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Matthew Freeman is a Brooklyn based playwright with a BFA from Emerson College. His plays include THE DEATH OF KING ARTHUR, REASONS FOR MOVING, THE GREAT ESCAPE, THE AMERICANS, THE WHITE SWALLOW, AN INTERVIEW WITH THE AUTHOR, THE MOST WONDERFUL LOVE, WHEN IS A CLOCK, GLEE CLUB, THAT OLD SOFT SHOE and BRANDYWINE DISTILLERY FIRE. He served as Assistant Producer and Senior Writer for the live webcast from Times Square on New Year's Eve 2010-2012. As a freelance writer, he has contributed to Gamespy, Premiere, Complex Magazine, Maxim Online, and MTV Magazine. His plays have been published by Playscripts, Inc., New York Theatre Experience, and Samuel French.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Workshops, Collaboration and Feedback

I'm feeling pretty pumped today because I sat down with a friend and collaborator of mine, read through the first two acts of my latest play "The Most Wonderful Love" and came away with some solid new thoughts, notes, and edits.

It made me think of precisely the wrong kind of directoral approach to playwrighting. Joshua James has written a fantastic, telling and, as usual, witty version of similar thoughts on his Daily Dojo.

A few years ago, I had completed my play, "The Great Escape," (Pictures of the eventual production can be found here) and I was looking for a place to have it produced. Through a contact who was high on the script, I was put in touch with a downtown director who I'd heard of, and who has had a solid reputation for his Greeks and Shakespeares.

We met in Park Slope, and having never met me before, he proceeded to explain to me that he had uncovered the protagonist of the play, which he felt was "Susan," a character that is off-stage in Act I, tied up and silent in a bag in Act II, and finally comes in for a show-ending monologue that makes up almost the entirety of Act III. His suggestions were based on this concept, ripped from the pages of a playwrighting text book. He felt the play was "her" play and that I should rewrite the play to match who was "clearly the protagonist."

Needless to say, I didn't wind up working with him. It occurred to me that he didn't actually want to direct the play I'd written; he wanted to direct the play he was looking for between my script and his own designs.

What I've found is essential is to be rather careful about who you listen to and to what end. That's why I feel workshops and open discussion about a play are often rather damaging. Only someone who understands and enjoys the playwright's work should be anywhere near the process of creating that play.

Last night, I got some pretty merciless feedback and walked away with a fair amount of work to do, but knowing that it was from someone who was high on the play already, made the work something I'm looking forward to doing. If it had come from someone with an agenda that was anything except "I want to see Matt Freeman's best work," it's simply off the table. Anyone who I feel has little personal stake in my work is someone who I won't accept commentary from during the initial process.

I know some playwrights relish a long workshopping process (most don't.) I'll be bold enough to quote myself regarding that from my Rants and Raves on the New York Foundation for the Arts Website:


Workshops: Playwrights know the workshop dilemma all too well. It’s how large production companies earn their “new work” grants while avoiding the production costs associated with actually producing untested plays. The end result? Hundreds of expressive and original new plays, whittled down to nubbins of shavings of what they could have been, wartless, because of hours and hours of witless “feedback.” Well intentioned, maybe, but deadly for your sense of self, like a boob job.


Joshua said...

Amen, brother and thanks for the shout out- by the way, a friend sent me a Schwartenegger's Street clip that you will love - it's on the Dojo - it killed me.

Scott Walters said...

The type of director you describe above is exactly why I and my co-author, Cal Pritner, wrote "Introduction to Play Analysis" (McGraw-Hill 2004). The first rule of determining the protagonist is that they have to be driving the action, which means they have to be onstage. There are other rules as well, all of which go toward seeing what has been provided by the playwright, so that the director isn't making things up from whole cloth! To my mind, most of the crappy theatre I see is the result of horrible analysis skills on the part of the director!

Freeman said...

I'd be interested to read your book. I've never taken any formal playwrighting instruction, although I had a great mentor, David Valdes-Greenwood, a playwright whose 10 minute appeared in last year's Humana Festival.

The truth of the problem with my plays, to be fair to the aforementioned director, is they are written in an extremely unorthodox way and they often skirt regular dramatic rules, even when they appear to be in many ways traditional plays. Many of my characters are victims of some larger action, or don't understand what they're doing, or are discovering what it is they want throughout the play. I can make it difficult to nail down a protagonist at all, or find the climax, or identify who is the "most important" character, etc. I suspect that the aforementioned director is probably extremely solid at traditional play analysis, and, dumbfounded a bit by my play, tried to apply the rules to the play as best he could. When he found that my play broke those rules a little too much for his taste, instead of looking at the script with all its strangeness and dedicating himself to something outside the "rules" he asked me to adjust the play to match them.

I believe firmly that playwrights should understand the structures and rules they are either ignoring or using. But the rules are simply tools, these days. People are incredibly familiar with structure, even unconsciously, and you can use the "rules" to play with those expectations, create a sense of surprise or chaos. I think the rules are there for a reason, I just don't believe that each play should ascribe to them.

That's why finding a director that understands the writer's particular sensiblity is important. Plays are not math problems to be solved.

P'tit Boo said...

I would love to read your play...