Today’s Quotes

June 20, 2016

th-1“(. . . working on a play.) You do the first job as neatly as you can: She comes in. Then you do the next job: He sees her. And so on. It’s an extraordinarily useful lesson.”

“Elaine May has a wonderful motto: ‘The only safe thing is to take a chance.’ “I think she means that if you stay safe, and don’t take a chance — don’t do something that’s different from the last thing,  something that makes you nervous and holds dangers — if you keep trying to do the thing that worked last time, the encrustations of mannerisms begin to take you over. And pretty soon you’re no good at all — and therefore not safe at all. The longer you play it safe, the less interesting is what you do.”

Mike Nichols, the Director’s Art, by Barbara Gelb

NYT Magazine, May 27, 1984


Today’s Quote

June 12, 2015

Sam Shepard

Sam Shepard, Q&A“Catharsis is getting rid of something. I’m not looking to get rid of it; I’m looking to find it. I’m not doing this in order to vent demons. I want to shake hands with them.”

Adapted from Rhythm & Truths by Amy Lippman

American Theatre, April 1984  


Today’s Quote

August 26, 2014

Bertolt Brecht

BrechtExil“The stage began to tell a story. The narrator was no longer missing, along with the fourth wall . . . the actors too refrained from going over wholly into their role, remaining detached from the character they were playing and clearly inviting criticism of him . . . The spectator was no longer in any way allowed to submit to an experience uncritically, by means of simple empathy with the characters in a play. The production took the subject matter and the incidents shown and put them through a process of alienation: the alienation that is necessary to all understanding.”

—Brecht on Theatre

The Development of an Aesthetic

Edited and translated by John Willett, 1964


Bertolt Brecht on Playwriting III

October 23, 2013

Adapted from Playwrights on Playwriting

Edited by Toby Cole

Brecht1Our own period,  which is transforming nature in so many and different ways, takes pleasure in understanding things so that we can intervene. There is a great deal to man, we say; so a great deal can be made out of him. He does not have to stay the way he is now, nor does he have to be seen only as he is now, but also as he might become. We must not start with him; we must start on him. This means, however, that I must not simply set myself in his place, but must set myself facing him, to represent us all. That is why the theatre must make what it shows seem strange.

It is an oversimplication if we make the actions fit the character and the character fit the actions; the inconsistencies which are to be found in the actions and characters of real people cannot be shown like that. The laws of motion of a society are not to be demonstrated by “perfect examples,” for “imperfection” (inconsistency) is an essential part both of motion and of the thing moved. it is only necessary—but absolutely necessary—that there should be something approaching experimental conditions; i.e., that a counter-experiment should now and then be conceivable. In short, this is a way of treating society as thought all its actions were performed as experiments.

The coherence of the character is in fact shown by the way in which its individual qualities conflict with one another.

Observation is a major part of acting. The actor observes his fellow-men with all his nerves and muscles, in an act of imitation which is at the same time a process of the mind. For pure imitation would only bring out what had been observed; and this is not enough, because the original says what it has to say with too subdued a voice. To achieve a character rather than a caricature, the actor looks at people as though they were playing him their actions, in other words as though they were advising him to give their actions careful consideration.

Without opinions and objectives one can represent nothing at all. Without knowledge one can show nothing; how could one know what would be worth knowing? Unless the actor is satisfied to be a parrot or a monkey he must master out period’s knowledge of human social life by himself joining in the war of the classes. Some people may feel this to be degrading, because they rank art, once the financial side has been settled, among the Highest Things; but mankind’s highest decisions are in fact fought out on earth, not in the heavens; in the “external” world, not inside people’s heads. Nobody can stand above the human race. Society cannot share a common communication system so long as it is split into warring classes. For art to be “unpolitical” means only that it should ally itself with the ruling group.

If you’d like to read what playwrights such as Arthur Miller, Sam Shepard, Joyce Carol Oates and others 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.



Bertolt Brecht on Playwriting II

October 11, 2013

Adapted from Playwrights on Playwriting

Edited by Toby Cole

Brecht6I who am writing this write it on a machine which at the time of my birth was unknown. I travel in the new vehicles with a rapidity that my grandfather could not imagine . . . and I rise in the air, a thing that my father was unable to do. With my father I already spoke across the width of a continent, but it was together with my son that I first saw the motion pictures of the explosion at Hiroshima . . . . The new sciences may have made possible this vast alteration . . . of our surroundings, yet it cannot be said that their spirit determines everything that we do. The reason why the new way of thinking and feeling has not yet penetrated the great mass of men is that the sciences, for all their success in exploiting and dominating nature, have been sopped by the class which they brought to power . . . from operating in another field where darkness still reigns, namely that of the relations which people have to one another during the exploiting and dominating process.

(A) technique of creating detachment, known as the Alienation Effect . . . allows us to recognize its subject, but at the same time makes it seem unfamiliar. The classical and medieval theatre defamiliarized its characters by making them wear human or animal masks; the Asiatic theatre even today uses musical and pantomimic A Effects. Such devices were certainly a barrier to empathy (Einfühlung), and yet this technique owed more, not less, to hypnotic suggestion than do those by which empathy is achieved. The social aims of these old devices were entirely different from our own.

The old A Effects quite remove the object represented from the spectator’s grasp, turning it into something that cannot be altered. The new are not odd in themselves, though the unscientific eye stamps anything strange as odd. The new detachment is only designed to free socially conditioned phenomena from the stamp of familiarity which protects them against our grasp today.

To transform (ourselves) from general passive acceptance to a corresponding  state of suspicious inquiry (we) need to develop that detached eye with which the great Galileo observed a swinging chandelier. He was amazed by this pendulum motion, as if he had not espected it and could not understand its occurring, and this enabled him to come on the rules by which it was governed. Here is the outlook, disconcerting but fruitful, which the theater must provoke with its representations of human social life. It must amaze its public, and it achieves this by a technique of making the familiar seem strange.

This technique allows the theatre to make use in its representations of the new social scientific method know as dialectical materialism. In order to unearth society’s laws of motion this method treats social situations as processes, and traces out all their inconsistencies. It regards nothing as existing except in so far as it changes; in other words, is in disharmony with itself. This also goes for those human feelings, opinions, and attitudes throught which at any time the form of human social life finds its expression.

If you’d like to read what playwrights such as Arthur Miller, Sam Shepard, Joyce Carol Oates and others 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.



Bertolt Brecht on Playwriting

September 23, 2013

Adapted from Playwrights on Playwriting

Edited by Toby Cole

Brecht7“Theatre” consists of this: in making live representations of reported or invented happenings between human beings, and doing so with a view to entertainment.

From the first it has been the theatre’s business to entertain people . . . It is this business which always gives it its particular dignity; it needs no other passport than fun, but this it has got to have. We should not in any way be giving it a higher status if we were to turn it, e.g., into a purveyor of morality; it would on the contrary run the risk of becoming debased, and this would occcur just as soon as it failed to make its moral lesson enjoyable, and enjoyable to the senses at that—a principle, admittedly, by which morality can only gain. Not even instruction can be damanded of it; at any rate, no more utilitarian lesson than how to move pleasurably, whether in the physical or in the spiritual sphere. The theatre must in short remain something entirely superfluous, though this also means that it is the superfluous for which we live. Nothing needs less justification than pleasures.

(W)hat the ancients, following Aristotle, demanded of tragedy is nothing higher or lower than that it should entertain people. Theatre may be said to be derived from ritual, but that is only to say that it becomes theatre once the two have separated . . . . when people speak of higher and lower degrees of pleasure, art stares impassively back at them; for it wishes to fly high and low and to be left in peace, so long as it can give pleasure to people.

Incorrectness, or considerable improbability even, was hardly or not at all disturbing, so long as the incorrectness had a certain consistency and the improbability remained of a constant kind. All that mattered was the illusion of compelling momentum in the story told . . . narrative is the soul of drama.

 If you’d like to read what playwrights such as Arthur Miller, Sam Shepard, Joyce Carol Oates and others 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.


Terrence McNally On Playwriting

June 22, 2011

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.