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.
Congratulations! There are few things more thrilling than seeing your words come beautifully to life on stage.
And if you can be a playwright that directors want to work with, you’re more likely to get still more opportunities with that theater. What’s more, directors talk with each other, actors talk with each other and to directors, casting directors talk to other casting directors. If you’re a good playwright to work with, the theater world will start to know it. Then still more directors will want to work with you.
How to be a good playwright to work with.
Share your vision with the director.
Directors want to know about your play, what sparked your interest in writing that particular story, what makes you passionate about the subject, what’s your vision for your play. When they ask you questions, answer them. The more you tell them, the better they can take your words and give them life on stage.
One way to think about what to tell the director is to imagine the director asked you: “If I ruined every thing about your play but one, what would that one thing be?” If you know the answer to that question, is can share your vision with the director more clearly.
Ask the director questions. You can ask them why they chose your script, what excites them about it, what’s their vision for staging it. The more you know, the better you can work with them.
Also, the more you and the director talk about your plan the production, the more you get to know each other, and the better you’ll be able to work together.
Be professional at auditions.
If a theater’s developing your play, certainly in the US and possibly elsewhere, your contract should have a clause that says you have the right to be at auditions and callbacks. It should also have a clause that says that you have the right to give input on casting decisions.
When you’re at auditions, let the director run the auditions. Say hello to the auditioners if you’re introduced (and you should be), and when they’re finished, thank them for coming. Other than that, just watch; don’t say anything to the actors unless the director asks you to. And when you watch, don’t frown, grimace, shake your head, or anything like that (you’d think that’d be obvious, right? but some playwrights still do it).
One way to think about auditions that makes them fun, is to think of them as a chance for you to hear some of your text in a whole bunch of different ways. It’s a good way to figure out if your text is doing what you want it to do. Plus which, what actors do can be delightful surprises for you.
Give gracious and truthful feedback about auditioners.
When the director asks you for your opinion on actors, give it. Be gracious and generous while still being truthful.
If you think and actor is completely wrong for the role that the director’s considering them for, say so. The director might cast that actor anyway, because they might know something about the actor that you don’t, or might see possibilities in the role that even you, the playwright, haven’t seen yet.
Another thing you should know is that if the theater has a company of actors, the director will cast most of the roles from that company, or even all of them. A director has a responsibility to keep developing and giving opportunities for the actors in the company.
Ultimately, the director has the final say on casting. Once you’ve given your feedback, trust the director to make the final choices.
Of course, don’t talk about actors in front of them, but have private discussions with the director.
Share your vision with the designers.
Depending on the theater, you might or might not be involved in the design process; you might get to talk to the set designer, costume designer, sound designer, and everyone else who designs the production.
Work with the designers the same way you work with the director. Answer their questions, share your vision, tell them what’s most important to you about your play.
Sometimes, the director will tell you that some of your design preferences just aren’t practical in the theater, or will cost more money than is in the theater’s budget. You may not get your vision realized in exactly the way you hoped. But designers are incredibly creative, so they’ll find a different way to design something that will be just as powerful and true to the vision of your play.
Next time: what to do once rehearsals start.
In the second half of this article, I’ll talk about what you should expect during rehearsals, how to answer questions from actors, whether you should get actors feedback, and how to stand your ground when they ask for rewrites.