Writing Somebody Else’s Play

Earlier this summer I went to the Last Frontier Theater Conference in Valdez, Alaska.

It was pretty alright. And by pretty alright, I mean that it was probably nothing short of stunning for anyone new to the state. As an Alaskan kid, I’m sort of spoiled. I’m used to quaint towns nestled beneath breathtaking mountain vistas. I was born and raised under the towering majesty of nature in all directions. I sort of don’t see it anymore. Sort of like how you can’t smell your own deodorant after you’ve been wearing it for a while.

The conference has been going on in Alaska for decades. I was vaguely aware of it through some of my friends who do theater, but otherwise I had never been. This year, however, my girlfriend’s play was accepted to the conference to have a reading. She asked if I would be her armcandy while she attended. Being that I enjoy theater, and more generally, getting out and doing stuff in Alaska during the summer, I graciously accepted.

We had planned out how to get to Valdez (a short, 6+ hour drive). We had (mostly) planned on where we would stay (the conference-goers could take advantage of the vacant campus housing for dirt-cheap, dorm-style accomodations). But otherwise, I didn’t do any research on the nature of the conference before arriving.

I don’t know what I assumed would be going on. I’ve been to the Penny Arcade Expo, which is so massive and has so many things going on that there’s simply no way to see it all (or really even see a portion of what you really want). I’ve also been to work conferences where they are highly regimented and scheduled down to the nearest 15 minutes, and your itinerary is submitted and approved six months in advance.

I didn’t expect it would be a writer’s conference. I mean, had I bothered to read anything on their website I might have been a little more enlightened. They proudly list out all of the famous playwrights that have attended in past years. On top of that, their schedule had a number of writing-related workshops (in addition to those for acting, directing, and a new word I learned: ‘dramaturgy’). But maybe the most damning is that my girlfriend is a writer, and they asked her to the conference for a thing she wrote.

I guess I just assumed it would be all actors, doing, you know… ‘acting stuff’. Talking loud, emoting, and memorizing lines, like they do. And there was plenty of that. But as far as being a conference geared toward writers, I must have been too busy pretending to ignore our bold Alaskan splendor to pick up on the obvious hints.

(Aside: Go sometime, if you can. It’s stupid cheap, as far as conferences go. Like, I’m not even kidding. We spent half of the time making the joke that the conference had to be a drug front. You get a free bag, free coffee, free food… Oh, and each evening there was a featured artist / performance, which anybody could attend for free. Anybody. Even people who weren’t conference-goers. Drug front, I say.)

To be clear, I’m not writing this just to brag about living in the last frontier (well, the frontier you reach just before space). Or that I got to spend a week eating near-free lunches and drinking near-free coffee and carrying around my actually-free tote bag while correctly pronouncing the word ‘dramaturg’ so they would not suspect I was not one of them. Instead, I’m writing about something interesting that I observed among the writers at the conference.

The conference hosted play readings, which they called ‘Play Lab.’ For these readings, they would have a handful of professional actors from the Alaskan acting community and abroad read through the scripts. Actors would stand at podiums and ‘act’ through the scripts in front of them. While not a full production of the play (minimal costumes, no sets), it was a great way to preview a script, as well as give an opportunity for the actors to add their own art to the roles they were assigned to read.

The plays would be read. The audience would applaud. The actors would quietly close their scripts and find seats in the audience. But nobody would leave, like you would expect after seeing a play.

Instead, three professional playwrights, elected by the conference management, would stand up. They would make their way to the front and take a seat on the edge of the stage. They would introduce themselves, then turn to a lone individual in the crowd, and reveal that person to be the playwright.

I found this to be bizarre the first time I saw it. I mean, again, I should have known that this was how things would happen. After hearing 90 minutes of somebody’s hard-fought work it felt weird to have this person suddenly outed in front of a crowd. Like the triumvirate of judges was saying, “Look! This is them! This is the person you should hold responsible!”

But instead, people just clapped. And then the three playwrights would start to give insightful critiques. Then they would solicit feedback from the audience. It turns out that, to nobody’s surprise but my own, that a lot of thoughtful comments and suggestions would come from an audience full of people who are also playwrights.

I observed a few rules for these feedback sessions:

  • Playwrights would quietly take notes on the feedback they were getting. Notes would be recorded with a thankful nod, but the playwrights would be reminded that they were under no obligation to respond to the feedback.
  • Most feedback given to the playwrights was positive. When it was not positive, it was not given in an accusatory or punishing way (“That did not resonate with me as much as I wanted” or “I felt like I needed more” or “We want to hear more about this” or “Expand on that”).
  • Members of the audience were encouraged to give impressions and reactions, but to never provide suggestions on how to fix something. Or, more specifically, they were repeatedly told “not to write the other person’s play.”

When I first sat through one of these feedback sessions, it felt strange. Partly, because of the immediate responses that the authors were getting from their work. Partly, because the person was in the same room as those giving the feedback. And the rest was because, according to their rules, Mike and I’s own feedback process would be anaethema to them.

  • When we get together to jam, usually there is an issue or two that we need to hash out that can’t / shouldn’t be done over text or instant message.

    The usual way that we work through something is to read through the section in question, sometimes aloud, then see about explaining and defending it. Often, the problem shakes out in the reading itself (“Oh, wow, yeah, that doesn’t sound like what I wanted” or “I meant it like this, but I see where you would read it like that”).

    But it’s never the case that one of us just sits idly by, taking notes. I mean, sure, we take notes, but at the very least, we are expected to respond. We are each the other’s most immediate and critical combination of beta reader and editor. One of us can’t just say, “Oh. I’m sorry you feel that way, but that was just an artistic choice.” With equal responsibility with the project, we are beholden to the other’s criticism.

  • Mike and I’s feedback to each other isn’t all positive. I’m not even sure it’s anywhere near a 50-50 split. A good example is our commit comments (the notes that Giterary requires us to enter each time we make a change to a file).

    For instance, I had touched up a section, changing a reference to an overheard shouted insult. I thought that the reference to the insult should be, I don’t know, indirect, as I wasn’t sure that the main character would know that something was an insult if the main character didn’t speak the language being shouted.

    The next day, Mike reverted the change, responding in the commit comments with If you've ever walked into a South Texas junior high, you'll know which Spanish words are the insults.

    In response, I went back and corrected a new typo that appeared as a result of Mike’s reversion. My commit comment just said: o_0 (my usual emoticon to represent incredulity).

    Mike responded with a :|.

  • We always give each other suggestions on how to fix things. Always, always, always. From the way we conduct our discussions (“I imagined it was instead like this…” or “Would it be better if were like this?”), to the way we simply correct each other’s work as we see the changes happen, we have no hesitation in presenting or even implementing a solution along with the problem that we are pointing out.

    Part of the reason for this is the nature of our project. Being co-authors, and equally responsible for our combined output, both of us are writing, and both of our names are on the cover. It’s on both of us to make something, so it would be unfair for one person to just bring up the problems and the other person to solve them.

    Another reason is efficiency. Our process is already molasses-slow. With two authors, we have twice as many bottle-necks, twice as many periods of writer’s block, and twice as many life events to get in the way of writing. Add to that our added need to communicate and collaborate on almost every aspect of the story, and we’re 50cc karts running in the 150cc Grand Prix. If we only presented problems, and we said, “Oh, I have some ideas, but because this is your part, I’ll just let you figure it out on your own,” we would never finish anything. Mike and I make it a point to always offer solutions to the problems, even if they aren’t very good ones, because often even the bad suggestions can inspire good solutions.

So, given Mike and I’s methods of collaboration, seeing playwrights go through their feedback process was pretty weird.

I will acknowledge that this was a public forum for feedback, and not collaboration. The other playwrights weren’t there to collaborate on the plays that were being read, only to react to them. Which is an important distinction. The playwright community seems to be very particular about intellectual property rights. Based on what I understood from my (very) brief look into the playwrighting industry, individual and complete ownership over rights to a work is the best assurance that you will be paid for your work, and more importantly, be able to live off of your work.

I can certainly see why the Last Frontier Theater Conference had their rules in place. I can see why they don’t encourage playwrights to immediately respond to feedback, for the same reason you don’t feed the trolls on the Internet. Plus, thoughtfully nodding along makes you at least look like a professional, even if you want to scream at the person. I can also see why they try to cultivate a positive atmosphere with the feedback, giving largely positive criticism, or if not, at least pointing to where something was off.

I’m a little torn on the “don’t write the other person’s play” portion.

Sure, I probably wouldn’t take kindly to some rando who shows up and starts giving me suggestions on how we should write our novel. It hasn’t happened often, but when it has, it’s been a sort of awkward endeavor. The conversation usually starts with, “Have you thought about X?” And I respond with, “Yes, we’ve got X. Lots of X. In fact, we have an entire chapter dedicated to X. Actually, funny story, we had to rewrite a huge part of Volume Y just because we wanted to have more of X…” By that time, the person has reconsidered, and has moved on to ask, “Then have you considered Z?”

Honestly, I’m just happy that they’re interested. I mean… Their questions tend to imply that they didn’t read the book. But I’ll take what I can get.

Where it gets less fun and more biting is if the other person is an author (or a playright) as well. Given that new context, where you’re both writers, and both creative, both imaginative, and, in theory, both professionals, the question could take on a new tone. If another author suggests that something be done with your novel, your play, or really anything you do, it could imply that they think that you haven’t already thought about it first. That you must have overlooked something. Or that your idea is less great, and theirs is… well, worth it enough to make mention, otherwise you might never come up with it on your own, you poor thing. (In emoji: o_0)

Then again, that person might just be sharing in their experience at hearing your idea. “When you said this, it made me think of this!” or “Oh, this reminds me so much of that! I love that!” As an author, I spend a signficant amount of time when I’m writing trying to put my head into somebody else’s, and try to read like I’m in somebody else’s head. I have to imagine other authors spend just as much time in somebody else’s head. If I can provide a shortcut, or just a little bit of insight into what went on in my head when I read something, I’d rather the author know about it. Best case: it was the intended effect, and shouldn’t be touched at all. Worst case: it wasn’t the intended effect, and maybe could be touched up a bit. (Translation: :|)

I think what I’m trying to draw arrows to are the differences between critique and collaboration. Or more specifically, collaborative critique (getting feedback from an audience after a show), and critical collaboration (working with a co-author to figure out what is wrong with a scene).

In both, an artist solicits feedback from an audience. In both, artists ask an audience to experience their art, and to walk around for a while in their universe of novel construction. And in both, the audience agrees to walk around in a weird world for a while, and report back on the findings of their expedition.

But the critiques I saw after at the readings at the conference had an attitude I didn’t like. The attitude that said, or at least implied, that “I might know a way to fix this. But I’m not going to tell you.” The same infuriating attitude your teachers had when they made you show your work on a test.

It wasn’t that those giving the feedback were being disrespectful. In fact, they were withholding their ideas out of respect for the author. And if they did not, the up-front triumvirate would remind those in the audience to be respectful in this way, and to kindly avoid writing the person’s play for them. Everyone seemed to respect the process and the author’s ability to address the issues. Moreover, the author was discouraged from responding, so as to not make them feel like they had to immediately defend their artistic choices.

But there is still something being withheld. A room full of writers and creative people can’t help but see or hear a story be told and wonder at its construction. There isn’t a book I read, or a show or movie I watch where I’m not curious as to why something was written that way, or if I could write it better. Again, I have to imagine it the same for other writers.

What I think bothers me about this method is withholding the opportunity to learn from how another person does their craft. To learn how they think, or how they approach a problem.

In computer programming, we get to (have to) do this all the time when we read other people’s code. We learn how it ticks, and by proxy, we learn how the other person thinks. Sometimes, yes, it’s a dark path descending into the mines of madness. But other times, you get to learn something new. Something interesting. Something that you may never have uncovered by yourself.

(Note: there is an entire philosophy within the software industry based on the idea that software should be free, and open, and developed collaboratively. It’s called ‘open source’ software. I am a huge proponent, and am probably heavily biased towards this type of collaboration :))

I should probably qualify: not all ideas are winners. Point of fact: very, very few of my own ideas are winners. But a room full of professional writers? I don’t know. I have to imagine that it doesn’t hurt your chances. And, too, sometimes even hearing an obviously bad idea from another person is better than having to convince yourself that your own idea is bad. It helps with the self-esteem, anyway.

I don’t know how unique of a working relationship Mike and I have. But seeing how playwrights do it made me glad that we’ve arrived at this strange equilibrium. Otherwise, we would just be critiquing each other’s work without taking ownership in helping the other get better at writing. Which is a pretty lonely, ineffective arrangement.

My problem comes, now, in dealing with writers other than Mike. He and I can riff on something, brainstorm an idea, and put together a scene like improvisers might do on stage (albeit much, much more slowly). The idea of who came up with what is secondary to what we arrive at in the end. But that does not appear to be everyone’s mindset. Not everyone is a collaborator. Some people write alone, and all they want from your feedback is to know if something worked, or not.

I can see how just offering my honest critique is valuable, and sometimes preferable. I don’t always like it when people try to suggest something or write something into Skysail (unasked). It really is awkward to field the “Your story should have a Z, why doesn’t it have a Z?” conversations, particularly when they come from people who should know better. And when I provide feedback, I really try not to be that guy (unless asked).

But given that constant running thread in the back of my mind, thinking about things, through things, and coming up with new things, I can’t help but feel like I’m withholding something if I don’t share. I’m much, much less concerned with who owns the idea, and more interested in seeing cool stuff get made.

I want the person I’m giving feedback to know that I visited their world. That I walked around for a while, and saw the cool stuff they had put there. I want to tell them how it made me feel, and if I liked the things that I saw. If it was a good world to visit, I want them to know that. If it was a great world, I want them to know that I would return. That I would want to see more, and even make my own part of their world.

Anyway. Visit Valdez, everybody.