Q. Once you have an idea, how do you proceed? Do you take notes? Do you outline? Do you plunge right in?
A.Let me just start by saying how unworthy I feel talking about craft and process, especially to some of the wonderful writers who are going to read this who actually have a process. Half of my process is groping around in the dark and hoping not to fall into a hidden chasm of despair.
So on that hopeful note…
I find that once an idea for a play takes hold, the world around me starts to align itself to that idea. Dreams, conversations, things I observe—they’ll all start to work their way into the play. So I try to maintain a general openness to the world. And I always have a journal with me so I can start grabbing ideas out of the air. Always. Even on my nightstand when I’m asleep. I frequently wake up in the middle of the night to write something down out of a dream (or nightmare). As I tell my wife whenever I’m in bed scribbling down a thought at three AM with my iPhone light on—my muse is kind of an asshole.
Q. Do you have a routine? A regular time when you write?
A. I have a process, but not a routine. I spend a lot of time—six months to a year, usually—mulling over an idea, taking notes, and doing research before I start writing. (I have one play I’ve been thinking about for over ten years now and still don’t feel ready to write). But once I actually start writing, I clear the room, get off of social media, and write every day for several hours until I get a first draft.
Q. When you begin a first draft, do you write straight through? Do you write in order? What’s your process?
A. It depends on the play. Usually, I’ll write in spurts, occasionally doubling back to what I’ve already written. Sometimes—especially when I hit a wall—I find it’s helpful to go back to the comfort of scenes and moments I know are really clicking. This helps immerse me in the essential quality that prompted the play in the first place and usually puts me back on track.
I seldom write a play in order. Usually, I begin with a scene or bit of dialogue that ends up in the middle of the play and expand from there.
Q. Once you’re at work, are there other art forms you go to for continued inspiration?
A. Music for sure. The verbal acrobatics of hip-hop and instrumental jazz especially. So much so, that when I see one of my plays performed, I often associate particular moments or scenes with the songs that inspired them, or the music I was playing when I wrote them.
I’m also inspired by stand-up comedy. Great stand-up routines require an astounding level of rhetorical discipline and word craft for a performer to succeed while appearing to do so effortlessly. That’s something I aim for.
Q. What aspect of the craft is most difficult for you?
A. It’s all difficult, but I think the two hardest things are deciding what to write about and figuring out how to structure an idea.
You can tie yourself in knots second-guessing a good idea for a play. You get so much conflicting advice and information. Write plays that are ‘theatrical’ (whatever that means); direct address is a crutch; a play won’t get done if it requires more than four actors; two-handers are great; nobody wants to watch a two-hander; nobody wants to produce another family dysfunction play; half of the Pulitzer and Tony winners are family dysfunction plays.
At some point you have to not worry about trying to game the system and just write what jazzes you. Still, landing on an idea is an excruciating process. I try to be selective because I know once I choose an idea, I’m going to be living with it for a long time.
Structure is always a challenge too, partly because this is another aspect of stagecraft on which playwrights are inundated with opinions. So it’s easy to get bollixed up trying to be clever instead of just letting the story tell itself the way it wants to be told. When I sat down to write American Son, for example, I had elaborate ideas on how I might structure it. But the play wanted to be an uninterrupted, real-time story. I fought that for a while, but the play kept imposing its will on me. Ultimately, I listened; I think the play was right.
Q. What do you do when you get stuck?
A. I find it helps to get out of my normal physical and emotional environment. Being in a place that’s unfamiliar tends to jar me out of my psychological routine and refocus my mind. Vigorous exercise usually helps too.
Q. Do you have any thoughts or advice about dialogue?
A. For me, stage dialogue is akin to a musical score. Once you develop a believable rhythm and cadence, you can disguise poetry as vernacular speech. And I always aim to have at least some elevated dialogue that can stand alone as poetry. I don’t always succeed, but it’s something I shoot for. This is much easier if your characters are verbally adroit. They need not necessarily be intelligent or well-educated—they just need to have a facility with words.
On a more down-and-dirty level, I have a couple basic rules when writing dialogue.
• Avoid having people call each other by name unless there’s a very good reason for it.
• Make characters describe their emotions through action rather than with the name of the emotions they are feeling. “I wanna stick a corkscrew in your eye and watch you bleed!” is a lot more effective than “I’m angry at you.”
• In the same vein, whenever you are tempted to have a character express an emotion by describing it you have an opportunity to lay out expositional details. For example, “I love you,” versus “Your hair looks like it looked that morning we ate beignets on my busted couch . . . right before Katrina . . . and you kissed the sugar from my lips.” The latter gives us a much deeper “I love you” along with the specificity of time, place, and desperation, minus the on-the-head sappiness of “I love you.”
• Great lines of dialogue achieve multiple purposes.
• Whether we know it or not, most of us are writing contemporary American English for contemporary American English speakers. One of the hallmarks of our speaking style, and something that makes it wonderfully rich, is our propensity not to say what we mean and to litter even everyday conversation with irony, sarcasm, and subtext.
Q. Do you have any particular principles or practices about character or character development?
A. In theatre, the writer has precious little time to define a character, typically 90 to 120 minutes of actual stage time, and much less time than a novelist to build character through exposition. Given these restrictions, I try to establish salient facts about my characters early, and I try to keep their actions clear. An audience will cut you a lot of slack if it knows early on what the people on stage are chasing after.
I also try to remember that the first audience I’m writing for is the director and the actor who will play a character. Being a mediocre former actor myself, I used to dread plays in which I had to guess about a character’s moment-to-moment actions. So I do my best as a writer to give actors a clear blueprint.
Q. How extensively do you rewrite, and is that mostly before or during rehearsal?
A. Ninety percent of my writing is rewriting. If you think of a play as a line running along an x-axis, a good play will be a line with lots of spikes and valleys in it. It’s in the process of rewriting that I really sharpen the spikes and deepen the valleys. I try to read a play around a table with no audience at least once, and I’ve never had a first production without having had multiple readings first. So, typically, by the time I start rehearsal, I have a reasonably good feel for the essential elements of my play. I still make substantial rewrites during the rehearsal process, but I try to have all the big dramaturgical issues resolved before rehearsal starts. Otherwise, a room full of good actors will find every hole in your script and leave you hyperventilating prostrate on the Equity cot at the end of the first table read.
Q. What’s the most important craft advice you can give?
A. Someone once said: “Everything changes but the avant garde.” There’s a place for experimentation, radical challenges to form, etc., but very few of us have the raw genius of a Mac Wellman or a Will Eno. More often than not, experimentation is just an excuse for lousy stage writing. There are rules to effective playwriting and most of them are as old as the art form. It’s good to know them and to break them only knowingly and with a purpose.
CHRISTOPHER DEMOS-BROWN has written over a dozen full-length plays and screenplays. Honors include the Laurents/Hatcher Award, a Steinberg Citation from The American Theatre Critics Association, and multiple regional theatre honors (including two Carbonell Awards, multiple Silver Palms and the inaugural Berkshire Theatre Award for Outstanding New Work). Chris and his wife, Stephanie, are co-founders of Zoetic Stage, an award-winning theatre in residence at The Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami, Florida. They also practice law together. Chris’s play, American Son, opened November 4, 2018 at the Booth Theatre on Broadway directed by Kenny Leon, and starting Kerry Washington, Steven Pasquale, Jeremy Jordan, and Eugene Lee. www.AmericanSonPlay.com
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