BACK Playwright, Author, Screenwriter Tom DeTitta      

Speeches and Lectures

LECTURE: Writing in Foreign Lands: On the forms of theatrical collaboration

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 writing about.

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 have written.

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 while ago.

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 natural occurrence.

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 see.

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 this?

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 director.

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 play.

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 changes on

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.



© 2003 Tom DeTitta