Upcoming Event: Join us for a panel with the editors of Decentered Playwriting: Alternative Techniques for the Stage at the Drama Book Shop on March 5, 2024.
Event guests include editors Carolyn Dunn, Eric Micha Holmes, and Les Hunter. Moderated by Christine Scarfuto (Director, Hunter College Playwriting MFA)
“(Decentered Playwriting) is the kind of playwriting education I wish that I would have had. It makes me excited for the next generation of theater makers who will emerge from studying this book.” — Larissa FastHorse (Sicangu Lakota) MacArthur Fellow and playwright of The Thanksgiving Play
The idea for Decentered Playwriting was conceived in the summer of 2020. Theatre and performance in person had stopped, forcing the industry to reassess its relationship to a wounded planet. The first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic was claiming thousands of lives. As the world quarantined, George Floyd’s slow-motion murder triggered swift responses around the globe, advancing a Black Lives Matter movement almost a decade in the making. Democratic traditions, riven by fascistic audacities in Europe and the Americas, teetered on a handful of elections. A tickertape of climate data added to the gloom and doom. Greenland’s ice sheet calved 152 gigatons of ice in 2020 alone. Record-breaking rainfall flooded Asia while record-breaking draughts hollowed out the interiors of South America.1 The economy cratered. Unemployment for American actors alone doubled to 52.3% (not to be outdone by dancers and choreographers at 54%). Playwrights, whose work relies on a steady stream of productions, commissions, and publications fared little better.2
These crises—global and personal, systemic and intimate—have not ended. Nor did they begin in 2020. Their origins as murky as tides; each wave a new formation of an eternal sea.
To begin a preface with a menu of catastrophes would seem inappropriate or comically self- serious for a collection of essays on playwriting, if not short-sighted. The crises of 2020 may pale in comparison to whatever problems artists are grappling with as they take up this book, looking for new approaches. It’s equally plausible that framing a year with its horrors and not its joys could also age poorly. Why not preface the year with our resilience, our creativity, individual braveries, and collective perseverance? Those too could be found in the year we began developing this book. For it was the overwhelming and compounding crises of 2020 that intensified a positive and spirited conversation about what theatre is and who it is for.
Part of that conversation, and one of the areas we hope to explore in this text, is how playwriting and storytelling can better serve and be served by under/misrepresented communities. The approach out of 2020 was found in activist groups like We See You, W.A.T. (White American Theater), whose statement demanded changes to systemic racism both on and off stage.3 Theatre companies large and small responded with diversity initiatives, ranging from earnest to performative, alongside a growing consulting class of EDIA professionals demanding more inclusivity, equity, parity, and better intersectional representation. Despite these demands, however, overall structural and leadership statistics have shown relatively little change thus far.4
While these systemic redresses were vital and overdue, they left many questions underexplored. Specifically, questions about craft. Increasingly, we saw our playwriting students—experiencing the ravages of climate change, losing family members to COVID, and confronting their positions within oppressive systems—seeking more relevant pedagogy. How does a playwright, overwhelmed by global challenges yet inspired to address them, make small, craft-level decisions to meet the largeness of the moment? What storytelling techniques arising from various socio-cultural narrative traditions and underutilized methods can help playwrights reflect a diverse and interconnected world: to break it open, examine its parts, and reassemble it? For those of us in academic settings and artistic organizations alike, how do we study, teach, produce, and recover texts that can redress systemic bias, re-presenting our fractured and fractious world? Lastly, how do we culturally diversify our own practices while managing the complex issues of appropriation?
Responding to these questions with calls for more diverse content is just one part of the project. Just as urgent is approaching those questions in a way that can reveal a diversity of formal options, making artistic tools available for all playwrights to recontextualize and, importantly— decolonize--their craft. This reveals a delicious paradox at the heart of playwriting pedagogy. On the one hand, performance storytelling is our oldest narrative art. It’s a practice that establishes continuity, connecting today’s artists with humanity’s earliest, communal rituals. Theatre’s endurance inspires its thinkers to extrapolate organizing principles that defy cultural contexts — which could help explain why the geometric elegance of Freytag’s Pyramid remains so teachable, the Campbellian “monomyth” dominates cinema, and Poetics is still the most popular secondary text in American college playwriting classrooms.5 On the other hand, artists and dramaturgs are shaped by specific cultural factors that are fractal, infinite, irreplicable, idiosyncratic, and situated in trends that are constantly changing. Put simply, theatre is both constant and changing.
Ours is an attempt to both reach back to underrepresented story-creating techniques, as well as investigate new methods to writing works for the stage. This textbook is for playwriting and dramaturgy students at intermediate and advanced levels, for teachers of dramatic writing, and for emerging and established playwrights looking for new ways to explore and expand their craft. It offers practical advice, historical analysis, theoretical context, and writing exercises from an array of theatrical methods. Our contributors span five continents, curated from a wide spectrum of artistic and academic perspectives, and unified by a craft-forward approach.
While we can argue that our book is a “queering” playwriting pedagogy, there are still opportunities underexplored here that utilize methodologies that integrate LGBTQI+ perspectives and practices, ones that could certainly warrant their own volume. We acknowledge the impossibility of one book to encompass every underrepresented approach. To that end, we offer Decentered Playwriting as a gentle primer to the infinite ways one can approach the craft of writing plays and teaching playwriting. It aims to amplify and diversify a conversation about what playwriting is by presenting suppressed and novel tools for all to use. The approach of this text does not focus on what plays should do, but on what they can do. This attention to various forms encourages intercultural and inter-methodological application, inviting playwrights to assess, re/define, and generate their own projects. To invoke Audre Lorde, we’re not using the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house; we’re sharing different kinds of tools to build different kinds of houses.
This book offers alternatives to hegemonic dramaturgies (or “hegeturgy.”) Hegeturgy is an incomplete but helpful construct that invokes a suite of pedagogical standards, those that have traditionally informed playwriting instruction in the West to prepare students of playwriting for professional careers. Hegeturgy prioritizes plays that are “closed,” “producible,” and developed through a hierarchical development and production process.
Paul Gardiner’s study of playwriting pedagogy Playwriting Pedagogy and the Myth of Intrinsic Creativity, where he defines closed-play dramaturgy as “heavily influenced by Aristotle’s Poetics” and focused “on the resolution of a plot, centered on a single protagonist, struggling against both their fatal flaw and an opponent/antagonist.”6 For our purposes, “influenced” is the key word. For Aristotelian dramaturgy has only tenuous connections to Aristotle’s slim and cryptic document. As noted in many introductions to Poetics, it is not a complete manuscript but notes to a lecture or a treatise he planned to write later (or wrote and was lost). Yet, its incompleteness is critical to Poetics’ jagged charm. Had Aristotle fleshed out his ideas, perhaps The Poetics would’ve been less effective. Its rough edges have allowed generations of artists and scholars to interpret, adapt, and fill in what was left unfinished. Terms central to playwriting instruction in the West—conflict, antagonist/ protagonist, climax, etc.—were devised over generations, sometimes even a thousand years after Aristotle’s death. The closed play is less of a form but a scent, as vague as it is familiar, so baked into the walls we only notice its fragrance when we leave and reenter the classroom.
To continue the metaphor, the closed play is a pottage held together by Aristotle’s broth. An oversimplified and incomplete story of Western dramaturgy would go something like this: In Europe, Aristotle’s recipe was kept in the kitchen–if not employed for daily meals–through popular but divergent Arabic translations and commentaries originating from Northern Africa and the Moorish caliphates of Spain. The recipe was translated from Greek to Latin in the 1200s and gained popularity with subsequent publications, eventually entering vernacular publications during the Renaissance. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Aristotle’s influence over Western dramaturgical practices gained even more prominence, resulting in the common belief that the best drama is comprised of Aristotelian “unities” of time, place, and action.7
The recipe evolved. In the nineteenth century, France and Britain—amid the Industrial Revolution’s seismic demographic changes—satisfied the tastes of a growing, bourgeois audience by over seasoning the closed play with melodrama’s moral sentiments. Scribe and Sardou kept melodramas’ most essential spices but added a reduction called the “well-made play.” Another cook, Ibsen, perfected the well-made play by blending it with his own progressive politics and formal discipline. By 1863, Gustav Freytag’s Dramatic Technique attempted to thicken the base of our Aristotelian soup into an organized shape, popularized as the Freytag Pyramid.8 Stanislavsky broke the code to presenting the final dish: a “system” of psycho-naturalist performance tools that helped untrained actors perform Chekhov’s revolutionary work. Strasburg ferried the recipe to the Americas where it was adapted, again, by his sous chefs (Stella Adler and Sanford Meisner) whose schools of thought continue to inform the way plays are served to audiences today.
Not only does this pottage leave out ingredients from outside Europe but leaves out “official” European traditions that don’t fit: Expressionism, Epic Theatre, and Absurdism just to name a few. “Unofficial”9 European-American performance styles such as commedia, burlesque, circus, and vaudeville are also omitted as they scramble Poetics’ elemental hierarchy by privileging Song and Spectacle while downgrading Character and Plot. Nor does this recipe include avant- garde and post-dramatic innovations of the mid-twentieth century, let alone the innumerable and uncoined methods of the 21st; excluded as well are non-Western traditional, dramatic structures that include Eastern and Indigenous forms of dramatic storytelling, rooted in myth, ritual, and ceremony.
One could have fun drumming up alternative histories. Imagine a scenario in which the Moors never found and translated Poetics. What text would take its place? Imagine, instead, translated pages of the Natya Sastra, Classical India’s 500-page dramaturgical treatise, traveling westward through the Silk Road just as Europe was emerging from its Mediaeval slumber.
Today’s drama, informed by Sanskrit rasaesthetics, could aspire to multiply and enrich a spectator’s emotions instead of treating drama as an apparatus to purge them. Imagine a pedagogy in which the language of feelings and gesture exceeds the language of action and plot. Or what if Freytag drew a spiral? Or named his triangle’s peak “convergence” or “harmony” instead of “climax.” What if the Stanislavsky system was inspired by another contemporary playwright because Chekhov died even younger than he did? Such large and small adjustments could have large and small impacts on the playwriting hegeturgy aims to serve.
Yet, there’s something irresistible about hegeturgy. Even the editors of this collection who are committed to diversifying curriculum, find ourselves clinging, often unconsciously, to “the pyramid,” invoking “reveals” and “reversals,” and asking questions that have become cliches in new play development’s lingua: Whose play is it? What does character X want? What’s stopping them from getting it? How do they change? Hegeturgy is sticky because it’s hegemonic and, therefore, expedient. Its values constructed the canon of masterpieces; even as each masterpiece, upon close inspection, pixelates and distorts the very dramaturgy used to explain it.
Hegeturgy’s dominance as a form, convention, skill, tradition, or what have you, often flies under the banner of “producibility.” Playwrights, writing for a collaborative form that depends on economies of live performance, must contend with producibility’s profound but elusive influence. But what exactly is meant by “producible”? Does it mean that a play is cheap to produce? That it can please a wide audience? Or does it evoke a script’s unmistakable but unquantifiable “polish”? Producibility, therefore, is a forceful but unreliable construct. It bobs along the tides of economic incentives, artistic trends, cultural shifts, funding structures, celebrity, press, critical bias, and the tastes of gatekeepers and the audiences they’re serving. Its ambiguity might be the very thing that makes producibility such a powerful and censorious benchmark. Like many terms inherited from economics, it is both prognostic and conservative. Prognostic because it attempts to predict the future. Conservative because it attempts to predict the future by using metrics that worked in the past. And what has “worked” in the past are plays that resemble the closed style described above.
What concerns the thesis of this book is how presenting new and reviving suppressed approaches to playwriting can liberate new approaches to producibility. “Mainstream plays,” laments Mac Wellman, “are about reaffirming what the audience thinks it already knows.”10 So how can we expand the market’s taste? How can cultural literacy make for better criticism? Or, to one who might merely focus on producibility as is, arts administrator Michael Bobbit might say, “diversity is good for business.”11 In some circles, diversity has always been “good for business.” But smaller theaters and non-profits who have long produced diverse plays and playwrights continue to struggle under financial constraints. Meanwhile, “calls for diversity” increase funding for theaters who have historically excluded diversity.
While producibility can hinder the growth potential of theatre, hierarchical production models can have the same effect. By “hierarchy” we imply the means by which theatre is created.
Playwrights write. Directors direct. Actors act. Designers design. Stage managers manage, etc. Divisions of labor in the hegeturgical framework are stratified hierarchically by expertise. And expertise is conferred by a combination of experience, training, reputation, pay scale, and availability—to say nothing of cultural factors that are relative and project-dependent. Higher education in the West prepares students for a development and production industry that centers the playwright as the copyright holder and primary source of artistic vision. Production teams interpret this vision by applying their own niche skill sets.
On the surface, this hierarchal model seems to endow the playwright with an impressive amount of deference. But a playwright’s work and reputation rely on their ability to navigate, not just the power dynamics of the rehearsal room, but complex institutions that involve boards of directors, artistic directors, fundraising teams, and marketing departments, all of whom have capricious and competing interests beyond the play and playwright. What artistic options become available when a playwright adjusts their relationship to production processes? Can an ensemble function without divisions of labor? What models can offer an alternative vision toward more equitable and diverse collaboration?
“Closed” and “producible” plays developed through a “hierarchical” process have produced all kinds of masterpieces, created by diverse theatre artists from many racial, national, and gender backgrounds. It will continue to do so. The chapters in this book are not borne out of a backlash to the plays and playwrights that hegeturgy has produced, but out of curiosity for methods outside its scope. How can playwrights writing out of storytelling traditions that can be antithetical to the Western model of closed playwriting teach our craft? How do we break the hierarchical matrix of play production? How do we examine it? How do we reassemble it?
To learn more about Decentered Playwriting or to place a pre-order, visit www.decenteredplaywriting.com
Anderson, Gary. "Data, Diversity, and The Information Age." Data at Work, January 28, 2021. https://culturaldata.org/learn/data-at-work/2021/data-diversity-and-the- information-age/.
Bent, Elizabeth. “Mac Wellman: An Outlier Tracing His Own Orbit.” American Theatre Magazine. Online. 2016. https://www.americantheatre.org/2016/09/20/mac-wellman-an- outlier-tracing-his-own-orbit/
Gardiner, Paul. “Playwriting Pedagogy and the Myth of Intrinsic Creativity.” Research in Drama Education: The Journal of Applied Theatre and Performance, vol. 21, no. 2, 2016, pp. 247-262.
Geiogamah, Hanay. Ceremony, Spirituality, and Ritual in Native American Performance: A Creative Notebook. Paperback – November 1, 2011. Los Angeles: UCLA American Indian Studies Center, 2011.
Hunter, Les. “Contemporary Playwriting Pedagogies: A survey of Recent Introductory Playwriting Syllabi.” Teaching Critical Performance Theory. 2020: Routledge.
Ed., Trans., MacEwan, Elias. Freytag, Gustav. Freytag’s Technique of the Drama. Scott Foresman and Company. Chicago: 1900. 3rd Ed. Pg. 140.
Mondello, Bob. “Across the U.S., Regional Theatres are Starting to Transform. Here’s Why.” National Public Radio. September 21, 2022. https://www.npr.org/2022/09/21/1123177992/american-theater-is-changing-…
National Endowment for the Arts. "New Report Released on Economic Impact of Arts and Cultural Sector." National Endowment for the Arts, 2021,
World Meteorological Organization. “State of the Global Climate 2020” library.wmo.int. Accessed May 27, 2023. https://library.wmo.int/doc_num.php?explnum_id=10444.
1https://library.wmo.int/doc_num.php?explnum_id=10444 – WMO report
2https://www.arts.gov/news/press-releases/2021/new-report-released-econo…- cultural-sector. These figures do not include playwrights and other freelance artists who comprise 34% of creative arts workers.
3https://www.weseeyouwat.com/ download the complete document here.
4 Anderson, Gary. “Data, Diversity, and The Information Age.” Data at Work. Jan 28, 2021. https://culturaldata.org/learn/data-at-work/2021/data-diversity-and-the…
5 Hunter, Les “Contemporary Playwriting Pedagogies: A survey of Recent Introductory Playwriting Syllabi.” Teaching Critical Performance Theory. 2020: Routledge.
6 Gardiner, Paul. 260. In Gardnier’s assessment of the kind of the so-called Aristotelian playwriting that is taught in a majority of classrooms (a kind influenced, according to Gardnier by a myth of intrinsic creativity within the artist, not by practice of craft).
7 This belief was so central during the Neoclassical period that the French tragedian Corneille famously partially retired after being accused of not following the unities closely enough. When he finally returned to the stage, Corneille became an ardent chef de cuisine of the unities, cooking up dramaturgical tracts in their defense.
8 “The tragedy of the Athenians still exercises its power over the creative poet of the present … its poetic form influences our poetic work … and give(s) it a more artistic structure and more profound meaning” (140, Freytag, Technique of the Drama).
9 Physical Theatre: A critical introduction: https://www.google.ca/books/edition/Physical_Theatres/VJzDCwAAQBAJ?hl=e… “There may be a dominant or hegemonic set of theatre conventions in any on ear, perhaps of style or language. But such ’establishment’ work will also be found to draw on the ideas or energies of the unofficial, the submerged, the subversive, and the popular, all of which exist underneath or alongside the official.”
10 Bent, Elizabeth. “Mac Wellman: An Outlier Tracing his Own Orbit.”
11 Mondello, Bob. “Across the U.S., Regional Theatres are Starting to Transform. Here’s Why.”