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Behind the Scenes: How to Write a Play

By Justin Sondak in Arts & Entertainment on Oct 30, 2006 5:00PM

Note: “Behind the Scenes” is a new series exploring the arts as a business and a craft.

For every playwright enjoying a production on a Chicago stage during this busy theater season, many more are waiting their turn. Rebecca Gilman knows both sensations well. Ms. Gilman is one of Chicago’s most acclaimed playwrights, her work has been produced at the Goodman Theatre, London’s Royal Court Theatre, Manhattan Theatre Club and regional theaters across the country. She was named a Pulitzer Prize finalist for The Glory of Living, which locally won a Jeff Citation and an After Dark Award. She mines the complex issues behind sensational media stories in shows that include Spinning Into Butter, Boy Gets Girl, and Blue Surge.

gilmanpic.jpgGilman recently joined the Northwestern University faculty in the Radio and TV Department, a new MFA program focusing on writing for the stage and screen. We attended a talk she gave last week at the Block Museum of Art about the playwriting craft. Here's what we found out:

How to get started

Gilman believes that you really ought to have the passion and desire to put something down on the page. You’re more likely to succeed if you really love theater and expose yourself to other dramatists and playwrights. She recommends taking a playwriting class so you can learn the rules and figure out how to break them. Take an acting class so you will know their challenges and have consideration for them when you write. Actors typically make the transition to playwriting either because they are terrible actors (which she claims was her case) or because they can turn their insight as talented actors into great plays (she cites Tracy Letts of Steppenwolf as an example).

Fear of writing is totally natural. Playwrights fear that they may fail, that their families may hate them or they will seem like freaks. To maintain a positive attitude, she recommends the book "The Artist's Way" by Julia Cameron, helping writers work through their ideas. To keep a healthy outlook, she stopped reading reviews of her own work, then stopped reading reviews of everything, relying solely on friends’ and colleagues’ recommendations.

Where to get ideas

gilmanlecturn.jpgShe recommends looking at what's right in front of you: your family, your friends, your co-workers, etc. She also recommends reading newspapers to find problematic, engaging situations. Read a lot. Growing up, she corresponded with Walker Percy, who gave her the following advice: “you have to read and read with passion.”

In Gilman’s estimation, great writers are always eavesdropping on conversations. In the age of cell phones, people are so revealing but sometimes seem to speak as if they are being watched and omit the rough edges of conversation. In the age of reality TV shows, people seem to be playing for an imaginary camera.

Putting pen to paper

She starts by hearing voices of potential characters talking in her head. Next she sees scenes and starts writing when two to three scenes have been formed. Many other writers approach plays with an outline of the story. She generally does not do this but made an exception when adapting other writers’ work.

She warns that you can never be certain where you'll find that first point of inspiration and cited Harold Pinter, who started writing The Homecoming upon hearing someone walk into a room and ask “What have you done with the scissors?”

The process

When things are going well, she devotes four to five hours/day to writing. Otherwise, she's not writing. Typically she'll think about an idea for two to three years. A first draft can take two to three months. After the next few rewrites, the script will be shown to a couple of people. Then she will make revisions for a draft for the larger public consisting of local directors and trusted theater professionals. Then it will be rehearsed with actors. Typically you have a four-week rehearsal process, then a couple of weeks of previews followed by a first production. Changes are made prior to a second production. Then, they take it away from you. In the end, remember that playwriting is such a collaborative process and that actors may contribute valuable feedback.

Finding inspiration

She believes The Music Man is the best musical ever because it is funny, touching, and has great songs. For better or worse, George Bernard Shaw is an inspiration, reminding her that drama requires opposing points of view and that intelligent inquiry can be exciting. She also recommends Anton Chekhov and Bertolt Brecht and regards Wendy Wasserstein, Beth Henley, and Marsha Norman as role models. She reads many contemporary playwrights and has a tremendous respect for Arthur Miller, remarkable for simultaneously addressing “Why am I so unhappy?”, a typically American question, and “How can I change the world?”, a typically European question.

Breaking into the market

It's not easy, says she. First of all, you are competing directly with dead people. Your typical regional theater only has one or two slots/season for live writers because people are weary of seeing new plays. Second, there is a scarcity of venues. In Chicago, she recommends checking out The Chicago Dramatists, who run a robust network for young playwrights. You should also enter your work in new play contests, so it will be read by a review panel.

You should also befriend directors, who tend to have lots of clout. Consider self-producing, a noble and terrific endeavor where you may find theater people to work on your show for free. Victory Gardens will consider anything from a Chicago playwright. The Royal Court in London will review all submissions, but an agent will help you get noticed. The playwright/agent relationship is a Catch-22: you need an agent to get produced or published, but agents generally consider only those writers who have been produced or published.

Finding new plays to read

It's easier than ever before to find published plays, thanks to Amazon. These sites not only have a large stock of titles, they also recommend similar works. Anything recently produced in New York has been published. Stores that sell scripts are rarer but the Soliloquy bookstore is a good local resource.

Related Links:
"A Beginner's Guide to Rebecca Gilman" by Chris Jones
Our review of Eclipse Theater Company’s recent production of Spinning Into Butter
Northwestern’s Center for the Writing Arts

Photos courtesy of Northwestern's Center for the Writing Arts