Congratulations, it’s a play! To me, there’s nothing more exciting than bringing a brand-new play into the world. I spent much of my grad school career directing new works, and one of the most important lessons I learned was how best to work with a playwright. The director-playwright relationship can make or break a new play development process. At its best, it’s a harmonious partnership that ends with the best possible iteration of a new script. At its worst it’s…well, something else.
Directing a new play requires some extra finesse and sensitivity when it comes to the collaborative process. After all, the playwright is handing over their baby and trusting you with it. Remember: your job as a director is to show the playwright their play. That’s a big responsibility! No fear though; here’s a quick crash course on how to set yourself up for a harmonious and productive creative process.
Ask the Right Questions
I discovered early on that a proactive approach that aims to minimize crossed boundaries and hurt feelings before they happen goes a long way. I always like to sit down with the playwright before rehearsals for a general conversation about their play and their role in the production. I always ask the same questions when it comes to process:
- How do you envision your role in the process?
- How often do you expect to attend rehearsals and production meetings?
- What are your expectations when you do attend rehearsals/production meetings?
- How do you handle re-writes?
Keep Everyone Dialed In
In my experience, the water can get muddied when it comes to how much a playwright is expected to speak at production meetings or in the rehearsal room. Not all production meeting leaders actively call on the playwright to speak or present the way designers are accustomed to. I learned this the hard way when I worked with a rather shy new works playwright who felt like he was shut out of the collaborative process because he didn’t get a chance to speak at production meetings. As it turns out, he was waiting for “permission” to speak because he wasn’t as comfortable contributing to the conversation otherwise. From then on, I not only made it clear that he should feel free to speak up, I made sure to check in with him during conversations in production meetings or rehearsals. A simple “is that what you pictured for this moment?” goes a long way in making sure the playwright is included in the creative process.
The Room Where It Happens…Or Not
Of course, if you ask the playwright “what do you think?” for every question that comes up, you’ll surrender your authority (and probably annoy the playwright). The key is to figure out how to effectively modulate looping in the playwright on creative decisions. All conversations with the playwright fall into two categories: those that happen in the room, and those that happen outside the room (the “room” being the rehearsal or production meeting room).
This is also an area where those pre-rehearsal conversations come in handy. If I know that the playwright has a strong opinion on what color the wall should be for the bedroom set, I’ll make sure that he/she is looped in on that conversation when it comes up. In rehearsals, the distinction between “in the room” and “outside the room” conversations can get a little more nuanced. I will generally defer to a playwright in the room when it comes to textual questions. But if an actor asks a performance question, I’ll loop the playwright in after rehearsal. Your knowledge of the playwright and your own intuition will help guide you.
It’s Never Personal
Using diplomatic language and asking questions are the best ways to avoid making things personal. Consider the difference between “this scene just isn’t working” and “I’m having a hard time helping the actor justify this moment, can you help me?”. Specific questions that avoid castigating or critiquing keep the creative wheels in motion.
Another helpful way to avoid personalizing is to frame every conversation around the needs of the play. This should be true of every creative process, but it can be especially critical when directing new works. This also helps prioritize and steer decision-making. You as the director may really want a Phantom of the Opera-like mise-en-scene, but is that what the play is asking for?
Dealing with Conflict
Collaborative conflict is almost always bound to come up in some form. By “conflict”, I don’t mean knock-down-drag-out fights worthy of a David Mamet play, but any clash of desire or interest between director and playwright. It can feel like a creative tug of war, and sometimes that’s okay. But there are some tricks that can help prevent conflict from escalating.
One of the best collaborative tools is to identify a common criterion for success. Obviously you and the playwright want the play to be the best it can be, but identifying specific things like “the last scene in act one should leave the audience shaken” or “the fight scenes should feel primal” will help navigate conflicts when they do come up. I once had a playwright come up to me obviously shaken after watching a fight scene we had just staged. She felt that there was a moment in the fight that went totally against what she intended, and it was clear that she felt very deeply about this. I thought that the moment was quite effective in accomplishing how I interpreted the scene. So we talked it through. Our agreed-on criterion for success was that the fight scene should feel absurd and have a comic element to it. Using that groundwork, we found a compromise that we were both fine with and that achieved the criterion. It sounds a bit formulaic, but it works!
The new works process is exciting. It’s messy. It’s daunting. It’s all the things that a creative process should be. Directing a new work doesn’t have to be a disharmonious nightmare. Like most directors, I’m still learning ways to navigate the process and be an effective collaborator and facilitator, which is why I love directing new works: it’s ground zero for some intense collaboration.