Terrence McNally On Playwriting

Adapted from: From Page to Stage: How a Playwright Guards His Vision

The New York Times, December 7, 1986

I worry that in the process of developing my new play I lose it . . . An actor will suggest I make a role more sympathetic. . . . Directors will insist on structural changes they are positive will make all the difference to the play’s success . . . A play is lost not on the IRT but when the original impetus behind its writing is misplaced or forgotten during its metamorphosis from typescript to that living organism we call a play.

The Dramaturg

A dramaturg’s job is to find a playwright and help that playwright to find his play. A dramaturg is a critic who is on the playwright’s side. He reviews his play before the critics do.

Unfortunately, I have seen plays so rewritten and improved at the behest of a well-intentioned dramaturg that the actual life force that caused them is stifled. One shudders to think what hoops a structurally minded dramaturg would have wanted Eugene O’Neill to jump through.

Dramaturgs are intimidating people. The very title empowers them. They have graduate degrees. They speak and read German, so they really know their Brecht. They seem to have read and understood Aristotle. They hate the commercial theater. They even have seminars and retreats where they talk about how much they hate the commercial theater. Many of them have been to Russia to observe theater and you know they will beat you to China, too . . . Some of them have even written plays.

I think a dramaturg can do more harm than good . . . A good dramaturg should find a script he believes in, recommend it to his theater, fight for it and then buzz off.

The Actors

The first cast of a play is the most crucial one . . . An insensitive early cast makes development of a play impossible.

Creative actors are the most important collaborators a playwright has. I think that good directors intuitively know this. Their job becomes letting the communication between actor and playwright via the script intensify. It’s called staying out of the way.

An intelligent, feeling actor can make a permanent contribution to the play. If I were to thank every actor who has given me insight, inspiration and just plain joy in creating a character (not to mention a line here and there and some terrific business) the list would include just about every actor I’ve ever worked with.

If directing is 90 percent casting (and I have heard at least one great director aver this), the fate of a play is almost surely sealed when those troops first assemble . . . Even in the earliest stages of a play’s development, the wrong cast can thoroughly derail a playwright’s intentions, often through no fault of their own except that they were not well cast in the first place.

The quickest way I know to lose your bead on your play is to start rewriting to accommodate the actors.

The Director

A director is someone you entrust with the responsibility for the million details that make a production — except for the script . . . A director is not a co-author of the text of the play. He is a colleague in realizing that text. His work is with the actors and technical artists . . . Development does not mean abnegating responsibility for a play.

The Audience

Any play is a dialogue between the actors and the audience. I don’t think a play can be developed without an audience. They are the final cast members to be added. They come unrehearsed but their spontaneous response is what tells us if we have succeeded.

This is one in a series that will post  on Wednesdays. If you’d like to read more about what people like Sam Shepard, Harold Pinter, Joyce Carol Oates and other famous — and not so famous — playwrights have to say about the art and craft of writing and directing plays, type “On Playwriting” into the small sidebar window and tap the “Search” button.

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2 Responses to Terrence McNally On Playwriting

  1. jesuisaudrey says:

    Interesting ideas. I don’t know much about producing plays except what I learned in high school drama, but I do love watching them perform, and insight like this is always cool to hear.

  2. Jim says:

    Thanks for the comment. I’m doing a series of these which will post on Wednesdays. Last week it was Harold Pinter and next week it will be Joyce Carol Oats. In the recent past I’ve done a series of five with Sam Shepard. You may also enjoy some of those.

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