The Playwrights’ Booklist

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Do you remember your favorite English teacher enthusiastically introducing the play-within-a-play concept? Maybe this was in conjunction with a study of Shakespeare. After all, Shakespeare was the master of the play-within-a-play: Think about the eerie performance of The Murder of Gonzago, in Hamlet, or the wild adaptation of Pyramus and Thisbe, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Each time Shakespeare artfully placed a play within his stories, he mirrored elements of the main story, sometimes adding comic relief or foreshadowing in the process.

Now, 450 years later, let’s look at the play-within-a-play idea in a new light. Below is a booklist curated especially for today’s playwrights and theater lovers. In the pages of these books, you will meet characters who are playwrights or actors and encounter stories that revolve around theaters. The books in this list represent a wonderful jumble of genres in hopes that you will reach outside your comfort zone when selecting your next book.

Be sure to report back. Let us know your favorites from this list, and post other ideas as well.

Mansfield Park, Jane Austen. Humble and intelligent Fanny Price grows up with wealthy cousins at Mansfield Park. Except for a friendship with her cousin Edmund, Fanny feels lonely and, at times, like she is the only person in the neighborhood who has retained a jot of common sense.

Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel. Beginning with a fatal performance of King Lear, and moving back and forth across time, this novel tells the tale of a troupe of musicians and actors who are struggling to survive in postapocalyptic America.

Just One Day series, Gayle Forman. In this successful Young Adult series, Allyson and Willem meet in England during a Guerrilla Will performance of Twelfth Night. Over the course of a year, Allyson and Willem travel the globe searching for each other and for themselves, aided unknowingly by their mutual connect to the works of Shakespeare.

The Laughing Hangman (from the Nicholas Bracewell series), Edward Marston. Set in Elizabethan London, this witty tale follows Nicholas as he defends a feisty playwright and encounters more than his share of mysterious hangings - all while attempting to woo an old flame.

The Goddess of Buttercups & Daisies, Martin Millar. Ancient Greece is a refreshing and creative backdrop for Millar’s clever and laughable novel about everyday life, politics, the drama of the Greek pantheon, and the Athenian theater scene.

Waiting for 2000, Zack Love. Love’s clever Y2K satire pays homage to Samuel Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot. Readers can’t help chuckling as they escape into the absurd and excessive world of the uber rich - and the disgruntled duo who didn’t make the cut.

The Phantom of the Opera, Gaston Leroux. Perhaps you have a fond memory of seeing The Phantom of the Opera in the theater. But, have you ever read the novel? First published as a French serial in 1909, Leroux’s enthralling tale of love, loss, and jealousy is a must read.

Drama, Raina Telgemeier. Young Adult librarians turn to this popular graphic novel when they need a surefire book recommendation. This well-crafted story of middle school theater antics will have you laughing and shaking your head in recognition - and relief that those days are behind you.

Payment in Blood (from the Inspector Lynley series), Elizabeth George. Set in the Scottish Highlands, the second installment of the much-loved Inspector Lynley series focuses on the murder of playwright Joy Sinclair. Readers are simultaneously drawn into the lives of Inspector Lynley and his partner, as well as the exploits of a theater company and a colorful cast of characters and murder suspects.

The Actor’s Life: A Survival Guide, Jenna Fischer. Dip your toes into the nonfiction pond with this witty how-to guide for aspiring actors. Most folks know Fischer from her role on The Office, but readers will learn about the years of hard work and rejection that came before. Designed to educate and inspire new actors, this book would be interesting for any fan of the arts. And, if you’ve been wanting to try out an audiobook, you’ll enjoy listening to Fischer read her own work.


By Autumn Hjort, Seattle Playwrights Salon’s Literary Manager

Playwrights Binge!

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Patrick Gabridge, a prolific, award-winning, and much produced Boston playwright, founded the online Playwrights’ Submission Binge, and is the co-founder and coordinator of the New England New Play Alliance, the Dramatists’ Guild New England Regional Representative, and the producing artistic director of Plays in Place. The Salon’s Artistic Director, Margaret O’Donnell, interviewed Patrick to learn more about the Binge.

Salon: What is the Binge?

Patrick Gabridge (PG): The Binge is an online community focused on marketing for playwrights. It started small, but it's grown to almost 1,100 members.

Salon: Why did you develop it? And when?

PG: I wanted a way to make my marketing chores more fun. So back in 2003, I set up a group with about a dozen fellow playwrights. The idea was to take the challenge of sending out a play a day, every day, for 30 days. Each person was to report back to the group what they sent, where, and why. It was a way to make a game out of it, and to build in a sense of accountability. It ended up working great, so we did it again. Now we do it twice a year, every March and September. It's a great way to share information and to build positive habits for yourself. It's also an incredibly supportive on-line community for playwrights.

Salon: Does it fill a gap in submission how-to for playwrights? If so, what?

PG: Because people are sharing a lot of information, it's a great way to stay informed about what opportunities are out there. And it's free. It's also a good place to turn if you have marketing related questions.

Salon: How do playwrights use it?

PG: They just join the Yahoo group. (The platform may change in the near future, to make it even easier to join.) Once they're on, they'll receive e-mails from the list. In the Binge months (March and September), they can take up the challenge and participate in the marketing frenzy. Or not. Lots of people are lurkers, and just kind of observe from a distance. It's low pressure. The site is at: https://groups.yahoo.com/neo/groups/playwrightbinge/info

Salon: What are your best tips for benefiting from the Binge?

PG: Try to meet the challenge. Send out a script a day every day for 30 days in March and September. If you do, you'll have made 60 submissions for the year. The odds are low for any submission to succeed, so numbers matter. If you don't submit your work, it's hard for it to get produced, especially if you're not already well-connected.

Salon: Have there been unexpected consequences of the Binge? Serendipitous coincidences and connections?

PG: I think sometimes theatres are surprised when they get a sudden wave of submissions after they've been mentioned by someone on the list. Many friendships have developed on the group, and we had a great in-person gathering at the Dramatists Guild National Conference in July. I've certainly gotten lots of opportunities from submissions I've sent, and relationships I've formed on the Binge. I've made two trips to South Korea for productions of my work directly due to Binge friends recommending me for an opportunity. It really does work.

Salon: How has the Binge evolved since you first developed it?

PG: There are a lot more people involved, that's for sure. It's a little more active year-round, and I think people are even more generous than when we began about sharing opportunities. There's so much information available online now, as compared to 15 years ago, and our members are great about gathering that info and sharing it with the group.

Salon: What are your plans for the Binge? Are others involved?

PG: I'm hoping we'll shift to a more user-friendly platform, in early 2019. I just need to find a window of time to do it. This is something that can run simply and cheaply, so it's really just me handling the operations of the group. But it's everyone working together that makes it an actual active and supportive community--that's all due to the generosity and passion and energy of our member playwrights. Their spirit has made the Binge a very special community.

Binge group at 2018 Dramatist’s Guild conference

Binge group at 2018 Dramatist’s Guild conference

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.