Why writing plays is anything but lonely

Writing is, fundamentally, about sharing something with your reader; an opinion, an idea, an experience, a secret. It requires generosity; a desire to let others take pleasure in something you’ve kept secret until now. Something you nurtured, grew and developed until it was ready. 

Writers toil away at our craft perfecting a character, a story, an article or a page.  And then we give it to other people to enjoy. 

For many writers, that’s what gives them such a kick. But for others, it isn’t so much a question of sharing as proclaiming, broadcasting, and imposing their ideas. 

But your audience isn’t captive. They can close the book, discard the newspaper, leave the cinema. It’s a willing exchange. All works of art are open to interpretation, but written expression requires the most active participation. 

Put simply, people have to read your words to experience them.

That automatically creates a degree of separation for the writer and involves the recipient in the product. And that’s where it can become a truly incredible process.

In my experience, that’s what makes writers the most generous of creative folk. 

A painter creates their masterpiece, hangs it on the wall, and they’re done. A dancer’s medium is the control of their own bodies. A photographer captures their single moment of truth; however beautiful and artful, it remains unchanged and unchangeable. A sculptor has a high degree of control, every curve and line formed at their own fingertips.

The writer, however, needs your help to experience their word-craft. A novel or article still lives on the page, in a fixed form. But it has to be read; and in reading, it is changed. Ask two people to read the same page of text and it will never sound the same, or mean exactly the same. 

Plays take this to a completely different level. They are not meant to live on the page. They long to escape, and demand more than a reader to come alive. 

Because a play relies on the work of other artists to fully exist.

The stereotypical playwright is a lone intellectual in an ivory tower. But in my experience it’s anything but isolationist; it’s the ultimate collaborative experience.  A playwright’s work is a blueprint, a starting point for other creative processes.

Admittedly Shakespeare’s writing is sublime on the page, but even his work reaches new heights when actors perform the plays. They were meant to live on the stage, not the page.

Playwriting is much more like music in that sense. And for that reason, the playwright has to be the most generous of writers.

It takes an entire team of people to put a play in front of an audience. Actors to portray the characters. A director to conceive and oversee a production. A designer to create the visual environment, including a lighting and costume designer and a sound designer to create the sound environment (gone are the days of simply playing a bit of music in here and there).

For me, that’s always been the most thrilling aspect of it. 

Writing a play starts as the loneliest of pass times. Hours spent tapping away at a laptop by yourself, sometimes in the quiet, cold early hours of the morning. Imagining things that will one day come to life right in front of you. 

I revel in that solitude, knowing that a fantastic collaborative experience is on the horizon. The rest of the team are – pardon the pun – waiting in the wings. And those early days of bringing others into the project gradually, one by one – director, producer, cast, designers, stage manager, publicist – are like welcoming people to your birthday party. 

But it’s not just your party. A playwright must allow the team space to put their mark on it.

To step back and allow them to bring it to life. I feel enormous pleasure handing a script over to a bunch of other creative people to see what they do with it. As the writer, it’s often your approval they seek most and I love showing them how proud I am of their work. I try to show them trust and respect. They’re all making their own contribution to the project, not re-enacting something from my imagination by numbers.

It isn’t always easy. You have to be very self-aware and, above all, generous.

I learnt early on that the play will never look, sound and feel exactly how it did in your mind as you were writing it. Because that’s not possible. And that’s not the point, either.

A playwright achieves as much with the space they leave for others to create, as the words they lay down on the page.

A writing tutor once told me that writing a play is about knowing when to write, and when not to write. I understood that to mean; leave space for others to make choices. Don’t prescribe. Respect and appreciate. Let go. And above all, be grateful for what others bring to it. Write in the knowledge that what you’re providing is incomplete.

I’ve had some of the most incredible experiences as a playwright during the rehearsal process. In many ways, I enjoy it more than the final production. Watching skilled people get up on their feet and work through your words, bring a scene to life for the first time and see what it has to offer is mostly what drives me to write plays. It is, and always has to be, a collaborative effort.

For that reason, I try not to be around too much. Not all actors and creatives are used to having a writer in the rehearsal room. If you’ve worked on a lot of Shakespeare, a living writer sitting in the corner takes a bit of getting used to. Sometimes there’s an over-reliance on your presence to provide ‘the answers’ and, again, that’s where it’s a delicate balancing act. 

Actors will often ask, “What did you mean by this?” in response to a line or a stage direction that presents them with choices

It’s tempting to tell them what I want (or usually, what I think I want), but I’ve learned over the years it’s counterproductive. Often what they’re really seeking is permission to make their own choice.So that’s what I give them. And if it’s a good choice, I support them. I’m often pleasantly surprised by the choices they make. And sometimes shocked. But when you’re shocked in a good way, surprised by what your work has yielded, it’s a real buzz.

You won’t always agree with the choices made for your production.

It’s gone wrong for me more than once, and I’ve ended up pretty disappointed with the outcome. But on the whole, I’ve been lucky and proud of the final production. The key to that success was working with people I trusted and stepping back to allow them room. 

But even when the choices haven’t been to my taste, I’ve learned to keep an open mind and understand where the idea came from. Not everyone sees the play as you do, and that’s a good thing. 

A strong piece of writing should offer many possibilities and be open to interpretation; even if you’re uncomfortable with a particular angle. 

And sometimes you just have to admit there’s a fault in the writing itself; you were too clear or, perhaps, too unclear. Or it wasn’t ready to be performed. Because you’re reliant on the creativity of others for your play to come to life you have to learn to navigate and appreciate the creative choices of others.

The flip side to the generosity of the playwright, and your relationship with other creatives, is responsibility. Ultimately, your name goes first on the poster. You have first credit, so you have first responsibility. 

And that’s also where the generosity comes in; taking ultimate responsibility for the show your audience has paid to see. 

And so, the journey comes full circle back to you.

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