BACK Playwright, Author, Screenwriter Tom DeTitta      

The Writing Process






Basic tenants:

The goal is to create compelling and accessible plays which in and of themselves constitute good theater. But in the choice of material, the process of play creation, and the focus of the writer, these plays allow for the following to occur -on some level:

  1. Illuminate: Recognize situations that would otherwise be unfamiliar to the audience, the telling of which on stage somehow helps the status of those depicted. Herein lies the primary human rights consideration -the choice of the subject matter.
  2. Humanize: Strive to reveal the underlying human component to broad social, historic or political issues.
  3. Empathize: Create an empathy through the realization of the universal themes that transcend the particulars of place and circumstance.
  4. Involve: Allow for broader involvement in the writing process itself both from individuals whose story is being told and from those with academic or other perspectives on the story. This can include students as well.
  5. Heal: Through involvement of others, through facing difficult issues on the stage, and through the cathartic effect of the presentation of the material, allow for healing to occur on some level.

These considerations are usually not explicitly stated in their presentation but they are fundamental to their writing and execution. Under this tent can include site-specific theater and historic drama, where the stated goals of the production are clearly to engage and entertain. I would argue that even for historic drama to resonate over time, it must embrace the same considerations herein articulated -on some level.



Every play, screenplay, short story or novel demands its own process. The art of writing involves realizing what will be required to see any particular work to completion and adjusting to whatever those ever-changing demands might be. Some of my prose have required long periods of isolation and withdrawal, as has the writing of some of my plays. For whatever reason, I have found the late evening hours to be the best time to write plays and screen plays, whereas narrative has me up before dawn each morning and writing straight through the day. Some of my work has needed to be seen by others to help me find my way through it, and for other work, such early intervention is absolutely destructive.

Thus, the first thing to understand in the discussion of any writing process is that there never really is a writing process per se: no single, complete formula that applies to all work and in every circumstance. However, I found a certain pattern of activity unique to the undertaking of most historic plays, especially those which involve the human rights considerations of my company, World Communities. (For a more involved description of World Communities and human rights theater, click here) For want of a better term, I have called this tendency in writing, "Partnership Play writing," and this in the one process which I will address.

This could just as easily be called, "co-dependency play writing," or "save yourself play writing" in that it involves putting the writer in a situation where he is in way over his head, and asking him to climb out. The only way the playwright can do this is by listening to the people who know a lot more than he does about the subject of his play. As my web-site will attest, I have been thus submerged in various locations throughout the world, from the southern Appalachian Mountains to Cambodia to Ghana and so on.

This raises an obvious question: If there are people who know so much more about the subject than the writer, why is he undertaking the play begin with? Why doesn't someone who is closer to the material write about it instead?

The answer is that writing requires a certain detachment or perspective on the subject matter in order to allow the writer to see the broader ramifications of that which might otherwise be too familiar. Even the writers who appear to be following the eighth grade maxim: "write what you know," often do so only after time or distance has allowed them to reflect upon that which they are no longer living.

A writer of a historic work comes into a new situation offering artistic perspective in exchange for information. He is not allowed the luxury of simply listening to the voices inside his head, but he must hone the art of listening. The writer's success in this situation can only extend as far as his notes will allow. Partnership play writing suggests that when attempting to access and understand a situation, a place, a history, and a people, neither the participants in the story nor the individual artist is sufficient for telling the story, but each requires the other to make sense of what is or has been happening.



The playwright begins with the work of the historian or the social scientist by reading about the subject matter. For any given play, I will read as many as thirty books to help understand what I am writing about. When World Communities is in residence at a university, this marks one of the many points of entre for interdisciplinary activity. This process of play writing can meaningfully engage students and professors from many disciplines whose assistance with the research phase of the writing contributes to the final product.

Notes are taken all along the way which will later be arranged and rearranged when the organization of the work takes place. Reading continues throughout the process of writing and it is often helpful to review the same source material during different phases of the work as a perspective and point of view is developed.


In order to have the play resonate with any degree of humanity, the writer has to access the thoughts and feelings of the people whose lives the story will embrace. This may not always seem possible as in the case of the Civil War history accessed in, "Grace Will Lead Me Home: The American POW Drama." But even here, the universal experience of the prisoner of war was accessed through interviews with POW's from more recent wars, whose eventual involvement in the play thus broadened the telling of the story.

The playwright's process at this stage resembles the work of the oral historian as he probes to see history through the eyes of those who have lived it. One of the by-products of these efforts can be the development of lasting oral history collections which occur as part of the research for the play. In fact, the collaboration between playwright and oral historian is an area rich with potential, as the playwright seeks the broad palette of information and insight provided by the oral historian, and the oral historian seeks new and inventive ways to express his work.


At some point in the research, an idea for the play will begin to emerge as will a sense of the structure which can best accommodate the material. The notes taken must then be organized in a way that supports the development of that structure. Sometimes I have organized my notes according to the characters that I am coming to know and sometimes I have organized my notes in terms of events of the play. This stage is hard to articulate and it challenges the essence of the writer's artistic ability, which is primarily intuitive. The one maxim central to this idea is that substance precedes structure: i.e. the structure of the play is created from an understanding of the material in a way that allows for the best expression of that material and not visa versa. This is a much more difficult and time consuming process than would occur if simply applying a particular structure to the material -the well written play, for example. But, ultimately this is a process that allows for the best result because it tells the story in the way the story wants to be told.

A look at the many different formats of my plays speaks to the results of this effort. "Grace Will Lead Me Home: The American POW Drama," is an epic production that features rotating sets, rear screen projections, and a cast of about fifty people. "Darkness Lifting," features four actors playing more than twenty-five different roles. In "Searching for Innocence," the story of Cambodia is developed around the life and poetry of Chath Piersath, who performs live in the play. "Transcendence", the story of President Jimmy Carter, uses one actor to play Jimmy, one actor to play Rosalynn, and a third African American actor who plays more than ten different roles. These structures were chosen because I thought each to be the best ways of expressing the material.


From the research comes hundreds of pages of notes likely covering years of history, which all must be transformed into a two hour play. The art of play writing is largely that of revealing the essence of human interaction in dramatic form. The art of historic play writing involves a process of distillation that seeks out the fundamental ideas at the core of that history which, when revealed on stage, casts a whole new light on the story. For example, in the play, ‘Transcendence" about President Jimmy Carter, it could be argued that all of the books and all of the history and all of the activities while in office and then out of office, could be better understood when viewing it all from the lens of his racial experiences growing up in the South. This is the lens which the play provides. But in order for the play to arrive at that level of insight, all of the books have to be read and all of the interviews have to be taken, and all of it must be learned, understood, and eventually distilled to reveal what matters the most.


Rewriting is an inevitable part of play creation. The final version of the script often takes many attempts to realize as the writer learns from each effort what better to do the next time. In this particular form of play writing, the different versions of the script become a research tool in and of themselves through the uniquely open review process that is a part of the script development. Through public readings or through private meetings, the script is offered to the people who can contribute the most to it and their reactions regarding its accuracy or its dramatic potential may then be incorporated into subsequent rewrites. The reactions inspired by the script can also contribute to the playwright's understanding of the material which is then written into subsequent revisions.

Almost always, the first few drafts of the script are cumbersome and overwritten largely due to the amount of material that has to be incorporated. Also, because most of the research comes in the form of narrative -books and interviews -there is a tendency to continue thinking in terms of narrative and to write the book version of the play through the first few drafts. Realizing the full dramatic potential of the play begins during the script review process, but it requires the participation of a new set of eyes and ears to really move forward.


Once the writer is confident that the material is accurate and the story is moving in the right direction, the task then becomes realizing its full dramatic effect. The process is aided considerably by the involvement of the director and the other artistic staff whose sole purpose is to see the material in terms of that dramatic effect. These are people who have been removed from the many layers of activity that have thus far gone into creating the script and it is their perspective that the playwright must now adapt. .

The play becomes an entirely different entity once it is in the hands of actors and, ‘on its feet,' through the workshop and rehearsal process, thus aiding the playwright's transition. Recognizing that the resultant insights on the part of the writer will lead to changes to the script, additional time should be allocated in the rehearsal process to allow for those rewrites to take place. Workshops for the script prior to rehearsals are another way furthering this process.


There are unique opportunities inherent in the staging of historic works. What this type of theater does best is give the audience a sense that they are getting a privileged view into a particular world. Following the maxim that substance precedes structure, the particular staging techniques that further this effect and thus better realize the substance of the work are the most effective.

Rear screen projections can provide a sense of history, as can recrded voice-overs from historic figures. Increasingly interesting is the use of oral histories on stage, and I have implemented these in a variety of ways. In "Grace Will Lead Me Home..." actual POW's interacted with the characters of the play to provide a broader sense of the story. In, "Searching for Innocence," the person whose story the play was built around offered recollections from his own life while also playing several different characters. In this same work, live oral histories were presented along with projections that showed the people whose voices had been recorded.

Finally, the venue itself can add considerably to the overall effect of the production. In the case of site specific plays, the fact that the history on stage occurred in the very place where the show is being performed adds a further dimension to the production, as can the performance of the play in unique historic structures or at historic sites.


© 2003 Tom DeTitta