Power to the Playwright: Taking the Development of Your Work by the Horns

Written By Laura Neubauer

On the edge of Las Vegas, I found a post grad school experience at the Katherine Gianaclis Park for the Arts (KGPA). The outdoor space was decorated with decaying or half-complete works of art. Inside, paintings hung on every inch of wall space and a black box theatre took the place of the living room. It was grungy and magical. There were no rules, just new plays.

On Sundays artists gathered for ‘the readings’ which meant we drank whiskey, read any play by any self-proclaimed playwright, and filled the tiny theatre with enough cigarette smoke to kill a kitten. We had grand ideas and long-winded arguments. Frequently, we pulled together budget-less productions and the proceeds paid the light bill. We took risks, made art and answered to no one.

The experience ignited my interest in DIY practices for playwrights and made me value the structure that the KGPA lacked. Since, I’ve created custom development opportunities for my plays and collected a few dos and don’ts along the way.

Don’t wait for someone else to develop your play

It’s like standing on the sidelines of the middle school gym waiting for someone to ask you to dance. No one will ask you or the smelly kid will ask you; either way you won’t win. It’s likely that no one asked you to write a play in the first place. It’s time you be the asker, the favor monger, the smelly kid. You do what it takes to get smart, trustworthy artists in the room with your play.

Don’t settle for one size fits all

Some development opportunities are open to anyone, but if everybody can do it it’s not really much of an opportunity. When you bring your play into development, everyone in the room will become a collaborator at some level. Do you want to collaborators who have strengths in areas you don’t? Do you want to surround yourself with writers who ask thought provoking questions and lead you to a better understanding of your own vision? Do you want people who know when to shut the hell up and put the play at the center of the conversation? That’s what I wanted, and that’s what led me to seek out a posse of talented collaborators.

Do Find Your Posse

New city, no friends, no connections. That was me. Like any sane playwright I stalked theatre folks online until I found myself working with a fringe company (Interim Writers) developing other people’s plays. I didn’t hold back my ambitions to expand our programing to include a long-term writers group. So with founders Cassie M. Seinuk and Max Mondo onboard, I set out to build the group a playwright-driven mission and program to achieve it. We called it the The Interim Writer’s Accomplice.

Two years later, we are a tight-knit group of gifted playwrights. The group knows my work, respects my vision, and has no ulterior motives. Accomplices have consistent opportunities to develop their plays, call the shots, and direct the conversation because that’s the environment we created for all of us.

Do get creative. It’s what you’re good at.

Rethink anything cookie cutter and get creative with the ways you development your play. I recently put an interactive twist on a standard staged reading to address some of my play’s unique challenges.

The endeavor was made possible by the women at Maiden Phoenix Theatre Company who produced the reading as well as the fall 2015 production of my play, Miss Penitentiary. The company and director, Alyce Householter, supported my idea for an interactive staged reading since its genesis. My goals for the event were to: track the audience’s gut reactions in real time rather than after the presentation, and provide a thought-provoking, inclusive mode of engagement for them to respond to the play.

At the top of the show, I laid ground rules for audience participation and explained the two modes of interaction. For “text the playwright” portions we would pause and pose a question for the audience to answer via text message. I also invited them to text, “bored” anytime that feeling crept in. The second mode of interaction was called, “route and rally.” In these segments, they would be asked to cheer for the character they felt most strongly about in that moment.

During the performance, I recorded audience responses in my script. Questions like, “On a scale of 1 to 10, how much danger do you feel a character is in?” told me where stakes needed to be raised. When boredom alerts arrived, they came in clumps, which confirmed problem areas. The “route and rally’ portions created balance between the digital and personal interactions, and allowed me to track character allegiances.

Taking the development of your own work by the horns requires some serious elbow grease. Is it worth the work? You bet. So power to the playwright, you and your plays deserve it.

Posted in Phoenix Tales and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , .