Writers Write

It’s a cliché, but here’s the thing about clichés: they’re generally true.

A few years ago, I was a novice playwright turning out decent plays and getting them produced all over Atlanta and beyond, while some folks who’d been doing it longer (and, in many cases, better) weren’t getting the productions I was getting. It was suggested by several of my peers and a few of my mentors that I create a workshop to help other novice playwrights get their plays produced. I eventually obliged; last year I started giving a two-part, six-hour workshop for Onion Man Productions called The Playwright’s Journey: First Steps. In it, I start by examining what motivates a writer to write, work through the entire process of preparing a play for production and submitting it for potential production opportunities, and finally end with a discussion of contracts. It’s pretty much soup to nuts. The only think I don’t cover is how to actually write the play. (You can’t do that with one workshop.)

As I work through the process, one thing becomes very clear (well, it should anyway): there’s a lot of writing involved. Duh! Right? But really, there’s a lot more than meets the eye. Of course, there’s the play – draft after draft of it. Then there’s the other play. And the other one. And so on. Because, you see, a person who has written a play is not a playwright. A playwright doesn’t write a play – a playwright writes plays.

See what I did there?

You can write a great play – Tony award, Pulitzer prize material – but until you get it into the hands of the right artistic director at the right time (which, honestly, might never happen), it’s not getting produced. So, you write the next play. I’d started a half dozen before my first one was even finished.

But the writing doesn’t end with the play. You have to write a synopsis. In other words, you take this ninety-minute masterpiece and boil it down a paragraph or two. And that’s just the one you write for the artistic director who’s trying to decide whether to even read your script. Then, if it’s selected, you boil it down even more – to just a few lines – and make sure you take out the ending so you don’t spoil the play because that’s what’s used to market it to an audience. But before you get that far, you write a cover letter to go with your submission. And a bio. (Now, just in case writing the bio sounds cut and dry, know that some folks want to see a one page bio while others want it in just a few words – and there’s everything in between.) And, hopefully, you’ll find yourself writing a contract at some point, which is, of course, more writing.

If you find that you’re having some success, you’ll want to set up a website so people can find you on line, see how much success you’re having, and maybe send some more success your way. Which means more writing – some of it in HTML. Oh, and then there’s the obligatory blog. (Can’t forget about that).

Now I’m venturing into the world of production (see “New Shoes”) with a project for Out Of Box Theatre Company called Playing in the Dark: Eight Tragic Tales of Hope, Redemption, and Enlightenment set to go up in May, 2014. But, I’m still writing.

Over the past few months I wrote two new ten-minute plays that will premier in December in holiday shows at Lionheart Theatre and Onstage Atlanta, started drafting another that will be part of Onion Man Productions’ 2014 Summer Harvest show, A Different World, and I’m approaching completion on another for the Playing in the Dark program. I’m also working with fellow playwright and good friend James Beck to create a new one-year intensive workshop program in which we are the guinea pigs. Under one another’s scrutiny and encouragement, he is completely overhauling his play The Secret of the Cat as I am my play Last Love. They will go up with the help of Lionheart Theatre Company in August, 2014, and (hopefully) will see a second production shortly afterward. In the mean time, I’m in the later stages of another full-length play, I have the initial drafts of two brand new full-lengths in the works, and I’m researching two others. (Okay, breathe.)

Hmm … am I forgetting anything? Oh, yeah. I hope to participate as a playwright in the 24-Hour plays sponsored by Working Title Playwrights and hosted by OnStage Atlanta over the weekend of November 9/10. Then there’s the dozen or so submissions over the past several weeks (cover letters, etc). And there’s my blog. (Can’t forget about that).

Seem like a lot? It is, but that’s what writers do. We write. Every chance we get. Some may not stay as busy at it as I do; I probably have more opportunity than most. But we all write whenever we can. We have to. For writers, writing and breathing are similarly essential to existence. For some, it’s a pastime, a hobby, a source of pleasure. But for the writer, there’s this strange thing – some call it a muse – that gets in your head, fills it with ideas, and urges, drives, even torments you until you write. I guess I wouldn’t die if I didn’t write, but I definitely wouldn’t want to test the idea.

Raymond Fast is an Atlanta area playwright. Visit his web site at www.raymondfast.com or find him on Facebook.

Real Stuff

If you’re a writer, or if you aspire to be a writer, or if you’ve just spent much time hanging out with writers, you’ve probably heard it over and over and over … Write what you know! To some, it’s a mantra; to others it’s a cliché. To me, it’s completely backwards.

The first play I had produced was a ten-minute play called Saving Starla. I wrote it for a project called 9×9 ’08 headed up by my friend James Beck. (This project eventually became a precursor to Onion Man Productions, with which I am still closely associated.) During the development process, the script was read at a Working Title Playwrights Monday Night Critique Session. After the reading, those in attendance offered their critical feedback during which a remark was made that me led to one of the most important choices I’ve ever made as a writer.

Saving Starla is about a young woman named Starla who has decided to take her own life. She’s making the final preparations when she’s interrupted by a neighbor, a young man named Eddy. He tries to save her by talking her out of suicide while trying very hard not to reveal how he knows what she’s up to – he’s been watching her through her bathroom window with his telescope. When I sat down to write the script, I had no idea what sort of things Eddy might have been observing (I mean, about her preparing for suicide – not, you know, the other bathroom stuff), so I consulted with a friend and associate of my parents who is a forensic psychologist and has investigated the scene of many a suicide. She described for me the typical behavior of real young women in Starla’s situation and that is exactly what I put in the script – real stuff.

What came out in that critique session was that, at least in the opinion of some of my colleagues, real stuff doesn’t belong in a script unless it actually seems real. You see, some of the elements of Starla’s behavior were unexpected by many members of the audience. Some of them expressed that I should change the script to make it more believable, even if that meant making it less accurate – less real. Some of these people were experienced playwrights whose work had been produced all over the country, and I hadn’t finished my first play.

Hmm … what to do, what to do? Should I follow the advice of my mentors, or follow my instincts? Being the rebel march-to-my-own-drum kind of artist that I am, I went with my instincts – and it was okay. In fact, it was more than okay. The play was a success and has seen two more productions since it’s premiere – one in New York City, and the other in Los Angeles! The lesson I learned from that experience was that real stuff does belong in a play even if it’s not believable. In fact, sometimes it’s important to put real stuff in a play because it’s not believable.

A few years after Starla, I wrote Common Ground, a ten-minute play about the suburban homeless. When most people think of the homeless, they think of the urban homeless – the scruffy, rumpled man curled up under a newspaper beside the front steps of an inner-city business or municipal building, or the bag lady with unmatching shoes sifting through a trash can at a bus station. Many people aren’t even aware of the suburban homeless camped out in the woods behind a strip mall or adjacent to a subdivision full of McMansions, or looking for food in an elementary school dumpster in the middle of the night. I wanted to draw attention to the fact that there are homeless people everywhere, including our own back yards.

Well, it was pointed out to me by my peers and mentors that such things weren’t believable and therefore wouldn’t work in a play. The audience just won’t buy it. So, once again I went with my instincts – this time without hesitation. I had learned. I was confident. And, once again, it worked. Common Ground has received a second production and a couple of public readings. As a result, I have been approached by several people who thanked me for drawing their attention to the plight of the suburban homeless whom they, in most cases, were previously unaware of.

Writing Common Ground was actually easy for me because I’ve worked with the suburban homeless and, for a short time, was one of them. It’s a world I’m intimately familiar with. I was writing what I know. But that’s usually not the case when I sit down to write.

Over the past several years, I have ventured into many worlds where I was a complete stranger and written plays about them. This required some work on my part – I had to learn the real stuff about those worlds so I could put it in my plays. So, know what you write has become one of my personal mantras.

The process of knowing what I write usually begins with online research. As I get deeper into the subject, I refer to books written by experts in the field, but I don’t stop there. Frequently, my research leads me to tracking down and making personal contact with experts and consulting with them much as I did with the forensic psychologist who helped me with Starla. In this endeavor, I have talked or exchanged emails with historians, language experts, a world-renowned physical therapist and other medical professionals, law enforcement officers, psychologists and social workers, war veterans, and sometimes ordinary people whose familiarity with the world I’m writing about simply comes from living there. Many times I’ve had to search half way across the country for these people – often by sending out cold e-mails to complete strangers. (“Greetings! You don’t know me, but I’m a crazy playwright from Atlanta and I’d like to ask you about some real stuff …”)

The most difficult time I’ve had finding an expert on a subject I was writing about was when I needed to consult with someone about Muskogee language and culture in the eighteenth century. Native Americans are very private about sharing such things (no wonder considering how they’re frequently portrayed in non-Native media and art). It took me over three years to find someone who was willing to talk to me. I had one telephone session with him nearly a year ago, and I’m still rewriting the script, trying to fix all the things I got completely wrong! But, the play won’t be finished unless everything in it is real stuff.

I’ve even traveled to locations where my plays are set. Sometimes it was the primary purpose for the trip while other times I’ve added side trips. On these excursions I’ve taken notes that included physical descriptions, information gleaned from people I met or historical markers, details like sounds I heard and even smells! It’s all part of knowing what I write.

Write what you know? Yeah, like that would take me more than about eight minutes. No, writing what I know simply won’t do. I don’t know enough to make it a good story. Oh, there are things I think I know – beliefs, assumptions, perceptions – but that’s not good enough. That’s not real stuff. I want the real stuff in my plays, and that takes a lot of work. But it’s worth it.

Raymond Fast is an Atlanta area playwright. Visit his web site at www.raymondfast.com or find him on Facebook.