A Must-Have Playwriting Book

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Working on a New Play, by Edward M. Cohen (1988) is well worth the $2 for a used copy on line. It’s a must have for emerging playwrights who want to get their work in development off the page and into the minds of directors and actors, and then to an open reading for the public. It’s really the best way to develop your work when you don’t already have a theatre or class or workshop that is demanding to see your work and help you develop it.

It doesn’t matter that Edward M. Cohen, a playwright and director, wrote this book thirty years ago, and that the submissions process then, pre-internet, was a full-time job unto itself. It doesn’t matter that many theatres have changed their business and artistic practices substantially since Cohen wrote. What matters is his insight into how a work grows, and his generosity in sharing that knowledge in an easy, conversational style. He’s got an intelligence about theatre, and a love of new work, that transcends the decades. It’s clear he admires, respects, and honors the craft and the playwrights, directors, and actors who bring new plays to the stage

His first four chapters, and his introduction, are the most useful for playwrights as we write. The remaining chapters focus on the role of the director, actors, producers, and designers. His insights on casting are shrewd, and his chapter on the rehearsal process awakened me to the role of each of the many collaborators who make a play come to life, as well as pitfalls to avoid.

In the chapters devoted to the writing and development process, he describes how and why to have a living room read with your director, followed by closed reading with a small group of those who can critique your work, then an open reading to which the public is invited. He says, about actors, that to listen and learn from them as they give us feedback, both in their roles, and about the play as a whole, is essential to our own growth and that of our script. About directors, he assumes a keen interest in working with the playwright at the table read, to understand the playwright’s vision. That assumption doesn’t always hold true, I know, but I’m taken with Cohen’s expansive view: that the playwright and the director come to the table read with open minds.

Here are a few of his thoughts that enlightened me:

“Many …talented writers do not know what they have written or why. They do not know what the play is about or who is truly the hero because the work has erupted from the subconscious, and that is the best thing that can happen to a writer.”

“If writers could discuss their work easily, they might make entertaining dinner partners but they would not be writers. Playwrights are dealing with material that is causing conflict; that is the reason they need to write, and it is the conflict that creates the electricity on the page.”

“Eventually what happens in the living room is that the director climbs into the playwright’s head, unearths the subconscious sources of the materials, and associates these with his own…so that he understands the play on an intuitive level and the play stretches to incorporate the director’s impulses.”

“The development process is not one in which the director tells the playwright what is wrong, and the playwright decides whether to fix it or not; the process is one of give and take in which each share responses and ideas, each bounces off the other.”

About the closed reading (the step after the living room read),

“[t]he actors are the ones who demonstrate to the playwright what trust in the theatre is all about. They trust that the director knew what he was doing in casting them; that whatever quality the director wants for their characters, the actors have it and do not need to strain for it.”

About the open reading,

“The aim is to create a casual, supportive atmosphere in which neither the script nor the performances will be judged as finished works. The audience members are serving as co-workers, supplying writers with feedback, allowing them to see their work with some objectivity, introducing them gently to the chasm between what they have imagined and how it is received.”

And, “…never, never, never allow guests into rehearsals!” Actors will feel judged, and that is death to the creative process developing in rehearsals.

There’s so much more to learn and appreciate in this lovely book. It is not only a practical handbook, but a look inside the heart and mind of a generous man who loves his craft.