Speeches and Lectures
LECTURE: Writing in Foreign Lands: On the forms of theatrical
Presented at the National Academy for Film and Theater Studies
Sofia, Bulgaria Fall 2001
It is a pleasure to be here, and I would like to thank Rector Professor
Hristo Rukov and Vice Rector, Professor Snejina Tankovska for their hospitality.
As always, I am very much enjoying being here in Sofia with its broad tree-lined
streets, wonderful cultural institutions, fine food and wines, beautiful people,
and weather that is changing every fifteen minutes...
As Luba mentioned, I am currently engaged in a process with some of the
students where we are creating a play about the many compelling human stories
emerging in this very interesting period of time in your country, while at the
same time, teaching a little something about play writing and the process of
creating a new play.
Of course the first thing I will address in this presentation is the obvious
question that must be on your minds: How can an American write about Bulgaria
-or for that matter, about Cambodia or Ghana or any of these places that I am
So I want to first talk about the process that I have been developing through
my writing and through my organization, "World Communities," which is perhaps
different to most forms of play writing. I will call this "Community-Based
Theater." As I will discuss, this writing involves a unique form of
collaboration between the writer and a certain community of people whom he is
writing about. In discussing this, I will use examples from some of the plays I
Secondly, if we still have time, I will talk briefly about the collaboration
a playwright engages with the director and actors in the creation of a new play.
While every new play proceeds somewhat differently, I will try to talk about the
typical written and unwritten laws of this very delicate process. If we don't
have time, I will save this discussion for my next visit to Sofia
As we all know, theater is different that most art forms in that it is
inherently collaborative. As a writer of many forms, I know that my plays are
fundamentally different than my books or my articles in that with my plays; I
will have the benefit of many people's insight in arriving at my final product.
Usually, that insight is limited to that of the director, the actors, the
designers, and maybe a few chosen friends or associates.
What is different about the community-based theater process, and the process
that I am undertaking here in Bulgaria, is that this artistic collaboration
begins a long time before the first rehearsal, and it begins as collaboration
between the playwright and the audience. Of course, I am using the term
"audience" in the very broadest sense to mean the people of the place where the
play will be performed, who may or may not choose to actually see the play. This
collaboration begins before I have written the first word of the play, in the
research necessary to understand my subject matter. It takes place through many
forms, such as oral history research, direct interviews, written research
through books, magazines, and other forms of print, and even -and perhaps
especially -through the personal relationships that are developed over time.
Another thing that is unique to this process is that each version of the play
can also be an important research tool. In the Carter Drama, I am trying to
understand the personal aspects of the American Presidency -the areas where not
much has been written, and where it is difficult for either the President or the
First Lady to remember things when I first ask the questions. For example, I
want to know what happened after all the celebrations of the inaugural day when
it was just the two of them alone in the White House for the first time. To get
this information, I am providing to President Carter my best guess of how things
might have been in different situations as an initial draft of the script, and
allowing him to react to my portrayal. The draft of the script gives him
something to think about, and causes him to remember things he might not have
otherwise remembered, and ultimately, this gives me the information that I need.
In writing plays about particular cultures, such as the mountain people of
Appalachia in "The Reach of Song," I have held public readings of the play to
solicit response. People get a chance to see how I have portrayed their life or
their culture and their reactions give me additional information for later
versions of the script.
Of course, one of the great skills required for this type or writing -and
really any type of play writing- is the ability to sift through a lot of
information and find what you need and what is relevant to the play. I could
speak a great deal about this, but this would take hours. Suffice to say that it
is a very necessary skill for a playwright, and one that develops over time.
A writer from the outside brings two very important character tics to this
collaboration. The first is "Perspective." Perspective is the ability to see
clearly without the weight or the bias that being involved in a situation often
entails. It is the ability to look upon a situation and to see the significance
of the thing of which you are writing. It strips away familiarity, which is the
enemy of insight, to see the importance of that which can easily be overlooked
within a day to day existence.
Usually perspective is something that comes through time. Usually if we are a
part of something, we don't write about it until years after it has happened,
and by then, usually the action we are writing about is over, and if we are
writing about a social problem, it has already been resolved, and so the urgency
and the relevance of the piece; and thus the urgency and relevance of the
theater itself, has often been missed.
Of course, there are exceptions to this rule, and the particular genius of a
writer is the ability to step out of his time and see what is happening. But
this is more the exception than the rule. In the United States for example,
virtually all the movies about Vietnam were written many years after the war
ended. The stage and the screen were not very useful in making sense of what was
happening while it was happening, and only helped to tell us what did happen a
This process in which I am engaging attempts to erase the necessity of time
passing to create perspective by bringing in someone who already has the same
detachment, (an American in Bulgaria) and having them begin to create a
communication or an understanding through theater at the time when that
communication or understanding is most needed.
The second thing the writer provides is simply the interest of an outsider.
This creates some kind of odd momentum that leads to a wealth of information. I
noticed this phenomenon for the first time when I was hitchhiking around the
country: People are more likely to tell the most intimate details of their lives
to perfect stranger than they are to their best friend. When I hitchhiked, it
seemed like I went from narrative to narrative to narrative, and so it was very
easy to write a book about the experience. If they don't have to see you the
next day, people love to talk, and they love to have someone to listen to. It's
healing; it's affirming, and to a writer it's inspirational.
When there are pressing social problems- things that people really need to
talk about -this phenomena is that much more urgent.
I thought that one of the students -Lubov- described this very well. I asked
the students to take their tape recorders and to interview people about the
changes in your country. He said that when he did this, he couldn't get people
to stop talking, and it was as though somehow if they kept talking, this little
machine would have the answers for them; if they just kept talking, this little
machine would somehow change their lives.
When that happens, that's also an indication that you're on to something, and
that there is a play at the end of this process that is worth writing.
Still, this approach as I have described it is generally greeted with a great
deal of skepticism. I have never, never once began one of these plays where
people believed that it could be written as described. There is a general belief
that you can only write about things that you know personally; that you have
lived and suffered through, day in and day out. And of course, much good writing
does come from exactly this approach -though usually through the advantage of
time as I mentioned earlier.
But the absurd, logical extension of this line of thinking is that everyone
would be able to write only one book -an autobiography -or paint only one
painting -a self-portrait. But to me, writing about something other than what
you are very familiar -but which you very much want to know about -is a very
In all the arts, we see the artist lined up before a subject to paint, to
draw, to sculpt, to compose, and to be inspired. To access what we think -our
inner most thought processes -our psychoanalytical traditions are based on the
idea that talking to someone else -the Psychologist -can reveal more about what
you are thinking than if you were talking to yourself.
There are certainly great traditions in the novel along these lines. From
when the Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville visited American to write what is
considered one of the seminal works on our country, to the historic novels of
James Michener, each of these writers uses the advantage of a detached
perspective to see things that those immersed in the circumstances could not
So, too, with play writing. A writer who is looking upon a subject has the
advantage of perspective: From his detached viewpoint, the writer can more
easily sift through the many experiences and lives of such a large topic as,
"Bulgaria during the changes," and ascertain a reason to write the play; a point
of view for the play; and significance. But most importantly, by bringing his
experience to the process of a distant people, he is able to find the
universality of human experience inherent in that particular situation that
makes it more than a play about Bulgaria, but a play about people.
In this collaboration, the writer must bring his own experience to the
process of understanding the place or the people he is writing about. Up until
now, I have talked about the process as through the writer was a journalist
calmly writing a story for the newspaper. But in reality, Play writing in an art
not a craft, and as such, it always involves the soul of the writer. No matter
what he is writing about, the playwright has to be inspired in someway to want
to write about the subject matter and somewhere deep inside, he must know that
he is attempting to find something within himself in the process of writing,
although I don't think he ever knows what that is when he first begins.
Let me provide some examples:
First, I am writing a play about Bulgaria because I have found it to be a
place that occupies my thoughts and my feelings since I first came here in 1994.
My love for the place and for the people was inspired initially by my good
friendship with Madelyn Tcholakova, and has continued to grow through the every
-expanding circle of friends and associates I meet each time I visit -including
now, the students with whom I am working.
I am always thinking about the stories of the people I encounter here. The
unique problems and challenges encountered by them at this very significant
moment in history make me very curious to find out what new things about the
human condition I can see through the window that the story of Bulgaria is
opening for me.
There are issues raised here which I am very curious to find out the answers
to: How do people wake up one day to find their system of government has been
reversed? What was the difference between art in a totalitarian system and in a
democracy? How do people recreate their past, and how do they move forward from
Writing for me is a process of finding answers and learning. It is an
exploration, like hitchhiking, you stick your thumb out, and you never know
exactly where it leads. Writing when you already know the answers is propaganda.
But when you allow yourself to be confused at some level, then it is art.
And oddly, no matter where you begin this process, it inevitably tells you
something about yourself that you may or may not want to know. As an example, a
few years back I was commissioned to write a play about the Oregon Trail -which
was the westward expansion of settlers in the United States -told also from the
perspective of the American Indians. If you know this history, you know that the
Indians were basically destroyed as a society through this westward expansion,
through a combination of disease, wars, and cultural genocide. The settlers
taught them to farm, which was against their way of life: they Christianized
them, which was against their way of believing, and to this day, this has
created a people who continue to fall behind in a game where they are playing by
somebody else's rules; and, to this day, there is a great deal of conflict and
anger between these two groups.
In writing this play, they wanted me to work with both a group of Indians and
with a group of descendents of the Pioneers, and I think that they wanted me to
solve the problems between them that they have not been able to solve for the
past 150 years.
Naturally, when I tried to set up a group of people to work in the Indian
community to tell this story, they were not too happy with the idea. They said,
not only will we not help you, but chances are, if you finally do this play,
we're going to burn your sets down.
Somehow, in time, and with a great deal work, we got beyond all of that, and
we began to move ahead on this play.
Suddenly in the writing of this, I realized that these characters -which had
nothing to do with my actual history, and which were about 3,000 miles away from
anything that I could call home -were all about various aspects of my life. This
idea of Manifest Destiny that was driving these pioneers -that there is always
something better just around the corner -this was the story of my own immigrant
past; it was the story of my childhood where we moved from city to city through
the lure of better jobs and promotions - it was not only my story, but that of
so many Americans today, whether they realized it or not. And there, on the
other side, in striking contrast, were the Indians who knew their place in the
world through thousands of years of history -and who then became destroyed, by
this desire of a people who always have to keeping moving.
It was a very hard thing to face, very depressing, and much unexpected.
Let me talk briefly now about some of my other projects that were created
through this process. I want to say, too, that this is not the only kind of
writing that I advocate, nor is it the only kind of writing that I do. I will
also close myself up in a room for long periods of time and see what sort of
demons I can muster in my inner psyche in case anyone wants to read about this.
But the community based projects seem to have created a huge momentum, and so
they have been taking more and more of my time.
(NOTE: What proceeded was a discussion of different projects and how they
related to the discussion of community-based theater, including "Grace Will Lead
me Home: The American POW Drama"; "Searching for Innocence: Phnom Penh 1996";
and "The Jimmy Carter Story.")
So now, I will talk briefly about play writing from the point where most
plays begin their collaboration -with the director, actors and the rehearsal
process –the second collaboration that occurs in this process.
As I mentioned to the students earlier, I think that for most playwrights,
the term that describes what they do is not, "Play writing", but "Play
-re-writing," in that most successful plays are re-written many times before
they realize their true potential. This is partly due to the collaborative
nature of theater, and partly due to the fact that a play is not like a novel in
that it is something which is heard in the readers head as it is heard the
author's head, but rather must make the difficult transformation from voices in
the writer's head to action on the stage. A play changes for the author when it
is read, and then when it is put "on its feet" for the first time, and
throughout the various moments of staging. A successful play development process
allows the author sufficient opportunity to rewrite the play once he's heard it
read, and once he's seen it on it's feet, and then for a limited period
throughout the rehearsal process.
Out of respect for the actor's process, rewrites must stop at a certain point
in the process -usually about seven days prior to opening.
The ideal process allows for a reading of the script at least six months to a
year prior to the rehearsal process, where the director and another group of
readers -not necessarily the actors for the play -will simply sit around a table
and read the script out loud. This process can occur several times with each new
writing of the script. Closer to rehearsal, the director will do what I call a
workshop -perhaps as part of the auditions for the play -whereby the director
will attempt to roughly stage parts of the play so that the playwright can see
it on its feet. Then, as various scenes are staged by the director in the
rehearsal process, the director should plan regular meetings with the playwright
to discuss rewrites as problem areas and scene potential is realized. The
playwright then writes concurrently with the rehearsal process, providing
substitute pages -usually on different colored paper -to the entire cast as
submitted through the director. The rewrites during this stage often take into
account the opinions of the actors -which are also usually filtered through the
While the playwright should attend rehearsals, he should not in any way
interfere with the rehearsal process of the director, and should not in any way
contact the actors directly unless instructed to do so by the director. He
should at all times, respect the director's position as the sole voice of
authority during the rehearsal process
The nature of the collaboration at all stages of play writing is that
suggestions are given or problems are pointed out which the playwright must then
filter through his own concept of the script to come up with the rewrite -if in
fact a re-write is even necessary. One of the most difficult aspects of play
writing is filtering the suggestions made about his or her script. This is made
even that much more difficult when the process begins with the audience as
alluded to earlier. It is rare that a suggestion is made that is directly
transformed into a script change as suggested. But 90-percent of the time, the
suggestion causes the playwright to realize or to see something he might not
have otherwise have seen, but that is still different from the original
suggestion. A lot of the times the suggestion is not a valid reason for
rewriting the play, but is helpful in that the pursuant discussion between the
director and playwright based on the suggestion causes the director to see
something in the play that he or she may have not understood initially.
In all cases, the purpose of collaborating with the playwright on the script
is to help the writer realize his or her vision of that particular script. It is
not to re-write the play to the vision of the director or the actor or anyone
else involved in the process. It is important to remember that any given subject
matter would be written differently by any given person, and that the process
and the play can quickly deteriorate into chaos if anyone else in the process
assumes the role of playwright.
Plays work on many levels -some are conscious and some are subconscious. In
order to maintain a unity of effect, all writing must come through its initial
source, or the work is somehow undermined. Directors have a tendency to want to
change a play in terms of the impact of a particular scene, without seeing how
that change affects the rest of the work. But a good play has many levels of
structure to it, so that any one particular change should affect everything else
in the play in some way whether negatively or positively. Only the playwright is
able to fully able to know the positive or negative effect of any changes to his
The laws of copyright ensure a consistency of vision in theater by stating
quite simply that nobody can change a word of the play except the playwright. It
is absolutely illegal for anyone to change a word of the play except the
playwright. Traditionally, this is different in theater than it is in film, in
that most film scripts in the past fifteen years -and a very few plays -are
purchased as a "work for hire" where the producer or the production company buys
the script outright -including the copyright -usually for a lot of money -and
they are free to do whatever they want with the script. I think this is also the
reason why most Hollywood scripts have been so terribly bad in the past fifteen
years: the effect of the writer has been virtually eliminated. In most scripts,
you can almost see the exact point where a good idea or good set of characters
suddenly goes from being the writers to the producers, and a "Hollywood" ending
is added, or ideas are less than realized. This has also become a very
controversial process which much of Hollywood is beginning to re-think, let's
hope for the better.
One other thing I have to point out is that the rewriting process usually
continues even after the play has been produced, in between various productions
of the work. This is partially in reaction to audience response, as the
playwright seeing his play in front of an audience is yet another stage in the
realization of script development. But I think this is mostly due to the natural
evolution of script development over time, as the completed vision is looked
upon by the playwright and seen as a consistent whole, where flaws can be seen,
so that a play may not reach its full maturity until it has been performed
several times. This final stage of re-writing takes into account both audience
response, and also time
We find in the United States that scripts destined for Broadway are often
"worked out" in productions in various places throughout the country, and go
through several productions before they hit the New York stage. I find in my own
plays -which tend to run for a particular season one year to the next -that I
reach the full power of the script after the third year; though some scripts I
haven't re-written after their first production, and others I have done some
This process I am describing is much more of an art than it is a science, and
it can be a wonderfully creative process or it can be absolutely dreadful. The
playwright can make it horrible by thinking that he is writing a novel instead
of a play by refusing to hear anyone or anything but the voices inside his head,
and by not being open to the collaborative nature of theater. Directors can make
it horrible by trying to write their own play through the playwright; actors can
screw things up by spending more time writing their characters than realizing
them, or they can close themselves to the process and see the rewrites as the
failure of he playwright to do his job right the first time.
What works best is if everybody understands the unique nature of creating a
new play. While everyone shows up to a rehearsal process that looks the same as
if they were going to perform Ibsen; they are entering into is a much different
process. It is very important that everybody understand their role in this
process and respect the role of the other person. If everyone can do this, then
it is one of the most creative and rewarding processes in theater. Then,
somehow, ideas are generated that no one person could generate on their own, and
theater once again manages to change the rules of mathematics so that somehow
one plus one equals three.