I was contacted by a young drama teacher interested in having a play written for her advanced play production class. Unhappy with the availability of smart material for her class (she dismissively called Playscripts “Sillyscripts,” which should have been a red flag), she thought my work would be a good match for her students.
Fast-forward to months later, and it became apparent that the director A) wasn’t used to working in a workshop situation and B) wasn’t prepared for rehearsals. You have to be ready when you rehearse a large-cast show like the one she’d requested (forty speaking parts, several dozen extras), but I could tell she hadn’t even reviewed the script most days. I watched her struggle, offered input when I thought it was appropriate, and dealt with all those conflicting emotions playwrights have during a first production.
Things seemed to going okay (not great, but okay) until the third week. The teacher called me on Monday morning. “I’m not used to working this way, and I realized I’m not being true to myself during rehearsals. I need to run rehearsals as if the playwright isn’t sitting in the room. Normally when I do a show, if something isn’t working I cut it. I rearrange things. Writers hate me!” At first her tone sounded as if she was afraid of my reaction, but this last statement was spoken with a not a small amount of pride.
I love the collaborative workshop process. Perhaps I’m just a lazy writer, but I prefer going into production with a second draft and working out all the kinks during rehearsals. I’m not precious about my work, and learned a long time ago to listen to feedback, regardless of whether or not I take it. It’s amazing what you can glean from even the most ridiculous advice if you listen rather than prepare you defense while they talk. If you’re afraid taking a note is going to bring your script crashing down around you, then you probably haven’t built it on a firm foundation in the first place. So although a second red flag was raised when this teacher/director admitted “Writers hate me!”, I was ready to keep my mouth closed and mind open.
For the rest of the rehearsal process, I was invisible to her. I’d anticipated difficulties staging certain scenes, so included suggestions in the script, most of which were either ignored or, more likely, unread. If a line didn’t work after trying it only once, it was cut without asking for a rewrite or suggestion. I arrived one day to find three scenes had been cut and replaced with a musical montage featuring Hall and Oates’s “You Make My Dreams Come True.” She seemed frustrated in rehearsals, and at times a bit panicked. Despite this, there would be times she would start to run a scene then walk away, go into her office, start conversations in full voice with other students, and then move on to the next scene, never having paid attention to what was happening on stage. And not once did she turn to me for input or advice.
The worst day was near the end of the rehearsal process. The final scene of the play involves the characters facing their worst fear – the end of the world. They can’t stop it, so instead of panicking they allow themselves to become philosophical, shed their emotional armor and be vulnerable with each other.
Having struggled to wrap her mind around the end of the show, the director stood on a chair and announced to the cast, “I don’t understand why these people would do what the script says they do. It just doesn’t make any sense to me. They wouldn’t just stand there. They would panic, cry, scream, whatever. So I’m going to cut it and we’re going to rewrite it.” As I sat there silently, face red with embarrassment and anger, she proceeded to throw out the script, bark orders at the actors, dictate new lines and staging to the stage manager, and completely rewrite the last ten pages of my play. I thought to myself, “This is a playwright’s worst fear; I am irrelevant.”
I have a thick skin after years of writing, so well intentioned (and some not-so-well intentioned) criticism rarely bothers me. What bothered me in this situation was what that teacher did, or didn’t do, for her students.
During the rehearsal process for this play, I watched a teacher, a person in charge of helping young people formulate their opinions on so many aspects of their lives, teach sixty-plus enthusiastic, talented young actors that the playwright doesn’t matter. Rather than take advantage of the playwright being in the room, the teacher forged ahead, treating the script as a problem to be solved rather than a challenge to create something from the ground up. This was a huge missed opportunity for her students. They could have learned what it was like to collaborate, have an artistic discussion, workshop material. Who knows, maybe there were budding playwrights in that room. Instead they watched her treat me like a hindrance and, at times, a joke, and I’m afraid that is a lesson difficult to unlearn.
When the dust settled, I ended up with a play I’m incredibly proud of (with my original ending, thank you very much), and a great story to tell other playwrights. The teacher told me her students were thrilled to have their names in the published version of the script. Hopefully someday they’ll be taught they deserve even more.