In the earlier days of my screenwriting career, I found myself with an empty Memorial Day weekend looming inexplicably large in front of me. It seemed like the perfect opportunity to hunker down and start a new script, perhaps yet another spec screenplay with a high concept–and even higher hopes.
But the prospect of pouring my heart and soul–not to mention countless cups of coffee–into one more potential “golden ticket” stopped me in my tracks. Like the string of screenplays I’d already written, would this next one earn its share of industry fans, inspire a raft of meetings with eager development execs, but ultimately elude that all-important sale? Past being prologue, the odds didn’t seem in my favor.
It turned out that, at that particular moment, I needed something more from my writing. I needed to tell a story that I wanted to tell in a way I wanted to tell it, maybe with a freer hand, fewer rules and less conventional expectations–especially from me. I decided to write a stage play.
Who knew it would change my writing life?
Sure, I’d always been a fan of reading and watching plays. But writing one? How do you do that? It seemed like such a daunting, improbable task. Until I did it.
At first, I wasn’t sure what story I actually wanted to tell in play form. But I knew it would be personal – maybe deeply personal – and, thus, something that would almost certainly be deemed “too small” or “too niche” by my agent or by buyers if written as a screenplay.
But putting aside those potential naysayers and my own uncertainties, I dove into the dialogue-driven, character-centric intimacy of playwriting and found myself on an intoxicating rollercoaster of creative discovery.
And although I was taking a less exacting approach than usual to structuring the story I realized I had been longing to tell, key events were unfolding in relatively the same fashion as they might have in a screenplay. Yes, scenes were exponentially longer, locations were limited (to one, in this case), and characters few (four total). But the narrative form took on its own equivalent of a film’s classic three-act structure, including a mid-point acceleration (the play’s end of act one) and a final showdown between the opponents.
In other words, while styles of storytelling in plays may run a wider, more idiosyncratic gamut than on the screen, there were more similarities than I realized; that was a comfort and a motivator. The process became demystified just by attempting it.
It might be too dramatic to say that the play wrote itself. But, maybe because of the personal nature of much of its story and the two lead characters, the piece did pretty much pour out of me with an unexpected focus and energy. If I didn’t finish it that Memorial Day weekend, it was completed soon after.
The work was exhilarating and gratifying. I’d written a stage play, imagine that! Okay, great – but to what end? Would I just put it in the proverbial drawer and read it from time to time for my own pleasure? Could it have a life in the theatre? Could it have a life beyond that? At that point, I had no idea. So into the “drawer” in went.
Until out of the blue, a new friend, who happened to work at a live theatre complex in Hollywood, asked if I’d ever written a play because they were looking to start a Sunday night reading series. “I have,” I said, “but I have no idea if it’s any good.” I considered myself a real screenwriter but a wannabe playwright.
Turned out, my friend loved my play and we scheduled a staged reading for a full audience. Actual working actors starred in it. The crowd was wildly enthusiastic. The laughter was of the foot-stomping kind; the tears brought out a few handkerchiefs. No one was more shocked than I was.
I was told the play must go on! And eventually, it did: I raised the funds and produced it myself. Know why? Because I could. Or maybe because I couldn’t not.
The 10-week run of that play, a father-son comedy entitled “Just Men,” remains one of my most resonant writing experiences. I took a chance, thought out of the box, wrote from the heart, learned on the job, and didn’t wait for anyone’s permission to succeed. For the first time in my career, I felt truly empowered.
I continued to write screenplays and teleplays, some on spec, some on assignment. I had feature films and TV movies made and network pilots put into development. But I never stopped writing plays because they remain such a pure and energizing means with which to tell certain kinds of stories.
I’ve seen many more of my plays produced since “Just Men,” including my latest, a three-sisters dramedy called “April, May & June” that–shameless plug–is currently on stage at Theatre 40 in Beverly Hills (through April 16th). My playwriting and their attendant staged readings and productions have consistently informed and improved my screenwriting efforts – and vice-versa. They’ve become invaluable ways to learn how to write for actors and how to collaborate effectively with directors.
And here’s the real beauty part: Unlike writers in certain other mediums, the playwright is irreplaceable. We’re treated with the kind of necessity and respect rarely afforded all but a handful of “A” screenwriters and TV showrunners. And that rare experience can go a long way in bolstering the confidence and resolve needed to go on and do our best work in film and TV.
Writing stage plays probably won’t help you buy that great house or new luxury car. It won’t jumpstart your health insurance or get you on any fancy party lists. But it will remind you that you’re a writer – hopefully a good one – and that you can tell a story with the best of them.
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