What can I say about playwrighting that can take you from the ideas, to the words, to the page, to the stage? Not a lot in one sitting.
I have written the scripts for a dozen or so musicals and written the music and lyrics for more than 30 more. I was commissioned at the age of 18 to write my first musical. At age 19 I finished it, together with some of my closest friends, and the commissioners actually produced it and it was quite successful. That was in 1973. I have won awards, been produced across the world, and have spent more hours inside a theatre in rehearsal, than some people have been alive. I have quite enjoyed the process of writing. I spent years as a professional actor, then a director/choreographer, then a teacher in the public schools. It has all brought me great joy, but writing is my passion.
It must be yours to be good at it.
There is nothing more satisfying than to hear a laugh (in the proper places) at something you have written that was supposed to be funny. There is nothing more awesome than being able to evoke an emotion from an audience, even a tear or a gasp, when they see something that you have created and it touches them in those places that only the a spirit can reach.
Writing is a process. For the Theatre writing is THE process. It begins with a concept, an idea, a story. Don’t ever ask, “what story am I going to tell?!” Ask, instead, “whose story am I going to tell?” Each story is added to, refined, reworked. The writing is not done once it is on the page, because a script is not a novel. Living actors must be able to inhabit the characters you write for them. The process is not complete without rehearsal. In rehearsal you learn what does and doesn’t work the moment your actors start speaking your words. LISTEN to them. If you keep saying, “They’re not getting it,” maybe you should consider that it is you who didn’t get it. A written script is not even a road map without the actors. It is only a guide book. If you think your script is perfect before the actors get a hold of it, stop writing because you will not be successful.
An open mind is a terrible thing to waste. It is also a major hurdle to have a mind so full that you know everything there is to know. Even Shakespeare did not always get it right.
The process of theatre writing is re-writing. It is listening to what is happening on the stage. It is sometimes more important to listen to what is NOT happening on the stage. Then make sure that what needs to happen is what does happen. The theatre is not made up of words alone, but words that embody action. Nobody wants to go to a play or musical and hear words that lead nowhere. Hyperbole? No!
Active, progressive stories and characters that take us on a journey; that is what you have to create. Every word must contribute to the overall arc of the play. Every character must fit into that arc. Each word moves us forward into some action that is inevitable. This means that you must choose each word very carefully. One word out of place and the story is broken, delayed, unfulfilled. Not shattered, but ineffective. Too many words and the story is clouded, over-burdened. Too few words and there are gaps, chasms, in the through-line.
Characters have wants and needs. Sometimes the plot is as simple as the character going after what he or she thinks they want rather than what the audience comes to understand that they really need. This is one thing that binds an audience to a theatrical piece: they are discovering something before the character does and long to have that character find out what it is. The needs and wants of the characters work on several levels. Each scene has a want and/or a need. Each conversation can be broken down into wants and needs — these are things that are immediate. Then there are the long term goals, the over-arching wants and needs.
Where does your character want to be at the end of the play? What do they want to achieve? Each character must want something or someone, or has a need to do something or be someone. These must interrelate; must either contribute to or take away from the main character’s ability to obtain what he or she wants. Each character is either a help or a hindrance. They are colleagues or enemies, and all the shades that go with that. Sometimes they can be both friend and foe at different times. Ambivalence in a character is acceptable. Ambivalence in an author is not.
At the end of the play does your central character achieve his or her Objective? Then you may have a comedy, or a serio-comedy, or maybe even just a drama. Do they not get what they want? Then you might have a tragedy, or at least fine drama.
Every bit of dialog is an interaction with a chain of reactions to what is said and/or done. It all must work together for the viewer. The audience members are the reason we are all there in the first place. If you are just writing for yourself — that is fine — but send it to a therapist.
Most times we find ourselves as a playwright or a composer locked away in a room. That’s what it sometimes takes to create the kernel or the nut of the concept or idea. But it is only through collaboration that the true writing process of the theatre expands your piece into something stageworthy. Sometimes this collaboration works with yourself if you have a really open mind and a propensity that leads you away from schizophrenia. This collaboration can also be in the form of working with actors and directors and designers who all bring something to the table for you to sample. You, as the playwright, must decide on what ingredients work best in your play. It is yours, after all.
I love collaboration, with the actors et.al, but also with another writer. Some of my best work has been sitting in a room with one of my collaborators (or even lately Skyping with them — not quite as good but it still works) and bouncing ideas off each other and becoming inspired by the comments and contributions of your fellow writers. (This is how TV writers work together in a group. Not that all television writing can be held up to an acceptable standard.) One word or thought can lead to a new lyric or a better-constructed scene. Put lots of words together that lead to action, or reveal character maybe through their inaction, and the play starts becoming a better-constructed play overall.
After all is said and done, you must serve the play. What is best for the play is what you must write. Sometimes you have an idea or a concept that becomes unworkable. You have to be willing, as a writer, to let go of what does not work. Jettison the refuse. Start over if you have to. A friend just talked to me, after the premiere of her new play that I attended, that a show I was in that she wrote many years ago was being conceptualized and a first draft written while she was Assistant Directing another original show (not written by her) that I was performing in. She got a script together. Then read through it. She was so disgusted that as she walked by a trash can she just let the pages fall from her fingers and started over again. She didn’t like a word she had written. She told me it was ‘awful’. You have to set your ego aside for the betterment of the child you are trying to give birth to. You want a healthy, walking, talking, laughing, crying child. Aunts and Uncles, Grandparents, church leaders, teachers, community members — all contribute the raising of a child. But it is the parents that eventually filter what the child sees, feels, hears, experiences. The same process works in the theatre except that these ‘relations’ are replaced by your colleagues; the people you work with. But you must be the parent.
There is also an important concept that lies within working with collaborators, or colleagues: Working with. They don’t work for you. The Director is also not your boss. The theatre is nothing more than a collaborative process with each person doing his or her part to contribute to the whole. It is like a built-in society operating under a law of communal living: everyone with their strengths and talents contributing equally; having an equal chance to be heard.
If you want to write, sit down and write. Do it longhand, use a typewriter, use a computer — speak your notes into your phone! Whatever. Just start the process. Gather your friends around and read it together often! Feedback on what works and what doesn’t work, will come from the strangest and most unexpected of places. Have an open mind. Be willing to accept that you don’t do everything correctly.
Remember this, that the title of the show we know as Oklahoma! was Away We Go! as it entered Boston on it’s tryout tour in 1943. The title song had not even been written yet and it was only two weeks before the New York opening! Remember also that the song Bali H’ai from South Pacific was hurriedly scribbled on the back of a restaurant napkin during lunch between the morning and afternoon rehearsals of ‘preview week’. Richard Rodgers left the afternoon rehearsal and by dinner time had the song written and arranged and in the show.
Seek inspiration. Then listen to it. Don’t always pretend you know better. You don’t. There is a guide out there. Call him God, call her Muse, that doesn’t matter. Just listen.
Seek information. Don’t be afraid to research. Ask questions. Solicit opinions. Change your mind.
Use words that lead to actions. Illicit actions and thoughts from your performers. Watch them. And listen.
Use thoughts that express desires, wants needs. Listen.
It is all part of the writing process for the theatre.
—C. Michael Perry
© 2017 by C. Michael Perry ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
Well, this one can be complicated. Each publisher has different requirements for play and musical submission. Some are agented, (which means that only if you have an agent can you be placed with that particular publisher). Some only publish from certain markets, (which means if you have not had a New York City production you can pretty well count on not being read, let alone accepted, by some publishers (especially in the Musical market). Some accept unsolicited manuscripts! (not many).
If your play has not been produced — do not send it to anyone but an agent or directly to a producer. (Those are entirely different strategies than submitting to publishers.)
For open submissions policies, there are usually 3-steps you have to go through. Never send anything unsolicited! Ever! Nyet! Ka-put!!! Even if they say they accept unsolicited manuscripts. It will sit forever until they reader gets around to it. Believe me, they have stacks and stacks of material to wade through.
First, is the research.
Check online for their submissions policies, types of scripts accepted, and times of the year that submissions are accepted. You might also stroll through their catalog to see what titles they have and what titles they do not have, paying particular attention to titles that are NOT in the catalog. Notice what audiences their plays cater to, which performing groups seem to be targeted by the Publisher. You may have the best adaptation of Little Women ever!!! But if a publisher already has one or two versions (play, musical, short, full-length, small-cast, large-cast) you might want to consider not submitting to that publisher, unless your adaptation can be easily distinguishable from their current options and made to stand apart from all others.
Second, is the QUERY LETTER.
This is more than just a letter of introduction (in which you tell them about yourself in a few words as possible), you should also include a more formal BIO or VITAE SHEET. Your query should include a cast list (with description of each character), a list of previous productions, letters of recommendation from producers, any reviews, a good synopsis (with song placement, if a musical) that describes the uniqueness of your particular version (See “Writing a synopsis”, below), and a sample 3-8 pages of a scene for dialog purposes (including a song lyric, if a musical). If a musical you may be asked to submit either a sample mp3 AND a sample page of sheet music and/or a lyric sheet. There may be other requirements, so check with each publisher.
Third, is the FULL SUBMISSION.
This will be an entire script and score with possible CD or download of mp3s. There may be other requirements, so check with each publisher.
As to formatting your document.
Each publisher has its own way to format for print purposes. Do not worry terribly about the format of your submission, as long as it is clean and readable and LOOKS professional. White space on the page is preferred. (Wide borders) You can use the Samuel French format with character names centered (ALL-CAPPED, BOLDED), stage directions tabbed close to center and possibly parenthesized (and italicized), with dialog flush left. You can also submit in the format of all character names (ALL-CAPPED and BOLDED) and dialog in paragraph format, flush left, with stage directions indented and italicized. If a musical, you should indent your lyrics to a different setting than the stage directions, which could be italicized.
Ease of the read is what a publisher wants out of your formatting. You must also know that playreaders, acquisitions editors, read fast. If you know your play isn’t ready — don’t submit. I have too often read the first 4-8 pages of some full scripts and just placed them in the ‘NO’ pile. Most publishers can tell when a play is not right for them within those few pages. Sometimes it is not about the quality of the play. Your play may be great, but not right for their market, or what the publisher is looking for at that particular moment, sometimes because of its similarity to other material already in the catalog. (Do your research)
Don’t be disheartened. Even though you may not get all sorts of notes from a publisher, they still may include something in their rejection letter. Read it carefully. Do not contact them to ask what was wrong with your play. Another ‘NO’. It is NOT however, time to throw your play into the round recycler or stuff it through the shredder! Do not react emotionally. I know that one of your children has just been pronounced not bright enough to be promoted, but the time has come for further education!
Get a table reading together, with colleagues, if you can — and with friends, if you must. Rework the play after the first read, then take suggestions from the readers (and any listeners you invited), especially if you had some from the Publisher, and make improvements. Then do another table read. Query the cast to see if you have met the hurdles set for you by those rejection notes.
Get another production — even if it is by a small company, or is only a staged reading — all productions are valuable. It doesn’t matter if the producer is amateur or professional or educational — it is a production. All playwrights should be interested in is getting the play up and on its feet. You can’t do that without involving actors and a director.
WRITING A DYNAMITE SYNOPSIS, TEASER, LOG-LINE.
Avoid self-praise. Let the reviews you send do that for you. Tell about the story, who the characters are, what their struggle is, why producers might be interested in this title. You might even tell them how it all works out. Create mystery and excitement without hyperbole. Give a sense of the style in which you write or the style of performance that you feel is best suited to your script. Give them help to see it on the stage of their imaginations. Get them interested in reading your script! Focus on what you think your script can do in their marketing programs. How does your title fill a niche in their market? What audience? Which producer? Does it fit with other pieces in their catalog with similar marketing goals and strategies?
Above all — keep promoting yourself! Getting your play into the hands of producers may help your chances at getting published. Find its audience! Find its market! Promote! Promote! Promote!
Don’t be mad at the Publishers, they don’t always get it right, but they do know their market. They read for that market. They are focused on ‘who would produce this play’ while they are reading it. That phrase plays over and over in their minds while the words slip by on the page.
So, Break A Leg!
© 2017 by C. Michael Perry ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
In a recent post on a Facebook Playwrights page the number of characters in a play or musical was discussed.
Now: Number of characters does not necessarily mean the number of actors needed to play them.
Double-casting, or multiple casting, is usually a directors choice, but sometimes a playwright may choose the device of one, or all, of his/her performers, playing multiple characters, including opposite gender casting. It is wonderfully theatrical!
My collaborator and I are working on a musical that is looking like 8 characters will be portrayed by 8 actors. Our previous musical ended up having 8 characters needing 8 actors to tell the story. Anyone see a pattern developing?
If you are expecting professional and regional theatres to produce your play, the cast numbers (not necessarily character numbers) must be lower (musicals can get away with a few more bodies onstage than plays can).
But if you are writing for the school or community market — and most plays end up there anyway through licensing — then you can be a bit more generous in involving characters to tell your story. Even if the roles could be doubled, some/most schools and community groups have the numbers of performers to fill the cast.
I am not saying that you should write for a market, but it does not hurt to keep a market in mind. After all, a play is not meant to be read, but performed. If your piece is too unwieldy because of an overly large cast, it might satisfy artistically, but may never be produced. Remember: Sophocles and Shakespeare wrote to be produced, not read later and appreciated throughout time. Write what your piece demands. Listen to the muse, even though sometimes you may have to put a muzzle on him or her.
Serve the show, first. Then look at the markets. See how many of them your show covers (as far as number of performers is concerned — you may be surprised), then get your play or musical produced.
© 2017 by C. Michael Perry ALL RIGHTS RESERVED