatic Arts; Kaytlin McIntyre, Casting and Literary Associate at Seattle Repand Andrew Russell, Producing Artistic Director of Intiman Theatre.

Get directors to want to work with you.

So your play’s been chosen for a reading, or better still, a full production. And even better still, they’re going to work with you on developing your play so you can not only see it come to life on stage, you can make it express your passion even better.

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The science behind good plays

"Miss Hannah Comes Back," May 2010

“Miss Hannah Comes Back,” May 2010

Researchers have done a lot of work in the past few years on what makes a compelling story. You can use the results of their research to help you make your plays express your passion for what you’re writing.

What makes a good story makes a good play.

At the heart of the good play is, of course, a good story. You can think of a play as the dialogue portion of a good story, so you have to have a good story as the basis for your play.

What a good story needs.

Here are some things that researchers have found that you need to have in a story to make it a good, compelling one:

  1. it has to capture and hold the audience’s attention;
  2. it has to have characters that the audience emotionally resonates with;
  3. it has to have characters that the audience identifies with.

Researchers have found that stories with these characteristics increase our levels of oxytocin and serotonin, brain chemicals that increase our ability to care about characters in a story.

So, how do you create your story, i.e., your play, to do all of these things?
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Too much material? Some inspiration for you

Have you ever had too much story? You know, where you have so many ideas and so many great scenes, you have to cut your script because nobody does four-hour plays anymore?

Or, maybe you actually have two plays, or even three. Some playwright and actor friends told me that at a living room reading of one of my scripts recently. I was delighted because it meant I had a lot of compelling material, but also dismayed because – let’s face it – playwriting is a lot of work.

If you’ve got a lot of material and aren’t sure how to pick and choose from it to make a story, I have an inspiration for you.

While recovering from unexpected surgery recently, I watched a lot of TED talks. One particular talk was this man, standing alone on stage, no slides, no set, no nothing. But I was riveted. Engaged in the story to my very core. If you watch it, you’ll know what I mean:

A story about knots and surgeons

What’s more, Ed Gavagan (that’s his name) has three stories about this same horrific event. And they’re all different. He concentrates on specific themes and threads in each one. He creates different emotional impacts and understandings of his experience. Follow the links here and see what I mean:

Ed Gavagan at The Moth

Besides hearing some heartrending, beautifully structured stories, you can be inspired about how you can shape your own stories and write your own plays.

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Things Playwrights Do That I Love

Here are some good tips for everyone.

Bitter Gertrude

Sometimes I open a play and see something that makes me feel like this:

Here’s what you do that makes my heart sing as I’m reading the plays in my stack. Are these subjective? Sure. But I made sure to only include things I’ve heard echoed by other artistic directors. Is this meant to be all-inclusive? Of course not. I’ve written a lot about playwriting already, so there’s a lot I’ve left out here. (Search for the tag “playwrights” if you want to see more.) So here we go– what makes my eyes turn into cartoon hearts when I look at you:


1. Your play is set anywhere but New York. Every time I talk about this, I get ten playwrights saying, “That NEVER HAPPENS anymore. That’s OLD SCHOOL.” And then I open the next 20 plays in my consideration folder and 14 of them are set in New York…

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How I staged my impossible-to-stage short play

I’ve written a series of short plays that are damn near unstageable. The dialogue is opaque to the point of meaninglessness, many roles would be impossible to cast (cats and kittens, anyone?), and the stage directions contain descriptions of action so complicated and unlike theater, some people say the plays should be made into an animated movie.

The thing is, I’m a playwright, not a maker of animated movies. Plus which, many of my theater friends love these plays, for their weirdness and their language and possibly because of the sheer fact that they are impossible to stage.

How I came to write these short plays

I go to a drop-in writers group once a week, where we use Natalie Goldberg’s timed-writing exercise: write for 45 minutes without stopping, without editing, just letting the words flow from our pens.

One time, the coordinators were having trouble getting us all started writing on time. Exasperated, one of them said, “This is like herding cats.”

Ding ding ding ding ding ding ding! That was my prompt for the day: herding cats.

I let my subconscious take over, and I wrote the weirdest, freest, liveliest shit I’d ever written.

A sample of the original play

Here’s a PDF of the short section of the original play.

Herding Cats Fragment Original

Where I was staging it

I was staging this short play as part of Freehold Theatre’s studio series. It’s like a lot of festivals: minimal lighting and sound, sets that have to be set and struck in very little time, very little storage for set pieces and props.

What’s impossible about it
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This is what schizophrenia *really* looks like

There’s this video that’s gone viral, and I can see why. It’s baffling, it’s disturbing, and I watched it several times.

I found a transcription of this guy’s rant, and cleaned it up a little. I’ll post that below.

But before you watch it, or read the transcript, you should know what a screenwriter acquaintance of mine said on FB when he posted the link.

To my actor and screenwriter friends, many of you know of my pet peeve of mental illness being portrayed wrong on-screen. In fairness, doing it right is REALLY difficult; even I have a hard time, and mental health is my job. I was blown away but how perfectly representative this is. This is what schizophrenia frequently looks like in real life. He doesn’t look disheveled or “crazy”, but his paranoid delusions and formal thought disorder are clear once he starts talking.

In a later comment, he added:

…while [schizopphrenia] frequently looks like this, it doesn’t always. Frequently people with schizophrenia are more avoidant of people because of their level of anxiety, delusions, and/or hallucinations.

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The power of a good thank-you note

I was a reader for the Inkwell Festival last year, and to celebrate finally completing the first round of reading 500+ plays (!), they forwarded us some of the thank-you notes they got from playwrights.

These thank-you notes were wonderful: gracious and appreciative. The playwrights thanked the Inkwell for considering their play, for all of the feedback (the readers made comments on all of the plays), and for other things they were grateful for.

That’s the way to write a thank-you note. Because that kind of thank-you note will get you remembered favorably by a reader, or literary manager, or an artistic director. I guarantee you I will remember those playwrights more favorably than anyone who would respond with complaints –about how long it took the theater to get back to them, about the comments they got, anything.

Graciousness and generosity are good traits to cultivate, in life as well as in the theater.


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