SCRIPT GODS MUST DIE: How Do You Know You’re A Playwright?

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I promised my Script Magazine editor that I would offer up whatever morsels I could on the craft of the playwright. What follows might very well amount to asking the 101-legged centipede how he walks. I have never felt the urge to examine how or why I spent a good 20 years of my life in the theater. So… let us consider the proposition. Wise words, life lessons to you Good Reader, who may be considering those two boards and a passion.

the playwright

  • You Become A Playwright Because You Must

Long ago in a galaxy far, far away, I was a poet. I was living hard in London right out of school. This was far back enough to witness the Changing of the Guard—the death of punk, the birth of New Wave. Sid Vicious had just suicided and the Clash had put out Give ‘Em Enough Rope. I was moving from shitty job to shitty job, reading far too much Bukowski, and writing exclusively about D E A T H. I asked Gregory Corso about this phenomenon—“Hey man, all I write about it death.” “That’s good, kid,” he replied, still the beat hipster at 60-something, “You’re young, you’re supposed to write about death!” Truth is, I knew nothing about the topic. But I would…

Eventually I grew tired of sleeping in frozen Kilburn bedsits and the bathtubs of Cockney squatter flats. I split back home to New York in the Fall of ’83. I took a gig as a bartender in a transvestite nightclub (please don’t ask about that, or my day gig at the porno bookstore). It was then I met Claire G. We moved in together into the meat market district, into the smallest hotel room in all of New York.  She was a junky who was battling it, getting herself on a Lower East Side methadone program. I thought I was there to help, but in actuality I was only there to bear witness, a bystander to the war within her. In the end, after 17 months together, she died of an overdose. We put her in the ground and six days later I finished my first play, dedicated to her. In every aspect, Claire G. made me a playwright.

There was no decision about writing A Fire Was Burning Over The Dumpling House One Chinese New Year. It had to be written, no bows necessary. And this is the first test of the playwright: Examine your stuff—Does this play have to be written?

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  • What Is It, Exactly, You’re Trying To Say?

Please understand, I’m not saying someone has to die in order for you to write a play! But you damn well better know what it is, exactly, you’re trying to say. Because if you don’t, you’ll be stumbling around with character and story development. Theme is critical in theater, even more so than in film. Theater is about immediacy, it’s verbal in nature. Compare this to film which is the juxtaposition of images manipulated for emotional impact.  Stage craft is important, sure, but nobody’s paying $40 bucks to see the Steppenwolf set design. Plays are about words. And before you take on this enterprise—i.e. the months it will take to write a stage play—please be clear on why the hell you’re doing it.

When I asked Judith Malina how she picked new projects, the Founder of the Living Theater (and one of theater’s Grande Dames) said: “First, I figure out what it is I want to say. Then I go about saying it.” The simplicity of that is quite brilliant. How many of us start up new projects without ever once understanding what we’re trying to accomplish?

  • The Autobiographical Playwright

Perhaps it was out my reverence to Bukowski that I became an autobiographical playwright. If my plays weren’t wholly and directly taken from my own life, they were partially grown there. The first four I wrote were straight-up pilfered from reality. These included two on Claire, one on my stint at that aforementioned porno bookstore, and a homage to Samuel Beckett’s Waiting For Godot set at a casino craps table, seven characters waiting for an Italian-beef hero named Johnny Red to show. This was written as I was dealing dice for Donald Trump at Trump Castle in Atlantic City (don’t ask me about that gig either). Point being, early on Good Reader, you’ll need to figure out if your life is open game for your play-writing.

It’s a cliché to think that if someone is 20 they haven’t lived enough to write about their life. I’ve seen unbelievable five-minute movies by Columbia College freshmen that were intensely personal projects. There’s no age barrier here. It should be something, though, that’s intensely personal and that will have meaning to an objective audience. Because only if it translates into the universal will it have real resonance. People have to relate… though it’s the personal subjects that are the hardest to let go of, to take critique on, and to change. Remember a couple things:

1-This isn’t a documentary. Just because it happened in real life doesn’t mean it has to happen that way in the play.

2-Just because it happened to you, doesn’t make it a play! This second one is tougher, when you realize that living it isn’t enough…it has to interest an audience, too.

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  • Write A Million Words

“Gotta write a million words before write your first good one.” I’m sure you’ve read that cliché before. Please beware of gurus and other learned men with voluminous books on how you should write your play. Whenever I hear something must be written this way or that, my bullshit meter goes off. I don’t have all the answers, by now that should be painfully obvious. If you glean one or two nuggets from this article we’ll consider it a victory. But about the famous million words… the truth behind the cliché is that you’ll need a few things to click in before you get good at this. Developing a voice takes time. Developing an eye and ear for what works for the audience takes time. You should be in this for the long haul because it’s going to take that long to succeed. Doesn’t take Einstein to know that there’s the art of the thing, and the craft of it. You could show raw genius right off but it will probably take the dues of life and the learning of craft for your talent to explode. Think about Sylvia Plath who was a nationally recognized poet for her early, elegiac work. It wasn’t until the last year of her life when she wrote the tortured and savagely haunting shorter poems of her most famous book, Ariel. She wrote these last poems very quickly, in the last moments of her life, in a totally new style.

Style is the watchword. The playwright doesn’t find style, it finds him. David Mamet is known for a certain type of play. Chicago-style, foul-mouthed hustlers (which isn’t fair, he’s greater than that.) Arthur Miller is known for drama. Neil Simon, comedy. Apollinaire and Artaud for surrealism. It will take time to find a niche so don’t get discouraged. The Million Word thing is a cliché, but as with all cliches, there’s a smidgen of truth there.

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  • Nature Of The Beast

No, it doesn’t surprise me that the majority of writers at Script Mag have little interest in playwriting. Every year 50,000+ screenplays are registered with the Writer’s Guild. If you’re in L.A. you can’t walk 10 paces without the proverbial valet busboy bartender slash screenwriter. Your dry cleaning guy just got back from Pitchfest. Your insurance agent just finished an eight-episode web series pilot. Your dentist has a lunch meeting with his new manager, an Ari Emanuel-clone at uber-hip Cafe (K)new. Everyone, everyone, everyone is writing a screenplay.

When’s the last time you met someone who was writing The Great American novel? That was the thing once, way back in Old School times of Fitzgerald and Hemingway.

And when’s the last time you bumped into someone starting a career as a playwright?

Doesn’t happen often, does it?

If that’s you… you are rare, Good Reader.

Be advised that the title Playwright is a noble breed bestowed only with true outrage and suffrage. It is a solitary lifestyle upon which you are about to embark. The chances of making a living from this ain’t great. The chances of movie fame even less. If money and fame are why you’re getting into this, you should pack it up right now.

Seriously. Pack up. I’ll wait.

You still there? Those few of you left… You were the ones for whom this article was intended. You are gallant and, as Bukowski said, “sick suckers marking time.” Mortality runs through your affairs like a rusted $20 buck Timex watch. Let the screenwriters have their kidney-shaped Hollywood swimming pools, you’ve chosen to look into the face of the Beast, like the Lord Of The Flies kids.

Christ help you, you’re a Playwright.

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