Jane Anderson On Playwriting

Adapted from: Jane Anderson knows it’s time to let go

The Los Angeles Times
October 7, 2007

As I write this, I’m well into the third week of rehearsals for my new play at the Geffen Playhouse, “The Quality of Life.” As the playwright, I would have ducked out by now to let the director and the actors work out the nuts and bolts of interpreting the play. Maybe I’d get the occasional phone call from the director wondering if they could possibly add or cut a line. But mostly I would rightfully be asked to disappear so everyone could mess around with the text in peace without having me hunched in the back of the rehearsal room wringing my hands.

Writers are free to blunder without fear of judgment (unless you count our own internal critics, who are unfailingly harsh). Getting lost is part of the creative process, and actors must have freedom to wander and explore. This applies to the theater director as well, especially if he or she is working on a new play that’s never been decoded before.

I know that my actors appreciate having direct access to my head. There are times when they simply want to know what I meant by a line, and I’ll fill them in if I sense it’ll help them solve a piece of the puzzle. It saves time in rehearsal and cuts down on their frustration factor. Sometimes I feel uncomfortable explaining too much, and I’ll say, “Well, what do you think that means?” like some Freudian shrink. The actors hate that; if they ask, they want to know. They’re thinking of making the deadline of opening night and they don’t want to waste energy going down the wrong rabbit hole.

But the theater director is a different kind of animal. He or she has no control over a production once it’s up and running. Maybe the pace, the tone, the style of the play have been set, but the performances will always be in a state of flux. The actors run the show. As they should. They’re the ones who have the relationship with the audience, not the director or the playwright. Once the play opens, it’s their baby — and most auteur types are not terribly comfortable with this idea.

I’m humbled by the fact that I must eventually release the reins to this profoundly talented company of actors. There’s no postproduction for me, no editing or sound mixing, no color-correcting for the DVD. And when the run is over, the set will be struck, the cast will disperse and all that will be left are some dog-eared scripts and the knowledge that something remarkable happened on that stage.

It used to be . . . I’d sink into a dark hole whenever one of my plays closed. Maybe that’s what drove me to seek out the permanence of film. But coming back to the theater as a hyphenate means that I have to cede control of my work twice-fold. It’s the ultimate lesson in letting go.

So here’s to living in the moment. And here’s to the magic of the stage and the beautiful impermanence of it all.

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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