Neil Simon On Playwriting XI

September 12, 2012

Adapted From Paris Review, The Art of Theater No. 10

Interviewed by James Lipton

You asked . . . whether I write thematic plays. I don’t, but I have a feeling that in Lost in Yonkers there was a theme within me that was crying to get out, a common denominator that got to everybody. In the last fifteen, twenty years, a phrase has come into prominence that didn’t exist in my childhood: “dysfunctional family.” My mother’s and father’s constant breakups seemed to show little concern for my brother and me. It was like coming from five broken families. That pain lingers. Writing plays is a way of working out your life. That’s why I can never conceive of stopping, because I would stop the investigation of who I am and what I am.

I write the play, put it aside, take it out six months later, read it. By then I’ve forgotten everything about the play. It’s as though someone had sent it to me in the mail and I’m reading it for the first time. I can tell right away what I don’t and do like. That becomes a very easy rewrite—you just get rid of the stuff you don’t like. Then we start auditions for actors, so I keep hearing the words every day. After a while I can’t stand some of them and I start to rewrite, so in later auditions the actors get a better script to read. I finally say it’s the last draft before we go into rehearsal and we have a reading of the play in a room with just the producer, director and a few of the other people who will work on the play, one month before rehearsal. At that reading we have the entire cast, so now I know what it’s going to sound like. Based on that reading, I’ll do another major rewrite.

It’s rare that I would ever do what they do in musicals: “Why don’t we switch scene four and scene two?” I write in a linear way, so that everything falls apart if you take anything out. Sometimes if even a few sentences come out of the play something suffers for it later on. Once the play opens out of town, the most important rewriting begins, based on not only the audience’s and the out-of-town critics’ reactions, but the reactions of ourselves, the actors, and some people we’ve invited to see the play and comment. I also listen—if I can, to the audience’s comments on the way out of the theater. That becomes harder now that I’ve lost my invisibility.

I bring in rewrites no one has asked for. I’ll suddenly come in with five pages and the director and the actors will say, You didn’t like the other stuff? I’ll say, I think this is better. If you bring in seven pages, maybe three will work. That’s a big percentage. You’re way ahead of the game. An analogy for it would be if you were in college and took a test and your grade came back. You got a sixty-three on the test and they say, Come back tomorrow. You’ll be given exactly the same test. There’ll be no new questions. Well, you’re going to get an eighty-four on the second test.You’ll have had chances to fix it. That’s what happens to a play. Day by day, it gets better and better.

If you’d like to read what people such as Arthur Miller, Sam Shepard, Joyce Carol Oates and other famous — and not so famous — playwrights have to say about the art and craft of writing for the stage, type “On Playwriting” into the small sidebar window and tap the “Search” button.

Part XII of the Neil Simon series will post next Wednesday.