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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.

Friday, March 19, 2010


I had a chat with my pal Marshall a few weeks ago about his poetry and the group of poets he meets with to hash out work, give each other notes, and generally encourage one another. One thing that struck me was how he termed a poem that was viewed universally as working well and accomplishing its goals. He would say "Everyone agreed that that poem is finished."


That's not a phrase I hear very often, in the collaboration heavy/development happy world of theater. A playscript can often feel, unless it is published, in a constant state of flux. During any production of a play of mine (I don't mean workshop, I mean production) I will receive unsolicited advice quite often on what the next draft of the play should look like, what could or should be changed. The assumption is, I believe, that a play is a moving target, and is never truly finished. I think playwrights have, more often than not, accepted that view of their work.

I'd love to see the term "finished" used more by writers and by those who work in development. There is no piece of work that can satisfy all eyes, all audiences, all metrics. But a writer, and those that he or she trusts, can find a point where they say...not "this is good" but "this is finished."

I also think it's healthy for playwrights to say "this is a finished work." Then, the discussion can evolve. The lectures and lessons from laypersons and professionals alike can end, and a discussion of each play as a fully formed piece of art can emerge.

Do you think this is feasible? To move towards this sort of language? Or do you believe that because of the collaborative nature of theatre, there is no such thing as a "finished" play.

Furthermore, as a playwright, when do you look a script and say "I am not changing this any more. It is finished." Or have you never said that?


RVCBard said...

I want to answer the last question first since it'll probably seguey better.

Furthermore, as a playwright, when do you look a script and say "I am not changing this any more. It is finished." Or have you never said that?

I have said that about a script - my first play, "The Rose Knight."

It's not that I think the play can't be improved or that everything is right about it. The fact of the matter is that the RVCBard who wrote "The Rose Knight" is a different person from the RVCBard writing "Anne & Me." After a point, it's just fruitless to tinker with a script anymore because you run the risk of destroying whatever processes and experiences made that piece work.

Do you think this is feasible? To move towards this sort of language? Or do you believe that because of the collaborative nature of theatre, there is no such thing as a "finished" play.

I'd definitely appreciate moving toward this sort of language. Constantly talking about "development" tends to lend itself to mean that plays never get done. Instead of taking the work as it is and making it more like itself, play development feel like an attempt to reach this Platonic ideal of playwriting that is supposedly going to manifest in the next Great American Play.

Ironically, that very process is what inhibits those plays from being written in the first place. Real life and real art are a lot messier than that.

Jeffrey Alexander Lewonczyk said...

For me, a play is finished when I am. There comes a point when I say, "I'm done working on this." There is ALWAYS room for improvement - partly because I don't believe there's such thing as perfection in art, and partly because artists (meaning me, at least) generally want to get on with their lives, the next project, the new adventure. The fact that I generally produce my own work means I only really need to heed the opinions I want to heed, which takes some of the burn off of the "development" question.

So when then am >>I<< finished? Depends. Sometimes it's when the play hits production, but often simply because going any further feels boring or discouraging. If continuing to work on a thing feels like pulling teeth, it's probably a sign that it doesn't need to be "improved."

An interesting addendum is that, if I'm actually performing in something I've written, I'll often be more likely to "fix" things than if I'm just an observer in the process. I can actively feel when something can be funnier or when new circumstances on stage provoke a better string of words. On a few nights during the remount of Craven Monkey, to take an extreme example, I was up in the booth marking up my narration script between scenes to better accommodate onstage timing and address newly perceived continuity issues.

In general, though, that's rare, because I'm a cocky sumbitch who always thinks he gets it right the first time.

Anonymous said...

As an audience member, I assume the performed play I'm seeing today is the same play I'd see in 6 months unless the director took liberties with the script or the cast members ad-libbed for some reason.

isaac butler said...

I think there's two ways to think about it, for me.

There probably comes a time in working on a script when a writer isn't going to make any more changes and its up to the production staff to do the rest. That's one form of "finished", i think it is what you are talking about here.

Not every play makes it there. Kushner has said that he will never stop rewriting HOMEBODY/KABUL, for example, and rewrote it even After it had been published, so publication clearly isn't the borderline to cross. Neither is first production. When I AD'd APPARITION, it had already been produced once but Anne still did rewrites on it in rehearsal. It often takes a second (or even third) production before the writer thinks they got it right.

So I guess that means it is up to the writer and the borderline between finished and un is basically an arbitrary one. It's done when the writer declares the writing done (and sticks to their guns when someone convinces them that it is not).

Now, the other meaning of finished could be is the script a complete work of art irrespective of the production? Our feeling culturally about this have waxed and waned. For the brief period of time that the reading of plays was popular and they were written with extensive novelistic stage directions, clearly the script was meant to function as its own independent work of art, in sharp contrast to its cousin The Screenplay.

Now I think culturally we're at the point where we don't know whether the script is an independent art object or not. I certainly don't think of a script that i am directing as a finished work of art independent of my involvement, but that has more to do with what i find helpful towards getting good work out of myself and my collaborators. When I'm reading a script for pleasure (something I started doing this year for the first time in a long time) my brain switches gears and it feels like reading anything else.

Alison Croggon said...

I'll just speak as a poet here. I never think of a poem as "finished". I'm kind of with Paul Valery - "A poem is never finished, only abandoned." Poetry, maybe more than any other solely literary art, always seems transitional. Perhaps that's why poetry is closest to play writing.

Re art in general: one of my favourite quotes is from Marcel Duchamp, when The Large Glass was cracked in transit between galleries. He wasn't upset: he said, "It is finally unfinished".

Sean said...

RCVBard said it as well, or better, than I could. Mac Rogers and I started working on a musical in 2003, and by the time we were half way done with it, we realized that we had changed as people. In six months, we had become men who no longer believed in the thesis of the piece, and we just chucked the whole thing without a look back.

It's a tough thing, I think. Many people love a playwright's work some years later, and feel like a re-write is all that's necessary for some undiscovered gem to be the ticket out of the ghetto, but the truth is that the playwright who wrote that piece simply doesn't exist anymore. She or He can't return and rewrite, because the point of view is gone.

But I also agree with Jeff, a play is probably done as soon as working on it anymore is misery.

RLewis said...

Some really terrific comments to this post. I'll just chime in with a quote that I go by from visual artist Barneet Neuman, "A painting is never finished, it only stops in interesting places."