So You Want To Make A Play. It’s Tough…

The following is an excerpt from a forthcoming book titled Doom Eager: Notes on Making Plays, which the author has undertaken at the behest of former students and which he describes as “part manual, part manifesto—a handbook for theatremakers, centered on narrative motion, story-making, revision, and collaboration.” Some of Dietz’s previous pieces about playwriting for American Theatre can be found here.

I write to you from Year 43 of my playwriting apprenticeship. I well remember the early days of my career, when I knew absolutely everything. However, the result of any worthy quest—over time—is humility. To paraphrase something Anne Lamott quotes in another context: “I came in as an expert, but my colleagues were able to lift me up to the level of beginner.”

In that beginner’s spirit—and with your forbearance—I am compelled to acknowledge a few hard and beautiful truths about this glorious and maddening practice of playwriting. I hope something here will serve to inform, enlighten, provoke or disrupt you.

Let us be beginners together.

There is nothing standing between you and the language.

There are, frankly, any number of things standing between you and a production of your play, between you and an established position in the profession, between you and recognition for your work that is commensurate with your devotion to it. There may, in fact, be no shortage of impediments to generating, developing, marketing, and producing your play.

However: There is nothing whatsoever standing between you and the fundamental tools of your trade. You have 26 letters and thousands of days. Is this a gift or a curse? Both, I would think. Readiness in our tools is a signal for us to commence with our work. In the evening after that tough rehearsal, the language is there for you. In the morning after that scathing review, the language is there for you. During the weeks-months-years of silence from the theatres holding your submitted scripts, the language is there for you. Language is the most devoted, dependable, consistent collaborator you will ever have. It doesn’t tire. It doesn’t show up late. It doesn’t get a better offer. It waits. Language wants to be your superpower. And, in this multidisciplinary art form, it is the one thing that is fully indivisible from you.

Activate it. Make a start. Begin anywhere (as John Cage reminded us). Worry about the set design or the cast size later. Invent a “theme” some other day. Dress up your submission letter tomorrow. Try not to conflate the long road to your premiere production with the distance between you your most essential tools: the words you get to choose, sequence, and enshrine on a page. Your language is nearby, ready and waiting. Put it to work.

Your play will never quit on you.

Whatever our frustrations with sentences that did not sing, scenes that never caught fire, storylines that meandered into mediocrity…our play is constitutionally hopeful. The fact is, we quit on our work much more readily than our work quits on us. We walk away, we claim defeat, we belittle our inadequate attempts—and in many cases, we blame our own play for this turn of events! As though our play teased, tricked, or betrayed us. It didn’t. Our play has no nefarious intentions. It is simply relentlessly present.

stevedietz faculty
Steven Dietz.

By all means, abandon your play any time you wish (that is your right and privilege)—but know that it was you who walked away. There was not (as I’ve heard said) something “innately flawed” in what you conceived or created; something in the play that was simply “unworkable.” More likely: There was something innately flawed in how you worked on that play. Bear with me, please, because this distinction is crucial. If I am blaming the play, the story, the events I chose to dramatize, for the “failure” of the work—I am working in an excuse economy. I am not growing my practice. I am not deepening, broadening, complicating my craft to suit the powers of my own invention. I am, instead, assuming I possess all the skill I could possibly need…I just need to “find the right project.” I wish to strongly caution against this kind of thinking.

The projects that we abandon are not our failures.

They are our teachers.

Take the time (and it may take a long time) to inventory and interrogate your work on that problematic play, even if you are not going back to it. Your abandoned play has lessons for you. It did not quit on you. It still believes in you. Use these lessons to make you ready for the next play.

The writer you envy has outworked you.

Contrary to popular belief, writers are not ruined by rejection. Nor are they ruined by failure, or negative reviews. Writers are ruined by envy. There is nothing more dangerously insidious than the feeling that some other writer has been given something that should have been yours.

Is this feeling inevitable? Or is there some action you can take? Many would advise that you “try not to think about it” or “not let it become an obsession.” I propose a counter measure:

I encourage you to think long and hard about the plays and playwrights you envy. This may include your observation that these playwrights were the recipient of some kind of “favoritism” or were granted some kind of “special access” toward their success. (And maybe they were.) Perhaps you believe these playwrights have “networked” themselves into a place of distinction; were “handed” a “lucky break” because they “knew someone” or “had a history” with a theatre that you did not. (And maybe they did.) Almost certainly, you believe their play was in no way as “worthy” or “timely” or “premiere-ready” as your play. (And maybe it wasn’t.) Yep. There’s no shortage of envy to go around.

Know this: Someone else’s production, someone else’s award or success, was not taken from you. Though it can certainly feel like that (envy is nothing if not deliriously easy), I wish to assure you that was not the case.

The success of the writer next to you is not your failure.

The success of the writer next to you is not a conspiracy.

The success of the writer next to you is called the business.

The reason a theatre does a play—and more to the point, does a play that you did not write—is fully outside your locus of control. It would serve you to get over it. You know that, of course—and on my good days I know that as well—but frankly, on some level, it’s human nature to tell yourself that this turn of events is just blatantly wrong and unfair. I suggest another route.

Whatever you think of “the play that was chosen instead of yours,” I suggest you work from the presumption that that play, in some way, by some standard or metric, was superior to yours. This may or may not be objectively true (which in our current experiment does not matter), but I suggest that you simply decide to believe that this year, in this production cycle, on this upcoming season, the other writer was not “more gifted” or “lucky” or “connected.”

The other writer simply outworked you.

Why would I ask you to think this? First of all: It might be true. But more to the point: Rather than having an axe to grind, you will now have an action to take. In this model—and because writers are often foundationally and productively competitive—you may now choose to work not just harder, but smarter. To make your drafts bolder, your revisions more actionable. To invite scrutiny in a more dedicated way. You cannot change the new-play market or the fundamental tastes of its gatekeepers, but man oh man, you can absolutely make your sentences better. You can make your scenes more potent. You can make the status shifts between your characters more dynamic. You can make your stories more complex, propulsive, and satisfying.

Still, I hear you saying: “Dietz, really, point taken—but I was so much more deserving than they were! My play is so much better!” And maybe you were, and maybe it is—but what has your outrage (and extremely subjective judgement of your own artistry) gained you? Has it fueled your craft, deepened your practice, strengthened your resolve? If it hasn’t done those things, show it the door. You don’t want that stuff in your room.

Contrary to appearances (and every article you’ve ever read): Writer’s careers do not ascend; they deepen. Over time, your artistry is not a tower to be climbed; it is a well to be filled. It is not stationary; it is transient, quicksilver, alive. And your artistry will only deepen at the pace at which you generously attend to it.

Nothing—not failure, not rejection, not critique—is more fatal to your daily practice than envy.

You are alone.

Unique among most all the writing professions, working in the theatre affords you a community of artistic comrades. If you’re fortunate, you will find yourself surrounded by a wide array of gifted stage artisans who will prove crucial to the development and presentation of your play: actors, directors, designers, composers, dramaturgs, producers, and the wider community of playwrights. Their skill, insight, critique, and recommendations will challenge and complicate your own artistry; they will make an indelible mark on your new play. Bless them, one and all. This collaborative ethos (hard won, difficult to quantify) is most certainly the crown jewel of our art form.

writing with coffee
(Photo by Sam Lion)

And yet. For all the support of your comrades, when something is not working in your play (and there will always be something not working in your play): You are alone. After your rehearsal, after a few beers with your collaborators (and for goodness’s sake, buy them a round if you’re able), after the group of you have debated the script’s current flaws, batted around some ideas, considered a few possible changes, here is what will happen: These fine people will stand up, say goodnight, and tell you they “hope the writing goes well.” And they will leave. You will go back to your hotel, or house, or apartment.

And you will be alone. No matter how much you share-conceive-build your work with others, in the end you are alone with your play.

Build your practice for this moment.

It is seductive to build our practice for the easy days. Ah, those glorious hours when the language is coming in a rush, the surprises are arriving with regularity, the story is inexplicably snapping into shape; those days when playwriting seems like the grandest and most rewarding thing one could do with one’s life. Enjoy those days if/when you have them, however fleeting they may be! I wish you many of them. (As I told students: If you wake up, look in the mirror, and discover you are Chekhov, you do not need to come to class.) In my experience, however, those days are outliers. Those halcyon days are the ones aspiring playwrights expect to have all the time, only to (sadly, misguidedly) consider themselves a failure when the magic does not arrive like clockwork. In moments of great artistic fecundity I don’t need any of my rigor, discipline, persistence, inventive moxie, or creative boldness. Oh, it is sweet when the river runs deep.

Build your practice for the other days. For the average day (as Emily would advise us in Our Town). Build your writing practice for a grey Tuesday in February when you have a couple hours, a mug of coffee, a pencil, and a notebook. Build your practice for the hard days—not only because most days may be hard, but because you are asking your practice to feed and guide you over the long haul. Many people have a notion that they might write a play someday, some weekend, some summer when they have oodles of time. You are not those people. Those people don’t need a deep, consistent, evolving practice. You, on the other hand, have made the conscious decision to make the creation of plays your life’s work. Devote yourself to building a writing practice in the same way you would build a lifelong friendship: with candor, warmth, trust, responsibility, and grace. Show up for each other. That is what will sustain you over time.

One final astonishment. Playwriting is part solitary act, part collaborative creation. This duality of writing for the theatre is substantial and can be bracing. It requires vast, concurrent skills of both public communication and private introspection. Despite this (perhaps because of this?), I have discovered an unexpected gift that sometimes arrives in those “you are alone” moments.

If I can listen, if I can remain present and conscious in my practice, the foundational wisdom of my collaborators arrives at my desk to support me. Even in absentia, the creative ethos of my comrades brings a dynamism to my room to guide, challenge, question, and embolden me. Though I love few things more than a full, vibrant, active rehearsal room, I also now believe we can (and perhaps must) learn to inculcate the presence and inspiration of our colleagues as we work in the solitary confines of our studio: an actor’s lucid questions, a director’s wise mantra, a designer’s bold imaginings, a student’s spot-on critique. 

Our days together build the music for when we are apart. With proper attention, and a modicum of grace, the solo room in which we plie our trade can become home to a rich and curated solitude.

Lean in.

Work bold.

Keep faith.

And finish strong.

Steven Dietz (he/him) recently premiered new stage adaptations of Patrick Hamilton’s Gaslight and Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Links. His play Shooting Star has been adapted into the new Meg Ryan movie What Happens Later.

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