THE BIG “WHAT NOW?” – PART ONE
Gary Garrison: We thought because this is The Reality Check Issue, we should speak to a group of writers that are all in various stages of studying dramatic writing, either formally or informally. There must be common questions, worries, doubts, fears and advice that you’re seeking. I’ve taught playwriting at NYU for 30 years in the Tisch School, and before that at the University of Michigan for five years. So I may not have all the answers, but I may have something to offer the discussion that might help you through to the next stage of your writing. I’d like to start by you introducing yourselves and where you’ve studied or are studying dramatic writing.
Garrett Kim: I’m studying right now at Fordham University in their BA program. I’ve also done a lot of work with First Stage Children’s Theater in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
Kyle Smith: I graduated with a BFA from Adelphi University in Theater with a minor in Writing. I am now at NYU where I am in my first year of getting an MFA for Dramatic Writing.
Victoria Z. Daly: I spent many years studying playwriting at HB Studio in New York. I’ve done workshops at the Actor’s Studio and the Kennedy Center Summer Playwriting Intensive. In my own writer’s group in New York City, the 9th Floor, we’ve arranged a lot of ongoing education where we bring in wonderful playwrights to work with us. I have a degree in physical theater from L’Ecole Jacques Lecoq in Paris, and now I’m in my second year of my MFA at NYU/Tisch.
Shamar White: I studied theater in undergrad. I was a Theater Performance major. After graduation I was kind of lost. I knew I wanted to write but didn’t have the confidence. Then 9/11 happened, and I joined the Army. I guess the Army was my theater for a while. Fast forward ten years, now I’m in grad school at NYU/Tisch studying Playwriting, Screenwriting and Television writing.
Jane Willis: I graduated from NYU/Tisch many years ago with a BFA—actually, concentration on Film, but moved into playwriting after that, then took a hiatus from playwriting, graduated from Bank Street College of Education to go back and work with kids and writing creatively. And now recently, I’ve been taking playwriting classes at The Barrow Group.
Charles Gershman: I have taken classes at the Einhorn School for the Performing Arts (ESPA) at Primary Stages. It’s a terrific place and there’s all sorts of dramatic writing forms that are taught by great people. I also I did a Master’s, an MA in Theatre at Hunter College and was able to do a year of the MFA classes with Tina Howe and Mark Bly there. And more recently I’ve studied with Rogelio Martinez in private workshops, and Beth Lincks a.k.a. Arlene Hutton at The Barrow Group.
Elijah Shaheen: I am currently getting a BA in the Screenwriting/Playwriting program at SUNY Purchase College, and about five years ago I had one of my plays professionally produced in Ossining, NY.
Gary Garrison: You all come from these really interesting, diverse backgrounds, both as people, but then also as students of writing. I’m curious to know, what is your nagging worry as a student of writing—whether that’s currently something your worried about right now, or something you went into your education with and that you’ve carried all the way through and remains unanswered or unaddressed.
Jane Willis: My question is: when is my play ready to bring into class to actually have people read it and to be ready for feedback? I always have to check where my insecurity level is with that. And now that I’m kind of back into being able to write full-time, I find that I have to sit with a piece. It’s just part of my process. I have to kind of sweat it out through a first draft that I’m feeling okay about it—and it’s not even a first draft. Sometimes it’s a third draft, before I’m okay about bringing it in and being able to—because our work is so vulnerable at that point—being ready to field comments. And I have to say, Beth Lincks’ class at Barrow Group is very supportive during the process; maybe you’ve had the same experiences.
That’s one of my many burning questions today. How do we know when we can stop sitting by ourselves and bring it in and be open to feedback, which is how our work grows, right?
Gary Garrison: Though that is a really interesting question, what’s even more interesting to me is what’s behind your question—which leads me to think: what do you expect out of a reading? What is your hope? Your great fear? Are you afraid that it’s going to fall flat, that it’s not the play you thought it was going to be? Or that it’s not written well? Or is your great fear that other people will think it’s not written well?
In order to answer these kinds of questions, I think you have to get really clear with, “What do I want out of any reading, at any stage in the process?” Of course, our very first reading is always the most tender and demands that you ask of yourself clearly —what do I need to know from this reading—because that points you in all the directions ahead of you. I’ve said this before: go into any reading with three things that you really want to know about what you’re hearing, and make sure when you get feedback, those three things are addressed.
Garrett Kim: Yeah, whenever I feel like I’m not ready to bring something in or I feel self-conscious about what I’ve written, I often find that I’m not being as generous with myself as I would be in a writer’s workshop. I think a lot of times with my own work, I’m like, “Oh, man—no, this isn’t right, this isn’t right.” Whereas if someone else brought in a scene of similar, in process level, I would be like, “It’s fine. These are the amazing parts of it,” you know?
Something I’ve realized being in writer’s workshop, is how I look at someone else’s work in progress, and how I look at my own. So a huge thing that I’ve been doing this past year [Laughter] has been, like, “Okay, so the way I treat someone else’s work, the generosity that I have—I’m allowed to do that with my own work.” But it’s, like, not—[Laughter] it’s not easy.
Gary Garrison: We will never treat another writer how we treat ourselves because if we did, we wouldn’t have any friends. [Laughter] That’s the truth. You would never say to another writer what you will say to yourself. Or you will never treat another writer the way you will treat yourself. It’s just too unkind. And we do that to ourselves time and time again. I’m tempted to say we beat ourselves up before anyone else has a chance to. At least that feels sadly familiar.
Victoria Z. Daly: I don’t know the setup in Beth’s class, but what we do at the 9th Floor is the playwrights ask the questions, so the playwrights have the opportunity to shape the feedback. If there’s something that they don’t want to hear, they don’t have to. If they only want to hear actors read the pages, or just talk about what people are following or what they’re leaning into, they can do that. So, this is piggybacking on what Gary’s saying; it sounds like you feel uncomfortable about how people are going to respond and whether they’ll say negative things. But if you’re the one who’s allowed to ask for what you want from them—
Jane Willis: Right.
Victoria Z. Daly: —you can also shape that, so you will hear what’s really useful to you.
Jane Willis: That makes sense. I think my fear is that I change my mind constantly. I am so suggestible, and I might walk in with a scene that’s maybe not quite there in my heart, and then somebody will make a suggestion and I’m like, “Oh, yeah!” And then I’ll go home and I’ll work on that, but it’s actually not what I had in mind, and then someone else will say something else. So for me, choice making is hugely challenging. That’s why I need to sit until I have a draft, and then I’m ready for the kind of questions that you’re talking about, which I think are absolutely helpful.
Charles Gershman: I totally relate to the things you’re saying. I’ve studied with a number of different people, and everybody has a different style. And so one of the tricky parts of being a student, I think, has been realizing the format and the atmosphere in the room and learning how to use it for the best, you know? Learning how to best use it for your own growth and the development of your play.
One of the most challenging moments has been when I’ve been with somebody who was a bit prescriptive, like anti-Liz Lerman, more like, “I actually think you should do this.” And usually their ideas are far more brilliant than anything I’m thinking at the time, but I can’t just let myself do that. I have to really sit with it and come to that point of view and fully see it—or on the flipside, argue with them—or argue with them in my own head but not say anything. As I’ve gotten older, one thing I’ve tried to work on is listening to myself and asking questions, and sort of steering the conversation as much as I need to.
Gary Garrison: What often happens in a room when public responses are being given is that we often jump about: “Oh, that’s a good idea” or, “Oh, I didn’t see that” or, “Oh, that’s such a brilliant idea.” Yes, it’s great to get intelligent responses. But whatever you hear, it should lead you back to one primary question: what am I writing about and is that reflected in this scene or act? Anyone can argue the strengths or weakness of a given character, scene, act, moment. But no one can talk you out of why you’re writing what you’re writing. No one should be able to seriously challenge you on why you’re writing a particular story because if you allow them to, and doubt yourself, maybe you don’t know as clearly as you should what you’re writing about.
Shamar White: Are these scenes or plays that you’re hearing out loud? Does the feedback come from people who are just reading it? Because sometimes when you hear it, that helps you see, “Oh, this is what I want to write about, but that’s not what I’m hearing.” I had this class with Gary that really helped me hear my play—what was there, and what wasn’t. It took me out of my own head. That did wonders for me.
Jane Willis: Yes, people come in and read.
Shamar White: Okay.
Jane Willis: We writers read around the table, or we have actors come in and read.
Shamar White: Okay, so you do get to hear it.
Jane Willis: Yes.
Kyle Smith: Before I go into first readings, I have somebody I trust—an editor or another playwriting friend—read through it. And I feel like once you have that first central idea articulated, you can show it to someone else that you trust and ask them if they see it in your work. If they do, I think bringing it in becomes a little bit easier.
Garrett Kim: Yeah, whenever feedback can be almost objective, from the things that have been written down on the page, like, “What are you getting from it?” I find that’s when feedback is most illuminating for me. Listening to other people interpret something that is not ready to be interpreted is mind-blowingly frustrating.
And like what you said, when feedback becomes prescriptive, I’ve experienced that too, where feedback became about how other people wanted to do what I was doing. It gets challenging to find the pearls of wisdom. How you can take the kind of nasty, prescriptive comments and turn them into, like, “Okay, they’re coming from this point of interest, and that’s reading as this. I can take something away from that, even if I don’t write the scene [Laughter] as they want me to.”
Gary Garrison: I’m curious to know—and if you could all be specific about this—do you know the difference between instruction and destruction? You’re all in learning environments, and we empower people who teach us in ways that are healthy and then sometimes, not so much. So how much do you empower those that teach you? Do you know what’s helpful to you? Do you know what’s not helpful to you? And are you ever surprised in the classroom by either of those, or anything like that?
Elijah Shaheen: I think this has to do with who you trust for feedback about your work. I think instruction includes good, clear opinions about what your piece of work might be about and what would help make your ideas work more effectively. And obviously, destruction, is the kind of person that says something like, “Oh, no, no. This is blahhhhhh! Terrible! It would’ve been more interesting if it was more ambiguous!” That’s actually something someone said to me when I was presenting a reading. When someone is just giving blatant personal judgments, then that’s not constructive criticism. I think it is best to listen most carefully to those people that you trust, who know you and know your work…people who support you and are also willing to be honest with you.
And I feel like it also depends on the type of story you’re trying to tell. Say you have a story about—like you said, a son becoming a man. If there is a certain part in the story that someone says they feel should be left out, but you know in your heart it’s supposed to be there to help move the story along, you can’t take it out, and you shouldn’t let anyone alter your vision.
Gary Garrison: I don’t know if this will address this for you, but when we create our plays, we’re actually the only God in that universe at that particular point. So you need to take your position in heaven about it. Which I know sounds odd, but what I mean—
Shamar White: I’ve never thought about it that way.
Gary Garrison: You get to decide everything in the universe. Everything. It gets tricky, because our tools are human behavior, and human behavior is a fairly well-charted area of study. If you’re smart about who you’re writing and what you’re writing, you can say, “In my world, she is gonna behave this particular way, and this is why.” But that implies that you have to take ownership of the world you’ve created and be able and willing to defend it (in a manner of speaking) if necessary.
Garrett Kim: Going off “instruction versus destruction,” the first thing I thought of comparing those two is how, I feel like I’ve been in situations where a teacher has been very hands on and has been very hands off. One feels like they’re intentionally instructing you, feeding things into you, and then the other one—which, sometimes I appreciate more, actually, when I feel like I know what I’m doing is like, they kinda take a back seat, they let you suss it out in class. They’ll be there if you need them, but they’re more just like maintaining the room and allowing discussions and stuff to happen, which sometimes is more helpful than someone telling you how to write a play. Like, I don’t know think I’ve ever been told by a professor, “This is how a play gets written. It needs to have all of these things. If it’s not, then it’s not a play.”
Kyle Smith: Going back to the question of how much do I empower those that teach me—I do empower them a decent amount, but only under specific circumstances. Specifically, I empower those who are intelligent note-givers and talented writers. Those are the people I give more agency in my rewrites. I do feel like I have the choice, and if I really do love something, I will not kill it, no matter what happens. If I make this choice that I think is really powerful and I feel really passionately about, no matter what note I get from a teacher, a friend, an editor, I will not kill that choice. I will fight tooth and nail to keep it in there.
Gary Garrison: What I admire about that position, and what I wish I could convince my students of, is you can do anything in the world of your plays as long as there is thoughtful reasoning behind it. It’s when dramatists respond with, “I don’t know why I did that,” that people can take a big pool stick and poke a hole in it. To be able to say, “No, this is the reason why I made this choice, and this is what I’m trying to do. It may not be fully successful at this point, but this is what I intend,” is an incredibly powerful place to be in the process.
Victoria Z. Daly: I think being able to distinguish between instruction and destruction is a skill you acquire—or at least I try to—just like learning the craft of playwriting. How to parse feedback’s a skill, just like learning about dramatic structure, conflict, character building—all those other things that are always drilled into us.
I don’t give my instructors the kind of God-like status, perhaps, that I used to, or take it all at face value. I try to decide whether it’s useful to me.
Listening to you, Kyle, talk about whether you were going to destroy something, I have to say, I had one professor last year, to his credit, who believed in a play I had no belief in, [Laughter] and who kept telling me that he really thought it was going to be great. I rewrote it this semester, and I felt so much better about it. So that’s happened, too. It’s not just about people destroying your work, it’s also about listening to the ones who are championing you, which I really appreciated.
Garrett Kim: Or who push you to do something outside your comfort zone. I’ve had professors who’ve told me to write the scary thing, the ambitious thing, instead of taking an easy way out, which I think is so wonderful.
Charles Gershman: I absolutely agree with you. Sometimes I feel like the most effective, or most instructive and least destructive approach from a teacher is to simply nurture and make you feel confident. There are particular people I’ve worked with who made me feel that way, and I just, I cranked out a first draft really fast because I wasn’t questioning or doubting myself. Of course, later, when I read the draft, I saw all the problems and rewrote it—rewrote it, rewrote it—but those people are sometimes miracle workers, I think.
Shamar White: I kind of disagree. [Laughter] For me—and this might stem from my background in the Army—I kind of like to be broken down. I mean, I like nurturing too, of course, but I need to be challenged. I want honest constructive feedback. That’s why I came to grad school. It doesn’t always have to be a pat on the back, it just has to be helpful to my process. I feel most empowered when a teacher reads or watches my work, and even though it’s a hot mess, they get what I’m trying to do, what I’m trying to say. From there, we’re able to workshop it, which I think empowers them in return. And I’ve seen it in classes, where some students have been broken down and they get very defensive, they take it personally—which I get, because writing is personal but for me, in that instance, it just pushes me more.
Gary Garrison: Whether you’re talking to teachers, directors, dramaturgs or producers, I think what is more important is for you to say in some form or fashion, “For me, this is how I like to work. This is what I respond to—and by the way, this is what I don’t respond to.” No one knows better than you how you like to work in any process, and it’s probably one of the more essential tools of collaboration that you’re able to communicate that to other people.
Jane Willis: I think effective instruction, and what I’ve found in teachers that have had an impact in me on my work, is: what kinds of tools am I being given in class? When I’m sitting by myself in front of the computer screen, what’s coming back to me that’s helping me to move along in my play? So I think effective instruction is kind of handing that off, and there have been a number of tools offered up in Beth’s class that I’ve found extremely helpful. For example, I learned how to ask a question without couching it in an opinion. [Laughter] Which is like learning how to exercise a whole new muscle, because I’m so opinionated—of my work, of everybody’s work. Using the father/son scenario that you brought up before, Gary: If we ask only the questions, we might ask: Why is Dad late for his son’s birth? Why isn’t Dad there when his child is born? What was he doing? What kept him from being there? Those questions would be truly helpful to me if it were my play.
And there’s also language that goes along with it phrases such as what’s the inciting event? What’s the conflict? What does s/he want? Without the language of play craft, how can we help another writer develop his/her play? So again, these are tools that can keep us moving along when we’re sitting alone at the computer screen.
Gary Garrison: As a way of introduction to this area of discussion: you’re all in school, or around a school, certainly, and there will be a time in your near future where that will no longer be the case. So, there’s a moment where you will be set free of this very regimented environment that shelters and protects us somewhat. What, then, would you like to know?
Charles Gershman: I have a husband in North Carolina now, so that’s why I’m asking this—what are the pros and cons of being an emerging writer, not living in New York City, if such a thing is possible?
Shamar White: That was one of my questions, too.
Gary Garrison: My answer now is different than my answer would’ve been even five or ten years ago. Because we are in the age of electronic media, anything is possible, and you don’t have to be in New York City at all. You have to have internet access and you have to be tech-savvy—you really do. When I hear someone say, “I don’t know Twitter, I hate Facebook, I don’t want to Skype…” my first thought is, well, that’s silly. You need to know all of those things and know them well. Ignorance of technology is not an option. Why? Because you want to be able to live anywhere in this world without feeling disconnected to your career. So, yes, you have to know how to Skype (for example). I mean, you can have a dramaturgical Skype meeting and you can watch rehearsals on Skype. The ramifications of that are huge.
Is it easier if you live in a metropolitan city? I guess you could argue that, maybe. I’m not convinced of it, though. I mean, we have Guild members in every far corner of this country and the world. Some writers are amazingly connected; others sadly position themselves with, “I’m too old or too tech-phobic to learn these tools.”
Shamar White: How would you get your footing in another place? NYC is where I’m building my career. This is my community right now, but I’m from Chicago where I’d love to have my plays produced. I know it’s a great theater scene, but still, I don’t know the theater community there. So I’m not sure how to get established. I don’t know where to start.
Gary Garrison: Right now, anywhere in the country, you can walk in the door of any theater and say, “Hi, my name is (fill in the blank), I’m a playwright. What can I do to help you?” Every theater in this country needs help—large or small—everybody’s looking for a volunteer of some sort. They depend on them, right? So it’s easy enough for you to walk in the door and say, “This is who I am. I’d like to get to know more about who you are.”
I know we all have limited time. But we want something from these theatres—a production, their attention, to be considered for a writing group, etc. And instead of walking in with our hand out in that “what can you do for me” posture, maybe a more productive approach might be to walk in and say, “I want to get to know you, and I want you to get to know me. And the easiest way for that to happen is if I help you out. Can I work in your box office? Can I work in your theater? Can I be a reader for you?”
Joey Stocks: I’m going to interject here. I agree with Gary and—if you’re a Dramatists Guild member and you are not living in New York City—we have over 30 regional reps located all across the country. Find your nearest regional rep and take them for coffee. Connect. They are all volunteers, so ask them if they need help. It’s all about networking, which is exactly what Gary is saying. Connecting with the DG reps might help you connect with other local playwrights and general theatre community more quickly than if you were just on your own. It’s a valuable resource you should explore.