Playwright Chronicles: From Page to Stage

In this final installment of our blog series, Playwright Chronicles, we discussed the ultimate big step for the emerging playwright: how do you transition your plays from the page to the stage? We were interested to find out how involved the playwrights were in this process, from finding and/or working with a theater company, to rehearsal participation and artistic development. How easy is it to let go of your own work, once it is taken into the hands of another?

To find out, we sat down to chat with Mark Stein, Edward Chapman, Juan Ramirez Jr., Gloria Schramm, and Con Chapman.

First up, we asked the playwrights how they found the process of getting their work produced. Was this is a lengthy progress of knock-backs, or do they work in collaboration with a resident theater company?

Playwright Edward Chapman

For British playwright Edward Chapman, having that initial link with a theater company is important before he becomes fully immersed in writing a new work. He has been fortunate to work with several receptive companies, who are excited to produce new work.

 

Gloria Schramm agrees that luck, connections, and good fortune are important when producing new plays:

Fortunately, I found an off-Broadway black theatre, Manhattan Repertory Theatre, in midtown Manhattan that, for a modest fee renting the place, doesn’t cost me the shirt off my back. The owner is very helpful and does the tech and lighting at no extra cost. I have produced all three one-act plays thus far, Letting Go, A High School Reunion, and Trilogy at Manhattan Repertory Theatre.

Con Chapman also enjoys working with local theater companies that are receptive to producing new work, but he has found that this approach comes with its own hurdles:

Playwright, Con Chapman

I have worked with a few local companies on multiple occasions, and would like to do more of that, but the less-established companies that will perform my pieces are also more likely to fold for lack of funding, permanent space, principals move on to other cities, etc.

Instead, like the others, he agrees that the process of getting a play produced is “very hard”, and he tends to enter play competitions to get his work known.

For Juan Ramirez Jr., the process of getting his work produced became intrinsically linked to his own artistic development:

For a long time, I self-produced. I was not going to submit a piece and wait until someone who doesn’t know me decide on whether or not the work was any good to be produced. It’s a big reason why I got into directing. I couldn’t wait on others. I found that the most important things I’ve learned as an artist was by being a producer and developing collaboration contacts on my own. When you first have to sell yourself, it’s daunting. Who am I? What do I have to offer? What am I promising? All you can do is invite others to an experience. With theatre companies, it all depends on the play. Some plays need a home that allows for experimentation or development. Others may be ready to bring the work into a workshop setting and guide it to the stage. It could be a tricky thing. I do what’s best for the play.

So, once you have found a home for your new work, what is the next step? When, and how, do you let go of the reigns and hand over your words to another? In the second section of our discussion with the playwrights, we asked them how involved they become in staged productions of their own shows.

For both Edward Chapman and Mark Stein, they divide their involvement into two stages: the preliminary read-through/staged reading of the play, and then the rehearsal process and premier. During the read-through stage, both playwrights like to be present and offer any constructive input they can.

I like to see the first reading, the very early stage, and make some suggestions then. After this I am happy to let the actors and director surprise me with what they come up with. [Edward Chapman]

Playwright, Mark Stein

I always seek to have a new play premiere at a theater that will first do a staged reading well before its contemplated production, directed by the person who will ultimately direct the play.  During this phase I am very involved. I urge the actors to share any thoughts with me, and tell them I will be sharing thoughts with them that I never would do if this were the rehearsals for production.  And let them know those thoughts are, first and foremost, about the script. I will, for instance, tell the actors and director moments in the script where I feel I’m forcing it or faking it and invite them to help me out if they can.  When they ask or comment about a moment, I will tell them my goal at that moment in the play and urge them to suggest alternatives. (I should note this openness works best with experienced actors.) My goal, I tell them, is to learn all I can so that, the script I deliver for rehearsals will not (please, God) require the actors to be absorbing last minute rewrites while working to get off-book, learn their blocking, and deal with costumes and props. [Mark Stein]

However, once rehearsals begin and the show heads towards its premier, both Edward and Mark agree that they take a big step back from the production process.

Come rehearsals, my involvement radically changes.  By now, I feel confident that the director and I share a vision and I can let him or her hold the baby.  (If I don’t have that confidence–which has only happened once–there will not be that director–or even, perhaps, that premiere. Too big a risk.)  I’ll come to the initial days of rehearsal, answer questions and let the cast know how confident I am in them and in the director. And then go home.

I have found that my not being there…

  • eliminates the stress, and potential difficulties, of an actor hearing a note from the director and then glancing at me.

  • eliminates the possible stress when an actor comes up to me during a break–usually just to chat–but the director, even if only momentarily, wonders what we’re talking about, after which time has to be taken privately with the director to make sure all’s okay on that.

  • with time increasingly of the essence as opening night approaches, my absence eliminates the time (and potential stress and awkwardness) of the director, after giving notes, feeling the need to take time by turning to me and ask if I have anything to add.

  • gives the director a potentially useful tool. If they’re getting hung up on something during rehearsal, the director can keep things going by saying she or he will give me a call about it. And maybe indeed they give me a call or maybe not, depending on what the director thinks is the best way to deal with it.  [Mark Stein]

All of the playwrights agreed that, fundamentally, the role they play in a production is largely led by the director and his/her method of rehearsal.

If I’m not directing, producing, acting, etc, then I play my role as playwright. I have worked with directors who want me at the rehearsals often and with others who rather keep me away so they can freely experiment. [Juan Ramirez Jr.,]

I have been both a director, and a consulting/observing playwright when someone else directed.  Some directors want very little involvement by the playwright–e.g., they don’t want you to make direct comments to actors at rehearsals.  I respect that, and can go either way. [Con Chapman]

Both Juan Ramirez Jr., and Gloria Schramm function frequently as both director and playwright, which offers a further dimension to the intense, collaborative process of putting on a show. Juan notes that he is known as “the actor’s writer”:

Playwright, Juan Ramirez Jr.

If I’m in a rehearsal and I have taken in the details of an actor’s performance, I may change a line to fit more of the version of the character they created. I once wrote a short one-act where the character was under pressure and spoke so much because they were nervous and I liked how the actor delivered the lines. I produced the play again with another actor and they went through the lines in rapid speed, which gave a greater tension. For that production, I cut the lines shorter as pace was of more importance. I have production versions of scripts and my own original draft versions. They are not much different.

Gloria agrees with the importance of the actor’s interpretation of the words on the page, and she promotes the importance of embracing the whole artistic collaboration.

Playwright, Gloria Schramm

As producer and director, all details are my responsibility. I appreciate seasoned actors who provide valuable feedback as to my directing style and important changes in dialog that do not change the meaning in any way. Plays are a creatively collaborative effort, one which I welcome. Some actors like direction, others like to go with the flow and doing what comes naturally, according to the story line. One thing I learned is that some actors run with the ball, regarding stage activity during the scenes. The playwright’s directions on paper for any given scene are sometimes added to or replace altogether. Each play is different and provides different lessons because of the nature of the play, scenes, props – and different actors. I love seeing my ideas that were originally in my head, played out on a stage and come alive!

And that’s all for now! Thanks once again to all of our fantastic playwrights over the series for their fun and inspiring discussions on the journey from an initial creative concept to seeing their work come to life on stage. Check out their works on our site and let us know your thoughts on our discussions in the series.

 

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Alexandra Appleton

Alex is a freelance writer and editor with a PhD in theatre history. She is also a performer and director, previously running a successful theatre company and youth theatre company in the north of England. Alex is from the UK and lives just outside London with her young family. She is enjoying introducing them to the theatre!


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