PLAYWRITING or NOVEL WRITING – what strikes more fear in the writer’s heart?

By Jule Selbo

This last month I’ve been involved in Acorn Productions’ Maine Playwrights Festival (MPF). My title is Playwright in Residence – and comes with a few specific tasks.

  1. Attend initial ‘cold’ (meaning no rehearsal) readings of the 10 chosen one-act plays (written by Maine authors (10 out of nearly 100 submissions. FYI, I do not have a hand in choosing them).
  2. Confer with each playwright. This means putting on a dramaturgy hat, as well as a writing coach hat. Discuss the play, theme, characters and intent. Ask any questions needed on location, time period, historical context. Also, take a look at the play’s structure – and determine if it is a sketch or a full-play (the latter meaning – does it have a beginning, middle and end and an authorial point-of-view).
  3. Give two master classes for the 10 playwrights that are focused on structure, character building and authorial point-of-view.
  4. If the playwright opts to undertake a rewrite or polish (always up to the writer) – be a helpful eye/ear/responder.
  5. Allow MPF to do a rehearsed reading of one of my original plays.*

Five of the plays were chosen as official finalists and these pieces are assigned a director. There are auditions for actors to play the roles. A stage manager is set, simple sets and costumes are arranged for, and rehearsal schedules are planned. There’s about a month to get the productions ready (actors learn lines, blocking, and character needs). The short plays are performed at Portland Stage’s Studio Theatre (the upstairs space). The performances run over a two-week period, this gives the playwright (and actors) time to settle in, see audience reactions. The playwright then has a better sense of whether the play is “finished” or if more tweaks could be done before it is ready to be sent to a wide swath of theaters across the country that might give it another production. (FYI, performances of this year’s MPF start April 7, 2023 and run through April 16, 2023.)

The other five plays were deemed semi-finalists. They were assigned a director and cast and had one or two rehearsals and received a “rehearsed reading” at Portland Stage’s Studio Theatre. This means the actors knew the script pretty well, stand behind music stands, scripts in front of them, and they bring the play’s words and actions to life – but not in full production mode. These were performed last week and were extremely successful. Hanging with the playwrights after the performance was a joy – ‘cause they were on the “high” of having work seen by an audience.

Daniel Burson heads up this Maine Playwrights Festival endeavor and he’s definitely the Maine playwright’s friend. The amount of time and effort, patience and goodwill needed to get this project from inception to completion is massive.  Playwrights need their work to become visible on stage – this is the form plays are meant to inhabit. Burson is giving playwrights this opportunity.

Okay, that’s the background.  What I am ruminating on now is the level of polish opportunities  – the playwrights’ abilities to step back from their work and look at it objectively.

QUESTION: I found myself wondering if the attachment of the playwright to his/her/their work is even greater than that of a novelist’s attachment to the specific sentences, characters, paragraphs and pace of a piece of writing.  Any opinion?

Playwrights sweat over specific dialogue and its rhythm and tone and how they want (expect) an actor to perform the crafted lines. I count myself as a playwright because that’s how I started my writing career and I try to write at least one short one-act play every year and work on a full-lengths play (the full-length might not get “finished” in one year). Playwrights, for the most part, envision every nuance – every action and dialogue snip – and strive to make the story clear without the help of the internal voices of a character and, of course, prose exposition. For the most part, they can’t write what people are thinking or feeling – everything needs to be shown.

Yes – in prose the phrase ‘show, don’t tell’ is popular, but in playwriting, the demands are even higher.

Some playwrights (mostly young-at-the-craft ones), get set in what’s already on the page and have trouble seeing where holes can be filled in, where motivations aren’t clear, where a character’s personality and desires are not clear. Part of that might come, in this particular festival, because the length of a “magic” the perfect ten-minute one-act play.  Ten pages. There are theaters who specialize in ten-minute plays. So, a young-at-the-craft playwright becomes paranoid about adding needed material – and moving their piece into the less popular fifteen-minute play festival or a twenty-minute play festival.

Maybe, because I worked in television for so many years and had to incorporate notes from producers and executives and still bring a script in at a certain length to fit the broadcast demands, I can readily see “easy” possibilities for cutting, adding and re-shaping while keeping the intent and story intact.

And it doesn’t scare me because I have seen scripts get better (of course some got worse). But I could see the fear on some of the MPF playwrights’ faces.  I reminded them that according to the Dramatist Guild of America, no one – absolutely no one – can change a period or comma or word of a play without the playwrights’ permission. That plays are sacrosanct – and for the most part – do not belong to “everyone’s fingers in the pie” writing method.**.

Most playwrights are not writing on commission. They write and HOPE for a production somewhere in the future – most productions make little or no money. Playwrights write because their heart and souls are making them, they want to SAY something, they want to CONNECT –  and the challenge is trying how to get a story/what they want to say in a theatrical form.

Arthur Miller was not paid to write the Crucible. Tennessee Williams was not paid to write Streetcar Named Desire. Both wrote to explore what was on their minds, to bring their thoughts and feelings into a theatrical form. Crucible was Miller’s way of commenting on the 1950s McCarthy hearings.

Streetcar was Williams’ way of looking at relationships – romantic, familial, lustful – and an exploration of a delicate, weak, desperate woman living with great guilt because when her young husband revealed his homosexuality to her, she told him he disgusted her, and he killed himself.  His comment on the need for acceptance and kindness.

QUESTIONS:  Is playwriting one of the most “emotionally naked” literary forms.  Showcasing work before a live audience, with no buffer – can it be the most scary way of presenting written work?  Does novel writing give us more distance and safety from the judgment of the audience? Because the reader is removed from us…?

Since playwrights “hear” a piece of dialogue in their heads as they write and intimately understands the subtext and intent of the characters’ actions – when it is not presented on stage as they envisioned it – the experience can be painful. One of the MPF playwrights was in tears the other day. The actor cast in one of the roles is the exact opposite of what the writer imagined, and (to the writer) did not “get” what the play was about and refused to engage in the dramatic conflict on a deep level.  Being at the mercy of an actor can be hard. An excellent actor can bring magic to a script and it can be great – but sometimes, when the performance fails to meet the expectations embedded in the playwright’s head – it can be heartbreaking.  Does this reliance on someone else to present the work make playwriting a tougher form for the author?

QUESTION:  Have you heard of any novelist who deals directly with the fear that the READER is not getting all the complexities?  Do we think that through the editorial process all the questions and clarity issues are fixed?

Oh. And.

*If you’re not doing anything Tuesday April 11, and you want to see a rehearsed reading of my fun farce/comedy SOULS OF ICE –  you are certainly invited. Upstairs, Portland Stage 7 pm.

**On the flip side, if the stakes are high and a Broadway or Off-Broaday producer is insisting on rewrites, and if it means that the producer will take away funding – a playwright can have an arm twisted.  A friend of mine who was one of the writers on the Disney movie Lion King was asked to also be a part of the Broadway production writing team.  She had to take notes from everyone (she’s facile at rewrites and very good at never looking like she wants to kill a note-giver). But she was a “for hire” writer and, for the most part, playwrights don’t write “for hire”.

About jselbo

Jule Selbo's latest book, 10 DAYS, A Dee Rommel Mystery, the first in a mystery/crime series, received a starred review on Kirkus and just landed on Kirkus Top Five List of Crime/Mystery books from independent publishers. It's also a finalist in the best of Foreword Review and Maine Literary Award. She absconded from Hollywood (and her work there as a produced screenwriter)to Portland Maine to write novels. Other books include Find Me in Florence, Dreams of Discovery -The John Cabot Story and Breaking Barriers - Based on the Life of Laura Bassi. She's just completed the next book in the Dee Rommel series: 9 DAYS, A Dee Rommel Mystery; release date was September 2022. She's currently working on 8 DAYS...
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to PLAYWRITING or NOVEL WRITING – what strikes more fear in the writer’s heart?

  1. John Clark says:

    Fun, challenging and great food for thought here.

  2. Wow! You aren’t busy or anything, are you? Lots of food for thought here. I tried screenwriting and found it a very hard transition. But playwriting? Not since high school. I am sure that authors agonize often about how their books are translated into movies. Years ago, I was talking with the late, great Tony Hillerman about that and he said once you sell the movie rights you just have to walk away as it becomes someone else’s vision. I’m still waiting for the need to walk away…


Leave a Reply