06/04/2007 09:47 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

How Not to Write a Play

A few weeks ago, the veteran playwright Richard Nelson, who is also chair of the playwriting department at the Yale School of Drama, gave an anguished keynote address to the Laura Pels Foundation. Less a speech than a howl, Nelson deplored the way the dramatist was being pushed around in today's non-profit theatre, especially by a horde of self-proclaimed experts eager to "help" the playwright and "improve" the play. Because of dwindling subsidies, non-profit resident theatres are doing fewer and fewer full-scale productions of new (and consequently "risky") works. Instead they discharge their obligation to the American playwright through a process of "development" --countless readings and workshops where actors, directors, producers, dramaturgs, and even audience members have an opportunity to tell the writer where the play is weak and where it still needs to go. Not only is this "help" unwanted and presumptuous, says Nelson, but the resident theatre is now pocketing a percentage of the author's royalties whenever the play is produced elsewhere, thus paying itself a generous fee for an unnecessary service.

Nelson's distress is shared by many of his contemporaries. In contrast with the glory days of Miller, Williams, and Albee, today's playwrights are no longer considered supreme in the theatre. Instead, they are being pushed into the wings by directors and artistic directors. It is also true that workshops and readings are now being used as excuses to defer full production, and also as an open invitation for everyone in the neighborhood, including the box office manager and possibly the lavatory attendant, to try his or her hand at dramaturgy. Still, while he describes this unhappy development with accuracy, Nelson sometimes seems to confuse theatre companies with publishing houses. There is a difference between giving a manuscript to a group of editors responsible for improving your grammar or correcting your facts, and contributing a play to a producing organization responsible for staging your script. The publishing house may suggest modifications in an author's text, but its ultimate function is to convert type into print. To convert a script into a production, by contrast, takes an army of actors, directors, designers, technicians, literary directors, and composers, who also bear responsibility for the play's life on stage. This is called collaboration. It is the process of a collective, and it has all the failings, but also all the advantages, of an egalitarian democratic system.

Nelson wants none of this. He believes the function of his collaborators is to "solve" the play, not to "help" it. Longing for those halcyon days when the play was the thing and the playwright the king, Nelson deplores the fact that the most creative figure in the theatre now stands at the bottom of the ladder, hounded with requests for revisions of his original script. "What other person is viewed in this way?" asks Nelson. "Imagine hiring say a director with the assumption that he couldn't do the work himself?" But all theatre artists are hired on that assumption. The actor, for example, must answer to the director (and also to the playwright), who must answer to the artistic director, who must answer to the managing director, who must answer to Board members, who must answer to their money managers. All the work artists do in the theatre is subject to editing and revision. And what about those imaginative theatrical artists, the designers, whose superb creations are always at risk of being modified to suit the whims of directors, artistic directors, actors, and even actors agents (who might have complaints about their clients' wigs and costumes). Kicked around by the entire theatre world, the designer has no one to kick but the cat.

In other words, everyone in the theatre fumes about being subject to the whims of somebody else. And at some point everyone has the luxury of feeling disenfranchised. But when the system works, theatrical collaboration has enormous advantages. Anyone who has watched an intelligent group of actors sitting around a table investigating Hamlet, or The Misanthrope, or The Iceman Cometh, knows that a theatre artist can be just as penetrating about the structure and meaning of a play as any scholarly expert. And if you compare the Folio with some of the Quartos, you have to conclude that even Shakespeare sometimes revised his work, and improved it, in order to satisfy his acting company.

In my function as a playwright, I have also felt Nelson's irritation whenever my work was being challenged by some young whelp, barely out of drama school, who claimed to know more about my intentions than I did. But in more than a few cases that claim proved to be justified, and a new speech here, a new line there, definitely helped to enhance my writing, not to mention the actor's performance. Naturally, no changes could be made without my approval, and I reserved the right to make them myself. I also had to be persuaded that the suggestions were artistically rather than politically motivated (as they once were in an adaptation I did of Lysistrata, where some actors requested revisions out of an ahistorical conviction that the Aristophanes' raunchy dialogue was "sexist"). In such cases, a playwright could very well feel not that his play or adaptation was being improved by a collective of creative artists but rather that it was being hi-jacked by a cadre of blinkered liberal censors.

In the most impassioned part of his speech, Nelson discusses the question of empowerment and ownership in the theatre --"We write our play, we own our play"-- raising troubling issues of intellectual property and territorial rights that I will try to discuss in my next blog.