We often speak about writing as a solitary process, but in many ways writing is collaborative. Whether you’re a novelist or journalist, you will have to work with at least an editor and copyeditor, and in some instances, an agent. And when you’re writing for the screen or stage, the number of collaborators swells. Actress and writer Shaun Bennet Fauntleroy shared her insights on writing as part of a team.
In your experience, what are the main differences between writing for the page and writing for the stage?
A playwriting teacher once said to me, “Your play is full of characters who ‘tell’ each other things. Don’t tell me what they’re thinking, show me. Don’t tell me what they want, make them go after it. That is the art of dramatic writing.” I think that’s it in a nutshell, really. The reasons why a character may do something may be manifold, but if those reasons are not activated in action, your audience will be lost.
In a book, a man could sit on a couch for 10 pages contemplating the rain, experiencing hunger, remembering his first love, and then finally, put together a well drawn out plan to rob a bank to win her love back…all without saying a word. We would get all of that by the author’s words. However, if we saw a play where a man just sat on a couch for 25 minutes thinking, and then said, “I think I’ll rob a bank,” before the curtain went down, there would be rioting in the theater lobby.
A play must be active, it must be visual, and the action must drive forward. A simple dramatization of the previous story would be for him to get up and look out of the window while a rain sound queue plays, then search through his kitchen cupboards until he finally finds enough ingredients to make himself a sandwich which he gobbles down…then he goes and visits his first love and try to regain her love only to find her in love with a richer, better man, etc, etc.
In most cases writing requires the writer only, but scriptwriting is much more collaborative. What are the benefits and challenges of writing with a group?
When a play goes into the workshop/rehearsal stage, the bulk of the writing is usually done. One of the benefits of this stage is getting perspectives on the work that are different than your own (especially helpful if you’re writing a character or two [that] is very different from you). There are some universal similarities, of course, but there are also some specifics about a character that cannot be gleaned from research alone. When you have an actor who has spent time with the character you’ve written and is trying to make sense of that character’s storyline in order to portray them, they’re going to have insight into that character’s psyche that is unique to their journey with the character.
The challenging part of this collaboration is that you must have a very clear vision of the story you’re trying to tell and what your unique voice is. Oftentimes, the feedback you will get may be tinged with the bias of personal taste, or there may be a misunderstanding if you haven’t clearly articulated what your goal for the work is. You have to be able to humbly take in what’s being said (hopefully without getting defensive) and use what’s helpful while you leave behind what isn’t. Knowing clearly what you’re going for can help you [achieve] this, and it will also greatly help with rewrites if they become necessary.
What should the writer be aware of when writing for a production that will be executed by other experts (Director, Production Designer, Costume Designer, etc)?
I’ve done a lot of producing and backstage work, so when I write I struggle to turn off my “producer brain”, which can actually be destructive in causing you to censor yourself when you’re trying to get your story out. However, when you’re finished and are going back over your script, I find it’s a good idea to make sure you don’t have any major logistical holes, i.e. a character has a line when they’re supposed to be out of the room, or a character has an impossibly quick change back to back. This is just your basic clean-up.
After all that, I then go over the script with a producer’s eye. If I have a scene where a character sets a baby grand piano on fire in the middle of the stage, I have to know that makes my play difficult (and expensive) to produce, which is not a favorite of producers and artistic directors. Also, if you have a scene where several characters get into a pillow fight and feathers are supposed to fly all over the stage, for the sake of your poor stage manager make it the final scene, or maybe try to find a less messy way to do it. Have you ever tried to sweep up feathers? The point is to be mindful of the other jobs it takes to put on your play.
If you want to be really fancy, try to get a behind the scenes job on another production so you can see first hand what it takes to put up a play. Take a directing or an acting class. Assistant stage manage a small show. All of this will also help you in articulating things to the director in the workshop/rehearsal process.
What’s your technique for giving feedback?
Liz Lerman has an excellent process for feedback that I try to follow. In her process’ guidelines she recommends starting the feedback with what was meaningful and evocative about the work, in other words, start with the positive feedback. Playwrights are people…they need to know you appreciate what they’ve labored to create. Even the most seasoned artist may feel a bit beaten up if they’re only hearing critical feedback and no one mentions what worked.
I also try to first understand what the playwright was aiming for before I state what did, or didn’t work. This requires asking questions, active listening, and more of a desire to help than a desire to be heard. Now, usually in a workshoping environment ideas and opinions tend to be expressed freely and quickly so this process isn’t always easy to stick to, but I find that things go much more smoothly when I do. It’s all about love, respect, and listening.
What’s your advice to a writer interested in breaking into playwriting?
I’m a firm believer in the value of community, and although the actual writing of the play is generally done in solitude, the living of it must be done communally. Get to know other playwrights. Get to know actors and directors. Join a playwriting group, not only for the networking potential, but also for the opportunity to gain insight from the struggles and victories of your peers as you get to know them. You’ll commiserate with others about how difficult filling up that first page can be, or you’ll hear that someone else was rejected 50 times before they heard a, “yes” and it may encourage you to keep on keepin’ on.
Try to find a way to observe a professional rehearsal process so that when it comes time to rehearse your play you’re prepared for collaboration and are aware of the rehearsal “etiquette”. If someone is producing your work, even if it’s just a reading, make sure people know about it. See and read as many plays as you can, new and old. Get business cards. Know what kind of people you want to work with and seek them out, and most importantly…If you firmly believe you are called to do this, don’t give up and really, truly give this your best effort. Knock ‘em dead.