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.

Manderley Forever: The Story of Author and Playwright Daphne du Maurier

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We all know Daphne du Maurier as the author of Rebecca, one of the most beloved novels of all time. But, in her book Manderley Forever, Tatiana de Rosnay, bilingual author of the bestselling novel Sarah’s Key, explores aspects of du Maurier’s character unknown to most fans. De Rosnay writes Daphne’s biography with the engaging storytelling quality of a novel, as she gives a faithful and realistic account of du Maurier’s life. I learned that the young Daphne du Maurier was coddled and favored by her father - a relationship that became oppressive in later years and was also the basis for some of Daphne’s stories. De Rosnay also respectfully describes Daphne’s affairs and infatuations, noting that many of Daphne’s relationships provided a passionate spark for her next story.

Daphne du Maurier faithfully corresponded with several friends and family members over many years. With the help of excerpts from these letters and a terrific amount of research, readers of Manderley Forever learn that Daphne was shy and reclusive, yet she loved to joke around with her son, Kits. Surprisingly, we also learn that she was continually vexed at being known as a Gothic romance author and was constantly trying to prove that her writing had depth and substance.

Daphne wrote novels, plays, biographies, collaborative photo essays, articles, and family histories. Not all her works were successful; but, all were well-researched, and Daphne devoted herself wholeheartedly to each project, often at the expense of her husband and children. Daphne was independent and, for most of her life, not too concerned with other people or her effect on them. At times, she felt strong bonds with others, but her one true priority was her writing. I believe that Daphne herself would agree that she felt stronger ties to houses rather than people. Tatiana de Rosnay did a wonderful job conveying Daphne’s intense attachment to her home of many years, Menabilly. When de Rosnay described the moment that Daphne finally left “Mena,” I could almost feel Daphne’s loss and heartbreak.

It’s a sign of a good book when you finish the last page with a craving for more - to explore further, to think about what you read and how you feel about it. Now that I have some insight into Daphne du Maurier’s life, I’d like to re-read my favorite du Maurier books, like Rebecca and My Cousin Rachel, but I also cannot wait to explore her short story collections and plays. Frankly, I’m not sure that I’m as fond of Daphne du Maurier as I was before I knew so much about her life and personality. But, I think I would have enjoyed a seaside stroll with Daphne and the opportunity to ask about her struggles as an artist, a mother, a wife, and a woman.

-Autumn Hjort, Playwrights Salon Literary Manager

Playwrights! What Do You Want?

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The Salon is evolving into a more comprehensive playwrights’ center, and we’d like your input. We started in October 2016 with the offer of a monthly stage for playwrights to present work in development. After we solicited and selected the scripts we agreed were ready for a public staged reading, the playwright was on his/her own to cast and stage the reading. We sent out publicity, set up the (donated) theatre space, and conducted the talk-backs. After eighteen months, we noted a couple of things. 

One, many emerging playwrights needed help to find actors and directors for their shows.  Two, playwrights were eager for script critique, and for playwriting classes, and did not know where to find these (affordable) resources. Three, many playwrights wanted to be in supportive, challenging groups with other playwrights, but didn’t know where to find others. Four, most playwrights who submitted their work to the Salon were not MFA grads, and hadn’t taken many, if any, classes or seminars.

We listened. Starting in September 2018, we employ a director for each staged reading;  the director casts the show, and we pay the actors a stipend for their work. The playwright is involved in the rehearsal process. We now also provide a high-level critique for all those who submit work to the Salon. It’s a start! 

Now we’d like to hear directly from playwrights. What can we give you that you need/want most? We’re planning for 2019 NOW. Answer our quick survey, and let us know. Vote for the change (or simply the playwright resources) you want to see in the world.

Don't Miss Cate Wiley's New Play, "The Liberation"

The 14/48 Partner Projects, in collaboration with Ghost Light Theatricals, will be presenting the world premiere of Cate Wiley's brand new play “The Liberation” at the Ballard Underground November 2 - 17, 2018. The Salon hosted a staged reading of Cate’s script in March and couldn’t be more thrilled to see it hit the stage.

Set against the background of terrorist attacks in Paris, “The Liberation” asks how far women have come from the sexual double standards of the past. After a scandal forces her out of her position as a history professor at a prestigious university, Marianne moves to Paris to reinvent herself. When a bright young assistant and the son of her lover from graduate school each appear, full of hope, on Marianne's doorstep, she's forced to wrestle with who she is and how she can move forward.

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Prolific Seattle Playwright John Ruoff: Mastering the Craft

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This month we are featuring a series of interviews with local playwrights to gather their insights on the creative process and getting scripts to the stage.

The Salon’s Artistic Director, Margaret O’Donnell, interviewed John Ruoff in September to gather his hard-earned tips for new playwrights. A prolific writer, since 1985 John Ruoff has written 135 radio plays, fourteen one-acts (mostly comedies), and nine full-length scripts, and had productions of them all.

MOD: When did you start writing for theatre, and why?

JR: High school- 1975. As a youth, I had a keen sense of satire as my Catholic school upbringing prompted and inspired me to pursue writing short plays and sketches for the school drama department played on stage for the student body. Attending Shoreline Community College, I worked in the TV studio with access to the drama department for which I wrote comedic sketches, which were televised.

My first professional work was writing for stand-up comedians and as the head writer for a talk show (The Tricano DeSales show (1980-1983)). I wrote radio shows for the studio from 1985-1995, learning to write dialogue. I wrote for the Midnight Mystery Theater live radio comedy two shows a month for two years-as "on the job training" to learn the craft of economic storytelling and comedic dialogue. The theater was my classroom. The shows were performed and recorded live at the Belltown Theater for the air on KSER FM in Lynnwood.

In 1995-1996, I wrote three plays--as a learning process with readings only. In 2006 I began writing producible one-acts as training for the full lengths. In 2008 I had my first full length play fully produced and I continue going strong.

MOD: You’ve been very successful in getting your plays produced around town for years. Do producers come to you, do you submit widely, do you self-produce, or all of the above?

JR: I workshop every play I have ever written with other playwrights and hold staged readings as I did with The Playwrights Salon to the point where I can present the play to a director I feel is right for the project. I work with the director on editing the play into a working script. I believe it is essential to the process to have an objective editor and a director is more qualified than a playwright on overall tempo and detail as the work is closer to production. I hold a staged reading for the public and invite a potential producer or artistic director. Having a director in place is always a plus because directors often have crew they work with and the play is more enticing to a prospective producer when all the ducks are in a row.

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MOD: Advice for other playwrights seeking productions?

JR: Workshop a play as much as possible. If you are not in a group, find one or start one. Support is key in theater. And an experienced director told me when I was 21: ALWAYS GET THE BEST ACTORS YOU CAN FIND! Look at it as writing music—you want good musicians to play your music. Same with theater. And don't trust your eyes, have actors read your work!!! Plays are to be experienced! You will have a much better barometer on your work and it makes rewrites more like looking at a road map than just wandering.

MOD: Do you write every day? Do you have a day job? If so, how does that impact your writing?

JR: Since I have a monthly radio show and I am working on two full length plays, I write every day, but Saturday and Sunday. I perform at night. Writing is my day job. I write early in the morning—fresh. My head is too crowded at night for creativity. I never write under the influence of anything but great writers.

MOD: What are the themes that interest you? Has that changed over the years you’ve been writing?

JR: I am fascinated by family dynamics and have written two tragedies based on my own family history. It is true—write what you know. I am working on a third. I find true life stories to have what all engaging stories have—a universal appeal. Radio plays are my comedy outlet. If I write a full length comedy, it requires a solid story with well-defined characters to hold an audience for two hours. Not an easy task. My most successful play at the box office was a comedy, “Private Cocktails”.

MOD: How do you describe your growth as a writer?

JR: I have learned to pay much more attention to character development and story structure with a working outline before a word of dialogue is written. Saves so much time! I used to rely on first draft energy to take me where I wanted to go—like being in a boat with no oars, waiting for the current. My growth is directly linked to discipline. I do not believe in inspiration.

MOD: Any comments/critique you’ve received that you remember as particularly helpful to you as you developed your craft?

JR: Don't hold on to anything. Writing for the theater is a community art form, a collaboration. Be flexible! I had a director say "Go home and cut 16 pages and you might have a show." I did and he was right.

MOD: What do you like best about working with theatre artists on your scripts? Describe your collaboration with directors, and your advice to new playwrights on working with directors.

JR: The relationship with a director is a delicate balance—egos are involved. A good working relationship is a marriage based on trust and respect. Ultimately the director is the captain of your ship and you will have to turn your work over completely. Scary? Hell, yes. No two directors are alike with individual styles, faults, and attributes. I have been lucky to choose many of my directors but I have learned to work with assigned directors. Directors who are also actors have a tendency to be more adept at articulating processes with actors but non-acting directors can excel in visual staging, but all in all it’s a mixed bag.

Either way, it is crucial to hold an interview and learn what the director understands your play to be about. Then go on to explore layers with he or she as an artist. The big picture, if you will, gets you off to a good start. I find actors to be useful editors in workshop readings because they are focusing on the one character. He or she can detect repetitive or unnatural dialogue. I listen to what they have to say, in earnest. A rule I adhere to: if more than one actor or writer doesn't understand anything in my play in workshop phase then it should never get to the stage.

MOD: What playwrights inspire you? Influence you?

JR: Sam Shepard, Eugene O'Neill, Clifford Odets, T. Williams, Albee (I know all the lines to Virginia Wolf), Neil Simon, Lillian Hellman, Arthur Miller (I will be acting in Death of a Salesman in Feb, 2019), Kaufman and Hart, and what's his noodle...Shakespeare.

MOD: What are you working on now?

JR: Dictionary: The story of the Oxford Dictionary's leading contributor in 1880's who also happened to be confined to a criminal asylum as a murderer. A doctor who went mad after branding deserters in the Civil War is given book material from outside sources from the wife of the man the doctor murdered. The relationship is quite unique as the widow wrestles with the notions of forgiveness and revenge for her husband’s senseless death.

Dinners: A series of dinners present a family in the turbulent 1960s of change coming to a head as the son of an ex-marine declares himself a conscientious objector in 1967, as told by the teenage sister of the young man. And The Case of the Missing Wizard- a cross between Harry Potter and Peyton Place.

MOD: Final words of advice for new playwrights?

JR: To make your play marketable and attractive to producers, keep your cast under 8 (2-6 range a preference) and limited sets (one or two ideal). Producers have to pay actors and provide set pieces. Keep your monologues under two minutes because actors have to memorize and make it real. To test this suggestion, try and memorize your own speeches and you'll see my point.

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